Tuesday, March 6, 2012

[Guest Post] Denial, Acceptance, Willpower and Thresholds

My girlfriend wrote something and it's brilliant and we're hosting it here as she doesn't have her own blog. Think that's all the intro it needs.

(Disclaimer, I am a trans woman, and am only speaking for myself here. I am trying to be as inclusive as I can with this, but if I've got something wrong, please let me know and educate me on it!)

Being trans isn't a choice. It isn't something that is done to you at some point in your life. It's not an event, an act or anything like that. It's something that you are, and have always been.

Whether you realise it or not.

People make this realisation at all sorts of times in their lives; some (such as a recent massively publicised story) early, at 5 or so, others of us only come to this realisation later in life. I can't actually pin down the time I realised and accepted that I was trans, nor when I realised that the label "transsexual" was the most "accurate".

This is because people have different levels of gumption, chutzpah, willpower, call it what you will. They also have different levels of hurdles to over come (internal and external!) and different people come to these things in different ways.

Personally, the signs were there from an early age - I thought it was most unfair that I had to be a boy and play with boy stuff (although Lego was amazing) whereas girls got to be girls and play with girl stuff! This, to me at the time, was the natural way of things. Girls were girls and boys were boys and wanted to be girls, because being a girl was so clearly superior. This was so self-evident to me that I didn't even mention it to people.
Even once I had admitted to myself this secret and accepted that this wasn't how everyone else felt, I was in deep denial - trans people were weird, and trans women were ugly (I don't think I even acknowledged the fact that trans men existed! I suspect now, though, that I was so absorbed in wanting to be female that it didn't occur to me that girls would want to be something other than a girl!). I also didn't have the most open parents about these issues - which, now that I know more, is understandable, even if it has set me back at least 15 years.

Even now, being open (to myself and to the world at large) about being a trans woman, there are things I have been in denial about (there are no doubt many things I in still in denial about), am accepting, and things that now I have accepted them am looking to change.

My "primary sexual characteristics" for one. Or, to put it in a shorter manner, my penis. I have historically had a low to non-existent level of dysphoria about having one. This has, and is, causing difficulties with the NHS, as that's a big issue for them (trans women are meant to have always hated their penises and want to cut them off, or something). This lack of problem has largely been a symptom of the surroundings, though - the clothes I wore fitted around it, everyone expected it, and it was useful for some things. Now, though, as the clothes I wear matter more to me (and aren't tailored around having one!) and my self-image is altering, having a penis is just getting bloody annoying. I've read people's recent experiences with GRS, and while it doesn't sound the most pleasant experience to go through ever, I know I could cope.

Yes, the leap from something known to unknown is scary and frightening, but when it's something known to be unpleasant and annoying, that leap starts to look better and better. The leap from presenting as male to presenting as female (even if people didn't immediately realise) was similar - a known that I didn't like to an unknown that could have been worse but ultimately turned out so much better.

I've been through this "denial, acceptance, act" cycle, or am knowingly in one of the stages, on so many things: social transition - was unaware, was in denial, acted, check; appearance of breasts - was unaware, denied I needed them, overcame threshold, acted, check (this was helped massively by the advertising campaign by Andrej Pejic modelling lingerie for Hema and my related discovery of "Two cups bigger" bras!); receding hairline - was unaware, denied it was happening, accepted it was happening but denied I needed to do anything about it (trusting, foolishly, in the NHS), have now accepted I need to do something, but am still working on the "act" part; GRS? - was unaware, never really had denial about that, it was more indifference, but have accepted that this may well be a plan.

The over-riding narrative I'm trying (and not sure I'm succeeding at here) is that of the balance of gumption and thresholds. Willpower and dysphoria raise your gumption, your willingness to DO SOMETHING. Denial and social (heh, and medical) pressures raise the threshold, the barrier to doing anything. As willpower and dysphoria increase, if they reach the threshold of pressures against you acting, you get something done, otherwise your gumption laps around the foothills of competing pressures and you exist in a low level of dysphoria (or sometimes even high level, if the competing pressures are high enough), sometimes in denial, sometimes fully aware of the problem, but unable to break through that barrier of social expectation.

What's more important to take away is that breaking through on one of these fronts (penis problems, breast issues, receded hair, social transition) does not mean that the others are automatically solved at the same time - each must be confronted, accepted and acted on in its own turn.

And that's where I am. Some things I've acted on, some I'm accepting, and some I'm just plain in denial about. However, there's always progress - either the dysphoria and willpower change, or the social pressures against change. As Dorey from "Finding Nemo" said: "What do we do? We swim, swim, swim."

Friday, March 2, 2012

"She's my dad"

I still haven't seen it, and may not get round to watching it, but yesterday My Dad Is A Woman was shown on ITV1. I hardly expect it to a paragon of non-sensational, sensitive documentary making, especially due to the misgendering in the programme description, but all that aside, it did lead to me thinking about my own son's attitude and growing understanding of my partner's gender.

She is still "Dad". We deliberately told him that she would always be his daddy as long as he wanted her to, as we felt it important that he understood that the relationship wasn't going to change. He wasn't (and isn't) "losing" his dad, and we certainly weren't going to insist on him calling her "mum". We did try and persuade him to call her by her first name in public, and tried to explain why - having a person in a skirt being called loudly "dad" can draw unwanted attention and lead to embarrassment - but, frankly, it hasn't stuck (although he does often call her by name, and that's something I'm trying to do more of too). I try and counter this slightly by responding to him whether he calls "Dad!" in public, as it's usually the case he just wants someone to respond rather than specifically my partner, and that doesn't immediately "out" her to any passers-by. But for all that she is still "Dad", she is also "she" and "a girl" and he's fine with that.

There have been times when he's stated he doesn't want to be the only boy, or he doesn't want to have two mums, or (when he's in a particularly bad mood) that "you can't be a girl because you have a willy". But then he also states categorically that he hates school, or he doesn't want a scooter any more, or that he's going to his room and never coming down again because we're "being mean". He's eight. He says things that he doesn't really mean, and while they might demonstrate underlying anxieties, they can also just be from sheer perversity. Sometimes they can be hurtful, or worrying, because they're about "big" issues like bullying or his father's transition, and sometimes they're just plain silly like whether we have three moons or the time he told me the headteacher threw a boy into a tree because he was being naughty. Learning to tell when he's being serious and when something is just a passing whim is an art I haven't yet mastered, but as he happily refers to J using female pronouns now, I'm not that worried about it. And his understanding of gender (and gender stereotypes) is an ongoing process. A few years ago he would insist, despite much evidence to the contrary, that only girls had ponytails and only boys could wear trousers. Now, he's only just starting to accept that girls can like Star Wars too. (School, and society as a whole have a lot to answer for!)

Recently, with mother's day approaching and all the cards being in the shops, he suddenly suggested that maybe he should get J a card for mother's day too as she was a girl, but then quickly countered with "but she's not my mum, she's my dad". I said it was up to him, and we could discuss it later, the middle of a crowded card shop not being the best place to have that conversation. After all, what's the difference between being a mum and being a dad? It certainly can't be entirely down which set of genes you contributed, as no-one would deny adoptive parents or step-parents the right to those titles. Sure, there might be some traditional assumptions about behaviour and roles within the family, but every family is different and with more gender equality and more sharing of care is certainly isn't fair to assume that "mum" is the "primary" caregiver (however you may wish to define that). So it really does seem to be just a question of gender. Female parents are called "mum". Male parents are called "dad". That's that.

Heavens only knows what you're supposed to call a non-binary gendered parent.

And I think that's where I start objecting to this neat classification. "Mum" and "dad" are just nicknames we've adopted to describe ourselves and our relationship to our son. Sure, I think if we had another child now, we'd do things differently, as you just can't get away from the fact that "dad" implies a man. But there's that rebellious part of me that thinks that just because society expects a "dad" to be male, that doesn't have to be the case. Ultimately, like all nicknames, it's an agreed term between two people: the person who uses it and the person to whom it refers. Currently, J and the boy are in agreement that he can call her "dad". If it ever becomes a problem for either of them, then they'll have to re-negotiate, but until such a time, everyone else will just have to cope.