Friday, November 23, 2012

Growing up, growing old

Glimpses of the week...

1.  

I am at work. One of the things I do is work with teams of management running workshops. And today I have around me eleven people from a client company for a full day, in a room with a huge picture window of the River Thames. At one point, during a break, someone engages me in conversation. "I'm sure we've worked together before", she says. And we talk about that, and it turns out that we have - maybe ten years ago.

Except ten years ago, I looked pretty different. I was, according the world at least, unquestionably male.

The person with whom I am talking doesn't know my story. I am convinced of that. Other small talk has made me so. We had lost touch until this week. But her memory of the projects we worked on together was accurate. And in that memory is somehow embedded a woman she recognised.

How is this possible? I'd like to think that there's something completely recognisable about me still. It's certainly how I feel. In fact I have always felt like 'me', but simply had to deal - forever I thought - with a set of distressing physical circumstances which meant I didn't look like me. After years of trying to find some kind of negotiated solution between these contradictions, with the desperation building, they proved irreconcilable - at which point some people walked straight out of my life wagging a finger of 'betrayal' at me (and worse). My protestations that I hadn't changed sounded naive, impossible, to their ears, and I heard those protestations thrown back at me with such venom, that after a while I began to ask myself if I continued to believe them.

But I did, and I do, and this week, in that moment, I smiled and felt more certain still. The physical details of my past are starting to fall away. Am I maybe beginning to outgrow their memory?

2

To the ceremony at University of London Union to commemorate this year's Transgender Day of Remembrance. A day each year on which the trans community reflects on transgender people who have been murdered or forced into suicide around the world in the past 12 months. In each ceremony, the names of those who have been killed (the ones we know of) are read out. 265 this year - a significant increase on last year. The vast majority in South America.

As these numbers rely only on the ability of community organisations to collect them, often in very difficult circumstances, it is certain that the true figure - the unreported deaths from Africa, the Middle East and Asia - would add hundreds more.

The person leading the ceremony remarked that if the death rate amongst transwomen in Brazil was extrapolated up (taking some calculations based on the prevalence of trans people in the population and rate at which they are murdered), the equivalent figure across the population would be 25,000. "This is a war", she said, commenting that death rates of that scale were more typically associated with 12 months in somewhere like Bosnia during the conflict there. But it's not Bosnia. It's the host country of the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics.

So far, so moving. We honoured our dead, some cried, there was music. And then something strange happened. An individual emerged from the side of the hall, and as the ceremony came to a close made an impassioned speech suggesting a violent response to the humiliating and demeaning stereotypes of trans people in the media. From what he said of his story, he had been through a torrid personal time in the last few years, but I felt the audience flinch. An evening of reflection on what violence had done to members of our community was not best concluded by an exhortation to bring it to bear on others.

Later the situation worsened. In the bar an altercation broke out, allegations were made about some physical abuse, and the individual was escorted from the building by security. Within hours, the Facebook post mortem was underway - with accusations and counter accusations. Forceful
threats of legal action emerged from the speechmaker, until the thread on which this was all taking place was reluctantly removed by its originator. The right decision in a space which was created to honour the memory of the dead, not to wound and hurt the living.

But that's what this community can be like. Abused to crippling levels, it often seems just a few minutes away from savagely turning on itself. The trans experience can be so various that some find it hard to listen to the truths of others. Yet most of us share an intense pain, or the memory of it, which makes hearing another's truth sound like an attack on our own (as that is for many what the world has been throwing at us for years). The result is Pavolvian.

It is holding us back, we need to move on. We need to grow up.

3

And on tv this week, the excellent Jackie Green, starring in a documentary about her competing in this year's Miss England competition. Jackie is a phenomenon, as is her Mum. I'm proud to say I know both of them a little.

There was much good to say about the film. Jackie doesn't let the filmmaker off the hook when he strays into the idiotic media tropes so common in this genre, and probably partly because of that the result feels authentic and touching.

I am touched particularly by one moment that I find recognisable and pointed. Jackie enters the competition volubly and overtly declaring her trans background. She talks impressively about wanting to be a role model for a generation coming later, as she never had one (nor I). In the early stages of the competition, she tells the coaches and the judges. I sense she is telling them to keep the power of the information herself and not have it used against her (I know trans comedians who do this, making their story a part of the act to remove a possible weapon from the heckler). And this sits happily with her desire to be visible as a symbol for other trans teenagers and to make A Point to the world.

But then her stance seems to change, at least for a while. Jackie makes it to the semi finals. And suddenly she doesn't say anything more about her past. She is a beautiful girl, she does well - but she doesn't make the cut to get into the final. There's an irony here - in previous rounds the interview section was a huge strength for Jackie. She has something extraordinary and powerful to share. Now she withholds that information, leading one judge to comment on her "boring" childhood (a great moment of television as we as viewers all know by then something of the immense battles Jackie and Susie have had to fight for Jackie to be here.)

Why the change of heart? It isn't explained. I'm sure Jackie would have shared her story once more had she won the contest. But it felt like I was seeing a dilemma I face in my own life.

How much disclosure feels right? 

How to negotiate the difficult space between the value to others of being loudly transparent and public, and the desire inside to simply leave all that behind and just be the woman you are?

I can't put words into Jackie's mouth nor thoughts into her head, but I can well imagine that she felt it appropriate - having progressed to the later stages - to withdraw the information about her past to see if she would be able to continue without it. This is a hard moment for many trans people. Certainly for me, the lead weight around my neck of being trans is paradoxically also something which I have grown accustomed to using - when it suits me. Nothing will make me the centre of attention in a crowded party faster, nothing will get someone's attention with more effect. That attention can be addictive, creating a few moments of celebrity in a small space. Despite, of course, its occasional, converse effect. It can get you beaten up, or killed too.

Perhaps I'm growing up? The instinct to leave that small sense of 'celebrity' behind is growing. You see, I always have something 'interesting' I can say to the stranger I meet at a drinks party. But in the saying it, I know I create distance, and I know it can never be unsaid. And it always makes a difference. Sometimes the difference can be good. Sometimes very bad indeed. Sometimes you just don't know, and neither, in fact, may the person with whom you are sharing. I sense that Jackie understood that for either 'good' (creating empathy, or a sense of wanting to 'do the right thing by her') or 'bad' (worries about being seen to be tokenistic, discriminating against the other girls, or just raw bigotry), it was going to play a part - and she simply didn't want it there. Just for a change. I understand that. 

I still do say that 'interesting thing' sometimes - but usually when I think it can help others. I'll stand alongside others at a protest or at a ceremony and 're-out' myself. My instincts towards social justice are strong. But I'll feel an awkwardness then sometimes - not because I am ashamed of anything - but because I know that I am in the midst of that unanswered question again. Other times, I'll feel awkward for not saying anything -when a female work colleague or client asks me if I breast fed, or how the birth of my children was.

Growing up is about finding the truth about oneself, I guess. I am still growing. 

4

And growing old too. Rather faster than I would like. People I know are just beginning to start dying.

I was contacted recently by a client with whom I had worked some years ago. This person does know my story. But her reason for being in touch was sad. A mutual colleague - a witty, warm Spanish colleague of both of ours - let's call her Maria - had died. I didn't ask how - but she was no older than me, and it was an illness she fought. Cancer is my guess. I was invited to contribute to a book of memories for the bereaved family.

My contribution to it told the story of how I had worked with her many times, but that there was one  memory which will always be with me.

When I transitioned I was terrified that I would never work again. Indeed I was told that in one instance. But I did work again. Maria called me, and asked me to come to Paris to run a session for her and her team. It was early days, my first international piece of work since I had fully revealed myself to the world.

I remember sitting in a bar on the Rue la Fayette afterwards thinking, "Yes. I can do this".

Another moment of growth.

Thank you Maria.

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