Monday, 8 June 2009

On Dr Barry and other famous trans men, or, all the hotties I met at Pride

As ever, I am more than a little rubbish at updating. I mean, I go out, I meet people, I talk about stuff, and I think to myself "I have thoughts on this, which I would like to share. I shall blog tonight." And then I come home, and Sir Dickie and Moyah miaow at me and demand cuddles, or J demands cuddles (less with the miaowing though), or I go and dig the allotment and think of a really really good post about communities based around my allotment, and then I come home and fall asleep.

But J is out tonight, and the furry overlords appear to have worked out how to use the cat flap, and I am, for once, undisturbed. And, kittens, how much I have to say.

For starters, this weekend was Pride (Oxford Pride, in case you're wondering. Dreaming spire and screaming queers, that's us). Now, I have very mixed feelings about Pride. On the one hand, I really do love the feeling of community that comes with it, and I do love that there are suddenly loads of queer-themed events, and I do love love love the drag queens and singers on stage, and I love, as much as any femme, dressing up and going out and feeling fucking fabulous. What I do not love is the total erasure of trans identity that comes with certain Prides (London Pride, I'm looking at you. And I have other plans for that day). I do not love the rampant commercialisation (it has rainbows on it! Buy it!). And I do not love being treated like a straight girl by what should be my community.

However, Oxford Pride surprised me in very good ways. See, this was my first Oxford Pride (having lived in Brighton for a few years before this, I was pretty used to the whole-town-rainbowed-up thing). It is explicitly trans and queer friendly. It is totally grassroots. I've met the organiser, and a bunch of people who help run it, and they are all fucking awesome. I volunteered to do litter-picking (give something back, people), and people mostly picked up their own litter. And the hotties. Oh, the hotties! I ended up at the local dyke bar, totally surrounded by older butches in checked shirts. Hoo boy, do I love me those older butches. There's something about them that I don't quite understand, but that leaves me weak at the knees. Maybe it's the cocky swagger, maybe its the rough-round-the-edges thing, maybe it's the way they've been around long enough to recognise and appreciate me as a femme, maybe it's the hint of vulnerability in the experience in their eyes - maybe it's the whole fucking packet. Luckily, J completely indulges me in this - not least by the fact that ze's growing older by the day!

I think a lot of it, actually, is the way that older butches seem to be comfortable with femmes. A lot of times, when I go into trendy dyke bars or gay bars, I get this look from other gay women which basically says "What are you doing here?" And that sort of hurts. Because I feel, rather stupidly, that, because I'm in a queer space, I have a right to expect to be read as queer. And young, andro, candy bar style, painfully trendy dykes never do. I have a theory, actually - where a 'scene' exists, an aesthetic exists, and people are expected to conform to that aesthetic. Funnily enough, J always said that ze felt like ze was slightly ostracised for being a bit too butch. And my theory goes like this - younger people still have that insecurity of childhood, and that need to prove that they fit in - they are included, by the very fact that someone else is excluded. Someone else doesn't fit in, which means that they do fit in.

I saw a lecture by Judith 'Jack' Halberstam a couple months ago (now there's a fucking gorgous butch), in which ze discussed the invisibility of the femme identity. Femmes are not seen in mainstream society. We walk down the street, and no-one gives us a second glance, because we look, to the untrained eye, as if we are straight. Never mind that there is a queer femme aesthetic, which is bold, and brash, and hot, and sexy. We wear skirts and/or heels, lipstick and/or eyeliner, so we are seen as conforming to gender stereotypes, no matter how much we wrestle with these to ensure that it is our femininity we are expressing, not the homogenous femininity handed to us by an advertising industry all to keen to get our cash. I mean, I have a very specific relationship with my gender. I love flat-pack furniture, tool-boxes, baggy jeans, band t-shirts (and ripping them to show off my cleavage), bright red lippie, not shaving my armpits, shaving my legs and plucking my eyebrows, wearing skirts and brightly coloured tights - to me, this is totally queering the feminine norm. I get it that not everyone performs femme like this, and that's cool. And I get that straight people expect other people to be straight, and don't pick up on this stuff.

But I'm invisible in the lesbian and gay community as well. They don't see me as femme, unless I'm partnered with a butch woman. My sexuality is only visible when put into context by someone else's gender expression.

And I don't want to be invisible. J has been so much shit through being visibly queer, that I feel like crap not taking some of that shit on. I know that's daft, but it's part of the reason I feel like I owe it to all the wonderful people I love to come out as often and as loudly as possible, to advocate for trans rights and call out racism. I recognise that I have privilege in this area, even at the same time as it's actually really fucking irritating and occasionally isolating. But what can you do? It's totally fucking worth it for those moments when an older butch in a checked shirt says "Yeah, I remember meeting you. You were wearing that amazing dress-thing, and I think you were flirting with me." And I giggle, and she smirks, and for a minute, I am seen for what I am, and I fucking love this dance.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

On Returning, or, yay, online again!

After a lengthy period with no interweb, I am online again! With plenty to say, natch. Saw a Judith (Jack) Halberstam lecture (and once again made a twit of myself), moved house, met people, saw Lynee Breedlove (zomg, what a treat for the eyes and ears and funnybone), saw Jean Genet on the same night (queer electro-punk pop, highly recommended), and went on a little road trip with my mum and my sister. So a nice month all round, and plenty of blog-fodder. HOping to dig out the notes from Halberstam's lecture and share my thoughts with the three people who may or may not read this blog... Hint - I was most excited about the idea of femme invisibility - apparently, that's where our power lies.... Hmm...

Monday, 2 February 2009

On How Not to Study Transgender, or, Science: Ur Doin It Rong

So, for my work, I occasionally read journal articles. A pretty random selection of subjects, but one of the most interesting is neurology. I don't understand a lot of the finer scientific nuancess. I'm not a neurologist, and I haven't studied science since my Chemistry, Biology and Physics A-levels (I went on to do English Lit, mixed with feminism and queer theory - go figure). However, I am a big fan of science in general (a huge field, admittedly), although with the caveat that it needs to be engaged with critically. I'd like to point out right now that this could potentially be an upsetting read, as the nature of scientific studies of this kind is incredibly dehumanising. I do not want to erase the lived experience of trans lives - I merely want to point out how an understanding of these lived experiences is, in my opinion, a neccessity for studying transgenderism in any serious way.

A prime example of this would be the December edition of Brain, a leading neurology journal. Naturally, when I saw an article on gender identity, my interest was instantly piqued - as you may or may not have guessed from my blog so far, this is a subject close to my heart. Even better, the scientific commentary (an article discussing implications of new research at the beginning of the journal) was focussed on this particular piece of research. So, whilst I didn't expect the article to show any awareness of gender theory in particular, I thought that it was definitely good that this was being paid serious attention in a mainstream publication.

I was, needless to say, disappointed.

It was a reasonably orthodox piece of research - comparing the hypothalamic uncinate nuclei of transgender and cisgender brains to see if structural differences could be found between cis- and trans- subjects. The article throughout uses the term 'transexual' instead of transgender. It was briefly mentioned that 8 of the transwomen subjects had undergone surgery and hormonal treatment, one had been on hormones, and "one person with gender-identity dysphoria who had not undergone hormonal treatment" (the clear implication being that this woman was not 'truly trans'). This is exceedingly important, as hormonal changes can have an effect on the brain, as well as brain structure affecting hormone production. The authors of the research have this to say about transgenderism, which in my opinion speaks volumes about their underlying assumptions and lack of prior knowledge when they undertook this research:
"Transsexuality is the most extreme gender-identity disorder, distinguished by the unshakable conviction of belonging to the opposite sex, which often leads to a request for sex-reassignment surgery (Blanchard, 1993; Cohen-Kettenis and Gooren, 1999)."
The second major flaw was the sampling involved; 42 subjects in all, 14 control males, 11 control females, 11 MTF subjects, 1 FTM subject, and finally, 5 cismen who had been castrated due to prostate cancer.

You don't need to be a gender theorist to see the problems with this sampling. Firstly, there is no way to draw any kind of conclusion using only one transman in the study, and strongly implies a tokenism on the part of the researchers, which was also reflected in their single example of a woman who had not been on hormones. Once again, this privileges biological differences, rather than lived experience (arguably neccessary, but in my opinion, kind of missing the point about transgenderism. It's not about what's in your pants).

Secondly, transgender individuals experience gender dysphoria from a very early age, usually from childhood. To compare transwomen with men castrated after an illness usually contracted later in life is an outrage, and also pointless - unless you believe that 'maleness' lies in the bollocks (which, coincidentally, is the most concise way of describing my feelings on this theory). Once again, the research is undermined by a total lack of knowledge of the lives and experiences of trans individuals. Additionally, this implies that all transpeople involved in this study had undergone surgery, and by inference, that all transpeople have surgery, and if they have not, that they are not 'truly trans'.

The conclusion of this research? Considerable overlap between the subjects. We're apparently not actually all that different from each other, although, as expected, there were some similarities between cis- and trans- women. Clearly there was no meaningful conclusion possible between the single transman and the 11 cis-men, especially as their research was apparently confused by the fact that the transman was "homosexual" (I am going to be kind to the researchers, and assume they mean he was a gay man, rather than a lesbian), particularly as there have also been studies showing similarities between gay men and women in this area. So, all in all, there are more variations within a group than between them. Which is something I've always suspected. Who, after all, has a 'female' brain? Either all women, by virtue of being female, or none of them, as there is no such thing as a 'female' brain. Same for men.

The Scientific Commentary on this research was, if possible, even worse. After summing up the research, the author does something particularly horrible, and the saddest thing was that I wasn't particularly surprised. Shocked, yes, outraged, yes, but surprised no, as I think it's something we've all heard before. I will reproduce his final paragraph in it's entirety, as it can speak for itself. I have no comment (or at lease, I have plenty of comment, none of it printable, and any person reading this blog of a similar persuasion can probably guess the gist of it).
One day, someone may uncover a neural feature (which we might call an abnormality) underlying other, less acceptable, traits such as paedophilia: what then? There are already suggestions that head injury before the age of 13 years is more common than usual in paedophiles (Blanchard et al., 2003).
Actually, I do have a comment. A head injury is something completely different to brain structure, and any neurologist presenting this as a valid comparison should be immediately fired. Also, where did this guy get the picture that transgender is 'acceptable' in our society? Tell that to the living who, every single day, experience vile prejudice and violence. Tell that to our countless dead.

So why is this kind of research important, given the completely inconclusive results?

I think that the answer to this lies clearly in the Scientific Commentary's final paragraph. Research may be neutral - what is subsequently done with it is not. Already we have scientists trying to turn sheep gay, presumably in order to find a genetic 'cure' for queers. I personally don't believe that it is possible to isolate one cause for the magnificent spectrum of gender and sexuality. I don't think it's even desirable. If it were known what, precisely, lay behind our glorious diversity, it would be inevitable that someone would try and alter it, or prevent it, as there are so many out there who abhor our existence.

We are not problems, we do not need 'fixing'. We are you.