Spend any length of time in the trans … community, and you’re gonna come away with the distinct impression that everybody hates everybody else. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, just a wee bit, but the ill-omened “transgender-as-umbrella-term” community sometimes makes a Taiwanese parliamentary session look like a game of bowls between Harriet’s Harriers and The Knitting Circle.

I was prompted to write this post after a slew of “us vs. them”-type discussions recently on various discussion boards and on some of the blogs I frequent. After a while they wear you down, and you just get tired of the nastiness. And while each side will claim the other is wrong or misguided or even insane, everybody gets emotional eventually, nothing is achieved … and next week we do it all over again once we’ve had a chance to cool down and catch our breath.

It’s not all that surprising though, I suppose. We all start out alone, not knowing who or what we are. Our mind says one thing, but everything else – our parents, our friends, our teachers, our own bodies are all telling us different. So we try so very hard to listen to all of them, but we just can’t ever shut out that deepest part of us that keeps on shouting.

So when we do finally find other people like us, it’s just such a relief. And suddenly you’re not crazy anymore, ’cause “Look Ma! I’m not alone! I’m not the only one.” or “There’s a reason for why I’m like this! It’s biology so you can’t blame me anymore!” and you gradually start to piece together your identity and your sense of self and your self-esteem.

Of course, you soon realise that the best you can hope for is similarity with some of them and support from some more. And then you start to notice the differences, and that fragile sense of self confidence you just started building takes some hard knocks again, ’cause what, you’re supposed to be like THEM now?! Worse, what if other people confuse you with THOSE people?! You’ve worked so hard at trying rebuild not only that sense of yourself, but the life you were denied before. You’ve found a community that accepts you, be it queer or gay or female or cisgender or male or whatever … and now the freaks threaten EVERYTHING, because your community might just decide you’re more like the freaks than like them after all…

The thing is, the bigots in your community only ever compare you to one person: themselves, and if you don’t fit that mould closely enough, you will be something to be hated, no matter how similar or different you are to that other freak over there. It’s a losing game no matter how you play it, because you will never conform closely enough, and you’re always only a slip or an accident away from discovery.

On the other hand, most people discriminate purely out of ignorance. They don’t understand us, so they fear us. We’re different, so we’re something to be wary of, to be kept at arms length. The only thing that’s ever going to change that, is to show them that the differences are cosmetic at best. The only way to do that is by living authentically, confidently, whatever that might mean to you, and not relying on your similarities or your differences to be accepted.

Live your truth and people will learn to trust that truth.

We have enough people out there who want nothing so much as to drive us into the sea. Between the religious conservatives and their dogged literalism around Adam and Eve, or the Autogynaephilia gang suddenly in a position to subvert the DSM, or the reparative therapy snake-oil sellers building an audience through daytime-television, we have no shortage of enemies. The last thing we need to do is go look for more enemies in groups of people that could be our allies. Transgender, classic transsexual, HBS man or woman, androgyne, stealth, queer, crossdresser, open, whatever … they may all be related or they may not be – ultimately only time and research will settle that question, but there is no reason for us to be fighting one another. Not if we consider ourselves any different from the people who hate and fear us. And not if we want to survive.

Mina.

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David Reimer was born in 1965 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. One of a pair of identical twins, his birth-name was Bruce and that of his brother Brian. The following year at 8 months old, both brothers were referred for circumcision at a local hospital after it emerged that they suffered from phimosis, a condition where the foreskin does not retract fully from the head of the penis.

Bruce’s procedure went tragically wrong and most of his penis was cauterised beyond repair.

The family was referred to John’s Hopkins Medical Center to see Dr. John Money, who at the time was quickly developing a reputation based on his work with intersex patients. Dr. Money was a vocal proponent of the idea of gender plasticity, believing that gender developed purely as a result of learning, and was well-known for advocating that intersex children with ambiguous genitalia be reassigned and raised as girls.

Naturally, he immediately suggested that the family raise Bruce as a little girl, and at 22 months old, Bruce’s testes were removed. He was reassigned female and given the name Brenda. Dr. Money would continue to see Brenda and her brother Brian for psychological counselling and assessment, and she would be given female hormones to aid her physical development as a girl. In many ways this was an ideal … experiment to determine the validity of gender plasticity as a theory: Brenda had a twin, Brian, who could serve as a control subject, and Bruce had also been born a perfectly healthy, non-variant male. If anything could prove that gender was purely a social construct, this was it.

Throughout her early childhood and into puberty, Brenda grew up and developed as a young girl. She visited with Dr. Money regularly, and he reported the case a fantastic success. On the basis of the case, sex-reassignment in the case of children born with ambiguous genitalia was adopted as standard practice, one that has continued to the present-day in many places.

Sadly, the reality of the situation was very different from what Dr. Money was reporting.

As early as the age of two, Brenda was insisting that he was a boy like his brother Brian, whom he would regularly beat up so he could take his toys to play with. As he grew older, he was regularly bullied at school for his unfeminine behaviour, masculine walk and his insistence to both teachers and parents that he felt like a boy. He hated his visits with Dr. Money, finally threatening suicide if he had to go one more time, and finally, upon the advice of a different psychologist, Brenda’s mom and dad told him the truth in 1980. Brenda assumed a male identity and started living as David.

Unfortunately the damage had been done.

Neglected and confused, scarred by highly questionable “therapy” techniques Dr. Money had employed and struggling to process his new relationship with his “sister”, Brian eventually fell into a pattern of clinical depression, drug abuse and crime that finally culminated in his apparent suicide from a lethal overdose of drugs and alcohol in 2002. David’s parents did not fare much better, his mother attempting suicide and his father eventually sliding into alcoholism.

David also did not cope well. He tried to commit suicide twice in his 20’s, having done so repeatedly in his teens, both before and after learning the reality of his gender. Given to dark moods, fears of abandonment and explosive anger preying on his mind constantly, he believed that he would never be able to form a lasting relationship and marry.

Despite all this, he did meet and eventually marry Jane, and his life seemed to start approaching something like normal. They raised three children together, and after he went public with his story in 2000, sales from the book he had authored with John Colapinto, gave the family financial security.

Sadly it wasn’t to last. Feeling guilty over the death of his brother and haunted by his childhood, David made a string of bad investments, became estranged from his wife and family, and eventually committed suicide in 2004 at the age of 38. Dr. Money’s grand “experiment” was a tragic, terrible failure.

David’s life was an unhappy one, and the circumstances around that life touched the lives of everybody around him with devastating effect. But he left behind a powerful legacy that has given intersex people their most convincing argument in preventing doctors and parents from “fixing” intersex children. Indeed, it was only after he learned from Dr. Milton Diamond how his case had been used to push “surgical correction” of intersex people that he went public with his own story.

His case also dealt a critical blow to the theory that gender is a learned behaviour, instead pointing at one’s sense of one’s own gender being an innate characteristic as fundamental as whether we are naturally right or left-handed. In this, his life also helped the cause of transsexual people enormously, something for which I owe him and his family a profound debt.

***

To read more about David, his life and his legacy:

1. [John Colapinto] The Case of John/Joan (dec 1997, Rolling Stone Magazine)

2. [John Colapinto] Why Did David Reimer Commit Suicide? (jun 2004, Slate Magazine)

3. [Burkeman and Younge] Being Brenda (2004, The Guardian Newspaper, UK)

4. [uncredited] David Reimer: The boy who lived as a girl (may 2004, CBC News Online)

5. [John Colapinto] As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. (2001, Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-092959-6)

6. Wikipedia Article on David Reimer (accessed 14 feb 2009)

7. [Hannah Rosin] A Boy’s Life (nov 2008, TheAtlantic)

8. [BBC Horizon] Dr. Money and the Boy with No Penis (2004, BBC2 Documentaries)

Mina.

[GenderDynamix] Trans Healthcare Survey (2009, GenderDynamix)

Over the years Gender DynamiX has been mandated, by the transgender, transsexual and gender non-conforming constituents that we work with, to try and work with relevant stake holders to improve access to medical services and the level of services offered. This was one of the highest priorities expressed in a survey run last year by Gender DynamiX. It has also been an express request from the vast majority of queries we get from people accessing our services either on the web or via phone calls, emails, and visits and at conferences or seminars.

In an effort to meet this need we have appointed a person to do research into these services. To begin with we would like to firstly get an idea of the perceptions and feelings from the transgender, transsexual and gender non-conforming community about their experiences with regards to access to health care services.

continues…

If you’re a South African or live in South Africa please consider completing this survey. An organisation like GDX can only make an impact if it has good data to work from. This is the stuff that convinces leaders, wins grant money, and changes laws.

Mina.

[Audrey Mbugua] Transgender Human Rights Violations in Kenya (2009, GenderDynamix)

In this paper, I will try to explain the social, legal, health and religious mechanisms which create anti-transgender motivated oppression and which can be used to formulate policies that creating understanding and tolerance of transgender individuals, punish those who perpetrate violence and discrimination on transgender people. Much of it will touch on ignorance of transgenderism some basics concepts such as the difference between religious fundamentalism, sexism, social conservatism and the lack of legal integration of transgendered people.

I believe that the plight of transgender people in Kenya is a legitimate one that needs to be urgently addressed if it is to be laid to rest. Because of the conflation of transgenderism and homosexuality, the common fallacies that come out when we look into the history of “transgender hate” oppression is that it’s mostly labeled as “gay hate” oppression. But, on a closer look, a vast majority of these “gay hate” crimes are actually atrocities done on Kenya’s transgender community.

continues…

Mina.

[anya bingler] students talk transgender issues (13 feb 2009, women’s net)

Men and women gathered Tuesday at the Women’s Center to discuss issues surrounding transgendered people and their role in “The Vagina Monologues,” as part of V-Week.

The event, sponsored by Spectrum, centered on topics including stereotypes, job discrimination, gender identity, sexual violence and gender re-assignment surgery.

continues…

Mina.

[mongezi mhlongo] transgender organisation honoured for web presence (02 feb 2009, behind the mask)

SOUTH AFRICA – 02 February 2009: Gender DynamiX, the only African based transgender organisation, has recently won the South African NGO Network (SANGONET)’s 2008 NGO Web Awards, making it the only LGBTI organisation, which participated, with a web presence that deserved such an honour.

continues…

GDX plays a vital role in the local transsexual and transgender community. If you’re gender variant, stuck in Africa and don’t really know where to turn, their website is probably a good place to start. ^_^

Mina.

that first day

14/02/2009

I grew up pretty-much by myself, alone on a plot[1] on the outskirts of a conservative little mining town in South Africa, with just my mom and my ouma[2] and a few doggies for company. Dad was home for a bit in the evening before I went to bed and was there most weekends, and we’d occasionally visit my gran or relatives, or my cousin Martin would visit, but my world was pretty small really.

I didn’t mind though. My mom read to me on an almost daily basis, so I loved books, loved the stories they contained and the things they could teach. With mom’s help I had taught myself to read when I was like 3 or 4, doing my best at the Bobby the Cat comics that came in the Personality Magazine each week. I had plenty of books, so I always had something to read, and when I wasn’t in the mood for that, I had all my stuffed animals to keep me company, or I’d play with my Lego.

As I grew older, my mom started talking about school, and how I’d soon have to go there to learn things. I was more than a little dubious about this whole concept, but she soon had me convinced as she kept telling me about how many books there were in the school, about all the children I’d meet, and as we got closer to the day, I actually couldn’t wait. So the year after I turned 5, my mom packed me into the car one day, and off we went to my first day of school.

Of course, reality quickly started disabusing me of my excitement. There were so many people! So many children and moms and a few dads and … Suddenly things seemed a lot less … cool. I was overwhelmed, and this growing sense of disquiet started creeping up on me. I couldn’t put my finger on what, but something just wasn’t right here.

We went and found a pair of chairs in the school hall. Each seat had a little red book on it, but for once I was too nervous to look what was inside, so I just sat with it on my lap. I looked around at all the other parents and kids sitting in nervous pairs along the walls and I just wanted to burst into tears.

Luckily I was seated next to a girl called Sara, and after having our moms introduce us to one another, we started a hesitent little conversation that soon blossomed into friendship. I don’t really remember what we talked about, but as we chatted my fear ebbed just a little and I relaxed.

A loud bell silenced us abruptly, and a few minutes later other children, older and obviously used to all the strangeness, filed in and went and sat down in something approaching neat rows in the center of the hall, a sea of purple and grey. At the front of the hall, a handful of grown-ups, the ones my mom said were teachers, took seats on the stage, and a tall, grampa-looking old man took what I later learned was called a podium.

He started by introducing himself as Meneer[3] Viljoen, the principal, and welcomed all the dads and moms and new students.(Hey that’s me! ^_^) He said a few other things I can’t remember, and then he told us all to stand up. An older lady went and sat by the piano on stage, and everybody sang the national anthem, followed directly by the school anthem. I didn’t know the words, so I just stood nervously, feeling silly and really dumb. I glanced over at Sara and could see she was feeling just about the same as me, which made me feel just a little bit better.

Just as we were about to sit back down, Meneer Viljoen asked us to remain standing and open our little red books. The piano lady started again, and soon we were singing a song to Jesus … or rather, again, everybody else was – my Afrikaans reading wasn’t anywhere near as good as my English. Very, very dumb.

After all the singing, we could finally sit down again, and Meneer Viljoen talked for a long time. He talked about sports and about learning and about making friends and stuff, but mostly it just washed over me as I looked at all the kids sitting on the floor in their grey shirts and pants or their purple dresses …

And it occurred to me that I was dressed like a boy. My hair was short like the boys’ hair – my mom had cut it to my considerably protest the week before, assuring me that it was necessary for school. I sat there in my grey uniform, my short hair, my laced up shoes … and I looked like a boy. I didn’t understand how the grown-ups could’ve made such a big mistake, and I couldn’t say anything because the Meneer was still talking, and something just told me not to say and I just didn’t know what to do.

The older kids left first along with the teachers, and finally we filed out ourselves. I was on the verge of tears by now, and then my mom said that she would have to leave, but that she would be back soon, and that I had to be a good boy in school for her. I don’t know if she’d ever used that word “boy” on me before, but that day I heard it for the first time, and it fell on me like a planet. I just burst into tears, grabbing onto her and begging her not to leave me, that this was all a terrible mistake. A teacher came up from behind, and as she tried to calm me she hunkered down and turned me around to face her. She really was nice, but I didn’t want to hear any of it, and as she talked about how I needed to be a big boy now, my heart broke. I turned around for my mom but she was gone.

Pretty-much the rest of that day is a blank. I don’t remember any of it, and to be honest, most of my primary school memories are tiny, individual snatches here and there. But that first day …

Mina.

Notes

1. Afrikaans for a smallholding, typically a parcel of land anything from 5 to 20 acres. My dad didn’t farm it, but rented out bits of the land for neighbouring farmers to work, and we had a small forest at the bottom of the property that I used to love as I grew older.

2. Afrikaans word for “gran”. Both my oumas were actually Afrikaans, but my dad’s side of the family was mostly English, while my mom had grown up English-speaking, so I grew up speaking both. Too bad I didn’t learn Hindi or Mandarin back then too. ^_^

3. The afrikaans version of “Mister”. It’s quite unusual for Afrikaans speaking people to actually use Meneer all that often, at least where I was from. Kids refer to older males as “Oom” (Uncle in Afrikaans), and adults simply refer to one another by name. Using Meneer usually indicates a really big difference in status.