Saturday, 2 August 2008

Gendered Spaces

A while ago, I was discussing transitioning with a friend, and she asked me what I would miss. I said, getting fucked and all-female safe spaces.

What Kit Does In Bed will be dealt with in a later post. For now, I'm trying to work out my relationship with gendered spaces, the female ones I'm leaving and the male ones I have to learn to deal with.

I've always been a firm believer in the necessity of female-only spaces. I went to an all-women Oxford college - which is now, alas, admitting men in the interests of getting more funds. St Hilda's College appeared in the news from time to time, as its Principal tried to manoeuvre the Governing Body into a vote in favour of going mixed. The University gave it less funding than other colleges, because it could not fund 'discrimination', in this instance the non-admission of men.

In the wider context of Oxford University, St Hilda's provided a few much-needed things. First, it focused upon women, who are still marginalised within the University. Men still get more Firsts, the legacy of an academic tradition which has taught men for about a thousand years, and women for maybe eighty. The women's colleges were founded, and fought for, by dedicated women only three or four generations ago, when women's education was a contested issue. Oxford seems to think we can do without them now, female education being taken so much for granted. I disagree.

Second, women form a slightly smaller percentage of total admissions to Oxford, and that is inclusive of the all-women intake of St Hilda's - one of the larger colleges. Going mixed reduces the number of women getting access to an Oxford education.

Third, some women, for personal, religious, or social reasons, would prefer to be in an all-female environment at university. St Hilda's particularly attracted Muslim women, who now no longer have that option, and must chose between living in a mixed college and missing out on an Oxford degree.

There are still a few all-male institutions in Oxford, all attached to the Roman Catholic Church and doubling as monasteries or ecclesiastical establishments. There is no doubt that Oxford as a whole does not discriminate against men, and it seems harsh that the one all-female college should have been forced to admit men, or else be kept short of funds by the University.

I spent four years there, and while the majority of my friends were male, and my social life quickly expanded outside the college, I appreciated it as a space to return to. I'm going into this now because in recent months I've had to rethink which spaces I'm comfortable in, and which spaces it is appropriate for me to be in.

One of the spaces I am worried about losing is Sh! They have an amazing shop, selling sex-toys, books, outfits and other cool stuff aimed specifically at women. They also have a door-policy that men may enter with a woman, or by appointment. This is something I've found entirely positive in the times I've been there en femme. Given the shame, secrecy and misinformation surrounding female sexuality and pleasure, environments like Sh! do a lot to demystify sex toys and make buying them a comfortable and empowering experience for women. I have, in the past, chaperoned my boyfriend there; now, if I go there presenting as male, I need to take a female friend along.

I don't remotely begrudge this change. I've spent enough time in these spaces to know how good they are. If my presence in them now makes them less safe and secure for women, then I have no place there.

The more difficult question, though, because it is unavoidably defining, and pushes me into the much-loathed binary, is - which loos should I use?

I have a mental map, now, of the pubs and cafes in Oxford in which I have successfully passed as male in the gents. I started at my local, and worked outwards, gaining courage each time. In London, I use the gents' everywhere, as a discipline. The logistical irritations - or having to queue for the one cubicle, of paranoia about looking sufficiently male, of terror lest you run into a male friend or acquaintance - are compensated for by for the small sensation of triumph I get when I am not argued with or challenged.

In the last week, I have had two experiences which caused me to question myself seriously.

The first was at a cocktail bar in Soho. I was out for the evening with friends, and had on a camp but definitely masculine outfit - a black vest-top, combat trousers, and clunky Army Surplus boots. I also had a brand new clippered haircut.

I walked into the gents', having to edge round the owner and a friend of his who were deep in conversation in the outer doorway. As I walked past them and down the corridor towards the gents, the owner called after me, 'Excuse me?'

I turned, making my strapped-down flat chest obvious. 'I'm sorry?' I said, in the monotonous low growl which is the nearest I can get to a man's voice.

He stared at me for a very long moment, and I stared back, pretending not to know what was bothering him. Then he shrugged, and turned back to his friend.

Clearly, he was bothered enough to stop me - but not quite sure enough of his ground to tell me straight out that I was in the wrong place. This is just the level of uncertainty that I like about my presentation.

The second incident was when I was with my mother. I'm very recently out to her, and the subject of which loos I use hadn't yet been mentioned, so when she took me arm and we wandered over to the ladies', as she and I have been doing together since I was a kid, I didn't have the guts to pull away and bolt into the gents', despite being strapped down, packing and clearly presenting as male.

I found I had forgotten how to do female body language. I couldn't quite pull my personal space back in to its old area. And - this was the killer - I looked like I knew I shouldn't be there. I've conquered this look for when I walk into the gents', but I can't revert to my former feminine confidence on demand.

As I was walking out again - feeling much too tall, and more uncomfortable in my skin than I have in years - a party of six ladies ran into me. They looked at me, looked at the sign on the door, looked at each other, and started a conversation in a language I didn't know, but whose subject I could guess. For me, that moment was much more awkward and humiliating than being questioned at the door of the gents'.

I've reached the conclusion that I don't fit in either space any more. There will always be someone who reads me as the wrong thing, as the excluded, shouldn't-be-here gender. Because that's what I usually am.

I enjoy misfitting, I like causing confusion. Part of me is worried, for my own safety, for the feelings of other people. Also, I am beginning to believe that there really isn't much space for a person like me, and that as I get older I will have to pick a side and stick to it, and either transition medically or revert to a butch-lesbian variety of female presentation. For now, though, I'm going to be as complicated and confusing as I can, because gender is not binary, and people are not that simple.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Patriarchy, Stereotype and Public Displays of Affection

or, Can Mayonnaise Turn Your Child Gay?

A Heinz advertisement which shows two men kissing has been taken off the air here in the UK, amid a storm of protest. (The Guardian had a video of the ad here).

Men don't kiss men. At least, not in Britain. Not on television. Not where the children can see, please, or we might have to explain this alien phenomenon to them.

The overlying message of the advertisement is that this particular mayonnaise can transport you into another world in which your sandwiches are made in a Manhattan deli, not in your own kitchen. This is an enticing image. We all crave a little of the exotic with our lunch.

More subtle is the reinforcement of the gender-roles involved. ‘Mum’ makes sandwiches, the kids go to school, Dad rushes off to work. It’s a nice little nuclear family. Right down to the faintly nagging and passive-aggressive ‘Ain’t you forgettin’ something?’, the ‘Mum’ figure is a walking stereotype, even though, in this case, she is replaced by a burly man from an American sandwich shop.

The 200 complaints received by the Advertising Standards agency focus on the male-male kiss – an unerotic, quotidian peck bestowed by a husband running late, his mind already on his first meeting of the day. This is not in any way offensive. Replace one male figure with a woman and no one would take a blind it of notice. Replace them both with women and sales of mayonnaise among men would probably soar. But two men kissing is so alien a concept that not even a New York accent and caramelised onion flavouring can disguise its exoticism.

The mere fact that male-male affection needs to be explained to children, a theme of many of the original complaints, illustrates the extent to which gay men are marginalised by the mainstream media. Series like 'Dr Who' - whatever its faults - are doing good things towards changing this. The character of Captain Jack Harkness is openly bisexual, and physically demonstrative with his male lover, on a prime-time Satuday evening show which is still mindful of its young viewers. There is nothing offensive in this. This is how television should be.

Television should aspire to the status of art, and hold a mirror up to life. It should accurately reflect the lives of people who watch it, by which I mean the whole diverse and delightful population of this country. It should not be purely about the white, middle-class, heterosexual, home-owning couple with two nauseatingly sweet children and a cat called Arthur.

In the real world, women have careers, husbands stay at home, and gay men, lesbians and a whole variety of non-nuclear families are parenting children and making an excellent job of it.
Meanwhile, the companies who take our money sell us short, the advertising industry tells us how to think, and just when they seemed to have finally caught up with the 21st century, they take an advert this advert off the air because a few bigots tell them to.

Not even really nice mayonaise can take away the bitter taste of that.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

What price a happy childhood?

OK, I admit it. I succumbed to the vanity-google.

I set this blog up, put up an introductory post and found a picture of myself I can deal with my readers seeing. Then I googled the title, and got this article.

The basic story is that two children, biologically male, and presenting strong signs of gender dysphoria, are undergoing radically different therapies. One is banned from any expression of identified gender, the other is having her identitied female gender recognised by her family. It's thought-provoking stuff. (There's a longer two-part article here and here).

It's tough to deal with the idea of gender-dysphoria, especially when you're talking about a child. As a culture we believe children don't have any such issues. Children, we like to assume, are asexual and innocent, and need to be protected from anything so sordidly adult as sexuality and gender-issues. There is also the problem that it's very easy to minimise a child's gender questioning, and rationalize that ze* will grow out of them. Faced with children's gender issues, it is surely easiest to ignore them and hope they go away.

A common concern for parents is that they may confuse their child by treating them as their identified gender. 'What if ze is wrong, or going through a phase? Surely treating zim as zir identified gender will have a catastrophic effect on zir later development?'

The repercussions of treating a child, who may or may not grow up to be trans, as zir identified gender, are unclear. Frankly I would still recommend it. Which is better, being rigidly treated as your birth-gender by your family while you go through what may or may not be a 'phase', or having a gender-confused upbringing from parents who have made it clear they are happy to accept and love you?

I know which one I'd go for.

I've been lucky, because growing up female and tomboyish is so much easier. People smile indulgently and tell you that any little girl with brothers is a tomboy, and you'll grow out of it when you find out about makeup and men. People buy you the Famous Five books, knowing that you will absolutely love George (and want to strangle Anne, but that's not encouraged so much). They let you get away with the odd bout of fighting, tree-climbing, and making a lot of noise.

And on the other side of the coin, feminine boys get given hell by parents and peers. If a small boy takes an interest in pink, Barbie, dressing up and makeup, he is greeted with a mixture of confusion and disgust. And this, in my view, is where feminism and gender-politics intersect.

We are taught early that it's OK for a girl to want to be a boy, and it's not OK for a boy to want to be a girl.

Being a woman is bad. And being a man is good. That's what children learn.

Our culture is desperate to defend the masculine. Men in social groups mock anyone who doesn't live up to the macho standard. Fathers pass on to their sons an impossible set of masculine values. And any man who wants to take on any aspect of the feminine receives a huge amount of social stigmatisation. Our society polices its men. Masculinity is a mask that must never be allowed to drop, even for an instant. Men who wear their hair long, look even slightly feminine, or otherwise do not present an unquestionable male facade, receive comments and threats from the self-appointed guardians of masculinity.

The homophobia with which gay men are met in many sections of society has an element of gender-enforcement; the stereotype of gay men as effeminate, well-dressed, perfumed queens is still going strong.

Transwomen receive a double whack of prejudice, first on account of transitioning from male to female, and second as women who are under huge pressure to conform with the equally impossible ideals of feminity.

This is misogyny is much as gender-policing. What boys Must Not Be is, in effect, even slightly female.

Which brings me back to the article.

'...[Bradley] returned home bleeding from the playground, having been attacked by two 10-year-old boys for playing with a Barbie doll.'

Gender policing happens in the playground. Clearly, while the wider society is happy to shout abuse, threaten, and hurt anyone who strays into the No-Man's-Lands between the genders, we cannot blame the children who have absorbed this thinking.

What is wrong is our concept of gender. Gender is variable, and it is fluid. It always has been, and it always will be.

Until we accept that, everyone is suffering. Men are under pressure to live up to an impossible masculine ideal. Women are hated and feared for their femininity, as are the people who adopt femininity, through choice or necessity. And therapy for six-year-olds involves rigid enforcement of gender roles.

It is time for gender to be radically reshaped, redefined as a spectrum, a constellation, anything other than the painful and complete separation of two impossible polarities. We need an equal respect for men, women, all points in-between and all points elsewhere.

The binary is broken. Deal with it.

*I intend to use ze, zim, zir as gender-neutral pronouns wherever appropiate in this blog. I am trying to introduce them into the language so I can use them to refer to myself, and also to make my life as an addicted Scrabble-player a little easier.


Hi, I'm Kit, I'm 23, and today I am a boy.

This blog is a place where I want to write about my experiences and my politics - both for myself, and for anyone who wants to read it.

I'm genderqueer, born female but increasingly comfortable as male. When I move to a new city in July, I'm going to start living as male, at least part of the time. The primary purpose of this blog is to give me a space to write about this change, how I cope with it, and whether it works for me.

I'm a feminist, lately getting into feminist blogging and journalism. I'm bisexual, non-monogamous and kinky. All these things give me more to write about.

Articles will appear as and when I have the time and something to say.