Friends and Phobias

As many of you will know, Neil Gaiman and I have been friends for a long time. We first met in 1984, when I was still living as male. Neil is also a long-time friend of Roz Kaveney. You may therefore be somewhat surprised to learn that he’s often accused of transphobia. So often, in fact, that he had felt the need to address the issue in public.

There are many reasons why this happens. Partly it is because Wanda in A Game of You encounters a lot of transphobia in her story. There will always be readers who can’t tell the difference between a writer portraying discrimination by his characters and a writer who shares those characters’ beliefs. Also, Roz is a high profile trans activist, and as such she and her friends are always prone to being accused of transphobia by people who have a “one true way” attitude to their activism. Heck, there are probably people out there who think I’m transphobic. I have certainly been told that I’m Doing Trans WRONG!

So I want to spend a little bit of time looking at what real transphobia is like. Last week, on the same day that Neil wrote that Tumblr post, the Scottish Transgender Alliance released this report (PDF) which looks at the mental health of trans people in the UK. I was one of the respondents to the survey, and I’ve corresponded with one of the authors, Louis Bailey, as I had hoped to book him as a speaker for LGBT History Month last year.

When they say “mental health”, they don’t mean “these people are crazy because they are trans”, they mean the same thing that anyone would mean if they did a survey of the mental health of soldiers on active duty, of students sitting exams, or pretty much any group whom one might think has a stressful life. Let’s take a look at some of the results.

70% of the participants felt that transitioning had improved their lives for the better, while only 2% felt that it had made things worse. Satisfaction rates with various types of medical treatment, including hormones and gender surgery, were even higher; all over 85%, with the numbers dissatisfied always below 4%. Nevertheless, 81% avoided certain social situations out of fear of the consequences; 37% had experienced threats of or actual violence; 25% had been forced to move away from home. 14% had been harassed by the police simply for being trans.

88% of respondents reported suffering from depression at some point in their lives. 53% reported that they had self-harmed. 84% had considered suicide at least once. 35% had attempted suicide; 11% in the past year.

A government paper on suicide prevention published today dismissed trans people as a significant problem area, noting only that there are “indications” that there “may” be higher rates of suicide amongst that group.

Professional help for trans people is patchy at best. 62% of those who had attended NHS gender clinics reported some negative experiences from doing so. 11% felt that attending the clinic had been a negative experience overall, while 33% said they were afraid to discuss mental health issues with the clinic. 30% had experienced a healthcare professional refuse them treatment for trans-related issues. Over 50% were told by a health professional that treatment could not be provided because the professional did not know enough about trans issues. Can you imagine any other condition where GPs would refuse treatment rather than educate themselves or refer to a specialist because the condition was unfamiliar to them?

20% of respondents reported wanting to self-harm as a direct result of their treatment at the hands of the health services.

I could go on, but I’ll end the numbers by looking at responses to the question, “How supportive have the following been?” The percentages in “Very supportive” for key groups are as follows: parents 28%; extended family 17%; religious community 5%; non-trans friends 43%; trans friends 71%. Most trans people, of course, don’t have that many trans friends, so you can see why non-trans friends are so important. That’s why I very much value people like Neil, Kim Newman, Marc Gascoigne, Dave Langford, Martin Hoare and everyone else who was a friend before my transition, and has stuck by me though it.

Of course supportive friends can turn into supportive parents. After Neil published his Tumblr post his elder daughter, Holly, posted this about her life partner. I don’t know Holly at all — I’m not sure if we have even met — but I wish her and her partner all the best for their relationship. Sadly, they will need lots of love and support.

While I was at the Miéville conference on Friday I was scanning Twitter for reactions from my fellow attendees and another Scottish Trans Alliance tweet caught my attention. It was a report of the death, by liver failure resulting from a paracetamol overdose, of Natasha Lauren Brown, a student at Staffordshire University. She was 20 years old. According to this report Brown “began a downward spiral after she was taunted and beaten.” Her parents are quoted as saying, “We’d just like to say we strongly believe the mental health services could have done more to help her than they did.”

Brown’s name won’t be included in the memorials at this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance because that is only for people whose lives are actively cut short by the violence of others. If we included all of the suicides, all of the people who died from issues related to poverty, homelessness and desperation, then the numbers memorialized would be significantly higher.

And that, dear readers, is what transphobia is all about. It is not a matter of authors failing to make trans characters sufficiently heroic, or about being trans in the “wrong” way. It is about being abandoned by friends and family; about institutional discrimination, even by those whose job it is to help you; it is about being bullied, beaten and killed. Until those things stop, we should be grateful for all of the support that we get.

26 thoughts on “Friends and Phobias

  1. Thanks, Cheryl.

    Years ago, back in the days of IRC, had a trans friend from down south in the U.S. Yeah, as you can imagine, his experience with his family was not the greatest. My circle of friends and I, he thought, was his real family, since we supported him without judgement.

    Sadly, after a tragic death, I drifted away from IRC, and I don’t know what happened to our friend. I hadn’t thought about him in a long while, but your post brought his memory back.

  2. Thank you for this post, Cheryl. It’s very important for people to have as wide a view of these questions as possible, and you do an excellent job of laying out the real issues.

  3. “Doing Trans Wrong” – when people attack their own, it’s most sad. I grew up watching Jewish, Women, African-Americans – all telling each other they were “doing it wrong” and it never benefited ANYONE but the oppressors. I’m so sorry you have to deal with this kind of crap.

    1. The thing about attacking your own is that you are much more likely to be successful than if you attack the enemy. Sadly that’s important to a lot of people, especially those trying to make a reputation as activists.

  4. Great post, Cheryl.

    I… think the whole “doing it wrong” attitude is still going. I know I certainly experienced it, or at least sort of felt its presence, back when I frequented trans communities. It doesn’t take long to realise that, actually, trans communities can be amongst the least supportive places out there, especially if they’re smaller and/or clique-ish. The one I wound up in until I left was largely insular, demoralising and full of… Well, you know the traditional kind of transwoman? Middle-aged, permed wig, etc.? Yeah. Full of ’em. Never felt so… excluded in my life, and I say that as someone who grew up being bullied.

    It seems to me that some groups of transpeople have this idea of Wot Trans Should Be Like, Innit and that idea is so, so, so destructive. You have to tick every single specific box on their List Wot Means Your Trans or you’re obviously a faker. All your life, make-up, wanna be like X, Y and Z, got to do this, got to feel that. Ugh. That’s destructive because it doesn’t allow for the fluidity of gender or taste, so according to some you’re not trans unless you’re some sort of hyperfeminised girly-girl.

    Me? I’m me. I think. I don’t know. Probably am me, someone has to be. I don’t fit the stereotype, I’d rather wear walking boots than heels, cargo pants to a Little Black Dress. And some would exclude me based on that. And what does that have to do with this? Everything. I’ve felt excluded, wrong, imperfect, inferior and everything else because I’ve not been this ideal of what transness in, and whilst I may still be here, some transpeople are fragile, fragile people and that behaviour could literally be the death of them.

    We need to be open, accepting and friendly. We can’t moan about the constructs of society and femininity whilst building our own smaller versions to judge other transpeople by. It’s *my* identity, *my* set of feelings – it doesn’t belong to anyone else, and it saddens me to think that there are people like me who would criticise and ostracise me for not fitting their world view.

    1. The traditional view is, of course, as much a product of the medical profession as it is of us. It used to be required.

      The main problem, however, is that insecure people try to bolster their own identity by trying to make it a standard.

      1. Yeah, that’s true. The dreaded Gatekeepers and stuff.

        But that brings another point, I think. Do the medical profession actually know what to do with us? The way things work, especially for transmen, is so crude and unrefined, not to mention ridiculously dangerous.

        Or maybe it’s just a case of we change ourselves to fit into society, and… in a way that kinda does its own damage. I dunno.

        Sigh 🙁

        1. I note the extremely high satisfaction rates for medical treatment given in the survey. Of course we may all be happy because we feel we fit better into society, but until society changes happy is a good goal to aim for.

          Where I think treatment goes wrong is the assumption that one size fits all, that to get any treatment you have to conform to a standard narrative. That can result in mis-treatement, and in patients lying about themselves because that’s the only way they can get taken seriously.

          1. Yeah. I agree.

            But… as for the satisfaction thing. It’s a deep issue, I think. Are they satisfied because they truly feel comfortable, or because they feel they can now live within this society? I’m not doubting it works, but I’m thinking more about *why* it appears to work.

            You’re right about the latter, though. If you don’t fit certain boxes then you’re a bit… stuck.

          2. Aren’t you doing just what I talked about above: deciding that you know better than other trans people how they should see their identities, and therefore accusing them of doing trans wrong?

          3. Unintentionally, perhaps.

            What I meant was more along the lines of I’d like to understand where the satisfaction comes from, and why many are satisfied and why many aren’t. Whether it’s the ‘actual’ fix or a good compromise, etc.

          4. We can perhaps read something into the fact that satisfaction with treatment is higher than satisfaction with transition as a whole. That suggests that while people are happy being themselves, it has not necessarily made their lives easier.

            I also note that the numbers who are not satisfied are actually very low. Trans people are deeply unhappy with how they are treated, especially with the medical profession, but they are not unhappy about transitioning.

  5. This is kind of a random comment to start but A Game for You has always been my favorite Neil Gaiman story. Not because of Barbie… I would’ve picked other stories for likeable characters in The Sandman Chronicles. It was for the portrayal of Wanda at the end and how her friend came to give Wanda her proper funeral.

    I think things need to change. I don’t see a reason for transphobia… Of course I am trans so that is a bit obvious. But people don’t seem to notice how simple it is. All they would need to do is let themselves be kind and judge people on their moral character instead of their looks.

  6. As someone trans* who has indeed been beaten for it, I think it’s important to clarify that examining a work for negative tropes isn’t the same as accusing someone of “transphobia” as a conscious sin. When so many trans* people suffer from mental health issues not only due to personal attacks and abandonment but grindingly negative societal portrayals which lead to those, it’s important to tackle everything together. And when so many of the trans* people remembered at TDOR are women of color it’s helpful to consider things as intersecting oppressions, rather than the personal “sin” of racism, say.

    One can think that Neil Gaiman is lovely – and I certainly do, and it’s so true that he’s been a wonderful friend to trans people – while thinking criticisms of tropes in his work (and note that Sandman is some decades old, now) are quite valid, too. I don’t think there’s “real” and “unreal” transphobia, just as there’s not “real” or “unreal” trans people. What there is is a partially generational split in activism and in language use, that tends to keep us apart rather than together. Let’s not be split because of the pain a slight change in word meaning (from personal violence to systemic oppression) can cause.

  7. I absolutely love what you’re saying and the response that Neil Gaiman had. As someone who has a mental disorder, I understand where therapy fails. My very first therapist, I loved. But he decided he’d rather be on a more eating disorder track, which is fine, but I had to leave at that point. And as for the transphobia situation? I’ve known only a few trans people in my life. And even though on the surface it might not seem like I can relate to them, I can at least try on the smallest of levels. And I try to. I’ve been a straight ally (officially, I didn’t know there was such a thing) for the past 5 years. I just wish there was some sort button or pin or something to let people know that’s what I am. But I try to be open and helpful and do what I can.

  8. My memory is hazy now, but I do remember reading a critique of A Game of You by a feminist sci-fi writer, and the argument was that Wanda was written out of the story (killed off) because the author (Gaiman) couldn’t handle a transgendered character troubling his narrative.

    There was also a lot of stuff concentrating on the “moon” scene – where Wanda has to stay behind due to purely physiological reasons.

    As you rightly point out: “There will always be readers who can’t tell the difference between a writer portraying discrimination by his characters and a writer who shares those characters’ beliefs.”

    It’s also assuming authorial intent/intentional fallacy which is a big no-no in literary criticism (and also does the person in question, Neil Gaiman, a great disservice in my opinion) – and in my opinion misreads Sandman entirely which is ALL ABOUT self-determination. Yes, Wanda is left behind as various people and beings are not accepting her chosen gender. Her response?

    “Well, that’s something the gods can take and stuff up their sacred recta. I know what I am. ”

    Now I may not have to deal with transphobia and trangendered issues, but I can still admire the bravery in this character asserting her own identity here and empathize accordingly. She clearly has a strong voice.

    As for ‘writing her out’ of the text – Sandman is a work explicitly concerned with Death (one of the characters) and identity – *many* characters die in the text, including very central and important characters. Her death does not signify ideological closure, nor is she used simply as a prop or plot device as, crucially, *her death is meaningful*. It doesn’t stop with “…and then she died. MOVING ALONG…”

    We have the funeral scene. We are given an inkling to what it must’ve been like for Wanda growing up in such an intolerant closed-minded community, who refuse to accept her as she is EVEN IN DEATH. We have Barbie, and through Barbie the readers, crossing off “Alvin” on the tombstone and writing “Wanda” over the top in pink lipstick. And maybe that resistance is nominal: the lipstick will wash off. But the point being? Whenever encountering this kind of intolerance and phobia – RESIST IT.

    I also remember reading a quote from Gaiman, about how people were reading that issue and freaking out about Wanda “what is this and why is it in my comic book?!” and that the same people were writing to him at the end of the story being like “they didn’t even let her keep her name!”

  9. It appears no matter what community you are in there are always those who will say you are doing it wrong, a mirror of their own dissatisfaction with themselves, so don’t listen to them. Follow your own path, it will lead you in the right direction.

  10. I met you at a con years ago, Cheryl, and came away glad to have done so. I have 2 trans friends currently living in Boston that I like, respect and admire very much, for their courage and perseverance in addition to their general awesomeness. I work with a beautiful trans woman who was brave enough to transition in the American South, while working for a deeply conservative company…

    Every trans individual I’ve been privileged to encounter has inspired or enriched me in some ephemeral way. I’m proud to know them and happy to offer my support- learning from this posting how desperately that’s needed is disheartening but all the more reason to keep on.

  11. I had intended to make some comments about how gobstopped I was by the suggestion that “A Game Of You” could in any way demonstrate authorial transphobia, but Athan Nyx and Luci have said it already, probably better than I could. What they said.

    Well, maybe one additional comment. I have seen this same problem of factionalism in other situations where oppressed people did their damnedest to live their own lives, and others in much the same position told them they were doing it wrong. No, when society tells you that you’re wrong even for living, there’s no wrong way to fight back (though there may be more or less successful ways, but that’s not what those people are saying). The most courageous people around are the ones who refuse to give up who they are to satisfy someone else’s idea of who they should be.

    There are a lot of us out here who support you and wish you well, and more joining the crowd all the time.

  12. Kyle, Ellen, Jeff – Many thanks. I love the new friends I have made since transition too.

    And Caitlin, I hope we get to meet one day.

  13. I was so moved to hear your story. People will be afraid of things they don’t understand – yes, even NHS professionals – it’s their fault, not the fault of those who are ‘different’, and by that I mean anyone who is slightly different other than the standard heterosexual, 2.4 children, socially acceptable, sort of different. As a human race, sometimes we have come so far, and other times, we have not. I can only hope it gets better.

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