Hi all. I am gradually rattling the steam-powered engine of this old blog awake again. I have been travelling/otherwise engaged, and although it will be a few days more before my perambulations are over, I thought I would start posting again a little bit in the meantime.
For various reasons, I have been thinking about identity, about conformity, and about the position in society of those of us who do not match, for whatever reasons, social expectations about gender. I think that we should see those social expectations for what they are – a “rulebook” laid on top of reality, rather than reality itself. I am increasingly convinced that gender variance is natural, but in modern Western societies (of which the UK is, of course, my most direct experience), the notion that there are only two, clearly defined genders has dominated thinking, at least until recently. That is why, although the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 has improved things for trans people, it is primarily top-down legislation which is only helpful for those of us who meet (or can act as if we meet) particular, narrow definitions of what it means to be trans. In my case, I have benefited from the Act but do not agree with its limited definitions, as I discussed in the Guardian last March.
You may wonder, if I feel that UK law is benefiting me rather than hindering me, why I feel the need to take issue with it? The answer is because I realize how limited (and limiting) it is, and because the more trans people I meet, the more open that has made my thinking, the more complex my understanding of my own situation, as well as others I have met, and the more convinced I am that these are issues of freedom, respect, personal liberty and our right to be equal in society with any other individual.
Wow, where do I go with this? There are lots of possible directions and I think this will lead to a few posts. But maybe I can start from a personal perspective. Although I have written in quite a bit of detail about my early life on this blog (particularly my earlier “narrative” posts), I haven’t written too much about my current life, and my family. But maybe in this case this is a good place to start, as it takes us away from detailed considerations about the essence of gender for the moment, but perhaps can raise one or two interesting questions.
I have a wonderful family. I live with my partner and our two children – our daughter is 14 and our son is 11. When I finally stopped fighting myself and accepted that transition was my best option – 3 May 2008 – I realized that I was about to present my family with a very challenging situation. I didn’t know how we collectively and individually would deal with the challenge, but I began to think about what I might be able to do to maximize the chances that we would stay together, stay in our neighbourhood and that I would be able to stay in my job.
I never seriously thought about going “stealth” as we say in the trans community – that is, starting a new life somewhere else and burning the bridges to my past, with the intention of hiding my pre-transition history. I will have more to say about stealth and the issues it raises in another post. But feeling that I at least wanted to try to preserve those elements of my life which I valued so much, I also realized that if I did do so, there would be a lot of colleagues, friends and neighbours in Norwich who would know my history, either because they knew me pre-transition or perhaps because some people would point out my history to them.
That raised a whole bunch of issues, and felt very scary for a while, and again I will write soon about how my current life and my pre-transition life relate to each other, and why I think it is important that they do.
For the moment, though, back to family. My little nuclear family has responded to my transition fantastically. That is not to say that it hasn’t been challenging for them. But we have all communicated with each other, and supported each other, and stuck by each other. I am very lucky.
I think one of the reasons why we have done so well is that we did not seek, as a family, to meet/conform to external expectations about what sort of a family we should be. And also, we’ve made it up as we have gone along. There aren’t many role models out there in terms of families surviving, let alone thriving through transition. Most examples I had come across pre-transition were through documentaries which surfaced from time to time on various cable channels, or occasionally in slightly more serious programmes on BBC Radio 4.
To me, these mostly weren’t much help. They often depicted the family as slightly apologetic, talking in terms of neighbours perhaps “tolerating” them or “allowing” them to fit in. There was a flavour of compromise, of becoming quieter/less visible in order to fit in. Certainly in the run up to, and immediately after transition I worried about how people we knew in Norwich would respond to us, and I was particularly anxious that our children might be singled out or picked on. We had no way of predicting what would happen.
So it was that one morning in September 2009, I walked my son up to his school (about ten minutes walk from our house) and then at the end of the school day took my place with the other parents in the playground, all waiting to collect our kids. The first few times I did that, I felt very visible, not least because the parents surrounding me fitted into lots of different categories:
- good friends who knew I was transitioning and had supported me
- acquaintances who knew I was transitioning and when (i.e. they expected me to appear as female at the start of term)
- acquaintances who knew I was transitioning but not when (so my arrival at the school gate as a woman might have been a bit of a surprise)
- acquaintances who didn’t know I was transitioning
- parents who didn’t really know me at all
Nothing much you can do about such a varied bunch of people except be yourself and get on with your daily life. But as a family you also find yourself outside the normal definitions. So some people are keen to label you because they used to be able to put your family into a category, and that’s the way they like to operate, so they want now to put you into another category. Now, I think there are only two categories of family personally, good or bad – and either type can be composed of many different combinations of individuals, for exampe:
- male parent, female parent, child(ren)
- single male parent, child(ren)
- single female parent, child(ren)
- two female parents, child(ren)
- two male parents, child(ren), and also
- family in which one or more member has gone through gender transition
There are probably many other combinations, should we stop to think. These different family compositions will have issues in common, and points of difference – big deal, what the hell. What we decided to do was to resist the pressure to be re-labelled or to conform to any outside definitions; to be a happy and out family, as active socially and within the school context as we ever were; to hopefully demonstrate by example how well things are going for us; and to just go about our daily lives like any other family.
It seems to have worked. We have had no issues/problems with neighbours. The kids are happy and thriving, and doing things growing kids do. Their friends have absorbed the fact of my transition very readily and continue to be warm and friendly to the kids and to us, their parents. And the children have had no problems at school, not been picked on/singled out. Being out there as a proud, united family has done the trick, and we have not had to curry favour, to seek to be “included” in the neighbourhood on some compromised basis. We are just out there.
And what kind of family are we? Well, who needs definitions? We’re just making it up as we go along and having as much fun as we can do along the way. Seems like the best approach to us …