Notes for the Feminist Activist Forum’s transgender and intersex learning exchange

July 12, 2008

Saturday 12th July 2008

Hello. I’d just like to say thanks to Sophie, debi, Red and the members of FAF, the Feminist Activist Forum for inviting me to the Lambeth Women’s Project today to take part in this transgender and intersex learning exchange.

I’m Helen, and I’m a transsexual woman, or trans woman. I was diagnosed as being transsexual (which is the severe form of gender dysphoria) in 2006, although I first knew that “something wasn’t right” for many years before I actually asked for medical help. After my diagnosis, I began the process of transitioning, which is a way for transsexual people to change ourselves and our lives to match our “real” genders. For me, although I’d been born and raised, and lived most of my life as male, I identified as female. The way I think of it is that my brain was expecting my body to have female sex characteristics. This is called gender dissonance and it was – and is – at the heart of my transsexuality.

I should also add that, despite the name, transsexuality is actually about gender identity, and not sexual orientation. As the saying goes: “Sexual orientation is about who you go to bed with, but gender identity is about who you go to bed as” (and yes, that is an over-simplification, which is why I use it here only as a convenient shorthand).

So, as you might expect, I’ve been through – and am still going through – a lot of changes as I’ve transitioned. I’m happy to talk about pretty much any aspect later during the Q&A, but for the moment I’d like to focus on some of the intersections and overlaps between my transsexuality and feminism.

One of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make is in relation to the various privileges that I benefit from. Perhaps I should just explain what I understand by the word ‘privilege’. The best definition I’ve found is by a blogger called Brown Betty, who says: “Privilege is: About how society accommodates you. It’s about advantages you have that you think are normal. It’s about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal. It’s about fate dealing from the bottom of the deck on your behalf”.

I believe there’s a distinct connection between privilege and inequality. Privilege is both a cause of, and is caused by, inequality. And when I started to think about gender inequality, I realised that you cannot ignore sexism, either. And suddenly you have two of the fundamental concepts that feminism addresses: inequality, and sexism.

A quick history lesson – because we always need to know where we’ve come from, to be able to figure out where we are, and where we might be headed. Feminism came into being in Britain in the nineteenth century, and initially, it was focused on obtaining equal rights for women in things like marriage, and property, and of course, the right to vote: suffrage. (Via Wikipedia). But those gender inequalities all came about because of sexism, and this is summarised really well by the writer Bell Hooks in her book Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center. She says: “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression“. That is such a great definition – and it means as much to me as a trans woman, as it should for any other, non-trans, or cissexual woman. And for anyone who is an ally to feminists, as well, come to that…

So far, so good – but there is one area of feminist ideology that preoccupies me quite a lot, and it’s the tricky problem of gender. It’s one of those words we all use, but is really hard to define. My opinion – and I know that many second-wavers will disagree – is that ‘gender’ is about a sense of being feminine or masculine, or woman or man. I think it’s innate: it’s something we’re born with. Whereas I would say that ‘sex’ describes biological and physical traits – such as internal and external organs, chromosomes, hormones, genitalia, etc.

To me, these are two very distinct but interrelated things, and it seems that the problems only really start to arise when ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are used as interchangeable terms. At the risk of over-simplification, for me ‘sex’ is what’s between a person’s legs and ‘gender’ is what’s between your ears. As I said at the start, the key to understanding my transsexuality was realising that my brain had always expected my body to have female characteristics.

However, nothing’s ever simple, and as soon as we start talking about gender, we also need to remember that, out of that sense of being gendered come ways of behaving, ways that society calls ‘female’ or ‘male’, ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’. These behaviours are generally what is meant when we refer to gender roles, and gender expression.

There is an aspect of gender which always provokes discussion, and, like it or not, we cannot ignore it: it’s that well-used feminist slogan, “gender is socially constructed”. And it’s one of the big problems I have in trying to synthesise a working trans-feminism. Hard-line social constructivists – and there are a few of them about! – will tell me that gender is merely a societal response to physical sexual differences. They tell me that I should be ‘fluid’ about gender and maybe even invent a hybrid ‘third gender’. Yes indeed, these cultural feminists tell me many things about how I should live my life and stay out of theirs… But I would counter their constructivism with what I realise is also a sort of essentialism; namely that there is this invisible thing inside each of us called “gender”.

I’m not saying that there is no constructivism around gender. I am saying that because something is a construct doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Money, laws, politics – they’re all constructs – but they seem pretty real to me… The way I cross my legs when I sit down, or that I like to wear a little makeup, or the way that I apologise for things that aren’t my fault – they’re constructed, too. I’ve probably learned these things in a subconscious way, and I don’t think they have much to do with my vagina or oestrogen levels.

Some feminists accuse trans women of conforming to gender sterotypes, of reinforcing the gender binary and generally behaving as willing dupes of the patriarchy. And, in turn, I wonder why it’s considered progressive to have such fixed ideas of what “man” and “woman” mean. I wonder what, exactly, those critics themselves are doing to dismantle gender. Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, in her book Crossing: A Memoir, gives a simple and heartfelt response as to why some trans women learn stereotypical feminine gestures: “It’s to keep from getting murdered, dear”.

I don’t think these things which certain feminists criticise me for doing make me a bad feminist. In my opinion, feminism is about the worth and value of every human being – or should be. Which leads us to another related source of confusion. Transsexuality is not an ideology – it’s a lived experience of a condition which has been known, by many names, for almost as long as there have been people and societies. First and foremost it’s personal, not political. But because many people simply don’t understand transsexuality, they will react first, think later (if at all). So we become a target for bigotry, hatred, abuse, harassment and violence. It’s all driven by that fear of the unknown, that irrational idea that trans* people are somehow a threat to the world and her sister. Mad, bad and dangerous to know? Er, no – I don’t think so. I’m just a very ordinary middle-aged woman who is trying to come to terms with some very big changes in her life. But if transitioning teaches us anything, it teaches us that we must learn to survive – often through adopting gender roles and expressions which are associated with our gender identities – and in the process we become politicised, even if we don’t realise it.

Developing that survival mechanism has informed my feminism to a very great extent. Trans and non-trans women alike, we all suffer oppression and inequality as a direct result of living in a society which arbitrarily puts the interests of these people ahead of those people with no justification other than maintaining a system which long ago outlived any usefulness it may arguably once have had.

But, whatever a gender-free society might look like, I believe that, had I been born with a male body, I would still have transitioned and undergone surgery (SRS). I do feel quite strongly about this, although I can’t give you any cold, hard logic for it, let alone empirical proof. But even though the research so far has been very sketchy, there do seem to be indications that some aspects of gender are ‘hard-wired’ into us, possibly when we are still in the womb, as a result of fluctuations in hormone levels. So maybe it will come to pass that this essentialist philosophy – that there is this invisible thing inside each of us called “gender” – will be proved to have a basis in fact after all.

But back in the here and now, not only am I finding it very hard to come up with a feminism that sits comfortably with being transsexual, but I’m also starting to wonder if such a symbiosis is even possible. A trans woman who identifies as a feminist seems to set herself up as a target for so many people. Men will not accept me as a man – not that I want them to – and more than a few feminists will tell me that, no matter what I do or say, I will always be a man. Ironically, that leaves me in a really good position to create that mythical ‘third gender’ – but there are two problems with that. First, by the way Thomas Beatie – ‘the pregnant man’ – was attacked by so many people, we know that redefining the gender binary is something you have to feel really strongly about. And I don’t have that strong belief: I’m a woman, and quite comfortable being a woman, thank you. Secondly, being told that I should find a hybrid gender for myself smacks of Othering – and I get more than enough of that in my everyday existence, thank you, without going out actively looking for it.

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that I’m really glad to be here today – and I’m even more glad that you’re all here today. I’m looking forward to a fruitful and constructive workshop, and I’m confident that it’ll be an enjoyable way for us all to learn something new about each other’s views and beliefs.


Later update: Well, that was a waste of time, wasn’t it? – All those notes for that big-deal talk I was planning at the FAF workshop on Saturday and in the event, I was too busy falling apart to even use them…

Let me backtrack a little. I arrived at the Lambeth Women’s Project building in good time and met up with Red and Sophie… Helped out a little answering the door, sticking posters up, etc, and the event finally got under way about half-an-hour late, with an audience of maybe 40 or 50, with four of us on the first panel, plus Sophie to keep it all running.

Col, a really nice trans man, started things off by showing a short film called “The Jar” that he’d made about 20 years ago, very early in his transition. It referred to his father, who collected butterflies, and the sequence showed the process from capture, to killing, to pinning and mounting; ending up with the ‘specimen’ in a glass tray being put into a chest of drawers in what looked like a warehouse.

I’m a bit of a butterfly fan anyway – partly because I have one or two good associations. Also, I suppose it’s quite an obvious metaphor for transitioning/surgery, but whatever, I found the whole thing powerfully disturbing…

Col followed this with a short talk on what it meant to him, especially in terms of his transitioning and then the other two (Phoebe and Debbie) gave similar accounts of their histories.

I suppose I should have considered beforehand that it would be about the more personal side but I didn’t. I’d stupidly assumed we’d be talking about how being transsexual affected one’s view of feminism. But with the three other people having talked about their personal histories, I felt that I probably should do the same.

And I was really rubbish. I hadn’t imagined it would be that difficult to talk about it, but for some reason it was… I got quite upset and had to sit down after a very few minutes because I just couldn’t go on for crying. (I’m tearing up again now and I’m writing this two days later).


I don’t know what was – is – the matter with me. The others managed fine and I was just a total emotional trainwreck. Very embarrassing and I’m still beating myself up about it now…

Anyway, the long and the short of it was that I left before the afternoon session started: I just came home, lay down on the bed and cried myself to sleep. I felt such a fool. I woke maybe early evening, and that was about it for the weekend, really.

Am I really so broken, inside? That I can’t talk about something so central to my life as transitioning is? But I can talk around the politics of it from dawn til dusk? What’s that about, then?


 ©2008 Helen G, except the photo (which appears by kind permission of Red Chidgey) and the logo (which was stolen shamelessly from the Feminist Activist Forum website)


5 Responses to “Notes for the Feminist Activist Forum’s transgender and intersex learning exchange”

  1. Daisy Says:

    Ohhh, I am so sorry!!! (((hugs)))

    I am currently trying to write about something integral to my life and my self, and I can’t do it. (AA) I think we are just TOO CLOSE to some things, you know? We just get emotionally discombobulated…

    Regarding gender, the longer people know each other (marriage/partnership), I think gender tends to “disappear” in many respects. Men find that their wives manage money better and just turn that job over to the wife; women find the husband actually cooks better (mine does) and turn that over to the hubby… and nobody cares, stuff gets done, and it isn’t a big deal. One of the shocks of divorce (and I know from divorces, having had two) is that you have to start all over again, getting to know in what ways people gender-conform and which ways they don’t… first husband was big techie geek but didn’t know anything about sports; second husband liked sports but also soap operas. Etc etc. Nobody is 100% one or the other, and after awhile, you realize so much of gender is an illusion.

    I think the second-wavers don’t get this, as I did not for a long time. Also, we like to think since we’ve figured all of this out, we are “beyond” gender. But NO ONE IS, just as no one is 100%. I will stop wearing my fancy, useless costume-jewelry rings when you pry my cold dead fingers off of them! (lol) How can I possibly hold on to my “femme stuff” while simultaneously declaring that nobody else should? Or that only people born with MY genitalia should have “femme stuff”? See, that is reactionary, not radical.

    Anyway, sorry to go on so long, but wanted to say, I hope you are feeling better now! :)

  2. Helen G Says:

    Hello Daisy and welcome to my humble abode!

    Thank you for your kind words; I’m still trying to process it all. I’ve always been very, very open about being a trans woman; I’ve told everyone I know… I’ve blogged about it here as well as for two years previously in my personal journal… I’ve talked about it to friends and family, both one-to-one and to several at once… But I still can’t figure out why/how I can just completely fall apart like that at a professionally organised/run workshop which was put together specifically so that feminists could discuss trans* issues with trans* people… I can’t believe it was some kind of freak-out about public speaking; it was a comparatively small group in a safe space and although I’m quite introverted and solitary, it’s never been a problem before (eg at work I have to go to meetings and talk)…

    I keep coming back to it being caused by talking about the personal aspects of transitioning, rather than the more political side – but even that doesn’t sit too comfortably; it’s not like I haven’t talked about personal stuff before…

    I’m beginning to wonder if it’s about communication in the sense of just not having a vocabulary for these things? Charles at Alas! A Blog had a useful post on that exact subject about 18months ago (link: For example, we always hear the “trapped in the wrong body” line, and it just doesn’t feel that way to me – but it seems quite easy for people to understand it. Even though I personally wouldn’t describe my own disconnect/alienation that way (I find Julia Serano’s ‘gender dissonance‘ description more useful)

    But it’s interesting what you say about gender disappearing in long-term relationships. I’ve noticed what I think is a similar thing when talking about it with friends, most of whom will say, “Well, I don’t really think about myself as being ‘a woman’ (or female, or whatever) – I’m just me and my gender is kind of secondary to that”. And I wonder if that’s because there is no dissonance – if someone has that balance, that they feel ‘comfortable in their own skin’, they won’t have any reason to feel dissonant and so won’t think about it. Which is maybe why the cultfems/second wavers are so passionate about gender being a construct – an illusion, as you neatly put it! Because if you’ve never had a sense of simply ‘being gendered’, then I suppose it would make sense to see it as something external that’s imposed. I think Lisa has used the analogy of trying to explain the wind to birds, or water to a fish…

    Urgghh. I have to go to work now. But Daisy, you’ve made some good points therer and got me thinking, so thank you for that! (And, no, you didn’t go on too long – There’s no charge for pixel usage – and anyway I think my reply is even longer!)


  3. Zenobia Says:

    Surely, they should have given you a clearer indication of what they were expecting in time for you to prepare, or to choose to opt out. I certainly don’t think it’s fair for people to be put on the spot and expected to talk about their personal feelings about such an intimate experience.

    Seriously, don’t beat yourself up about this – I think some of these event-organisers don’t realise how much their little organisational hiccups and bogus ideas about what constitutes a ‘learning exchange’ can affect the people involved in their events.

    Hope you’re feeling better, anyway.

  4. Helen G Says:

    In all fairness, it’s more the case that I misunderstood the aims of the panel, and not that the organisers should have made things clearer at the start. The FAF people worked extremely hard to make the day happen at all, and given their limited resources, on balance I’d say they achieved an exceptionally good outcome.

    If anything, I think I just came at it from the wrong angle. Over the past few months I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find a feminism with which I’m comfortable, which has some meaning and that I can use in my day-to-day life; a ‘trans feminism’, for want of a better phrase. One of the key sticking points for me has been that, while feminism is an ideology, transsexuality isn’t: it’s first and foremost a medical condition, and working through that is an intensely personal experience. But along the way, I have begun to become politicised – the personal is the political? – and it was from that headspace that I approached the FAF session. My co-panellists opted to examine the personal aspects of transitioning – as they had every right to do – and they each made good points, as well as fully engaging with those listening.

    I was last to speak and I felt that to talk about the subjects I’d been considering (as outlined in my notes) would have jarred with the other contributors. So instead, I made a spur of the moment decision to keep with the overall tone and content of the session and talk about my own experience of transitioning. I’ve no particular problem with that: I’ve always been very open about being a trans woman and have had some very personal discussions both on and offline.

    My mistake – and it was my mistake, nobody else’s – was not considering the difference between talking to a few close friends and addressing a roomful of people whom I’d never met before. In that light and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s perhaps no surprise that I found it all so very overwhelming.

  5. Winter Says:

    Group dynamics are strange things and can have unexpected effects. A few years ago I was asked to give a talk about queer theory at an event. I decided to try and make the subject more accessible by weaving personal anecdotes with theoretical material. But when I started speaking all this anger at my family poured out. I shocked myself because I wasn’t aware of how angry I was and I still shudder now at the things I said about my mother in that public space.

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