Y are drag queens, pantomime dames and cross-dressing for fun harmful to transgender folk?

As an adult it is very hard to see any harm in drag, pantomime or cross-dressing for fun or perhaps even for charity. It’s just innocent and harmless, isn’t it?  

From a young child’s perspective on the other hand it is very easy to see how it could lead to internalised shame and self-loathing because it compromises the transgender child’s sense of identity to see something they identify with parodied. For my own part, Danny la Rue was damaging to me. The evident transphobia of Barry Humphries gives plenty of reason to believe that “Dame Edna” is a transphobic parody. Is it accidental or intentional? Does it matter which?

Citing psychology Professor Melissa Hines, from her book Brain Gender, as a comparator, the average height difference between human males and females is two standard deviations. The difference in strength of heterosexual attraction (males attracted to females versus females attracted to males) is six standard deviations. The difference in strength of core gender identity between men and women is ten standard deviations. There is no stronger human attribute than core gender identity. It is the bedrock of our identity.

That’s why, for transgender people, gender matters most, sexual preference much less so. For cisgender people, gender is a given, often conflated with and used interchangeably with biological sex, so sexual preference matters most. I’d argue that these statistical effect sizes, 10 for gender identity, 6 for sexual preference and 2 for biological sex also serve as the best estimates we have for assessing the relative sizes of transphobia / cisgender privilege, homophobia / heteronormative privilege and misogyny / male privilege which would be difficult to measure experimentally. The double loss of privileges / acquisition of stigma for transgender women (-10 -2) compared to the lesser loss for transgender men (-10 +2) may provide an explanation for why the average age at which transgender men come out is younger than the average age at which transgender women come out. This is reflected in society as the greater tolerance afforded to boyish behaviour in girls than to girlish behaviour in boys and gendered admonishments such as “sissy” and “big girl’s blouse”.

Moreover, the developing infant in making sense of the world identifies clothing styles as the visible differential manifestation of gender long before there is any awareness of (normally concealed) anatomical differences between sexes. This is what sets us up for gender dysphoria when we realise that the clothing we are dressed in and the way we are expected to behave does not match our core gender identity and worse, when we later realise our anatomy is also incongruent. Later still comes the trauma of the wrong puberty, where the trauma itself is used to distinguish transgender youth from gay or lesbian youth. There has to be a more humane way than allowing this trauma to happen.

I struggled to explain my concern about drag etc. effectively but happily Miranda Fricker has come to the rescue: it is “Hermeneutical Injustice“. I expect you haven’t heard this term before, so please take your time to get your head around the concept (bold text is my emphasis, italicised text is Fricker’s).

Hermeneutical Injustice is a kind of epistemic injustice, “wherein someone has a significant area of their social experience obscured from understanding owing to prejudicial flaws in shared resources for social interpretation. Systematic and incidental cases are distinguished. The wrong is analysed in terms of a situated hermeneutical inequality: the prejudicial flaws in shared interpretive resources prevent the subject from making sense of an experience which it is strongly in her interests to render intelligible.”

I’m going to coin a term for it: it is “cis-washing” as transgender erasure just as “whitewashing” is ethnic erasure. (I’ve Googled and found I’m be no means the first to coin the term, though my usage is different)  It doesn’t matter whether it’s accidental or intentional, it is still hermeneutical injustice. This is why we, as transgender children, had no frame of reference by which to understand ourselves, no vocabulary with which to explain our feelings and when we manifested cross-gender behaviour it was “cis-washed” away by ridicule, disapproval or discipline from peers, parents and other adults alike. Largely tacitly, we learn to conform to expectations in a defensive manner, the “stiff upper lip”, but it serves only to reinforce our gender dysphoria or bury it deeper in denial.

The histrionic performances of drag queens at pride events, garnering attention at the expense of the normal modest behaviour of transgender people participating in the same event, amounts to “cis-washing” because it hinders the implicitly tolerant spectators at the event from identifying and making sense of the lived experiences of transgender people and thereby fostering their acceptance or affirmation of us.

I’ll finish with a quote describing the consequences of such injustice on lived experience. It’s by sociologist William Du Bois, the first black man to gain a PhD from Harvard, from his 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk” (bold text is my emphasis): “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” The parallels between Du Bois, living under white supremacy and transgender people now, living under cisgender supermacy, are clear.

For transgender people to be normalised, ie. not to be viewed with contempt and pity, but to be affirmed in our core gender identities, it is necessary to eliminate the hermeneutical injustice first. In this context, eliminating behaviours in cisgender people that perpetuate hermeneutical injustice, such as drag, pantomime dames and cross-dressing for fun, is both necessary and appropriate. They need to be seen as offensive to transgender people as “black-face” is to non-white people.

Y go swimming?

Life continues to be relentlessly punishing in my transition and yet I remain focused on my goals and resolute in overcoming everything that gets thrown at me. There are so many blog posts I could have written about it and I will – eventually – but improving my immediate situation to relieve stress has to come first.

This post is by request, but it ties into my story pretty intricately so I am happy to make time for it.  Swimming is an excellent way of dissipating stress, besides being good exercise.

I first went swimming in my one piece swimsuit in 1999. It was on one of Antigua’s 365 beaches. The mile long beach was completely deserted except for my family. It was one of the more inaccessible beaches and had no facilities of any description. Perfect for me, being extremely self conscious. I floated in the sea, swam and glided around. I laid in the hot sand to dry, just as any woman would, the difference being my body was incongruous and did not fit. If my body had fit, I would not have cared if the beach were busy, but I cared very much and the beach had to be empty.  I got a sunburn that day and the outline of my swimsuit was visible on my body for weeks after. I could look in the mirror and it would reveal my ‘secret’ and enable me to relive that precious day.

I have been swimming in my one piece swimsuit in public many times since, on our more exotic holidays where the sea is warm enough to stay in for more than a few minutes. In fact, the one I wore in Antigua wore out and was discarded. However, I have always covered it with a T-shirt, because I never found a deserted beach again. More often, I wore a plain bikini bottom, but no top. The more attentive might have noticed the feminine cut of the cloth, but not realised. It was intended not to be obvious.

Swimming in a public swimming pool as my authentic self in my swimsuit without a T-shirt was always going to require a quantum leap. My self-acceptance and ‘coming out’ preceded it and was necessary to force the issue. I became expert at tucking using sports tape to produce a good facsimile of female figure but still felt very obvious and vulnerable.

The Transgender and Gender Non-conforming Swimming (TAGS) group in Lewisham provided me with the opportunity I needed to overcome my social anxiety. I was in the same position as everyone else there.  The first time I went, I wore a plain, pretty conservative one piece suit, and my concerns evaporated. If pre-op trans men could be authentic by letting their tops all hang out then, for goodness sake, what was I worried about being all taped up and held in place by tight fitting lycra? I decided I was done with conservatism and bought myself a beautiful orange flowery one piece swimsuit with huge cut-outs baring my skin. I have worn it ever since.  It’s me.  I love it. I feel comfortable in it.

The trouble with Lewisham is that it is the wrong side of London and the swimming session is late. I could get there by train quite quickly but would feel too vulnerable to travel back late at night with wet hair and no make-up. Late night trains on Fridays are uncomfortable at the best of times, occupied by drunk alpha males who are most likely to feel their masculinity assaulted by the mere presence of an obviously trans woman. I drove there. 3.5 hours in the rush hour to get there, 1.5 hours to get back. That was driving 5 hours for a 1 hour swim, yet I did it, week in, week out, because the swimming is so important to me. It was truly affirming.

Then life got in the way. I stopped going because there was too much else going on. I went swimming at a local pool just the once with a trans friend and the choice of pool was very specific because it had a single mixed changing area with cubicles. It was OK. The difference was that I felt the need to present as obviously feminine as I could. I wore my breast augmentation ‘chicken fillets’, wore nail varnish on my fingers and toes. Yet I felt I was being clocked by everyone. I probably wasn’t, but I could not achieve the relaxed state of mind I’d enjoyed in the pool in Lewisham or on the beach on Antigua. I was on edge, constantly on alert for danger like a Meerkat. Having been with a friend, I know I could go alone and swim whenever I want to, but the self-affirmation of saying to myself “This is the real me, get over it” when stared at is no substitute for being relaxed in the pool.

Swimming is as integral a part of human life as it is for any other animals. It is not something that trans people should feel uncomfortable doing. We should be able to relax and enjoy the experience, like anyone else.  This is why transgender swimming spaces like TAGS are precious.  We need them everywhere.


Y so long?

Nobody starts a blog with the intention of leaving it 10 months between posts. On the other hand, nobody wants to read a blog full of complaints about depression. Consequently, when depression dragged me down, I decided to wait until I could discuss it in the past tense before posting again. The great news is that I have been off anti-depressants for four months and there is no sign of depression returning. Other things have got in the way, most recently a power cut that caused the first draft of this posting to be lost, but the main one is stress!

So what went wrong?  I have a long history of depression, requiring medication increasingly over 20 years, eventually continuously. I have either found antidepressants ineffective or else had an adverse reaction either at the starting dose or the target dose. The continuous treatment over five years sustained me through a long rough patch however, side effects had emerged, including my weight increasing by almost 50% due to an insatiable appetite.

Becoming obese was never my plan and could have reduced my life expectancy so I was keen to get off the medication. I took the opportunity afforded by a new job offer to do so. The improvement in my overall heath was both swift and remarkable. It greatly exceeded my expectations, such that I ignored the red flags of my mood sliding back down.  Eventually, I became deeply depressed, making serious mistakes that were evident to all. I realised I had to confront my gender identity issues, otherwise I’d be back on the antidepressants, probably for life. What sort of a miserable life would that have been? Self acceptance seemed the only possible route to contentment. This is what precipitated me accepting myself and coming out as a trans woman.

Unfortunately I realised I’d need to go back onto my antidepressants in the short term to improve my work performance and requested the same as before, but my doctor was no longer happy to prescribe them because of the now proven side effects. Instead they prescribed the last one in their kit bag that they’d never tried before – it’s probably one of the newer ones. With hindsight it could probably have been rejected without being tried because I’d had bad reactions to similar ones previously. I had seven nights of insomnia due to it during which I became like a zombie and then an allergic reaction known as “Serotonin Syndrome”. This required a cold turkey type immediate cessation and on top of the insomnia it basically broke me. From being functional to completely broken in just over a week. The day of “Serotonin Syndrome” was my last day of living as a man. I didn’t look back once.

With the doctor out of options (other than the devil I knew) I was referred for an ’emergency’ psychiatric assessment. It should have taken place within two weeks, it eventually happened after six weeks! After four weeks of waiting and several escalations without an appointment, I returned to the doctor and asked to go back onto the same medication as before. This eventually enabled me to get back into work, but by then stress was a major factor too. I will cover this in another post.

The psychiatrist prescribed a new antidepressant but the cut-over to it from the one I was on is fraught and would have entailed a period off medication in between to avoid potentially serious complications. This was planned for January but was overtaken by events as I got my Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) prescription first. However, the psychiatric appointment was not a complete waste of time: the psychiatrist confirmed my Gender Dysphoria and sanctioned my referral to the Gender Identity Clinic.

I’ll cover the details of my ‘coming out’ in another post. Suffice to say that I returned to work in my new female identity and my social transition was incredibly straightforward. I was like a duck taking to the water. On the one hand I was very pleased about the ease with which I did it as it was extremely validating, on the other, I was filled with remorse for leaving it so late in life. I was tough and held out for a very long time. Far too long. You only have one life, don’t do as I did.

When I got my HRT prescription, my mood was already much improved and I was very happy being my true self. Thus, my doctor decided that I should come off the antidepressants first and then start the hormones. Six months and one day after my “Serotonin Syndrome”, I started my medical transition.

I have not needed antidepressants since. I’m going through a very tough time and am in pain from stress, but I am really happy in myself and I’m loving the changes that are taking place to my body.

This post marks the breaking of a log jam, a contributory factor to my stress, but that’s also the topic for another post. With the log jam gone, my posts should now become more regular.

50 Years of Y?

Welcome, dear reader. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

I’m not looking for tea and sympathy (at least not yet, I will ask if I need some). I am asking you please to leave any baggage and prior judgements and opinions at the door, take my honesty at face value and not be reticent to ask appropriate questions. I will tell you if your question is inappropriate and either rephrase it to make it appropriate or decline to answer it. I will choose not to take offence (do you know that you also have this choice?) unless you ask loaded questions clearly intended to offend. I will do my utmost to answer all appropriate questions which will be easy if you are the only reader, but might become impossible if there are many!

I hope you will gain an appreciation and understanding of me, my situation and the challenges I face, many of which will be common in the transgender community. I hope my shared experience will inform you, improve your understanding and be rewarding use of your time. It’s not entertainment but won’t be devoid of humour either.

Some people appear to lead charmed lives. I think you can safely assume that nobody who is transgendered has led one, that each has endured a personal struggle devoid of inner peace and contentment because their sense of self is misaligned with the assumptions that society has made about them. Assume nothing, question everything!? A laudable ideal, but we all take short cuts and improve our efficiency by making assumptions throughout our daily lives, and usually the assumptions are valid.

This blog will explore these issues and I hope my clarity of thought will be sufficient to allow you to understand them. When you understand them, look again at what you left at the door and please decide what you would like to keep and what you should dispose of. I believe people are inherently good and decent (with obvious exceptions) and most will form a fair point of view given access to relevant factual information. However, an enquiring mind questions the validity of everything and is not brainwashed into believing something for which there is no evidence. If the previous sentence raises objections in your mind, then you did not leave your belief system at the door. Sorry, that is part of the baggage and there is no baggage allowance on this blog! Please go back to the door and leave it there.

So, what’s in the name of this blog? It is a play on words, of course. Through a combination of chance and survival of the fittest sperm I have a Y chromosome. I have spent much of the first 50 years of my life asking why, trying to ignore it, trying to conform to family and society’s expectations of me having it and now finally accepting after many turns in a downward spiral that it is the “elephant in the room”. It is the primary cause of serious depression (50 years of Y.UK) the symptoms and clinical treatment of which both have an adverse impact on my health (mental and physical). Confronting the elephant is the only option for me to escape from the downward spiral. The key point to take away from this post is that it is the last resort, after all else has failed. I think transgendered people who eventually transition arrive at this inevitability having accepted that they cannot cope. Why should we be expected to cope just because society has made wrong assumptions about us?  Don’t we have the same rights as anyone else to inner peace and contentment?

I have heard it suggested that gender confirmation is a lifestyle choice. Those who suggest it haven’t thought it through. People choose the path of least resistance. Aligning your visible gender presentation with your sense of self by physical intervention so that society recognises you to be the person you have always been – your true self – is an extremely tough path, not a lifestyle choice. I’ll explore this in a subsequent post, so that you can understand that there are in fact easier paths, but they are not available in most human societies.