Being Visible #GirlsLikeUs

Today is the International Trans Day of Visibility. It is held at the opposite end of the year from the Day of Remembrance, and the idea is to have a positive alternative to that dark shadow, a time in which the achievements of trans people can be celebrated. Unfortunately it is often hard to find much to celebrate.

I did my bit yesterday. Two of the stars of My Transsexual Summer, Sarah Savage and Karen Gale, were due to appear at a nightclub in Bristol. Prior to that, Bristol Pride organized a special event in conjunction with TransBristol that would allow local trans people to meet with Sarah and Karen in a more private setting. I went along to do my bit of being a (hopefully) positive role model.

It was a lovely evening, and I met lots of new people. Sadly I didn’t get to chat much to Sarah and Karen, but I’ve met them before and it was more important to let them have time with new people. What I did do was chat to some of the cis folks there. In particular I chatted quite a bit to Peter Main, a gay man who will shortly become the new Lord Mayor of Bristol. Peter is very keen to do something positive for the local LGBT community while he is Mayor, and I was delighted to see him determined to ensure that trans people are included in that.

In addition I got to meet a young lady who is one of the LGBT liaison officers for Avon & Somerset police. She and her girlfriend, who works on Bristol Pride, had gone along to make contact with trans people so that we knew we had someone we could come to if we were in trouble. The contrast to the way the world was when I transitioned is startling, and heartwarming.

Jenna TalackovaMoving on to other people, by far the most visible trans person around at the moment is Jenna Talackova. This Canadian girl was kicked out of the Miss Universe Canada contest because she is not a “natural born female”. Beauty pageants are a minefield for trans women. If we compete in them (or indeed take on any other career that relies on our good looks) then we get yelled at by the RadFems for reinforcing the gender binary. But if we don’t share Jenna’s good looks then we get laughed at for failing to live up to social standards of feminine appearance. Just like a woman has to be twice as good as a man to hold down an equivalent job, so a trans woman has to be twice as beautiful as a cis woman to be deemed pretty enough to count as female. The excellent Mercedes Allen does her usual fine job of tiptoeing through the minefield from both a trans and Canadian perspective here.

There are a couple of salient points to be raised about Jenna’s case. As usual, people are making stupid comments about how she is “really a man”, but in a very real sense she has never been one. Jenna is one of the lucky younger generation of trans people who are able to start hormone treatment very young. She may have spent part of her life living as a boy, but she never went through puberty as a male. Her adolescence was spent under the influence of estrogen, not testosterone. Then there is this question of being a “natural born woman”. Jenna, as far as I know, was born naturally. So was I. I also have a birth certificate attesting that I was born female. That is one of the benefits I acquired under the UK’s Gender Recognition Act. Canada, I guess, does not have a similar law. Perhaps it should.

The best comment on Jenna’s case, however, was this article in the Huffington Post by trans actress, Laverne Cox. She neatly sidesteps the issue of beauty pageants by asking whether trans people are allowed to dream. Jenna’s dream growing up might have been to be a beauty queen, and looking at her she surely deserves to succeed. But growing up trans doesn’t just debar you from such contests, it debars you from all sorts of careers and life choices that cis people take for granted. Recently Roz Kaveney has been writing about an idea called the “cotton ceiling”, which denotes the fact that most trans people can’t expect to find love and companionship outside of the trans community because cis people, even those who claim to be trans allies, react with revulsion to the idea that they might actually have sex with trans people, or even be thought by others to be considering such a thing.

I am well aware that I have been very lucky in this respect. I cannot begin to count the ways in which Kevin has made my life immeasurably better. And yet, compared to the dreams I had of my life as a teenager, or even my hopes for continuing my career after I transitioned, my life has been a dismal failure. Even winning a few Hugos, for which I am eternally grateful, hasn’t been much help. Science fiction fans are so despised in the UK that I’m no use to the trans community here as a public role model. I’m more like proof of what sad, pathetic people trans folk are. I’m still somewhat surprised that I have survived this long, and have no expectation of a long and pleasant old age, despite my health being excellent. As Laverne says, as a trans person you get so used to being at the bottom of the social pecking order that you are absurdly grateful for a life that most people would view with horror.

All I can say is that things are getting better, and are doing so at a rate much faster than I ever expected. It may be too late for me, but people like Jenna, Laverne and Janet Mock are doing great work across the Atlantic, and the likes of Paris Lees and CN Lester are having similar success over here. With any luck, by the time the latest generation of trans kids have grown up, there will be no limit to the dreams that they can achieve.

Of course they are not getting better for everyone at the same speed. A case that you may be unaware of is that of CeCe McDonald, who as a black trans woman is absolutely on the bottom rung as far as the US justice system is concerned. Or there’s the case of Alex Kaminski (name changed), a German girl whose estranged father went to court to have her committed to a psychiatric hospital rather than allow her to continue her gender treatment. The court ruled that Alex’s gender identity had been “induced by her mother”, who is supportive of her. Thankfully the hospital in question wants nothing to do with this. As Jane Fae explains, the doctors have refused to attempt forced “cure” and have threatened to sue newspapers over their reporting of the case.

There’s a constant battle to be waged here. While we definitely appear to be winning, there are always more horror stories waiting around the corner to ambush us. And with the current fashion for right wing politicians here and in the US to take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a blueprint for a political utopia, there is always the worry that yesterday’s victories will be taken away from us. Which is why, despite the fact that it kills my blog stats, I am poking my head above the parapet once again. Thank you for listening.

(The hashtag, by the way, is a Twitter campaign started by Janet Mock to support Jenna and draw attention to other successful and talented trans women.)

2 thoughts on “Being Visible #GirlsLikeUs

  1. Canada has a patchwork of provincial laws which govern the ‘correction’ or ‘reissuance’ of birth certificates. Single-quotes used here as this matter, to some transphobes at least, is a contentious one. Suffice it to be said that in most (unknown if this equates to ‘all’) Canadian provinces and territories, it is indeed possible to acquire a certificate of birth showing the desired gender marker. This will invariably require surgery (something which I, at least, within my middle-aged woodworked experience, consider an essential prerequisite — others may well disagree as they see fit).

  2. Great post, Cheryl. A dear friend of mine is currently transitioning F2M. I never had any issues with trans people prior to that, but I’ve learned a lot about how difficult it can be to come out as trans. But also, as you say, it’s become a lot easier than it used to be, despite the witterings of transphobes (especially the feminist ones like Julie Bindel, who really ought to know better/be ashamed of herself.)

    Happy Visibility Day! 🙂

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