Monday, 19 December 2016

Transitional thoughts

Dabrela: womanliness as masquerade?
What would it mean to be a non-transitioning trans woman? Is there even such a thing? The ever-thoughtful blogger, TransPhilosopher, writes:
It is not enough to simply have an identity that is different from one’s assigned identity – one must also have accompanying psychological states such as desires, desires for change, for transition through presentational, hormonal, surgical means, etc… There is no trans-gender without transition. One “transes” one’s own gender when one decides to self-consciously move away from one’s birth assignment. 
Wherever the process ends up, it starts with a state of mind. “If there is identity without desire, it is passive, but desire without identity is blind,” she concludes.

For my part, I realise I have been too much hung-up on the desirability of ‘passing’.

In my home town there’s a trans-friendly pub which hosts weekly get-togethers, where the gender-questioning are encouraged to talk to the regulars. I’ve dropped in a couple of times, in male attire, but never felt motivated to talk to the (very conspicuous) transwomen and crossdressers. Why? Because when I looked at them I couldn’t see anything but ‘men in dresses’, most of them burdened with the build and posture of rugby players. (I flattered myself that my own feminine presentation would be slightly more convincing.) I struggled to identify with them. I identified instead with the ciswomen (if such they were) as they clustered round the bar – though even there I was conscious that I’d internalized a stereotype of ‘femininity’ which was all about clothes and makeup and deportment and unjustly devalued women who aren’t interested in those things but are no less ‘feminine’ for it.

When I reported back on these experiences to an online forum, I was rightly called out. In my misplaced honesty, I thought I was ‘telling it like it is’. In fact, I was simply voicing my own unreconstructed prejudices. What if an obsession with ‘passing’ is just a symptom of internalised transphobia? We’ve been inculcated by the dominant culture with the notion that you can’t call yourself a ‘woman’ unless you look and sound convincingly like one. Add to that a persistent homophobia – once internalised difficult to shake off, however liberal your outward views – which is wary of any ‘female’ inflections of ‘male’ dress or gesture, and it becomes very hard to accept others who crossdress or to go out ‘dressed’ yourself.

When I walk out of the door en femme, who am I? Am I 60? I don’t look it and I certainly don’t dress like any 60-year-olds I know. I have a female name and wardrobe, but that’s all. I don’t have an identity or a backstory to match. And that absence at the centre of my crossgendered being is critical. Am I a gender illusionist engaging in masquerade, or am I a t-woman finding her true self in the second half of life? If the latter, I must move beyond the obsession with ‘passing’. I must embrace a trans identity that neither denies my ‘male’ past nor lays claim to cis-female experiences that I’ve never had nor can never expect to have. I must unite identity and desire. I must find psychic wholeness.

Such ideas announced themselves long before middle age set in. Jan Morris’s autobiography, Conundrum, was my starting-point. It came out when I was a teenager and drew a fair bit of publicity since, as ‘James Morris’, she was already a well-known and respected travel writer in Britain. Morris, who has never been a trans activist as such, regards her transition as resolving “a dilemma neither of the body nor of the brain, but of the spirit”, a “quest for unity”. The metaphysical interpretation appealed to a bookish adolescent and has stayed with me ever since as a trigger for transgender imaginings, even though, once I began crossdressing, outward appearance felt like the best route to finding the woman within.

I’m conscious, rereading this blog, that I’ve made similarly pious New Year resolutions in the past. I sense that this year it’s different.  Time is not on my side. The psychologist CG Jung saw two possibilities for people as they enter middle age: they either change or they become rigid. I am assuredly in the first camp. Jung called this ‘individuation’, essentially a process of waking up, becoming conscious and being constantly alive to the possibility in one’s life for growth and development.

To quote TransPhilosopher again, “gender transition is an example par excellence of autonomy and self-actualization”. It is the perfect fit for the individuation that we must undergo in the second half of life. 

Monday, 14 November 2016

Subject and object

Ireland Baldwin: a self-confident subject?

Recently I’ve been reading a book by US journalist Peggy Orenstein. Girls & Sex, according to the cover blurb, “paints a ground-breaking picture of today’s sexual landscape – and reveals how girls and young women are navigating it”. It’s the latest in a series of alarmist reports from the front line of human relations – Pamela Paul’s Pornified and Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs are earlier examples – showing how we’re all going to hell in a handcart. If I had a young daughter, I’d be troubled for what her future may hold. As it is, I respond more to what the book tells me as a crossdreamer, someone who carries the feminine within me and gains sexual, emotional and psychic satisfaction from cross-gender ideas or behaviour.

The landscape Orenstein describes is certainly a frightening one: a place where selfies morph into sexts, where teenage romance is reduced to blow jobs and unwelcome anal penetration. The body becomes first a ‘project’, then a ‘product’, to be endlessly transacted on social media, photographed, digitally massaged, commented upon for good or ill. The cultural options available to her interviewees are at once empowering and oppressive. She writes about the ideal of ‘hotness’, which, as Levy had earlier observed, is something different from ‘attractiveness’ or ‘beauty’, a currency which infinitely replicates a commercialised, one-dimensional vision of sexiness. If you’re Kim Kardashian, you can become a multi-millionaire on the back of it. If you’re a bright college girl anxious to take advantage of hard-won opportunities, it’s a minefield.

One interviewee, Camila, a college sophomore, talks revealingly about dress. The previous day she’d worn a brand-new bustier top to school:
“When I got dressed I was like ‘I feel super comfortable with myself… I feel really hot and this is going to be a good day’. Then as soon as I got to school I felt, like, automatically I wasn’t in control. People are staring at you, looking you up and down, saying things. I started second-guessing myself, thinking, ‘I shouldn’t have worn this shirt. It’s too revealing, it’s too tight.’ It’s dehumanising.”
Camila is on the horns of a dilemma. She has actively chosen to present a sexualised image, as is her sovereign right. At the same time, she has no choice: the script is written for her by others; the girls are in competition with each other for attention; and everyone is judging her, or so she supposes. As Orenstein puts it, “Girls [like Camila] shifted between subject and object day by day, moment by moment, sometimes without intending to, sometimes unsure themselves of which they were”.

I’ve said before how unlocking my female self is like going through a second adolescence, so it’s not surprising if Camila’s dilemma feels like my dilemma. The self-determining subject empowers: this self looks out at the world with steady gaze. But the habit of self-objectification, by culturally ingrained custom, saps that power: this is a self who looks at herself being looked at.

A strange misalliance develops between postfeminist sexual self-confidence and the accelerating power of communications technology to reduce a woman to an observable multi-part object. The British academic Rosalind Gill has analysed this phenomenon, discerning a move among the sisterhood from an “external male-judging gaze to a self-policing narcissistic gaze”. This she sees as a more pernicious form of exploitation than any that had come before, for “not only are women objectified as they were before, but through sexual subjectification they must also now understand their own objectification as pleasurable and self-chosen”.* As a crossdreamer I feel peculiarly implicated in this development. The male in me is guilty of directing his ‘male-judging gaze’ at any ‘hot’ woman who crosses his path, even one he only sees in the mirror; at the same time, the female in me basks in the warm glow of being the object of my self-directed desire.   
I put on a dress. It’s short, because I believe my long legs are my best feature and it makes me feel ‘hot’ to put them on show. I walk out of the door, and start to “second-guess myself” (in Camila’s phrase). Perhaps it’s too short?  Perhaps I’m not in control after all?  The high priests of crossdreaming theory are keen to argue that the excitement a crossdreamer experiences at the thought of having a female body is no different from the thrill a ciswoman feels when she puts on a sexy dress. I dispute that: I am aroused by what Nature has not given me, not by what it has. But where there is real symmetry is in this slippage between ‘subject’ and ‘object’. Like the young women studied by Orenstein, I am swimming in a hypersexualised medium where, rightly or wrongly, the body is queen; somehow I must keep my head above water.

*The quotations are from her chapter ‘Supersexualize me! Advertising and the midriff’ in Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualization of Western Culture, ed. Feona Attwood (2009).   

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Facing the phobes

Emma Stone: estimated 'arousal range' 500 miles

Recently I've felt an increasing urge to go out in female dress. As I wrote in an earlier post, if I were sustained by a conviction that I'm a t-woman who is finally throwing off her disguise, this would give me confidence. But I have no such assurance. To me the attraction, and the satisfaction when accomplished, is more like sexual arousal. I don't mean literal arousal – John Thomas thankfully doesn't rise up to spoil the contour of my dress – I mean something like the activation of those pleasure centres of the brain which are engaged by sex.

So if I’m compelled – or ‘she’ compels me – to go out, where can I find the confidence to walk the streets, to face the crowd ‘like a natural woman’, and shake off the suspicion that this is all just a rather shameful act of public masturbation? That’s where reasoning from experience should come in. It doesn’t help that, after years of socialisation as a male, I have internalised a bunch of prejudices, all in need of rooting out, but what I have most to fear from passers-by is unabashed transphobia. Let’s suppose the transphobes constitute between 2% and 5% of the population – probably nearer the lower end among the under-thirties, nearer the higher end among the over-fifties (since young people seem more open to gender fluidity). And let’s further suppose that only a minority of those transphobes are so bigoted that they want to share their opinions with me. The stats suggest that, as I walk out of an evening, my fears of what people will think and how they might express it are probably much exaggerated.

April, a t-girl who is refreshingly open about her experiences, draws a helpful distinction between ‘arousal range’ and ‘clocking range’. The distance at which she turns a man on is what April calls her ‘arousal range’. The point where she is discovered not to live up to her original promise she calls her ‘clocking range’.  I flatter myself that I have a reasonable figure when viewed from a distance but, of course, the face is a giveaway, which is why (thus far) I only venture out at night and use big hair as a distraction. My own ‘clocking range’ might be about 10 feet at best.

So what do people think, the unbigoted majority, if they pass within 10 feet of me?

The answer may be, in many if not most cases: nothing at all. We’re all wrapped up in our own concerns. We’re on the mobile phone, we’re chatting to a friend, hurrying to an appointment. Survival, especially in towns and cities, demands that we screen out of consciousness the dozens of strangers who jostle past us on the Underground. To an alarming extent, we suspend empathy; we put curiosity on hold. That’s how we get through the day. Perhaps, when time slows down and we’ve found a seat in the carriage, we steal a look at the passenger opposite. What queer fish is this! Dressed like a woman but built like a rugby prop forward. A child might point and giggle. As adults we’ve been schooled in the avoidance of rudeness and offence, so we keep our thoughts, however ungenerous, to ourselves. This monstrosity of nature gets off at the next stop and passes out of our lives forever. If we’d had a good book to read, we might never have noticed her in the first place.

So much for using the past to predict the future. Now let’s open the front door and see what that future holds…

She is drawn by the moonlight. On a clear night, when the moon is full or near-full, it calls to her, like the female deity which mythology has always supposed it to be. She delights to bathe in moonlight. He had never paid much attention to the moon, but now she studies charts of the phases, aware that if she were truly in a woman’s body, her sublunary world would be ruled by just such monthly cycles. And even as she looks up to the heavens, she feels grounded as never before. She starts to walk, and there’s a pleasure in the texture of the pavement under her heels. She stretches upwards, wishing to appear confident. She is a thing poised between heaven and earth, very nearly a miracle…

She remembers the words of the Gershwin song: “They can’t take that away from me”. 

Thursday, 25 August 2016


Unwitting causes of 'SUMBOD'?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about self-acceptance. In the previous post I described the mix of elation and fear I felt when stepping outside the house en femme, tracing the latter to my horror of being ‘read’ as a man in a dress rather than the stylish woman of my dreams. When I shared these thoughts in another forum, the response was that I was perhaps too hung up on passability; few trans women pass under all circumstances, I was reminded; the best hope is that if you accept yourself, others will accept you also.  

Feeding my thoughts are two e-books that have come my way. The first is the latest offering from the prolific trans philosopher and life-coach Felix Conrad: How to Jedi Mindtrick Your Gender Dysphoria. In this book, as in his earlier writings, he makes no secret of his obsession with Victoria’s Secret models. One of them he blames for a painful outbreak of ‘SUMBOD’ (a Sudden Unexplained Massive Bout of Dysphoria) when he encounters her in a YouTube video and is instantly smitten: “As is the way with crossgender love, it was that curious beam of energy we project on the subject of our love but then bounce back on ourselves in some opaque mix of worship, envy and desire” (which, incidentally, is as good a description of the crossdreamer’s angst as I’ve read in a long while). He identifies with her but he can never be her. She has a supermodel’s body, he the body of a middle-aged bloke. Result: “the immense high of euphoria gives way to the despair of dysphoria”.  

For Felix, as for me, ‘passing’ is everything. Some would find his attention to the body superficial, but I share it. “A lot of people with gender dysphoria endlessly debate whether they should transition”, he writes, “but don’t understand that transitioning will not cure their gender dysphoria unless they pass”. He recognises that there are individuals whose sense of misembodiment is so strong that it sustains them through the transition process; when they look in the mirror after surgery they see the woman they always knew themselves to be, even if she still has the unalterable skeletal structure and fat distribution of a male. But he also invokes, more controversially, the example of the “deluded transsexual who convinces themselves – despite evidence to the contrary – that they pass”. This delusion, he suggests, isn’t caused by vanity or narcissism but by a simple survival instinct: they have invested so much in transition that they can’t risk the mental consequences of facing “the harsh fact that they don’t look female at all”.  

In her book, Me! The Gift of being Transgender, Monica P Mulholland argues differently. As a trans woman, she recognises that she could never pass for a cisgender woman: “My hands are too big, my feet are too big, and my facial structure is wrong”. As a result, she will “have to enter the world of the feminine by a different route”.  That route is to accept the reality of being no less a woman but a “different kind of woman”, a transgendered woman, to celebrate that status and to concentrate on the achievable target of being “the best transgender woman” she can be.  She urges us to think of the transgender condition as a gift, instead of a curse. Develop the self-confidence to avoid being ‘triggered’ by bullies, she says: “Use your knowledge of self as a woman who is transgender to set you free from fear”. Stop using passability as a subjective criterion; stop imagining other people’s negative reactions every time you step outside the front door. “Self-acceptance sets us free from our own inner critic, and may deflect the criticism of others.”

Wise counsel from both these authors. One writes from a post-transition perspective, the other from a non-transitioning, which makes direct comparison difficult. Nonetheless, a revealing difference emerges in their attitude to the body. Monica downplays the ideal of beauty in feminine self-expression, despite (or perhaps because of) its cultural dominance: “When we accept ourselves as transgender women, and realise that we are not failed cisgender women, we will be free to define our own standards of attractiveness and beauty”. Felix seems to work much more within received heteronormative expectations. If you can’t ‘pass’ (and that matters to you), then decide firmly against transition, as he has done; tell people that you’re gender-variant, identify as ‘non-binary’, modify your appearance in subtle ways, but accept the body you were born into.

Where do I fit in? I’ve come to think of myself as ‘bi-gender’ rather than ‘non-binary’, so if I was to tell the world as Felix would have me do, it would be under that identity. Yes, perhaps my choice of term is perpetuating the ‘gender binary’ while Felix’s is moving beyond it, but this is how it feels to me: two selves, sometimes bickering, sometimes embracing. Here’s a reality I must face. She wants to go out dressed as a woman; he worries she’s not passable. Who triumphs depends on who has the upper hand at any time. Late at night, after several glasses of red wine (he prefers white), she is emboldened, fleetingly at ease in her borrowed body, ready to face down any opposition as she steps over the threshold. At other times, timidity wins out. Self-acceptance (or should that be ‘selves-acceptance’?) is still a work-in-progress, and perhaps it will only come if I contrive to move beyond the gender binary.

(Thanks to Jack Molay, whose Crossdreamers blog drew my attention to these two e-books.)  

Monday, 1 August 2016

Going out is the new staying in

Anne Hathaway (not Shakespeare's wife)

In the past I’ve said that my male self (let’s call him ‘he’) felt little desire to go out ‘dressed’. If ever I felt the urge, courage deserted me before I got further than the front garden.

But she, it seems, has other ideas.

So, one night last month found me walking down the road to the post box and back, dressed. Believe me, friends, that was something else. After initial nerves, I grew light-headed, even euphoric. Wearing wig, underwear, LBD, mac and a new pair of low heels, with a bag slung over my shoulder, for a few minutes I really thought I was someone else. It was drizzling lightly; I exulted in feeling the rain on my bare legs and the breeze wafting up my dress. The following night, I had to do it again. There was a wind blowing: opting for a floaty minidress, I had a Marilyn Monroe moment as the dress flew up to reveal my panties.

Emboldened, I scanned YouTube for videos on ‘How to walk like a woman’... One foot in front of the other; practise walking down a line in the middle of the road. This pulls one hip forward and the other back, giving an impression of swaying hips. Shoulders straight, not swaying; shoulders back. Relax the body but with straight posture. Lead with chest, not with forehead. Erect, not slouching, walk tall, looking confidently ahead. Elbows tucked into body. Swing arms from elbows, not from shoulders (but not widely) keeping hands parallel to body not facing forwards. ‘Travel’ gracefully across the room, don’t stomp, bringing heel down first then rolling onto the front of the foot. (I found a lovely demonstration two minutes into this video.)

She walks differently from him, I discovered, not just because her clothes impose different ways of moving but because she is she and not he. Although she occupies less physical space than a man would, she fills that space differently and interacts differently with the air around her. Is that why on a cool night, like a starlet at a movie premiere, she can wear the skimpiest of clothing but not ‘feel cold’?

Since that night, Going Out has become my main preoccupation. Can I venture further than the end of the road? Can I go out earlier in the evening? Can I go out in daytime and feel the sun on my face and legs? I’m terrified of encountering someone, yet I know I’d be thrilled if they walked past me with indifference.

Why do I feel such inhibition about going out? It brings a rare pleasure. I’m not doing anything wrong (not in my book, anyway). Yet I feel like I’m fighting against a lifetime of inculcated attitudes, the ‘what will people think?’ ethos inherited from the parent generation.

In the last few years he has given her space to express herself, but only in the confines of his own home. This is a restriction she didn’t question until a month ago. She’d always accepted his explanation – that she’d be destroyed if she went out. (I’m reminded of those awful cases in the news of men who kidnap women off the street and keep them in basements for eighteen years, although the comparison does him no favours!) Then some step-change occurred. Overcome by curiosity or whatever, she simply found the courage one night to walk out the door and into the street. And nothing bad happened to her. Since then, that’s all she wants – to go out. Indoors, she’s like a caged animal. Outdoors, she feels most fully alive. It may feel like she’s escaping her imprisonment, but it never was a physical imprisonment: the door was always unlocked; what kept her indoors was his fear on her behalf – or her own fear, or his fear communicated to her.

How far should we permit our personae to have autonomy if they express contrarian desires? Perhaps he was right to inhibit her? What if his solicitude is merely that of a concerned father when he sees his teenage daughter head out for the evening in a microdress that exposes acres of flesh?

Another time. Small hours of the morning. I drive to a local educational institution en femme (bodycon LBD, T-bar heels, shoulder bag – nothing else, as it was a very warm night). Walk around the car park, then round the courtyard. Perfection. The following night I repeat the exercise, this time upping the ante by wearing a shorter dress. A man crosses my path without incident. Again I walk around the courtyard with pleasure, then head back – and see the same man coming in my direction. I panic, turn on my heel(s) and hurry back to the car park. Bad move, but an instinctive one I must learn to master, for by my reaction I drew attention to myself. I’m not a drag queen; the idea is to merge, to blend, ideally to pass; not to arouse attention. Who panicked in that situation? My male self, presumably. She wouldn’t panic, for she would have the confidence of a woman who walks down the street in revealing clothes and is comfortable in those clothes. She’s the one who wants to go out; she’s the one who chooses the outfit; so she’s the one who, in ghastly modern jargon, must take ‘ownership’ of whatever situation arises.

My memory of that panicked moment is twin-layered, because his fight-or-flight response overrode her still immensely fragile self-confidence. She and he create different memories, even though they coexist. He is copied into her memories, so he has knowledge of what she has done and what has happened to her. Evidence of this is when he goes back by day to some spot where she was the previous night, like the courtyard. He remembers her being there and any associated events, but he can’t recall the entire experience of how it felt, because it is an ‘embodied’ memory specific to his alter. It’s like he’s copied into the ‘email’ but not the ‘attachment’.

In a sense, this is taking things to the next level. When I said I had no desire to go out dressed, it wasn’t just the fear talking, there were other reasons. I was convinced I’d immediately be ‘read’ as a bloke in a dress; and I didn’t know who ‘I’ was – a drag act or someone role-playing a fantasy. Now, as I feel more confident on both counts, the idea of going out becomes seductive, even obsessive. And yet it doesn’t get any easier with repetition: the third time was just as anxiety-inducing as the first; I don’t sense a gain in confidence.

To sum up... Stepping out of the front gate dressed, I feel two contradictory emotions. One is elation – to feel that I’m approximating to what a ciswoman might experience as she walked down the road in these clothes; the other is fear – as though I am an undercover agent in disguise, dreading any encounter with another person in case I am unmasked. If elation is not enough, is there any force with the power to overcome the fear? Perhaps only a conviction that I am a t-girl who is finally throwing off her disguise and appearing as herself – and I’m far from persuaded of that.  Increasingly, I am coming to believe that I am bi-gendered, not mis-gendered. I’ve no wish to live full-time in female role, and if I did I’d be afflicted by a sense of false entitlement. Born with a male body, having been raised as male, I can only really know the female from outside – hence the concentration on appearance and clothes. To claim insight into anything deeper – their biological processes, for example (what the reviled Blanchard would call ‘physiologic autogynephilia’) – would be presumption, when I can have no direct experience of it.  

Monday, 20 June 2016

Reality check

Gigi Hadid: secure in her reality

A climacteric approaches. Next month brings a significant birthday – the sort where everyone slaps you on the back and says things like ‘Don’t worry! Life begins at…’ or ’60 is the new 40’ or ’40 is the new 30’. I shall celebrate by keeping a long-postponed appointment with a gender identity specialist. (There may also be cake, but probably not at the same time.) I look to this guru to tell me, once and for all, am I transgender or am I just a transvestite who has allowed his hobby to become an obsession?

I have a compulsion to crossdress, but I feel no compulsion to crossdress in public; I don’t crave public validation in crossdress. I like the idea of an emergency escape hatch back into ‘normality’; I could not take an irreversible step (although I may have changed my body beyond reverse now). I want the specialist to tell me I’m normal; I want him to tell me I’m exceptional. I want answers to Big Questions.  

Although I’ve made friends and vented in cyberspace, so far all my efforts to take my trans concerns into the real world have met with little success. I had a couple of sessions with a local therapist, at great expense, who didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t worked out for myself. I had an appointment at a laser clinic to see if I could get permanent beard removal. The employee did a ‘test patch’ on the cheek, causing a brown mark which she assured me would disappear in 24 hours. It didn’t and hasn’t – which seems to rule out the laser option for feminisation. I emailed a couple of academics whose interests appear close to my own; neither bothered to reply.

Any thought of bringing her into contact with the real world – whether it’s going out ‘dressed’ or just talking about her face-to-face with someone – seems to diminish her presence, as if she’s a creature of the shadows, always hiding from sunlight. It’s not just contact with reality but the mere prospect of such contact seems to drive her away. Since I made the appointment for next month, she has grown very shy, perhaps fearing her own extinction. Yet if she is so insubstantial that she could dissolve at the approach of reality, does she deserve to have any claims on me at all? I wrote earlier about my reluctance to reveal her ‘true’ name to anyone else, for fear either that the other person will gain power over her or that she will lose her power over me.

I’m a control freak. That’s why taking my gender concerns to the next level is problematic. By going public in however small a way and placing myself in the hands of professionals, I am letting go, unleashing something I may not be able to control – and it scares me.

At root, I’m acting out the controlled fantasy of being a young cis-woman. In the private theatre of my own home, if I wear the right clothes and do all I can to feminise the body underneath, this can be a convincing virtual-reality simulation. What it is not is a drag act. My assumption is that if I took her outside the house she wouldn’t survive contact with reality. But if she can’t be sustained in the world by an act of theatrical improvisation, what then is her power source? Where does she come from? And where does she go to when she disappears?

Two views of the sculptor’s art: 1. The sculptor looks at a block of stone and thinks, what can I make out of this? 2. The sculptor sees a form within the block which is struggling to break free. Which is she?  

I used to read a lot of philosophy (but you probably guessed that already). I was especially drawn to the ‘dualist’ position, as set out by Descartes, which says there are two separate systems within a human being: a mental thing, the res cogitans, and a physical thing, the res extensa. His concern was how these two systems talk to one another. I doubt this theory finds much favour nowadays. Talk now is of a feedback loop of reciprocal influence, mind on body, body on mind, of intelligence ‘distributed’ throughout our entire body, so that having different bodies means thinking different thoughts. In their 2007 book How the Body Shapes the Way We Think, Rolf Pfeifer and Josh Bongard quote brain experiments showing that the initiation of a voluntary act is caused by unconscious neural activity. Counter to what you’d expect, the experience of conscious will kicks in only after the brain has started preparing for the action. As Rodney Brooks writes in his Foreword, ‘this book considers the physical manifestation of the body as primary. The stuff of intelligence has evolved in conjunction with the body and is more a modulator of its behaviour rather than a primary control system.’

So one of the major formative influences on mind is the body it is housed in. The mind doesn’t float free of the body. It was precisely the ambition to achieve flotation that has made me such a physically unhoused intellectual. But can I be successfully rehoused in a body that is only a rough approximation to the one I yearn for and where there has been no opportunity for the body to form the mind?

Still, once a Cartesian always a Cartesian. I persist in the belief that I’ve split into two people. All physical sensitivity is concentrated in her body; every inch of her skin is an erotic pressure-point. Meanwhile, my male self has consolidated into a disembodied intellectual. It looks like a case of classic mind-body dualism, except that the two elements have separated out into discrete organisms. This explains why she and he can’t coexist in the same space: when she is dominant and he recessive, he can’t do any of the things that he would normally do, because she doesn’t share those interests. This is a challenge, for it doesn’t fit either of the scenarios that are usually held up: either that she is the expression of a ‘truegender’ that is belatedly breaking through and should be given whatever space she needs to unfold, or that she can be integrated into my outwardly male form to make an integrated yet ‘polymorphously perverse’ individual.

A mind housed in an unwanted male body, and a body that perceives itself as a female work-in-progress but with no thoughts other than those inspired by the body. A simple but troubling dichotomy: F body without mind; M mind without body.

These two personae struggle for dominance. One difference between them is that, although she has certain biographical fixed points (her age, for example), she doesn’t have a consistent back-story (unlike my male self). Indeed, I’ve argued that her capacity for self-invention is a source of her strength. It might be suggested that this is the point where I could stage a land-grab, take her into myself, allowing her her body while gifting her my mind. Thus would integration be achieved. There’s no reason why she, a graduate in English Literature (another fixed point), shouldn’t be seriously interested in, let’s say, reading Shakespeare in the light of modern preoccupations with gender. My previous post was a nod in that direction. She could be a ‘hot’ postgraduette; she doesn’t have to be a bluestocking – unless I persist in maintaining a sexist dichotomy between male intellect and female body-centrism.

To sum up, I am a mind or intellect housed in an unwelcome male body, and I am an aspiring female body which seems divorced from mind (although it may possess something of the ‘embodied intelligence’ referred to above). If she is to go out into the world, I’ll have to engage mind and body: for both to be in lock-step, I must find her mind. Otherwise, contact with reality may turn out to be the nuclear option.

Sigh. I wish I had the self-possession and courage of trans activist Sarah McBride:

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Was Shakespeare transgender?

The Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron

Shakespeare died 400 years ago. In the centuries since then, surely every wise thought that could be entertained about this writer has been tested to destruction?  Well, perhaps not. There is one idea that has never been taken seriously enough, although it bubbles under in the literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who said in his Table Talk of 1832 that a great mind has to be ‘androgynous’, Virginia Woolf declared that Shakespeare’s mind was ‘the type of the androgynous, of the man-womanly mind’.

Nowadays we are rightly suspicious of efforts to ‘gender’ the brain – even if the concept has regained scientific respectability in the work of Simon Baron-Cohen and others. But Woolf’s argument, however time-bound its terminology, suggests something. It suggests a thought-experiment…

What if Shakespeare were what we would now call ‘transgender’?

The thought is not unthinkable. Indeed, it’s far less outlandish than some of the wilder biographical speculation that denies that a glover’s son from Stratford could have written the plays attributed to him. We are still far from understanding the causes of gender variance, but the safest assumption is that, in its manifestations, we’re looking at a combination of biological and environmental factors, of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. If we further assume that its natural occurrence is roughly similar from generation to generation, even from century to century, then we would expect to encounter trans people 400 years ago. But long before the concept existed, at a time when understanding of sex and gender was quite unlike our own, public perception would have been different; self-perception would have been different. Upbringing, education, legal sanctions: many environmental constraints would have acted differently upon gender identities which we are – belatedly – learning to recognise and accept.

Prove it! Well, of course, I can’t. Any more than I can prove the Bard was a closet Catholic or a wife-deserter or a tax-dodger. As one editor of the Sonnets, Stephen Booth, has wryly observed: ‘William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter’. But that doesn’t invalidate the thought-experiment, for I acknowledge from the outset that I’m not running my experiment on scientific principles. The assertion that ‘Shakespeare was transgender’ isn’t ‘falsifiable’. (Falsifiability is the belief that for any hypothesis to have credibility, it must be inherently disprovable before it can become accepted as a scientific hypothesis or theory.) But, if it were true, what consequences would follow?

If our Elizabethan were of artistic leanings, we might expect him to be drawn to a medium where a transgender sensibility could find expression. Centuries later, Virginia Woolf toured that realm in Orlando. But the novel, as a form, was barely in its infancy in the late sixteenth century. What had matured in leaps and bounds was the theatre. And the English theatre had a unique characteristic not shared by its Continental equivalents: the female parts were played by boys. It was a place where everyone was someone else – a stage, in every sense of the word, for the exploration of sex/gender difference.

Of all the theories advanced for what Shakespeare was up to in his ‘lost years’ this is the one I most like: that the stage-struck provincial joined Queen Elizabeth’s Men in 1587, after the sudden death of actor William Knell in a fight while on a tour which passed through Stratford. The other actors shuffled up to cover the dead man’s parts and young Will filled the vacancy – which brought him to London and theatreland. Once in the more tolerant ambience of the city, he consolidated his position as an actor, did a little play-doctoring and started writing, making himself by 1592 into what Robert Greene enviously called ‘an absolute Johannes factotum… in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey’.

Over a twenty-year career, his plays would resort at intervals to ‘travesty’, often using a well-worn convention to hint at more subversive purposes. There are girls dressed as boys in Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night and Cymbeline. There are expressions of ‘anxious masculinity’ (to use Mark Breitenberg’s phrase) in the Merry Wives of Windsor, Antony and Cleopatra and the Taming of the Shrew as male crossdressing is either depicted or alluded to. Late in his career Shakespeare created a true hermaphrodite in Ariel (The Tempest). And in between he was writing those pesky sonnets, so apparently pregnant with meaning, so resistant to interpretation:

A woman's face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Much steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure. (20)

For anyone tempted down this speculative path, there would be much ground to cover. One must define terms. One must grapple with the peculiarities of Elizabethan and Jacobean attitudes to the ‘sex-gender system’. There are the notorious pamphlets of the day excoriating the depravity of the theatre and the confused boundaries between male and female (Hic mulier, Haec vir). Then there are the plays themselves, not to mention those suggestive longer poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, which alone sufficed for Ted Hughes to derive an entire mythology in his frustrating study Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. Hughes eschewed Shakespeare criticism entirely; his book contains no bibliography and almost no references. The scholar cannot be so cavalier. But oh dear, how much reading one would have to do to become a Shakespeare ‘expert’! And still, beyond all the specificities, lies the bigger question posed by Coleridge and Woolf: what is the relationship between androgyny and creativity?

In the absence of ‘facts’, it’s always tempting to make them up. I was surprised to see, in a recent newspaper article by James Shapiro, an undoubted Shakespeare expert, how sympathetic he was to Shakespeare in Love, the movie. Enjoyable tosh, I thought. Still, fiction is next to ‘faction’ and faction is next to fact, so let’s make it up, in this our non-scientific experiment. Let’s suppose that we can reconstruct Love’s Labour’s Won, the notorious ‘lost’ play, and let’s imagine this is the key to unlock the transgender Shakespeare. Perhaps the Bard went a little too far; that’s why the play was suppressed and never printed…

But perhaps I’m stumbling where I have no business – into the realm of wild biographical surmise. Perhaps all one can say with confidence is that in the richness and variegation of Shakespeare’s writing, among so much else, there are figurations of what trans individuals feel. This is the line taken by Canadian professor Mary Ann Saunders, herself a trans woman, who finds resonance for her own experience in The Tempest. She likens the character of Ariel, an ‘ayrie spirit’ at the whim of Prospero’s command, to transgender individuals who depend on medical practitioners to allow them to present in the embodiment they choose.*

At Yale, a petition has recently been launched to ‘decolonize’ the English Department’s course on ‘Major English Poets’. The course requires the study of Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, TS Eliot… and Shakespeare. One student, Adriana Miele, wrote a column in the Yale Daily News in which she criticised the course because while students ‘are taught how to analyse canonical literature works’, they ‘are not taught to question why it is canonical, or the implications of canonical works that actively oppress and marginalise non-white, non-male, trans and queer people’.  

We are such stuff as (cross)dreams are made on.
*Karen Wang, ‘Exploring The Tempest’s Ariel as a lens to transgender individuals’, The Ubyssey, 6 April 2016 

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

High heels

Victoria Justice: checking her not-so-secret weapons

I can’t live without high heels. They may go in and out of ‘fashion’ but for me they are eternal.

Can I share with you Dabrela’s Two Laws? My First Law states that the higher the heel the more it flatters the leg. The Second Law qualifies the First by asserting that the higher the heel, the harder it is to wear. What’s to be done? Well, you have to find a compromise. Go as high as you can. It has been calculated that the average pair of high heels causes pain after being worn for 66 minutes and 48 seconds. I’m not sure I can last even that long. But one tip I offer up for free. Fix on the height you want to wear, then invest in a pair that is an inch higher. Practise wearing the higher pair and then when you go back to your shoes of choice – bingo, they feel a lot easier!

There’s a lot of technique to wearing heels, and I suspect if, like me, you’re burdened with a male body it’s harder to master. There are skeletal differences between men and women. It’s a devil to master that heel-and-toe rolling motion when your heel is a pointed instrument: not for nothing is the word ‘stiletto’ borrowed from the Italian for ‘dagger’. Anyway, here’s a video that I found helpful. It warns against three perils – wobbly ankles, stiff knees and gripping of the thighs – and offers three bits of advice:
  • Stand up straight with your chest reaching to the sky. It will give an impression of confidence and counterbalance the weight-shift.
  • Engage the lower abs. This activates the lower back, which is helpful for stabilisation.
  • Relax through the hips and knees. This helps you ‘glide through the foot’.  
In 2004 a Swedish scientist called Jarl Flensmark published an academic article suggesting an association between the use of heeled footwear and schizophrenia. “Heeled footwear,” he wrote, “began to be used more than 1,000 years ago, and led to the occurrence of the first cases of schizophrenia ... Industrialisation of shoe production increased schizophrenia prevalence. Mechanisation of the production started in Massachusetts, spread from there to England and Germany, and then to the rest of Western Europe. A remarkable increase in schizophrenia prevalence followed the same pattern.”

It was one of those daft papers that seem concocted purposely to attract media attention. And sure enough the media picked it up. You know the sort of thing: “Are Your Shoes Driving You Mad?”  The argument was that the wearing of heeled footwear coincided with the earliest historical reports of schizophrenic symptoms. Because they are impractical, heels were originally a marker of class, wealth and sophistication; if you were lucky enough to enjoy those advantages you were also more likely to report mental ill-health, and many European princelings and leaders of fashion were clearly off their rockers. Ergo, the elevated footwear drove them nuts. As Brian Clegg points out in his demolition of Flensmark’s paper, this is a classic confusion of correlation and causality. If there were a causal link, you might equally argue that the princelings were mentally unbalanced to begin with and this illness caused them to make irrational choices, opting for footwear that was anything but sensible.

Lots of theories have been advanced as to why women wear high heels. It’s often said that heels make their bottoms protrude and wiggle alluringly from side to side. In his book Curvology: The  Origins and Power of Female Body Shape, David Bainbridge rejects this on anatomical grounds. He suggests two other reasons. First, they force a woman to walk slowly and with shorter steps, thus emphasising two characteristic features of female locomotion (sic). Second, tilting the foot makes it take up less horizontal space, thus creating the illusion that it is smaller; and small feet have proved attractive to men across diverse cultures.

Bainbridge’s book is illuminating on many topics but I think he short-changes us on this issue, even though he recognises that high heels are “the most common artificial means by which women emphasise their legs”. For me the fascination of heels is that they combine vulnerability and potency. A woman in heels can’t run – which means she can’t readily run away. At the same time, they lift her off the ground, eliminating the typical height difference between men and women, projecting her aspiringly upwards. I have a theory that many of the things that hold most power over us do so by combining opposites: they are contradictions held in dynamic equilibrium. Let me give another example. Why are children – and indeed adults – mesmerised by dinosaurs? I think it’s because they shimmer on the frontier between the real and the imagined. They have the characteristics of fable – dragon-like creatures of unexampled size, strength, ferocity – yet we know that they once existed, and though we’ll never see one in a zoo scientists can tell us with increasing accuracy what they looked like and how they lived. They are a union of opposites.

One of my readers commented that this blog is a bit cerebral and would “go over a lot of girls’ heads”. Fair comment. Here I am, setting out to celebrate the killer heel and I end up riffing on dinosaurs! But I suppose the coniunctio oppositorum is actually the key to my own nature: two spirits in one body, male and female, held for the moment in uneasy equilibrium. The male me wears sensible brogues. The female me owns far more pairs of shoes than she can possibly wear, and most of those are ‘statement heels’.

Further reading

Marc Abrahams, ‘Heel thyself’, Guardian, 16 November 2004 [on Flensman’s hypothesis] 
David Bainbridge, Curvology: The Origins and Power of Female Body Shape (2015)
Brian Clegg, Dice World: Science and Life in a Random Universe (2013)
J Flensman, ‘Is there an association between the use of heeled footwear and schizophrenia?Medical Hypotheses 63(4), 2004, 740-7 [it is noteworthy that at the time of publication, articles in this journal were not peer-reviewed – editorial policy has since changed in response to criticism]
Silly Transwoman blog, 'How to get a more feminine gait' and 'Walking in heels'

Saturday, 27 February 2016


Alison Brie

I haven’t seen the new movie How To Be Single. It sounds like a gas, though. According to the review I read, Alison Brie’s character wants to get married but has been turned into a gibbering wreck by her quest to please men. In one scene she tells a group of tots how hard it is to live up to the feminine ideal. ‘Hair!’ she yells, ‘You’re supposed to have lots of it on your head but none anywhere else!’ They haven’t a clue what she’s talking about but most women in the audience will.

How to be single, in my own peculiar way – that’s the topic of this post. 

Am I peculiar, for a start? Reading online accounts from fellow middle-aged crossdreamers and corresponding with two or three, I notice characteristics common to them and not to me. Typically, they’re married, sometimes with children. Their lives have followed (outwardly, at least) the arc of expectation of what regular guys do. Mine is different. I’ve never married, nor seriously contemplated it – because something was getting in the way. I enjoyed other people’s company, but after several days in close proximity to another body I’d think: When are they going? As for sex, I was interested in it in the abstract, enjoyed reading about it, watching it on screen – I found the thought of it arousing – but when opportunities arose with real women, my interest flagged.

There’s plenty of evidence out there that, sometimes, the male-bodied transperson will ‘go through the motions’: marry, have a family, maybe go further by opting for traditional ‘macho’ occupations. It’s surely no coincidence that not a few transwomen voluntarily join the military when younger. What are their motives? Concealing something from themselves or from the outside world? Attempting a ‘cure’ by plunging with enthusiasm into the lives that ‘normal’ men lead, like ‘swimmers into cleanness leaping’? My way was otherwise. Knowing something was ‘wrong’ but not what it was, and constitutionally committed to honesty-to-self, I couldn’t do anything I didn’t believe in. That said, I did once propose marriage to a girl; but she knew it for what it was, a lavender proposal, and rightly turned me down.

None of the above is meant to cast aspersions on the marriages that crossdressers and crossdreamers enter into. I’m sure they are happy and I envy them. Particularly, I envy those with wonderful, understanding wives who tolerate and accommodate their husbands’ unusual quirks and inclinations. I say only that I can’t do it myself. Like Frankenstein’s monster, I must beg my creator to make another like me – perhaps an FTM crossdreamer. (I think I was close to one once, but mistaking her tomboyishness for something else, I let her slip.) In fact, I have created life myself, so perhaps I am not the monster, the daemon, but Victor Frankenstein himself. From within myself, I have located, nurtured, brought forth a female other. She has become a kind of companion to me, her ‘visits’ eagerly anticipated, her photo a treasured keepsake on my smartphone.

Thus, arrived at a state of narcissistic self-sufficiency, I feel less urge to marry than I once did. Perhaps I’m already married to myself? Male and female principles united in some ‘alchemical marriage’? Did not the reviled Ray Blanchard once speculate that ‘an autogynephile’s desire to unite in the flesh with his feminine self-image corresponds to a heterosexual’s desire to unite in marriage with a female partner’?* 

These mad conceits crossed my mind recently when a pen-friend asked if I’d taken the 'COGIATI' test, which describes itself as ‘a unique test designed specifically for the uncertain pre-transitional male-to-female gender dysphoric’. I’d never heard of it – the test has no scientific status – but it’s an amusing online exercise if you’re ever at a loose end.  Apparently, according to the test results, I’m an ‘androgyne’:

…What this means is that the Combined Gender Identity and Transsexuality Inventory has classified your internal gender identity to be essentially androgynous, both male and female at the same time, or possibly neither. In some cultures in history, you would be considered to be a third sex, independent of the polarities of masculine or feminine. Your gender issues are intrinsic to your construction, and you will most likely find your happiness playing with expressing both genders as you feel like it.


Your situation is a little tricky in our current society, but not tremendously so, depending on your geographic location.

The suggestions for your circumstance are not overly complicated.

If you have any comfortability about your gender expression, some slight degree of counselling might well prove helpful. The primary goal would be to make it possible for you to enjoy your gender expressions free from any shame or embarrassment, and to resolve any remaining questions you might have.

As an androgynous being, both genders, and both sexes are natural to your expression. Permanent polarization in either direction might bring significant unhappiness. It is not recommended that you go through a complete transsexual transformation. You might find a partial transformation of value, if you find yourself more attracted overall to the feminine. You are more likely a transgenderist, than a transsexual. It is recommended that you recognize that your gender issues are real, but that extreme action regarding them should be viewed with great caution…

*Quoted in Anne A Lawrence, Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies: Narratives of Autogynephilic Transsexualism (2013), p21