inVISIBLE

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*It was the Day of Transgender Visibility when I wrote this

Today is the Day of Transgender Visibility, and in Korea, I’m paradoxically extremely visible, and invisible. I am visible when I go out in Seoul as Mina; I’m clearly a sore thumb. I mean, at six-foot-two-plus, I’m not small. On the other hand, I’m invisible at work to many of my colleagues and all but one student. In an environment that is appearance-driven, such as my school where embassy kids matriculate, I am forced to be invisible. But there is another kind of invisibility that is more interesting and linked directly to my aforementioned visibility.

I read Destined to Witness in my modern German history class during my undergrad. It is the autobiography of the only black person to be raised under the Third Reich and also survive it: not including the “Rhineland bastards.” Now, my experiences are not tantamount to the horrific hardships described in Destined to Witness. But, there are, I believe, similarities between why the author and I are respectively able to negotiate our societies. The author, Hans Massaquoi, survived because he was an anomaly. There were no other black children in a hyper-racially focused society comprised mostly of white Germans. Massaquoi drifted by on his status as an oddity, sure he wasn’t allowed into the Hitler Youth, but he managed to exist mostly unharmed in German society during the 30s, a place that should have been hostile to him. Similarly, there are not many (any?) foreign transgender women transitioning in Korea, a society still at odds with homosexuality and focused on conformity to the status quo and all forms of normative behaviour. Therefore, like Massaquoi, I am invisible by virtue of my visibility and rarity.

Unlike Massaquoi, this has given me benefits beyond mere survival. Because transgender people have no real status in Korea* and doubly for me as I have no status in Korean society as a caucasian Canadian, I am relatively left to my own devices when presenting as Mina. Similarly, though Korea is not a medical destination for trans healthcare, what they do have I can get easy access to. Far quicker than the West. I was psychologically assessed and began HRT in only two months. That time included the detective work necessary to find the clinics that could help me–they’re not advertised, especially in English. Once “papered,” in Korea transgenderism is seen as a disease that should be solved and not acknowledged, hence the quick and silent treatment. This is in contrast to other LGBTQIA non-friendly countries that lack any services. And this is in contrast to Canada which leads the world in trans rights, in many regards, but can leave trans people on lengthy public healthcare waitlists in order to receive treatment for months or years.

So, where does this leave me as I ponder my future as a trans woman headed westbound? My transition started just shy of the average transition age and in a foreign country, has been greeted largely with support. For this, I am infinitely grateful. The subreddits I read every day are strewn with the sad recountings of familial rejection and lost careers sometimes in more “tolerant” environments. Essentially as I move forward I’ll be entering the radar instead of flying below it. Today, The Daily Beast posted “What Ever Happened to The Transgender Tipping Point?” The Beast’s piece is an exploration of how the optimism for a new transgender civil rights movement, expounded upon in the now famous Time issue with Lavern Cox adorning its cover, has failed to materialise less than three years later. In fact, in the United States, there has been a regression in trans rights under the new Dictator in Chief Donald J Trump. Exposure alone doesn’t equal progress.

One thesis from the Daily Beast is that cis people just don’t meet enough trans people. They just hear about our bathroom habits. This leaves me with an opportunity I fear I won’t take. I, Mina Hunt, aka Mr Burnside, could come out to my students at the end of the year. I am leaving. But then I’ll have no control over that legacy, and furthermore, it’s probably professionally a “dumb ass move.” Besides, if I stay in education, I’ll get to elucidate plenty of children.

Many of the bad things happening to trans people in the States seems to be in spite of their new-found visibility. I’m not saying that invisibility is a cure, surely not! But I’ve benefitted from it in at least some ways. So, will I miss the advantages bestowed to me by my Korean visibility/invisibility? Surely not ajumma death glares.

*Trans people do have rights in Korea. Once they receive GRS they may amend legal documents (at least MTFs). What I mean by a lack of “real status” is that though LGBT people are quickly gaining recognition, they are still largely seen as pariahs or deviants by many in society. And though the younger generation seems to be changing this, trans and gender queer individuals who visibly do not conform risk social ostracism. There are also very few resources for LGBT people.

Unpublished Letter to Women’s Hour

Dear Editor

Last week, in a Channel Four Interview with Cathy Newman, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie responded to the question of whether trans women are ‘real’ women by claiming “that trans women are trans women, I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one.” This, on the back of Jenni Murray’s recent open letter regarding trans women and their position as ‘real’ women, has moved me to write this letter. I am not really familiar with Adichie or her work, so whilst I disagree with her ideas I can respond more dispassionately. Nevertheless, in the case of Jenni Murray, someone whom I have listened to regularly, I felt personally wounded by her comments, and this is why.

My partner is a trans woman, who was very upset by this letter, and as a result has removed Women’s Hour from her list of podcast favourites. I want to support my partner, but for me just removing Women’s Hour from my subscription list is more of a challenge. Why? My partner is Canadian and only started listening to the programme on my recommendation. For me, it is a show that I have been listening to for over 15 years. I feel it has been making room on a public service for feminist issues, from a time when that space did not really exist elsewhere. Forums to discuss feminism have now increased, but they are still not numerous. Women’s Hour and all its presenters, including Jenni, have a valuable role to play in promoting understanding of feminist ideology. As a literature major, I have a strong background in feminist theory, but I have still learnt a great deal from the lives and personal stories of women who have appeared on the show. And, as my partner is trans, I have listened to and embraced the increasing amount of interviews with trans women.

The idea of ‘real’ women in the way feminists such as Adichie and Murray appear to be interpreting it, assumes some shared understanding of what a ‘real’ women is, based on the cogency of a socially constructed gender binary. This is an inherent contradiction, as if, as Adichie claims ‘gender is not biology, gender is sociology’, then the construct of a ‘real’ woman in any sense of the word is redundant. In Adichie’s case, it was actually the presenter Newman, who used the phrase ‘real’ woman, but Adichie did not contest the label, even in her more recent clarifications. So, if like Adichie and Murray, we ignore this paradox and agree that a ‘real woman,’ is a tangible thing, the next unasked question is, how do we define it? Is a ‘real woman’ one who conforms to stereotypical feminine ideology? At the end of the 1967 movie Thoroughly Modern Millie, Julie Andrews ironically announced to her suitor, ‘I don’t want to be your equal anymore, I want to be a woman, a dandy little bundle for a fellow to cuddle.’’ The statement is satirical, but this is exactly what it would have meant not so long ago. And still, means to some people.

Of course this is not the way either Adichie or Murray defined it. For them, a ‘real’ woman appears to be someone who understands feminist principles inherently through their experience of being an underprivileged female. This seems to me to be merely an unhelpful inversion of the binary rather than an escape from it. Surely, just flipping gender roles is just another type of prejudice? In her trans feminist book, writer Julia Serano talks about how it is just as wrong for judging someone for conforming to feminist stereotypes, if that’s how they identify, as it is to judge someone who is less gender conforming. Yet, this seems to be exactly what is happening in the British media. Murray cites an interview with India Willoughby, where Willoughby appeared accepting of the Dorchester hotel’s sexist rules regarding female dress, as an example of how trans women can’t truly understand the suppressive nature of male privilege. Surely, not all the other women working in that hotel with Willoughby were trans women and thus are they not equally culpable for not questioning the anti-feminist rules? Is a CIS woman who either knows or cares nothing for feminism not a ‘real’ woman either? By this definition yes. Such arguments are based on the misunderstanding that a CIS women’s lack of privilege, automatically correlates to an inherent feminist understanding. My trans partner has a much better grasp of feminist theory than many CIS women I know, but I doubt this would gain her acceptance into Murray or Adichie’s ‘real’ woman category.

Regardless, my partner’s knowledge of feminism and the privilege she has or hasn’t experienced is irrelevant. Of course, her experiences are not the same as CIS women, but should that exclude her from feminist forums? To define a ‘real’ woman as only one who has inhabited negative space is fundamentally flawed. As Adichie herself says in the same interview, ‘woman should be allowed to be many things’. Identity doesn’t need to be justified in biological or sociological terms, it’s just about who you are. Yes, there are certainly both CIS and trans women out there who could probably do with being better educated on feminist values, but how are trans women going to do that when they feel forced out of feminist spaces? When they feel they have no choice but to delete a podcast from which even the most hardcore feminist could learn a lot?

For myself, I don’t want to stop listening to Woman’s Hour, but I do feel like I have to use it as a platform to engage in the debate in some way, so that people hear other versions of feminism than some of the narrow definitions currently being propounded. Debates around what constitutes a ‘real’ women are fundamentally flawed. Whilst it is important to be aware of how male social privilege has impacted our identity as women, it’s not the whole of our identities and shouldn’t be used to marginalise those who have experienced or understand privilege differently.

Yours Faithfully,

Jennifer ****

 

                                                                     

                                                                                          

Cissy Man

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I know four people, thus far, that seem to be able to recalibrate their brains to easily deal with me as female. And, I don’t mean only accept my transition, but rather the cognitive ease by which they accept, refer to, and treat me as female. I believe this is a result of these four people not viewing people and their relationships as gendered, as far as possible. They are in a sense beyond a binary view of gender, at least with certain people. One of these people is uncomfortable with the gender binary. Another person is his wife; another is my girlfriend. And finally, there is a French guy I know. The latter being just a special bunny.

Now, the person I’m going to now refer to is lovely, he is a marvellous species of human being. He is also French, but half Texan. Yeah, I know. He’s like a European food aficionado with gentlemanly tendencies and a thick southern accent. He’s also probably my longest lasting post-childhood heteronormative friendship with a male. Said dude is very supportive of my transition. However, his changing behaviour towards me has given me insight into how people, especially males, have difficulty dealing with my transition and how it seems to force them to recognise the gender binary. In part, for the man under discussion, I believe this comes from how he genders his relationships. And this is seemingly typical of many men I’ve known. There is nothing overtly misogynistic about how he sees women–not beyond the usual “bro” talk. It’s merely that he behaves in a certain way towards women and a different way with men. In his case, he is also highly observant of propriety, thus it makes it easy to see the distinctions in how he interacts with others and across genders. I assume this is the southern gentleman in him.

I believe that when it comes to me, his brain is in the uncomfortable position of trying to place me in one of these categories, but the overlapping aspects of our previous male perceived relationship causes him stress, perhaps not consciously. I break down the order of his gender system. He does not treat me as he treats the “girls,” but nor is he comfortable treating me as a boy. I’m okay with the latter, but it’s interesting to see how my transition makes him deal with the gender binary. It is often seemingly unsettling to him, and I think it is something that he has not previously considered. These types of reactions seem to be more true with regards to the heterosexual males I know.  With regards to women, it is somewhat harder to know how they saw me prior to transitioning and coming out. Despite me being somewhat feminine spectrum before transition, men would usually categorise me as “man.” I think cis women who knew me previously had a more nuanced impression of where I fit into the gender spectrum, kinda like a gay best friend. They often found my heterosexuality suspect.

To conclude, these are merely personal impressions gleaned from one relationship. However, at the outset of my transition, I remember dealing with my mother’s mourning phase for me. Us trans people get to experience these weird pseudo funerals for our perceived to be lost former genders. “But I’m the same person,” I cried in an initial effort to deal with her sense of loss over her son. I naively assumed that if I didn’t perceive myself to be different, then others wouldn’t either. I didn’t then realise just how gendered people’s interactions with each other are. France/Texas was one of my best friends at the beginning of my transition, and he’s still damn special. But there is some discomfort between us now–coming from him–that seems, at times, impenetrable. So, maybe us trans people cannot be the same person to all our friends. It’s said that transitioning is a lengthy process and the people in your life transition with you, but maybe not everyone is equal opportunity when it comes to selecting friends and their genders. They may eventually come to accept you as your experienced gender, but that doesn’t mean it won’t alter the dynamics of your friendship. This seems obvious now, but again, naive. I’m just glad that I don’t have many heteronormative cisgender male friends 🙂

Daddy

Invisible colossus I choose not to see. From under your shadow I have long been free. And yet, in moments you appear, visceral and powerful. Like when I step out onto the Visayan Sea, my muscles instinctively tense and my senses heighten with primordial skills you taught me, long forbidden to women. Or, in the back of South African Land Rovers taking in the predatory environment, sense it’s movements like you taught me. Or, in countless other wild spaces.Back in distant memories, we stalk prey in a canoe through reeds long and dry, or lay in ambush of some ancient lake monster seated high above on a dome of ice under aurora borealis.

On the phone now, the Philippines to Campbell River, via Skype, for your birthday, I choke. Our only relationship, a history of classical father and son Canadiana. The bush, planes, fishing. I never wanted to; you never recognised. This sense, a fifth sense inherited from you, savvy and flawed creature of the bush, feels teeming with masculinity. Is it internalised misogyny that it can’t feel feminine?

Then, why didn’t you give it to my sister?

In distant memories, I will always trail you down old logging roads stalking grouse, plump for the kill, unrecognised. The accidental inheritance I was never meant to receive.

Male Privilege, Laverne Cox, and Insomnia: 4 am Writing Series

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Once again Laverne Cox comes to the rescue of her trans sisters, defending them against author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bifurcation of trans and cis women along the lines of male privilege. Cox’s rebuttal is indirect and highly personal. It questions whether she, as a gender nonconforming child, experienced male privilege. But what about us late transitioners who grew up with Jerry Springer and the innate knowledge that expressing our gender variance would get our asses in trouble–not that I am sure it didn’t get Cox into trouble?

To my mind, it is problematic when cis women exclude trans women because of male privilege,  as it defines what it means to be a woman through a process of pure socialisation and in this case an absence of privilege or power. Surely being female or male for that matter is more than social power. Are trans men not men because they didn’t always have male privilege? If that is not the case, then why can the power be gained unproblematically but not lost. For surely it is lost when trans women transition. Also, male privilege is clearly something that needs to end, if this happens does that mean gender is over? I imagine it will not, it will evolve.

Essentially privilege is power, it equals more advantages and opportunities. Many women have more power than others. A middle class, multi-degree holding Euro/American woman, on average, has more privilege and power than her Somalian or Saudi sisters. Does that make the woman with less power more of a woman?

Male privilege is a scourge, but to exclude trans women because they once had it to some degree is similarly wrong. After all, trans people give that power up when they move towards the feminine spectrum. They experience disproportionately less political, social, and economic power than many other women and often the male privilege which they were possibly socialised with was a source of internal dysphoria. This argument against female spectrum trans people by some feminists reduces our womanhood to a tit for tat game of who is more marginalised and powerless. Sure, many trans women did experience male privilege and this has in someway probably shaped their identity, but it is not always clear that it was for the better. And ultimately we have to accept that women come from all sorts of different backgrounds. After all, isn’t that why most of us moved on from second wave feminism? I have a feeling that because trans people choose to transition, despite the baggage, hate, and marginalisation, suggests that there is something deeper to our genders. Being a woman isn’t just as defined in contrast to being a man, it cannot be a negation.

 

Queer Talk in C Major (with a minor Queer Sex Interlude in D Minor)

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*This is Jenny’s second post about us from her perspective. Her first post can be found here. Oh, and happy International Women’s Day!

I have never spent so long discussing the possibility of entering a romantic engagement, as I did with Mina, without anything physical having taken place. First we were friends, then we were “something that could maybe happen organically in the future,” then we were in the future (which was not nearly as far away as either of us had been imagining). The future was Mina inviting me for dinner, and somewhere between the Sicilian food, bottles of red wine and more gin-based cocktails admitting that she “didn’t not not have feelings for me”.

In typically repressed British fashion, my previous relationships generally began with kissing and then an attempt to ignore acknowledging what the kissing meant for as long as humanly possible. Not so with Mina. Her about-turn proclamation meant a whole evening of pontification over invisible small print. According to several gay friends of mine, this is normal for a “queer” relationship. Having never had one before, I wouldn’t know, but having never been overly reliant on social form, I found the rule negotiation involved in “queer processing,” both more complex and more liberating. It might seem unromantic, but for me at least, being physically intimate was a much more comfortable experience when I knew exactly where I stood prior to it taking place.

Nevertheless, I will admit that after several hours of alcoholic beverages, and still no end to the dissection of a future it seemed we were rapidly running out of, even I began to grow a little antsy. So when Mina turned to me and said “do you know what we should do?”, I couldn’t help but respond with the uncharacteristically forward answer “kiss at some point in the near future?”.

On reflection I still can’t believe we happened, so much was stacked against us. We both had to end and get over other relationships with people we loved, we were risking close friendships with each other’s ex’s for something less certain, and we had to negotiate our relationship around the potential pitfalls of her transition process. But despite all of that, when it happened, it felt entirely natural; like we should have been doing it the whole time.

That doesn’t mean it was straightforward. Mina was still unsure about entering a relationship on both an emotional and physical level. That evening, she was very clear that she wasn’t ready to commit, that she was still getting over her ex, and that she wasn’t in a position to really be able to judge exactly how she felt about me. She also knew that her gender identity needed to be her main priority, and she was worried that a relationship might put that on the back burner. She didn’t know for sure if she was going to transition yet, or how far she would take it if she did, and I didn’t know to what degree I would be ok with her being female. We agreed that we needed to “take it slow” and “just see what happened.”

As if that wasn’t enough, I didn’t yet quite understand how difficult the physical side of our relationship was going to be for her. She had mentioned somethings about how she found it hard to be physically intimate with someone unless she was comfortable with them, and how having to reveal her “feminine side” made dating challenging. She also told me that sex was something she had always found problematic because of her OCD. I knew that she had been dealing with OCD since childhood, but I didn’t really know many details. Now she told me that it often fixated on “things about the body” and that this often made sex more complicated. I listened to all of this, but apart from relating to the need to be emotionally comfortable with someone prior to being physically intimate, I didn’t realise just how little I hadn’t heard at all.

So, there I was, high on kissing and alcohol, and as we biked through the hipster streets of Hongdae to “There There” (an underwhelming Radiohead themed bar), doing some more kissing on the way, I was only vaguely aware that I was being the slightly more forward one. Sure, I remember Mina stopping to kiss me in a car park, and complaining that the bike ride was getting in the way of making out, but she was always the one to stop first. There was also a funnily awkward incident in the aforesaid mentioned car park, when I misread her cues as an invitation for more than kissing and ended up feeling incredibly sheepish.

We did have sex that night, but it was a short-lived, comedic affair, due to a discrepancy in the size of the average Asian condom versus Western genitalia. It didn’t matter to me in the slightest. Mina and I were going to “take things slowly” and “see what happened”. That was the important thing. I don’t think Mina had an awful time. At least I hope not. But I know now it wasn’t as easy for her as I assumed. Then, largely I think because I hadn’t yet adjusted to viewing her as female, it just never occurred to me that she might not have wanted to have sex, or that the evening wouldn’t naturally end that way. Whilst demanding to be kissed felt romantic, and I hope it was, I never did let her answer her own question and find out what is was she thought we should do.