Some views on gender identity and sexuality
"There's a gender in your brain and a gender in your body. For 99 percent of people, those things are in alignment. For transgender people, they're mismatched. That's all it is. It's not complicated, it's not a neurosis. It's a mix-up. It's a birth defect, like a cleft palate."
— Chaz Bono
Disclaimer: I am not fully conversant with all the "correct" language and phrasing. This isn't my field, I'm just a regular guy navigating stuff that's still new to me, and I have a lot to learn. Apologies for any missteps. This began life as an essay on gender-neutral pronouns, and got out of hand. It took me a while to write, and I'm sad that it got to be more GTKY than essay. It's complicated, and it has taken me a long time to process this and render it a manageable length.
At the time of writing, I am a 66-year-old 95% statistically heterosexual white cis-male, apparently middle-class. I was brought up in a fairly conservative family, with what the politically correct crowd might call a "heteronormative binary-gender" slant. That became very apparent in 1967, when I was 11. British law was changed to mostly remove the automatic criminality of sex between two men (prior to that, if two men wanted to touch pee-pees they could be imprisoned or chemically castrated for it, as happened in the famous case of Alan Turing).
Myself, I was neutral to the whole man-on-man sex thing, even at the age of eleven. My view was that if two people wanted to do grown-up stuff, then surely it was their business and no-one else's. The only issue to me was that it should be private. To this day that's how I feel; I'm not a fan of public displays of sex stuff. Of course, I was a kid, and never really thought it would affect me greatly. For my father, it was the end of the world. Homosexuality was going to completely undo Society, Men would be Kissing in the Streets and Everything would be Dreadful from here on out.
Oddly enough, when I was ten he had sent me to a boarding school. A boys-only school. With only boys. Boys going through puberty, curiosity and hormones raging. During term-time we only ever saw women in church on Sunday, and if we had to visit the matronly school nurse. Was there experimental touching of winkies? Yes, yes there was, to the point where declining to touch another boy meant you were "boy-shy". Lights-out in the dormitories meant two things – farting competitions and mutual masturbation. Years later I recalled this when during his lecture, my father gave me to understand that thankfully homosexuality was rare; I did not correct him.
During "The Talk", at age c. 14, I was told that homosexuality was abhorrent, a crime against God and nature. Every gay man would try to "interfere" with me because he was a filthy pervert. My father had quite traditional views, let us say. I didn't see what business it was of his, so I largely ignored him. Of course, he never touched on gay women, and I never even thought about two female people "doing it" until I found my Dad's porn stash a little later. Nice, Dad. Two men touching bits is dirty, but two women is desirable‽
When I left home I began living in a shared house with three other men. When a guy named Allan moved in, we became great friends; he was bisexual, and we twice slept together. We'd go out to a variety of places, including a couple of gay bars. I learned about the "gay community" and what it was to be gay. So there I was dating girls but going to gay bars. No judgements here, I realised that for the most part, gay people were just people. They were mostly fun to hang out with, and they looked after the token straight guy if there were any predatory moves made on me. At this time I learned about lesbians, bisexuality and cross-dressers, even entering a "Gay Miss World" contest one year. I won Best Straight Entrant and I wish I had a copy of the photo in my red-and-gold cocktail dress, blonde wig and heels.
Years later I met Debbie. Well, I met Richard first. Built like a Rugby number eight, he was funny and good company, a great drinking buddy. He worked at the same place as me and I remember coming in one Monday to an email from the business telling everyone that from henceforth, Richard was to be known as Debbie. She came in that morning in a frock, and the place was in turmoil. Some of the guys there accepted her (and when I say "guys", I mean it; there were only a few women in the technical bit of the business), but there were a few who protested. Most of it was along the lines of "it's unnatural", some declined to use "she" and a few said they preferred "it". Some of the controversy was centred around which toilets she'd be using, and here the few female voices were raised.
Just as with my reaction to The Teenage Talk, I didn't see what business it was of anyone's to be so outraged. The staff was already used to gay people, black and brown people, Mormons and Moslems¹, men, women, blondes and redheads, tall and short, fat and thin. The managers, driven by missives from Human Resources, clamped down on the worst excesses of abusive behaviour. In time the reaction from most people became generally accepting, with a few crude comments and insults from the narrow-minded. For my part I was unperturbed by it. After all, from my perspective Debbie hadn't changed any, she'd just put on a dress and presented differently.
A few days after her coming out at work, we went for a beer, and of course we talked about The Reveal, as she called it. She'd had a hard time coming out to her family, and had met resistance and hostility. She told me of her years-long internal struggle with herself, her feelings, hopes, fears and worries. She told me of her concerns about taking hormones, about the surgery, about her family. This was her jihad, the daily battle she'd been fighting with herself for years. Slowly, creakingly, I began to understand. Soon after this, I met a neighbour who was a transwoman. She was kind, she was normal. I wouldn't have known or questioned her gender had she not mentioned it first.
Later, working as a trainer in the same business there was some kerfuffle in one of the intake groups when it was revealed that one of the delegates was a transwoman. The same arguments over which toilet she'd use, the same schoolboy insults, the same narrow minds. I was despatched (why me? I asked) to calm things down. I met with Pat at the lunch break, a tall South African woman who again looked like she'd played rugby (and she had, for the South African Army). She burst into angry tears as she told me of her years-long battle for acceptance. After lunch I went into the group to have a discussion with the mostly-male mob. I asked if any of them had been caught short and had to use the "opposite gender" toilets. Yes, some answered. Would any of them be upset if I only ever referred to them as pigs? Yes. I asked one of the more arrogant men his name, asked how he'd feel if I called him Susan. Reminded them all of the Staff Handbook section on discrimination and how they wouldn't even get to finish training if they weren't all nice. And I left. There was no more verbal violence done, and Pat bought me beer every time she saw me in the pub.
Nowadays I count many close friends who are not like me, who have different gender identities and sexual preferences. Hang on, I'm going to rethink this. Did you see what I did there? I thought from a position of privilege. These are people who are just like me, but with different gender identities and sexual preferences. Over the years as I have learned more and become greyer and somewhat wiser, I have learned that everyone who is not-me is no different. We all have hopes and fears, but there are some in the world who would persecute and abuse people who are not-them, whether sexually, religiously, ethnically, culturally. Gay and trans people are still subject to harrassment, abuse and violence. We've all read news reports of the narrow-minded and fearful attacking other groups individually and collectively. The issue is politicised and there are people out there who are polarised to the point of viewing anyone not-them as "the enemy", and thus feel empowered and driven by the group-think to go and hunt them down. This is where the beatings and killings come from, that sense of isolation leading to attacks.
Of course it's not just "them" who can be radicalised extremists. "We" have our share of them too. A few years ago I was leaving a café in Davis, when I was hailed by an acquaintance to ask me to join them at a table. There were perhaps eight or ten people sat around, of whom I knew only a couple. Nevertheless I joined them in their conversation about food, during which I referred to something that someone else had said, referring to them as "she". Now she was dressed as a woman, had a pretty summer dress and was showing cleavage, so I felt it was a safe assumption.
The conversation went something like this:
Woman: Did you just assume my gender?
Me: Well, I called you "she", so yes.
Woman: Well, you didn't check with me for my preferred pronouns.
Me: Sorry, you're right, I didn't.
Woman: You should never assume someone's gender!
Me: Okay, you're…
Woman: interrupting me Typical man!
Me: Did you just assume my gender?
Woman: goes on abusive rant, calls me a heteronormative dinosaur among other things.
Me: sarcastically Perhaps you should wear a badge.
Woman: That's disgusting. I shouldn't have to, everyone should check for pronouns!
Me: You're treating me like I'm the enemy, rather than someone who made a mistake. And you didn't ask me for my pronouns!
Woman: continues abusive and insulting rant.
Me: Perhaps if you see me as the enemy you missed a teaching opportunity. Rather than attacking me, you should open a dialogue. You'd catch more flies with honey.
Woman: I don't have to put up with this! Exits stage left, still muttering.
I turn to the people I do know, apologise to them for my part in the explosion. Several people chuckle, and say, "Oh it's okay, that's just Gloria being Gloria". I ask if I was somehow in the wrong. No, they tell me, it's always like that with her. The conversation turns from food to gender identity and political correctness. It is decided that my response when backed into a corner was a little harsh but not entirely unjustified, and that the Glorias of this world are thankfully rare. Exeunt Omnes.
I gave this an awful lot of thought over the next months and years, and still revisit my memory of it to see how I could have resolved it better. I have included the conversation because I still seek feedback on how I could have handled it better.
At this point I should tell you that I am not what you'd call "politically correct", but if someone asks me to use particular pronouns, I endeavour to do so out of respect. These days I can handle they/them pretty seamlessly, but anything else is much harder and takes longer. So if someone tells me about their gender identity or whatnot, I do my best to comply with the decent norms. But I always point out that I'm human, and will make mistakes, and I expect that to also be respected. I always try to avoid language that could inflame responses, but I'm fallible. I know that misgendering someone can be hurtful, and I want to avoid doing harm.
I should also explain that I have a co-worker who is non-binary gender, and my sweetheart's youngest is non-binary; both prefer "they/them" pronouns. But because I'm fallible, and first knew them when they both identified publicly as female, I occasionally screw up. When that happens, I apologise, and you know what, it's rarely been a problem. There is mutual respect and there's latitude given. Attack me or put me in a corner and I might come out swinging; as I said, I am far from perfect.
There is a wide spectrum of gender and sexuality, and I must own up to not understanding more than a tiny fraction of it. For example, someone used the term "genderqueer" recently, and despite my looking it up, I'm still not sure that I'm clear on it. But I can't possibly understand, having always been comfortable with myself! I have to be satisfied with what little I can glean from listening to people, and thankfully, most people are patient with this ridiculous dinosaur.
It's been a long journey for me to get to this point. in general I'm quite proud of myself. Along the way I've seen several friends make gender transitions in various forms. More than once I've held a newly-out woman as she cried over some really tough time. I have celebrated their landmarks and honoured them. I've remarked on how well they are doing, how good they look, how happy they are. Am I an "ally"? I don't know and don't care; all I want is for people to feel safe and happy around me. But my odyssey continues. I doubtless have many more mistakes to make, and will need to be forgiven seventy times seven. I'm happy for all the gay and trans people in my life; in particular, Tessie is working for The Trevor Project, which seeks to provide counsel and support for LGBT youth, and I'm very proud of her.
Society is still adjusting to the changing world of sexuality, gender and queerness. I'm not up to date on all the preferred language, I still need gentle guidance and education. Some people may never adapt; the more conservative political and religious groups have a long way to go still. And so do I. But I am doing the best I can.
Also, my father was a good man, and he mellowed some over the years. He wasn't really a bigot, rather just old-fashioned about some things that he didn't understand. I owe him a lot for being a good model for me in many other ways.
¹ JD pointed out that the more moderm term is "Muslim", so I looked it up: 'The people who use "Moslem" are mostly older people who didn't learn the new way, or who reject it just because it's new and they're set in their ways.' — https://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2010/11/14/muslim-vs-moslem
I guess that the former is me, then.