The first colds and coughs of autumn are raging through Norwich, and I am just trying to shake my own chest infection, which manifested a couple of days ago as a sore throat before moving onto to its current joyful phlegmy stage.
These days, because of all the pressures we are under (work, family etc) it’s often hard for people to take to our beds and sleep off our illnesses, and I am no exception. Dwelling on my own chesty coughing did remind that it is also sometimes hard to step away from commitments and attend to the demands of transition, even though, certainly at this stage in the process, they feel unceasing.
This is not an article intended to be special pleading. It’s more that I’ve decided to use the pressure that these happy little bugs are putting me under as a hook to hang the piece on, which is not just about the challenges of transition, but how many of them are invisible, or at least not immediately apparent, to the outside observer.
When cisgender people – PAUSE! I’m not crazy about this term but if you select the link and see the definition, it seems to be the only one-word term which says what I mean which isn’t, itself, couched in problematic and/or gendered language. Onward. When cisgender people discover someone they know is transgender, they will then try, of course, to process and understand this news. If this is the first trans person they are aware of knowing personally (they might, of course, have met a trans person before but not realized they were trans) then they are likely to draw on what knowledge they have gained beforehand about what it is like to be transgender. In the case of many people, this is likely to be partial, and occasionally unhelpful knowledge. I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about how I struggled to make sense of my own realization of transness as a child, helped by what I sardonically described as the sacred texts I found at home. I was desperately interested and could only find stuff that misinformed me, so what chance does the general public have?
Although in recent years press and media coverage has become a little better informed (still plenty of progress to be made, mind) the way trans people have been depicted in the past cannot help but shape people’s preconceptions of what we are like, what we are going through, and what our priorities and preoccupations are. I’m planning a talk in Norwich on this topic in February for LGBT History Month so some of these issues are much on my mind.
When someone hears you are transgender, they will of course try to “make sense of”, or interpret the news, perhaps drawing on what knowledge of the issues they may have (possibly not much) and also trying to reconcile their understanding of the news with their own understandings and conceptions of gender. In the case of friends and close colleagues, the news of transition is hopefully followed by more information, either through talking to the trans person his/herself or by employers providing information, or a combination of the two. So in the case of those close to you, with a bit of luck they have a broader and deeper perspective of the issues quite quickly. In my case, I’m happy to say, friends and colleagues have been wonderful and hugely positive about my transition.
In the case of those for whom the relationship is a little more distant, the situation is rather trickier. If they don’t know any other trans people then they have to try and make sense of things based on their own prior knowledge and on observing you, and those around you. Sometimes this making sense is hard, or doesn’t go well, given the partial information they have to go on. As it happens, between starting this post and finishing it, I can across an example of an incident that is both very distressing and also badly reported. Sadly, this is often the kind of way in which the complexities of transgender lives are often unhelpfullly depicted (and I also realize of course, that many details of this particular incident are not yet known). It was also recounted to me recently that our own Prime Minister did not, until recently, realize that trans does not equate (on a simple level) to gay.
Many people, of course, want to try and “make sense” of situations and to categorize them, or the people involved. So those on the periphery of the social circle, or who see the trans person in the streets around the neighbourhood and recognize the changed person, have to deal with the fact that their previous conception is now challenged. Their new conception may therefore take a number of forms – so in the case of a trans woman it might be she is now a woman, or she is trans-(add one of a number suffixes), or ‘he’ is trans-(suffix) or thinks ‘he’ is a woman, or is dressing as a woman or etc etc etc. And some people will be pretty desperate to recategorize you, and/or recategorize your family, i.e. I thought this was a conventional family but what kind of family is this etc etc. In our case I think we are a pretty conventional family in fact – just a family in which one parent is a trans woman. And we don’t need external classification to function, thank you very much.
A second-level stage of this thinking may be an attempt to make sense of the trans person in terms of what aspects of the transitional experience the observer thinks are important – which again may be based on what they have read, or seen on television etc. As a consequence of some of the less helpful reporting, people often latch onto particular aspects that are either obviously visible or intriguingly invisible. So in the first case, it may be about clothes, and in the second about surgeries. With a side order of “authenticity”. Julia Serano touches on this in the extract of a new piece I linked to the other day, and has written elsewhere about the experience of people who have seen her as female but then, if they learn about her history, start to “deconstruct” her femininity.
Many in the cis world don’t realize that not everyone opts for particular surgeries, or that some choose particular treatments but not others, or that some may have medical problems that prevent them having surgeries but still need to get on with their authentic lives. But in point of fact, medical treatments need to be put in the broader context of a huge, lengthy journey involving massive social and psychological change, including the massive unburdening and coming to terms with self that takes place when you no longer have to fight your true nature. I transitioned fifteen months and five days ago (not that I’m counting, right?) and each one of those days has brought challenges, or gifts, or things to think about – sometimes all three in one day. Some aspects of treatment are indeed significant, but they have to be seen in the context of a huge process of becoming, and of no longer running away from our true selves.
And if someone’s transition, from the outside, appears to be going well, and the person involved appears happier, then they probably are. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t contending with a huge range of personal, social and sometimes political issues – we are. It just means that like you, we have our challenges but we’re dealing with and getting on with daily life as well, and as best we can. I sometimes say that as we transition we resemble ducks on a millpond – we may look outwardly tranquil (because we are a lot happier) but we are frantically paddling below the surface. I include myself – I am having the most fabulous time but I am paddling like crazy!