Wednesday, 29 February 2012


Inspired by this as well as by some recent internet commentary, particularly at No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz?, I think it's time to hash out some of my feelings about clothing. Here we go.

1. Clothes are nice for thin people

2. Clothes are nice for (relatively) rich people

3. Clothes are nice for people who fit neatly into the gender binary

I am none of those things. And yet I love clothes! I went through most of my life thinking I hated clothes and didn't care about fashion. As it turns out, I love clothes and am pretty invested in fashion - up to a point, anyway. This revelation is linked to my adventures in gender. It's not that I fit into boy clothes any better than I fit into girl clothes - often the fit is worse, actually, due to the fact that I am short, have small feet and abundant hips and breasts. It's also much more challenging to go into shop changing rooms with armfuls of men's clothes when I am clearly be-breasted and be-hipped, than it was to go in with armfuls of women's clothes. It's possible that the odd looks I get are a product of my feverish brain rather than actual looks people are giving me, but the effect is the same. It's hard work.

The love, I think, comes from attempting to achieve a look that I actively like, rather than one that I think I ought to like (or at least aspire to). I may not be any more successful at achieving that look, but I feel better about myself - less conflicted - in this failure than I ever did in the previous failures.

So while I may weep in changing rooms when I totally fail to fit into a shirt of any combination of sizes (regular, tailored or slim fit, formal, semi-formal, work, fashion - what an endless list!) the very act of trying on shirts makes me feel a bit stronger in myself than the trying on of, I don't know, scoop-necked t-shirts or diamante-encrusted jeans.*

Having said that, I do like wearing women's clothes sometimes. One of my most enjoyable post-Ollie moments was going to a friend's barbecue party last summer wearing my favourite battered Converse, a fairly short handkerchief dress, and dangly earrings. But then, not everyone at that event knew me as Ollie at the time, meaning that I felt I had more freedom to present as femme than I did in environments where I always had been 'Ollie, the girl who wants to be a boy'. I came closer to a breakdown in that environment than I ever had before, when I was trying to decide on an outfit for a big event and felt that the whole world of femme was closed to me if I wanted to be taken seriously as a trans boy. I still feel that pressure more often than I'd like. But it's getting easier, as I expand my wardrobe incrementally when the sales are on, and start building a collection of clothes, men's and women's, that I can mix and match until I find a combination that's perfect (or at least appropriate) for the occasion.

*There's that femmephobia creeping in again! Obviously I detest diamante-encrusted jeans, because that's a totally rational reaction to such brazen femininity :-/

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Decolonising One's Mind

I've been thinking about a phrase I've often seen at one of my favourite blogs, Womanist Musings. The phrase is "decolonizing [one's] mind". I want to think about it today as it could relate to my own mind, as I'm not sure that it's appropriate. I have most often seen it used in relation to the minds of people of colour (POC), and this would make sense etymologically, since 'colonisation' almost always refers to the lands of POC being appropriated by people of a more dominant race, most often white. When the phrase is used in social justice spaces, it is used to describe the difficult process of training one's mind not to fall prey to the dominant narratives present in (for instance) white Western culture. So, to give a rather simplified example, expelling (or not internalising in the first place) the notion that a brown-skinned person is less important than a white-skinned person. That notion is evidently incorrect, and yet dominant culture teaches and reinforces this lesson every day, to white people and people of colour both. It is damaging to both white people and POC to believe this lesson, but of course it is much more damaging for any person to believe negative propaganda about themselves than it is to believe negative propaganda about someone else (or about a group of people to which you don't belong). Referring to this as a colonisation of a POC's mind makes etymological and emotional sense, then.

As such, I'm not sure it’s appropriate for me, a white person, to use the phrase to think about my own mind. I can see plenty of parallels with other social justice issues – internalised homophobia in the gay community, transphobia in the trans community, to name but two – but perhaps to use the term 'decolonisation' to describe the process of erasing internalised self-hatred based on one's sexuality, gender, size, disability, or other non race-based area of oppression is problematic in itself. Perhaps to say (however implicitly) that my mind has been colonised by transphobic narratives is as inappropriate as a white person comparing some experience of theirs to slavery, or saying that if black people can say n****r, white people should be able to too. Or how about this example, from someone who genuinely thinks that they are on the side of right and will be vindicated in the end and held up as a champion for justice, just like Martin Luther King.

We all need to have language to negotiate and articulate our particular sites of oppression, particularly if we are negotiating more than one. "Unpacking the invisible knapsack" is another relevant phrase.I find both these phrases useful when engaging with social justice criticism, but despite the latter's roots in anti-racist thought, the phrase "unpacking the invisible knapsack" seems more open to use in non race-specific social justice work than "decolonising one's mind", purely because by using the word "decolonising" in relation to my own mind, I have an uncomfortable sense that I’d be appropriating even more than I already am. Working on my own privilege is challenging enough without encoding yet more signs of privilege into the very language that I use to describe the process.


* I was interested to learn that this essay is considered a "classic" by anti-racist educators: "It has been used in workshops and classes throughout the United States and Canada for many years. While people of color have described for years how whites benefit from unearned privileges, this is one of the first articles written by a white person on the topics". (source) Funny how, although peope of colour have described this systemic problem for years, one of the first articles about it by a white person has become a "classic".

Monday, 20 February 2012

How facebook shapes my trans identity

I have an event coming up where I will see people that I haven't seen for a long time, few of whom know that I am transgender. I want these people to know who I am, and to call me by my preferred name and pronouns. How do I go about it? "I'm changing my names and pronouns" is how I've done it before, but ever since the first time I did that, I've been aware that it sets up a whole heap of expectations - expectations that I don't want to fill, and wouldn't know how to even if I did.

Here's what I've done in the past. "I'm changing my names and pronouns", a polite request for people to try their hardest to respect it, an acknowledgement that it is hard work, a mention of my new facebook profile and the fact that I'll be inviting them to join it, and a "looking forward to seeing you soon" sign off.

Oh, did I mention? I disclose on facebook. That might seem weird, but really, I never considered any other way. I guess that says something about me! It does make sense, though. Obviously that's not how my close friends or family find out. But when it comes to wanting to be known by my preferred name and pronouns at a certain event or within a particular group of people (a temporary job, a reunion, a night out etc), there honestly is no better way to announce it to the people who are your friends, but not your friend friends. Not the ones who you call up and go for coffee with. The people you know from various corners of your life, but only see in that context. The people who you only wish 'Happy Birthday' to on facebook. Your facebook friends. A semi-formal 'note' to the least well-known ones. A little personality added to the slightly closer ones. And invitations for all to my new profile, where I am slowly growing a community of people who call me by my preferred name or, if they don't call me anything at all, get used to seeing me as that person.

I think that might be the most important part. Due to the way I work and live, I have numerous non-overlapping groups of friends and acquaintances. Some of them I see only once a year. I appreciate that getting used to calling someone by a new name is hard work, and it's proportionally harder for people who have known me for longer. So for someone who hasn't seen me for a year, but has known me for 10, getting used to interacting with Ollie, even digitally, might be quite helpful. Particularly after the occasion has passed and we might not see each other for another 12 months!

It's selfish, too, of course. I don't want to make 50, or even 10 phone calls every time I want to disclose to a new group of people. It's not just that I'm self-conscious, although I would be. I think the phone call, or even worse, the in-person disclosure, puts pressure on people to respond. Everyone has to find something to say in response, and sometimes, the only thing you might be able to come up with is "Oh. .... Good?' I wouldn't criticise that! But the facebook message doesn't put that pressure on someone. It gives them the space to read, take in, consider - in their own time. Most people reply with something casual, often including the words "no problem", and often using my preferred name. It may not sound like much, but it's surprisingly comforting!

Now, on to the problem with this approach. I don't identify as male. What I do identify as is not completely clear. Sometimes it is boy, occasionally boi, often queer, often trans, sometimes nothing at all. I'm not convinced about what pronouns I want to use, or whether I will ever have any surgery. I don't know if I'll legally change my name or my gender. But I don't know how to say that in a short, relatively formal email and, more to the point, I'm not sure I want to. It's stupid of me, because I am setting up those expectations that I mentioned earlier. My message indicates a narrative of trans identity that is at least recognisable by the mainstream: girl becomes boy. Surely if I added a few lines to explain that it's not as black and white as that for me, I could make my point. But I don't want to invite the questions. I already have to deal with plenty of ignorant, nosy, inappropriate enquiries about surgery, whether I'm 'out' to my family, what my partner thinks, etc, often from people who I barely know. I don't want to add gender-uncertainty into the mix.

Sometimes, I like to talk about my gender-identity - what it means to me, how I (want to) present, how I feel about gender roles, whether I would be a 'father' to my children. But I don't want those things to be open to all comers. I want to discuss them gently, respectfully, with my closest friends, and only when I am feeling safe and comfortable. I don't want "so, what does queer mean?" to blindside me when I'm tired or afraid or hating myself, and I can't trust my 'Facebook friends' to know when that might be. For me, it is safer to keep the border clear and defined, not to blur it with my uncertainty and doubt. It's easier to laugh/brush off questions about something I'm not (transsexual) than about something that I am ( ... ?).

Is this messed up? Yes, definitely.

Would it be easier to not disclose at all, and keep being known by a name and pronouns that I don't identify with? No, not at all.

I hope that it isn't always this way.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012


Three years ago I was bought dinner, new headphones, chocolates and a bottle of Laphroaig on Valentine's Day. I tried so hard to like that person. I still feel bad for not liking them as much as they liked me.

This year I am not being bought anything at all, and I don't have to try to like hir - I just do.

I am thankful for that, if not for this silly holiday.

Monday, 6 February 2012

A little more on femininity

As I was walking down the highstreet today, feeling another little flutter of femme-loathing, it occurred to me to wonder whether there is possibly an element of jealousy mixed up in my hugely emotional reaction to extravagant femininity.

If I was female-identified, I would almost certainly put that down to poor body-image, low self esteem or something in that area. I'm not convinced that there isn't a little bit of that going on, but I don't think it's the main cause.

I think that some part of me believes that I am not allowed femme*. I think that, in my brain, identifying as male/masculine/boy means that I can't embody anything femme without compromising that identity in some way. I have noticed this in the past, particularly, for some reason, when I'm dressing more formally. I have rejected wearing a dress to a formal occasion, choosing instead a more traditionally masculine ensemble of shirt/tie, not because I thought I'd be more comfortable in those clothes but because I felt pressure to present the gender I had announced rather than the gender I had been assigned. This has only been the case since I've been more open in more places about my gender identity. I don't want to undermine myself.

On a more rational level, I don't believe wearing a dress (for example) detracts from my masculinity or my boy-ness one bit. And to that end, I am going to try and do those things more often. I've no doubt that this will confuse people, and maybe they will ask me questions about it, and maybe I will say, "You know what? Today I'm a boy in a dress".

*That sounds grammatically incorrect, but I mean it to encompass all the things I'm not allowed: to be femme, to wear femme things, to have femme traits, to walk, talk, feel, breathe femme. Perhaps that doesn't actually make my meaning any clearer. And perhaps it is feeding into a false narrative of what femme even is - perhaps there will have to be more thoughts on this later.


I was watching Masterchef on iPlayer last week, and found myself groaning out loud at some of the descriptions and images of food. I was about to comment to C that this was like 'food porn', but I never got around to saying the words because I got distracted, in my head, by thinking about the ways that we use the word 'porn' when we're not talking about the kind of porn embodied by explicit magazines, DVDs with poorly-punning titles, and 90% of the internet.

The two examples that I can think of are 'food porn' and 'torture porn'. Actual porn, 'regular' porn, doesn't need the word 'sex' in front of it to distinguish it from these other types of porn, because porn is about sex. More explicitly, it is about desire, arousal. Chambers dictionary has 'pornography' as: "books, magazines, films, etc dealing with or depicting sexual acts, in a more or less explicit way, intended to arouse sexual excitement; description or portrayal of prostitutes and prostitution." (source) The modern colloquial use of 'food porn' usually refers to images of food, often on TV cooking programmes, or, occasionally, to Nigella Lawson, who seems for many to embody traits of both regular and food porn. The images of food which give rise to the phrase 'food porn' evidently arouse some kind of desire in the person who describes them as such, and this surely isn't surprising, as sexual desire is often described as a kind of hunger. There's not such a big stretch between having your 'want' aroused by images of sex or by images of food. 'Torture porn' is usually used to refer to (specifically) films which include graphic and frequent torture. The Saw films are often described as torture porn, as well as things like The Human Centipede. Often the main purpose of these kinds of films seems to be to disgust the viewer - impel them to make that face - the wrinkled-nose, stretched-mouth, furrowed-forehead face.

Both 'food porn' and 'torture porn' are used to imply a value judgement. In the case of 'torture porn', the judgement is harsh: it's often accompanied by a sneering face and a profession of innocence of that kind of taste. Those kinds of film are lowbrow, they are for stupid people, they are contributing to our culture of violence. Criticisms usually stop short of accusing people who enjoy that kind of film of being freakish, sadistic menaces to society. But the judgement - and the implication, however subtle - is there. The phrase 'food porn' is much more lighthearted in tone. This doesn't mean, however, that there isn't a value judgement implicit in its use. Take Nigella Lawson, for example. She is popular as, and famous for being, a sexy cook. Not a cook, but a sexy cook. And the same judgement is, I think, applied to food. The implication is that it is not as inherently worthy as other kinds of food - that it is somehow less highbrow.

It is this value-judgement that interests me. The accusation levelled at films which are described as 'torture porn' is not levelled at films which have similar content such as Casino Royale, which shows Bond strapped naked to a bottomless chair and having his penis and testicles whipped from below. The accusation is to do with the apparent desire to create some kind of arousal, and, importantly, only that kind of arousal. The torture scene in Casino Royale is one scene among many, so it can be viewed as one part of a bigger project, whose intent is not solely to arouse one particular emotion. Saw, on the other hand, is seen by many as appealing solely to that instinct for disgust (which, of course, is 'bad' because people are choosing to feel that disgust by going to see the film rather than, for example, being 'righteously' disgusted by a piece of news featuring torture).

I think the value-judgement is to do with choice and desire. People are judged more for seeking to be aroused than they are for naturally being aroused. And media that caters to a desire for arousal, of whatever kind, is judged negatively for that reason. This extends to weepy films, too - films like The Notebook are often criticised for (apparently) being deliberately manipulative of the viewer's emotions. For some reason it is seen as embarrassing in some way to seek out, or to be seen to seek out, arousal, and similarly the media which caters to such desires is somehow less worthy than other media. There is a hierarchy, of course: food porn and weepy films are merely silly, but torture porn is disturbing at best, and sexual porn  - well, it is all things to all people (silly, embarrassing, disturbing, damaging, stunting, ruinous).

As a final thought, not because I've finished thinking about this but because I'm bored of writing it - isn't it interesting that the 'lesser', 'silly' forms of manipulative media (food porn and weepies) are gendered female in some way, whilst the 'worse' forms are usually seen as being of interest only to men and boys?