The third Norwich Reclaim the Night took place on International Women’s Day 2018, spearheaded by UEA students and young intersectional and international feminists. It was inclusive of trans and non-binary people, as well as men, focusing on safety for all not gender. Sex worker freedom from violence, intimidation and harassment was also signposted. This was feminism for all without any infighting or exclusion.
“Many marches are women-only and sadly some groups have discriminated against trans participants… We came out to show that Norwich is no longer a place where you can be harmed or discriminated against for the colour of your skin, your faith, gender, sex, nationality or sexual orientation.” – UEA event organising group
March chants – and Poppy Rose was in good voice, included:
“Love, not hate
Makes Norwich great!”
“Claim our bodies
Claim our right
Make a stand
Take back the night!”
The march of some 50-plus people was one of solidarity, safety, and sensitivity, looking after the welfare of everyone involved, several of whom spoke of surviving sexual abuse or other forms of harassment.
During the march, some dozen men on the streets asked me what it was about – there was no mockery but positive approval. Women standing in the queue for nightclubs gave us whoop-whoops as we passed, a couple of times cars honked their horns in solidarity.
As an invited speaker, for the second year running, I was loathed to draw attention to the issues of trans people, particularly trans women, and especially on #IWD, but current media headlines necessitated it and it was a safe place to do so given how inclusive an event the organising team had made it.
Here’s what I had to say:
Norwich Reclaim the Night 2018 speech
“Reclaim the night is an annual march … intended to reclaim bodily autonomy and space that is often stolen from us by gendered and sexual violence”
Student-organised Reclaim the Nights tend to be women and non-binary, and male allies and victims inclusive – many don’t even mention trans inclusivity as it’s taken for granted that trans women would be included in women.
“All genders welcome. This is a sex-worker inclusive event, and we actively advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work. This is also an explicitly trans inclusive march. Given the chequered history of Reclaim the Night elsewhere in the country, we consider this vital to state clearly, and to do all we can to challenge the worrying rise of so-called radical feminism” – Brighton
Trans people are no safer on the streets than cis gender women, creating safe spaces on our streets, at our workplaces, in our homes (where 90% of DASV occurs among people we know, ie not stranger violence) is about protecting the vulnerable and policing the aggressors, not stereotyping and dividing down overly-simplistic/reductionist gendered lines.
Solidarity, inclusivity, and intersectionality should be with all victims of violence and gender-based oppression.
We should be fighting oppression, arm-in-arm, not fighting each other.
Artist and friend, Katherine Gilmartin, says:
“Boss babes see one another fighting for not with other women and systems.”
One Billion Rising, International Women’s Day and Reclaim the Night are all occasions when I prefer to emphasise women and girls and not draw attention to trans specific issues, but the current heat on trans women makes it unavoidable.
It is claimed that trans women mark the same level of risk to cisgender women as cisgender men do when in fact they are themselves at a higher risk of some types of abuse and attack (and ironically trans women as perpetrators of extreme violence pose a greater risk to men rather than women!)
This debate has not moved on in a year and trans women remain under fire for “Not being real women”. It’s time for all women, all minorities and/or oppressed to stand together for equality, human rights and mutual respect. It’s #PressforProgress not regress.
Reclaim the Night and Take Back the Night began in the late 1970s, a time when women and LGBT people had been standing side by side to advance gay rights and women’s rights. 1970s American lesbian radical feminists embraced their trans sisters until the 1979 publication of Janice Raymond’sTransexual Empire and attacks on Sandy Stone. Now it appears some women and media muck-rakers are trying to take us back to the 70s!
It’s an age-old war fast becoming an old age war. It is dividing feminists of one generation from feminists of the next. It is defeating our common aims of reducing violence and oppression because we are divided against ourselves.
Today has been used by a number of feminists as an opportunity to leave the Labour Party en masse for its defence and inclusion of trans women (in accordance with equality laws).
The first attack, I mean “free speech debate”, that I saw in the media was timed to coincide with International Women’s Day and was by Judith Green of A Women’s Place UK calling it “transgender activists and the real waron women“.
I would have thought that the real war on women was from Boko Haram, Saudi Arabia, FGM, everyday sexism and stereotyping, Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo and
Not from a handful of trans people who in almost equal numbers now are traversing the gender divide and leaving biological birth essentialist determinism behind thus showing that neither the gender construct nor birth lottery need define you. Surely, that IS feminism?
We are stronger together than tearing each other apart. I am proud and pleased that the April WOW festival in Norwich, like Reclaim the Night, is trans and non-binary inclusive, male allies and victims of abuse and gender role oppression also.
It is time we stood together,
it is time we rise up together, and
it is time we marched together,
to reclaim the media high ground,
to reclaim our study and workplaces, and
to reclaim the day and the night as sisters diverse but not divided!
For united we stand, divided we fall.
Safe streets for women, trans and all!
Wonderful night! Thank you so much to everyone who showed up for #NorwichReclaimTheNight2018 and dug into their pockets to donate to @LeewayDV and to all the readers and speakers! A great inclusive way to mark #IWD
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.
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.
The last day of Women’s History Month, the day before April Fool’s, is the International Trans Day of Visibility (TDOV), 31 March. Since 2009, it has sought to celebrate transgender positivity in contrast to the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) events around 20 November that draw attention to the high levels of violence and murder that trans people suffer in some countries. Even where murder is less likely, bullying, harassment, and discrimination can be part of the transphobic package that can add to the likelihood of suicide, which some 40% of trans people attempt, and twice that number, consider.
TDOV is an opportunity to portray positive role models, to let the many trans just coming out know that “it gets better“. I’ve spent ten plus years ‘out’ and it’s been a rocky road, with the almost requisite marriage break-up, suicide attempts, looks in the street, and transphobic abuse online. But that need not be everyone’s experience and for many, it is getting easier, with better support and a more accepting society.
Ironically, many trans people don’t want to be visible, they’d rather not be noticed, hopefully passing as fellow human beings in a crowd. Inevitably, some of us stand out more than others, some by choice, some by fate. Don’t always assume a trans person wants to be recognised or feted as one, many would rather be seen as your common or garden variety man or woman. I’m of the louder and more visual variety, who’ll probably die still not conforming to gender stereotypes and expectations.
Non-Binary leads to inevitable visibility
I’ve found, indeed, that being non-binary is a better fit for me than the discrete categories of man or woman, male or female, boy or girl. I, personally, don’t mind whether anyone sees me as a “real woman” or not, I know basic biology, although mine is more complex and many people exist that makes one think again about binary sex default and gender constructs.
I am, however, also not a “real man”, that too is fine! Perhaps, as one of my godchildren once cheekily remarked to me upon opening the door, saying, “Half-ladies first”, I am a “Shim”, also his delightful invention. Other people should be respected, however they prefer to be addressed.
Whilst 2014 has been regarded as the “Transgender tipping point”, 2016-17 seems to be the year of Non-Binary Genderqueer and Genderfluid. In January, National Geographic ran a “Gender Revolution” special issue, and this March, TIME Magazine ran with “Beyond He or She”.
Half of young people now see gender as a spectrum and identify their own sexuality between gay and straight. Most now know someone who is trans and/or non-binary, and they are broadly accepting, the best it has ever been, teaching older adults the way to be around identity and expression. Whilst traditional feminists regard gender as a construct, it is young women who are most likely to see it as a spectrum, blurring the lines between gender and sex. Some 22% of young women identify as other than 100% female.
To be honest, I haven’t had it too hard, people have been accepting, and although gender dysphoric, at times I’ve been euphoric to finally be myself. Even with some trials and tribulations, it has been worth it.
My ten-year journey as Norfolk’s “most reluctant transsexual” – as my psychiatrist once called me, has recently closed one chapter and turned the page to another. After nearly 6 years on hormones my resistance towards surgery shattered and I went ahead with a version of GRS that suited my identity and needs. It has made me a happier, healthier person, with no regrets. Rather surprisingly, to myself at least, it has improved my other mental health condition, bipolar, for now at least, with just pockets of extreme downs, rarer hypomanic highs, and many more days of productivity and calm.
In going ahead with surgery I found my mind changed as much as my body. It really was life-changing, even saving, surgery. Whilst I had near constant doubts leading up to it, I’ve had none since that no-going-back day of 6 February 2016, and felt as much lighter between the ears as between the legs. I feel like a psycho-emotional brain tumour has been removed, I have more space in my head, in my thoughts and feelings, no longer obsessed and disturbed by gender identity. I feel no more female, just less encumbered and more myself. Oddly, I feel just as non-binary, non-conformist as ever, and, if anything, less gendered, though more comfortable in my body.
Prevalence of transgender people
I am but one of millions of trans people worldwide, more than a million in the USA alone, perhaps 300-600,000 in the UK or more. The NHS used to say that there were around 1-in-30,000 people born male (AMAB) transitioning to female (MTF) and 1-in-100,000 people born female (AFAB) transitioning to male (FTM). Those serious underestimates are reflected in the huge waiting lists of 1000s of people to access the handful of UK Gender Identity Clinics (GICs).
Given that the incidence of trans people seeking NHS help is now around 7,000 new referrals p.a., figures over an adult working lifetime would suggest a prevalence of 300,000-600,000 adults, around 0.5%-1% of the population, 1-in-200 or 1-in-100 people, perhaps more. In addition, For every trans person not seeking HRT or surgery there are four or five feeling and presenting as gender questioning or non-conforming. Recent surveys suggest 2.5% may identify as non-binary, 1.75% may be born intersex, and 2% may identify as trans or genderfluid. Overlap between these populations may suggest around 5% total, 1-in-20 people. This isn’t to conflate intersex with trans, just that some can be both, and it shows the degree of sex and/or gender atypicality in the population as a whole.
Visible Trans Persons
In the UK we have many visible trans already such as the comedian, actor and now marathon-addict, Eddie Izzard. Other trans comedians include Bethany Black and Andrew O’Neill. Then there’s the arts writer and ceramicist, Turner Prize winning artist, Grayson Perry. In the world of journalism, there’s LGBT Pink List-topping radio and print journalist Paris Lees, along with several contributors to the Guardian newspaper such as Jane Fae, Juliet Jacques, and Roz Kaveney. In the field of law and diversity, Professor of Equalities Law at Manchester – Stephen Whittle, Christine Burns, formerly of Press for Change, Rachel Reese of the University of Law, law partner Clare Fielding, and barrister, Caroline Harrison, QC.
In sport, there’s recently-out boxing promoter, Kellie Maloney, and MMA fighter Roxeanne/Alex Reid. In business, there is Kate Craig-Wood, an entrepreneur and founder of one of the UK’s largest IT groups. Musicians like CN Lester, Thomas Dolby’s son Harper, and a magician, Fay Presto. In politics, there are several trans people who have stood as councillors or for election, across the political spectrum. On television, there are actors and a spate of reality TV stars. Among people who came out in the 1960s and 70s, there’s models April Ashley and Caroline Cossey, and writer, Jan Morris – all well known British women with open transgender histories. I could go on as I know of hundreds of trans lawyers, doctors, activists in public life, here in the UK alone.
In the USA, Janet Mock, among others have blazed the way by being out and public in their defence of being themselves, creating a tipping point of trans visibility, perhaps leading to the timing of former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out.
Also, recently, we’ve seen big names like Lana and Lilly Wachowski of the Matrix films, Chelsea Manning of Wikileaks fame, Cher’s son Chaz Bono, and Laura Jane Grace of Against Me. Actors like Alexis Arquette, Candis Cayne (“Dirty Sexy Money”), Laverne Cox (“Orange is the New Black”) and Calpernia Addams. Nor are “Gender Outlaw” author Kate Bornstein or Jennifer Boylan to be forgotten. Dr Marci Bowers, is an American gynaecologist and surgeon and actually carries out gender/sex-reassignment surgery. There’s the US biologist and author of “Evolution’s Rainbow” Joan Roughgarden.
The names above are just a sprinkling of the probably tens of millions of trans and gender-variant people million worldwide.
On International Women’s Day the other Wachowski sibling, Andy – until yesterday, has also, like Lana, come out as transgender under the name Lilly. She had prepared for this moment, but also seems to have been pushed by a Daily Mail journalist – now that bit isn’t news or surprising, although it is denied by the newspaper who claimed to be “courteous at all times” and “baffled” by the accusation. It is sad and intrusive. It is more invasive than investigative journalism. It’s also dangerous and unethical, like ‘outing’ someone in a witness protection program because of the high rates of trans suicide – almost 50%. The Mail has distanced itself and defended accusations that it ‘outed’ or hounded trans teacher Lucy Meadows, as quoted by Lilly in her statement below.
Lana had been transitioning during the 2000s but first went public in 2012 when she revealed that she too had considered suicide in her teens because of her gender identity.
Gender binary – Two little boxes
Lilly describes the enforced binariness of gender as oppressive and a false idol:
“Being transgender is not easy. We live in a majority-enforced gender binary world. This means when you’re transgender you have to face the hard reality of living the rest of your life in a world that is openly hostile to you.”
“But these words, “transgender” and “transitioned” are hard for me because they both have lost their complexity in their assimilation into the mainstream. There is a lack of nuance of time and space. To be transgender is something largely understood as existing within the dogmatic terminus of male or female. And to “transition” imparts a sense of immediacy, a before and after from one terminus to another. But the reality, my reality is that I’ve been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol.”
Lana wanted to “transcend the limitations of two little boxes” and the flat-earth pseudo-simplicity of binary bathrooms and their policing:
“I see few things as beautiful as my community and all the miraculous ways we transcend the limitations of two little boxes, blurring and even erasing the distinctions that legitimize and support the belief in all equalities of gender… I understand. I really do. I know how important these rules and regulations, these binary bathrooms are to your understanding of the world…” – Lana Wachowski, at Equality Illinois 2014 Gala, accepting Freedom Award
Without putting words into their mouths, I think it is safe to say they are both ‘out’ as not only transgender but have left the binary gender matrix behind too.
Take the pill, leave the Matrix
The Wachowskis’ ground breaking films are both escapist and challenging. Lana says that what they were trying to achieve in the Matrix trilogy was:
“…a shift, the same kind of shift that happens for Neo, that Neo goes from being in this sort of cocooned and programmed world, to having to participate in the construction of meaning to his life. And we were like, ‘Well, can the audience go through the three movies and experience something similar to what the main character experiences?’ So the first movie is sort of typical in its approach. The second movie is deconstructionist, and it assaults all of the things that you thought to be true in the first movie, and so people get very upset, and they’re like ‘Stop attacking me!’ in the same way that people get upset with deconstructionist philosophy. I mean, Derrida and Foucault, these people upset us. And then the third movie is the most ambiguous, because it asks you to actually participate in the construction of meaning.” — Lana Wachowski,Movie City News, October 13, 2012
Red Pill, Blue Pill
The Red Pill represents reality, often raw and painful, whilst the Blue Pill is the illusion, the delusional space we inhabit to avoid confronting reality:
“After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” – Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)
A decade ago, one of the first trans* (explicitly a male crossdresser) autobiographies I read was called Alice in Genderland by Richard Novic, MD – yes he is a Doctor, psychiatrist and psychotherapist. He describes his gender journey as like falling “headlong down a rabbit hole”, like Alice.
Other Worldly Queerness
Lilly also quotes from José Esteban Muñoz’s writings on queerness:
“Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world.” – José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009)
Several of the Wachowskis’ films including Jupiter Ascending have been about other worlds. Their private worlds have now been shattered and they are now both in the public domain, but I hope their ongoing transitioning(s) are respected and lauded, not hounded and sensationalised.
Lilly Wachowski’s full statement
Lilly Wachowski‘s statement in her own words to Chicago’s LGBT paper the Windy City Times:
“SEX CHANGE SHOCKER—WACHOWSKI BROTHERS NOW SISTERS!!!”
There’s the headline I’ve been waiting for this past year. Up until now with dread and/or eye rolling exasperation. The “news” has almost come out a couple of times. Each was preceded by an ominous email from my agent—reporters have been asking for statements regarding the “Andy Wachowski gender transition” story they were about to publish. In response to this threatened public outing against my will, I had a prepared a statement that was one part piss, one part vinegar and 12 parts gasoline.
It had a lot of politically relevant insights regarding the dangers of outing trans people, and the statistical horrors of transgender suicide and murder rates. Not to mention a slightly sarcastic wrap-up that “revealed” my father had injected praying mantis blood into his paternal ball-sac before conceiving each of his children to produce a brood of super women, hellbent on female domination. Okay, mega sarcastic.
But it didn’t happen. The editors of these publications didn’t print a story that was only salacious in substance and could possibly have a potentially fatal effect. And being the optimist that I am, I was happy to chalk it up to progress.
Then last night while getting ready to go out for dinner my doorbell rang. Standing on my front porch was a man I did not recognize.
“This might be a little awkward,” he said in an English accent.
I remember sighing.
Sometimes it’s really tough work to be an optimist.
He proceeded to explain he was a journalist from the Daily Mail, which was the largest news service in the UK and was most definitely not a tabloid. And that I really had to sit down with him tomorrow or the next day or next week so that I could have my picture taken and tell my story which was so inspirational! And that I really didn’t want to have someone from the National Enquirer following me around, did I? BTW—The Daily Mail is so definitely not a tabloid.
My sister Lana and I have largely avoided the press. I find talking about my art frustratingly tedious and talking about myself a wholly mortifying experience. I knew at some point I would have to come out publicly. You know, when you’re living as an out transgender person it’s … kind of difficult to hide. I just wanted—needed some time to get my head right, to feel comfortable.
But apparently I don’t get to decide this.
After he had given me his card, and I closed the door it began to dawn on me where I had heard of the Daily Mail. It was the “news” organization that had played a huge part in the national public outing of Lucy Meadows, an elementary school teacher and trans woman in the UK. An editorial in the “not-a-tabloid” demonized her as a damaging influence on the children’s delicate innocence and summarized “he’s not only trapped in the wrong body, he’s in the wrong job.” The reason I knew about her wasn’t because she was transgender it was because three months after the Daily Mail article came out, Lucy committed suicide.
And now here they were, at my front door, almost as if to say—
“There’s another one! Let’s drag ’em out in the open so we can all have a look!”
Being transgender is not easy. We live in a majority-enforced gender binary world. This means when you’re transgender you have to face the hard reality of living the rest of your life in a world that is openly hostile to you.
I am one of the lucky ones. Having the support of my family and the means to afford doctors and therapists has given me the chance to actually survive this process. Transgender people without support, means and privilege do not have this luxury. And many do not survive. In 2015, the transgender murder rate hit an all-time high in this country. A horrifying disproportionate number of the victims were trans women of color. These are only the recorded homicides so, since trans people do not all fit in the tidy gender binary statistics of murder rates, it means the actual numbers are higher.
And though we have come a long way since Silence of the Lambs, we continue to be demonized and vilified in the media where attack ads portray us as potential predators to keep us from even using the goddamn bathroom. The so-called bathroom bills that are popping up all over this country do not keep children safe, they force trans people into using bathrooms where they can be beaten and or murdered. We are not predators, we are prey.
So yeah, I’m transgender.
And yeah, I’ve transitioned.
I’m out to my friends and family. Most people at work know too. Everyone is cool with it. Yes, thanks to my fabulous sister they’ve done it before, but also because they’re fantastic people. Without the love and support of my wife and friends and family I would not be where I am today.
But these words, “transgender” and “transitioned” are hard for me because they both have lost their complexity in their assimilation into the mainstream. There is a lack of nuance of time and space. To be transgender is something largely understood as existing within the dogmatic terminus of male or female. And to “transition” imparts a sense of immediacy, a before and after from one terminus to another. But the reality, my reality is that I’ve been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol.
Now, gender theory and queer theory hurt my tiny brain. The combinations of words, like freeform jazz, clang disjointed and discordant in my ears. I long for understanding of queer and gender theory but it’s a struggle as is the struggle for understanding of my own identity. I have a quote in my office though by José Muñoz given to me by a good friend. I stare at it in contemplation sometimes trying to decipher its meaning but the last sentence resonates:
“Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world.”
So I will continue to be an optimist adding my shoulder to the Sisyphean struggle of progress and in my very being, be an example of the potentiality of another world.
“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.
There is so much one could say about fear, one could write a book about it, indeed one is. So often fear runs, if not ruins, our lives. It did mine for 40 years. Learning to embrace fear, take the risks anyway, and have a walk on the wild side, was in part down to being ‘outed’ and then choosing to stay ‘out’ rather than retreat back into the closet of fear and self-loathing. I’ve been told I was lucky to be outed rather than face the fear of coming out! You learn to swim or run quickly when thrown to the sharks or wolves.
“fear is not something that I let rule my life, but gratitude is.” – Lana Wachowski
Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway
One of the most powerful books I’ve never read was the above titled volume by Susan Jeffers. Well I got as far as reading the front cover and never looked back. Nine years ago, in therapy, I paid approximately £15 a word to hear from my therapist at the end of each hour the two words, “Why not?” I spent each hour in fear and not a small amount of self-loathing, she responded, in essence, with “do it anyway”. Feed the fear – and you’ll end up paralysed and do nothing at all.
“The way to develop self-confidence is to do the thing you fear.” – William Jennings Bryan
The Power of Now
Eckhart Tolle’s book was also influential and similarly unfinished-unread. My ‘now’ took years to find and only a moment to nearly kill off. It took all my courage to attempt suicide nearly 4 years ago. I was “in the moment” and exhausted of surviving not thriving. Each day it took all my energy just to keep going. Albert Camus wrote that:
“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” – Albert Camus
I’d given up trying to be normal, I had no energy left for the mask, vulnerability was easy, I had no defences left, and only one last resort.
Walk on the Wild Side
In 2015 Lou Reed was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a second time as a solo artist, the first time was as part of Velvet Underground. It was also the year that the “he [who] was a she” from his most well known Grammy Hall of Fame song -“Walk on the Wild Side“, Holly Woodlawn, died. From the appropriately named album, Transformer (1972), produced by David Bowie the song literally walked on the wild side, risking public outcry and censorship by referring to taboo topics such as transsexuality, male prostitution, colour and oral sex. Whilst British censors missed the references or ignored them, the US released an edited version of the single minus the oral sex reference. I want to live an unedited life!
Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.
Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She says, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’
He said, ‘Hey honey, take a walk on the wild side’
Candy came from out on the island
In the backroom she was everybody’s darlin’
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’
He said, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’
The lyrics describe several of the colourful individuals who frequented Andy Warhol’s New York studio including transwomen and actresses Holly Woodlawn (who died this month after appearing as Vivian in two episodes of the Amazon television drama series Transparent about a family with a transgender father), Candy Darling (d.1974 aged 29), and Jackie Curtis (d.1985 aged 38). Warhol was an inspiration and mentor to Reed.
The title “Walk on the Wild Side” comes from a 1956 novel by Nelson Algren of which, he remarked:
“The book asks why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives.”
The New York Times Book Review said of it: “His hell burns with passion for heaven.” It was also the source of Algren’s “three rules of life“:
“Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”
Rules to live by: Don’t be afraid of anyone
Lou Reed’s widow of a 21-year relationship and musician in her own right, Laurie Anderson, gave a speech on his behalf this year and quoted their three rules to live by:
Don’t be afraid of anyone
Get a good bullshit detector
Be really tender
“One. Don’t be afraid of anyone. Now, can you imagine living your life afraid of no one? Two. Get a really good bullshit detector. And three. Three is be really, really tender. And with those three things, you don’t need anything else.”
The Cat in the Hat, Dr Seuss
So much irreverent wisdom comes from Dr Seuss, not the least of which is this:
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” – Dr. Seuss
The most important bit of which is “be who you are“, sometimes “saying what you feel” can be worth some discretion and discernment. A past girlfriend taught me a lot about authenticity and learning to be myself has been the best journey of my life, and I’ve travelled extensively, and not without the odd international incident in the Middle East and Africa!
Whilst mid-life crises often afflict us in our forties, it is said that life begins at fifty. “A massive 92% of women in their 50s say they’re happier than they’ve ever been“. At 50, we’re over halfway and have learned hopefully to let go of the things that held us back thus far. For me, having led a double life until 40, it feels like I’m having a second bite of the cherry. If football is a game of two halves, then I’m in the mid-match break about to kick-off the second half.
“What would you be like if you were the only person in the world? If you want to be truly happy you must be that person.” – Quentin Crisp
New Year’s Resolution, New Me
I turn 49 in 2016, I’ll have been on female hormones (my male ones never worked anyway) for 6 years and I’ve finally plucked up the courage to go under the knife (6 Feb 2016) for what some would erroneously call cosmetic surgery – for many trans people, it’s life saving surgery. It’s actually a labioplasty not the usually requested vaginoplasty, and it’s probably not for the reasons one may suspect.
It’s more about a letting go of something than gaining anything new. But it’s the letting go, that was holding me back, leaving me in a literal “no man’s land” limbo the last decade.
One of my several psychiatrists (I’ve been married to one, and had four, along with a couple of psychologists) once said to me:
“You are the most reluctant transsexual I’ve ever met!”
I’ve tried everything from Christian deliverance and healing, denial, suicide, to sex and body workshops, self-development work, and yet more therapy and therapists, to avoid being me. I’m not expecting surgery to change me, rather to free myself up from some unnecessary encumbrances, literally! I dealt with the emotional baggage some time ago, now for the physical baggage. I expect to be travelling lighter from now on.
3 Rules of Life: Be Real, Be You, Be Free
“Sorry for being me but I have great difficulty being anybody else” – Spike Milligan
As Oscar Wilde never said, instead it appears to have been some millennial advertising slogan, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken”. What Oscar did say was:
“One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead” (1882)
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” (1890)
Well, I tried the mask and he lied. Dropping the public persona and allowing the vulnerable inner me to step out and lead my real life. It has been undeniably scary but a ride nonetheless, and the journey is only just beginning. 2015 feels like it is the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end of my old life. 2016 will allow me to move forward with a bit less of my body and a whole lot more of me.
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.
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.)