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Hi, I'm Tess. I'm thirty and live in London. Dances with Squirrels is a blog for my collected stories and stuff. My books are available on your friendly regional Amazon in paperback and e-book. Comedy fantasy, The Gatekeeper on the Docks is here and The Ghastly London Ghost Stories Omnibus is here. If you'd like to follow me on Twitter, I'm @TessStenson

Friday, 14 February 2014

Is it transphobic?

I don’t talk about transgender issues often, which is something that I find odd when I really think about it. Being a transgender woman myself I think that maybe I should talk about it more often, but frankly it just bores me most of the time. I’ve had my whole life to muse on it to myself and work out my own feelings on the subject, I don’t feel the need to go off and rant or argue about it with other people too. This is partly because there are other people far more eloquent and wiser than me who are better able to discuss the finer points, but also because most people just don’t care. We live in a lovely world. It may be trite, but it’s worth reaffirming it every once in a while. This lovely world is, in my experience, dominated by equally lovely people who in this age of moral and civil enlightenment are quite happy to let others live their lives as they so choose and how they are best able to.

However, I sometimes read articles, opinion pieces or shouting matches that just depress the hell out of me. Being transgender in this world is not especially easy, and it often feels like it paints an easy target on my back for people to take advantage of. My story isn’t exactly special; like many trans-folk I’ve suffered abuse, both verbal and on (thankfully) rare occasion, physical. I’ve had further threats of violence, been in situations where I’ve been made to feel sexually vulnerable. I’ve had people spit at me, I’ve been laughed out of prospective job interviews because the interviewer found the very notion of a trans-woman hilarious, I’ve had work colleagues belittle and harass me and in general people making my life far harder and devastating than it ought to be. I’ve met strangers who seem to think that they have the indelible right to question me and dive into my personal private history. It seems that every other day there is a new story about transphobic hate mongering or articles that trivialise or even demonise trans people. Make no mistake, transphobia is a very real phenomenon and it is utterly soul wrenching to see happen. I am, however, so pleased to see that it’s an issue that is being taken seriously and people are becoming more aware of its impact and what it actually means to be transgender.

So what does it mean to be transgender? I can only say what it means to me. Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you all with personal sob stories and the like, suffice to say that for me, it’s about quality of life. Before transitioning, I was a mess emotionally. I did my best to hide it, but there came the point where I could no longer hide it. I admitted first to myself the big scary thing that had haunted me my whole life up until then, that I couldn’t function in the male gender I had had up until then. Then I admitted it to friends and family. I sought help and was overwhelmed by how much support I received from those around me and from the medical professionals I saw. The brutal truth is that that support and the NHS aid saved my life. Eventually I made peace with my own gender issues and I settled into what has since become a far better quality of life. I am now at a place in my life where I am more mentally stable, my gender issues don’t keep me up at night and I can look at myself in a mirror without wanting to tear my eyes out. In short, I’m a trans-woman and I am very comfortable and so much happier than I ever was before with my place in life.

What is the reason for it? I’ve no clue. Really, I don’t know what makes someone transgender. Is there a physiological reason? Is it purely a social construct that has gone a bit awry in my case? Is it something that happened during early childhood? I don’t know; I had a normal and safe childhood, bar from the gender issues I’d harboured as long as I can remember. So I really don’t know what makes someone transgender. I’m not really sure it matters to me. I made the choice to transition as it was the only thing that I felt could help me (aided in my decision making by family, friends and the well considered help from the medical professional I came across). It was a calculated risk to transition and I believe that it has paid off for me.

I say this in the hope that it may give an insight into how my transgender status affects me. When I see articles that attack transgender people or seem to imply that they are all deluded and abominations, or that they are just mutilated males (in male to female cases) and as such should be treated exactly as you would a regular dude, it cuts deep. I don’t want to think that the world is so callous as to so rigidly dictate exactly how people can and cannot live their life and define their own path. I don’t actually want people to treat me differently at all. I’d like to be treated with the same respect and dignity that you should be treating everyone else with. I’m a transgender woman, not a biological female; this is true, but please don’t deny me the use of the pronouns or gender role I have grown into because of my biological history. Don’t punish me because of my gender identity dysphoria and the disconnect between my genetics and the gender role that gives me the greatest chance of a good quality of life. I don’t want to take anything from biological and genetic females; I don’t want to subvert the struggle women have had for millennia or barge in and dictate new terms for them. I’m just trying to live my life in the gender role that is most comfortable and syncs the best with my dumb head.

I hope that makes sense and that I’m not trivialising anything or stepping on anyone’s toes, but it brings me to the reason for this stream of consciousness. I read an article today about the differences in terminology. Put simply, there is a biological definition for sex and then there is the social construct of gender. Two different things. One based on physical characteristics and functions, the other based on historical and social ideas to define (and sadly to often subjugate) roles in the world. That’s not the whole story but I don’t want to just rewrite what the article itself says, go read it. As I mentioned, I know I’m not biologically female, this is not a revelation. I never will be. Likewise I’m not sure I could really say I’m biologically male, I just don’t have those parts or functions anymore (though obviously my genetics are a different matter). As for the gender part; I live in a female gender role and I identify as a trans-woman (note the trans part). Again, I don’t think that this is such a big story. Most people are quite happy to let me live this way, it is the only way I can live. Most people are lovely and supportive and I couldn’t have done it without them. Thank you. I was rather surprised when I saw that this article was controversial. It all seemed like a no-brainer to me.

It seemed that some in the transgender community took objection to the article and started flinging accusations of transphobia and bigotry. Whoa there, slow down a bit! Of course people are free to disagree with an article, but is it really a hate piece? Is there really a transphobic message? I don’t know the author of it, and to be honest I’d never come across her before, but I just can’t see how it is a transphobic or bigoted piece. Writing a piece about the biological definitions of sex isn’t bigoted. The piece doesn’t deny the right of transgender people, like me, to exist or live in their acquired role. It is just doing what it set out to do, define what sex means. Sex and gender are different things, this is not new information. It’s something that most have been agreeing on for decades, if not longer.

Transphobia is a problem. A real problem. It’s great that it gets more mainstream attention and that people are becoming more and more willing to talk about it, but let’s be more careful with where we fling accusations. It’s something I’ve felt for a while, but the transgender community can (at times) seem far too willing to use the T-word and close down discussion on topics such of sex and gender. It’s not always comfortable to talk about and can leave ourselves open to fresh attacks, but it is something that needs to be addressed. Open and free discussion on it does more good for the cause of transgender rights and legitimacy than bullying down people that try to get a discussion going and flinging unwarranted accusations to those who could be an ally. It saddens me to see apparent knee jerk reactions such as those that Gia Milinovich’s article garnered. Creating a straw man doesn’t help anyone and just serves to alienate us further from those who we have no need to fight with.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if we want the respect we deserve; we need to respect others too just as much. In fact fuck it; why not try respecting everyone equally?


  1. That was so well put - respect just sums it up.

  2. Hi, sorry, I hope you don't mind me asking this, but it's something that I genuinely don't understand. You say you identify as a trans-woman and note the trans part, but why do you need to include the 'trans' modifier, are you not just a woman? (and I don't mean 'just' as in merely!). Would you mind explaining to an idiot?

  3. I don't mind at all. I personally add the trans prefix because I find it helps to illustrate that rather than being born into a female gender role it is one that I have acquired with my transition. Although I'm happy to be referred to as a woman (and as noted I do use women pronouns), I can't ignore the fact that I am also transgender. Does that answer your question? Sorry if I didn't explain it very well.

    1. Thanks so much for replying. I guess from the way you said it it seemed like you wouldn't be happy to be referred to as a woman and that is what confused me, as I always assumed that was kind of the point, that you are a woman.

  4. Thanks for writing this. I often feel like there are two clashing sides now in feminism, and if one doesn't fully agree with the ideology of either side, one is pretty much not welcome. I dislike the quick knee jerk reactions to people stating basic biology, and I'm creeped out by certain people calling transgender people delusional, sick, or making nasty references to their body parts. None of that is ok with me! I feel like some people are in feminism as if it's a club rather than a set of ethical principles that make life better for everyone. Best wishes to you!

  5. Hi, I'm also a trans woman. I totally agree with you. In fact, I don't even mind saying that I'm biologically male. It's just...true. To pretend otherwise is to dismiss an important part of my life story. I'm not ashamed to be a trans women, so I why should I care if people know that I'm male? I can be beautiful and have XY chromosomes at the same time.

    Also, I hate the restroom wars. I just wish businesses and public buildings would have single-occupancy restrooms. I don't want to be in a space where I'm not safe, nor in a space where I'm not welcome. I just want to be able to use a restroom if I need to.

    Honestly, I'm usually afraid to discuss these things because I worry that people in my community will look down on me, so it was really great to read this piece.

  6. I don't understand the restroom wars either. I've never felt unsafe around people who aren't in the typical gender roles. I'm for transgender women being able to use the bathroom they need to in order to be safe. And I support us all addressing the problem of: why can't we have unisex bathrooms? Because of the real creepers: they are causing everyone to be unsafe. I'm not saying we need unisex bathrooms. I'm saying that we know who is causing everyone trouble, and why would feminists fight among themselves when the danger is pretty clearly coming from a small minority of people who threaten everyone, including other men? In the meantime, I'll vote and advocate for access to the right bathroom for transgender women to be able to go about their day. For goodness sake, it's 2014 and we still are jumping at bogeymen when the real creepers are getting away with things left and right. Sorry for the rant!