I read a piece recently: one of those trans horror-story pieces that starts in the Daily Mail and ends up as a debate with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain or perhaps Nick Ferrari on LBC, and that has all the ‘apparent’ right-thinking people throwing their hands in the air and claiming that the world has gone mad: "Whatever next, a man who feels he is really an elephant?" Trans debates reduced to the absurd for white cis men and women to toss between them in their sanctified game of illusory self-righteousness.
The story was about a school with 17 pupils who, to paraphrase, are ‘changing genders’. There is a bubbling expectation of public outrage all around the story. Piers is frothing and his Catholic guest is horrified, sat next to the single trans adult rolled out to represent all of transdom to try and inject some sanity into the hysteria, what we really know is that they are simply part and parcel of the now common, 'bash the mentally ill trans brigade’ routine that ends with a man like Piers saying, "Tomorrow, dear viewers, I will be coming in as a grasshopper."
The world at large imagines accidentally treading on a large, whiny grasshopper.
My thoughts on hearing the story were thank fuck. The story was in reality about a comparatively small group of children in a large school, questioning their assigned genders.
Thank fuck, I thought.
Thank fuck that we are finally beginning to realise that we control and own gender rather than it controlling and owning us. If gender has a place, its place is to please us, and it’s not for us to be spending our lives trying to please or placate it. Without us acting or performing gender, it is inert and meaningless.
I thought thank fuck that we, or more specifically the younger trans we, are taking gender by the scruff and refusing to be enthralled and captured by it in a submissive lifelong struggle to fit into its prescriptive and punishing remit. The performance of gender, be it cis or trans, is always punishing. We always lose and we only ever get to stand still in fragility, having the appearance of standing still.
The story felt like a day to celebrate, and celebrate we must because the train has already left the station and it’s not going back in the shed. We’re not going back in the shed or the closet.
The change is happening and we’ve arrived at this miraculous point a few short years after the apparent trans tipping point. There is of course a horrible kickback, a spiteful and often violent kickback, a set of people determined for the world to remain exactly as they see fit because the narrowness of the bandwidth works for them: a white cis male and some white cis female bandwidth.
But they are the very same people who were against LGB liberation and equality. I know, I lived through it, and back in the late 80s and early 90s I was part of one of the first LGBT housing cooperatives set up in London to offer security to the many young lesbian, gay or trans folk who had been kicked out of their family homes or rented homes when their sexuality had come to light. We had to hide back then most of the time. We had to be careful about our houses and their locations for fear of homophobic, lesphobic or transphobic attacks.
I recognise the same people speaking out now against our right to equality and against younger trans folk coming to their sense of authenticity at an earlier point in their lives rather than wasting year after painful year being hidden under layer upon layer of shame and fear. It is the very same people, although now they try to hide their pernicious aims by saying that they understand gay and lesbian issues but not ‘this gender stuff ’. Divide the minorities and get them to fight each other: butch lesbians and trans men, and femme gay men and trans women.
The gender binary doesn’t even really work for those people attacking us now from their binary perches. They seek to use gender to harm others and control others. If the gender binary worked so well for them, they wouldn’t be attacking us as they’d feel safe and secure, nestled in the arms of the gender binary.
The brave, wonderful young people in schools up and down the country, questioning their gender and making it fit them, are doing the work of usualising trans identities so that the generations that come after them and us will be able to enter school knowing that "becoming the best that they can be" includes "becoming the best of gender that they choose to be". This is an emerging generation who know that genitals just equal genitals, that they do not sum up gender or frame gender and that they can be altered or reconfigured to fit more comfortably. Supporting them is a joyous thing. They are life, they are future.
It’s jarring to see some trans folk – mainly older white trans women (just a tiny minority) – collaborating with our opponents and saying some pretty awful stuff about "the trans lobby indoctrinating children and ruining their lives with puberty blockers and cross sex hormones", as if they were available at the tuck shop along with the other penny chews. It’s strange to see a small group of mainly older white trans women demand that we don’t shift gender whilst at the same time saying, with some older white cis feminists, that gender needs shifting in order to free up women and girls from the yoke of gender expectation. Somehow they never countenance the idea that it might need a joint effort from us all, trans people included, to shift and gently smash the patriarchal gender roles that have dogged our world for so long. For some reason, that small group of mainly older white trans and cis men and women, assume that gender in young trans hands is a dangerous, omnipotent power that can never be trusted.
Young trans folk are not to be trusted to make gender decisions about themselves – decisions they make naturally, day in day out, by just asking the world to see and encounter them as they feel they truly are. As they feel comfortable.
Rather, that small group of mainly white older trans and cis folk would like us to continue to be funnelled through a difficult, medicalised, pathological pathway in which we are allowed access to gender through the controlled gateway of lofty ‘paternalistic gender care’. As trans folk we have been dripfed gender through the cis idea of what their gender means to them. That’s why, after surgery, my surgeon was keen to push a speculum deep inside of me, as far as it could go, and tell me my depth without my ever asking him for this information. I was made woman by his idea of a woman. Younger trans folk will change this if we allow and support them, because they will ask for more (and ironically they may ask for less): different surgeries, different pathways, different outcomes.
Of course for many of us, me included, our genital configurations need to be changed to fit us more precisely and comfortably, but the word ‘woman’ that came along with my neo-vulvic configuration didn’t make any more sense to me than the word ‘man’. I was assigned male at birth and then reassigned, shoehorned, into another gender performance model through the overly simplistic medical process. Cock equals men and vulva equals woman. As trans folk, we have to challenge the patriarchy and the gender binary in order to exist happy and true. It doesn’t mean that we can’t be women or men if that makes us feel comfortable, or nonbinary or fluid if those work for us, but we cannot be submissive to patriarchy and the gender binary and expect to find comfort within it. It is an uncomfortable space even for those who never have to question it.
Claiming trans as a destination turns the whole process on its head and asks more questions about what kind of empowered space(s) we want to evolve into. We really are the single group in society to really see gender from a much broader perspective as long as we are prepared to let go, even a little, of gender itself.
I am not placing fault with the medical structures that support gender realignment, because they exist within the same patriarchal and sexist confines and context. But one of the most common things I hear now is genderqueer, nonbinary and gender fluid people worrying if the current system of gender therapy and realignment will take them seriously and listen to them if they don’t want to take a binary pathway: if they don’t have an A and a B in their lives.
There’s real fear that they will either not be taken seriously, or that they will have to adapt their desires to fit a binary pathway. This doesn’t mean the system is broken, rather that the system needs to be reviewed alongside our contemporary notions of womanhood, feminism, masculinity and toxicity. Gender realignment or reassignment cannot exist in a vacuum outside of feminism or political meaning or exist outside of the changing face and role of gender within society. Some people will want more and some will want or need less. We have to allow for shades of grey, and rather than just asking if people feel like a woman or feel like a man, let’s encourage people to describe how they feel, then hear them and trust them.
If I could have done, I would have taken blockers at twelve because I knew deep down that the feelings rising up at puberty were confirming a maleness that made me feel acutely uncomfortable and at odds with the world. I felt outside of my body. Deep down my soul was never male. I would have taken blockers and I would always have had my trans-affirming surgery, only, for me, I wish it could have been seen and spoken of as trans-affirming rather than binary-affirming, which never made sense.
Trans provides this kind of critically creative framework for this exploration and denunciation of the most harmful aspects of gender. When I look down at my genitals, or lie with my legs open and study them in a mirror, I don’t perceive male or female. I experience and feel them as being only trans. For me there is a third way but it isn’t a third gender, it is simply a movement away from gender to a grey space that isn’t about confirmation. My genitals certainly don’t need a gender reveal party.
Trans Power is out now on Jessica Kingsley Publishers.