Archive for August, 2009

The basics of transgender

The following video give a fairly good overview of what it means to be transgender; it describes the variety of ways people live their genders even within the transgender community. And it effectively challenges the traditional gender model, offering in its stead a much more accurate model that captures the diversity of our species. Most resonant to me is the section near the end where the interviewees express their frustration at being reduced to nothing more than transgender by people who don’t seem capable of seeing past that. We are dog-owners, artists, performers, office workers, doctors, academics… We are everywhere and we live full, well-rounded lives.

August 30, 2009 at 11:27 pm Leave a comment

Forays into Masculinity

What’s up with being a man anyhow? I ask because I’m relatively new to all of this and it seems to me that becoming a man when you haven’t been socialized as one isn’t so different from being an immigrant to a foreign country. I have left the country of femininity and now must learn new social codes, the rules that govern men. Some of them come naturally; others, not so much.

If I use the immigration metaphor it’s not entirely abstract. I happen to be another kind of immigrant as well; the more traditional kind. I was born in South Africa and immigrated to Canada when I was young. The parallels are not so far-fetched, trust me.

The hardest part about being an immigrant into manhood is learning to be assertive. Women simply aren’t trained from a young age to say what they want, to go after what they aspire to or take what they feel they deserve. Women are constantly expected (at least I was) to behave in a dignified and reserved manner and to keep your knees together when you sit and don’t be too overbearing and and and…

How much of gender is social expectations placed on us and how much is hormones or biology. Well, as someone who has been taking testosterone injections for the past five years, I can tell you that hormones have had a HUGE effect on my behaviour. For one, I am much more forward, assertive and confident than I ever was. Of course, this is relative. If you were to meet me on the street, you’d still probably say I was a shy nerdy kind of guy. But at least I don’t fear stepping out the door to go to the grocery store or to get the mail. Yup, it was that bad, folks.

I’m a transsexual man. That means I’ve had surgery and I inject hormones regularly so that my levels are within the range of a typical man. But as long as my ovaries are intact I also have estrogen coursing through my body. Hell, even if I have my ovaries removed, I’ll *still* have estrogen coursing through my body. Estrogen is not an exclusively female hormone, nor is testosterone a male hormone. Every human being carries different quantities of both. It’s in the balance that lies the difference. And some speculate that it’s the balance of hormones in my mother’s womb that caused me to be this way in the first place.

We like to think that we’re more than our chemical makeup, and in some ways we definitely are. But I think we’re fooling ourselves if we think that who we are isn’t at least partly shaped by the chemicals in our bodies. Am I a man because I inject testosterone? No. I am a man because that is the identity, the label, that most resonates with me for whatever reason. The hormones simply help me express myself to the world around me.

Gender immigration is a roller-coaster ride. And I’m only just starting to get the hang of it. I was a boy who had to leave behind my female exterior to become the man I felt capable of being. Only now, five years after starting my transition, do I begin to feel that I am approaching success. Only now do I feel that I am becoming truly male.

August 24, 2009 at 1:40 am Leave a comment

The Gender Revolution

I came across this touching short documentary (under 7 minutes) courtesy of YouTube, which follows a British intersex person as she accesses health care services to continue her gender transition.

As far as her dream of being recognized as a third gender goes, I’m not exactly sure when that will become a reality–I doubt whether it will be in our lifetimes (although I hope I’m wrong). Those of us who exist outside the gender binary are simply too small in numbers to push something like that through without the support of ordinary people. While support is growing, there is as yet still strong resistance to recognizing us as equal members of society. One has only to look at the recent controversy over gender ambiguous Caster Semenya (the South African running sensation whose gender is currently under scrutiny) to recognize society’s discomfort with gender variance.

It all boils down to whether gender still has a function in our society today. Or is it just a relic that accompanies us from our earlier evolutionary days? In many ways, technology has already given us the ability to transcend the traditional functions of gender. No longer do you need to have sex to give birth–the romance between sex and procreation has been severed for good. Thanks to myriad fertility techniques, birth control pills and vasectomies, when and where we have children has become much more a matter of choice than it has ever been before. And when human cloning becomes a reality (if it hasn’t already), I don’t think it will take long before it supplants more traditional means of reproduction as a major family expansion tool. At least, I should add, among the middle and upper classes.

Technology has freed women to pursue careers (think birth control), and has offered men new possibilities for either limiting their procreative abilities (vasectomies) or prolonging their penile proclivities (viagra anyone?). Our and the next generations have been freed to create our own destinies. Indeed, gender has ceased to be a life-sentence, instead becoming something mutable, flexible and emergent. This new way of life is both frightening and liberating to many. Frightening because we don’t yet know the full ramifications of such a drastically different future. Liberating because a new era is beginning; the gender revolution is upon us. And people wonder why the Roman Catholic papacy is upset!

Technology is not the enemy of nature. Instead, it is an extension of it; it’s what drives our species forward. Technology has found gender and it’s not turning back. The question is: when will we be ready for the ride?

August 23, 2009 at 1:50 am 3 comments

Grace note

Singing me into life

a string pulled tight

Your song isn’t mine

You are the bass to my treble clef

I  cannot silence you

I will not silence you

You are the key

I lost when as a child

I fell into a false note

and couldn’t leap clear

You opened me

to another possibility

so loud so deep so inescapable

the earth shifts

when I walk on it

you opened the door

and I lept not knowing

the wings I bore weren’t open yet

you reached for me

your grip warm on the back of my neck

you held me safe

I did not fall

I could not fall

You towered like a waterfall

sprayed me with grace

and from the soil moist with your love

sprouted a new life

You gave birth to me and I

I was the answer

August 20, 2009 at 4:23 am Leave a comment

Spending time in District 9 is time well spent

I’ll admit that I’m not really a fan of the action genre. It’s a genre that generally likes to reinforce the status quo, a status quo that I, for one, am not all that comfortable with. The typical action film usually features Americans as the heroes and foreigners as bad guys. And more often than not the hero is some smart-talking hardass whose prize is a scantily clad woman. Not really my cup of tea. But when I heard that District 9 was set in Johannesburg, South Africa, I thought to myself this could be interesting–combining Africa’s particular brand of history with sci-fi.

District 9 is shot documentary-style with grainy film and lots of fast cuts. Many of the shots are close-ups, getting you right into the action. The special effects are CGI but aren’t overdone–they take a back seat to the story and rightfully so. As far as the plot goes, we follow the life of Wikus van der Merwe, an employee of MNU (a big bad multinational corporation) who is tasked with handing out eviction notices to 1 million illegal aliens (literal aliens). The aliens are stranded on earth with no way to return to their home planet. South African locals fear and discriminate against the foreign intruders, and so they are forced to live in slum-like conditions in District 9, a highly guarded ghetto on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

As the film progresses Wikus the family man and model employee makes some discoveries that drives him to question his loyalties and his values. His is a story of redemption told against the backdrop of a country rife with racial tensions and xenophobia. Its setting in South Africa gives the film a gritty reality and depth that many US action movies lack.Yet District 9 steers clear of preaching at its audience. In fact, it doesn’t offer a political analysis of apartheid era South Africa at all. It offers up just enough real-world tension to give the film added flavour.

I was pleased to see the sold-out crowd so thoroughly engrossed in this film. The aliens, referred to as “Prawns” because of their physical appearance and their enforced scavenge-like behaviours, were like no other aliens I’d ever seen. Yet despite their admitted ugliness and their foreign habits, Blomkamp succeeds in “humanizing” them (for lack of a better term) while still respecting their difference.

And make no mistake, these aliens are quite removed from humans: for one thing they have a sweet tooth for cat-food, and have strength that far outstrips ordinary human beings. Yet they are also vulnerable; frightened by their foreign surroundings, they mistrust humans and generally keep to themselves.

One criticism I would offer is that I would have liked to see stronger female characters. The heroes and villains are all men, and the one female character, Wikus van der Merwe’s wife, is of the “frailty, thy name is woman” variety. This is quite common in action movies, but I thought this film might have done a better job of breaking that particular trope.

There are a few echoes throughout of apartheid-era language: Signs declaring “Aliens forbidden” evoke signs that segregated white and black South Africans. And at one point Kobus, a military man who has a penchant for killing aliens, declares “one bullet, one ‘Prawn'”, a twist on a political chant that was popular in the late 90s among black freedom fighters: “one bullet, one Boer” (Afrikaners, a white minority group who held political power over the majority black population from the 1950s to 1994, are also known as ‘Boere’).

The most touching part of the movie for me was the unlikely bond that forms between Wikus, the alien Christopher, and Christopher’s young son. Their tenderness for one another is surprisingly believable and makes the open-ended conclusion to the film all the more poignant.

To watch an interview with director Neill Blomkamp, click here.

August 16, 2009 at 8:33 am Leave a comment

Katherine Johnston, trans health coverage, and the perils of misinformation

Today, as I was reading The Province, I came across the story of Katherine Johnston, a 61 year old transgender woman who is incarcerated in a men’s prison for bludgeoning to death her East Vancouver roommate with a baseball bat. She claims that her request for a penectomy, paid for by taxpayers, is being held up by Corrections Canada. Because she still has a penis she has been disallowed a transfer to a woman’s prison.

Needless to say, her experience in a men’s prison has been pretty horrific so far: she’s been punched in the head, held at knife point, forced to perform oral sex, and her chest has been sliced with the edge of an open can of salmon. This is prison after all. You kill someone, you pay for it.

The thing is, though, that some criminals pay more than others. A convicted murderer must do his or her time, no one argues this point. But a convicted murderer with a medical condition, whether it be a mental illness or physical disability, is at once vulnerable in a way that a “normal” murderer is not. How, then should these prisoners be treated?

In the case of Katherine Johnston, or any trans person who finds themselves caught in the net of the criminal justice system, serving time in prison can be tantamount to a death warrant. If trans prisoners manage to survive the taunts of transphobic fellow inmates and unsympathetic guards, they are likely to suffer post traumatic stress from being severely mistreated. This can (and often does) lead to suicide.

And that, I would argue, is cruel and unusual punishment.

Putting aside, for the moment, the particulars of Katherine Johnston’s case, I would like to address some of the comments that readers have posted to the original article. The comments are emblematic of a persistent strain of misinformation prevalent in non-transgender circles.

Outraged writes “Are you kidding me? … I’ve worked 33 years, paid taxes and haven’t committed any crimes and for all my hard work I’m going to get stuck paying for a person behind bars to get a sex-change operation. Hopefully not in my lifetime.”

Along the same vein, Allan writes “There is no way that we should be paying for this. Canadian taxpayers are on the hook for enough and we can barely get decent medical coverage and surgeries done in a timely manner.”

The problem with these arguments is that these readers both seem to cling to the underlying notion that other surgeries are more worthy of funding than sex-change surgeries. The thing is, trans people are taxpayers too! Like many other people, we try to contribute to society, we hold jobs, we earn incomes, we pay taxes, and, yes, we have health care needs. Like other people, we have a right to health care services and our needs are just as valid as anyone else’s. Would we deny an inmate with asthma access to an asthma pump?

Surgery is a necessity that is at least partly thrust upon trans people by the larger society: surgery allows us to function in society’s binary gender model; to fall outside of the binary of man or woman is to be exiled from society. If we weren’t required to slice up our bodies to be legally recognized for who we are, I promise you a lot of transgender people wouldn’t even pursue surgery.

Another common argument is encapsulated in the following comment. Miranda writes: “Women have a vagina and men have a penis. This inmate has a penis. He’s a man.” I wish it were that simple! For most people it may be that clear, but for an admittedly few, genitalia don’t always match one’s inner sense of self. This isn’t only true of trans people. Intersex people (estimated at 1 in every 2000 births) are born with ambiguous genitalia and are often arbitrarily assigned a gender by a medical doctor. Even chromosomes can sometimes mislead: XX and XY are not the only two options. Some people are made up of XXY or XO or any number of other chromosomal combinations.

I realize that for many people, transsexuality is a strange and confusing phenomenon. We are few in numbers (though not, perhaps, as rare as people might think) but we do exist. By some fluke of nature, we have been subjected to one of the most potentially humiliating and undignified conditions known to humankind. What can be more personal and difficult to speak about than one’s relationship with one’s genitalia?

I realize that for some, I (and those like me) will perhaps always be considered “crazy”, less than human and unworthy of respect. I can only hope that through speaking out about my own experiences, some non-trans people will at least open themselves to the possibility that “[t]here are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in [their] philosophy.”

For the online version of the article about Katherine Johnston, as it appeared in The Province, please click here.

For information about intersex conditions, click here.

August 15, 2009 at 7:37 am Leave a comment

In remembrance

Coming up this month is the birthday of a friend who committed suicide just over 4 years ago. She was a role model, someone I looked up to, aspired to emulate and whose energy was infectious. She was smart, classy and funny. She was also, unbeknown to me, in a great deal of psychic pain.

The night she took her life, she called me and left a message. I was at a second run cinema watching a documentary on the life of artist Edvard Munch. The next day I found out the details: she had gone to a nearby hotel room, climbed into the hot tub, and slit her wrists.

When the shock wore off, I realized that her death was a wake-up call. I myself had struggled with clinical depression, had engaged in self-harming behaviours and flirted with suicide.

My friend’s death made me realize that I could never knowingly cause the kind of pain that suicide leads to for the people who get left behind. There is no pain quite like it. And while time softens the sharpness of the wound, it doesn’t erase it. Her memory is with me every day, reminding me of the sadness that forms part of every beautiful moment we experience.

The night my friend died, I walked down to the ocean near my basement suite and stared out over the crashing waves, feeling the wind on my face. I was alive, and what I did with the life I’d been handed, was up to me.

Sure, I’d lost my family who turned their back on me when they found out about my transition. Yes, my father had gone to his grave disappointed in my choices. And yeah, I had lost a fellow trans person to suicide. But despite these dark happenings, life was still beautiful. The ocean’s mysterious power pulled at me; the moon’s glare spoke to me that night. And I vowed that I would stop my dance with death. Instead, I would dive into wherever life took me. And, well, what a ride it’s been so far.

There are a lot of things I’ve done that I’m not particularly proud of. But in my heart I know that I have always tried to be true to myself and to God. The times of greatest misery have been the times when I resisted that truth. Sure, I make mistakes, and stumble on wondering, sometimes, why I bother. But each day is a new chance for me to embrace beauty, to share my truth with the world, to share others’ truths, others’ beauty.

I don’t know, yet, where life is leading me to. Every day is a surprise, a field of potentiality. My job is to open myself up so that I can experience life as it is. Some days I succeed more than others. But I keep on trying.

As the band Garbage sings: “the trick is to keep breathing”. That breath is my companion through the darkest night, the deepest abyss. And through it all I learn, step by step, day by day, second by second, to live, to love, to learn.

August 12, 2009 at 5:33 am Leave a comment

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