Defying Dogwhistles, or, They Can Prize the Word ‘Female’ From My Cold, Dead Hands.

A thing I see a lot is cis feminists, concerned with trans inclusion, get very troubled by the use of the words ‘female’ and ‘male’, as opposed to “man and “woman”.

They have reason. Female and male are dogwhistles – terms that transphobic feminists recognise and can signify in certain contexts that another transphobic feminist is talking. The meaning it communicates in these circumstances is in line with some well-meaning early third wave feminist texts, which proposed female as male as biological sex; man and woman as gender. Transphobic feminists thus use female to exclude trans women, and insist that one can “objectively” refer to trans women as male – As transphobe and science groupie Gia Milinovich insists, it’s biological sex, you can’t argue with that.

The first problem with this is that trans women certainly cannot be easily excluded from biological femaleness, and in this way, alongside the existence of intersex people, we see that the sex dimorphism such a use of male and female implies is bullshit.

In this case, the issue is not biological premises but the language we use, so I want to focus on the second problem: It’s linguistic bullshit. We live in an essentialist society that has no interest in separating sex and gender along these neat lines. In common English usage, man and woman suggest the presence of certain physical traits; male and female are very much gendered terms. Talk about, say, “a female doctor”, people will hear ”a doctor that is a woman” as much as they hear “a doctor with a vagina”.

Transphobic feminists work just the same – they’re as likely to talk about trans women as men as they are male. What’s more, their usage of female and male is certainly a deliberate aggression against trans women, knowing that they’re terms that undermine trans women’s genders. So to keep grasping at scientific objectivity, in the linked article Gia Milinovich goes on about animal biology, where seemingly male and female are used merely as biological terms – an animal can’t have a gender!

Wait, an animal totally can. Not only domesticated animals but wild animals we take a liking to (like Mr. and Mrs. Mókus in my parents’ back garden – Mókus is Hungarian for squirrel; the more you know) get gendered pronouns, she or he, to match their female or male status. Further, such animals are often affectionally prefixed “girl” or “boy”; I’ve been introduced to a fair few girl cats and boy cats. Again, there are no separable sex terms and gender terms in an essentialist world.

So what is the difference between woman/man and male/female? It’s not a hard rule, but the main one I can observe in common English usage is that woman/man sits more comfortable as a noun; female/male as an adjective. One might talk about wanting to see more women in medicine, translating to more female doctors and female scientists. I’d observe that the slight linguistic discomfort of using the terms the other way around is played upon by the derogatory language of misogyny; men’s rights activists talk about the pain inflicted upon them by “females”, and people talk in derogatory terms about “women drivers”. ”women MPs” and so on.

I’m comfortable with female as an adjective. I’m happy to use it to refer to myself. I’m a woman, so I get to do that. I refer to myself at times as a female urbanist, a female transport planner or a female cartographer (these being things I do, if not right now in a stable employment kind of way). The very last thing I want to do is to give transphobes power, or in any way legitimise the bullshit they say. I feel like that’s exactly what I’d be doing by allowing them to take ownership of that perfectly good adjective; removing it from my vocabulary and handing it to them for the sole purpose of prejudice against trans women.

In common usage both female/male and man/woman are tainted by the gender essentialism of the society around us. The meaning of neither is pure, despite the insistences of transphobes to the contrary. While there’s a reason for being uncomfortable with using terms that transphobes like to use, my preference for subverting these things is to use both female/male and woman/man to refer to women and men, trans and cis, without apology to anyone’s flawed biological essentialism.

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On Engaging With Bigots

Content note: Discusses fascism and transphobia.

Occasionally, I’ll come across a well-meaning but ignorant cis feminist engaging with transphobic and otherwise bigoted “feminists”. Normally they’ll explain that the points they’re making at that particular moment are decent (and radical feminism is certainly capable of making good points) and they’re not taking about trans people right now. They’ll ignore what trans women are constantly trying to explain, which is that these people thrive on attention.

With that in mind, here are some good points from the BNP manifesto that you get to when you take a fine tooth comb to the xenophobia, racism, sexism, social conservatism and general bigotry that dominates it.

  • To introduce a new Bill of Rights which will guarantee certain basic civil
    liberties.
  • To make rail travel affordable once again by reversing the disastrous
    privatisation process which has grossly inflated ticket prices.
  • To undertake not to interfere with the sovereignty of any other nation, and the Middle East in particular.
  • To reject ID cards as an undesirable representation of the surveillance society.
  • To place each local council under a legal duty to build a number of homes set to a percentage of the waiting list total each year.
  • To oppose the privatisation of natural monopolies such as Royal Mail.

All very nice. Still Fascists. And a far greater threat when they possess credibility.

There are times both to ignore and to fight. There isn’t a minute in the day for positive engagement with bigots because of the “good points” they make, when that attention is precisely what they want. There are plenty of decent people with whom we can talk about compulsory heterosexuality, gender norms and male violence; or civil liberties, nationalisation and foreign wars.

Great Portland Street, Glasgow and Queer Patchwork

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Two drinks. It’s a particular point; a point at which I’m not perceptibly drunk (provided I wasn’t on a completely empty stomach), but at which, at those times when I’m feeling anything but anxiety, every element of my surroundings comes to invoke places and states from my past that led to my present mental state and notion of self.

Great Portland Street station has much of its original brickwork visible. It has a curved brick ceiling; on one end steel beams cut across that ceiling for reasons best known to the Victorian engineers that built it. Though they share such elements rather than look exactly alike, Great Portland Street was as I waited there the underground suburban railway stations of Glasgow. It was Glasgow, it was escape into a great city, it was relating to another human being as I hadn’t before, it was smoking weed on a bed with purple sheets and several dodgy springs, it was sex with a woman that felt way more queer than sex with a man, it was painting and dialect poetry, it was feeling a genuine emotional response to art, it was art and queerness and sex being inseparably parts of the experience of a place and time that’s overwhelming to recall now, but in which I can find a lot of what my experiences would look like a few years in the future.

I’ve been doing a lot of personal reflection while over a period of months putting together a personal zine and thinking about the past that led up to who I am now. And I’ve been thinking about how with queer people and with trans people, others tend to be concerned with finding a single defining moment of self-discovery. For me at least, it’s more a patchwork of innumerable little scraps picked up over the 24 years leading up to now. And occasionally in the fabric of the city I see patterns that remind me of some of those scraps.

I say patchwork because (aside from the fact it relates to a particular elephant that was clearly an analogy for queerness) it’s a non-linear form and the order in which it was created isn’t obvious. It’s going to be unclear without some serious spying when exactly the time I’m talking about here happened, and I’m happy to leave it that way. It was one of a set of experiences that I did my best to disregard because the implications of who I was were scary and I lacked a language to understand them. I returned for some time to attempting some kind of normality, to be disrupted again by another person I’d come to know. These experiences accumulated to make my present understanding of myself, but they sure as hell weren’t a linear progression towards good things.

I write this for no reason greater than personal reflection. But let me finish with this, the central point both of discussing queer experience and of intersectional feminism. Shit is complicated, the world is complicated, and our experiences are complicated. And that’s alright. It’s not necessary to satisfy the desire of others for easy answers on who we are at the expense of sacrificing the beautiful complexity of our personal, emotional, social and intellectual lives. Embrace the chaos, because these things were never really orderly.

Photograph by flickr user jaggers

How Cissexist Partiarchy Works

Content note: Transphobia is discussed, rape is mentioned without description.

One common theme going on in the writing of feminists that wish to exclude or disregard trans women is the idea that the feminism of trans women and others that don’t hate trans women wants to deny cis women the space to talk about their bodies and how they relate to their oppressions. I most recently noticed this when Glosswitch, whose gradual progression into serious transphobia I’ve been watching recently, creates a straw (wo)man feminist that wants to pretend what she calls “female biological functions” don’t exist.

Thing is… we get it. We actually get it. If you’re aware of how cissexism works you’re more or less bound to get it.

Knowing cissexism, we know exactly how a cissexist patriarchy throws a bunch of things together into womanhood, which it hates. It hates women. That means it hates the bodies it associates with women, the behaviours and expressions it associates with women, anyone that is a woman. (I’m going to say patriarchy a lot, by the way. To be clear, I’m talking about the totality of actions of individuals and institutions driven by the subjugation of women.)

It’s true that patriarchy associates vaginas, uteri and other things with women. It therefore either despises them or sees them only as objects to be penetrated and make babies. When Chella Quint speaks brilliantly on period shaming, she’s talking about patriarchy. When we talk about denial of abortion rights, we’re talking about patriarchy. A patriarchy that’s cissexist; that therefore doesn’t care, even acknowledge, that trans men are caught up in those things too (not that we shouldn’t care).

Patriarchy hates women just as vehemently whether or not it knows about their genitals or other sex characteristics. Being cissexist, there doesn’t even need to be a conscious assumption. If it’s not actively reading a woman as trans (which itself doesn’t guarantee much in the way of sex characteristics), it’s passively reading a woman as cis. Without needing to actively examine bodily characteristics, it affords women lesser social status compared to men of otherwise similar status. It rejects their job application, ignores their sexual desires or lack of, it screams “bitch” or “dyke” or “slut” at them in the street. Having not a single uterus to my name, I experience all of these things.

It associates feminine appearance and expression with women too. Those read as feminine women are being frivolous and artificial; things taken as a reflection on their personality. If they are raped, they were asking for it. Those read as feminine men are the most dangerous of gender deviants, far more so than masculine women (men are better than women, why wouldn’t you want to be masculine?) and receive a huge amount of violence and hatred.

Supposing you’re a trans woman being read as a woman (as you’ll recall, passively read as cis), you can’t get the dick-you-may-or-may-not-have out and get a pardon and apology. Hey, I wrote about that already. On the contrary, it’s a greater offence to not only be a woman (enough to be read as such), but not even be a viable sex object for straight men. Or not someone a straight man wants to admit is a viable sex object. What the hell use are you, then?

And on that last point, we go full circle. Patriarchy is obsessed with women’s bodies and their ability to be penetrated and make babies. If a woman can do that, she sure as hell ought to. If a woman can’t or won’t do either then she’s useless. In the case of trans women, even a fraud. The oppression of cis and trans women is, then, cut from the same cloth. We know this.

Patriarchy does not care for your definitions of biological sex. It does not care for a distinction of “natural” sex or “artificial” gender. It hates women. It hates whoever it’s judging as enough-of-a-woman at a particular moment. Yes, sex characteristics are part of that. So are many other ways of determining enough-of-a-woman. If we’re to be honest about patriarchal oppression, it means acknowledging all of it, not just the bits about vaginas, uteri and whatever other sex characteristics suit one’s definitions.

A Smug Post About Sex

NSFW. Discusses sex experiences.

Since blogger-that-makes-me-uncomfortable-quite-often Glosswitch coined the term “smugsexual” and things erupted on twitter, since which the hole has continued to be dug, it seems like it’s time for terrible feminists like me to be smug about sex.

I don’t have any good commentary to add to it all right now. If you want some good discussion that gets into personal experiences of biphobia, do read what Stavvers posted on the matter. But I was thinking about sex and my life, and I do feel the need to take a moment to be smug about sex experiences right now.

It took me fucking long enough to get there. It took me 23 years of life to get to a point at which I date and sleep with other women in a way that’s understood by both parties as homosexual; a way that means dating someone because you’re like each other, not because you’re each other’s complementary opposite or some shit like that. For that reason, it took me 23 years of life; it took me attempts to date either women or men from the (fundamentally wrong) position of being a man, to actually really enjoy and be comfortable with dating and sleeping with other people.

And it took me 24 years of life and the assistance of more estrogen than I ought to be taking to have orgasms like I have now.

Actually, I’m not sure I ever really had orgasms before that. Either that, or they were just crappy; some heightened sensation in my genitals for a few seconds and… basically just that. And not even that though PIV sex. I would sometimes express pleasure that I wasn’t really feeling so that partners didn’t think they were failing (very much more so with male partners; make of that what you will).

It took me 24 years of life before I felt orgasms that spread right through my body; that cause me to make sounds of pleasure involuntarily; that make me lose all ability to produce conscious thoughts; that make me screw my eyes closed and devote all my attention to other senses. Orgasms that last more than a few seconds, and afterwards give me feelings of closeness to the person I’m in bed with that I’d not felt in the course of sex before. Orgasms that come close to explaining the fuss other people make about orgasms.

It’s really difficult to get there, and it requires that me and a partner are both really into what’s going on and want to put time and work into each other’s enjoyment of it. I can’t get there at all by myself (indeed, my sexuality requires others and the idea of pleasing others far more than it used to; a result certain feminists may prefer were buried). And sex that does not conclude with a magnificent orgasm or any orgasm at all can still be enjoyable and worthwhile.

It took me fucking long enough, but I got there and it’s awesome. I think I get to be smug about this one, right? I have not, after all, “shagged away [my] privilege and ended up on the margins of society“. Rather, I ended up being marginalised when I realised that I was a woman, and at least shagging can be a good experience as a result.

Indeed, that marginalisation comes back to me because I have sexuality and talk about it. I’m told I can’t be a real lesbian. That I’m an autogynephile – that I’m just fetishising the idea of myself as a woman. That by enjoying sex and talking about it, I’m contributing to the objectification of women, pandering to the male gaze and/or reinforcing gender stereotypes. That by not being hetero- and mono-sexual I make other trans women look bad. This all comes from those that should be my sisters as well as my oppressors.

I’m pretty sure the women being sneered at are much the same as me. We find ourselves marginalised on the basis of gender and/or sexuality. We find ourselves shamed by other women under the guise of feminism. Fuck all that; we’re entitled to our sexuality. And it’s not always easy for us, but the least we should be able to expect is that we enjoy the sex we have.

On The Male Privilege That I Totally Have.

Trigger warning: Transphobia is discussed in detail.

You’ve probably heard it on various not very nice parts of the internet. I, as a trans woman, have male privilege. This is because I was socialised as a man, or born as one, or something else where I totally was unambiguously a man until, in a small flat in Western Helsinki, I made a post on facebook in which I came out to my friends and abruptly became something different out of nowhere. The privilege of that maleness that totally defined me before that point remains like last night’s excessive alcohol intake in my bloodstream, making me the privileged half of the species.

Where this notion of remanent privilege hinges on biological determinism, it doesn’t deserve the time of day. When it’s talking about the history of how a trans woman was treated at any such time as they were read as reasonably well-conforming males probably still doesn’t deserve the time of day, but requires a more thorough exploration of things to properly engage with. I suspect one would find it basically impossible to make any generalised analysis over the class of trans women, because like everyone else, things vary wildly between how we were socialised as young people. In particular, things get messy because many of us failed abjectly at doing maleness, if we ever really tried at all.

I’m not going to go that deeply into it right now (yes, that’s what ze said). But I was thinking about the whole thing on a very warm megabus on the Northbound M1 today, and how bizarrely contradictory the whole idea of remanent male privilege feels in terms of my lived experience.

Society is deeply binarist. To the majority, there are only two genders. That majority has an amazing need to constantly be reading people’s gender all of the time, and an amazing confidence in the judgment calls they make. So there are two gender readings I’m going to get – male or female. When I get the male reading, that should supposedly privilege me over the times I get the female reading. Here’s that totally contradictory thing: It doesn’t. A female reading will grant me access to relative safety and decent treatment from strangers. If it can be sustained over a period of time, it will grant me access to non-queer spaces with relative ease, and to employment or anything else (as much as any women ever have those things). A male reading, meanwhile, threatens my safety and decent treatment; access to non-queer spaces, employment and so on.

Clearly, there’s something else going on that makes a male gender reading different from that being given to, well, men. I present very much as female, in an awesome queer femme kind of way. Other things like my body and my voice are coming to deviate from appearing male too. So my appearance is something that makes people afraid, angry or confused; something they see as strange and wrong. Or I’m just seen as a plain old gay boy or queer, with much the same effect. Perhaps a source of confusion is that under male supremacy, a man is something I should want to be; perhaps the fact I’m not being that challenges the very idea that men really are that great.

There’s something else going on when someone isn’t conforming to the gender they’ve been read as. Trans oppression (or queer oppression; they’re much the same in a society that doesn’t understand trans-ness), as we can call it. And do. Oppression that people that are cis, getting the correct gender reading and not being seen as too gender deviant don’t experience. Something that has the sort of the effects I described in the previous paragraph, whereby the fact we’re seen at least sometimes as deviating from what’s judged to be our assigned gender is a problem for people, including ones with power over our lives.

There are things I want to explore more deeply in the near future. For now, here’s the point: My lived experience is something in which a reading as male doesn’t make things good in any way; it makes things shitty. It makes a lot of things worse than if I was being read as a cis female. Such is the nature of trans oppression as it intersects with my gender. Our feminism should be grounded in women’s actual lived experience, and going on about male privilege in trans women is doing the opposite of that.

The Perils of Being Trans and Mental

Here’s a thing about me: My mental health is fucking shite. Depression underscores everything that goes on in my life. It got particularly bad in the last 24 hours. For certain reasons, I became consumed with regret and associated self-hatred, something I have a tendency to do. I spent much of that time crying. I wanted to do things to hurt myself, and I just about managed to avoid that. Just about.

This reminded me of my need to have some kind of serious help from people that are trained professionals in mental health. I’m woefully ill-equipped to deal with things myself. The lack of that support impacts upon me, and it leads to things spilling out over my friends. They see my tweets and facebook updates that desperately cry for attention, they get my texts and calls. One of my housemates found herself sitting with me as I cried when she should have been getting her sleep before work a couple of times recently.

Those able to handle this stuff are wonderful, and their talking to me helps things a great deal. But it can only help so much when they don’t necessarily know how best to deal with my mental health as it manifests itself at that particular time. Certainly, neither the strategy of being pragmatic and positive, nor vague attempts at comforting, make things very much better. What tends to happen is I keep moaning until I feel I’ve moaned too much and little has changed.

And I’m probably never going to access what support is available from the NHS. Why? Because the NHS are also handling my transition, which is the most important thing to me, more important than mere matters of being horribly depressed.

Are the two things mutually exclusive? The problem is that I don’t know. We that are transitioning on the NHS know well that any excuse will be used to delay or stop the transition related care we’re getting or we’re going to get. In discussions of NHS trans support, there’s always a notion that we must have mental health problems only such as we can persuade medical practitioners is directly related to dysphoria – anything else can demonstrate that we’re not capable of being certain about transitioning (for we must be certain). We hear horror stories demonstrating that issues of mental health appearing on one’s medical records can be a really bad idea.

Would that happen to me for pretty routine mental health support? The problem is that I don’t know. Like so many people transitioning on the NHS, I want to take no risks whatsoever. There are prescribed hormones taken safely under medical supervision at stake. There is a cunt at stake. Both of those things are important to me.

We suffer a complete lack of  clarity in what should and shouldn’t affect one’s ability to transition. Everything comes down to the judgment of clinical staff. That is, the gatekeepers; the same gatekeepers to whom we must appear perfectly gender-normative, question nothing, not be at all queer, just in case they decide we’re not trans enough.  I find myself not accessing mental health support I need, just in case the gatekeepers think it looks bad on my medical records. Perhaps I’m wrong and it would be just fine. The problem is that I don’t know.

These gatekeepers are in place to restrict transition to only the most worthy. Some trans people have reported doctors openly saying that it’s to be sure their budget is spent well. We must be worthy, and just about anything can render us unworthy. Fuck that. Trans people have pretty universally struggled long and hard to get to a point of accepting the need to transition; when we seek support for our transition it’s because we need to get on with it. Instead we spend years proving ourselves worthy as we jump through the hoops. Our freedom to keep living our lives during transition requires a system that seeks not to define worthiness, but to collaboratively seek the best outcome with each trans patient. No Gatekeepers, No Masters.