Drinking Games and Knowledge

So a couple of weeks ago, I was in a room with a group of about 20 trans guys at a weekend away. And someone suggested playing “I have never”. (For those not in the know, it’s a drinking game. Someone says “I have never done x”, e.g. “I have never gone skinny dipping” and everyone who has done it takes a drink.) And as these things go, everyone gets a bit drunk and asks daft questions and you learn things about each other.

A few days later, I was back in the office, and confronted with my PhD thesis, in which I need to provide a proper academic reference for everything I write, preferably from a peer-reviewed journal. And for a lot of trans stuff, especially trans masculine stuff, especially stuff that isn’t about the mechanics of transition there just isn’t that much written. Some of the questions which got asked during that game of “I have never” are questions which have rarely been officially investigated with trans communities – to what extent are trans men attracted to other trans men, for example?

Now, plainly a drinking game between me and some mates is not a proper academic reference (though I suppose could write it up as participant-led research among a convenience sample, and frankly there are worse designed studies out there). So I can’t refer to it in my thesis, and even if I could, I wouldn’t, because it would be wrong to take private information outside that space without consent. But it means that I know something that I don’t officially “know” for research purposes.

In fact, it happens quite a lot. I belong to Facebook groups where thousands of trans people post comments, queries, discussions. Those are secret or closed Facebook groups: not publicly accessible. I belong to a trans Yahoo group (I know, prehistoric!) and while no-one posts in it any more, there are ten or fifteen years worth of trans queries about surgery, or changing names, or the passing of the Gender Recognition Bill (which I was reminded recently used to be known as the GerBil, since obviously major pieces of equality legislation should be equated to rodents). Again, for ethical reasons I would never, ever lift out those private comments from private groups and use them for my academic research. But when I’m writing on trans health, and I know I’ve seen dozens of threads and posts and comments on something that isn’t in the academic literature at all, it’s hard to know quite what to do.

There’s a sort of principle in academia that you don’t have to reference stuff that is general common knowledge. I don’t have to reference  that the sky is blue, or that chickens lay eggs. But there is a lot of stuff that is common knowledge to me as a member of a trans community that other people don’t know. Most days I hear the same complaints about health services on trans discussion groups. I hear about the same problems with getting details switched over, or GPs refusing referrals to gender clinics for stupid reasons, or confusion over pathways. As far as I’m concerned, those things are common knowledge. But they aren’t common knowledge to people who aren’t embedded in trans communities. And half the time, I can’t find a proper reference for them.

This kind of imbalance is something that has, of course, been pointed out by feminist scholars and black scholars and queer scholars and all sorts of others. And of course, there needs to be research to fill these gaps, not just personal anecdote: it would be entirely wrong to assume that the issues I discuss with people I socialise with are representative of trans people as a whole. But if the best knowledge available to me on a subject is conversations I’ve had on Facebook, or getting pissed with mates in a youth hostel, then surely it’s more honest to acknowledge that I have that knowledge than to pretend I know nothing.



For some reason, an old article about brain differences between men and women, and whether trans people have similar differences, is doing the rounds on my Facebook contacts.

Now, there are critiques you could make of this specific piece of research, starting with the small sample size and the possibility of other confounding factors. But I’m more concerned with the principle of attempting to understand trans people by staring at their brains.

Firstly, it always reminds me of that bit in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (spoiler alert) where the mice have a machine that can read minds – but only if those minds are in wafer thin slices. This particular study was done on living people, but a lot of the transsexual brain difference studies are done on dead people. I can’t see a lot of use in identifying differences between brains that can only be discovered when someone’s dead.

But of course, there is supposed to be a reason why it’s useful to find trans differences in the brain, dead or alive. Because if you can find it in the brain then it’s real. It’s supposed to validate us, to prove we were right all along about who we claimed to be. I think that’s a pretty dangerous path to take. My feelings and my identity are valid whether or not you can colour them in on an MRI scan of my brain. Moreover, most brain differences which do exist are likely to come down to tendencies and averages – on average this bit of brain here may be a bit bigger in men, or be a bit more active in women. Those kind of average difference usually come with various exceptions and caveats. If we try to identify trans people from brain scans, what happens if we find someone who feels trans but doesn’t have that brain difference, or who doesn’t feel trans but has the “wrong” sort of brain? Do their identities get trumped by what the MRI scan shows? I really hope not.

The brain work also often implies that if we can find something in the brain, it must be innate. But that’s obviously not the case. I know how to ride a bike. That information is stored in my brain and if someone were to hook me up to a scanner while I was riding a bike, they’d probably see certain neural pathways associated with bike riding flash into activity. A really advanced brain scan might even be able to find some physical brain differences between people who know how to ride a bike and those who don’t, maybe around the bit of the brain that control certain motor skills. But no-one sanely claims that those are predestined, that riding a bike is wired into the brain from the start, calling some people to learn how to ride a bike and others not to. What we learn and what we do and who we are changes our brains.

Human brains are astounding. But you can’t understand who someone is from a MRI scan.

Someone to understand

When I was about 9, my dad had a sign on his study door with a quote on it. I don’t remember the exact wording of the quote, and I have no idea who it was from (bear with me on this), but the gist of it was that all anyone really wants from life is to feel that someone, anyone, truly understands them. This would have been somewhere around 1994, so it was printed in Times New Roman on a piece of white copy paper – doubtless nowadays it would be illustrated by a picture of two cats staring into each other’s eyes and meme round Facebook.

The sentiment of that quote stuck with me, even though I’ve forgotten of the details. I’m often reminded of it within the LGBT “community”. Because, of course, there’s no such thing. There are endlessly, fragmenting, juxtaposing communities, that sometimes come together and sometimes break apart. For a start, lesbian and gay community groups tend to rapidly fragment along gender lines. We debate over whether the trans should really be in there or not. It’s pretty rare to see a true mix of ages, or a representative sample of ethnic diversity. Usually someoone ends up feeling a bit unwelcome, whether it’s the bisexuals, or the single, or those with kids, or the older people and the younger ones. So we split the space (formally or informally) down into sub-groups. I can’t speak for what goes on in all the sub-groups – after all, I don’t belong to many of them – but the ones I belong to often split again.

Often these splits turn acrimonious. I’ve seen it several times. Even in spaces which really try to be inclusive, someone feels excluded. They complain. Others get defensive. With it being LGBT related, often romance and/or sex are in the mix, making it all even more emotional. Someone goes too far in denouncing the other side, and it ends with the group banning someone, or even the group collapsing because the organisers can’t cope with all the nastiness.

Yet ironically, I think it all comes back to that wanting someone, anyone, to understand. For a lot of people, perhaps especially those without much support from family and friends, LGBT (or trans, or lesbian, or whatever) spaces are often the place where it seems like most acceptance is likely to be forthcoming. And for many people, it really is. But to be in that space and not feel accepted – or to be accused by someone else of not being accepting – that hurts. And because LGBT groups tend to have their accepting-ness formalised, overseen by committees and standing orders and policies, it’s often difficult to deal with the fact that people aren’t perfect. That much as we try to understand everyone, our own history and identity and other baggage makes it  easier to understand people who are more like us. And that when  people come to an identity-based group, searching for someone to understand them, it’s quite likely to end up with some clusters of people who have a lot in common, and other people who feel a bit left out.

I don’t know quite what the solution is. I can say we should focus on our similarities, and try to be inclusive and understanding of others, but that’s scarcely an insightful revelation, and doesn’t help with the situations where people are already trying. I think setting up separate spaces may be useful where there are sufficient numbers for everyone to belong to a group, and as long as it doesn’t encourage people to be inconsiderate – but a lot of the time those two conditions aren’t met. I think there’s a lot to be said for networking, and trying to get people in contact with lots of different groups where they may share an interest, but again that’s not always possible. But I suppose, as a start, it perhaps helps to remember that people generally are looking for someone to understand them.

I’m okay without a penis

Let’s start by make a few things clear. I’m a trans man. I’m also very much a fan of penises. Penises are great. And despite what is often said to the contrary, the results of transmasculine lower surgery can be fantastic. I’ve seen some impressive phalloplasties, and some very attractive metoidioplasties. I’m entirely secure in my male identity – I consider myself a man, and I like being a man. What’s more I’m fortunate enough to live in a country which makes trans surgery available on the national health service, with the same rights to paid time off work as for any other health condition.  I’ve done so for the last 11 years, and expect to do so till I die. I’ve opted to have both surgical and hormonal intervention related to my gender identity, so I’m certainly not opposed to medical intervention.

And yet I haven’t had genital surgery, and am extremely unlikely to ever do so. There’s no medical or financial barrier to my having surgery. I don’t see not having surgery as a political statement, or even having anything to do with my identity. I just don’t need one.

Genital surgery, particularly for trans men, is a faff. There are usually three or four separate procedures. If they’re doing stuff which affects where you pee from, it’s fairly likely you’ll have to have blockages or leaks repaired along the way. If you’re desperate for full sized erections, you’ll have to have implants replaced every decade or so, and have a large scar on your arm for life. For some guys, the whole process is totally worth it. For me, it isn’t. So part of the reason why I don’t have surgery is laziness: I can’t be arsed with it all

For a long time, that was my go to excuse. When the subject came up, I’d suggest that the problem was the inconvenience of surgery (and probably hint at the argument that the results weren’t all that good either). I’d imply that if only surgical options were better, I’d have surgery. That argument is one that also comes up a lot in medical and academic discussions on why relatively few trans men have surgery. But the simple fact is, at least for me, it’s not true. Even if it was a 30 minute outpatient procedure that would give me a fully functional cock of porn star proportions, I still wouldn’t bother.

I don’t need it. I see my genitals as male, exactly how they are. I enjoy them, exactly as they are. I’m aware that I’m out of step with the opinions of a substantial proportion of the population on that. Sometimes I find myself attempting to justify that, or explaining, or apologising. But I’m trying to apologise less. I’m male. I’m trans. I don’t have a penis, and I don’t especially want one.

Transgender Communities

So this week I’ve been reading David Valentine’s “Imagining Transgender”. It’s an ethnographic study (study of a community by living in it), looking at the communities described as transgender within New York in the late 1990s. The “described as” is important: one of the points Valentine makes very clearly is that there are several different communities, often with minimal overlap, and that it is often hard to define or bound them. (He makes a lot of other points too: if you’re interested in issues around trans identity and community, it’s well worth a read).

Somewhat fittingly, I read the book while attending a transmasculine body positivity weekend. I’ve been going to such events for 6 years now, and I’ve been a member of a wide range of other transmasculine events, local groups, online groups etc. for much longer than that. There were several people at the event who I’ve known for longer than anyone I don’t share genetic material with. They are also some of the people who have most substantially shaped my sense of identity, self and relationships, and some of the people who I most confidently expect to be in my life going forward. To me, it is the strongest and most coherent community I have ever belonged to, and is pretty close to family. No matter how irritating or depressing being trans has been for me at times, I will always be glad to belong to that community.

It is not however, a particularly concretely defined community. For a start, I belong to several different trans groups and spaces. There is something particularly magical about that group I was with last weekend, which distinguishes it from other trans groups. At the same time, the distinction isn’t absolute – I sometimes get that same feeling in other trans spaces, and many of the groups have substantial overlap in membership. I certainly wouldn’t say that being trans is the definition of the community – there are wives and boyfriends and husbands and girlfriends and other friends and siblings and lovers and allies of trans people who I’d definitely count as belonging to that community, and some trans people who I definitely wouldn’t count. I suppose part of it comes down to things that are shared within that group: certain values, and language and understanding.

It’s a community which I rarely see reflected in academic literature or social policy around trans people. They seem to be largely focused on the idea that trans people, and especially trans men, have surgery and then disappear off to lead mainstream lives, never to be seen or heard of again. Yes, there are references to “the trans community”, but nine times out of ten that’s actually just a reference to “trans people”. The rare exception is often referring to something that the “trans community” is unhappy about, and what form that unhappiness is taking. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in exploring what a trans community is, or what it looks like, or how you can distinguish one trans community from the next. There’s even less interest in exploring the benefits of community, and how affirming and right it feels to belong somewhere.

I don’t think that’s just a trans thing, to be honest. In the UK we’re not much good at talking about community other than in that vague kind of way that means “the general public” or “a group of people”, or else in a semi-ironic fashion that suggests referring to community is a surefire indicator of a politically-correct leftie radical. Unfortunately, the Thatcherite mindset still seems to be dominant. I firmly believe that feeling part of a community is important and valuable for people. I want it to be recognised that my communities (and not just my trans community, but others too) have value, and are important to me.