The enigma that was Prince Rogers Nelson, whose African-American family hailed from Lousiana originally burst onto the pop scene as a 17-year-old teenager, in the late 1970s. Aged just 20, in 1979, he performed his first gig with his band, who became, ‘The Revolution‘. His death, this week, leaves behind dozens of songs, lyrics, statements, and beliefs, that not everyone understood.
His own path navigated 3 engagements, 2 marriages and divorces, and the death of his only child. In 2001, he became a Jehovah Witness and said he was turning to monogamy after prior romantic links to Kim Basinger, Madonna, Sheila E., Carmen Electra, Anna Fantastic, Sherilyn Fenn, Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, Susan Moonsie of Vanity 6, and Vanity, herself, another singer who underwent a Christian conversion and also died this year.
Prince, the Genderbending Rule-breaker
“A strong spirit transcends rules”, Prince said in a 1999 interview.
Steven W Thrasher, writing in the Guardian, writes of Prince’s genderbending and gender-busting allure:
Prince broke all the rules about what black American men should be. The musical genius captivated both men and women with his high heels, tight butt and playful sexuality – and he refused to be anyone’s slave…
…letting go of all those rules he seemed to have dispensed with? That purple clothing, those high heels and ruffled shirts: was he proudly feminine, or so secure in his masculinity he didn’t mind others questioning it? That small frame and that tight, small butt that seemed to leave him “shaking that ass, shaking that ass” for men and women alike?
Prince was a paradox in that he expanded the concept of what it meant to be a man while also deconstructing the entire idea of gender.
It was, in retrospect, the first time I experienced someone refusing to live under the oppressive binary regime of gender, or to submit to the dominant power’s rules.”
In 1982, Prince said that “What’s missing from pop music is danger – there’s no excitement and mystery”. Well, he certainly provided that mystery, much as David Bowie did.
I wanna be your lover
Wanna be your mother and your sister too
“Prince brazenly blended rock, R&B, funk, pop and jazz like few artists before or since. He pushed the envelope on sexuality and androgyny in music, dared to take on the corporate music industry…” – Star Tribune
Freedom and Fascination
From a rare interview in 1996 with, among others, NME, on the release of his ‘Emancipation’ triple album comes these quotes from Prince on freedom, life, experience and people:
“I find freedom sexy. I find freedom so sexy I can’t even explain it to you. You wake up every day and feel like you can do anything.”
“Everyone has their own experience. That’s why we are here, to go through our experience, to learn, to go down those paths and eventually you may have gone down so many paths and learned so much that you don’t have to come back again.”
“I’m no different to anyone. Yes, I have fame and wealth and talent, but I certainly don’t consider myself any better than anyone who has no fame, wealth or talent. People fascinate me. They’re amazing! Life fascinates me! And I’m no more fascinated by my own life than by anyone else’s.”
Prince, Mystery or Madness?
“America still believes Prince to be mildly insane…’Why does everyone think I’m mad?’ he once asked his British press person. ‘Because,’ the PR replied, ‘you do weird things and you don’t explain them.’ Prince does do weird things, but he also performs live with a stage presence and a charisma that’s unrivalled in American entertainment.” – Guardian(2006)
His refusal to bow to the corporate line of either the music industry or journalists meant that he came across as ‘odd’, but his response was that he didn’t care:
“I don’t really care so much what people say about me because it usually is a reflection of who they are.”
“Despite everything, no one can dictate who you are to other people.”
Being yourself and not worrying about what others thought was one of the ways he inspired others to break out.
“Cool means being able to hang with yourself. All you have to ask yourself is ‘Is there anybody I’m afraid of? Is there anybody who if I walked into a room and saw, I’d get nervous?’ If not, then you’re cool.” – Rolling Stone Magazine
Prince, Song Lyrics
Stand up everybody/This is your life
Let me take you to another world, let me take you tonight
You don’t need no money, you don’t need no clothes
The second coming, anything goes
Sexuality is all you’ll ever need
Sexuality, let your body be free…
I’m talking about a revolution we gotta organize
We don’t need no segregation, we don’t need no race
New age revelation, I think we got a case…
No child is bad from the beginning, they only imitate their atmosphere…
Stand up, organize
We need a new breed, leaders, stand up, organize
– “Sexuality” (1981)
Whenever I feel like givin’ up
Whenever my sunshine turns to rain
Whenever my hopes and dreams
Are aimed in the wrong direction
She’s always there
Tellin’ me how much she cares
She’s always in my hair
It’s a generation since the death of author, feminist, and existentialist, Simone de Beauvoir on 14 April 1986. A lover of Sartre – in both senses of the word, she was a sexually liberated bisexual whose disregard for sexual convention – including age of consent laws, caused her to lose her right to teach in France. Her 1949 defining work on the oppression of women, Le Deuxième Sexe – “The Second Sex“, is widely considered a groundbreaking treatise on sex and gender for 20th-century feminism.
As to her sexual liberation, her “erotic liberty“, and open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, she saw any sexual categorisation as restrictive:
“In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.” – Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir Quotes
I recently quoted, knowingly totally out of context, this from de Beauvoir:
“One is not born a woman, but becomes one.”
I was quite promptly, and perhaps rightly, accused of ‘quote mining’. Contextomy or the unjustified use of an uprooted, and in this case anachronous, quote, to prove a point it was never intended to address, is a fair criticism.
My use of the quote was because it resonated with the idea that people can be born female, raised a girl, but become a woman. A woman is as much experience, as nature. I’m not jumping in and suggesting, for example, that post-operative trans women are thus women, the same as those who were born with a uterus and raised as girls. Indeed, is anyone any less of a woman after uterine cancer (affecting 8,500 women in the UK a year) and removal of the womb via hysterectomy? Similarly, women can have various difficulties in reproduction due to infertility, or any number of intersex medical differences that may cause an XX or indeed other chromosomal combination such as XXY etc to present a body that defies the defined binary female stereotype. Women should not be defined by their ability to procreate and bear children – that much I am sure de Beauvoir would agree with.
My question is, though, whether de Beauvoir would have condemned or supported the rights of some to pursue a gender trajectory that more matches their inner feelings and psyche than their binary-born bodies. In other words, transgender, non-binary and other forms of gender fluidity or transition.
Simone de Beauvoir on Woman, Femininity, the Other, and maybe a Third Sex
So to add insult to injury, to compound my contextomy crime, here are some further Beauvoirisms that might shed light on what might have been her attitude to “The Third Sex”. A phrase which I use, advisedly, for the main purpose of echoing her “Second Sex”, rather than for the purpose of defining all trans and/or gender non-conforming people as a “Third Sex” even though that is a way which some, especially in Asian and Indian cultures, do define.
Does ‘Woman’ even exist?
Beauvoir existentially questioned whether woman would always exist, suggesting that ‘she’ is an ephemeral concept ,driven by culture and construct as much as conception:
“Are there women, really? Most assuredly the theory of the eternal feminine still has its adherents who will whisper in your ear: ‘Even in Russia women still are women’; and other erudite persons – sometimes the very same – say with a sigh: ‘Woman is losing her way, woman is lost.’ One wonders if women still exist, if they will always exist, whether or not it is desirable that they should…” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
One can be female but not a woman
As to femininity, she saw it as something esoteric, and that female ≠ woman ≠ femininity:
“It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. Is this attribute something secreted by the ovaries? Or is it a Platonic essence, a product of the philosophic imagination?” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
If female equals the “female of the species” reproductively, and feminine a cultural construct if not oppression, then woman need not be feminine and feminism a path to throwing off that oppression. But does ‘woman’ need to be female? If one can be female but not a woman, can one be woman but not a female?
What is woman?
If much previous philosophical, and biblical-theological enquiry, stemmed around “What is man?” and the nature of man, then de Beauvoir helpfully examines, what is woman:
If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?
Yet would it not be more helpful to discuss what it means to be human, or are we still stuck seeing woman as something less than a man, and hence neither equal nor fully human since, as in the Bible, Adam stands for man and humankind as the first point of reference?
“Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
On BBC Woman’s Hour today, British Army Captain Rosie Hamilton was interviewed about how female recruits are trained, but it was then made all about how many of them made the ‘male’ standard.
Woman as the ‘Other’
Beauvoir rebelled against the patriarchal concept that man is human and woman is defined only in relation to being man’s so-called opposite pole, that she is ‘othered’ in reference to him. Not that we have achieved gender parity yet, but I wonder how she would see trans, non-binary, intersex people now, as perhaps the new (however ancient a group of people they are) ‘other’?
“No subject will readily volunteer to become the object, the inessential; it is not the Other who, in defining himself as the Other, establishes the One. The Other is posed as such by the One in defining himself as the One.” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
Trans, Non-Binary and Intersex people are ‘othered’ by the default biologically and socially essentialist binary. In the same way, de Beauvoir saw woman as othered by man. Thus, gender non-conforming people, whether assigned male or female at birth, should have some solidarity with the feminist struggle to assert the equality of women with men, and their common core identity as human beings absolutely, not relatively. Sadly, that is not always the case and some folk do not see a common struggle between feminism and gender identity. As de Beauvoir said:
“Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
Some radical feminists, such as Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer, Sheila Jeffries and others, are well known for exclusionary attitudes to trans people. Indeed, de Beauvoir others intersex people, formerly termed ‘hermaphrodite’, in her seeking to find an independent voice on ‘what is woman?’:
“What we need is an angel – neither man nor woman – but where shall we find one? Still, the angel would be poorly qualified to speak, for an angel is ignorant of all the basic facts involved in the problem. With a hermaphrodite we should be no better off, for here the situation is most peculiar; the hermaphrodite is not really the combination of a whole man and a whole woman, but consists of parts of each and thus is neither.” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)
In a 1976 interview, when asked about excluding men from some aspects of the feminist struggle and female gatherings, she opined that sometimes it was necessary. So she may have argued against the full and unfettered access of some transwomen (e.g., pre-operative) to women-only safe spaces. She did also say, however:
“The battle of the sexes is not implicit in the anatomy of man and woman.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
Similarly, she spoke of some lesbian women, in particular, being male-exclusionary:
“There are other women who have become lesbian out of a sort of political commitment: that is, they feel that it is a political act to be lesbian, the equivalent somewhat within the sex struggle of the black power advocates within the racial struggle. And, true, these women tend to be more dogmatic about the exclusion of men from their struggle.” – interview (1976)
Anyone, who is oppressed has the right to gather in safe spaces – whether other oppressed minorities should have rights of access to the safe spaces of other groups who have been ‘othered’ is another matter. That siad, shared oppression is sometimes more important than shared hormones.
“Woman is determined not by her hormones or by mysterious instincts, but by the manner in which her body and her relation to the world are modified through the action of others than herself.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
It was Audre Lorde that said, whilst “any woman is not free”, then “no woman is”. Being the one oppressed is sadly part of a common humanity, and a common responsibility:
“Each of us is responsible – to every human being.” – Simone de Beauvoir
In some matters, if not most – except the most basic biological differences, “men and women” and anyone that is defined or identified outside that binary need to” unequivocally affirm their brotherhood”, as de Beauvoir concluded in The Second Sex.
So, could every Human be a Woman?
“I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom.”
Beauvoir speaks of every human being, every human life, less of the categorisation that in a class-distinctive way oppresses all of us, even the men. For, in defining men and not women, as not soft or empathic, or similar stereotypes, we trap them in conventional masculinity, we oppress gay men, drag queens and transvestites who may still identify as male.
“…man, like woman, is flesh, therefore passive, the plaything of his hormones and of the species, the restless prey of his desires.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
We no longer accept feminism as the sole regard of women. True women’s liberation also liberates men from roles and rules of sex and gender.
“…the woman of today is [not] a creation of nature; it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilisation.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
If a feminist need not be a woman, and a female need not be a ‘woman’, and the ‘feminine’ just as possessable by males, then, perhaps too, a ‘woman’ need not be female, at least not assigned one at birth. In other words, is the very term ‘woman’ as much a social construct as gender itself, and the so-called masculine and feminine ideals?
“No single educator could fashion a female human being today who would be the exact homologue of the male human being; if she is brought up like a boy, the young girl feels she is an oddity and thereby she is given a new kind of sex specification.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)
Only in an androgynous (but not uniform) utopia, where all human beings were raised without class or gender specificity, could true equality perhaps be found.
“reacting to a changing society which recognises that some children have gender dysphoria and do not wish to lose their emotional gender identities at school.”
Trans Education & Tolerance Needed
Increased education of trans and gender variant issues needs to follow, especially in younger years where up to half of all schools are still ignorant of issues. Calls for the PSHE curriculum to teach about transgender and non-binary awareness are regularly sounded and it may be that after the recent evidence-based trans enquiry the Government is finally listening.
A conservative estimate of transgender prevalence would suggest that around 10 pupils or more at the 900-student school might identify as trans and potentially even more as non-binary. The number ‘out’ within the school would depend upon the age of ‘coming out’ and the safety to do so at school. Up to 48% of trans teens attempt to take their own lives, and around 80% consider suicide. Around 80 primary school pupils a year are taking gender transition further and seeking the help of NHS services such as the Tavistock and Portman Gender Clinic.
“People say that schools should be tolerant places but I think that we are more than that. We encourage everyone and anyone to be who they are or who they want to be. I am really proud that I have been educated in a school where there is no concept of the norm, of conformity and of the expected way to be. Everyone has supported this move and I think that there is a real sense of unity, from the headmaster to the youngest 3rd former, about this idea. I also know that students who are gender fluid or for any reason, decide to change the uniform that they wear, will be accepted, supported and encouraged by the whole school.” – Headmaster Richard Cairns
Abolishing Gender Distinctions
Whilst its headmaster would love to see “the notion of boys’ and girl’ schools abolished altogether” having a uniform policy that covers the needs and requirements of any pupil including transgender and gender-fluid is a major step forward in equality and diversity.
Pupils can now opt for a skirt and jacket or trouser and blazer combo, which is not explicitly tied to gender. At least one pupil has taken the college up on the offer and other families have expressed interest in the school’s new policy.
“It ties in with my strong personal belief that youngsters should be respected for who they are. If some boys and girls are happier identifying with a different gender from that in which they were born, then my job is to make sure that we accommodate that. My only interest as headmaster is their welfare and happiness.” – Headmaster Richard Cairns
Whilst Head Master, Richard Cairns, was named “England’s Headmaster of the Year” by Tatler magazine in September 2012, he has recently come under fire for suggesting that single-sex education, particularly girls’ schools, puts them at a disadvantage and is “unrealistic”. He argues that co-educational environments benefit boys and girls providing a gentler, more tolerant, atmosphere. If tolerating a more flexible uniform policy increases the freedom of trans and genderqueer pupils to be themselves, then it is to everyone’s benefit. Indeed, for trans people being in a single-sex school is an additional layer of hell they have to endure, as social transition is nigh on impossible.
Unbelievably, to encourage women in sport a pink sparkly soft-touch football is being marketed in a “pretty pattern that is designed especially for a woman’s grip”. Sigh! Women are more likely to be put off football by the sexism and homophobia in sport, unequal pay and media coverage, rather than the colour and texture of the ball!
Unless this is a major satirical spoof, it ticks every possible patronising pitch possible: “pretty” check, “pink” check, “sparkly” check, “soft” check, “easy” check, “glamorous” check!
Serious Proposition or Irish Joke?
It’s being made in Ireland, and it’s tempting to think that it is an Irish April Fool’s joke were it not January and endorsed by a real sportsman – Ger Brennan, an All-Ireland winning Gaelic Football player. Surely, it has to be a farcical fake designed to challenge rather than collude with sexism in sport?
In fact, their Twitter feed is full of jokes, disbelief, and amazingly, apparent appreciation. Lots of “ball” jokes and since one of the founders is female, a lot of poking fun at female stereotypes, or are they deadly serious?
Their modern media, PR and advertising, seem to be everywhere in Ireland and yet their tagline soundbites are out of the pre-feminist dark ages:
“Don’t break a nail, break boundaries with #Ladyball” “Our ladies sure are pretty in pink! #Ladyball” “Ladies, the wait is finally over (&we don’t mean the one for the ring!) Introducing #Ladyball!” “Our pink #Ladyball has silver accents to help you sparkle on the pitch!”
Ladyball is the concept led by a group of aspiring entrepreneurs who have made it their personal goal in life to encourage girls to play more team sports, and to bring a feminine touch to the all too masculine world of sports! The idea for Ladyball came from personal experience when one of the creators tried various ball sports as a weight loss measure and found the regular (or as we like to call them “man-sized”) balls heavy, cumbersome and difficult to control. It was then (as Oprah would say) she had an “aha moment”; what if there was a ball designed just for women, a soft, trendy ball that could enhance natural feminine abilities and make it easier for girls to play? After a lot of market research we found that there really wasn’t anything like that available, and in the majority of cases women just had to make do with balls meant for men. In order to fill this gap in the market and with the hopes of making team sports more accessible to women, the idea for Ladyball was born! Since that day we have spent countless hours researching and designing our creation. We want to revolutionize the way ladies play sports.
These women are kitted out in Ladyball’s branding but inappropriate footwear:
It’s not the first time pink balls have been introduced. Last November saw a premium game played with a pink ball and which led a male sports commentator to say:
“The pink ball is the prettiest, clearest projectile we have known. Its iridescence allowed superb pictures on television” – ESPN
This was cricket, however, and male cricket at that! It was first introduced by Kookaburra in 2006 for a Cancer charity event but is now being used in some day-night matches for visibility. Mark Nicholas watching the Test at Australia’s Adelaide Oval went on to wax lyrical about the colourful aesthetics of the game:
“colours are an almost subconscious attraction – the way in which white clothing, for example, has such clarity against the green field and how a clear blue sky wraps itself so brightly around the canvas that the game creates.”
It just, could be, that their advertising ‘genius’ is a girlie girl who loves sparkly pink. Just because pink is a female stereotype, doesn’t mean girls can’t be seen in pink, but to my mind this sets sports equality back years in perception, at least. The truth, if this is even true, will be whether it increases participation and gives the boot to received wisdom about women’s football. Not wanting to spoil the spoof or burst the ball of fun that this possibly serious-point making set-up appears to be, fact-checking flagged-up alarm bells and other mixed metaphors. Just trying to investigate their quoted ” patented Eazi-Play technology” drew a blank. Scottish football agrees although sees it as a hoax that “Highlights Discrimination in Sport” and “sexism in football. So, I call fake rather than foul, in this instance. Indeed, in the last few hours, Munster Hockey seem to have confessed to creating the challenge to sexist stereotypes, some assume an announcement about women’s sport is imminent and others are now doubting the spoof creator’s claims as just trying to get in on the act! It’s either a marketing marvel, comedy gold, or an unevolved sexist disaster. It just could be, the best advert for hockey yet:
The Munster Branch has this morning confessed to the creation of the Ladyball. We never expected it to get so much…
“we would like to apologise for nearly breaking the internet. However, we have been successful in making a very valid point. Men’s and women’s sport should be equal – same rules, same equipment and same goals. Hockey is one of the very few sports where men and women are on a par with each other in terms of coverage and recognition. So if anyone out there is looking to take up a sport that treats everyone as equal maybe hockey is the sport for you.”
Whether Munster Hockey were in on it or not, the @theladyball_com Twitter account has now also confessed to the ruse promoting women’s gaelic football (LGFA) along with Lidl sponsorship, “a lighting rod for the discussion of attitudes to women in sports and an amplifier for voices of support”.
With the furore over trans prisoners such as Tara Hudson, a trans woman, being sent to a male prison and her eventual transfer to a female one, another – Vicky Thompson, who took her own life because she was sent to an overcrowded high-suicide risk men’s prison, and another Joanne Latham, two weeks later, it is time to re-address questions of sex/gender policing and segregation in prison. Hudson was sent to prison for violence against a man but presented and identified as female, Latham for two attempted murders and had clear psychiatric issues, as many, especially in women’s prisons do. I did diversity work in HMPs for 5-6 years and was regularly asked what to do with trans prisoners and whether what they were already doing was okay. One HMP had two trans women on the women’s wing, one pre-op one post-op. So they can be flexible. And the 20-30 in UK HMPs is a massive underestimate. I know of dozens and statistically there are probably hundreds.
Prison is an area of mandatory sex/gender segregation based upon the presumption of two sexes and a majority heterosexual population. Separation based upon sex is presumed to aid management, deny sexual privilege, improve safety and risk of sexual and physical violence. All on the basis that men are more likely to harm, harass, or worse, women more than other men. If that is based on size and strength, or merely sex, we should be housing people according to height, weight, and sexuality as well! Where is the protection for gay, lesbian and bisexual, inmates? Trans prisoners, as some intersex prisoners would also, present a binary dilemma.
Inmate violence in US prisons is actually more common between women than between men, up to three times higher for sexual victimisation. What are the facts and myths of gender-based violence and does prison distort them? For instance men are more likely to attempt suicide outside of prison but inside it is women that are more at risk where a higher proportion have mental health issues and concerns.
Where is a safe place to send trans prisoners? In the US they are 50% likely to be raped in prison. Italy has a dedicated trans jail. HMP estimates around 20-30 trans people are in UK prisons but that is likely an underestimate as I’m aware of 10-15 in my local counties.
It is, however, the argument of Germaine Greer and others that women’s spaces need to be kept safe from “men masquerading as women”. The verbal vitriol is almost violent of her anti-trans rhetoric and is something that has led several universities to no-platform her in the name of creating safe trans-inclusive female spaces for students.
What risks are acceptable in the name of free expression (that may contain verbal violence), gender identity, legal sex definition, and how should we balance them with creating safe spaces in universities, DASV/rape crisis support centres, society at large and during incarceration – for all people?
Trans Detention Experience in the USA
“According to a study by University of California Irvine professor Valerie Jenness, more than half of all transgender inmates experience rape. Prison culture also creates an atmosphere where transgender inmates may submit to sexual assault for protection from physical violence – all under the callous indifference of prison authorities.”– The Guardian
“Transgender prisoners are unfathomably at risk for sexual abuse,” Chris Daley, Deputy Executive Director at Just Detention International, an advocacy group that works to end sexual abuse in detention, told VICE News. “It’s a crisis”
“A recent US study said transgender women in male prisons are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than in the general population, with 59 per cent reporting sexual assaults.” – The Independent
“When we are talking about trans people, we are talking about a population who are among the most vulnerable in our prisons,” Rebecca Earlbeck, lawyer representing Sandy Brown.
“Among former state prisoners (US), the rate of inmate-on inmate sexual victimization was at least three times higher for females (13.7%) than males (4.2%)… Following their release from prison, 72% of victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization indicated they felt shame or humiliation, and 56% said they felt guilt.”
Many transgender inmates are placed in “involuntary administrative segregation, which keeps them separated and safe from other inmates.”
“I was forced with no options to be in protective custody, locked down for 23 hours a day,” said Christopher D’Angelo, a transgender male who spent six months in MCSO [Arizona] custody. He likened his detention to solitary confinement. “It just added to my isolation,” D’Angelo said.
Earlier this year, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was looking to relocate around 25 of the nearly 70 transgender women (there are also a half-dozen or so trans men) that it houses on a nightly basis somewhere more permanent and together, incorporating the 2015 revised trans policies that it has been trying to improve since 2009 and 2011. Barely two-thirds of US facilities are even following the 2011 guidelines.
“The transgender detainees will likely be housed in their own area of the women’s facility, but may be allowed to “mingle” with other female detainees, according to ICE officials.”
Whilst the declared trans women detainees may make up just 0.22% of the 34,000 held, they account for 20% of the sexual abuse cases in detention, and that’s the confirmed reported ones – many are not.
“[US] Immigration officials say they have a model facility in Southern California that only houses gay and bisexual men and transgender women. While some 75 transgender detainees are housed across the country every night, the California facility only houses an average of 44 gay, bisexual and transgender individuals at a time.”
A 24-year-old trans woman in Israel is being reasonably housed at the Neveh Tirtzah women’s prison but kept in isolation at night “due to safety concerns.” She was born into an ultra-Orthodox household as male and began transition as a teen but is serving a third prison term for prostitution, theft and assault. She has complained and filed a petition due to her isolation to which the Israeli Prison Service responded:
“In any case in which a prisoner whose identity is not unambiguous, detention is required in isolation and that is out of concern regarding harm to them or prisoners in the vicinity.”
Trans Detention Facilities in Italy
It is thought that Italy has a total of some 60 transgender prisoners but a specialist centre in Tuscany was planned to house about 30 people. The BBC’s Duncan Kennedy, in Rome, said that until now  transgender prisoners have been located in women’s prisons where they are often segregated for their own safety. Guards were to undertake special training in how to treat transgender prisoners before the prison block was to open near Empoli, in Tuscany, in March 2010.
“It’s a great idea. It will not be a ghetto but a way to avoid the experience of isolation in ordinary prisons,”said Regina Satariano, the head of the Italian Movement for Transgender Identity.
“…different scenarios share the same conceptual roots: normative binarism and the resulting impossibility of engaging in a political discussion concerning the condition of transgender inmates. Therefore, the second consideration lying at the heart of our study and defining its theoretical and practical framework consists in the necessity of interpreting the complex relations between law and gender, and prison and gender… The condition of transgender inmates globally is evidence of the failure of essentialist policies, grounded on normative binary categories, and the reduction of the social world to the male/female opposition. Employing theory, i.e. critically rethinking the categories of our social space, seems the most logical solution, but logic is not the strong suite of the law (nor of politics). As a result, while legislators envision solely male and female prisoners (and the corollary male and female issues), many correctional institutions are confronted with troublesome ‘specters’ who fail to conform to the legislator’s rational, biopolitical plan…
…Sollicciano is one of the few Italian prisons in which a
tertium genus of incarceration, not provided for by law, has been informally established. The second consideration is the high percentage of non-EU inmates housed in Section D, and the predominance, within this group, of Latin-American inmates, with a significant majority of Brazilians. The last consideration, which lies at the heart of our study and defines its theoretical and practical framework, is the necessity of interpreting the complex relationship between law and gender, and prison and gender. This ‘critical triangle’ defines the object of our study: the theoretical and practical interrelation of law, gender, and rights.”
Trans Detention Experience in the UK
Government estimates of numbers are vastly under-reported. 20-30 is just the tip of the iceberg when there are around 10 in one county alone, to my knowledge, and often 2 or more in each prison, and there are 136 prisons, 82,000 male inmates and 4,000 female inmates. Based upon typical trans statistics that would indicate a few hundred trans inmates, at least. Self-inflicted deaths in custody this year number 43, at least 2 of which were trans, 5% of the total from a population of perhaps 0.5% of inmates (less than 1 in 2000 according to the Government, 0.05%), so at least 10-100x more likely to take one’s life when imprisoned in facilities not matching their gender identity.
Trans and prison reform activists petitioned the Government for over a decade before the PSI 07/2011 Care and Management of Transsexual Prisoners guidance (March 2011) was brought in. I met with prison officers in the few years leading up to that and found that some were taking common sense into their own hands already and in one instance allowing trans women, both pre and post-op, to be moved to the female estate. That, it is not being followed fully 4 years on is a scandal that has led to several high profile deaths in custody.
“Law enforcement officials have a long history of targeting, punishing and criminalising people who do not conform to gender norms. As feminist criminologists have shown, for example, women who fail to conform to femininity norms are often policed and punished more harshly in the criminal justice system than those who adhere more closely to societal gender expectations (Carlen, 1983, 1985; Heidensohn, 1996). Likewise, traditional norms around masculinity and femininity still operate as key modes of discipline, power and regulation within carceral settings (Sim, 1994; Carrabine and Longhurst, 1998; Crewe, 2006). Although the role of gender norms within the penal system is widely recognised, little attention has been paid to their specific impact on transgender people.”
A transgender prisoner was discovered dead in her cell at an all-male prison, the BBC reports. Joanne Latham, 38, serving life for three attempted murders, was found hanging by a prison officer at HMP Woodhill (category A) in Milton Keynes in the early hours of Friday 27 November. That she was a patient at the secure Rampton Hospital in 2011 and in the prison’s Close Supervision Centre (CSC) evidences her mental health issues. She had apparently only publicly identified as female this year.
Transgender woman Tara Hudson was moved from a men’s to women’s prison after protests. She was imprisoned for assaulting a bar manager. She had been living full-time for 6 years as a woman since the age of 20. She was released this week.
Jackie Brooklyn, Tara’s mother said on her release:
“Hopefully she will heal in time, but it will have a lasting effect. There needs to be a change in the law and the way prisons deal with transgender inmates in general. We had a letter from Tara’s doctor confirming that she has lived her whole adult life as a woman, but it was completely ignored. Relying on what a passport says is a silly way to decide where people belong.”
A petition that called for Tara Hudson to serve her sentence in a women’s prison attracted 159,000 signatures. At the same time another petition by Cardiff University SU Women’s Officer, Rachael Melhuish, wanted to no-platform Germaine Greer from speaking due to her transmisogynistic views.
Greer’s view has been labelled as radical by those feminists who embrace intersectionality, but Hudson’s treatment at the hands of the Prison Service shows the opposite. If anything, Greer’s disdain is indicative of how we view transgender people as a society. By denying Hudson the right to serve her time in a female prison, our legal system is entirely aligned with statements from Greer such as “Just because you lop off your penis… it doesn’t make you a woman.” – Ella Griffiths inThe Independent
Prison reform is what is needed as society moves forward to accepting people outside the binary. HMP/MoJ would have the same problems with non-binary people, some intersex people, as well as trans people at varying points in transition. Italy tried to solve the problem with a specialist trans prison unit. America is considering the same. Rather than 23hrs solitary which is cruel and inhuman, care and planning needs to go into how to house people who do not confirm for their safety. Prisoners still have human rights even if some civil rights are suspended. Trans people also need to be able to have the conversation with some feminists that also argue a pre-op trans may present a risk to a female prison population, or even if no risk, still present an issue. Indeed, the trans person may still be at risk there.
The USA’s second biggest discount retailer, Target, announced on 7 August that it was doing away with gender-based signs in store. Phasing out where inappropriate and where needs had changed is more the case, as the corporate press release says:
“…shopping preferences and needs change and, as guests have pointed out, in some departments like Toys, Home or Entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary.
We heard you, and we agree. Right now, our teams are working across the store to identify areas where we can phase out gender-based signage to help strike a better balance. For example, in the kids’ Bedding area, signs will no longer feature suggestions for boys or girls, just kids. In the Toys aisles, we’ll also remove reference to gender, including the use of pink, blue, yellow or green paper on the back walls of our shelves.”
Historic criticism of Target’s gendered products
A tweet by Abi Bechtel, 2 months ago showing a Target store with separate signage for “Building Sets” and “Girls’ Building Sets” went viral on Twitter with over 3,000 retweets to date:
In an interview at the weekend Bechtel said she hadn’t expected to be at the centre of the discussion about gender:
“I didn’t expect it to become the center of this entire discussion about gender and the way toys are marketed. But Caitlyn Jenner’s pictures had just come out. And the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage came out soon after. So there was a whole lot of discussion about gender and gender roles anyway. The tweet just landed at the right time.”
Furthermore, last year, they were criticised for their gendered pajamas range – superheroes for boys and “I only date heroes” for girls. If this is Target’s PR response, great. Change often comes about after being caught red-handed in some way.
“We are done. No more Target.
To remove one of the very thing that makes us all unique . To stuff all children into the same box. What’s next we all get a number instead of a name? Part of our beautiful God given identity is in our gender.
You are losing a lot of people with your madness.”
Clearly not getting that offering children only 2 gendered boxes hardly makes them unique whereas offering no boxes or labels at all gives them infinite beautiful freedom to be creative in their expression, play, and development. Sigh!
For every shopper they lose they’ll gain one like Tonya Hardin:
“Thank you, Target. Thank you for being you, and for reminding the rest of us (especially our children) that it’s okay for them to be themselves, too. In the face of adversity, you’ve stood up for what you believe, and I respect that wholeheartedly. I rarely ever shopped at Target before, but I plan to start now. You may have lost some people, but that’s one customer gained in exchange. Thanks, again. My girls can’t wait to see the new toy section!”
“Fourteen UK retailers have agreed to drop boys and girls signs since our campaign began in late 2012. It’s heartening to see that stores in the US are now following suit.
This change is part of an overall shift in retailers’ approach. Our research found a 60% drop in the use of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ signs in UK toy stores between 2012 and 2013, and a 46% drop in the use of gender categories for toys on websites between 2012 and 2014.”
A US blog that aims to educate people on”how marketing, sexualization, gender stereotypes, and body image impact childhood” was very pleased to hear the news:
“all it will take is one of the retailing giants to be bold enough to deviate from status quo and the rest will fall like dominoes”
A parent and writer for TIME Magazine called it “just the tip of the iceberg” and suggested to parents that:
“Just because your son wants a My Little Pony bedspread does not mean he’s gay. Just because your daughter wants a bug collecting kit doesn’t mean she’s transgender. And if your children don’t identify with the gender binary, that’s OK. Gender identity has nothing to do with signage in a store. Maybe you should consider backing off and loving the wonderful being you created whether they are homosexual, or queer, or transgender, or straight. Whether they like pink or blue or yellow or polka dots.”
“For Him, For Her” product labeling is binary and patronising, and in an age that has accepted transgender Big Brother winners and TV-series stars, same-sex marriage and intersex athletes, it’s time we stopped the pseudo-division between his and her, boys and girls, and let life be life, and stuff, well… be simply stuff.
Earlier this year, the UK department store Selfridges began trialling agender clothing. Moves across everything from toys to clothes are needed to both ease and keep up with the gender-free and genderqueer nature of many growing up in these more enlightened times. That said, narrow-minded binary responses such as “boys are boys and girls are girls” still abound, but are slowly being drowned out by progress.
‘He, She, Me’: an exclusive track by Devonté Hynes and Neneh Cherry, commissioned by Selfridges who launched their agender clothing range in 2015:
It is with great sadness, therefore, that I’ve seen reports of yet more trans suicides in America, not dissimilar to Leelah Alcorn who took her life at the end of 2014. That at least three trans teens took their lives, in the US alone, during February, is a measure of how far LGBT education still has to go.
Another 13 year old trans boy, Damien Strum, ended up in a psych ward after also trying to take his life. Although the facts surrounding this particular teen are somewhat hard to confirm and any privacy should be respected.
On Instagram, Damien had shared, like Leelah Alcorn had, about wanting schools to provide better gender education “of all the other genders”. Leelah has said, “Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better“.
A blog post entitled “Let Him Dance” is subtitled “Protecting Gender Expansive Youth” and encourages us that:
“We need to stop viewing gender as a binary, because some young people don’t have those easy answers, and they deserve to feel safe and confident in themselves and the people around them. No matter what. Gender is a spectrum. It’s not black and white. There is no ‘opposite’ gender; the binary concept fails to capture the rich variation that exists within gender identity…Every single young person who is fighting to define themselves — trans kids, queer kids, gender fluid kids — need to be protected. They need to belong.”
Over LGBT History Month I had several opportunities to speak in schools, a university and elsewhere educating and raising awareness of LGBTIQ experiences. I especially drew attention to young people’s LGBTQ identities, often asexual, bisexual, genderfluid and outside the binary or with newer MOGAI (Minority Orientations Genders and Intersex) labels that many older gay, lesbian and trans people might struggle to recognise – indeed, I had to research many of them myself.
“I need to know that I am loved and accepted and believed in, and that life has a point and I will find it someday. That’s just getting harder and harder to believe.” — A gender-expansive youth documented by Human Rights Campaign
Zander Nicholas Mahaffey, 15, Georgia
Zander, born Sandra, by his own admission, was a young trans teen, male identified, so a boy. He was just 5’2″ in height and that bothered him. As with many young queer tumblr generation teens he was clued up on his self-identified labels, describing himself as “panromantic-asexual”:
“my name’s zander. I’m trans and here to win. 15|He/Him|GA|♓”
Tumblr Suicide Note
If you’re still reading this it’s probably too late for a trigger warning about suicide (not to mention sexual assault). Having attempted to take my own life on more than one occasion I’ve no problem reading about this, and see writing and talking about it as essential, not something to avoid, but I understand that it can be triggering for some, more often than not the siblings and families left behind.
That said, what follows is some parts of Zander’s suicide note, that like Leelah Alcorn’s was timed for a delayed tumblr release:
“I don’t know why I’m writing this now, it just feels like a good time. I’ve kept holding off from doing this since it’s probably gonna be long. It’s surreal right? And if I publish this (or don’t delete it from my queue, I should say) then that means I’m dead.”
“Dad, I’m sorry but your “little girl” isn’t a little girl. I’m a boy, in my heart. And no, that doesn’t mean I want to play football.”
Apart from gender dysphoria, a lot of Zander’s pain seems to stem from a known person sexual assault and family psychological abuse that he describes.
He left behind several messages for friends and romantic partners, telling them they weren’t to blame. In amongst one such note, he wrote:
“I’m weak, I’m battered and bruised and I’m tired of fighting.”
I know that feeling. Sometimes suicide is not about the sum total of life to date, but the last straw, the exhaustion of struggling to survive another day, with no let up in both internal feelings and external circumstances. Often, it is no single thing, but a combination of factors, and a feeling of powerlessness to change them and the solitude of facing them alone.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough, that I gave up. But I just couldn’t, I couldn’t take it anymore. I am a hypocrite, I’ve talked many of people out of suicide before but yet here I am. Or, here I was.
I’m not noble, I’m not really trying to make this mean something huge. I’m just a coward who wanted to cut my strings and be free from my troubles. Here marks the end of Zander, a meme enthusiast and, friend? I guess.
I can’t say I’m not a little bit afraid of dying, but we all are. It’s the fear of the unknown. Perhaps there is another world waiting for me, perhaps I will be reborn into something, or maybe I’ll just stop existing. Maybe I would be a ghost that would be cool don’t you think? I have no clue, like with everything else in my life I’ll just wing it.
So this is the end? I’m over 3,000 words now. Time will go on, hopefully no one will be too bothered from me for too long. Just continue as you normally would be, that is what I want.
I’m selfish, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry that I only think about myself in this situation. I know there’s going to be people hurt and devastated by this. And I’m so, so, sorry about that. I don’t know what else to say. I’m just so tired, I’m so tired and I just want to go to sleep.”
I recognise so many of those feelings, as much as suicide helplines exist, empathic Samaritans, even closest friends are out there, the darkness of dysphoric depression, ache of social anxieties, are best understood by those that have been there. Family and domestic and sexual violence issues are something more broadly faced and understood. But nobody can be there for you 24/7 – and if anybody is, it would probably be your family, not much help if they are part of the problem and not part of the solution.
The American Institute for Suicide Prevention found that 46% of trans men and 42% of trans women have attempted to take their own lives. Furthermore, 57% of transgender people were found to have been denied and excluded by family members. 50-54% experienced bullying in school.
In the UK 48% of trans people under 26 attempt suicide (2014) and some 43% in Canada (2012).
Whilst Leelah Alcorn found herself misgendered in death by close family, the funeral service, school and some news media outlets, a more aware Zander had probably learned from her situation and thus writes to two friends, Gabby and Katie:
“I want to ask of you both (especially you, Gabby) is to make sure if there are any memorials for me I want you both to make sure my right name and pronouns are used.”
Sadly, but not unsurprisingly, the family chose to use birth names and pronouns in the funeral and tombstone arrangements, as confirmed by a teenage friend present at the funeral. It seems supportive families of trans children are still the exception not the rule.
In response thousands took to twitter with the hashtag campaign #HisNameWasZander. Friends and supporters also put together a memorial blog on tumblr.
Melonie Rose, 19, Maryland
Also last month, Melonie Rose, aged 19, a transwoman of colour, took her own life. Rather than rewrite what someone has written so well already, check out Dominick Evans’s report here. Dominick is a trans man and friend of Hunter, another trans man friend of Melonie’s, from whom much of the information about her life, death and misgendered memorial are drawn. #HerNameWasMelonie
Ash Haffner, 16, North Carolina
After years of bullying, particularly after cutting his hair short and changing his name legally to that of his male gender identity, 16-year-old Ash Haffner stepped into traffic, like Leelah Alcorn, and ended his life on 26 February.
Ash’s mother told WSOC-TV that “Ash started enduring the most bullying when she cut her hair short.”
Whilst his mother was supportive of his transition she admitted to struggling with pronouns and still called him ‘she’ but did refer to him as Ash rather than by his birth name of Ashlyn.
“Please be WHO YOU ARE… Do it for yourself. Do it for your happiness. That’s what matters in YOUR life. You don’t need approval on who you are. Don’t let people or society change who you are just because they’re not satisfied with your image.”
Some people have warned of the risk of copycat suicides and suicide clusters but more worrying is the similarity of lived experiences of transphobia and family struggles to accept – conquering these, “fixing society” as Leelah Alcorn called for, would bypass any likelihood of contagious exit strategies.
Research on the possible factors leading to multiple suicide events has concluded that it is not media coverage in general but certain specific elements, which the Washington Post has reported on here, although calling it a suicide epidemic is unnecessarily alarmist.
The focus should be on creating supportive environments at home, school and in society, not creating a blame culture on social media – the very place that is often the only place some trans teens can go to for support – although it can often be a place of online bullying too.
It has been clearly demonstrated that parental attitudes have a huge impact on the mental wellbeing of transgender youth and according to a 2012 Canadian report, can lead to a:
“93% reduction in reported suicide attempts for youth who indicated their parents were strongly supportive of their gender identity and expression”
Without that support, some 57% of young trans people attempted suicide, even higher than the averaged-out figure for trans of all ages and domestic backgrounds.
“Ross” is a short video telling of the trials of being an FTM teen in a school and family environment.
Gender identity can be a matter of life and death, not an academic gender critical ideology, but a real lived – and sometimes died, gender dysphoria. #TransLivesMatter
Helplines in the USA
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Project Lifeline: 1-866-488-7386
Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860
Historically, during the UK’s LGBT History Month, Stonewall (England and Wales) has announced that after months of meetings and “extensive consultation with over 700 trans people” that it will now actively campaign for trans rights and educate across the whole of LGBT.
“This change marks a significant moment in Stonewall’s history…This is an exciting but huge undertaking – we recognise that we are not instant experts, and will work closely with the trans community to achieve real change for LGBT people.” – Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall
Just as Stonewall plays historic catch-up and apology, others are debating the inclusion of more letters in the LGBT alphabet soup. So it was good that Stonewall also had engagements, one of which I was present at, with people who are intersex and/or non-binary, whether they identified as trans or not.
Ruth said: “We recognise that there is no universal experience of being trans”, so it is good that the trans* spectrum rather than stereotype is being explored.
At present, intersex inclusion is some way off, but engagement continues to take place, and Stonewall will help facilitate intersex campaigners and ensure that it itself says nothing about intersex without reference to UK intersex organisations and individuals first.
Another long standing grievance with Stonewall has been bisexual silence and thus tacit erasure. This too, has been addressed this month, with more conclusions to follow.
“Stonewall no longer needs to maintain a strict distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity….[but] we would have to work hard to make sure that people understood the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation.”
In an interview with PinkNews, to be published later today, Ms Hunt said:
“I am absolutely committed to creating a world through Stonewall where everyone has the right to be themselves, where everyone can be who they want to be, and I think that the artificial divide between trans and sexual orientation hasn’t been particularly helpful in the kind of disagreements that we have had, so I wanted to move it forward.”
LGBT, Bullying, Education and Schools
Perhaps, now, with Stonewall’s help weighing in on Government and education, we might see an improvement to sex education and anti-bullying training and measures that are inclusive of trans and gender non-conforming individuals, and not just homophobic bullying awareness. Indeed, anti-transphobic bullying campaigns and education about gender dysphoria needs to take place at an age before even sexual orientation becomes an issue, since gender identity is often felt by age 7.
Responses to the news
Meanwhile, some in the gay and lesbian communities have questioned the addition of trans. For instance, in the Pink News article comments:
“I’ve just cancelled my monthly donation to Stonewall as it’s clear they now have more money that they need. Gender and sexual orientation are wholly different.” – Steve
Other leading gay and lesbian figures including Paul Burston and Julie Bindel have previously commented that they can’t see the need of campaigning and including trans, and that at best lesbian and gay should stick together or indeed also work independently of each other. They regard LGBT as a letter too far and any other letters beyond that as weird and ridiculous.
Divided we fall, united we stand
Many of these changes are down to the hard work and great mediating of CEO, Ruth Hunt, who made these engagements a prerequisite of taking on the job after Ben Summerskill stepped down. She spoke to the Guardian on the first day of that new job:
“We are at quite an important tipping point in terms of trans equality, and we are looking at how we can best support and maximise that tipping point… Any change needs to be led by the trans community… we are very open to taking whatever direction will be in the best interest of [that] community” – Ruth Hunt
In just over 6 months she has begun the fulfilment of those promises, and today is indeed historical – but never needed to have been. Trans were among the first participants in LGBT rights and demonstrations since the Stonewall Inn riots, but were sidelined and erased from early gay rights history. Correcting that now, is long overdue, but nonetheless appreciated.
“This change marks a significant moment in Stonewall’s history. As a community we can achieve much more by standing together.“ – Ruth Hunt
This is very definitely a step forward and step away from the past. Some historic grievances may have to be laid to rest and a trans/bi-Stonewall amnesty declared to see this as a good thing for all, particularly as Stonewall are a narrow remit organisation involved in education, government and business equality monitoring and lobbying, not a support organisation or legal advocacy one, thus there is plenty of room for grassroots trans organisations to continue the great work they are doing.
Free Speech or Hate Speech?
This comes at a crucial time in the UK since twitter storms, blogs and facebook arguments are raging over trans rights to self-identify and the question of whether it’s free speech or hate speech to question that right and trans access to cis-gender spaces. (‘cis’ means non-trans, and is not a word I personally like, nor is accepted by many ‘cis people’ who simply consider themselves non-trans and comfortable with their birth sex identity.)
Century-old Oxford Street department store Selfridges, second only to Harrods in size, and bought by Sears in 1965, has made history again. In 1911 it was the biggest bookshop in the world. In 2013 ITV dramatised its early story in the TV series “Mr Selfridge”, currently on its third series.
Only now, 106 years after it was founded, Mr Selfridge is becoming Mx Selfridge. Gender neutral, agender and non-binary is the way at least 3 floors of the store are going in 2015 to include 5 unisex brands and other individual agendered clothing items drawn from dozens of other makers. One wonders whether they will additionally introduce unisex toilets?
This will affect not only clothing but beauty products as well. Clothing ranges are also said to be going mannequin free. Selfridges contains the world’s largest shoe department, will it now be sporting size 10 stilettos and size 3 Oxfords and Brogues?
Selfridges was a supporter of universal women’s suffrage and ran adverts in the movement’s magazine “Votes for Women”. The early feminist radicals repaid that patronage by both shopping at Selfridges and sometimes organising from there.
The irony of increased freedom alongside commercial consumerism has not been lost on some, and yet,
“there was a healthy emancipatory element in the empowered shopper’s gift of choice… Because for good or bad choice and freedom are fundamentally connected. The greater choice women gained the more power they also had over how they were able to live their lives… What those early feminists realised was that popular culture could be subversive.” – Network Norwich opinion
In the 1930s Selfridges was ahead of the times, again, with an all-female Gun Club on its roof, something copied by others later in the decade.
In 1966 Selfridges launched Miss Selfridge as a youthful spin-off brand, which was subsequently acquired from Sears by Philip Green and the Arcadia Group in 1999. Initially, their mannequins were modeled on 1960s fashion icon Twiggy. As a result of its independent ownership and brand Miss Selfridge remains gendered.
A Selfridges statement, as reported in The Times, said:
“We want to take our customers on a journey where they can shop and dress without limitations or stereotypes… A space where clothing is no longer imbued with directive gender values, enabling fashion to exist as a purer expression of ‘self.”’
The phrase “the customer is always right” originated with Selfridges, and gender neutral shopping, where clothes can be clothes, has been requested by many a feminist and/or LGBTI shopper.
I well remember buying a pair of Levi’s in the 1980s from the “wrong” gender display because the ones that fitted were 29″ waisted in a fit for the ‘the other’ gender label – as was politely pointed out to me at the till. Not only that, but they were also £5 cheaper for exactly the same style. To buy the pair meant for my then gender meant paying more and suffering from a baggy waist as they didn’t even begin until a size larger than I actually was.
Gender neutral shopping and clothing will aid many LGBTI, non-binary, and genderqueer, youth explore and express themselves with less fear and embarrassment.
Routine gender is thus being thrown away. Whether this is a cultural or commercial experiment, or both, one hopes it will inspire other stores to become less gendered. That doesn’t mean no more gender, but rather more genders and none, since those happy with his and her are not being replaced but supplemented by hes and hir, xe and ze etc. This is a welcome addition, not a total replacement. I don’t want to see gender disappear like some Star Trek jumpsuit identity, but I do want people to see that identities outside or across the so-called binary do exist, and options for those people, an increasingly visual and vocal section of society, be made.
On Sunday morning in Ohio, USA, whilst many were attending church, an unnecessary tragedy struck. 17-year-old teenager Leelah Alcorn, took her own life. Whilst some reported it as an accident – including her family, her death on I-71 by a trailer truck was clearly suicide by her own admission on her Tumblr blog (now deleted at her parent’s request but accessible by web archive). It was sadly preventable.
Within days of her death on 28 December she has set the world alight in terms of trans activism, vigils, messages and memorials of sympathy, petitions of change, Facebook campaigns, Twitter trending hashtags, blogs and comments deleted, backed up, reported, reposted. There has also been, what can only be described as “hate”.
Transphobic Hate, Anger at Leelah’s Parents
The calls for criminal charges and invective targeted at her parents may be understandable but in the immediate period of grief perhaps misguided and inappropriate, for now at least.
She will certainly never now be forgotten and may trigger a change in the very society she sought to “fix”.
Leelah herself regarded her domestic situation as “shitty parenting” not criminal abuse, others might disagree and regard the things that happened, as outlined below, as abusive.
Reaching out for help via Reddit
After coming out to her parents, she had her Internet access revoked and laptop removed, but upon their return (after submitting to reparative Christian therapy) she began to reach out on social media again. Whilst her Tumblr blog suicide note made the news after her death she had previously posted in the Reddit asktrangender community, at the end of October:
I really need help.
Hi, I’m Leelah, 16 and MtF/dmab. Ever since I was around 4 or 5 I knew I was a girl, just like most of the lovely ladies on here, but I didn’t actually understand that it was possible to successfully change genders until I was 14. As soon as I found out what transgender meant, I came out to my mom. She reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong, and it felt awful.
She then proceeded to tell my Dad without my consent, and they were both extremely angry with me. They never physically hurt me, but they always talked to me in a very derogatory tone. They would say things like “You’ll never be a real girl” or “What’re you going to do, fuck boys?” or “God’s going to send you straight to hell”. These all made me feel awful about myself, I was christian at the time so I thought that God hated me and that I didn’t deserve to be alive. I cut myself at least once every couple days, and I was constantly thinking about suicide.
I wanted to see a gender therapist but they wouldn’t let me, they thought it would corrupt my mind. The would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl.
Eventually I lied to them and told them I was straight and that I was a boy, and then the derogatory speech and neglect started to fade. I tried my absolute hardest to live up to their standards and be a straight male, but eventually I realized that I hated religion and my parents. I came out as gay in school, hoping to ease my friends into the whole LGBT thing before I came out as trans. Although my friends reactions were mostly positive my parents were beyond pissed. They took me out of public school, took away my phone and computer, and wouldn’t let me on social media websites, so I was out of contact with any of my friends. I was like this for 5 months, completely and utterly alone. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone outside of church and I wasn’t allowed to be with any of my friends, I just had to stay in my house and be quiet.
Eventually they came around and gave me my phone back, but they heavily monitored my facebook/twitter/tumblr profiles in case I did anything “stupid” again. Although I got my friends back I wasn’t allowed to talk to them about anything LGBT.”
“I’m sure someone on here can convince me not to kill myself…Can someone please give me a reason to live”
It is clear from the wider context of her post that Prozac anti-depressants were not helping what should have been a case of referring someone to a Gender Identity clinic or specialist. That, unfortunately, was not something with the worldview of her Christian parents who preferred to send her for “conversion therapy“.
Trans Positive Parenting
It has been clearly demonstrated that parental attitudes have a huge impact on the mental wellbeing of transgender youth and according to a 2012 Canadian report, can lead to a:
“93% reduction in reported suicide attempts for youth who indicated their parents were strongly supportive of their gender identity and expression”
Without that support, some 57% of young trans people attempted suicide, even higher than the averaged-out figure for trans of all ages and domestic backgrounds. (See below for more on suicide risks)
Leelah was born Joshua and went by Josh too. That is the name and gender by which her parents still knew her, despite her protestations and requests to be allowed to transition after her 16th birthday.
Her mother posted on Facebook, but upon the press contacting them about Joshua also being Leelah – which the family confirmed, they requested privacy, and have now made their profile private blocking access to the following post:
“My sweet 16-year-old son, Joshua Ryan Alcorn went home to heaven this morning. He was out for an early morning walk and was hit by a truck. Thank you for the messages and kindness and concern you have sent our way. Please continue to keep us in your prayers”
Whilst Leelah herself left another Tumblr note, an apology to certain friends, it did not include her mum and dad and explicitly said:
“Mom and Dad: Fuck you. You can’t just control other people like that. That’s messed up.”
I understand the frustration and the pain that led to her suicide, and nothing excuses parental non-acceptance of their own child. Certain behaviours they may not be accepting of, certain identities they may not understand – my own took years to understand, but accepted and loved me from the outset of coming out.
The cries of “murderers” and “evil” seen on some news and social media comments, are “unhelpful“, though. Many parents have become LGBTI advocates after experiences such as these. The grief of losing a child is still losing a child, whether you accepted their gender or not. Certainly, they could have diminished the likelihood and reduced the family factor leading up to the loss of life, but suicide very often has multiple causations, as I know only too well. Family and faith were factors, but society, friends, and not being able to see any future happy outcome as male or female, also contributed.
Religious repression and Christian confusion
I can understand from personal experience that it takes time for family to come around to a name change, let along a gender change, and the accompanying pronouns, but Leelah’s parents were doubly burdened, it would seem, by their personal faith – they were Christians. Whilst there are some inclusive Christian groups out there, in the UK, for example, the Metropolitan Church, Changing Attitude, Greenbelt festival, there are even Accepting Evangelicals, many would regard a transgender Christian as an oxymoron. I experienced attempts to “pray away the gay“, exorcise the trans demon, heal and cure my “twisted” gender – as it was termed by a charismatic Christian healer, who was also an Ob/Gyn consultant.
I know it is hard, too, for believers to step away from the idea that since “God does not make mistakes“, gender is somehow fixed. I theologically tortured myself, repenting and repressing my gender dysphoric identity for decades. I prayed – when I believed, for God to take away the “curse” of being trans. I too tried suicide on more than one occasion. My psychiatrist called me “the most reluctant transsexual he’d ever met” because of my own religious repression.
I know people currently or previously involved in Christian reparative therapy, some willingly undergo it, only for them to revert to their true nature (trans or gay) later – sometimes called ex-ex-gay and ex-ex-trans. Neither ex-gay conversion therapy nor psychotherapies to prevent gender transition are endorsed by UK or US psychiatric and psychological professional bodies, eg. APA, AMA, APA, BACP, BPS, UKCP etc. It is hard to outlaw it completely if some people actively seek it. Many in those circles call it “unwanted same sex attraction”, the unwanted bit gives them pseudo-legitimacy to offer it. In Leelah’s case it was very definitely imposed, and an unwanted intervention.
Quite rightly, a call to reign in “conversion therapy” was made at the London vigil for Leelah, by Sarah Brown, the full text of her speech can be read here.
“presumably … the conversion therapist assured them [the parents] that their therapy could “fix” their child and turn Leelah into the dutiful straight cisgender son they wanted. That the trans feelings could be “cured” … We have known for a long time that conversion therapy, whether it be aimed at changing gender identity or sexuality does not work. We also now know that if a trans person has stated the need to transition, and things are done to block them, there is a better than evens chance that they will try to kill themselves.”
Trans Suicide note left on Tumblr
Leelah’s suicide note showed up on the social media site Tumblr along with some personal posts on scheduled release. It began:
“If you are reading this, it means that I have committed suicide and obviously failed to delete this post from my queue.”
“Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender. I could go into detail explaining why I feel that way, but this note is probably going to be lengthy enough as it is. To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally “boyish” things to try to fit in.
When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.
My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.
When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart. The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn’t receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep.
I formed a sort of a “fuck you” attitude towards my parents and came out as gay at school, thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as trans it would be less of a shock. Although the reaction from my friends was positive, my parents were pissed. They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight christian boy, and that’s obviously not what I wanted.
So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.
At the end of the school year, my parents finally came around and gave me my phone and let me back on social media. I was excited, I finally had my friends back. They were extremely excited to see me and talk to me, but only at first. Eventually they realized they didn’t actually give a shit about me, and I felt even lonelier than I did before. The only friends I thought I had only liked me because they saw me five times a week.
After a summer of having almost no friends plus the weight of having to think about college, save money for moving out, keep my grades up, go to church each week and feel like shit because everyone there is against everything I live for, I have decided I’ve had enough. I’m never going to transition successfully, even when I move out. I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say “it gets better” but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.
That’s the gist of it, that’s why I feel like killing myself. Sorry if that’s not a good enough reason for you, it’s good enough for me. As for my will, I want 100% of the things that I legally own to be sold and the money (plus my money in the bank) to be given to trans civil rights movements and support groups, I don’t give a shit which one. The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
(Leelah) Josh Alcorn
Leelah’s feelings are both unique and somewhat typical. I resonate and empathise having experienced something similar. In my case it was my own Christian fundamentalism that kept me down, my Anglican parents were none the wiser, and unlike Leelah, I didn’t discover the word transgender till my 20s, even then, that was before social media and Internet support groups.
Transgender Suicide Stats
Her desire for her death to mean something, “to be counted”, not just as a statistic, but an individual life, that should not have been added to the toll of trans deaths by murder or suicide that is already way too high.
She remarked, and it is worth repeating:
“My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society.”
Transgender suicide stats are horrific. I co-spoke with a psychiatric medical director at an NHS seminar on “Gender, Sex and Mental Health” less than 2 weeks ago. Putting up a PowerPoint slide that reports trans young people as 8x more likely to attempt suicide than other teens, and that that figure is 48%, is enough – or at least should be, to stop an audience in its tracks, and for someone to cry “enough!”
The reality is that repeated surveys in the UK, US and Canada, show figures of 32-48% trying suicide to end their dysphoria and felt-rejection by family, partners and society. Up to 80% consider suicide but don’t act on it. In the UK alone, 30% of trans under the age of 26 had attempted suicide in the past 12 months.
The most recent US statistics were published earlier this year:
“The prevalence of suicide attempts among respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, is 41 percent, which vastly exceeds the 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population who report a lifetime suicide attempt, and is also higher than the 10-20 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide.”
News reporting of Trans stories
It has long been a bugbear of trans persons that many newspapers and websites will report a trans story using the wrong pronouns, focusing on tales and pictures of before and after, or erase our identities and histories in some other way.
Local news sites were still misgendering Leelah – if they even mentioned her female identity, and ignoring her social media suicide note, hours after people online had caught up with the facts. It seems both the family and media outlets were in denial about her being trans. The main local reporting on WCPO took nearly 2 days to post an editorial update after 3 stories had already aired about “Joshua’s accident”.
Editor’s note: WCPO.com posted an update to this story on Tuesday. The update connects Joshua Alcorn to a blog post by a “Leelah” Alcorn in which Leelah says she was transgender and committed suicide.
Finally the WCPO news source reported about Leelah rather than, or at least, as well as Joshua, within the last few hours. Further updates and later news stories were now acknowledging that Joshua preferred to be called Leelah and termed her Leelah Joshua Alcorn and managed the tightrope walk of journalistic caution by subsequently calling her just Alcorn but now using female pronouns. Not all related stories had been fully updated though.
A supportive feature on Cincinnati.com included an interview with a friend and fellow young teen artist, Abigail Jones, to whom Leelah came out as trans last July. Abigail described Leelah as “super bubbly and upbeat, with a really brash sense of humor; she could make anyone laugh”.
Of all papers, the Daily Mail, in the UK ran a properly gendered article about her suicide, using respectful and correct – as per her self-identification, pronouns.
Positive political support came from Chris Seelbach, Cincinnati City Council’s first openly-gay elected politician, who wrote about Leelah on his Facebook page, re-shared some 16,000 times:
“Cincinnati led the country this past year as the first city in the mid-west to include transgender inclusive health benefits and we have included gender identity or expression as a protected class for many years….the truth is….it is still extremely difficult to be a transgender young person in this country.”
He went on to appeal for donations as an “investment in our trans kids” for TransOhio.org. Many other trans support groups in the US have been listed on a Storify post.
High School Memorial
As Joshua, Leelah’s former school offered a memorial and counselling advice. “Beloved Son, Brother, Friend – 1997-2014” was the inscription on the memorial meme. After complaints, it was removed but is still referenced here.
Some social media users created and circulated an alternate memorial of a “Beloved Daughter, Sister, Friend” instead, also citing Leelah’s last wishes.
Indeed, Facebook, Tumblr with tens of thousands of notes and reblogs, and Twitter were the primary sources of information, respect, and concern, these last 48 hours.
Of all the thousands of trans suicides worldwide each year it is Leelah’s that has struck a chord with people and reached the #1 trending topic on Twitter. Hopefully, enough to make a difference.
For all the flack social media gets it should be remembered that they can be a primary source of support for, especially young, trans people seeking help and advice. Leelah was forcibly deprived of access for months at a time, along with Christian therapy, to ween her off being trans, something that could not be done. Nonetheless, Leelah also realised that even social media friends may not be that deep, and with “hating herself” as she was and not seeing any future for herself as man or woman, she could not even be a friend to herself in her desperate isolation in the real, online , and her own internal worlds.
Public Memorials and Vigils
Various locations in Ohio, and elsewhere worldwide, are holding vigils to commemorate Leelah Alcorn, hundreds are set to go to each of them. Trafalgar Square in London, also hosted one on Saturday 3 January. Some of the pictures can be seen on the Facebook event wall.
Rowan Davis, one of the London vigil organisers, said of Leelah Alcorn that:
“Her death was a political death. When a member of our community is brutalised at the hands of oppression we must all fight back.”
The London vigil press release had four stated aims of the event:
To remember a life cut so short by someone that shared our struggles, a girl killed by systemic transmisogyny.
To remind people that her death was a political death, that when a member of our community is brutalised at the hands of oppression we must all fight back.
A reminder to other folks that we are more than just individuals in this struggle, that as a community we are stronger and that we can create positive change.
It is deeply saddening that Leelah’s parents are still refusing to give her the basic respect she deserves, even in death, and so the fourth purpose of this vigil is to do what they will not and mourn a sister.
My Chemical Romance – Musical Memorial
Ray Toro, former My Chemical Romance guitarist, has released “For The Lost and Brave“ and dedicated it to Leelah Alcorn. Reviews have described the simple poignant song as, “absolutely beautiful”, “giving assurance and comfort…really freaking good”, “perfectly articulate an alienated teenager’s perspective”.
The only true and lasting memorial would be if Leelah’s wishes in death were honoured, unlike her wishes in life. She wrote in her suicide note:
The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something.
This we can do. Can’t we? As families and individuals we can respect the human rights of a trans person to identify according to their felt-gender, preferred name, and requested pronouns. As Christians, churches, and other faiths, we can stop theological pathologisation of trans as somehow sinful – when in fact to be true to yourself is one of the highest forms of honesty and integrity.
Gender Identity Teaching in Primary School
As teachers, educators, and policy makers, we can make sure that “gender is taught in schools, the earlier the better”, something that I have been saying for years. I occasionally get to speak on gender in schools but never below the age of 15. Leelah was aware from 4 and convinced by 14.
Professor Stephen Whittle, OBE, should know as a trans man father of several kids, whom he and his wife and have been open about gender with. In a recent blog post he discussed how they had shared with even their 3 year old about gender being a best guess at birth subject to a child’s affirmation or change as they grow, it was simply and superbly put, and their other child’s response was “ok”:
“As the baby’s parents we make a guess – but it is only a guess. When the babies grow up, if it turns out to be the wrong guess, and either or both of them turn out to be boys, they will tell us. And then we can make the changes they would like us to make.”
Instead of only trying to eradicate homophobia and teach about homosexuality from puberty, given that gender identity is awake and aware from ages 3-8, gender “options” should be taught about earlier. I was aware by 5, yet had no language or option to discuss it and so closed up. Other studies have shown that the age of first gender realisations is 3-5, first transgender awareness on average around 7, and yet, coming out can take decades – that’s years of self-repression, often self-loathing, and, delays to and denials of being oneself – a basic human right, surely?
A basic human right that Leelah Alcorn was denied in life and in death, as she was buried and remembered by family under her male birth name in complete denial of her identity, though undeniable grief at her loss, in the main it seems due to their dogmatic evangelical faith.
If we don’t do something we will keep seeing more trans teen suicides. Indeed, in the 2 months after Leelah Alcorn took her life, at least 3 more US trans teens died from suicides and others tried but survived. These others have echoed the call for better and earlier gender education “about male and female and all the other genders”. Twitter campaigns via #HisNameWas… and #HerNameWas… have sought to affirm their names and gender in death as lasting memorials.