On the eve of BBC Question Time in Norwich, not just one political demo but two protests against the Government took place. One was anti-austerity/Tory and gathered outside The Open where filming was taking place.
The other was anti-Brexit whose centrepiece was a German carnival float with the sensitivity of a French Charlie Hebdo cover in the spirit of Spitting Image satire – how about that for European unity!
French artist but UK resident for 30 years, Laure Olivier Minns, drew attention to the sad state of the satirical statue, in an interview with the Norwich Evening News:
“Look at the state of her head already, it’s a sign that she isn’t strong and stable.” – Laure Ollivier Minns,EDP
The humour was not to everyone’s taste, and as someone who has experienced suicide attempts, I found the subject matter challenging. The image of Theresa May shooting herself in the mouth was meant to be about Britain committing political suicide by Brexit. Instead, the image was profoundly personal evoking strong reactions.
Perhaps, it should have been Britain shooting itself in the foot, rather than the mouth, it may even be seen as an own-goal. Some erstwhile Remainers refused to attend the rally as a result, others like myself had mixed feelings.
During the evening I had several conversations with passers-by about suicide but few about Brexit. One car driver stopped and said he agreed with what we were doing and supported Remain but having lost a family member to suicide found the imagery distasteful.
Another person found that it conjured up allusions of male-on-female violence. I critiqued that view and pointed out that male suicide by gun is a much higher figure than female suicide fatalities. Well, it created a debate, but perhaps not the one intended. Much as Antony Gormley’s recent rooftop-edge human sculptures up at UEA.
Laure defended the choice to bring the float to Norwich and use it as one expression among many of people’s feelings about Brexit. She said:
“The message is clear: BREXIT IS TOXIC. And that I guess is at least something we all agree on. So this May’s float might not be everyone’s cup of tea in terms of ‘bad taste’ for some, however, I truly believe that it is so important for FREEDOM OF SPEECH to be respected and protected.
Visuals such as the float or other creative means like some ingenious cartoons show humour through carrying angry voices and it is a way to soften anger too strong for words and at the same time be totally spot on in delivering a strong message. Humour is so important to cherish and use through tragedies and political dilemmas to also lighten up the atmosphere. Likewise many creative placards that are conveying strong messages through cartoons of sorts, make an important impact in seconds and make people smile relating to that message or/and provoke a reaction. So what? I think it should. It is a way to be heard.
We can’t expect everyone to agree on each of those creative means to carry our voice forward and it does not mean that the placard of Billy-next-door is a reflection on what we all stand for. We all have our own individual way of expression, shared by other groups or not, and we should remind ourselves that we are marching for the same goal: Pro-EU / stop Brexit > which are both about MAKING OUR VOICE HEARD whatever slogan one chose or art form used.”
Nonetheless, the satire also made the point that most provocative art and humour do, that life is sometimes messy and uncomfortable, opinions differ and divide; it was certainly a talking point – whether it was Remainers shooting themselves in the foot with a tactless float, or Brexiters committing political suicide, we’ll have to wait and see…
The float is currently on a British tour and arrived in Norwich on the same day as the BBC’s Question Time took place at The Open.
Satire or Serious Message?
Düsseldorf’s Karneval regularly features political satire but this year with Donald Trump, Netherlands’ Wilders, France’s Le Pen, Turkey’s Erdogan, along with Britain’s Brexit, there was plenty of material.
The stodgy stereotypical image of German humour is clearly way off the mark as these floats were right up Charlie Hebdo‘s street and could have walked off the Spitting Image TV set. Humour, like art, both protests and provokes. I hope the conversation shifts away from the rather visible satirical attack on Theresa May and instead remains about the political and personal damage that Brexit may do to European relations and EU nationals living here, as well as threats to Britain’s prosperity and cultural tapestry.
Norwich Anti-Austerity Protest
The serious message about austerity and cuts and their impact on the disabled, the poor, and the most vulnerable was also protested outside the BBC filming by Vince Laws, Jan McLachlan, Tim Hughes and many others.
“If the system cripples you, you must cripple the system” – Oscar Wilde
OK, so Vince made that one up, but the #fakenews quote got you thinking and googling its source! What Oscar Wilde did say was – “Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit”.
Kurt Cobain, was born in 1967, and died 23 years ago today. He flitted between narcissism, empathy, love and pain, trying to enjoy his life and simply be himself, but not feeling it, instead feeling everything else instead. He’d have been 50 now, just a month older than me. 5 years ago, I also attempted suicide, after a lifelong struggle with identity and feeling too much.
Whilst Cobain is in nirvana now, where are we 20+ years on? Still struggling for identity, as individuals, and a generation? Cobain struggled with being seen as the voice of a generation. His band, Nirvana, was labelled “the flagship band” of Generation X, and Cobain himself proclaimed as “the spokesman of a generation”, something that did not sit well with him.
Faking it, Being Someone Else
“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of who you are.” – Kurt Cobain
Cobain was trying to work out how to be himself amidst the pressures of fame, parental divorce, love and loss, and mental health conditions including bipolar mood swings between depression and mania, as described by his cousin, a nurse, who noted his childhood diagnosis of ADHD and as an adult Bipolar (unconfirmed?). Several relatives had also committed suicide in the same way.
He struggled to feel what he thought he was meant to feel or enjoy. He couldn’t fake the enjoyment of fame, or life itself.
“I’ve tried everything within my power to appreciate it” – Kurt Cobain, suicide note
“The worst crime is faking it.” – Kurt Cobain
Empathy and Fame
He mentioned empathy four times in his suicide note, and the struggle between feeling too much and yet not feeling anything – or what he thought was the right thing, at all.
“I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad. The sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus, man, ‘Why don’t you just enjoy it?’ I don’t know!” – Kurt Cobain, suicide note
Nirvana sold over 25 million albums in the US, and over 75 million worldwide, but fame and success do not fill the void. He hated the fame, and was envious of Freddie Mercury and how he seemed to relish it.
“We’re so trendy we can’t even escape ourselves…I really miss being able to blend in with people.” – Kurt Cobain
Reading, Writing & Lyrics
Cobain “occasionally took refuge in the counter-cultural writings of authors such as William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett and Charles Bukowski”. Yet, described himself as having the “tongue of an experienced simpleton”, and hating the Freudian analysis that people subjected his lyrics to. Another reason, to explore him in his own words, not the interpretation of others.
“I’m not well-read, but when I read, I read well.” – Kurt Cobain
“I like to have strong opinions with nothing to back them up with besides my primal sincerity. I like sincerity. I lack sincerity.” – Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain was seemingly bisexual, though gave mixed interviews on that side of his personal life, calling himself “gay for a while” yet “more sexually attracted to women”. As a teen he was arrested and fined $180 for graffitiing “Homosex Rules” on a wall. He once said, “I started being really proud of the fact that I was gay even though I wasn’t.” It is not clear if he ever consummated this part of his persona, despite saying:
“If I wouldn’t have found Courtney, I probably would have carried on with a bisexual lifestyle.” – Kurt Cobain
Whilst Generation Y, born early 80s to 2000, followed Cobain’s Generation X, we are now on the Gen Z cohort, born since the Millennium. A group happy to be neither gay nor straight, to question gender and express it fluidly.
Cobain wrote about women’s rights in his songs, including concerning the rape of a 14yo girl after a concert (not one of his).
“I definitely feel closer to the feminine side of the human being than I do the male – or the American idea of what a male is supposed to be.” – Kurt Cobain
“He was himself”
Canadian musician and writer, Dave Bidini, in an article for the National Post entitled “Kurt Cobain, who died 20 years ago today, wasn’t a hero, martyr or vampire. He was himself” ended with this comment:
“He looked like he didn’t care (because he didn’t) … His arms hang down and he turns sideways from the crowd, as if he’s trying not to be seen, even though 20 million people have their eyes trained on him. In a society where ‘bringing it’ and ‘all or nothing’ and ‘going for it’ are sicknesses pumped by fools who aspire to drive people apart rather than draw them together, Cobain’s sense of oblivion was, in a way, brave and confrontational, and that’s why he cracked even the hardest edifice and ate through misplaced pop culture like a creeping disease. In the end, he made an enormous impression for someone who wasn’t even there.” – Dave Bidini, National Post
Cobain did escape, “Rather be dead than cool”, others need not take that route if they can follow his other wisdom, to be yourself and find someone you can be yourself with and talk to.
Remember him alive though, here’s an awesome unplugged hour-long Kurt Cobain MTV concert in NYC November 1993 just months before his suicide, my favourite line of which was “like this is my third cup of tea already” – how Rock’n’Roll!
I will remember him, as much for the angst music of a tortured soul, as the desire to find and be himself, a journey I am also on, aren’t we all to a degree?
“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.” – Kurt Cobain
Every 29 hours a trans person is murdered in the world, 295 were reported up to this year’s annual 20 November Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). Most, some 85%, were in the Americas, but even in Europe, 5 were killed in each of Italy and Turkey. In Asia at least 11 across India and Pakistan. North America had 23 reported murders of transgender people, but Brazil had 123, ten times as many per capita. Honduras is, in fact, the most dangerous place per head of population, twice as bad as Brazil, with 89 people killed over 8 years of reporting. Over the last 8 years, some 52 trans people have been stoned to death – and not by ISIS, one just 3 weeks ago in Brazil; 630 were killed in the street, many as sex workers, but it begs the question about bystanders and communities not noticing or standing up as allies; one victim in Pakistan was refused medical treatment because she was trans, speeding her death.
These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg as statistics are based upon scouring news reports and some people may only be listed as a sex worker and/or their trans status not mentioned. Some may not have been killed because they were trans, but many were. Also, the numbers do not include the 33-50% of trans people who also try to take their own lives through suicide.
2264 Trans Lives lost Violently
Over 2008-2016 since the Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) TvT Project has been running, 2264 have been killed. By far the largest, 541 were sex workers, but 99 hairdressers and beauticians, 34 artists, and 25 activists were counted among the dead as well as 9 religious leaders.
Trans Awareness Week/Month
As an antidote, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in several talks and discussions during Trans Awareness Week, or even a full month being celebrated by some. UEA, my local university, was particularly busy with events on each day, in conjunction with other societies such as FemSoc and Pride. Events covered non-binary questions, trans student politics, Ava Rollason sharing her colourful life and journey, and the growth of diversity and even dissent within and towards trans* identities.
Trans Visibility without the Violence
Trans people have indeed reached a “tipping point” and yet that has not diminished their risk of harm – self, and assailant-based. With shockingly high suicide risks, 80% consider it, and 33-50% act on it, trans people are especially vulnerable, and now, especially visible.
With around 0.75 to 2.5% or more people identifying as transgender and/or non-binary, one interesting visualisation is that there could be on average around 250-1000 trans* people at each UK premiership football match.
Visibility without risk of violence is what trans people are seeking, although many would no doubt prefer a form of passing invisibility as opposed to a discriminatory erasure or prejudicial ignorance.
Many have called 2015 the year of transgender visibility, after 2014’s “transgender tipping point” but what does that make 2016? One hopes that whilst deaths and murders are on the rise, that also, acceptance, diversity, and rights, are also increasing, and the killings are a temporary peak and will subside as countries make healthcare and transition access easier and more affordable, reducing the risks of sex work as a means of paying for surgeries. It should be noted that the primary victims of trans violence are trans people of colour, and that Trans Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter should be trending side by side, particularly as they were at the forefront of the emergence of trans rights in the USA. This month we remember the dead, celebrate the living, and offer hope to transgender people all over the world, and stand against the hate that takes so many of our lives.
Over the last year, Brexit, Trump and the Right have been winners, the liberal Left losers this year. Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy is coming to the USA” is darkly ironic. Apart from Cohen, the arts world has also lost Alexis Arquette, David Bowie, Prince, Lou Reed, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder and many more including too many comedians, just yesterday, Napoleon Solo – Robert Vaughn. Cohen died aged 82, the day before the American Presidential Election. At least, he now joins 1960s partner Marianne, to whom he wrote shortly before her death a few months back:
“Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine…. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
So Long, Marianne, 1967
Cohen met Marianne Jensen on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, whilst seeking some healthy sun, as recommended by his dentist! A woman of wisdom and beauty, she captivated him and had recently been left by her Norwegian novelist husband, and so began a love affair that lasted the 60s.
Spanish love affair
Cohen sang that before he fell for Marianne he “used to think [he] was some kind of Gypsy boy”. He was inspired by the Spanish poet Lorca, assassinated, aged just 38 during the Spanish Civil War.
At an awards ceremony in Spain, he said that in search of a voice, “It was only when I read, even in translation, the works of Lorca that I understood that there was a voice.”
“It is not that I copied his voice; I would not dare. But he gave me permission to find a voice, to locate a voice, that is to locate a self, a self that is not fixed, a self that struggles for its own existence. As I grew older, I understood that instructions came with this voice. What were these instructions? The instructions were never to lament casually. And if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.” Leonard Cohen’s acceptance speech at award of Prince of Asturias literature prize, 2011 (Other awards)
Musically, Cohen also learned just five or six Flamenco chords from a Spanish guitar teacher who killed himself before his fourth lesson.
“Journalists, especially English journalists, were very cruel to me. They said I only knew three chords when I knew five!”
Nonetheless, they became the musical basis of his mournful music – that, and the gravitas of his gravelly “golden voice”.
It was, however, the combination of his sounds with the poetry of his own soul searching that leant it real depth, despair, darkness and désolé.
Your letters they all say that you’re beside me now. Then why do I feel alone? I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web is fastening my ankle to a stone. Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began … For now I need your hidden love. I’m cold as a new razor blade. (So Long, Marianne)
(So Long, Marianne)
Cohen once joked that his record company should package razor blades with his records. His sometimes subversive humour amidst the angst and anxiety, strangely softened the pervasively painful lyrics.
“Any startling piece of work has a subversive element in it, a delicious element often.”
He sought in his own way “to be free” (‘Like a bird on the wire‘) and his writing in all forms drew you in if you were among the “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.”, as he wrote to his publisher.
More positively, he said and sung:
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Recent Nobel Literature Laureate, Bob Dylan, would probably acknowledge that he could have shared the prize with Cohen. The pair were discovered by the same music scout in the early 1960s, and whilst many – including himself, regarded Dylan as the number one, (Dylan joked he was number zero to Cohen’s one) Cohen was a strong contender for the number two spot as greatest songwriter for a generation.
“Second only to Bob Dylan (and perhaps Paul Simon), he commands the attention of critics and younger musicians more firmly than any other musical figure from the 1960s who is [was] still working at the outset of the 21st century.” – Bruce Eder
Annoyingly, for Cohen at least, he worked hard at what came more easily to Dylan. What took Cohen five years to write Dylan could knock out in hours or less. Most famously, ‘Hallelujah’ took 5 years to write, probably down to the near-infinite number of verses, and almost a generation to rise to its modern reputation and dubious honour of being on the Shrek soundtrack.
Faith and Drugs
Cohen came from a Canadian-Lithuanian-Polish line of successful and literate Jews, Talmudic scholars, businessmen, and synagogue founders. He practised his Judaism, but that didn’t interfere with his spiritual exploration of other beliefs from Scientology to Buddhism in the 1970s, leading to his ordination as a Zen Buddhist monk in the 90s. Of Jesus of Nazareth he said:
“I’m very fond of Jesus Christ. He may be the most beautiful guy who walked the face of this earth. Any guy who says ‘Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek’ has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness…A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. His position cannot be comprehended. It is an inhuman generosity. A generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion. I’m not trying to alter the Jewish view of Jesus Christ. But to me, in spite of what I know about the history of legal Christianity, the figure of the man has touched me.” Leonard Cohen: In His Own Words (1998)
Perhaps he was a depressed Spock-lookalike figure, at times, but he also pursued life in all its fullness. From drugs to drink to women and wisdom, he ploughed life’s lows in search of its highs. In the end, he was neither a pure Buddhist nor a “really good junkie” but somehow the former, even as a drug in some way itself, held off the latter.
As he turned 65, he finally felt at peace with himself and the world, to some degree at least. He described it as acceptance and learning to ignore rather than solve himself.
Kurt Cobain wrote in Nirvana’s ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ (1993)
“Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld So I can sigh eternally.”
After his suicide, Cohen wished he’s been able to speak to Cobain:
“I’m sorry I couldn’t have spoken to the young man. I see a lot of people at the Zen Centre, who have gone through drugs and found a way out that is not just Sunday school. There are always alternatives, and I might have been able to lay something on him.”
Democracy and Darkness
He leaves behind, millions of devotees, missing the mournfulness and aged adolescent agonising of his search for meaning. Even now, his songs remain poignant, if somewhat ironic, like ‘Democracy‘, and it still feels like ‘You want it Darker’ (2016) lies ahead, but perhaps too, we’ll also find the peace, that he found and now rests in.
“I’ve seen the nations rise and fall, I’ve heard their stories, heard them all. But love’s the only engine of survival.”
“Sail on, sail on O mighty ship of State To the shores of need Past the reefs of greed Through the squalls of hate Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on”
Today and everyday is bipolar day for 2-3% of the population who have a Mood Affective Disorder including Cyclothymia and Bipolar I & II. A day to recognise the issues, struggles, and occasional joys and spurts of creativity – sometimes manic, experienced by people with bipolar, was created to coincide with Vincent van Gogh’s birthday, 30 March, since he was posthumously believed to have had a bipolar type condition. World Bipolar Day aims to:
Whilst 1-in-100 or 2.6% are commonly cited figures, some studies have shown wide variations, ranging from 2.6 to 20.0 per 100,000 per year, in the incidence of bipolar affective disorder (Lloyd & Jones, 2002). These variations have been e.g., regional, SE London is twice that of Nottingham and Bristol, or by ethnicity, by socio-economic class, by childhood intelligence – especially high verbal IQ, or by hormones and gender – some studies show a much higher incidence in the female population.
“estrogen fluctuations may be an important factor in the etiology of bipolar disorder and it is obvious that more research on this topic is needed to clarify the role of estrogen in women with bipolar disorder…Why is it that rapid cycling occurs more often in women?” – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23510130
It also alleged that among artistic and creative types there is a higher incidence of bipolar mood disorders, that may be genetic. Indeed, as many as 40x the national incidence, among a group of 30 American authors, studied over 15 years:
“43 per cent of them had bipolar disorder compared to only 10 per cent of the control group and 1 per cent of the general population.” – Bipolar Disorder and Creativity
A further survey of 47 British authors and visual artists from the British Royal Academy found that 38% had been treated for a mood disorder.
“A recent study carried out at Stanford University by Santosa and colleagues found that people with bipolar disorder and creative discipline controls scored significantly more highly than healthy controls on a measure of creativity called the Barron-Welsh Art Scale. In a related study the same authors sought to identify temperamental traits that people with bipolar disorder and creative people have in common. They found that both shared tendencies for mild elation and depression with gradual shifts from one to the other, openness, irritability, and neuroticism (roughly speaking, a combination of anxiety and perfectionism).” – Bipolar Disorder and Creativity
Vincent van Gogh
The famous Dutch post-Impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh suffered quite wild swings in his mental health and many paintings were produced from his asylum room. Van Gogh is thought to have shot himself, after struggling with declining mental health in his mid-30s. He had spent most of the last 18-months of his life in an asylum, but two months later was dead as the result of a presumably, though not proven, self-induced shooting incident or suicide attempt.
Ironically, it was a period when he produced many iconic paintings, some en plein air. His famous image titled ‘The Starry Night’ was a pre-sunrise nocturne as seen from his East-facing asylum window, but finished in the asylum studio, as he was only allowed to draw in his room, not paint. Van Gogh’s beautiful and happier ‘Village Street and Steps in Auvers’ was painted just days after release from the asylum:
Barely weeks later, and days before his death, he was painting several large wheat fields canvases and in a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote:
“I have painted three more large canvases. They are vast stretches of corn under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness….I’m fairly sure that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, that is, how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside.” – Vincent van Gogh, Letter to Theo van Gogh, 10 July 1890
His late paintings demonstrate an artist at the height of his talent, yet also the depths of his troubles, for whom art and the outdoor landscape was creative catharsis and therapy. What would the art world have witnessed had he lived on?
Bipolar Mood Scale Diary
It is typical for a bipolar diagnosis to take a decade and work through several misdiagnoses en route. I was first diagnosed with Cyclothymia over 4 years ago, but subsequently told it was Mood Affective Disorder and then Bipolar II, along with rapid cycling and mixed mode variations. CBT – Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, helped my management, but so did self-knowledge, awareness, and diarying. I enjoy my hypomanic periods, less so the depressions which I’ve fought for 12 years or so. Finding balance when you only exist at the poles is a tricky act to accomplish and may involve staying in when you feel like going out and going out when you feel like staying in!
Risks, when hypomanic, for me include inappropriate conversation, loss of impulse control, manic spending, flirting, obsessional behaviours, risk seeking. Yet, the benefits when high are hyperactive stamina and energy, stream of consciousness ideas flooding, huge reading and writing output, charismatic and entertaining confidence and loquaciousness.
“I managed to rack up £300k of credit, hardly average! I was, and indeed am, very convincing when hypomanic, it made me a good salesperson, deal-maker, innovator, public speaker but terrible at time and money management.” – May 2013
Having been in a balanced mood state for nearly 3 months now, a rare occurrence, possibly due to recent endocrine changes, I miss the hyper states. I also realise, however, how destructive they could be to life, economics, and relationships, whilst at the same time being a creative buzz. I don’t miss the lethargic, inactive, hopeless depressive episodes at all, although they were a great way of avoid life and its stresses.
The best advice I was given was to monitor my mood on a daily basis, as I was already doing with my insomnia diary and general personal diary. The catharsis of writing and recording also came with the recognition that moods, highs, lows, sleeplessness all came in phases, that changed – they got better, and they got worse. Unlike, when I suffered with depression for 6-8 years as that felt like nothing would ever get better. The Bipolar Mood Scale diary has helped me to hold out for the good days, and to manage my moods better.
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Being or having bipolar – people’s attitudes to which verb to use varies, should not be romanticised. It is both a blessing and a curse, and for some is very hard to live with. I’ve made friends with mine, though it is still unpredictable. I’ve come to appreciate the moment, mindful that it can change, but I take the rough with the smooth now. Hopefully, I can look back on past suicide attempts as distant memories, and seize the creative periods to be productive and expressive, whilst trying to rein it in when it tips into hypomania.
Many are calling 2015 the year of transgender visibility, after 2014’s “transgender tipping point” and Laverne Cox in OITNB, heck we were even “word of the year“. But 2015 also began very differently as the year of trans youth suicides with a spate of them from Leelah Alcorn to many others until March last year when the coming out of a young trans male teen Tom Sosnik put the focus back on living.
With visibility comes equality and acceptance, one hopes, but also a recognition that we have a voice, indeed several voices – for we are a diverse community.
“None of us can represent anyone but ourselves…” – Janet Mock
There are trans Tories and Republicans, Christians and Muslims, politics and religion are no prevention to having gender dysphoria. Though sometimes one can lose one’s job or faith over it.
Does having a platform and a voice bring responsibility? There has been much criticism of Caitlyn Jenner and Kellie Maloney for not representing “us”. But they do, in the sense that they represent themselves. For anyone can be trans. We may need to add #notinmyname hashtags to some of their statements though when we disagree over image, progress, equality, and micro-politics.
Lana Wachowski on Vulnerability
If I wanted a voice that came close to my feelings and expression then listening to the funny and profound Lana Wachowski receiving the 2012 HRC Visibility Award and 2014 Equality Illinois Freedom Award had me applauding every sentence. I empathised with her experience of binary discomfort and not just gender dysphoria, being sorted by gender at school, not recognising that gender is a spectrum, not an either/or.
Putting ourselves out there as vulnerable, is the way in which to be strong, one first has to be weak. To gain rights one has to stand up, and be counted, before you have those rights:
“Policy is the battle ground where matters of equality are fought. Policy can institutionalize prejudice or can protect us against it.” – Lana Wachowski
Her being visible was a choice and a sacrifice of a precious privacy that she and her brother had sought to protect since becoming successful filmmakers. She reminded me of the trade-off between public and private, visibility and invisibility, vulnerability and protected, ‘out’ and ‘in the closet’.
“Every one of us, every person here, every human life presents a negotiation between public and private identity.” – Lana Wachowski
‘Coming out’ seems to be in the news all the time, more accepted, yet still a shock to some, and still unnecessary if you are a part of the cisheteronormative default (no judgement intended). There’s still seems to be a mixture of shock and awe when a sportsperson (rare) or a celebrity (more common) comes out as something other than the heterosexual or cis (non-trans) gendered norm.
Speaking of normal, in the context of her pink dreads inspiring children to think outside the matrix, for themselves, “recalibrating the possible”, Lana said this:
“…normal is something that does not have to be defined for you but rather by you.”
SuperTrans – Visibility as Superpower
As SuperGirlin 2015-2016 is to discover once you’ve come out and become visible, there’s no going back (2m54s):
Being Trans is not a superpower, being authentic and visible is. Ironically we spend our dysphoric early lives torn between wanting to be invisible, hiding in the closet, and yet wanting to be seen as our “true selves”.
Bisexuals have a visibility day (23 September) because they are so often erased, so do trans people (31 March) but we tend to emphasize the Transgender Day of Remembrance for those who were killed for being trans (20 Nov, TDOR). Trans people have little choice but to be visible once out, we could do with a national “please don’t look at me day”, sometimes we’d like a day off, to be ignored and not noticed. I’ve chosen to embrace the loss of privacy that comes from being continually visible, and not passing, it does not make me superhuman, I’m still vulnerable, but I like to be seen to encourage others, not just trans, to be empowered to be authentically themselves.
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.
Tom Sosnik comes out as Trans citing Leelah Alcorn as inspiration
An apparently confident young 13yo Jewish teen living in Oakland, California, has come out as trans with the full support of his sister and parents. Tom Sosnik comes across as mature, self-assured and brave, but in no doubt of the hard path ahead. He cites Leelah Alcorn at the beginning and end of his coming out speech and both, thanks, and calls for the support of, his peers and community.
His YouTube video, published 16 March 2015, comes with the following statement by him:
This is how I came out to my community as trans.
Please share my story and my message with your loved ones.
To all those struggling to embrace their true and authentic gender or sexuality, I want you to know that if no one else accepts you, I always will. Rest in power, Leelah.
Full text transcript of Tom Sosnik’s coming out video
“On December 28, 2104, Leelah Alcorn a 17 year old trans woman committed suicide because her family didn’t accept her. This made me want to act on a subject that has been bothering me for quite a long time.
All of sixth grade I struggled with my gender identity and I’m now embracing my truth. For a while, I dismissed the fact that I hated my body, I pretended to be content with what I was assigned until at a certain point I broke. I went through a series of horrible breakdowns and I would stand under the water in the shower crying. I knew I wasn’t happy but it didn’t seem fair to me that everyone else around me was. They didn’t spend all their time thinking about how much they hated being categorised as a woman. I didn’t share that same feeling, in fact, I felt the opposite.
For some of you, this may come as a shock and for others, well you knew or thought I was transgender, well here’s your reassurance – I am no longer Mia, I never really was and now I finally stand before you in my true and authentic gender identity, as Tom. I stand before you as a 13 year old boy.
I understand that this will be a difficult adjustment but I hope and trust that you will treat me with respect and thoughtfulness. So for those of you who are having trouble that is completely understandable. You have known me as a girl for over a year and it is hard to understand that I never was that girl. I want to tell you as a I consider you all my friends, well most of you – no I’m kidding. In my heart I am still the same person, whether you like that person or not, it’s me. So here I am, no longer Mia Sosnik, a 13 year old girl, that you thought you knew, but Tom.
I imagine that some of you will have questions and I am open to answering them at any time they come to you. I trust that you are all mature enough to understand which questions are inappropriate, disrespectful or hurtful. Please feel free to ask me because after all I know the most about my transition. Please talk about this with your parents and your family but I ask of you really not to talk about it with your friends, it’s not – gossip worthy.
If there’s something you want to say I’m happy to talk with you and I really hope that you all will support my decision to embark on a harder route in life as the boy I truly am. Any form of support I receive with much gratitude and I hope that everyone can really support me because you guys are like my second family. And if you support me, I will feel like the luckiest boy in the world. Thank you for letting me share my story.
I want to just tie it back to what I said at the beginning. After reading Leelah’s suicide letter I came to really appreciate the support I have in my family in my community that she never got. Thank you all for making me feel safe enough to openly be myself.”
Risk of Copycat Suicides
The positive references to Leelah Alcorn are all the more uplifting given the spate of US trans teens suicides recently, and the lack of recognition even in death by many of their families. Overnight, it was desvestating to hear of yet another suicide as 18 year old Blake Brockington took his life. He was the first Charlotte, NC trans homecoming king last year. This, only weeks after Ash Haffner, another Charlotte trans man ended his life.
Furthermore, some have argued that the sharing of Leelah Alcorn’s suicide letter would inspire copycat suicides, rather than in the case of Tom Sosnik, an inspired coming out, in part, because of her.
Both of Tom’s sisters have been “meaningful members of his support system“, and one of them, Gil Sosnik, shared his story and video on facebook:
Last week, my 13 year old brother came out as trans to his school and community in a really moving naming ceremony and we were able to capture it on camera. Seeing how much his words have inspired and touched the family and friends in his own network, Tom began to see that there was something about his speech that was universal and humanizing, something that could empower trans* and otherwise gender nonconforming folks while also conjuring empathy and understanding among allies. Watch and share if you are moved by his story.
It has been clearly demonstrated that family support has 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 more on suicide risks)
Another LGBT suicide has recently been put down to religious non-acceptance in the harrowing story of gay repression and rejection in the life of a successful Muslim Doctor in the UK.
More positively, Tom’s family and religious background is in complete contrast to the religious home life of Leelah Alcorn which saw her sent to Christian therapists and undergo conversion therapy to try and stop her being trans. A path which was no doubt a contributing factor to her suicide and is categorically dismissed as psychologically sound or helpful by the APA.
Reparative Conversion Therapy
Reparative or Conversion Therapy seeks to turn someone from their innate sexuality or gender identity by positively encouraged, aka forced, heterosexual and birth sex gender “appropriate” roles. Of course the concept of appropriate comes from stereotypical concepts of socio-familial and sometimes all-out religious traditional understandings. This kind of aversion therapy, whether of LGB or Trans people, is more likely to increase suicide risk than prevent it. The APA argues that:
“reparative therapy poses a great risk, including increasing the likelihood or severity of depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior for those undergoing therapy.”
Dr Kenneth Zucker
Dr. Ken Zucker is Psychologist-in-Chief and Head of the Gender Identity Service in the Child, Youth, and Family Program at CAMH, Ontario. The American psychologist and sexologist, and GIC head at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, is also on the APA’s DSM-V committee. Just last week CAMH suspended all trans admissions and treatments by Zucker and has put the whole programme under review.
“The APA, responding to criticisms by LGBT activists, point out that Zucker does not advocate reparative therapy for teens and adults, not for gays and lesbians at any age, but only for the trans community.”
Well that’s ok then – “only for the trans”! This is 2015 and being trans is still considered a mental illness, a mental struggle – yes, but it is not something that is aided by disparaged and unethical reparative therapy and pathologising treatment.
How Trans Support should be done
Tom’s own family is Jewish and seems to have positively supported his coming out, posting nothing but proud affirmations on Facebook whereas Leelah was banned from using social media and cut off from her friends and support network.
Tom Sosnik, his family and community, are an example of how coming out as trans, and/or LGB, should be handled – with bravery, acceptance, and support. He and his family embody the “fixing of society” that Leelah Alcorn called for.
Today is the International Day of Happiness and the last day of Winter. As far as I am concerned Spring has been under way for some time with the delightful daffodils and rays of Spring sunshine daily illuminating the view from my window into the woodland beyond.
Solar Eclipse and Spring Equinox
It’s been a rare day that has seen a solar eclipse coincide with the evening of the March equinox. An equi-nox, from the Latin, marks the moments in the year when the length of night is equal to that of daylight. It has long been considered a time of rebirth, fertility, and association with nature’s natural cycles.
Moods like the weather!
I’m not sure if feeling happy today is compulsory or not for the pessimistic glumguts out there. That said, when I was in my darkest depression and suicidal, I, also, ceased being an optimist. Indeed, as someone who suffers from a bipolar disorder – cyclothymia, it is all I can do to stay on top of my mood swings, and near impossible to influence them, just manage them. If anything, my moods are like the weather, sometimes clouding over, or then all of a sudden the sun breaks out, and then it pisses it down! Rapid cycling change.
Think Yourself Happy?
I do believe that, at times, one can think oneself happy – or content, at least, despite the surrounding circumstances. For, whatever may be done to the body, the mind is our last refuge and sometimes the greatest place of anxiety and attack. Yet, if we can calm that, then we may find peace amidst the storm, and internal sunshine in the darkest winter.
Earlier this week, I gave a talk and presentation on torture – not the happiest of subjects, for Amnesty International at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and the words of Gandhi that I quoted are still both a challenge and an inspiration:
“You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Things outside our control – Powerlessness
When we can’t control the weather – as with the disappointing solar eclipse today occluded by clouds, or our finances, someone else’s love, or our government ministers – when democracy seems to have failed us, what is left that we can control? Where can we find comfort or hope, when we feel powerless? Is depression, which can affect 1-in-4 of us, something we can in any way lift ourselves out of?
Depression is not a choice!
I remember, all to well, the well-meaning suggestions “to get out more”, “do some exercise”, “get out of bed”, “get some sunshine in your life” given to me when I was suffering excruciating depressive lows and suicide attempts. The advice was not well received, when one feels the weight of the black dog suffocating your very breath.
Shifting the circumstances and chemicals that affect depression is hard enough when well, nigh on impossible when ill. Yet, I do believe that, to some extent, we can think ourselves well, improve our state of mind and body. But I am not saying that it is easy or guaranteed.
For me, I had to come off anti-depressants to even try it, and that is not something I would medically advise, nor am I in a position to. My path is my path. It unleashed in me, instead, a bipolar rollercoaster, which has become more manageable through daily awareness and diarying, in which I feel both more alive and yet when I have lows, at least more conscious of the possibility and experience of change. Every day feels like a new day, at last, it could go up, it could go down, but at least it could go somewhere!
The Serenity Prayer
The Serenity Prayer, by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, has been used by many to help distinguish between things we can change and those outside of our control:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
I’m a bit stubborn at the accepting of that which I cannot change and like to think in mental messianic terms of being able to do anything. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes I can shift my thinking and mood, or at least my attitude to it.
Happiness as a National Growth Goal
United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has stated that the world:
“needs a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being…Together they define gross global happiness.”
Since the early 1970s, one country – Bhutan, has recognised happiness as a goal over and above national income and actually adopted the goal of Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product.
Here in the UK, we have a an HPI (Happy Planet Index) score of 47.9 and rank #41 of all the countries surveyed. Our wellbeing score of 7 is actually ranked #19 of 151 countries but we are let down by our poor ecological footprint on the earth.
In a UN General Assembly resolution of 12 July 2012, the following 20 March 2013, and each year since, has been proclaimed The International Day of Happiness. This was in order to draw attention to the relevance of:
“happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.”
“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are a well-known objective and unalienable right in the United States Declaration of Independence. Sadly, we are only guaranteed the freedom to pursue happiness, no one can give it to us, they can certainly reduce the factors that make us unhappy – health, wealth, peace, among others, but at the end of the day, happiness can at best come from ourselves.
A Spring boost to the system
As a boost to the chemical enjoyment of something akin to happiness, we can of course enjoy more hugs and the oxytocin they release, and draw some Vitamin D from the increasing daily sunlight. Certainly, I feel an enormous improvement to well-being after some light gardening and having the sun beat down upon my back.
I spent my day, in the end, weeding, cleaning up around the already fast growing rhubarb, discovering some small over-wintered potatoes in the ground, and taking great pride and pleasure in how the warmth has pushed the asparagus above the surface already.
It was also an opportunity to have some fun with a new lens adapter which enables my old 1978 50mm f/1.2 Minolta MD Rokkor-X lens to work on modern digital bodies (effectively a 75mm portrait lens on digital). The old lens is superb, and been described as producing a “complete bokeh creamy-mosh” i.e., a lovely aesthetic softness to the out of focus zone just beyond the shallow depth of field sharpness when the lens is wide open. Boke is a Japanese word meaning blur or haze.
The lens is still worth £300+ because of the aperture brightness, and it would have been a waste not to find a way to reuse it – I used to use it for low light rock photography in black and white 30 years ago. Aperture priority and manual only but hey it feels like old school photography again, just without the expense of film and with all the immediacy of digital results.
Spring Wealth and Happiness in a Daffodil
Daffodils of many varieties are out in my garden and surrounding woodland. They are said to symbolize rebirth, new beginnings, and are pretty much the first Spring flower. Whilst I’ve always seen the humble snowdrop as a winter plant, to me it marks the halfway point of winter and the daffodil (narcissus or jonquil) as denoting the end of winter. In Wales, China, and as gifts, daffodils – in a bunch, are said to be harbingers of wealth and happiness.
Happiness can be simple
Happiness can be found every day, in the simple things, the asparagus and photography, weeding and sunlit warmth, the cats playing in the garden. They may not cure a low mood, or persistent depression, or solve financial stress, or bring about world peace, but in the present moment, they are to be enjoyed for what they are, and may bring a temporary boost – and I’ll take as many successive boosts as I can get!
(An earlier version of this was first published on Bubblews)
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