Sunday, 3 October 2010

Typically Trans Ally

Recently, I had the opportunity to be a delegate at a conference on LGBT health. It was a great couple of days and I learnt a lot, not least about trans issues.
I've always flattered myself that I was what's called a trans ally. I've always wondered: If I were 100% heterosexual, would I have empathy with people of other sexual orientations? I like to think so and, as someone who is pretty much completely cis-gender (My physical body is congruent with my mental gender identity - my chromosomes say I'm female, and so does my brain), I like to think I have empathy for those who live with some form or other of gender dysphoria, and who identify as trans.
I've also shouted and screamed on numerous occasions about the inclusion of T in LGBT. Yes, sexual orientation and gender orientation are vastly different things, with different issues, but the L, the B and the G in that non-acronym all have disparate issues as well, but they are part of the same community, and you'd have to be blind, deaf and plain ignorant to deny the fact that trans people are part of that community as well. I always thought that the LGB-not-T lobby consisted of closed-minded LGB types.
But no, apparently, some trans people feel the same way: Why should they be lumped in with sexuality when their issue is gender? what do they want with us, or we with them?

When a trans speaker at this event said that she thought the T had no place next to LGB and got a massive round of applause my mouth dropped open and stayed there for a while. I actually felt kind of kicked in the gut, because there I've been, nagging all and sundry at work to make sure the "T" goes on the end of LGBT and not in that creepy "LGB & T" separate-but-equal way where it's like "LGB...& those other freaks....I mean T", explaining terms like 'genderqueer' over and over, thinking I'm some grand activist standing up in solidarity for the rights of the trans community to be included in 'my' community, and it turns out I've got it completely wrong and they want nothing to do with us? Oh. Well now I feel like an idiot.

Of course, the fact that I happened to be sitting next to my friend Carol, a prominent LGBT activist, who had steam coming out of her ears and daggers coming out of her eyes for that entire exchange, let me know that that wasn't a universal feeling within the trans community but still... I was pretty gobsmacked, and felt that I'd been quite arrogant in assuming that trans people actually WANTED anything to do with the grand and mighty LGB community. I mean... look at bisexuals. They fought to get their initial in there and now, nine times out of ten, they're ignored, lumped in, subsumed.

Perhaps I'd got it all wrong...I'd already used the word 'cisgender' to describe myself in a workshop, and had been met with a sea of blank faces and incomprehension when I tried to explain it, convincing me that I'd made the damn word up and was just being 'trendy' in using it. But hell - the trans women were identifying as 'trans women'. I wasn't just going to say 'woman' if they weren't, was I?

Thankfully, another delegate, also a trans activist, spoke out in response to this. He spoke of his fear that dividing the LGBT community would only weaken the L,G,B and the T factions. And that's the case, if you think about it. Gender and sexuality are separate, sure, but they HAVE to be interlinked.

The whole interplay between sexuality and gender is fascinating to me. I mean take someone like Billy Tipton (the -as it turned out - trans male jazz musician whose female physical gender was discovered on his death). He never publicly identified as trans, or as female - so how do we know how he identified in himself? Perhaps she was a woman who wore a disguise to get further in her chosen field. Perhaps she was a lesbian who got read as a man early on and thought 'what the hell, it's got me a gig, I'll run with this!'. Perhaps he was a trans man but never had the vocabulary to express that.
Look at drag, butch and femme, tops and bottoms etc, etc. Saying that gender identity isn't integral to sexual identity...well it hurts my head.
Me, I'm about as cis as you can get without falling over. If I try to act butch, it comes out camp. I'm the world's lousiest drag king. Still can't walk in heels, though, so I'm not what you might call the ultimate femme either. I am still fired up about trans issues. Do I have the right to be?
I'd love to be involved in more trans politics and activism but am not sure where my place in that is without coming over as patronising or arrogant. I do think it's an LGBT community and that, as an 'L', there's no excuse for not having solidarity with the G, the B or the T. But some of the funny looks I got at the conference when I ventured an opinion on trans issues from outside the trans fold made me wonder what my place was.
I'll work on it. I keep using 'queer' to describe myself - in order to demarcate that I view myself as part of a wider community than simply 'lesbian', but so far I've only succeeded in offending the old-school gays who see that word as an insult. Oh well. Can't please everyone.