26 August 2010

A Transgender Journey: how it came about

Since the beginning of June 2010, I have been blogging my gender reassignment process for the Guardian website, in a series entitled by the Life & Style section as 'A Transgender Journey'.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that the transitioning process (either male-to-female or female-to-male) has been documented in such a mainstream British publication. To the layperson, The Guardian would seem the most obvious host for such a blog, but the liberal-left newspaper has often had a fractious relationship with the transgender community.

I won't comment extensively on their works or opinions here - plenty of others have done so elsewhere - but in recent years The Guardian has published pieces by Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and Julie Burchill, which echoed hotly-debated second-wave feminist positions on transsexual women and angered the trans community. (It should be pointed out that The Guardian allowed a platform for argument against these pieces, such as to CL Minou.)

It's only fair to assert that Julie Bindel retracted some of her 2004 statements in this excellent podcast with Christine Burns - which is well worth a listen. She has also proved herself perfectly willing to debate her views with the trans community in a number of contexts, and however much we (I) may disagree with her opinions at times, her preparedness to discuss them with the people concerned is to her credit and should be applauded.

One issue that trans critics on blogs and forums had with the appearance of such articles was that there were no transgendered writers appearing regularly in the paper or on the website, and it was a criticism with which I agreed. On a wider level, it bothered me that I often saw trans issues discussed in print and on film/television, but the articles were usually written by people with no lived experience of gender dysphoria, the films/TV shows usually directed by cisgender people who portrayed trans people as objects of pity or contempt.

Trans-sympathetic articles often tended to highlight the 'trapped in the wrong body' cliche - perhaps because they were one-off, short features that didn't have the scope to unpack the complexities of living through gender identity issues, for which this phrase has become a kind of journalistic shorthand. (This is not to deny that many trans people do feel trapped in the wrong bodies, by the way: just that the phrase has been so prevalent in media coverage of transsexuality that there's a discussion to be had about how much transsexual people have internalised it - that's another debate, though.)

So I felt that it was time that this was countered. Not at this point, though, did I think that it should be me that did this. In fact, the idea never really occured to me. I'd long wanted to write something about trans issues: originally, I wanted to write a fairly avant-garde collection of short stories covering different trans lives and issues, perhaps aimed at the Dalkey Archive Press. But I realised that there was plenty of underground/experimental literature and theory written from a trans perspective: what was absent, as it had been in my youth, was prominent, accessible exposition of transgender experience, told by trans people, in a highly visible context.

So my next plan was to write a television script - a trans equivalent to 'Queer As Folk' or 'The L Word' - something I'd still like to happen. I hadn't planned, though, to share my story in a purely autobiographical context.

*

I began transitioning in May 2009, having started to seriously explore my gender, privately and publicly, after graduating from the University of Manchester in 2003. One of my closest friends on the History course was Joe Stretch, the lead singer of the sublime synth band Performance, who I met in my final year, when I was involved with the independent Valentine Records label.

Throughout my pre-transition struggles to become a writer, Joe offered no end of critical readings of my work, as well as intelligent conversational support. As we only knew each other in the same city for about six months (January to June 2003, when I moved to Brighton), this mostly happened by phone (we'd meet once or twice a year on average). As well as signing to a major label, Joe became a published novelist with his debut 'Friction' in 2008, and did much to help me form some invaluable literary/journalistic relationships.

So, during a telephone conversation shortly after I started living as female in summer 2009, we started discussing my initial experiences: Joe, with the critical distance about this that I subjectively lacked, simply said, "You should pitch this as a blog to The Guardian - they'll bite your hand off."

So, through Chris Borg - a contact I made through my support for Norwich City and my work with The Justin Campaign - I approached Rachel Dixon, the acting editor of the Life & Style section. Chris told me that Rachel liked the idea of a blog documenting the transitioning process, and we exchanged emails.

*

Rachel emailed back, suggesting that we launch the blog with a series of other articles about trans issus by trans writers. She said that she would like the blog and accompanying articles to 'be a good resource for the transgender community, and to raise awareness' - at no point did she or I mention the Guardian's previous record on transgender. She asked me to suggest some suitable trans writers: amongst others, I put forward Stephen Whittle, Roz Kaveney and Bethany Black, all of whom have since contributed fascinating pieces to the website.

I've had no other involvement in the other trans pieces besides putting names forward. As for my blog entries, I've had complete freedom regarding subject matter and content. The main editorial direction I've been given concerned the second piece, which Rachel said could do with being less theoretical and more personal.

Originally I included some quite explicit theory about rifts within the LGBT community (particularly between the trans community and Stonewall) and was asked to make the piece less theoretical and more personal. Initially, this annoyed me, but the piece worked more better for it – I was challenged to find a way to show how the theoretical issues informed my thoughts and life choices – and I ended up with a much tighter, livelier piece.

Writing a highly personal set of articles is, politically speaking, the best thing I could have done: feminist/other opponents of transgender people have (as stated above) tended to reduce us to stereotypes and caricatures, ignoring our human experiences, knowing full well that this is the most effective way to make people hate us.

There are issues with this personal approach – the sad story of Mike Penner/Christine Daniels illustrates the pitfalls of publicly airing the intensely private very well – but nonetheless I consider it a genuinely important, if not radical act, which will hopefully have a long-term effect in changing the way we are represented by - and within - the media, and how people perceive us and our lives.

The Guardian has been the facilitator for this, and should be applauded for it - the trans community have noticed and do appreciate this, it seems. There is still some way to go, as this Gender Trust blog and this activist blog post point out - the Gender Trust criticism looks at the way trans issues are covered by non-trans writers, whilst the latter post asks important questions about what type of trans people are being represented - but both agree that we've made a very important start.

So hopefully in the future, we'll be able to look back on the blog as an important point in the relationship between trans people and Britain's mainstream media. If that is the case, then we should thank not just the trans people who articulate their stories and thoughts in these outlets, but the non-trans people who understood the need and made it possible for us to do so.

For now, we should thank Joe Stretch, Chris Borg and Rachel Dixon - they, and people like them, are the true guardians of equality.

10 comments:

  1. I am realy enjoying your blog in the Grauniad, it is important that trans people speak for themselves as trans people, and your writing is genuinely funny and informative, I really look forward to reading it when it comes out. I hope we can get the opportunity to write in other papers and produce TV and radio as well. As you say, the Germaine Greers of this world, who no almost nothing about trans people have been givenb the platform to slag us off, so it is only fair that we have the right to define ourselves in the media as well.

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  2. I should also point out that Julie Bindel got in touch with me almost immediately after I posted this to praise the quality of my writing and tell me that she genuinely found it informative.

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  3. For once I agree with Julie Bindel... as a 26-year postoperative male-to-female seventy-seven year-young attention deficit disordered person I especially stand in awe of your easily digestible informational writing for all... long may the world continue to be blessed with it...

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  4. Juliet, I just want to mention that we find your writing in the Guardian super-helpful in the U. S. as well.

    As someone who is in the midst of my own transition I find it very inspiring to see such a positive, well-written, and realistic portrayal in a mainstream publication. Thanks so much for making it happen.

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  5. Juliet, thank you for this very interesting and well expressed series of pieces in the Guardian. Your concern for the feelings of others as well as your own as you negotiate your way through the process is impressive and heartening and I think key. I am glad that you took, and found the courage to pursue, the opportunity to open up for consideration by others this very personal issue. I hope that you and all other people within the trans community find that they are able one day to confine this period of their personal history to the archives and get to live the full lives you seek to live free from labels, misconceptions and scrutiny. x Elliekayleigh

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  6. Juliet,
    I'm thoroughly enjoying the Guardian articles and also the comments that ensue - its wonderful to see discussion around these issues in such a mainstream forum, and you are opening so many eyes to so many different facets of transition.
    Thank you
    Rach x

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  7. I've read many of your articles on the Guardian. They are generally very good. However, I disagree with some people who naively hold the view that the Guardian in general is a trans-friendly website and newspaper publication. They have published plenty of transphobic articles in the past and no doubt even now many of their staff still hold prejudiced views against trans people. I disagree with the idea that somehow the Guardian is a more "enlightened" and "progressive" paper compared with other major British newspapers. Sometimes it can be just as bad as the Daily Mail. There was an article on the Guardian which was very anti-Palestinian and labelled those protestors in the flotilla to Palestine as "terrorists" who deserve to be killed.

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  8. Well, so much for the British press in general, and the Guardian Media Group in particular, having any respect for trans people.

    -- David-Sarah Hopwood

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  9. I came across the Guardian articles too late to be able to comment on them, so I will say here, well done and thank you so much, Juliet - I have found them both interesting and informative. I am coming up to 3 years full time and have just had my surgical review at Charing Cross (with Andrew Davies, who was lovely, as was Stuart Lorimer, my main clinician) so my next step is to see the surgeon, which I assume will be sometime next year :-) So I'm a little way behind you Juliet, but I'm catching up :-)

    Ria

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