Today’s Daily Mirror features a two page story on a British transgender couple who are waiting to receive confirmation of their respective transitions before getting married. The Huffington Post also carried this story back in July, as part of a thoughtful and insightful feature published on Gay Voices.
My friend “A” recently completed her transition. We first met nearly two years ago when she was still a he, and had come into the store looking for books on gender identity and sexuality. Previously I’d only ever met one other transgender person: the recently reassigned husband of a man I was in hospital with. Given the strife this had put on the latter’s marriage I was (and remain) impressed with the confidence and candour with which A is able to discuss her experiences.
It would be idiotic of me to claim any expertise on this subject. For any true insights into the lives of transgender people and their loved ones, I heartily recommend gendermom – a mother’s blog about life with a trans daughter. For my part I have to wonder about my comfort with this issue. I come from a working class background lacking what you’d call progressive ideas around status, race, identity and sexuality. I’m confident that my family members who denounced blacks and faggots would struggle to even grasp the concept of someone born into the wrong body, even struggle to devise suitably offensive epithets.
Unfamiliarity breeds contempt. Contempt, suspicion, fear…a whole litany of negative responses. As kids we’d belittle and tease one another by calling each other gay. Its a cultural thing, and as with prejudicial attitudes towards the mentally ill, its likely to stem from a lack of contact with, and questions raised by, people of certain dispositions.
The Brothers Hitchens queried the validity of the term ‘homophobia’ on several occasions – stressing that a more literal reading of the word’s etymology is “fear of the same” as opposed to fear of homosexuals and homosexuality. Dear departed Christopher would run with this theme, noting how often homophobia rises from a doubt and disgust within the homophobe. Spectrally such doubt and disgust is common in transphobia and psychophobia – if their gender identity could be misaligned, what about mine? Could I hear voices too?
I often come back to a long ago conversation with my aunt. Mass immigration is a hot potato in these parts, and she was bemoaning the number of african families moving into the area. ‘I want ’em out’ she told me, ignoring one particular irony – one of my families’ best friends since my uncle’s 70s childhood is “Black Tony.” I pointed this out to my aunt. ‘Oh that’s different. That’s Tony.’
How would things be if we had “Gay Tony” or “Trans Tony” or indeed “Schizophrenic Tony” in our lives? Everyone in my family knows my story and diagnosis, and yet its all wary eyes and awkward shuffles when the topic comes up. Even as a simple statement; a matter of fact in a conversation, with all the emphasis and drama of someone announcing their transition from full fat to semi-skimmed milk.
Perhaps some would argument that because mental illness can have fewer, conspicuous traits (for example mincing or removing your dress and becoming a bricklayer), its harder to get a handle on, and know how you’re “supposed” to respond. Everyone gets depressed, but not everyone dresses like Freddie Mercury, so demarcation is complicated.
An obvious solution to this is to treat us like people. Easier said than done, but once the step is made positives aren’t hard to find. Young couples like Jamie Eagle and Louis Davies, Arin Andrews and Katie Hill are cases in point. These news stories don’t invoke the spirit of the freak show – sure they’re curiosities, but the emphasis is on people finding themselves and young love.
‘In May 2010, Jamie was diagnosed as transgender.’ This was the only part of the Mirror story which made me wince. The ‘D’ word. I’ll admit I have developed a particular sensitivity to clinical terms used in certain contexts – maybe Miss Eagle’s eyelids wouldn’t bat at all. Language assails us in different ways, and I immediately recalled how the Blessed APA no longer consider being transgender a mental disorder.
Curiously another part of this story drew my attention – the couple are from Bridgend County in South Wales; a part of the country regrettably known for its high suicide rates. I’m not drawing any connection here. I mention it because, as part of my own particular disposition, I see patterns and peculiar associations everywhere. Bridgend was a place I used to pay special attention to.
That this was the only negative I could find in the piece – one drawn from the quagmire of I – is a source of something approaching optimism and reassurance for me. Some kind of signal that our culture isn’t collapsing in on itself; folding into something rancid and inherently dismissive of the rights, needs and simple truths of the individual and those important to them.