Growing up, I used to love reading. For a solitary little girl it was entertainment and education, an escape and a refuge. But somehow, along the way, growing up, I lost the habit of reading. For a long time, it was replaced by music (listening and playing) but that love faded too. Recent years have brought other preoccupations but lately I’ve been missing the simple pleasure of reading.
I was talking about all this with a friend whose judgement I trust, and she thought that something by Neil Gaiman might be a good starting point. She suggested a compilation of his short stories, Fragile Things; unfortunately the small bookshop I tried didn’t have it in stock. They did have a copy of another collection, Smoke and Mirrors, so that’s what I ended up with. And I’d say that my friend made a good call. I’ve been finding the stories easy to read, engaging, intelligent and evocative, and I’m able to imagine the events and scenes fairly easily. So far, so good.
Then last night I settled down to read Changes and it really stopped me in my tracks. It’s a very short story indeed, no more than ten pages, but it’s given me much to think about. And the more I think about it, the less comfortable with it I become.
Several thoughts came to mind as I read the story; I’m setting them out here in quite a random manner, more or less as they occurred to me. I just need to get them out of my head.
In the story the protagonist, a scientist named Rajit, devises a cure for cancer:
“[…] it’s like a computer program. Instead of trying to fix the glitches caused by a corrupted program one by one, symptom by symptom, you can just reinstall the program. All the information’s there all along. We just have to tell our bodies to go and recheck the RNA and the DNA – reread the program if you will. And then reboot.”
Working in IT and being a little bit of a computer geek, I found this a striking metaphor (analogy?) that I could follow quite easily. The twist in the tale was that the cure has the side effect of ‘reformatting’ the subject’s body into the opposite sex.
To this trans woman, that idea was, at least initially and superficially, quite exciting. If only such a thing had been available half a century ago, no doubt this life of mine would have turned out very differently.
Once I got past that particular thought, it occurred to me that, for all that the story had chimed with me, it could only have been written by a cis person. Now, I know it’s only a work of fiction and in the back of my mind a small voice is saying “ohz noez Helen Teh Angry Trans Harpy is over-analysing again“, nevertheless it’s provoked in me a strong enough reaction that I feel the need to put fingers to keyboard.
To me, the giveaway that this is a cis person’s writing is the complete lack of awareness of the concept of gender dissonance – the sense that one’s subconscious and physical sexes are misaligned. As I’ve previously said elsewhere, gender dissonance has been – and still is, to a degree – one of the most fundamental and important characteristics of my personal experience of, and coming to terms with, being a transsexual woman. And that fact definitely affected the way I read the story – and in return, the story affected me in a way which I imagine would be almost incomprehensible to many cis people. For example:
Jo/e wakes at 10 P.M., feeling tender and new. Back when Jo/e first started on the party scene, each change would prompt a severe self-examination, peering at moles and nipples, foreskin or clit, finding out which scars had vanished and which ones had remained. But Jo/e’s now an old hand at this […]
It’s a bit surprising that there’s no real consideration of Jo/e’s state of mind. I’ve talked to enough cis people to realise that it’s almost impossible for most to grasp the concept of gender dissonance. The best way I’ve been able to put it to people is to ask how they would feel if they woke up one day feeling exactly the same inside – but with a penis instead of a vagina, or vice versa. It’s a clumsy and flawed way to think of it, but sometimes you get the faintest glimmer of insight from the other person. The point being that, inside, I don’t know that I feel very much different from the way I did before I transitioned. I’ve known I’m female for more years than I can remember; unfortunately I was born male-bodied and society has treated me as such, and that has left its own scars – but now, at least, my body’s much more in line with what my brain’s expecting.
So I can imagine that, to go to sleep tonight as Helen, and wake up tomorrow male-bodied once again, would be very, very distressing. So why should that be any different for Jo/e? Perhaps familiarity would breed contempt and one would become quite blasé about such a change. But I’m not so sure. One week after my surgery, when I stood in front of the mirror and saw the body that at last looked the way it should, the flood of emotions I felt was so intense, so overwhelming… I don’t think I’ve ever cried with happiness in my life, but I did on that morning. And it’s hard to imagine that such a transformation could ever become mundane, commonplace.
I know, I know: “it’s just a story”, it’s “only” a work of fiction, but in its way, the paragraph I’ve quoted above pinpoints one of the biggest problems of cis people deciding to hold forth on trans issues: a total lack of understanding of the lived experiences of trans people, people like me. That’s not to say that cis people shouldn’t talk about trans issues, but it would be more bearable if they at least researched the subject in a little more depth before opening their mouths. Also, the question of language is always difficult – there is no really comprehensive vocabulary available to us to describe what we go through; having to use terms and concepts which we know are inaccurate but are all we have to work with, creates a subtle and nuanced dissonance of its own.
But I digress.
Another aspect of ‘Changes’ which has been on my mind is the somewhat essentialist assumption that there is only a M/F gender binary to change between.
Tomorrow night Jo/e will take another dose; Jo/e’s job identity during the week is strictly male.
What if Jo/e was genderqueer, or intersex, to pick but two examples? Would ze even want to wake up as either male or female? I have an advantage in that sense, in that I have always identified as female and that would certainly make a decision about undergoing that reformatting a relatively easy one. But there are many, many more people in my community who wouldn’t be in such a comparatively fortunate position.
The next stumbling block in this story comes with this line:
While Rajit realised that Reboot would make gender-reassignment surgery obsolete, it never occurred to him that anyone might wish to take it for reasons of desire or curiosity or escape.
“Reasons of desire”, I’m afraid, immediately makes me think of the naïve idea that we transition for kicks, for sexual thrills. It conflates ‘sex’ with ‘gender’ and erases the fact that transsexuality is first and foremost about identity. “Curiosity”? “Escape”? These are not the reasons I transitioned. My transition was a matter of survival – literally change or die – and it’s an ongoing, lifelong process. I didn’t wake up alone in that semi-dark recovery room in a hospital, 6000 miles from my friends and the place I call home and think “Oh okay, that’s it, I’m all done and dusted now”, with everything ticked off on some imaginary checklist. The suggestion that we transition for such superficial reasons as curiosity or escape I find offensive. It diminishes and trivialises our experiences and is frankly disrespectful of the paths we follow, the extremes to which we are driven in pursuit of that sense of being whole, and real in this world – a sense which is such an integral part of cis people’s existences that they are, by and large, utterly unaware of the precious luxury of what they have.
For a clever man, Rajit was remarkably shortsighted. There were a few things he failed to foresee. For example:
That there would be people who would rather die than experience a change in gender.
That certainly rang a bell. I can imagine various religious and political factions of the Right being none too happy about such a chemical transformation being widely available, no matter how beneficial its primary function (a cure for most cancers).
And I believe I know more than a few cis women radical feminists who might not be best pleased at seeing their precious essentialist dogma being so comprehensively dismantled before their very eyes. Although, I suppose one could hope that some might try it for themselves and actually learn something from the experience. Because while it may heighten their belief that gender is only a social construct, it would fly in the face of their simultaneously held, contradictory view that one is born and remains immutably woman (or man).
I’ve written far more than I originally thought, and to be honest I’m not sure I’ve said what I wanted to in a clearly understandable way. But if nothing else, the fact that I’ve sat here and written such a long piece, in one ‘take’, no interruptions, must surely highlight how strongly Changes affected me. And despite my reservations and criticisms, I think that my reaction might also point up the skill of Neil Gaiman as a writer; that one short story can generate such a response surely speaks volumes.