Tuesday, 29 September 2015

“Do you wear women's clothes at home?”

A pertinent question indeed.

It was my eldest nephew's wedding last weekend, and famous relative was there as well. I got to tell him how glad I was that he'd spoken out on trans issues recently, and we talked about this a little, which was nice. I can't remember exactly what was said – I'd had quite a bit to drink by then – but I know it involved me stumbling for words when it came to how this relates to me personally.

Explaining this stuff is so difficult.

I think I said I was “part of the trans community”, but that leaves so much unsaid. What exactly is the trans community? And how am I part of it? What does “trans” even mean? There are as many answers as there are trans people. I once asked Roz Kaveney what "trans" was really "crossing" and she replied: “into sex/gender/sexuality liminality” – which I just love, not least because there's a whole world of meaning behind that too.

Anyway, when we reached the question, I responded with something like: “These are women's clothes”, indicating what I was wearing; “all my clothes are off the women's racks”. But later that didn't feel like a proper answer, because it didn't meet the thought behind the question.

So, now... “Do you wear women's clothes at home?”

Yes, I do. I wear women's clothes all the time. But not “as a woman”, if it's clear what I mean by that? If that's what was being asked?

At the wedding I was about as smart as I ever get: white(ish) posh jeans, brown sort-of-suede shirt, the usual furry coat. (Okay, trainers spoiled the look somewhat, but ankle boots would probably have been pushing it.) And all of these were women's clothes. The Oxford Blue faux leather coat even says “for Women” inside – just in case anyone should buy it "by mistake".

And I wear women's clothes because I prefer them – for all sorts of reasons. One of which is that they allow me to express something essential in me that needs to be expressed. Something for which I mostly use the words femme and genderqueer (which themselves take some explaining.)

But not female. My third ever post (4½ years ago), ‘Not woman, but femme’ still stands. More or less.

Actually, rather than male (or female), I'm feeling increasingly non-binary nowadays. But perhaps that's another post for another time.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Manchester Pride 2015.

No, I've not followed up Nottinghamshire Pride by rushing round the country from parade to parade. This post is about "famous relative" who was Grand Marshal at Manchester Pride again last Saturday. Here he is looking very dashing (and quite femme):

He also gave a short interview to Gay Times, which you can read here.
One bit in particular meant a lot to me:

GT: With trans coming to the forefront of the LGBT community, do you think it’s now time for trans to become seen and celebrated even more?

IMcK: If you’re trans, it’s your life. It’s not passing fashion. What’s good is that people are taking trans people seriously and trying to understand their problems and not get in the way. Stonewall has taken trans as part of their campaign. And, I must admit, I know a couple of trans people, but I’d no idea how widespread it was.

I go to schools, and many secondary schools have a transgender pupil going through the process. But, they’re heroes to the school. Everybody knows about them. But I feel that I’m as ignorant to trans problems as people of the past were about gay problems. It was a bit of an education for me. But I wouldn’t say that it’s a passing thing as we’re all taking it on board and trying to understand it.

Ian also narrated the recent Channel 4 documentary Muslim Drag Queens, which is very much worth watching, especially if you're trans – because, in case you were uncertain on this point: drag queens are our sisters!

But wait... “a couple of trans people” – presumably one of those is me :)

And as for Ian knowing (relatively) little “about drag and trans and areas of being gay that I have not been part of” (as he said elsewhere) – well, perhaps so, but he was warmer and more open-hearted in that admission than a whole world of people who could say the same.

And I just love him for it.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Nottinghamshire Pride 2015.

It was Nottinghamshire Pride last Saturday. “Be Colourful, Noisy and PROUD!!” they said. So I dressed appropriately in a bright red t-shirt (emblazoned with the word “femme”), off-white jeans (advertised as pink on eBay) and a furry coat (despite the sunshine). People complimented me on my coat, as they often do – it is really very furry – but even more so than usual, which was nice :)

There was a strong trans presence this year. Local groups Chameleons and Invasion marched together under a big banner and trans flag (and ran a stall as well). I was further back with Notts Trans Hub.

Confession: it was my first ever Pride march. I've never gone before, as I've never felt Pride was really for me. It's always seemed like a young person's thing, or else a corporate thing – and indeed there were plenty of both in attendance. I even missed Pride 2012, when the (now-defunct) Recreation group ran a dedicated Trans Tent with an impressive array of talent, as I went to see my sister in Manchester instead.

So why did I go to Pride 2015? Partly to march with the Hub; partly because Derek Jacobi (another “pride virgin”) went to his first Pride too this year, away in New York (as a Grand Marshal, with famous relative), and clearly enjoyed himself. So I thought I'd make the effort as well.

And I did enjoy it – the march at least: assembly on Lister Gate and Albert Street, set off slowly up Wheeler Gate and Beastmarket Hill, along Long Row and Pelham Street, round George Street, Old Lenton Street and Broad Street, and stop. There were drums and whistles and banners and rainbow flags and a fire engine. The stage was set up in Lace Market Square; but Pride's idea of entertainment is a bit too "popular" for me (if there are more than three people in the audience, chances are I won't like it), and I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by then anyway, so I came home.

Maybe next year. We'll see.

In the meantime, there's some video footage (by Robin from the Hub), uploaded on YouTube.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Speaking our own truth.

Something we're seemingly all very good at – or very bad at – is believing (and insisting) that what is true for us singular must be true for us plural; specifically, that our understanding of ourselves, of our own sex and gender is widely, even universally, applicable.

But... “if there's one thing I've learned (...), it's this: You can't speak for anyone else on these matters. You can't tell people who they are, what they are, why they are. One, because it's rude. Two, because most of the time you'll be wrong. This is a common mistake. Having reached an understanding (usually hard won) of who we are as individuals, and being so convinced of its correctness for ourselves, we assume that it must be correct for everyone else. It isn't.”

I'm quoting myself there, by the way, from part of a casual comment to a much earlier post (in as much as anything I write here is ever casual). Of all my many words in this blog, those are the ones I keep returning to. When we figure out who we are, define our identities and relate our truths, there's often an urgency to say what we're not, and that because we've rejected a particular narrative for ourselves, that narrative is thus fallacious and bad.

All of which usually boils down to: “You're doing gender wrong.” “You're doing your gender wrong.”

Okay, I'm not exempt from that, as I admitted in the continuation: “I feel that myself all the time writing this blog. I'm so sure I'm right, I can hardly fathom why people aren't queueing up to agree with me.”

All the same, I try not to disregard other people's understandings of themselves or to erase their identities: “Fortunately I have just enough self-control to write "some of us" rather than "all of us". In that way I can talk in general terms while leaving it for each individual reader to decide whether or not what I'm saying applies to them.”

And as I explained in another comment, to an even earlier post: “[W]hen I say we in this blog, I don't mean we all exactly. My inclusive we only includes you (the individual reader) if you say it does. I'm not trying to dismiss anyone's personal experience or self-knowledge, only to present a different view of the whole thing which they can take on board, or not.”

Indeed, I've learned far more from people who concentrate on expressing their own truth – their own unflinching, unapologetic, insightful truth – than from mean-spirited denial or "criticism" of other people's.

It's as Patrick Califia once wrote: “The best we can do is speak our own truth, make it safe for others to speak theirs, and respect our differences.”
If our truths, our narratives, align or intersect, then fine. If not, well, so they don't; that's fine too. We each have our own ways of responding to the extremely personal issues of sex and gender. And these are not mutually exclusive. Nor are they more or less valid for being more or less common.

The last time I used that Califia quote here, Kyle Jones (from Butchtastic) responded: “Not too many years ago, the subject area of gender seemed pretty simple, but now I know how complex the intersection between gender identity, sexual identity, physical presentation and preferences can be for each individual. Thank you for doing your part in continuing the conversation and speaking your truth.”

I feel the same way. So thank you to everyone else who continues the conversation and speaks their truth. As long as we remember that our truth is not necessarily true for anyone else.

Sunday, 31 May 2015


norm nörm, n a rule; a pattern; an authoritative standard; a type; the ordinary or most frequent value or state; an accepted standard of behaviour within a society; adj nor'mal according to rule; not deviating from the standard; regular, typical, ordinary; adj nor'mative of or relating to a norm; establishing a standard; prescriptive.
(source: The Chambers Dictionary, 1993, hard copy)

1: of, relating to, or determining norms or standards (normative tests);
2: conforming to or based on norms (normative behavior; normative judgments);
3: prescribing norms (normative rules of ethics; normative grammar).
(source: Merriam-Webster Online, based on Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, 2003)

Normative (social sciences subheading)
In the social sciences, the term “normative” (...) may also relate, in a sociological context, to the role of cultural ‘norms’; the shared values or institutions that structural functionalists regard as constitutive of the social structure and social cohesion. These values and units of socialization thus act to encourage or enforce social activity and outcomes that ought to (with respect to the norms implicit in those structures) occur, while discouraging or preventing social activity that ought not occur. That is, they promote social activity that is socially valued.
(source: Wikipedia)

— is the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It asserts that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation or only norm, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between people of opposite sexes. Consequently, a “heteronormative” view is one that involves alignment of biological sex, sexuality, gender identity and gender roles.
(source: Wikipedia)

— refers to the establishment of heterosexuality and traditional gender roles as the norm in society. In other words, it assumes that “normal” people are by default straight and everyone else is willfully deviant. This can lead to the marginalization of and prejudice against those in the LGBT community, kinky folk, or anyone else who does not identify with traditional sexual identities or gender expression. The term was coined by social critic Michael Warner in 1991.
(source: Rationalwiki)

Gender Normative
The expectation that one’s gender identity and expression fits society’s constructions and expectations of what it means to be a girl/woman or a boy/man.
(source: HRC Foundation Welcoming Schools Project)

Why am I quoting all these definitions? I suppose because I'm tired. Heteronormativity makes me tired. Gender normativity makes me tired. Gender normative people make me tired – sometimes anyway.

Okay, I can't really complain about any individual being gender normative. Indeed, I'd explicitly support the rights of a gender normative person (supposing they needed support) to be gender normative, to present how they like, to be how they like. I just wish there weren't so very many of them. Or at least that they weren't so culturally ubiquitous. So that when I turn on the television, for instance, I wouldn't only see them, and nobody but them, hyper-normative versions of them, even enforced hyper-normative versions of them (as per the recent high heels débâcle at Cannes). I don't want to see these images, these strictly binary – exaggerated binary – images of people, and nothing but these images, all day, every day, forever.

Where's the rest of us?!

But of course that's what normativity is. It's all-pervasive, self-perpetuating, monotonous; and it makes me tired.

I think I'll go lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Sex, Gender and Feminism survey.

I should have been working this morning, but give me a survey about gender (and my relationship thereto) and I'll almost always take time out to answer it, even if I've answered a previous version of the same survey the evening before. “Sex, Gender and Feminism: a survey for men” was another one from journalist, author and feminist activist, Laurie Penny (see here for her earlier survey on masculinity), who described it as follows:

This survey is for men of all ages and backgrounds, gay and straight, trans and cis, feminist and not-feminist. I will use your answers as part of a larger project I'm working on about men and feminism. All your information will be kept confidential. This is a safe place to ask questions without being judged. I may use some of your answers for the project - if you don't want a particular thing quoted, please signal that. Answer whichever questions speak most to you, as fully as you can, and feel free to ask questions that aren't on the list. I really, really appreciate your help. Thanks! Laurie xx

No worries. And since I always like to document these things, here are my answers to her nineteen questions (in italics). Subsequent additions are given in square brackets.

1. Please give your name/pseudonym, your age, what work you do, and any other relevant information you're happy to share (e.g. marital status).
— Jonathan (twitter handle: @malefemme), 51, editor, single, genderqueer.

2. If there are any burning questions about sex, politics and gender you've always wanted to ask a feminist woman, however silly, this is your box to put them in. No judgements.
— None. There are discussions (or arguments) I might have with certain feminists if the situation arose and if I felt up to it, but you generally seem pretty sound.

3. What does 'being a man' mean to you today?
— It means nothing to me. But I'd answer your earlier question (“What does masculinity mean to you today?”) as follows: Masculinity is the set of human attributes assumed (falsely) to correlate with maleness.

4. What is the hardest thing about being a man, for you?
— Our (Western) cultural prohibitions on male femininity. Otherwise I'd probably be even more feminine than I already am, at least as regards gender expression.

5. When do you feel BEST about yourself as a man?
— I don't know what “as a man” means. I suppose “best” (about myself as a person) applies when I feel I've achieved something. Such as: finishing a long and difficult edit, and hearing (preferably second-hand) that the author(s) was (were) pleased with it; or completing a well-written (as it seems to me) blogpost. Or recently: winning a lot of games of chess this season; and scoring 158 in an official Mensa test (Cattell III B).

6. Have you ever suffered from mental health problems? How has being a man impacted your mental health?
— I was going to say “no” straight away. But, looking back (my past has been resurfacing quite a bit lately), I think “possibly” (or even “probably”) might be a better answer. I never sought any professional help though, and it's likely that culturally influenced gender-based reticence [as in “we don't talk about this stuff”] is part of the reason.

7. Do you think 'being a man' is different now compared to when you were a kid? What have been the biggest changes?
— When I was a child it was very clear to me that femininity was off limits (though I can't remember anyone actually saying so). Nowadays (leaving aside the dreary excesses of heteronormative celebrity/pop culture), there seems to be more gender freedom. At least, I'm far more inclined just to do what I like (albeit not without some restraint).

8. How do work, employment and money affect your sense of manhood? Have you ever felt like more or less of a man because of how much money you made, or how work was going?
— Work (as in achievement) is important for self-esteem – it's not good to feel useless. But I wouldn't call it my “sense of manhood”, since I don't regard those feelings as gendered. Beyond a fairly low subsistence level, I'm not all that interested in money.

9. Do you ever feel frightened of being 'weak'?
— Not really, no. I'm emotionally quite reserved, if that's what you meant at all, but I don't regard being emotional as weakness.

10. Do you believe in 'rape culture'? Are you ever confused about violence and consent? Do you think other men are confused?
— In general terms, yes; in that sexual harassment and assault are endemic in a society which perpetuates them. No and no. I don't think men are confused, rather that (some) men feel (falsely) entitled [to sex] and have the power and will to act on that. I think people mostly do [bad] things because they (feel they) can.

11. How do sex and dating affect the way you think about women? Do you ever run into problems?
— They don't. I don't date, and I've never enjoyed partnered sex enough to feel much urge to seek it out. Gender issues mostly get in the way anyway: I'm non-normatively gendered (which seems to be a problem for a lot of people) and I rarely find normatively gendered people (i.e. most people) attractive either.

12. How has sex affected the way you feel about yourself as a man? Have you ever worried about being 'creepy'?
— It hasn't. But the “creepy” question is quite pertinent. As a transvestite, I'm very interested in clothing and in how clothes fit bodies, so I look at how people are dressed quite a lot. This seems to make some people uneasy, presumably because they think the "male gaze" is inevitably sexual. So men think I'm cruising them, and women think I'm mentally undressing them or generally being creepy. As I answered in one of your earlier surveys, what I need is a big sign that says: “I'm looking at your clothes not your body. No, really!”

13. What about physical affection and care? Do you ever wish you were hugged more?
— I'm not big on physical contact or even physical closeness. I have a rather wide sense of "personal space" and don't usually like that being invaded. But a hug is sometimes nice, of course.

14. Have you ever been sexist, either by accident or on purpose? Can you talk about some of those times, and how you felt about it?
— Probably, but I can't remember any specific instances, and no one has ever told me I'm sexist or that I'm being sexist.

15. What scares you most about the way gender relations are changing right now? What excites you most? What do you hope will change more, and what do you hope will stay the same?
— Nothing about changing gender relations scares me. Gender normativity is a huge trap as far as I'm concerned, so anything that breaks it open is a good thing. What I'd most like is for gender restrictions (based on binary sex) to be eliminated altogether.

16. Are there any questions you wish you could ask women, but you don't because worry about being judged? What are they?
— No and none.

17. How does patriarchy hurt men? How has it hurt you?
— Given that patriarchy is an oppressive gender system, it hurts everyone to some degree. Patriarchal restrictions on (and assumptions of) how a man is supposed to be and act and feel (etc) have certainly hurt me and continue to do so, in that I hardly ever feel able to be completely myself.

18. Where do the greatest pressures to 'be a man' come from? Your friends, family, the media, something else?
— From the prevailing (patriarchal) culture. I always feel at least vaguely oppressed by it, even though it grants me (male) privilege to a substantial degree.

19. Is there anything I've left off this survey that I should have asked?
— Nothing I can think of right now.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015


A couple of weeks ago, Slate columnist Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart (who I've mentioned before) contacted me on Twitter: “I'm doing an article on the genderqueer community and I could really use an AMAB. Would you be up for an interview?” Of course I said yes, so she sent me a few questions by email, to which I gave considered answers. As I never like these things to go undocumented, I'm reproducing it all here (for posterity). The questions are in italics. (AMAB stands for “assigned male at birth”, by the way.)

First, what do you identify as, and why?
Genderqueer and femme. The first as a general, inclusive identity; the second because I realized I was.

Describe your presentation.
Androgynous but clearly male. I mostly wear jumpers and jeans. So while my clothes are all off the women's racks, they're not overtly women's clothes, and no one much notices – or if they do, they don't say anything. I do get a lot of comments (from random people) about my (fake) furry coats (of which I have several) but not in a gendered way. People just say things like “great coat”.

When did you start ID-ing this way? Tell me a bit about your history.
I've identified as genderqueer for a long time. Femme (which is my main identity) came later, after a lot of reading. My history is as a life-long crossdresser (we mostly use the term “transvestite” in the UK). I spent a long time trying to understand what I was doing without reference to notions of "femaleness" (which aren't correct for me; I'm not trans in that way). Eventually I realized that femme fit me very well, though I came to that sort of by reflection: by reading about butch women, and in particular Leslie Feinberg's ‘Stone Butch Blues’.

In your own words, explain what genderqueer means as if I don't know much about the topic.
I use the word at its most inclusive; i.e. someone whose gender is "queer" (non-normative) in some way, without specifying how. For me that takes the form of "inappropriate" femininity. Explaining this stuff to people who don't know much about it is difficult because, in that case, they very often haven't thought much about gender at all. In the UK, I'd probably point to someone like Eddie Izzard, though I don't know whether he's ever used the label genderqueer for himself. (He identifies as a transvestite.)

Do you know or regularly interact with other genderqueer people, either online or in real life?
I know a lot of non-binary and trans (and non-binary trans) people online. How many identify as genderqueer, I couldn't say. I hardly ever interact with them offline since our trans group packed in.

Have you/will you be pursuing any kind of medical transition?
No and no. Or at least I can't imagine I ever will.

What are your thoughts on the gender binary.
That it's a false and oppressive construct (of the patriarchy).

Those were the initial questions, which were followed up a bit:

You said that you weren't trans "in that way" (which I understood to mean that you're not in any way female identified). Are you trans in any other way? Or, do you consider yourself cis? Do you feel that there's a grey area that cis and trans don't adequately cover?

I'm not female identified, no – so, as a male person in a binary sex system, I'm not trans (in that way), I'm cis. But of course the trans umbrella covers more than that. There are significant parts of me which the binary gender system genders away from me, so on those terms I am trans. On the other hand, I regard the binary gender system as an oppressive falsehood, and from that perspective I'm not trans because the gender border (that "trans" indicates a crossing of) doesn't really exist, so there's nothing actually to cross. But that latter is a theoretical/political perspective (derived from radical feminism); of course society mostly insists that the binary gender system is real.

Yes, there are always grey areas, people who fall through the cracks in any model of sex and gender. Personally, I'm both/either cis and/or trans depending on context, but neither feels exactly right. Yes, I am a male person in a binary sex system (in as much as sex is truly binary) and receive a fair amount of male privilege thereby, but "male" never feels like an adequate description. In particular, I dislike male pronouns, ticking the “M” box on forms, etc, being put in the discrete category "male". It always rankles. But I'm not non-binary either, so I'm stuck with it. I just wish I could append a “but” to that – male, but... – and have that “but” recognized.

Also, do you (or have you at any time in your life) experienced dysphoria?

Not proper dysphoria. I experience a kind of dysphoria when I can't express myself in a gendered fashion as fully as I might like. There's a quote from Ellen Grabiner (in ‘The Femme Mystique’): “It's when you push boundaries of gender that people freak out. Could I ever be brave enough to look as butch as I sometimes feel?” Equivalently, could I ever be brave enough to look as femme as I sometimes feel? Sometimes I feel very very femme, and I can't really express that. So yes, there's dysphoria there. But it's not full on, make this stop right now dysphoria. Butch Wonders wrote about this last year and identified it as dissonance/discomfort, rather than dysphoria. It's more a drip drip drip kind of thing, though that can become very severe indeed if it's not addressed. And reaching that “very severe indeed” stage is very common in my community – or at least it was; perhaps less so now with the internet.

And there you have it.

As it turns out, Vanessa only quoted my “history” answer, using it as one of a few examples of multifarious genderqueer identities. And that's fine. Her piece, ‘What the Heck is Genderqueer?’, is intended as an introduction for people who don't know what genderqueer is or means, and I'm happy to help and be part of that – even if the proper answer is that it means all sorts of different things.

Take, for instance, a point she makes lower down: “[M]any of the terms associated with genderqueerness end up referring back to masculinity or femininity in some way, which is a bit tricky if the ideal is to move beyond the gender binary entirely.

Yes, it's tricky; it's always tricky. How do we describe our gender issues so that they make sense to other people, including ourselves? Very often we end up referencing normative notions of gender, even when we regard those as erroneous (or at least incomplete). If this seems like classic doublethink, well, okay, so it is. We're stuck in an oppressive culture that posits binary gender as the sole reality and we have to deal. For me, genderqueer is one reaction (of many) to that, a practical response, a political response, a quiet (or not-so-quiet) resistance, a way of working around the gender system, or expanding the terms of it – or simply a way of hacking out space in which to... live.

[T]he fact is that some people feel constrained by a culture that insists that they be either male or female, with all the expectations, assumptions, and stereotypes that come along with choosing one of those identities. (...) [A]ccommodating genderqueer individuals really isn’t so difficult. It comes down to listening to what they say about themselves, accepting that this is true for them, and not making a fuss about it.

Quite so.

Or as Paris Lees put it in DIVA magazine: “Don't be an asshole.