Allies are important. It took me a long time to realise that. When I came out, more than two decades ago, queer politics were identity politics. My first Pride was a huge event – London was hosting EuroPride, and thousands of us marched and danced our way through the streets. It felt like we didn’t need anyone’s help if we just stood together. And my activism had grown in the context of a feminist culture that also emphasised difference and autonomy. I had guy friends and boyfriends whom I loved and who were a big part of my life, but they understood that women-only discussion spaces and women-only demos were important. We needed time and space now and again to hear female voices and to gain the confidence to know how much we could do without men to help us.
There was a sense, I think, that disadvantaged and despised groups could each work out their own needs; reclaim their own space, and shouldn’t presume to speak for each other. I knew feminist activists and queer activists. I didn’t move in anti-racist circles, or around disability and access groups. Theirs wasn’t my fight. I guess I can say I was young then, and hadn’t quite worked out that this would quickly descend into a fight for a hierarchy of oppressions where the only winners were those who didn’t have to play the game. The losers, it turned out, would be the minorities within minorities, and those who weren’t safe enough to speak out at all. Being bisexual within the LGBT community has never felt as safe or welcoming as it did on that long hot day in London. But that’s another story.
Back then, in the provincial, conservative gay scene I happened to find myself in, I only knowingly met one or two openly transgender people, here and there. In all honesty these were difficult people: brittle and damaged; shrill, shallow and sarcastic. All were male to female, and had a kind of defensive, wounded misogyny in common with the drag acts of the time – a sort of ‘a better woman than you’ attitude that raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow at the fashion choices of average queer women. Jokes about lesbians in flannel and feminists in dungarees were like cultural friendly fire; and we responded in kind.
I think tensions were sublimated because we were trying so hard to be one community; with one voice, one identity. And that was a tension that could never hold for long. I didn’t have enough time, or energy, or wisdom, or empathy to try and understand what it might be like to be transgender – of all the ways and paths a person could take to come to that momentous, identity-shattering, culture-confounding decision. Misogynist, end-of-pier comedy drag acts; ultra-butch women with steroid addictions; shrill, fragile trans-women who got on your nerves…it all became part of one thing to me. Gender, after all, was performative. The only thing that mattered was playing with it. But again, that’s another story.
The story I’m trying to tell is hard, because it’s not mine, but the person I wish could tell it to you can’t. Not yet. Maybe not ever. It’s just not safe. And I’m trying to find a way to tell my part in it that will keep him safe – one that literally won’t put him in danger of losing a heap of friends, a job, maybe much worse. And all I can do is tell you those things about what I remember that won’t easily identify him.
You might find this ironic, but I’ve always had a thing for what you might call androgynous women. When I met her she was too young and too sheltered to even think about the possibility of being transgender, but still – the person I fell in love with, and who fell in love with me – that person was a woman, then. I feel now that we’ve been through so much we’ll always be close, but back then, a few short years into our companionship, when we split up it was devastating. Strange. Now I can’t imagine us being together, but nor can I imagine us not being in each other’s lives. In those few years, we’d been through a lot together, but it was a few years later still, when Phil and I were happily married, and she and I had settled into a kind of informal big-sister to little-sister role, that I got a phone call I honestly never imagined getting.
It all begins with Pat Califia. I want to honour that, because as Patricia Califia, she was already way out there and vulnerable, telling stories from the edge for all queer rebels. Her scene was not my scene, but I loved the way she wrote. And then he came out as Patrick, and started writing about his journey as a transman. Being a political lesbian was kind of the gold-star of radical queer feminism in many circles, and I know what it felt like to be bisexual – to admit to having the choice and still sleeping with the enemy – I can’t imagine how many friends; how much solidarity you lose, when you make the journey in such a public fashion from lesbian icon, to supposedly gain the privilege of the straight, white man. (I know that’s not how it works, but it is how many women still see it.) I want to honour Pat, because I wonder, now, how many confused, scared, body-hating, young queer women watched that transition and saw themselves within it. How many, like my little-sister, began to dream of transition themselves. I honour him, Pat, as the gesture of a very vanilla queer cis-woman to an extremely adventurous queer trans-man, because I always felt included in his stories and because of who my little-brother is still becoming.
It was harder to call me than anyone, including his parents. I like to think that’s because of what we meant to each other, but on some level, it’s also because I had never shown I would be supportive of that decision. And yet, when it came to it, it was easy. This was someone I loved and trusted. I might fuss over her life choices and disapprove of girlfriends that weren’t good enough for her, but if this was a journey she was taking; he was taking, how could I not support it? Under his words he was telling me: this is important. This is true and real and I’m scared and I know how hard it’s going to be, and I’m still doing it, and I want you to walk with me.
What I know now is this: he just makes more sense this way. She wasn’t less of a person before, but he makes sense now. There is who she was. And who he is. And they are, and yet are not, the same person. It’s like knowing someone in two incarnations, but for those of us who know, for those of us who have shared this very difficult journey, this is the right decision.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter if it isn’t. Because it can only be made by the person making it. This transition – it’s huge. It is a level of self-discovery and self-transformation you can’t imagine unless you’ve seen it. There is pain, and depression, and grief, and confusion, and shame and guilt and the very real fear that the people you love will leave you; and the people in charge of your access to medical technology will declare you not mad enough to transition; or mad enough to be locked up instead. And now when I hear people discussing how all gender is social anyway, and isn’t transgenderism just conforming to cultural norms; or how being around third gender people is just confusing and why can’t they just pick a side already…I’ll admit, I get a little defensive. Because I’ve seen the fight from the edges, and it is epic.
It’s been a decade now. I remember dragging him out of bed, sleepy but happy, for a dawn renaming ceremony on the top of an ancient hill fort. I remember him showing me his testosterone syringe, and how tricky it is to learn how to stab yourself in the glutes. I remember him going through a kind of male adolescence in fast-forward – hair growing and receding; voice dropping; hormones raging. I remember him asking Phil if it was normal to think about sex. All. The Time. I remember buying him a shaving set. I remember long phone calls for days after the chest surgery, when he had a post-operative bleed, and I couldn’t be with him, until Phil made me take compassionate leave to go up and see him. I remember a barbecue and wild swimming party to celebrate him finally being able to go bare-chested; after two years of not swimming in public. I remember watching him get into engines and the gym and wondering how much his choices were socialised or hormonal; and realising that there was no way to tell, and it didn’t matter so long as they helped him find happiness. Because he’s deeply self-aware, and one of the bravest people I know, but he’s not always happy.
I remember his first girlfriend leaving him, and painful, unanswerable questions about whether he was making himself unlovable. I remember the six months I was most worried for his sanity – anxious, depressed, even aggressively nihilistic – until the endocrinologist checked his levels and discovered his ‘T’ levels were way too high. This is a hard road, and a tough one; and when the first step is realising that the body you grew into just feels alien in every way to you, it means the struggle is only just beginning. I have struggled all my life with a level of bodily dysmorphia that situates stress and anxiety in body fat levels; and I am only just beginning to figure out the processes involved. I have no idea what it would be like to look in the mirror and feel that my whole shape; the way I move and stand; my most intimate organs and my most public face – that all these things are just wrong. Every day. Each and every day.
It’s so much easier for most transmen to pass once the journey is underway. You’d never believe most transmen were born female. Honestly, you think you could tell, but I look at the world differently, knowing what I know, and I still have no idea. Testosterone is amazing – but once you start, you really, really don’t want to go back. Most of its effects are very permanent. And they go further than you think. It’s strange to think how much of who we are is hormonal. My little-bro is to almost every inch muscled up and male. He passes as a guy without effort now. Mostly.
Passing is vital, for many reasons. Firstly, it’s not the business of every casual acquaintance and work colleague to know such a deeply personal history. Unlike race and sexuality, we experience gender as both very public and very personal. More importantly, the risks of exposure are real, and the protections, both legal and cultural, are few. Transmen and transwomen are more vulnerable, less understood, more vilified than almost all of us. The rates of self-inflicted violence are appallingly high. The rates of violence inflicted by loved ones and strangers alike are horrific. Given that, at what point in a friendship or a relationship is it both safe and sensible to reveal such a big personal story? There are people in my little-bro’s life that have now known him for nearly a decade, and he’s never found a way to tell them, and now he feels like it’s too late. They slide from acquaintances to close friends without ever finding the right moment, and now he’s scared of losing them; embarrassed about telling them.
Finding girlfriends is hard. Finding casual partners is nearly impossible. Like many transmen, he’s lived for a long time passing in all but the most intimate of circumstances. He’s not been happy about it, but he’s been waiting to be ready: ready for the risks of surgery; waiting for techniques to become advanced enough that those risks aren’t too high. Ten years into the journey, and here I am again, one of a very few close friends waiting to hear about surgery dates. I’m scared for him, and I’m freaked out by the violence of the operation, the length of the healing process. I’m worried about loss of sexual function, and hoping as hard as I can that the result is what he needs to be able to just walk into a public toilet; or share the showers in the gym. I want this to be the change that allows him to fall in love again, and be happy. This is one of the biggest decisions of his life – one, by the way, that he’s paying for in every way you can think of. One that he’s researched for years, and is so very excited about. His very own designer dick, courtesy of a foreign surgeon.
I don’t mind that he has to pay his own way. I hate that he has to be belittled and made more vulnerable in the process. Because when he went back to yet another panel of psychiatrists that have no idea what he’s going through, so they can decide if he’s crazy enough, but not too crazy, they wanted months and months of assessments and tests. After a decade of living this way – a decade of regular injections and therapy and endocrinology assessments and one major surgery already – a panel of straight, cis-men got to debate whether he’s a real man or not, mostly, to be honest, based on an ugly internal NHS war that endures between different methodologies of transgender treatment that, again, transgender people themselves have little to no say in.
And he will go through this major surgery pretty much alone. He’ll lie to most people about what he’s doing and how he’s feeling. This is his biggest rite of passage, and for it to work, it has to be a secret. He can’t tell this story. But I can – some of it. I can stand next to him, and I can stand up for him, and sometimes, when there’s no other way, I can stand in for him.
And it made me think about the times I have been made most vulnerable. The times I’ve been made to feel incomplete by other women for being childless. The times I know that having gay men in my corner would have made it easier for me to be heard as a bisexual woman. The times I know that my status as a trauma survivor meant my experience was dismissed as freakish, and therefore my concerns inapplicable to normal people.
And I look outwards and backwards. To when I’ve heard people with disabilities being told that their needs just aren’t practical. To when I’ve just quietly disconnected from online acquaintances who believe immigration is our biggest national problem. And to those vulnerable, damaged, brittle young transwomen lashing out in advance against a sub-culture within a community that both saw them as freaks. I like to think I’d be different with them now, knowing what I know. Who I know. I’d like to think I could find some way to be an ally.
It’s not easy. It’s a careful line to tread: no-one from a vulnerable group wants another to speak for them and in the process silence them even further. Internet culture has finally found the perfect term for an age-old problem: mansplaining; and unfortunately now seems to be muddying its illuminative clarity with misuse. We do not have one community, one voice, or one way of living and being in the world. I have sat around tables discussing equality and diversity with youth leaders from muslim men’s associations, and struggled to get my binary-gendered mind around third-gender pronouns, and been so very careful not to assume my experience is universal when talking body-positivity with fat activists. It is never, ever easy, and it only gets harder the more you know.
But I have also learnt more than I can ever tell you about life in all its miraculous diversity; human and more. I have discovered the spoon theory (which is awesome), and can tell you in graphic detail the various kinds of penile construction surgeries available to the discerning transman. I understand at least a little about why black hair trends matter, and why no matter how cool and bohemian you think it looks, a white woman really isn’t helping race relations when she wears dreadlocks just because it looks cute. Or a feathered headdress. Or, maybe even a bindi. And I love bindis.
Being a better ally to vulnerable and oppressed groups isn’t some sort of penance for your privilege. It isn’t a joyless chore earnestly undertaken by so-called ‘social justice warriors’. On the other hand if there’s one insult of the trolling age I think we really should reclaim, it is ‘social justice warrior’. Me and my disabled friends and my trans friends and trauma survivors in the back, and the gay boys and girls, and black and brown and mixed-heritage people on the wings: all kitted out in appropriate weapons, like some kind of real-life X-men. We should have an ‘SJW’ comic. Maybe even a superhero film. At least a game.
Because that’s the point. Being an ally isn’t about standing up for the weak. It’s about all of us being heroes in our own way, by speaking up for each other, and by always being prepared to listen, and learn, and meet each other where we can. We can stand together, even for those who cannot stand, and those who cannot be seen to stand. We can tell each others’ stories, and honour the struggles we fight. #Heforshe and #blacklivesmatter and #equalmarriage and more: we can be allies.