Narratives of trans identity #1

As a trans person, there is often pressure on us to explain exactly why we are how we are. I have a philosophical objection to this pressure, but at the same time, I think it’s natural to want to explore who we are.

But the thing is, lives are complicated. I can come up with lots of different stories of my life that point in completely different directions on the “why” question. So I’m going to do a little series of stories, all of which are from my life, all of which are true, and all of which are things which either I, or someone close to me, has thought might be a relevant causal factor in my trans identity. And then I’m going to discuss how I feel about those stories.

Story One

My dad’s family runs to boys. My paternal grandparents had three sons, one surviving daughter and one very delicate daughter that died in infancy. In the next generation are nine natal grandsons, two natal granddaughters and me.  The generation after (so far) is three boys. Everyone in the family, male or female, tends to have fairly strong features, and be quite tall.

There’s also a tendency to Asperger’s in that side of the family: two of the youngest boys of the family have formal diagnoses, and there are definite autistic spectrum traits in other members, who probably grew up at a time when autism was less readily diagnosed. Autistic spectrum conditions are traditionally male-linked. It’s been suggested that autistic spectrum traits are inherited from the father’s side of the family, and that other family members often have lower level traits. I don’t remember my paternal grandfather, but from descriptions, it sounds as if he himself might have had Asperger’s.

I was always good at maths and sciences, and a lot less good at socialising. I’m quite clumsy. I can be slightly obsessive or repetitive with my interests. As far as I know I don’t meet autistic diagnostic criteria, but I used to think I might. I do have a history of anxiety and depressive disorders, which commonly exist both with Asperger’s and with trans identities. It has also been suggested by Simon Baron-Cohen that there’s a link between Asperger’s and FTM identity, on the basis of Asperger’s being an “extreme male brain”.

About this story

This story comes from things my dad has said to me, but phrased in my own words and with some additions regarding things I’ve come across which can be linked in to this narrative. It is a story that suggests my trans identity is rooted in innate (if rather unspecified) biological factors.

The fact that there are more males than females in my paternal family is entirely explicable through statistical chance, and I don’t believe it has anything to do with anything. I do believe autistic spectrum conditions run in my paternal family, and that I’ve ended up with some traits at the very mild end of the spectrum. I do not  believe I have an “extreme male brain”. Anyway, autism is neither necessary nor sufficient to be trans masculine.

I was very good at sciences and maths, but chose to study the humanities and social sciences in higher education because I was equally good at those, and liked them better.  I’ve never been particularly interested in engineering, or trucks, or anything like that. I’m terrible at sports.

There are a lot of advantages to this kind of narrative. It allows me to imply that my gender identity is linked to some sort of biological condition, perhaps a genetic factor. That fends off the possibility of me being blamed, or punished, for being different. It implies that in some way I am ‘really’ male. These narratives sound scientific, and rational. They support the case for medical intervention because they promote a biomedical cause. When I was about eighteen or nineteen, I thought this was the only way to understand being trans. Nowadays I do not find this sort of narrative useful to myself. I will come on to other possible narratives in my next posts.

50 shades of “gay”

John Heritage, writing on conversation analysis, quotes a statistic from that the human eye can, apparently, see about 7 million distinct colours. English has about 4,000 words for shades and we commonly use words for about 8.

I can think of eleven pretty bog-standard colour words: red, blue, yellow, green, orange, purple, pink, brown, black, white, grey, but perhaps the last three were excluded as not being technically colours? 4,000 other words for shades seems a lot, but I guess there you have the reasonably common ones like silver, gold, cream, navy and the less common ones like azure and taupe and puce. Beyond that, you can have the sort of paint catalogue names for slightly different shades: Harvest Gold and Autumn Sunset and so on. Once the words run out then you get into the approach computers and printers have, where you start numerically specifying the components of cyan, magenta and yellow. But Heritage’s point is, we can see the difference between one shade and another, long after the stage where we have specific names for the difference.

The practical reason for that is pretty obvious. If we all learnt twenty thousand names of colours, we’d never finish nursery school. In most contexts “blue” or “red” will do fine, and if we want to be more specific we can add modifiers or comparators: “a pale turquoisey-green”, or “fire engine red”. Also, if we gave each colour its own  individual name, we’d lose the fact that actually, one shade of navy blue is a lot more like another shade of navy blue than it is like hot pink. There is therefore a compromise to be made between being very specific and being very general. And Heritage makes the further point that this is not unique to colours: all language has to make this trade off in some way. We do the same thing for emotions, for example. There is more than one way to be happy, and we know the differences in the experience, but we don’t have a word for each of the separate emotional states.

This is an issue which arises time and again when we try to describe components of our identity, especially things like sexual and gender identities, where there are multiple and complex components and dimensions. I thought I was pretty well up on terminology, but I learned the words “fraysexual” and “lithromantic” last weekend. (I’m not going to attempt to define them, not least because they’re apparently controversial, but both fall somewhere on the grey part of the asexual spectrum.)

I also (as I often have before) came across people who were confused or frustrated or upset by terminology changing under them: they’d always called themselves “FTM” or “transsexual” or “bisexual” but they’d started finding that people told them that that wasn’t the correct word any more, or even that they were being offensive by calling themselves it. In some cases, people learn terminology for themselves which is very strongly considered “wrong”. Perhaps they started developing their identity in a space where the word “trannie” is used, or they had always thought that “gay” was an all-encompassing term that included what I would call “trans”. At best they’re likely to find that the term they have been identifying with gets corrected, at worst they may end up being excluded from groups or online spaces for being offensive.

Sometimes all of this leads to multiple waves of terminology change going on simultaneously. In the last few months I have encountered LGBT people who see “queer” as a homophobic insult; LGBT people who are aware of the insult use of “queer” but feel they have reclaimed the word as a positive identity; and LGBT people who are aware of both the previous uses, but feel “queer” is too associated with post-modern notions of gender and sexual identity and therefore rejected it again, though for very different reasons to the first group.

Terminology matters. If you’re running a service which is open to all men who have sex with men, but you describe it as a gay men’s service, some of the men you are trying to reach won’t use it, either because they don’t know it’s for them, or because they are offended by being classed as gay when they are not.  Yet at the same time, attempts to get terminology precisely right, and to insist that everyone keeps up with the latest usage, take up time and effort. Time and effort are pretty scarce commodities in the LGBT sector, where most of the work is done by volunteers or on the badly paid margins of community services. Disagreements over terminology make it difficult for service providers to do things like write equality policies and monitor diversity. They also scare people off engaging with communities they might find helpful. It is hard not to see a rejection of your preferred identity term as also being a rejection of your actual identity.

There is a trade-off to be reached somewhere between assuming everyone on the planet shares the same (heterosexual, gender binary) identity, and coming up with 7 billion individual words for our own individual identities. I’m not sure exactly where that stopping point is, but the point of words is to communicate. To me, it seems like it may sometimes be better to use slightly wrong words, or provide a longer description of a concept, rather than come up with more and more precisely correct words that mean nothing to listeners.

I am a complex human being, as is everyone else. My sexual, romantic and gendered feelings are complicated. There is never going to be one word that entirely sums up the entirety of that, and my identity is valid, even if it has no name.

Gender Recognition

In the UK, it is possible for many trans people to have their gender legally recognised, without necessarily requiring us to have surgery. And of course, that’s a huge privilege, and there are many people, in many countries who are nowhere near so lucky.

Our legislation came into force in 2004. At the time, it was pretty progressive. And I know there was a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiation which was necessary to make sure something went through which would help a lot of people. I was one of those who benefitted, and I’m grateful for that.

But eleven years on, the legislation’s looking dated, and frankly unfair. It allows for the recognition of people as either male or female, if they can prove they have been living in their new gender for at least two years by submitting document, and make a legal declaration to say they intend to live as that gender for the rest of their life, and can provide letters from two doctors (one an “expert”) to verify the situation. You don’t need to have had medical treatment, but if you haven’t you need to provide a good reason why not.

The process can be expensive. There’s a fee of £140 to have your application considered (it may be reduced for those on low incomes). Doctors can charge for medical reports, and if you haven’t kept documents like old bank statements or utility bills, you may have to pay to get copies or wait till you have those things before you apply. The statutory declaration has a set legal fee of £10. If you’re in well-paid work, these charges are irritating but manageable, but for someone on a low income, it’s a lot of money.

The final decision about the gender is taken by a panel under the Courts and Tribunal Service. You never meet any of the panel members, you don’t sit in on their deliberation, and as far as I know, the names of the panel members are not readily available. So even after submitting all this evidence, the final decision is taken by strangers who have never met me and know very little about my life, other than having seen a few old gas bills. They have the right to overrule both my legal oath, and the opinion of doctors who do know me and take a decision on my gender. That seems intrinsically wrong.

A legal system which allows recognition as only male and female, and requires an oath that you have no intention to change that, is unfair on non-binary people. At the moment, they are less protected under other UK equality legislation too, and the whole issue is in need of urgent review. There is also still ambiguity around the medical requirements – if you have a trans identity, wish to be recognised in a different gender, but don’t want medical treatment, the onus is on you to justify that. Unfortunately, I’ve heard some bad stories about that.

The passing of same-sex marriage legislation in the UK was fantastic, but there are still problems for trans people who are married or in civil partnerships. They have to get their spouse to agree to the change. Which is fine if they’re with a spouse they want to stay with. But what if they’re in the middle of a messy divorce, or their former partner has disappeared? Their estranged partner can now hold over them a refusal to consent to their new gender.

The irony of it all is that gender is increasingly irrelevant in legislation anyway. Pensions will be equal in the next few years, we have same-sex marriage, and it’s no longer to discriminate regarding gender on issues such as insurance. For someone my age, there are virtually no situations where it is legally relevant what gender I am.

The simple fact is, gender should not be a matter for state control. If I want to call myself a man on Monday, a woman on Tuesday, and non-binary on Wednesday, that is nobody’s business but my own. After all, the government does not maintain a register of my other identity characteristics (they may be monitored for equality reasons, but that’s optional and up to me how I describe myself). Over the course of a few years, I went from Christian to agnostic to atheist – but I didn’t have to get my passport reissued, or swear an oath in front of a lawyer promising I would never again enter a church. I still frequently waver between calling myself gay or bisexual – but no-one requires me to get a doctor’s letter, or submit photos of who I’ve slept with over the last two years every time I change my mind. Even my ethnicity, although it certainly has a biological dimension and is fairly externally obvious, is not something that is recorded on my birth certificate nor regulated by the government. Gender seems to be the one thing where there is an absolute requirement to stick to a single category, and we must seek special permission to change that.

But as I say, the world has moved on since 2004. Ireland, Argentina, Malta, Italy and Denmark now allow trans people to simply declare what gender they are. The UK should be joining them


I got an alert via wordpress to say that janitorqueer has included this blog on a list of blogs they like (thanks very much!), and suggested I do my own list of blogs I like, along with some fun facts.

The honest truth is I’m still pretty new to blogging. (I hadn’t really heard of Tumblr till I started returned to uni as a mature postgraduate last autumn and found all the eighteen and nineteen year olds were talking about it. I assume this is a sign of encroaching middle-age, and I will soon be complaining about the price of stamps and how modern music is too noisy, though thanks to recruitment freezes, the British policemen really aren’t looking any younger) I tend to happen across odd posts I like by chance, but haven’t yet got fully into the habit of bookmarking them so I can find them again later, so it’s a bit difficult for me to compile a list of blogs I like. But I’ll definitely use the opportunity to have a look through some of the lists and hopefully find some new and interesting reads.

Fun facts:

My favourite author, Robin Hobb has a book coming out in just over a week. I think she’s one of the best fantasy authors in terms of writing quality and style, and she raises some itneresting issues about gender, sexuality and identity. (Another favourite writer is Mary Gentle: her work is a very dense read so I have to set aside about a month to read a book of hers but it’s good, and she does a lot on gender diversity).

At the moment, sitting in my living room, I can see far, far more Dr Who memorabilia than should exist outside a sci fi shop, including but by no means limited to every DVD of every episode that still exists, audio recordings of every episode that doesn’t exist, books, plastic figurines and two truly ugly porcelain mugs of William Hartnell and Paul McGann’s heads. All this is not mine, it is my boyfriend’s. He’s currently not in the room, he’s listing his favourite Dr Who companions in order on a gay Dr Who fansite. I’m vaguely bemused by the whole business.


My cat squeaks when he snores (all right, I’ve run out of facts and the cat is asleep next to me).