CN Lester / Seal Press / Anna Buckley
Elizabeth Entenman
June 19, 2018 7:45 am

One of the best ways to be an ally is to educate yourself on LGBT issues and experiences. And what better time to do so than Pride Month? On Tuesday, June 19th, CN Lester published Trans Like Me: Conversations for All of Us, a collection of essays about the trans experience. They write openly about everything from a history of trans celebrities to the importance of inclusive feminism. And you can read an excerpt from the new book below.

While the heightened awareness and advocacy for trans rights in recent years is a good thing, in some cases, the increased media attention has also led to the spread of misinformation. Lester gets right to the point in Chapter 1, “The Production of Ignorance,” discussing the fear-mongering about trans people. They argue that in order to truly learn about trans people, we first have to unlearn what we think we already know. And Trans Like Me is a great place to start the relearning process.

Lester is a leading LGBTI activist, a musician, and a writer. They co-founded the first national queer youth organization in the U.K. and work as a classical singer, a composer, and a feminist musicology researcher.

The following excerpt from Trans Like Me offers a glimpse into the trans experience and starts an important conversation about gender identity.

 The question I am most often asked about being trans—on the internet, in a bar, on the bus, at work—is the one I most dread answering. Sometimes it’s delivered through euphemism, sometimes crudely, and worst of all by a groping, uninvited hand. “Have you . . . you know?” or “So you’re . . . post- or pre-op?” It’s colleagues I barely know asking me what kind of genitals I have and whether I’m going to change them—and, if so, how—and strangers recoiling in horror, because “I don’t know what you have down there.” This, for them, is the defining point of being trans: the “sex change,” the “op.” Never mind that there are many different kinds of medical treatments that trans people may undergo, if they are right for us, if we have the money, if our country’s medical systems allow it. In the popular imagination there’s a singular operation, and a violent, last-option one at that. Various forms of detailed, sensitive reconstruction work become “lop your tits off” and “cut your cock off.” It’s the supposed proof of being trans and, more than that, it’s everybody else’s business.

What we experience on a day-to-day basis we see modeled by the media: documentaries, interviews, movies, TV shows. It’s the triumphant finale of the 2005 film TransAmerica: Felicity Huffman sliding her hands between her legs in relief at the absence of her (much publicized prosthetic) penis. In the 2015 documentary Girls to Men, the filmmakers framed the stories of their young trans masculine protagonists in terms of their journey toward genital surgery. Gory surgical footage and close-up cock shots: that the audience should become a voyeur is a given, because they, somehow, have not only the right to know but the right to gape. Even when a trans person has not volunteered the information, the topic is considered fair game—more than that, essential. Watch the 2014 interview of Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox by Katie Couric: the ease with which Couric asks about her interviewees’ genitals, and her confusion at being denied an answer.

For many of the people who ask, the fact that a ready answer might not be forthcoming is baffling. After all, isn’t that how being trans is meant to work? Someone realizes that they’re “trapped in the wrong body,” then gets that body overhauled and emerges a new person. It’s everything we’ve been taught from the earliest age: women have vaginas and men have penises. If we, trans people want public acknowledgment of who we are then, the argument goes, we should accept the public judgment of our genitals.

If we were to take another example, and apply the same rules, it becomes obvious just how inappropriate and harmful this trope is. For some (not all) trans people, one element of being trans is the physical process of transition. It can be joyful, it can be painful, it can be messy, and it can involve surgery. The same could be said of parenthood. Conception, pregnancy, and childbirth are necessary parts of making a family for the majority of people. Like medical transition, it is vital that we’re educated about these processes if there’s a chance we’ll find ourselves personally affected. And luckily, in both of these cases, the medical information is freely and easily available online, through public health initiatives, in libraries, and from the relevant medical authorities.

But it would never be appropriate to approach a new mother in a café and say, “So, did you rip your vagina giving birth to that one?” When greeting a colleague returning to the office after maternity leave, we don’t ask if we can examine the stretch marks and possible scars, or ask about hemorrhaging and post-natal incontinence. If we’re close friends or family, we might well talk about the most personal physical aspects of creating and delivering a baby—the same is true of transition. But the need to be honest and close with our loved ones doesn’t make the intrusion of strangers okay.

The second problem is that of language. Obvious transphobic language in the media—and in the wider world—is hard to ignore. Even those people who are themselves transphobic could hardly pretend that Julie Burchill’s infamous 2013 column for The Observer was inoffensive, with her descriptions of trans women as “bedwetters in bad wigs” and “dicks in chicks’ clothing.” You don’t need to know anything about trans people to know that referring to us with insults is cruel.

What worries me more is the trend to describe all trans-related language as somehow “made up,” difficult, and too PC to be allowed.

When I’m asked to give a talk, write an article, or deliver training on trans issues, I’m well aware of the fact that the words I use won’t be familiar to everyone, and am happy to explain. “Trans” is the word I favor, as it has the broadest and most flexible definition: any person who, in some way or combinations of ways, has found that how they experience their gendered self does not fit with the gender and sex they were assigned at birth. “Cis” is the antonym of trans; just as we cannot describe being gay without having a word for straight, we need a word to describe experiences which are not trans, as well as experiences which are. These words are blunt instruments, designed to give a rough understanding of the ever-changing world we find ourselves in; tools to help us to understand and challenge the ignorance and prejudice between us. They will change with time, and new words will take their place: humans are quite remarkable in their capacity to learn new words. For example, we now use the word “you” for both the singular and the plural: not so in Early Modern English. In the past twenty years the word “internet” and all its related terms and add-ons (including the term “add-on”) have entered into daily, unremarked usage. As a teacher, I’m constantly introducing words that are new to my students: rubato, cantabile, légèrement. When new words can bring us closer to something we want to say, then we are all too happy to learn them. And this is why I’m suspicious of the claim that trans-related words are too much, too hard, and of no use.

Even when a word has been in usage for a long time, those who are suspicious of what that means in terms of gender are quick to claim that the change is too fast. “They” has been used as a singular pronoun in English for hundreds of years; we find examples of the singular “they” in the works of Shakespeare, Austen, and Swift. But trans people like me, who use the pronoun “they” as a gender-neutral alternative to “he” or “she,” are often mislabeled in the media by editors who struggle with its usage. By implying that trans people are faddish and difficult about words, writers can cast aspersions on the validity of our language—and of our selves. By claiming that our words are too hard to understand, the media perpetuates the idea that we are too hard to understand, and suggests that there’s no point in trying.

Learning how to talk about trans people is not difficult, and doesn’t require any specialist knowledge. Just as you would in any other situation, you have to reflect back the words a person uses about themselves. Wanting to be referred to in an accurate and respectful way isn’t a trans-specific thing, but a cornerstone of polite society. I don’t call my Jewish friends Buddhist. It’s the same with trans people. Use the right names, use the right pronouns, and don’t fall for the line that we’re too difficult for our own good. I know many cis people who are so nervous about getting it wrong that they’re scared to try to get it right, but it’s okay to ask. I would far rather someone ask me what pronoun I use than try, out of embarrassment, to guess, and get it wrong.

The final problem of the framing of trans lives so often recycled by the media is perhaps the hardest one to see. So often it is the only way in which trans people are included in the media at all. Less obviously pernicious, but still dangerous, is the way in which trans people are only featured when being trans is the story.

The most obvious, and most egregious, example in recent years must surely be in the press treatment of scientist Kate Stone. Dr. Stone was gored by a stag in a freak accident in late 2013; as someone who had not sold her story, who was not in the public eye, she had no reason to suspect that her accident would hit the news. And yet she, her family, and her friends were confronted with headlines such as “Sex Swap Scientist in Fight for Life” and “Deer Spears Sex-Swap Kate.” Speaking to the Guardian, Stone explained: “I have no regrets about the accident. I have never for one moment thought, ‘Why me?’ But some of the reporting was horrendous. The media door-stepped my family, my friends and colleagues. On radio, one ‘expert’ was asked, ‘Was Kate gored by a stag because she was transgender?’”

This is an extreme example, for sure. Most of us will never experience this kind of treatment, although more trans people have experienced door-stepping than you might expect. Stone sought help from the Press Complaints Commission and, eventually, the intrusive stories were withdrawn. But the broader point—that being trans is, in its own right, newsworthy—impacts on the way all trans rights are framed.

When I was first starting out as a performer, I was shocked by the number of people in the media who were more than happy to write about me, but not as a musician, only as a trans sob story. I refused to provide “before” and “after” pictures, to give away the personal details of my life; most of the press interest disappeared. We’re forced into a double bind; if we’re to speak honestly about who we are, then we must have the freedom to talk about being trans, but we cannot be reported honestly if being trans is the only aspect of our lives discussed.

I know many trans people who have spoken to the media about what it is that they do—their professional expertise, their artistic ventures, their latest projects—and are later confronted with a final copy that cuts out all of that detail for a clichéd trans narrative that has nothing to do with the actual life of the person featured. Through this framing we are made to look like attention seekers and oddities. If we don’t mention being trans, we risk one of two options. If, like me, we are visibly different, then we are usually pressed to talk about it. If we are not seen as trans, we run the risk of accusations of deception, of a scandalous “reveal,” if we don’t announce that we are trans from the get-go.

As in the media, as in everyday life. Without being able to talk about being trans, I can’t speak about how I have been made to suffer for it, and also what I have learned through those experiences. I can’t make things better by being silent. But neither can I speak about every other part of my life—live every other part of my life—if other people focus only on my transness as something shocking and different.

It has to be our choice to talk or not talk about being trans, and—whether we talk about it or not—we still need to be recognized as whole, complex people. Our lives are truncated when we are seen only through the stereotypes of others, and we waste so much time struggling against those constraints. Whether it’s on the front pages or in the workplace, “being trans” is never the most interesting thing about us. Accept it as one crucial part and then, please, keep listening.

Excerpted from Trans Like Me: Conversations for All of Us by CN Lester. Copyright © 2017. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Trans Like Me: Conversations for All of Us is now available wherever books are sold.

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