You and I don’t know each other. I mean, you probably don’t know me. I know of you, of course- I was a teenager a year out of the closet back when you were one of the only out Irish women I’d ever seen on TV. That was a fairly big deal.
I know that it’s not fair to expect you to always know everything, or to never get things wrong. I get that we put huge expectations on our own community- especially when, like you, they’re well known. And as someone who’s recently started seeing my name in print(ish) I get how vulnerable that can feel. Particularly when, as a woman and as an LGBT person, you’re expected to hold to a higher standard of awareness than almost everything else.
That can be exhausting.
But I’m sure that you also get how exhausting it can feel from the other side. After all, you were one of the first openly gay Irish women on TV. I’m sure there were days when someone wrote an ill-iinformed (or outright malicious) column about you. Or about people like us. I’ll bet there were days when the last thing you wanted to be was the country’s token lesbian ex-nun.
That can be exhausting, too.
So: I’m going to take your column on Jonathan Rachel Clynch and gender fluidity, and the questions you ask in it, in good faith. You’ve said that you need to educate yourself. Let’s take it from there, and I’ll share some of the things I’ve learned over the years with you. A quick caveat before I begin, though? I’m not a trans woman, or an AMAB (don’t worry, I’ll explain that one) trans person. I’m just a bog-standard converse-wearing cis queer, whose social circles include enough trans people that I’ve had to do a lot of learning over the years. So if I say something and it’s contradicted by a trans woman or a genderfluid AMAB person? Don’t quote me, quote them.
Words and phrases
Let’s get some vocabulary out of the way. I used the term AMAB up above. That stands for “assigned male at birth” and it’s an umbrella term for everyone of any gender who was described as a boy at birth and spent their first few years (at least) assumed to be one. Similarly, we have AFAB- that’s people like you and me, who were assigned female at birth.
Another quick thing I want to go over is the use of the terms “trans men” and “trans women”. You use the phrase ‘transgender men’ here:
Transgender men never become ordinary jeans-wearing, make-up free, casual Converse-shoed women, because I imagine that’s not how they see women as being.
When we say “transgender men”, it means people who were AFAB and who have come out as being men. Trans women, on the other hand, are women who were AMAB. I get why you got these the wrong way round- but remember, it’s all about respecting a person’s right to define themselves for who they are.
We’ll talk about the jeans and the Converse later.
Let’s move on.
There’s one thing in your column that you got right
Being gender fluid is new to most of us. It’s new to me. So it’s ok to be perplexed. And when we are perplexed we Irish make funny observations and that’s ok too.
Jonathan Rachel Clynch sometimes feels like a man. And sometimes feels like a woman.
I find this really challenging as I don’t really know what that means.
It’s okay to be perplexed. We live in a world that splits people in two- women on one side, men on the other. Most people take our genders for granted. It’s literally what we’ve known all our life. Asking us to imagine what it feels like to be our gender feels like asking us to imagine what it feels like to not be a tree. Or an octopus. We don’t think about being non-trees. We just are.
Of course, we also go through our lives assuming that other people experience their genders (or don’t experience them) the same way that we do.
Mind if I make a comparison? You see, I have a friend with synesthesia. It’s a condition where a person’s senses aren’t entirely separate. For most of us, the five senses are distinct. I see with my eyes. I hear with my ears, and so on. But synesthetes are different. For reasons that aren’t fully understood (the brain is a complex thing!) experiences in one sense are felt, heard, seen, smelled or tasted in another. Sounds may have colour, and vice versa.
I’m not a synesthete. I can’t imagine what it must be like to perceive the world that way. But- and here’s the relevant part- I was talking to that friend of mine a while back. It turns out that when she was a kid, she assumed that everyone heard colours. In one of those adorable cases of kid logic, she concluded that talking about it must be a kind of taboo. Because of this, it wasn’t until she was a lot older that she realised that not everyone perceived the world the way she did. By the time we had these conversations, I was astounded that someone I’d known for decades literally sees and hears the world in a way I can’t imagine.
Some time later I sat listening to two synesthetic friends compare notes. Not only do both of them sense the world in ways completely different to me- they were a world away from each other as well.
It’s not just that it’s okay to not get what it’s like to be someone else. It’s how we live our lives. I have no idea what it’s like to be you.
When it comes to our senses, this is a novelty. It’s interesting! But for most of us- synesthete or not- it doesn’t play a huge part in how we see each other. We don’t divide the world into people who see sounds and those who smell numbers. It’s just a quirk of our brains.
If something as simple as our five senses can be more complex than I ever imagined? Imagine what happens when we look into gender.
Now, lucky for me as a woman I can wear jeans. I can wear a shirt. I can wear clothes that men wear. I can also wear a dress, if the mood takes me. I can wear trainers, but I can also wear sexy high heel shoes.
I can go to work with my hair simply brushed and no make-up. But I can also head out on a Friday night and wear killer heels, smoky eyes and lip gloss.
Men can’t do that. But I’m not sure that gender fluid means doing it.
You’re hitting near something here. I feel like you’re really, really close to getting to something very important. Two really important things, in fact. And those are these:
- Gender is not what we wear.
- AFABs have much more freedom to express our genders than AMABs do.
When we’re talking about gender, this is important. When we assume someone is a women, we give them so much more freedom to express their gender than if we assume them to be a man.
You and I both benefit from this. It’s strange to think of it that way, isn’t it? As women, we’re used to being on the receiving end of sexism. But the fact that women aren’t taken as seriously as men has a side-benefit: freedom.
As queer women, you and I know this well. There are downsides- how many times have straight men approached you wondering if they can ‘join in’ with you and your girlfriends? But there are upsides, too. Even in 2015 it’s a lot safer for you or I to hold hands on the street with a girlfriend, than it would be for male couples to do the same. And similarly, it means that we have the freedom to wear suits to meetings, or jeans and converse out to town any time we like. If we were AMABs, we would never be able to walk down the street wearing a skirt with impunity. We’d be seen as a joke at best, and at worst.. well. You know how bad it gets.
I’m not saying that cis (not-trans) queer women have it easy. But we definitely don’t have it the hardest.
And so there is something significant that you’re hitting on: it is possible that behaviours that are unremarkable in AFAB people get labeled as deviant in AMABs. And that’s sad. Men (and people seen as men) should feel as free to choose between heels and Converse as you and I do. How we dress should be nothing more than a matter of personal style. The fact that it isn’t- that men’s behaviour is policed so much more than women’s- is just another sign of how both womanhood and femininity are seen as less than manhood and masculinity.
Let’s move on. I want to get to your other point- that gender isn’t what we wear- but we’re not quite ready to get there yet. Because you also said this:
I don’t know what it is to feel like a woman. Is it the way we walk? The way we talk? Is it on the outside – clothes, make up, bras and shoes? Or is it on the inside? But if I don’t know what it’s like to feel like a woman – how can a man?
Oh, Anna. You are so, so close. And that’s good, right? We can work with that.
You’re right. Gender isn’t what we wear. It’s not our masculinity or femininity. There are tons of butch women and femme men- both trans and cis- who prove that every day.
But here’s another thing: gender isn’t our bodies either- except, of course, when it’s how we relate to those bodies. If gender was just our bodies, then there would be no such thing as trans people. But there are. Trans women aren’t just Caitlyn Jenner- any more than cis women are ‘just’ the rest of the Kardashian family. If you don’t see yourself reflected in Caitlyn, that’s okay. I don’t either. Of course, that’s not because she’s trans. There’s a world of difference between me and a fantastically wealthy Olympic-winning American Republican member of one of the most famous families on the planet.
Trans people aren’t just Caitlyn Jenner. They’re not just Laverne Cox, either, or Janet Mock or Jamie Clayton, or even our very own Lydia Foy.
But you know this- lesbians aren’t just Indo columnists who, a decade and a half ago, were famous for having been nuns once. We don’t have to see ourselves reflected in others in order to understand that we are who we say we are. And I’ll bet you know as well as anyone that who people see us as isn’t a tenth of who we actually are.
And here’s the thing: if gender isn’t what we wear (it’s not) and it’s not our bodies (it’s not), then it’s something else. You’re as much of a lesbian when you wear heels as when you’re in cons- but sometimes the world has trouble seeing it that way. Similarly, a person who looks on the outside like a man might be something entirely different in reality.
Of course, it’s one thing to say that some women grew up as boys, and some men grew up as girls. We may not know why we’re women or men, but we understand that both of these things exist. We grow up surrounded by women and men.
Gender fluidity- that grey area in between (or kaleidoscope surrounding) ‘man’ and ‘woman’- can be a lot more difficult to understand. It’s the difference between me using glasses to see, and my friend seeing music. We’re used to people being long or short sighted. The idea that the very concepts of “sight” and “hearing” are made up by our minds, and that some brains blend the two? I can barely imagine it.
But my not understanding what it’s like to see sounds doesn’t make my friend’s experiences any less real. So I learn what I can, accept that she senses the world differently to me, and move on.
When it comes to gender, we need to do the same: we learn what we can. We accept that even if we don’t have a strong sense of our own gender, others do. That the human mind is the most fantastically complex object in the known universe, and every single one is different in ways that maybe none of us will ever imagine.
But let’s take that as is, and try on some concepts.
Jonathan Rachel Clynch isn’t a man.
(A quick aside- I’m currently using ‘they’ pronouns for Jonathan Rachel, because none of the news articles I’ve read have specified a pronoun. If it turns out I got that wrong, I’ll change them straight away.)
Not always, anyway. We know because they’ve said so: they’re told us that some days they feel like a man, and some days they feel like a woman. When it comes to the way they dress? Well, of course that should be their business and nobody else’s. But like it or not, clothing is one of the ways that we signify gender in this society. Whether clothing has anything to do with Jonathan Rachel’s experience of their gender doesn’t matter. What matters? Is that they’re going to use that clothing to signify how they’d like us to relate to them on a given day.
You can take all the time you need to understand. Maybe you never will- and that’s absolutely fine, too. But whether you understand or not, the least you can do is be polite. Coming out is never easy. Being one of the first to come out? Harder still.
Trans people don’t change who they are
You said this about Caitlyn Jenner:
I watched the Caitlyn Jenner’s series I Am Cait and I found out little about the issue. I saw a man who changed his body and his wardrobe. But I still saw the same language, humour and emotions come from Caitlyn as came from Bruce.
Here’s the thing: there’s this idea that being trans is about being “a (wo)man trapped in a (wo)man’s body”. That conceptualisation of transness does two things: it makes trans people seem like one person trapped inside another. And it makes transition, then, seem like a whole different person coming out. This means that we think we can talk about things like “when Caitlyn was a man”, as if that made any sense at all. As if they were two different people.
Except, of course, that’s not what it is. When we come out- whatever we come out as- we’re still the same person we were before. Maybe we’re a little more open. Maybe we express parts of ourselves that we didn’t before. But we don’t change the person that we are.
You and I were once both little girls that everyone assumed would grow up to be straight women. Maybe we assumed that ourselves- I know that I certainly did. I don’t know if you’re like me that way, or if you’re someone who always knew. Either way, one thing is true: coming out didn’t change who either of us is. We weren’t straight before we came out. You were as gay as you are now, and I was as bi as I am. All that changed is that we got a little more comfortable with who we are, and other people’s pictures of us got a little more accurate.
Caitlyn Jenner has spoken about exploring her gender decades ago, and being pressured back into the closet. She’s known who she is for my entire life, and most of yours. The person you saw as a man never was one. She was just damn good at pretending to be one.
Jonathan Rachel has been open about their gender fluidity in their personal life for some time. The fact that they weren’t public about it doesn’t make it any less real. It doesn’t mean that they’re a different person. It means that the person they have been all along has been gender fluid. We just didn’t know it.
Yes, some trans women do wear converse
I couldn’t finish without talking about that assumption you made- that trans women never become people who don’t bother with makeup or heels.
You’ll have to take my word for this one- for obvious reasons, I can’t out my friends without their say-so. But I’m one person who lives on the internet and spends most of her life wearing hoodies and/or cardigans in front of a keyboard in my attic. I know trans women who wear heels. I know others who wear cons. I know some who wear Docs. At least one who wears giant custom-made leather boots and a scowl. I can think of plenty who- like most of us- wear whatever they damn well feel like on a given day.
You say that you don’t know any jeans-wearing trans women who are just like you. But you might! For reasons that I’m sure you can understand- who wants to share their private information with the world?- a huge proportion of trans people aren’t publicly out. Lots are only open about being trans with close friends, and sometimes only with people who’ve known them since before they transitioned. And that’s the thing: when you assume that the only trans women out there look a certain way, and then you see people looking that way? You’re going to reinforce your biases. You could have walked past a dozen trans women on the street today. How would you know?
It reminds me of something, you know. Lots of people assume that queer women look a certain way. And some of us do! But I can’t count the times that my femme friends have to convince people time and time again that no, they’re not straight. Just this summer, a friend told me about getting stopped at the door of the George and asked if she knew what kind of pub it was.
And yet, I’ll see other people complaining about the opposite- that queer women all dress the same. I wonder how many femme lesbians they walked past without knowing?
And maybe if trans women are less likely to dress like you and me, it’s more about us than them. You see, you and I never have to worry about being seen as women. On Sunday, I didn’t get out of my hoodie and my comfiest jeans (and yes, a battered old pair of cons) all day long. While I spent most of the day on the sofa (bliss!), I left the house to pop to the shop for milk and to take the dog out for a walk. No matter how scruffy I looked- with messy hair and shapeless clothes- everyone I passed was going to automatically see me as a woman. I didn’t have to worry about anyone questioning my gender. I never do.
For my trans friends it’s often a different story. I couldn’t tell you the amount of times friends of mine have been harassed and even attacked, just because someone on the street couldn’t handle their gender presentation. Would you blame any of them, then, if they took an extra few minutes on their appearance before leaving the house?
At the end of the day, it’s fine not to understand. But it’s also important to be aware of our platforms and the responsibility this gives us. I think that your opinion column was genuine- I think that maybe you wanted to express your own confusion and to strike a chord with people who felt the same way. That’s natural. But remember that whenever we talk about misunderstood groups of people, we have the power to affect how the public conversation goes. We can talk about our own ignorance, yes. But I really do wish that, instead of simply asking questions, you’d taken the time to educate yourself. Wouldn’t that have been something more valuable to share?
I do hope you read this. I hope it helps you learn a little more. That’s all any of us can do, right?
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