Thursday 12 December 2013


Not my fiftieth post (that was this one). Me. Fifty. Today.

Half a century.

It feels like that should mean something, so I'm posting about it. I'm not sure what though. It does feel a lot nearer the end than the beginning, I have to say. Likely that's because I've been in a more morbid frame of mind since my sister died (on 24th October last). Then again I might live to be 103, in which case I'm not even halfway through. Now that does seem utterly bizarre. More years than I've lived so far. What might I do with so long?

I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy livin' – or get busy dyin'.

Sunday 17 November 2013

So, what is femme? (4)

Another day, another definition of femme. This one comes from Julia Serano in a piece, Reclaiming Femininity, from her new book 'Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive' (Seal Press 2013).

[I]t is common for people to have somewhat varied opinions regarding what the word “femme” actually means. For me, having a holistic view of gender and sexuality, I would suggest that most of us who are femme share two things in common. First, we find that, for whatever reason, feminine gender expression resonates with us on a deep, profound level, in an inexplicable way that isn't easy to put into words. The second thing that we share is a sense of being different, perhaps because we are lesbian or bisexual. Perhaps because we are trans women or feminine men, or we fall somewhere else along the transgender spectrum. Or perhaps because our bodies fall outside the norm in some way, because we are fat, or disabled, or intersex. Or perhaps we experience some combination of these, or maybe we are different in some other way. Because of our difference, we each have to make sense of what it means to be feminine in a world where we can never achieve the conventional feminine ideal, and in a world where feminine gender expression and sexualities are plagued by misogynistic connotations. For me, that's what femme is. It's a puzzle we each have to solve. And because we are all different, we will each come up with a different solution, a different way of making sense of, and expressing, our femme selves.

This definition I like because it's open-ended. It's a non-definition (“we cannot begin with a definition; we cannot offer assurances of any kind” – Duggan & McHugh), allowing each of us to define – or, more accurately, realize – femme for ourselves.

Actually I like Serano's writing in general; it's just the right blend of (gender) theoretical, political and personal material that appeals to me. I've quoted a bit more from Reclaiming Femininity – in which Serano talks about essentialism and difference – on my tumblog. And there's another (shorter) quote here – about MTF crossdressing and effemimania – from her previous book, 'Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity' (Seal Press 2007).

You should probably go and buy those books right now :)

Sunday 13 October 2013

Pink List 2013.

Two years ago the Independent on Sunday's Pink List – “101 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people that make a difference” – was a prompt for my own list of Inspirations. This year's Pink List is an inspiration in itself with numerous trans activists featuring, all the way to Paris Lees at the very top. It's great to see people like — ah, why be selective?! I'll just list them all...

Luke Anderson, Helen Belcher, Sarah Brown, Jane Fae, Raphael Fox, Jackie Green, Lewis Hancox, Tara Hewitt, Juliet Jacques, Roz Kaveney, Natacha Kennedy, Jennie Kermode, Paris Lees, CN Lester, Jay Stewart

...with Christine Burns on the judging panel, and yet more denoted ‘National treasures’ and ‘Ones to watch’.

In the words of Little Pete: “That was a good day.” :)

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Trans-Inclusive Feminism.

Or: “Yet More on Trans (vs.) Feminism” – except that there's no “vs.” to contend with this time...

We, the undersigned trans* and cis scholars, writers, artists, and educators, want to publicly and openly affirm our commitment to a trans*-inclusive feminism and womanism.

This heads a publicly declared statement of trans-inclusion, written in response to “a noticeable increase in transphobic feminist activity”. From 105 original signatories – some I knew; many I didn't – the list is now up to 400 and rising all the time.

The statement can be found at Its criticism of anti-trans feminists is stringent and incisive, as you can read for yourself. But what I like most are these two extracts:

We are committed to recognizing and respecting the complex construction of sexual/gender identity; to recognizing trans* women as women and including them in all women’s spaces; to recognizing trans* men as men and rejecting accounts of manhood that exclude them; to recognizing the existence of genderqueer, non-binary identifying people and accepting their humanity; to rigorous, thoughtful, nuanced research and analysis of gender, sex, and sexuality that accept trans* people as authorities on their own experiences and understands that the legitimacy of their lives is not up for debate; and to fighting the twin ideologies of transphobia and patriarchy in all their guises.

Most importantly, we recognize that theories are not more important than real people’s real lives; we reject any theory of gender, sex, or sexuality that calls on us to sacrifice the needs of any subjugated or marginalized group. People are more important than theory.

Or as Dorothy Allison wrote: “Simple answers, reductionist politics, are the most prone to compromise, to saying we're addressing the essential issue and all that other stuff can slide. It is, in reality, people who slide.”

Their statement is a commitment not to let people slide. As such, it's both impressive and heart-warming – and I'd just like to say:

Thank you :)

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Twenty-Four Questions.

Another set of questions, another sequel – this time to CN Lester's earlier ‘Twenty-One Questions’ on trans issues. This time it's ‘Beyond the Binary’: “twenty four questions about gender, sex, sexuality, genderqueer issues, trans issues, stuff, things, the kitchen sink etc, answered by an amazing panel”, this time comprising Alex Drummond, Hel Gurney, Jennie Kermode, Nat Titman, and (again) CN themself.

This time the first question was mine. “Three related questions in one: How would you define sex and gender from a genderqueer/non-binary/neutrois/etc perspective? How do they intersect and/or conflict? And in the latter case, how might such a conflict be resolved?”

The answers you can read for yourself here. What surprised me more than anything was my own response to them: they made me cry. I don't expect anyone else to be affected like that. It was just... people talking my language (the sometimes abstruse language of gender theory) and saying things – deeply personal things (because gender) – that I agree with. Such as:

CN: I think ‘gender’ is a word we use to describe the ways in which we present our bodies, the way we talk, write, pitch our voices, move through the world, the work we do, the way we work in relationship to one another, who we identify with, how others see us, how we capitulate or rebel against that viewing, what we hope we are, what we’re frightened we are, and how we navigate societal structures concerning the above.

Nat: Each genderqueer/nonbinary/neutrois/etc person will have their own perspective on sex, gender and transgender and how their own experience of gender intersects and/or conflicts with that. We can guess what these may be based on the language and labels they identify with or use to describe themselves, but any writing on gender that falls outside of the binary must acknowledge that there is no single narrative that reflects how everyone in this group conceives of, expresses and describes their gender, or rejection of gender.

Hel: So, in a fully gender-pluralistic world, neither oppositional sexism nor traditional sexism would make sense. While ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ would probably continue as visual codes if nothing else, I’d expect (or at least hope) that they’d become value-neutral things (rather than standards to which someone is held because of their body morphology and/or gender identity, or an unequal pairing in which femininity is devalued compared to masculinity.) … so that’s my dream of a queer-feminist utopia, anyway.

As I wrote below the line: “I feel like I’ve come home.” :)

PS If you're interested in my lengthier (and mostly personal) comments, see questions four, six and thirteen.

Sunday 14 July 2013

More about stuff.

I have a theory about stuff: It's just stuff. Not a very original theory perhaps. Indeed, I've said it before myself, but there it is: Stuff is just stuff. It's all stuff that people do. Probably most of us would like most of it to some degree. It's all good stuff. Some stuff we might like more than other stuff. Some stuff we'll have greater inclinations towards, some we'll have lesser inclinations. But it doesn't matter. It's all just stuff.

Except that there are rules about stuff. Stuff gets gendered. It's still all just stuff, but we call it "men's stuff", "boys' stuff", "women's stuff", "girls' stuff". Boys and men aren't supposed to do girls' and women's stuff. Girls and women aren't supposed to do boys' and men's stuff. And since we're aren't supposed to do some stuff, most of us don't do some stuff. We decide we don't want to do some stuff. But there's still a lot of other stuff to do, and that's good stuff too. So, even if the stuff we aren't supposed to do might have been good as well, we don't really miss it. There's plenty of good stuff either way. So the gendering of stuff doesn't bother us all that much.

But then there are those of us who are highly inclined to do that other stuff, the stuff that is gendered away from us, the stuff we aren't supposed to do. And then the gendering of stuff certainly does bother us. But because we are highly inclined towards that other stuff, we want to do it anyway, we really want to do it, and often we will do it. And then we come into conflict with people who think the gendering of stuff is real, that there really is women's and girls' stuff, men's and boys' stuff. And because the world is arranged that way, it's natural to assume that the world must actually be that way, that the rules about stuff and gender are proper rules. And perhaps, when those rules are challenged or broken, those people get cross, because they think this is the way the world really is and should be. But it isn't. It's all just stuff.

Anyway, that's my theory: People are just people and stuff is just stuff. There isn't a continuum of gender, with male at one end, female at the other, and some sort of androgyny in the middle. There are just people, with all our similarities and differences (some of which are morphological). Instead, what we have is a continuum of stuff, with some stuff gendered male at one end, some stuff gendered female at the other end, and not-particularly-gendered stuff in the middle. And this continuum of gendered stuff is completely made up. It's only real because we make it real each and every day. (I think I might call my theory "performativity for dummies".) Every time we accept the gendering of stuff, every time we say – or allow someone else to say – that some particular stuff is gendered female or male, we make it so. But it's all just stuff really.

So (note to self) don't allow anyone to tell you ever again that some stuff is gendered. That you can't do some stuff, you can't like some stuff, you can't want some stuff because gender. Nuts to that. Nuts to them. It's all just stuff. And it's time – way past time – people got over themselves about stuff.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

So, what is femme? (3)

Exactly two years ago, in ‘So, what is femme? (2)’, quoting part of Elizabeth Marston's essay Rogue Femininity, I wrote: “I doubt I'll ever be able to put it better than this”. And perhaps not. Nevertheless, I like very much what Elise Nagy has to say in her own article Exploding the Limitations (on the queer activist and literary ‘In our words’ blogsite). A few extracts:

Femininity has a lot of rules, and one of the overarching rules is that it’s nearly unattainable, that you will always be striving. It will keep you busy and keep your money and energy tied up in trying to reach some imaginary pinnacle of perfect femininity while you could be out doing magnificent things with your life, or exploring and constructing your own vision of femme that isn’t dictated to you from capitalism and sexism.

In many ways the difference between identifying as feminine or female and identifying as femme is one of intentionality and awareness. (...) Femininity is what’s expected of you if you’re assigned female at birth. Femme exists between and around sex and gender assigned at birth. Femme opens up a space for people who weren’t necessarily assigned female at birth but also might not accept a strict and naturalized gender binary. Femme can be a space for people who reject that assignment as having any real personal meaning. Femme is embodied in trans women and cis women, trans men and cis men.

Femme is what you do with yourself in the world, the way millennia of ideologies of femininity collide in the sway of your hips and swoop of your eyeliner. Femme is a vision as well as a way of presenting; Femme isn’t hierarchical or exclusionary. Femme isn’t necessarily straight and isn’t necessarily gay; femme can be asexual, femme can be kinky, femme can be fluid. Femme is by/for people of color. Femme is by/for people with disabilities. Femme is by/for people who can’t afford what Femininity is selling and wouldn’t want to buy it anyway.

Femme is about gestures, mannerisms, affectations and performance. It’s about making the face you present to the world represent the self you feel most like in that moment. Sometimes it’s about allowing yourself to act the way that people have punished you for, it’s about resisting the idea that traditional masculinity should be a requirement of your embodiment. Femme is contradictory and chaotic. It’s unfixed, mutable, fluid, and heterogeneous.

Femme is a personal identity, but it’s also a political one. It calls attention to the performativity of gender and sexuality. It questions the idea that there can be too much: too much blush, too much tulle, too many holes in your short shorts, too much calling out of racism, too many discussions about neocolonialism. Femme is resistance. Femme pushes back against the idea that people must act traditionally masculine to be powerful or traditionally feminine to be acceptable. Femme rejects white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Femme explores and explodes the limitations placed on people when they’re assigned female or male at birth.

I like this because it's political femme; powerful femme; confident "pay-it-no-mind" femme; confrontational "if-you-don't-like-it..." femme; impatient "when-do-we-want-it?-now!" femme. Femme that celebrates and draws strength from difference, independent of received notions of sex, gender and sexuality. Femme that rejects imposed prescriptions of what people are or should be. Femme that explodes the limitations of what femme is and can be. This is radical femme.

On which note, it's quite appropriate that I was directed to Nagy's piece by ‘Radical Femme’ on Facebook. Thanks, Katie :)

Tuesday 14 May 2013

More on Trans (vs.) Feminism.

The following is my own personal take on things. (I don't speak for anyone else.) The simplifications therein are for theoretical clarity; they do not (necessarily) describe every individual's complicated reality. Similarly, I've used the word "transgenderism" only because it was linguistically useful to do so. Trans people may agree on some things (sometimes), but really transgenderism doesn't exist as either an ideology or a movement.

I was hoping to get back to writing about femme, which I've neglected for quite a while in favour of trans, feminist and more general gender topics. But since I have been preoccupied by the latter topics lately, I felt the need to respond to a new article, ‘Who Owns Gender’, on the radical feminist website Trouble and Strife, which has been going the rounds:

Julie Bindel: “Brilliant analysis of the essentialism of transgender politics”.
Liz Kelly: “a thoughtful and clear discussion of what is at stake in recent debates on trans and radical feminism”.

In reply (to JB), I tweeted: “It misses the point entirely. Trans (in this context) is about *sex*, not gender. A trans person's *gender* might be anything.” And: “To put it another way: When we each talk about "gender" we don't mean the same thing. This is a conflict of language not politics.”

Because: No, it is not brilliant analysis. No, it is not a thoughtful and clear discussion. What the author (Delilah Campbell) has done is set out what she thinks trans politics are about and then proceed to censure them. This is typical straw man argument: “an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position. To ‘attack a straw man’ is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the ‘straw man’), and to refute it, without ever having actually refuted the original position. This technique has been used throughout history in polemical debate, particularly in arguments about highly charged, emotional issues.”

Personally, I'd dispute that we are in fact opponents, but in this type of article authors always assume that we are, that radical feminism and trans politics are completely at odds, and then set about a critique of the latter by applying ideas from the former. Whereas it would be far more productive to assume the reverse – that we're not at odds – and try to understand how the latter might be accommodated by the former. And that turns out to be not so very difficult. It only requires the acceptance of three basic axioms:

1) sex and gender are not the same;
2) cultural gender does not inherently correlate with binary sex;
3) transsexuality is about sex not gender.

I think we can probably agree on #1 and #2 straight away. #1 can also be applied to trans: i.e. transsexual is not the same as transgender. This is worth noting, since Campbell acknowledges differences in trans positions without appreciating how they mostly arise. As for #3, this comes with a crucial corollary:

3a) sex is a property of the mind, not the body.

In other words, our own sex is what we each know it to be and this is not dependent on any specific aspect of the body. This corollary might be difficult for some people to accept, but as I think it is the best way to make sense of these matters, please suspend disbelief for the moment and just allow that it is so. (To put it another way: for any morphological definition of sex there are always exceptions; transsexuality can be regarded as such an exception.)

The point is that if transsexuality is about sex (not gender), feminist critiques of gender are not threatened. They remain valid irrespective of whether someone is trans or not. In particular, problematic issues of "brain sex" (which Campbell highlights) simply disappear. Sexed brains already are different – microscopically in structure; more significantly in size, and how they sometimes light up under resonance imaging. But simple physical (or neurological) difference doesn't imply any difference in function or inherent capability. All attempts to infer gendered difference from sexed brains have been thoroughly debunked (as related in another article on site, linked to by the author: ‘Brain Wars’). Whether someone's brain is "trans-sexed" or not doesn't affect that debunking in any way.

Transgenderism, on the other hand, supports such critiques of neuroscience intrinsically, as it does axiom #2. By definition transgenderism is gender which runs contrary (in a cultural sense) to binary sex. It demonstrates that, despite the rigorous and constant efforts of the gender system (aka the patriarchy), gender cannot be forced into discrete binary boxes. That (gender) difference is a human quality, not one predicated by binary sex. That masculinity and femininity (however defined by the local gender system) are not essential properties of, respectively, men and women, but appear where they will in the human population as a whole.

The main disagreement between transgenderism and radical feminism is about what gender is and how each person's gender arises (as noted in my earlier post). Radical feminism proposes that gender is socially constructed. Transgenderism proposes that gender is also intrinsic (to some degree) but is forced along false and discrete binary paths by an oppressive gender system. Thus described, transgenderism hardly threatens feminism either. Feminist critiques of how and why binary gender is culturally maintained, feminist analysis of gender structure and power relations, again all remain valid.

So what are we actually arguing about? And why do trans activists (as the author rhetorically asks) direct so much ire at (some) radical feminists? Because radfems are always starting fights (her article being another case in point). And because many trans activists are feminists; this is our turf as well, and we'll fight battles over it. But these battles are never really about gender. They're always about the nature of trans. (The author was right the first time.) And we fight because you don't understand trans. You think you do, but – as her article shows yet again – you really really don't.

Footnotes (for Julie Bindel):

While I was writing this piece, JB tweeted me back: “why do they call it 'transgender' then?”
My quick response: “Just to be confusing ;) . No, it depends on context.”

The "confusing" part of that is a serious point (if flippantly made). As I said in my previous post, I think it would be helpful if we refrained from using the word "gender" altogether when we really mean "sex". As for the context part, "transgender" relates variously to:

1) the crossing of cultural gender lines;
2) a political coalition of people who cross – or appear to cross – cultural gender lines;
3) transsexuality – a linguistic confusion arising from a colloquial interchanging of the words "sex" and "gender".

Note, too, that the trans prefix describes sex and gender within the prevailing gender system. From a radical feminist perspective "trans" doesn't actually exist at all. Transgender doesn't exist because the gender lines that trans supposedly crosses are a false construction of the patriarchy. While if a trans person's declared sex is (regarded as) their true sex (see corollary 3a) and not "crossed" over from anywhere, then the trans part of transsexuality doesn't exist either.

Speaking personally: I am transgender within contexts #1 and #2. But ultimately I don't see myself as trans, because I regard my "femininity" (my supposed gender crossing) as perfectly valid for my sex (male). It is only the gender system that falsely (and oppressively) equates "femininity" with "femaleness" (and vice versa).

Two final things:

1. All this is but a framework in which trans matters might be understood from a radical feminist perspective. It isn't (necessarily) how each and every trans person understands themselves.

2. The corollary (3a) is very important. The actual truth of it is unproven, but you can't understand trans – and transsexuality in particular – unless you accept that it might be true, or at least that it is true for us.

Monday 29 April 2013

Twenty-One Questions.

No, this isn't an addendum to my earlier ‘Eight Questions’, nor to Laurie Penny's 26 Questions. ‘Twenty-One questions’ is a series by musician, writer and activist CN Lester on trans issues, with answers from a varied panel comprising Natacha Kennedy, Maeve, Roz Kaveney, Naith Payton, and CN themself.

CN relates the impetus for this series as follows:

So, back in January I asked my cis readers if they had any questions about trans issues they’d like answering – I’ve collected the responses into just over 20 questions, which will be answered at length one question per day. Personally, I’d seen an outpouring of support from cis people in the wake of Julie Burchill’s vile diatribe in The Observer. I’m not the only trans person to have seen it again, following the terrible news of Lucy Meadows' death and the exposure of the mauling she had suffered at the hands of the press. I don’t believe that we can expect people to know more, to engage more, without being willing to reach out in conversation – and I like to think that genuine questions deserve genuine answers. So, in the hope that this will prove helpful – here are my lovely panel (thank you so much) and their answers.

I was going to give a run down of the questions (with links), but CN has already done that in this post (which also includes brief bios of the panellists). So I'll just flag the question that most interested me personally:

Question Eighteen: What kinds of meanings are attached to ‘transgender’ and ‘transsexual’?

I’d like to hear some different opinions on the meanings of the terms “transgender” and “transsexual”. With an awareness of them being cultural labels as well as linguistic ones, I still find it difficult to pin them down. I *thought* gender was in the head, and sex was in the body, and “trans” meant changing that. However, if one was born with a sex (body) that didn’t match gender (head) how is the gender changing at all? Does transgender rather mean *perceived* gender is changing/has changed? Are the terms in fact synonymous and I am looking too etymologically at them rather than semantically? If a person wears the label transgender or transsexual, is there something specific that they are trying to tell me about themselves that I am missing, because I have difficulty distinguishing the meanings of the words? I have discussed this with my partner (who wears the label transsexual herself) and we both just get more and more confused the more we discuss it. Some more opinions would be very helpful. Also, I have recently heard the term “of trans history” a few times, and wondered if this has yet another meaning. Is it all just a matter of preference?

A convoluted question indeed – and the gist of the answers was:

Roz: Pretty much – you seem to be getting it.
Natacha: The answer to this depends on who you talk to.
CN: ‘more and more confused the more we discuss it’ – I think that just about covers it!

Quite so – and that's especially true when language is rapidly and constantly changing. And yet, if the meaning of the words we're using is not clear, it becomes very difficult to communicate, and misunderstandings and arguments arise. In particular, the lack of agreement on what we each mean by the (deceptively simple) words "sex" and "gender" is, I think, at the heart of the conflict between (aspects of) trans/queer theory and radical feminism (highlighted in my previous post). For instance, to lay claim to "gender identity" as an indicator of (binary) sex, when radical feminism regards gender as an entirely false (and oppressive) social construct, is to head into pitched battle straightaway.

And I wonder whether these arguments might be avoided by simply changing our language: such that, if and when trans people really mean sex, we just say "sex" and leave the confusing word "gender" to be considered and discussed separately. It was this position that prompted my own response in the comments:

Rather than gender being in the head and sex in the body, with "trans" indicating a conflict between gender and sex, I much prefer Julia Serano's idea of sex being in the head (i.e. our sex is what we each know it to be; "subconscious sex") with "trans" (in this context) indicating a conflict between sex and morphology (the apparent sex of the body). This leaves (the idea of) a person's gender free (though often intertwined) to be whatever it is, irrespective of sex – for instance, femaleness (sex; whether cis or trans) and masculinity (gender) in one person is not necessarily a conflict (or "trans") at all, except culturally (within patriarchy); and gender expression (how we choose to express our gender) is something separate again.

What do you reckon?

Sunday 24 March 2013

Trans ("vs.") feminism.

Consequential to the Moore/Burchill debacle (referenced in this post), BBC Radio Four recently (on March 18th last) devoted an Analysis programme to a trans/gender discussion. In ‘Who decides if I'm a woman?’ (available as an mp3 download or PDF transcript), “Jo Fidgen explores the underlying ideas which cause so much tension between radical feminists and transgender campaigners, and discovers why recent changes in the law and advances in science are fuelling debate.”

The contributors were (using the BBC précis): James Barrett (consultant psychiatrist and lead clinician at the Charing Cross GIC), Julie Bindel (feminist and journalist), Lord Alex Carlile QC (Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords), Melissa Hines (professor of psychology at Cambridge University), Richard O'Brien (writer of The Rocky Horror Show), Ruth Pearce (postgraduate researcher in sociology at the University of Warwick), and Stephen Whittle OBE (professor of equalities law at Manchester Metropolitan University). Some spoke well, others less so, but it was a decent programme in the main and well worth listening to (or reading). For me the stand-out comment was:

Jo Fidgen (11:52): Can you tell me then, in pretty basic terms, how you would go about determining what sex somebody is?
Melissa Hines: I would ask them.

Damn right! And you can't get much more basic than that.

Radical feminist Julie Bindel was, as might be anticipated, on the “less so” side of things. JB has a dubious reputation in trans circles, mainly because of an obstreperous article she wrote in 2004 (which I'm not going to link). She's apologized for that more than once (her interview with Paris Lees, which is up on youtube, is worth seeing too), but she's still trotting out some tired old stuff. For instance (08:21): “What, ultimately, feminists want to do is to eradicate the straitjacket of gender. What transgender people want to do is defend gender and keep a very strong hold on it as integral to their identity. They rely on gender to showcase femininity and masculinity.”

JB sees gender (I'm assuming) as a social construct (of the patriarchy), which imposes oppressive gender roles on men and women, especially women. And to a large extent I think she'd be right there. Gender roles and "rules" can be very oppressive, and I'd agree that they need to be eradicated. Indeed, trans people are often on the very sharp end of such rules (for all sorts of reasons). So far so good; as trans/feminist activist Ruth Pearce replies (09:27): “a trans perspective and a feminist perspective aren't necessarily at odds.”

Where I think we differ is as follows: JB's particular brand of radical feminism believes that the gender system and gender are one in the same, that the gender system is gender, that it's intrinsically harmful and must be abolished. Whereas trans (and queer) feminists believe – okay, I'm really speaking for myself here – that gender is merely a human attribute, infinitely varied but intrinsically neutral; something each of us has (in some form) as individuals, but which is constrained, forced into a false and oppressive discrete binary, by the prevailing gender system (or culture). Rather than trying to abolish gender, it's the gender system that needs dismantling, thereby leaving us free to develop and express our individual genders in whatever way we need or desire. In other words, trans feminism wants “to eradicate the straitjacket of gender” and “keep a very strong hold on it as integral” to our identities. We want to have our cake and eat it too. Julie Bindel would probably say that isn't possible. I think she'd be wrong.

Fundamentally, this is an ideological difference (albeit grounded in our lives and experiences) as to what gender actually is, and we're unlikely to resolve it any time soon. Perhaps not until we step back and accept that applying our own (differing) perspectives indiscriminately on everyone else is neither possible nor sensible. In the meantime, what I'd like JB's radical feminists to bear in mind is this:

Trans people are not (necessarily) doing what you think we're doing just because your politics say we are.

Trans people do not (necessarily) believe that sex and gender correlate in an essentialist and biological binary, even when we might look as though we do.

Trans people do not (necessarily) perpetuate or support that oppressive binary, either by our existence or our choices.

Trans people do not (necessarily) think that women and men are inherently and discretely different, nor that these are the only two possibilities.

But most of all, when you're holding forth about trans issues and are about to say “they” — please just stop.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

In vision (3) - male bodies, female clothes.

First of all, the title needs some qualifying. The adjectives "male" and "female" above refer to the usual cultural understanding of these terms – which is not necessarily correct, however. Or at least not always correct.

Take clothing, for instance: If someone (e.g. Michael below) refuses the gendering of clothing, then their "female" clothes effectively cease to be female. They are merely clothes which the local culture and history regard as female. Morphology (i.e. the body) might seem more straightforward, but if the person (e.g. Alex below) inhabiting a "male" body is not in fact male, what sex is their body then?

The important point is that the maleness and femaleness of things, such as clothing or bodies, is not a constant but depends on context. That which one person regards as female, say, may not be seen as such by someone else. They may regard it as male (opposite), or androgynous (either), or non-binary (neither), or not gendered at all (not applicable).

With that out of the way, for the purpose of this post all the pictures below show "female" clothing on "male" bodies.

In a post (which I've quoted before) on his own blog, Andrew O'Neill writes: “I think I have a hardwired notion that it is desirable to be a girl. I also have over the years accepted and internalised the fact that I cannot be a girl. Therefore it is desirable to be like a girl, and because of our hugely gendered clothing split, the easiest way to achieve that is to wear the clothes of a girl. If I looked more feminine, I think I would probably act a lot more feminine, but as I don’t want to try and fail to pass for female, I ground what I do in an acknowledgement that I am male. The identity I project outwards is therefore feminine male, rather than woman. I want to dress as ME, not as something I am not.

“I want to dress as me, not as something I am not” – I can certainly relate to that. And as a fellow transvestite, these are the questions I find persistent: Why does "feminine" presentation necessitate a female-looking morphology? Why aren't male-looking bodies sufficient?

Having just asked those questions, I don't intend to try and answer them right now, if indeed they can be answered. Ultimately, these are personal questions requiring individual and personal answers. Nevertheless, I'd like to suggest that the answers “it doesn't” and “they are” at least be considered as possibilities. To that end I'm going to show a few pictures of "female" clothes looking good on a "male" frame. The four "models" (Michael, Jasper, Andrew, Alex) identify quite differently – respectively, across the spectrum: freestyler, femme, transvestite, trans-female – but that's not actually relevant here. What is, is that all have developed a personal style that expresses who they are in an attractive and (potentially) inspiring way.

Have a look at the following photos and see what you think:






My thanks to Alex Drummond, Jasper Gregory, Andrew O'Neill and Michael Spookshow for permission (last November) to use their photographs.

Further material: Andrej Pejic, Liu Xianping, Stas Fedyanin. Either Andrej (who featured in ‘In vision (2)’) or Stas would have been an obvious choice for this post, but rather too obvious. We can't all look like supermodels. (And anyway, Andrej would look good in a bin liner.) The point is for us to look good with what we have, or, at the very least, make ourselves feel good – this, after all, being the real function of fashion.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Second Anniversary.

So, I got the day right this time and I've now been blogging for two years. Slightly fewer posts in the second year than in the first, but I'm keeping up with posting something every calendar month. Anyway, it's quality not quantity that counts, isn't it.

Looking at the stats again: The most viewed post is now ‘Sissies, Trannies, and Jeffreys’ (my critique of part of Sheila Jeffreys' book ‘Beauty and Misogyny’) which currently has over 1300 hits. The links thereto from Helen Boyd, Clarissa, and Ozy Frantz have helped I'm sure. Thanks to them for those, and especially to Helen for reading the piece through and suggesting an alteration in the penultimate paragraph.

More stats: Monthly pageviews peaked at 1747 in January, due to an influx of traffic from somewhere on Facebook to my second ‘what is femme?’ post. Presumably somebody likes Elizabeth Marston's definition quoted therein and has linked to it (annoyingly, I can't find out where). Other than that, it's been steadily over the 1000 mark since last March, even if the number of followers refuses to rise (which is also kind of annoying). The USA leads by Countries, approaching 10000 hits, with the UK in second place on about half that; then Canada, Australia and Germany. The highest referrer is still Google, followed by T-Central, and now Reddit has popped in ahead of Samantha.

My own favourite post this year was probably the Jeffreys one, because it took so long to write – and it's very well written, too, I think :) – though I like ‘More on "women's" clothes’ as well (the sequel to ‘Femme clothes, women's clothes’). Others, such as ‘Eight Questions’ (which I'm in process of revising for Our Different Journey) and the self-castigating ‘14th August 2012’, have been partly superseded by events, since I finally came out to my mother and sister a few weeks ago...

David Bowie released a new single and had an old Ziggy Stardust picture in the paper, and a conversation with my mother got on to gender, and I finally said something like “I'm a transvestite – you knew that, right?”. And no, she'd had no idea. My sister (who I let my mother tell when visiting two days later) had some idea – she'd seen a pair of size 14 jeans and all my books – but nothing exactly clear either. Bizarre! I'd thought the evidence was both blatant and conclusive. Apparently not. Anyway, they were both supportive, and interested (reading my blog from start to finish), and not at all judgmental. I felt exposed and vulnerable for a few days, but that was about it really. The things we worry about, eh?

Once again, my thanks to anyone who's read anything I've written, and especially to everyone who's taken the trouble to comment.

Here's to Year Three :)

Monday 4 February 2013

Terre Thaemlitz.

Last Saturday I was in the Tanks at Tate Modern for ‘Gender Talents’. From the preliminary blurb:

Gender Talents: A Special Address, convened by Carlos Motta, presents an international group of thinkers, activists, and artists in a symposium that uses the proposition or manifesto as a structuring device and starting point for discussion. These ‘special addresses’ will explore models and strategies that transform the ways in which society perversely defines and regulates bodies. The event seeks to ask what is at stake when collapsing, inverting or abandoning the gender binary. Here the relation between self-determination and solidarity in processes of systemic change form the foundation of a pragmatic exploration of ways of being ungoverned by normative gender.

Make of that what you will – or not. It's the sort of stuff you churn out when you want arts funding (and there we were at Tate Modern after all). The event itself was more interesting. The symposiasts were (in order of appearance, double slash denoting discussion periods followed by short breaks): Carlos Motta, Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad, Del LaGrace Volcano, J. Jack Halberstam // Dean Spade (by video), Terre Thaemlitz, Beatriz Preciado // Giuseppe Campuzano, Xabier Arakistain, Campbell X, and Wu Tsang & Safra Project. (Follow the link in the first paragraph for brief bios.)

I'm not intending to review Gender Talents though. I've hated writing reviews since back when I had to do it regularly. Trying to think of something to say that isn't banal and derivative, even when you like what you're reviewing – in fact, especially when you like it... Instead, I just want to mention my favourite speaker of the day: Terre Thaemlitz.**

Terre runs Comatonse Recordings, which “is dedicated to the production and dissemination of non-categorical contemporary electronic music”, so I was down with him already. However, she also does a nice turn in iconoclasm, in particular debunking essentialist queer and trans narratives and their implicit hierarchies. Not from a position of superiority, denying people their (our) own truths as individuals – rather, it seems to me, from a position of inferiority: Oi, we're down here and you're stepping on us in your rush to be assimilated into the dominant culture, so consider the political consequences of what you're doing, okay? Then again, possibly that's not what he means at all. Perhaps it's best if you read what she has to say for yourself.

To that end, I'd suggest ‘Terre interviews Terre’ from October/December 2011. Here are a few snippets to get you started:

You might call me non-essentialist, non-op MTFTMTF... (...)
"Non-essentialist" (or sometimes I say "anti-essentialist") means that I reject the notion of my gender identity stemming from something natural, such as an "inner essence". ("Essentialist" refers to people who believe their gender is innate or biological, such as a belief in "being born this way".) Particularly in relation to social organizing and political issues, the downside of any essentialist argument - asking for rights because "I can't help it, I was born this way" - is that it removes all self-agency and capacity for choice around the issue at hand. (...)
"Non-op" means without having had any operations or medical procedures (you may have heard of the more common term "post-op", or "post-operative", used in reference to people who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery).
"MTF" means "Male to Female", which refers to people who deviate from an initially male-identified gender identity (conversely, "FTM" means "Female to Male"). I tend to list them in an endless cycle, "MTFTMTF...", because my self-representation is open-ended and goes back and forth.

[F]or several years now, when writing about myself I alternate gender pronouns (...). I prefer this to conventional "neutral" pronouns ("one", "they") because gender is never neutral under patriarchy. (...) By simply rotating "she" and "he", the focus remains on unresolved questions of gender identity within patriarchy, while rejecting the notion that "third-gender" pronouns offer a comfort zone or escape route (although they may for others). Also, because "he/she/he/she" rotation is disorienting and annoying to most everyone, I feel I am inviting the reader to share in the awkwardness and inconvenience I continually feel around issues of gender identification.

I do not identify as a man unless the social environment makes it absolutely necessary (such as in my passport). At the same time, this refusal to identify certainly does not mean I am "transcendent" of gender, and I would never say anything individualist like, "I'm not male or female - I'm just me". Society does not grant us that freedom. "I" am always in relation to "you", which means the potential for flexibility around my gender identifications is only as malleable or fluid as "you" will allow. This will change depending on whether "you" are a stranger, a friend, a lover, a family member, a physician, another trans-identified person, intersexed, transsexual, a government official, etc.
For example, when I am in women's clothes and say, "I am transgendered", the reaction is completely different than when I say the same thing while wearing men's clothes. When I wear women's clothes, it seems "real" to people. They seem to accept my femme appearance as part of a longer physical transition - they may imagine I will one day undergo medical transitioning. When I wear men's clothes, what I say is more likely to be heard as the word-games of a dilettante with no material connection to their notion of "true" transgendered bodies. This is the gap in which I exist.

That how you identify depends on context... absolutely!

So, yes, I'd certainly recommend reading the whole of Terre's interview with himself. And you can find more of her writings here. And if you want his music, you can buy it from her here. And there's a mix he did for Resident Advisor available here.

I could get quite used to this rotating pronouns business :)

** The text to Terre's address at Tate Modern can now be read here.

Saturday 19 January 2013

Feminist transvestites.

I spent much of last week arguing on Twitter and in online comment arenas (blogs, CiF). Most readers will probably know what that was about, but for those that don't...

It all arose from a casual (and unnecessary) jibe by Suzanne Moore (about Brazilian trans women), which quickly progressed (after Moore was challenged and took umbrage) to direct insults (from both sides), then out-and-out hate speech (from Julie Burchill in The Observer, prompting 2000+ complaints), followed by a ridiculous non-argument about "press freedom" (after Burchill's article was taken down again) – and the affair continues to rumble on.

I'm not going to link to any of that here. You can easily find it for yourself. Instead, I want to highlight a related article in The Guardian: ‘Why I'm trans … and a feminist’. The sub-headline reads: “In the light of this week's row between two prominent feminists and the trans community, we asked four trans writers to reflect on what feminism means to them”. This “trans-feminist panel” comprised Paris Lees, Jane Fae, CL Minou, and Stuart Crawford. The first three I know as prominent trans activists, but Stuart Crawford I didn't. He starts:

I'm a transvestite, in that I often wear what are generally deemed women's clothes. I don't set out to "pass" as a woman; it's just that most people tend to assume that I am one and I'm disinclined to correct them. While often reluctant to describe myself as such, I consider myself to be a feminist.

Stuart makes a lot of good points in his short piece – such as “There's not much that draws out violence like causing people to question their own sexuality. Misogyny, transphobia, homophobia: these things are interwoven.” and “Trans people have unique perspectives on sex and gender, and to exclude our voices from the discussion is to do feminism a disservice.” – as you can read for yourself. But it's the first three words that got me.

A lot of people are erased from these debates – trans men in particular – but transvestites (my own constituency) generally aren't even engaged. So it's very refreshing to see a fellow-traveller with the desire to talk seriously about feminism and being given the media space in which to do so.

Thanks, Stuart. And to The Guardian as well – this is the right way; please keep it up.