Wednesday 14 June 2017

Trans Like Me.

Now that the part-euphoria part-relief of the UK election result has abated somewhat, I've been able to get back to what I was doing before, which was reading – and then re-reading – CN Lester's just published Trans Like Me: A Journey for All of Us (Virago 2017). The word “re-reading” is significant there: I never read a book straight through and then, having finished it, pick it up and read it again. But I did that with this one.

Because Trans Like Me is a major event in trans literature in the UK. Not quite a polemic, it's nevertheless a political book, addressing trans issues, defending trans realities, demanding trans rights. As far as I know, there's been nothing quite like it here before. We've had numerous trans memoirs, such as those by Jan Morris, Julia Grant, Mark Rees, Alex Drummond, and (most recently) Juliet Jacques; but not a book where personal honesty is an adjunct to the politics, used for illustration and emphasis. For that we've had to rely on authors and activists from the US and Canada. (Note that most of Juliet Jacques’ “Top 10 transgender books” were from North America; and most of my favourites listed here were too.) Not any longer.

In their book, CN deals with all the pressing issues, explaining, revealing, persuading, rebutting:
  • misrepresentation and hostility in the press;
  • trans celebrity, with particular reference to Caitlyn Jenner;
  • trans language, finding words for ourselves that make us visible;
  • why we can't be talked out of being trans (an excerpt on this subject appeared at The Pool);
  • binary sex and gender, and dysphoria as proprioceptive discordance;
  • trans children and trans youth, gender-affirmative therapy, puberty blockers and so forth;
  • the difficulties in having a mental illness while being trans;
  • the importance of family support and reciprocal peer support;
  • intimate relationships, desirability vs. objectification;
  • the realness of trans identities, inclusion in gendered spaces;
  • trans history and how it is often misportrayed, with a serious critique of The Danish Girl;
  • non-binary identities, their history and (lack of) recognition;
  • the T in LGBT, why we belong together and should stick together;
  • trans feminisms, intersectionality, and why trans realities are (obviously) not anti-feminist;
  • the future, the “trans tipping point”, where we might be heading, and what we might achieve.

I'm just giving basic outlines of the chapters there; CN includes much, much more along the way, and if they've missed something out, I can't think what it might be right now. I can't find much of anything to disagree with either, whereas there was plenty that had me nodding and smiling to myself...

After a year of reading absolutely everything I could find about being queer, I started noticing the breadcrumb trail left in the margins, in the footnotes. Alison Bechdel, author of Dykes to Watch Out For, was a godsend: the background detail of her comic strip often included the names of influential LGBT works and authors. I discovered Kate Bornstein, and ordered a copy of My Gender Workbook from America. I felt as nervous as if I had ordered porn through the mail.

Yes, I can relate to all of that – “reading absolutely everything” for sure (see here again); I have all of Alison Bechdel's DTWOF books; and I felt similarly nervous taking a copy of Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw up to the counter at Mushroom.

I am so thankful to all the people who have helped me to unlearn the defence of believing my particular truth to be universal. They taught me to really listen to other people, and to accept the limits of my own knowledge. I have never really liked putting my self into words. Listening taught me that the labels that confined me could liberate others. That the right answer for one person could become the wrong answer for another, and that all we could do was lend support in our shared individuality.

Absolutely; or as Patrick Califia put it: “The best we can do is speak our own truth, make it safe for others to speak theirs, and respect our differences” (which I use as my signature on most trans forums, and last quoted here in the post ‘Speaking our own truth’).

There is the tendency for some cis people to believe that being trans is about fixing some kind of defect, that we have to alter our ‘transgendered’ selves in order to slot back into place into a gendered society bound about by struggle and by rules. For myself, I think it could be the other way round.

That a gendered society, bound about by struggle and rules, needs to fix itself rather than require us to try and fit into it? Yes, indeed.

When I was much younger I wanted, like many idealists, to create a manifesto: a document both clear and concise, and, of course, universal in its application. With hindsight, it is clear that there can be no such manifesto of trans rights, of trans justice – unless it were to be one without an end, in which anyone could write.

One without an end, in which anyone could write... That's so sweet :)

Those are a few snippets that resonated with me and are therefore fairly random; but they're indicative of CN's style, which is both intimate and incisive, drawing on their many years as an out non-binary trans person and campaigner for trans and queer rights.

“Writing is still revolutionary; writing is still about changing the world,” Dorothy Allison once said – and everyone “who tells the truth about their life becomes part of that process”. With Trans Like Me, CN Lester has written “a book about what it is to be trans” today, and what it might or could be tomorrow. They've written a book to change the world.