Its nice when things link up and, through linkage, i start to puzzle out stuff for myself.
The t-girl revolution
At Erotica, a week or so back, i was more than mildly disturbed by the proliferation of things T-girl. First off, there was a t-girl bar (located, either thru malign co-incidence or organiser quirk, right opposite the great British sausage stall). Then there was a load of events at the show lionising all things “tranny”: cross-dresssing and stage show. You name it: it was there.
This set me thinking about how healthy this was. I’d already noticed, following “My Transsexual Summer” a slight tendency not so much to pathologise as to “cutesify” the trans. People posting supportively on twitter their admiration for “us trans” – and whilst i’ll not reject that, it did feel as though we were being seen as rare and cuddly exotic species rather than people.
And this? I know already that t-girl stuff is divisive too: that a lot of women quite approve of it; and yet its a mode of being that can seriously get in the way of transition for some trans women.
So there’s one strand. Then, on saturday, being entertained in Manchester by a very good and supportive trans woman, i ended up, for a while, in a pub mostly frequented by t-girls and realised, not for the first time, how scary i find such places.
They’re like the distant cousin i know i have and can never quite make my mind up about: family, but altogether different jenes. (or rather, i wore jeans…they wore the tight leopard print).
And yet…and yet: we are all supposedly one under the great transgender umbrella, which now includes ts, tv, intersex, genderqueer and a whole host of others.
Pause that thought a moment.
Dreger does stats 101…
Next up is a piece which i cam across today by Alice Dreger, a professor in Bioethics. It has aroused controversy, though in terms of argument, i can’t see why.
Because all she is pointing out is something that i – and anyone else who ever studied statistics at a level beyond Micky Mouse – will know by heart: when you are faced with a difficult decision, there are two mistakes typically made.
One is to take action when in the end, no action was needed. The other is to not take action when it should have been.
Think “possibly diseased kidney”: remove it when it isn’t, and you do damage. Fail to remove it when it is and you do damage. This is kindergarten stuff and i don’t really see why she needs to go on at such length about it – and if that is what it takes to be a fully paid-up bioethicist, count me in. Its easy-peasy.
The problem, though, is twofold. Dreger applies this thought process to early transition. Similar problem: “diagnose” a kid as trans when they aren’t, and you do damage; fail to when they are, and you do damage.
Where’s the big idea in that?
Ah. Well, there are two probs, really, and this does go back to that big umbrella thing.
Dreger doesn’t do empathy
First off is the language. Dreger begins by using the analogy of a kid who “thinks they are a train”. Sorry, Prof D: this won’t do. The issue raised is real: but the language is decidedly inflammatory. I note that the comments on the Prof’s piece drew out the usual “what if i think i’m Napoleon” commentary – to which the obvious answer is: you have every right to dress the part and spend the rest of your life in exile on St Helena.
But this is about more than intellectual argument. Its about tone and position and erasure…even though i’m sure the author would reject all that.
The point is that this is a space where even Julie Bindel has a point and a contribution to make.
Force the wrong diagnosis and wrong treatment on someone and you genuinely risk fucking up the rest of their life. And that doesn’t stop with disgnosing trans when they aren’t: it includes far right and christian efforts to train kids out of being gay…or to “rectify” the intersex by surgical intervention in their bodies…and a whole host of other interventions besides.
I won’t say that fervent advocates of one of the more newly recognised sexual minorities (anyone, basically on the LGBTQQQI spectrum) don’t occasionally get over-enthusiastic about this stuff. For the most part, though, i see the Dreger position – Bindel’s too – as straw man stuff.
Basically: if you force a child to be ANYTHING, on the basis not of careful consideration of that child’s needs, but of some external ideology, that is abuse.. However, to date i haven’t seen masses of evidence of that evangelical tendency on behalf of anyone other than trad and mostly reactionary groups.
Otherwise, and for the most part, what i do see are people well aware of the enormity of the decisions they are being forced to take – and once a situation does present, you have to take a decision, one way or t’other, for good or ill – and a very great deal of nervous trepidation on their part.
You need a lot of sympathy and support, which this piece definitely fails to give.
The language of privilege
Beyond that, two observations.
What doesn’t help is frankly stupid language: and yes, i think Dreger’s language here IS stupid. Its shock jock stuff, deliberately designed to sex up what is otherwise a fairly dry debate about statistical risk-taking.
Sometimes it is born out of deliberate provocativeness: heck! I’m a journalist. I know how to provoke: and i know that provocative pieces sell better, make my reputation louder than considered ones.
And its born out of privilege. Because being “just” academic and “just” detached is a privilege that not all of us have. When you’re lying awake at night agonising what is the right thing to do for your child, i don’t think some academic likening your child’s state of being to a kid wishing to be Thomas the Tank engine is either kind or helpful.
DO we need one big umbrella?
Last up, is the umbrella thing. Dreger does make some valid points – which tend to be overwhelmed by the controversial way she wraps them up: not least, she asks whether there is not some “transsexual orthodoxy” that is being used to erase gender queer positions. I’d ask the opposite…because, going right back to the start: i do find my t-girl cousings uneasy company.
I recognise the kinship – but i’m not them, and they’re not me. Nor am i genderqueer. Probably not intersex either. I’m me, which just happens to be a woman of trans history. End of.
And it all begins to feel to me like the same debate we’ve started to have about the LGBT umbrella. Does trans belong in there and…well, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.
We suffer similar bigotries, have some issues in common – and we also have a lot of things that are different. We’re family…maybe more distant than the trans family…but family all the same. We should respect that – but not regard it as some sort of overwhelming restriction on who we are.
Ditto the trans umbrella. Maybe the time has come to start to re-assert differences. To make it very clear that we, too, are family, but we have differences – and it does no-one any good for one or other group to attempt to assimilate each other’s way of being.