Eight rooms

On Saturday i went with a friend, B, to check out the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives. This is part of their season looking at Identity and Identification – of obvious interest to me as a trans person, especially as one of the ‘rooms’ was devoted to April Ashley, one of Britain’s most famous trans women.

As it happened, although Ashley’s room was interesting – especially the footage of her being interviewed by Michael Parkinson, it was the one which focused on the actress Fiona Shaw which made the greatest impression. It was supposed to demonstrate the multiple identities that an actor takes on; and, to this end, there were four or five TV screens on which you could watch Shaw playing various roles: for instance a mad woman in Gormenghast and a rather overwrought lady in an Ibsen play.

I can’t honestly say that i looked at these and saw someone changing their identity; but they were thrilling performances – Shaw is a true virtuoso. The standout was her portrayal of Richard II. For some reason though this only worked for me as an audio experience: if i looked at the screen there was no magic; but if i looked away and just listened I got goosebumps. It was that powerful.

I don’t think the issue was the ‘cross-gender’ casting – after all, her voice is just as female as her appearance; but rather that the physical aspect of her acting style is overdramatic. She has a tendency to gesture abruptly and stare wildly. Yet this exaggeration doesn’t carry through to her voice, so as long as you don’t look at her you aren’t bothered by it.

Not surprising then that the other exhibit which made a great impression on me was also audio-only. This had Shaw and her mother reciting a poem together. The idea here was to examine similarities and differences in their voices. For me, however, it was the relationship between them that was captivating: identity is interesting, human relationships are fascinating.

Other rooms focused on people such as Alec Jeffreys, who pioneered DNA testing, and Samuel Pepys – although in truth this room was really an exploration of diarists more generally. Some of these were interesting, but not always for reasons related to identity or identification (an old computer made you think of how technology had progressed, the cover of an old novel caused you to reflect on how illustration styles have changed). Only one disappointed where I’d been expecting great things: Claude Cahun, a French photographer obsessed with androgyny. The endless self-portraiture was exhausting and really rather boring: self speaking to self in a vacuum.

Overall, it was an interesting exhibition, if a bit uneven. B commented to me that she felt there was a lot of padding – exhibits that were very similar or of little relevance – and i agreed with her. I was also disappointed with the presentation. The rooms were little more than wooden partitions; little attempt had been made to make them feel like rooms or individual spaces of any kind.

More satisfying than the the exhibition is the book, ‘Identity & Identification’*, which has been published to accompany it. In it you find interviews with people as diverse as the singer Billy Bragg, the Jewish-British journalist Jonathan Freedland, the philosopher Julian Baggini, trans woman Roz Kaveney and the Somali-Dutch former politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Each interview is a thoughtful exploration of the person’s identity and in the case of the philosophers and scientists of identity as a concept and neurological phenomenon.

The depth and subtlety of the interviews is wonderful. Reading through them it came to me that identity is rather like an iceberg: we conceal more than we show. I can see two obvious reasons for this: the first is that aspects of our identity may rest on things which we feel might be contested or not understood by others; the second is that we take much of it for granted, so don’t think to ‘perform’ it. Unless asked, we may not even be aware of why it matters.

There’s a beautiful example of this in Jonathan Freedland’s interview. He says he identifies as Jewish, male and British in that order. When asked why he has singled out the fact that he is male, Freedland replies:

I suppose because i think it goes to something quite psychological – the inner voice as it were… And that, to me, feels like such a male voice.

As soon as i read his words i realised that this is also true for me – so true that i’d never even noticed. Fascinating from a trans point of view but also illuminating in a broader sense: we only really come to understand who we (feel we) are when we engage with others. Human relationships: not just more interesting than identity then, but essential to it.

All in all: 7/10 for the exhibition; 9/10 for the book of the exhibition.

* Identity & Identitification: ISBN 978-1-906155-86-5 (Black Dog Publishing)

Pictures of happiness

I’m currently reading Camera Lucida*,  a kind of meditation on the meaning of photography by the French philosopher Roland Barthes. It’s rather a mixed experience: one minute i’m thrilled, the next exasperated. Let’s leave that aside however; what i’d really like to talk about is a passage on page 10 where he writes:

… once i feel myself to be observed by the lens, everything changes: i constitute myself in the act of “posing”, i instantaneously make another body for myself, i transform myself in advance into an image. This transformation is an active one: i feel that the Photograph creates my body or mortifies it, according to its caprice…

Do you recognise what he’s talking about? Maybe it made you smile? Well, for me, reading those lines was like being struck by lightning.

Instantly, i remembered how in the years before i transitioned, i would smile as brightly and as widely as possible whenever i was photographed. This was truer than ever during the years of my marriage. I beam like a sun in practically every picture taken of me in that period; i gleam ecstatically. Yet that was the beginning of the long, slow unravelling that brought me to the point where i finally understood that i had to transition. It was a time when turmoil, pain and confusion reigned inside my mind.

So why the smile? The reason is simple: i believed that if all the pictures of my life showed me to be happy, then i would have been happy – not simply seemed to have been happy, but actually been happy. It was one of those beliefs that possessed me so deeply that i wasn’t aware of its existence.

Now it shocks me: not just the power i ascribed to photography, but the thrall that i was in to images in general. It’s as though i thought that they were realer than reality itself. My life at that time was a constant parade of impersonations of the female sex: i was ‘earth mother’, ‘sophisticated lady’, ‘out and out tart’ – sometimes all in the space of an afternoon! Even after my marriage broke down i didn’t abandon the attempt. It was only after i’d exhausted every version of ‘female’ i could think of that i gave in and bowed to the inevitable.

My naive belief in appearances reflected my own inability to understand why i couldn’t be a woman. I didn’t – couldn’t – recognise that gender identity has to have its roots inside a person. I thought it could be planted on the outside and cultivated till it flowered within. It also showed how deeply ashamed i was of my own unhappiness, the misery i didn’t understand and couldn’t name. What better way to hide a big, big sorrow than with a big, big smile?

* Camera Lucida (ISBN 978-0-099-22541-6; publisher: Vintage Classics)

What’s in a (fore)name?

Imagine if your child – or indeed brother or sister – changed their name. How would you feel? I don’t mean their surname, although if it wasn’t being changed for traditional reasons, in other words on marriage, then that might also be an issue for you. No, i mean their forename, the name by which you’ve called them ever since you’ve known them. In the case of your child, the name you gave them.

This is something almost all trans people do when they transition. Most forenames are gender-specific and, where that isn’t the case, the ambiguity itself may be problematic. Names are as much about who we want to be as about who we actually are – at least when we choose them ourselves.

Most people of course don’t choose their own names. Their names are chosen for them. As i suggest above, in our culture this is done by parents; in others a wider circle of relatives may be involved. In some societies there is a naming ceremony. We don’t have that but it can be argued that baptisms have historically fulfilled the same role. A public act of affirmation takes place in which this person and that name are joined together. The closest secular society generally comes, sadly, is the miserable little ritual of registering the birth. Something so magical reduced to a bureaucratic form!

I am however wandering off on a tangent as usual. The point is that names bind people to other people, in particular with those who claim the right to name them. When a trans person changes their name they are – even if they regret the fact – rejecting that claim. It’s easy to see how this may be experienced by the person or people who named them, i.e. their parents, as a rejection of themselves and the parent-child bond itself. This may be felt more intensely in modern Western society than in more communal cultures, because the forename is more likely to be a personal choice, a name that had a special resonance for the person’s parents or one which they found specially beautiful; rather than a traditional name they are handing on dutifully, just as it was handed on down to them. I’m thinking in the latter case of the way that it was much more common in the past for people to simply inherit their father’s forename for example.

Imagine looking at your little girl and naming her Linda, because you know that it means ‘beautiful’ and that is what she is to you: so beautiful. And you love her so, so much. Then ‘she’ grows up and tells you ‘she’ is transitioning* and, as part of that process, will be changing her name to Louis – or perhaps something totally different, like Joe or Mark or Brendan. The loss of the name can feel like the loss of your relationship, like the rejection of your love.

The loss of a name can also feel like the loss of a person, and this affects relationships far beyond the parent-child one. Those labels we attach to things come to feel like part of them, which is one of the reasons it can be so hard to understand the poetry of a language very different from your own. I remember hearing the Turkish word for star – yıldız –and wondering, ‘how on earth can that mean ‘star’? It doesn’t have any star-ness about it’.

With people we’ve known a long time, the name becomes so entwined with the person that, particularly in cases where we know no-one else with the same forename, we can end up feeling as though that name is the word for that person. When the individual in question announces they’re changing their name it feels, therefore, as if they’re announcing that the person you know, perhaps even love, is also going to cease to exist. Brothers and sisters may be badly affected by this, but interestingly i think it hits close friends harder.

Of course, the person who is changing their name is also affected by this association of name and person. For them this can be a confusing time: on the one hand the (apparent) possibility of completely re-inventing themself – for they are not immune to the association between name and ‘self’. On the other, the worried feeling that they have in some way unrooted themself. Should they choose a name which expresses who they think they are – or at least would like to be? Or should they select one that re-roots them in their family tree: the name of an ancestor, the name their mother said she would have given them if they’d been born a boy**, a male** version of their existing name? Should they ask someone else to name them? If so, who?

There is also an anxiety which only the newly re-named person knows, but which they will often keep a secret, even amongst friends. That their new name feels alien to others is easily accepted. However, as the individual to whom the name ‘belongs’, the trans person must act from the outset as though name and person are one: it is precisely this identification that gives a name its strength. Yet in the early days it’s a hard slog. Making sure you don’t fail to react to ‘your’ name when called, teaching yourself not to turn when you hear someone call the name that used to be ‘yours’: these things take time, effort and commitment.

It’s an odd thing: in a sense names are just labels, but somehow they’re more than that. Much more.

* ‘ Transitioning’ is short for ‘transitioning (between) genders’ or similar expressions. It describes the process of ‘moving’ (via hormone therapy, surgery, legal applications, etc) from living in one gender, generally the one aligned with your biological/genetic sex, to another. For most people the ‘journey’ is male -> female or female -> male, but there are some people who conceive gender in more complex terms (genderqueer) and also those who start from a more complicated position (e.g. those who are intersexed).
** These last two examples assume the person is a trans man, rather than a trans woman. Of course, it could just as easily be the other way round. I tried making the sentence gender-neutral, but it was unwieldy and didn’t read naturally.

Gender mishaps: some funny, some tragic

* PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU FIND ANY MENTION OF HUMAN GENITALIA OFFENSIVE. There you go: i’ve flagged it as ‘mature’ myself. This post may not be of much interest to non-transsexual people.*

Alan Partridge* [to his Dictaphone]: “Idea for a programme entitled ‘Yachting Mishaps’. Some funny, some tragic.”

I love this quote from I’m Alan Partridge. What’s more, i think it pretty well sums up the FTM** experience. There’s the tragedy of realising that your body has veered seriously off course in its sexual development; of becoming aware that the sexual characteristics you feel you should have naturally can only imperfectly be obtained medically, while those you wish to rid yourself of can never be fully erased. On the one hand, the problems of the current limitations on phalloplasty surgery; on the other, the too wide hips, too small hands, too short stature.

Yet there’s comedy too, even if it’s mostly unintentional. An example: the surgeon responsible for my phalloplasty forgot to tell me that i’d need to keep my newly created ‘friend’ at a 45 degree angle for some weeks following my first procedure. Not only that but it would need to be wrapped in layers of gauze and padding. The result? A member with a length and  girth that would do a stallion proud. Imagine me then as i made my way to my checkups at the surgeon’s Harley Street clinic, barely able to walk as i’d had my hysterectomy during the same operation. I am tottering along, clutching a fleece in front of my nether parts, when who should i meet but a whole battery of heavily veiled and heavily pregnant Arab ladies. Yes, indeed, there’s a fertility clinic on the ground floor. ‘Don’t drop the fleece,’ i thought to myself desperately, ‘Just don’t drop it.’ Luckily, i didn’t.

Later the same year i had the pump implanted, which – how can i put this – enables the new penis to go up and down. At the consultation i had with the surgeon’s nurse prior to the operation she showed me the mechanism that would be going into my body. In particular, she drew my attention to the blue dot in one area. “This dot”, she explained, “marks the place that you press when you need to ‘deflate’”. “Hang on a minute”, i said, “it’s going to be inside my body. How on earth will i be able to see it?” “Ah yes”, she said, “there is that. Oh and by the way, remember how you had to have the phallus*** up at a 45 degree angle after your first operation, well… ”

Yes, it was back to being a rampant stallion again while the stitches healed. This time with the full hydraulics. Then, it was time to find out if i could find the spot without the ‘handy’ blue guide. I did, but one guy, who i was in touch with at the time but have since lost contact with, told me it had taken him three days the first time. You read that right: three days.

I’ve been thinking about these experiences just recently as i’ve been invited by the clinic to take part in an open day for prospective patients. Unexpected comedy notwithstanding, i’m actually very happy with the way the surgery went for me. Some things i’ll always be sad about but as long as i can laugh…

* Alan Partridge was a spoof radio (and later TV) presenter created by the comedian Steve Coogan. I’m Alan Partridge documents Alan’s attempts to get the BBC to commission a second series of his (awful) chat show.
** Female-to-male transsexual (trans man)
*** Nurses and doctors always use the word ‘phallus’, maybe because it sounds more ‘medical’ and therefore less ‘rude’ than the usual name given to this part of the body. And it’s normally always ‘the phallus’ too, rather than ‘your phallus’. Somewhere, deep down, i think the surgeons always think it belongs to them – as its creators, not you.

Transman, FTM, tranny… do names matter?

(I don’t know how interesting this post will be to anyone who isn’t transsexual..)

Some of us call ourselves transmen. Others prefer to insert a space and make it trans men. And yet another group prefer the older FTM or its variants such as F2M. Then there’s what we might call the ‘hard core’ who insist on MTM, because after all they’ve always been men at least in their own minds, or even just men, unqualified by anything suggesting change or ambiguity. Oh, and let us not forget those who identify as genderqueer.

Does it matter? If one person is happy to be referred to as a transsexual while another demands that they’re identified as a transsexual person, because “i’m a human being who happens to be transsexual, not a transsexual who happens to be human”, is that an issue? My answer would be no, it isn’t – as long as you don’t try to force your own terminology down the throats of others. And in case you’re not sure what i have in mind by ‘force’ here are a few examples: guilt tripping, PC policing, and my pet hate, just because i love language, citing pseudo-grammatical claptrap about not using ‘adjectives’ as ‘nouns’.

There are far too many passive-aggressive (and quite a few just plain aggressive) people in our trans communities, far too many people who object to anybody other than themselves deciding what they can and can’t be called, yet who feel free to make the decision for others. So i find myself reading things like “the use of the word transsexual as a noun is offensive to trans people”. Really? Odd. I’m a transsexual and it doesn’t offend me. Don’t remember anyone ever asking me about it either.

The real reason this sort of thing annoys me though is that i do think there are names which are unacceptable. The word tranny for instance might possibly have some value as an in-word (although i’m yet to come across it being used in that way) but there’s no doubt that in any other context it’s the equivalent of calling a trans person (actually, usually a trans woman) a nigger. Yes, that horrible.

By obsessing about trivia – should we or should we not put a space in transman – we reduce the power of our criticisms of names that actually are insulting. We also end up fighting battles with our allies when we should we concentrating on the war against intolerance. It’s not over yet.