Mascara, moustache, suit and stilettos, Sarah broke a heel on the way to our wedding. Breathless in brogues, she rushed back in, clasped my hands and welled up during our vows. My wife; my wusband. This was 2012, the first queer nuptials in our community and we danced till dawn. A few days later a guest recounted an uncomfortable interaction she’d overheard, when another guest asked invasive questions to a couple of friends who are both trans guys: “Have you had the surgery?” “How do you have sex?” I was horrified that this happened at our wedding.
I didn’t emerge from the womb fully versed on queer theory. I grew up in the sticks. My crush was all tartan skirt, Powerpuff Girls shirt and Mohawk. We didn’t find others like us till University. One night I entered the Queer Room at the Student Union and thus began my real education - exploring identity in name-pronoun circles. “I’m not a feminist because I don’t hate men,” I blurted out one day in response to a ‘smash the patriarchy’ joke. “I have brothers and I see the struggles they’ve had too.” I was taught that man-hating is a myth and feminism critiques all gender constructs. We don’t know what we don’t know till we know it. Many of the people I met and loved later came out as trans or non-binary. In that room, at our skateboarding sessions and pirate-themed parties playing spin the bottle, I was schooled on gender/sexuality spectrums. Trans-inclusivity was always part of the curriculum, non-normativity the norm.
I explored my own gender expression, adopting an asymmetric haircut and donning Cons before realising that flowing hair and dresses felt more ‘me’. I met strong queer femmes and clutched that identity to my chest like home. I dated a stone dyke and finally understood my niche attraction to those on the masculine-androgynous end of the spectrum. Long-haired, guitar-playing poet guys and soft-hearted butches with crew-cuts: queerness was always my desire. I joined a polyamorous constellation; my new partner hassled in toilet queues and got mistaken for a twink by gay guys.
Gendering starts from the earliest stages of pregnancy with the “boy or girl?” barrage. We have come so far, but the recent trend of ‘gender reveal parties’ makes clear how far we have yet to go. We naturally internalise the values and beliefs of our parents and peers till we reach the maturity to reflect and critique. Without exposure to alternative narratives and identities, we may never meaningfully reach that stage.
Research indicates gender identity forms between ages 2 to 4 and is shaped by a complex interplay of biological and social factors. Gender identity is not exclusive to trans and non-binary people; cisgender people may just be less acutely conscious of theirs. Looking back, I’d always been a graze-kneed tomboy with a love for twirly dresses.
I babysat an 11 year old once whose eyes shone at Emma Stone’s yellow frock in LaLa Land:
"Heeyyy Nikkiiii... can boys wear high heels?"
"Yeah, of course! Anyone can wear them if they want to. Some people don't agree, but we should all be who we want to be."
"Oh cool! Cos I wore some the other day! And I wore this blue dress and when I went on the trampoline it was flowing up everywhere!"
"Sounds like fun."
"I'm a real girly girl. And my girlfriend is a real boy-y boy."
"That's great! My wife is a boy-y boy too. She likes to wear ties and waistcoats. "
Dad came home, chic in all black with a long black skirt over thick boots. "We've been doing this together,” he said. “I want my child to know it's ok to be himself, whoever that ends up being. He's always been curious. It's definitely in his little spirit."
Hardly anyone is spoon-fed trans-inclusivity as a toddler, yet kids easily get that love is love and people are people. I was a Nanny for a couple of years to children under 5. Our daily walk to the playground took us past where Sarah and I got married and they loved hearing stories of our happiest day.
It wasn’t until the children started going to school that their ideas really changed. “Boys can’t like pink!” Bella said one day. And, incredulous after being seen by a female GP, she exclaimed, “girls can be doctors?" Challenging gender norms is not only an act of solidarity with trans and non-binary people. Butch lesbians are policed and harassed for their gender presentation while sexist, homophobic slurs are hurled against cis men to stamp out any displays of tenderness or vulnerability (‘sissy’ ‘pussy’ ‘throw like a girl’ ‘men don’t cry’). Both are threats to patriarchal constructions of masculinity and femininity. They are different versions of being told we are unacceptable by society. We all exist within cis- and heteronormative cultures that dictate the limits of who we can be, how we should present, and who we should love. Trans-inclusive activism is therefore fundamental - and it benefits everyone.
The pathologising and Othering of trans people coupled with very few trans people being out till recent years has meant there is an abundance of myths and misperceptions both within and outside the LGBTQI+ community. The historic lack of positive representation and education to humanise, normalise and celebrate trans lives exacerbates this. Popular 90s shows like Jerry Springer and films like Ace Ventura made trans people the butt of jokes and the objects of ridicule. Over the past decade, increased legal rights and trans visibility has garnered a fierce backlash. Vitriolic trolling is a popular modern pastime. Gender ‘debates’ and attacks on trans people in the media are rife. This anti-trans rhetoric is strikingly similar to how gay and lesbian people were written about in tabloids during the AIDS crisis (“The Gay Cancer”) and during Section 28 (“Bid to Outlaw Propaganda on Homosexuality”). Our common struggles against oppression and violence should unite us, regardless of our gender identity.
I went to a talk by the academic Natascha Kennedy a few years ago that stuck with me. As a trans woman herself, she argues that what we commonly label transphobia is actually just cisnormativity. Cisnormativity is the pervasive idea that being cisgender is normal, natural and compulsory. She gave the example of a child coming out to his grandmother. A transphobic response would be to spout abuse and disown him. A response rooted in cisnormativity would be for Grandma to say within her limited frame of reference, ‘I’ll always see you as my girl.’ Calling Grandma a transphobe in either case doesn’t convey how such responses stem from a lifetime of cultural messaging about sex and gender.
This is not to downplay the structural and interpersonal violence both cisnormativity and transphobia have – emotionally, spiritually and physically. Transphobic hate crime has risen steadily in the UK the past few years and countries like the US are rolling back trans rights. Nor is this an excuse for refusing to change.
For a few years the name ‘Sarah’ felt uncomfortably feminine, so she chose to use her childhood dream name. At the inaugural Butch, Please! event she introduced herself as Bobby to a fellow queer party-goer. “Yeah, sure. What’s your real name?” was the sarcastic retort. I told my mother about her name change and the following day received a text from my auntie that read, “Hello Angel, I hope you and Bobby are well. Sending love xx” Clearly my mother had done the work for us throughout the family grapevine. My 80 year old Catholic Nan also emerged as an unlikely ally, using my wife’s preferred name seamlessly. A rural born and bred, Nan is more in her element plucking chooks than advocating for trans rights. Yet she is a good-hearted woman who follows the teachings of Jesus to show kindness and acceptance of others.
Sarah has always straddled the space between masculine and feminine. As a child she played on a boy’s football team until the coach realised his error. Her father the church warden, her mother in the choir, she also had a religious upbringing. One night, age 8, lying in bed wishing she was a boy, she felt like she was in the wrong body. A swift cold fear germinated. God is angry with me, she thought. I am not right. I am all alone. Folding up this shameful secret she stuffed it down deep till it festered and demanded attention decades later.
After years of therapy, community, reading and processing, Sarah now feels comfortable in herself despite dysphoria. Pretty and handsome; one day she wears a binder, shirt and waistcoat, the next day a bra, eyeliner and tight-fitting top. Sometimes this shift can happen within a day, where suddenly the bra feels wrong and she needs to make a quick trip to the charity shop. At age 40 she is hardly jumping on the latest trend; non-binary and genderqueer are simply descriptors of her lived experience.
Love is a verb. We should love and accept people for who they are, not the narrative we have constructed about them. We can do this by using the correct name and pronouns, even when the person isn’t present. This is not because it is politically correct but because it demonstrates respect for something fundamental about who they are. When a friend of mine changes their name or pronoun, I update my phone contact to remind me every time they call or text. As cisgender allies we can remind other people to use the correct name and pronouns so that it’s not always trans and non-binary people doing that work. We can also challenge those who feel entitled to have a fun political debate about gender identity as if it is a neutral topic. Being a good ally is prioritising how an individual feels about their own gender over how we might feel about it.
During an LGBTQI+ Awareness Training I was delivering, a participant shared about how a colleague transitioned. “He went home on the Friday as Matthew and came in to work on Monday as Michelle! I told him I just couldn’t wrap my head around it and would never get used to calling him Michelle.” Michelle may be misgendered many times a day. She may have endured a lifetime of not feeling right in that box, of struggling to come to terms with a core truth and working up the courage to tell herself and then others. She may have sought refuge in addiction, or experienced physical violence for daring to be who she is. The statistics reflect this kind of scenario. A more loving approach to someone coming out is to process any feelings in our own time, or with a trusted friend, while educating ourselves from reliable sources. In the meantime, we can respect another person’s dignity by using the pronouns and name that honour who they are. In this way, we won’t add so much to the emotional burden of someone who is likely to be carrying a heavy load already.
There are only so many microaggressions that minorities can withstand. There are only so many times we can calmly attempt to educate before we lose patience. This is why it is so important for allies to step up. Misgendering does not directly affect cisgender people like me. Invasive questions don’t trigger dysphoria or painful memories in us. We may therefore have a greater capacity for doing the emotional labour of educating others and promoting trans rights. Just as white folks need to speak out against racism and men against sexism, so do we need to take action.
I aim to centre marginalised people in all the work I do: trans people of colour, asylum seekers, working class lesbian and bisexual women of all genders. Marsha P Johnson and Silvia Rivera. Miss Major. Audre Lorde. Lady Phyll. Ivan Coyote. Campbell X. Laverne Cox. These history makers should be engraved on our eyelids.
The concept of binary gender starts to crumble upon learning that being intersex is as common as having red hair. That gender is socially constructed becomes clear once we realise how many other cultures have conceptualised gender differently. The Hijara in India, the Burrnesha in Albania, the Mahu in Hawaii, the Bugis in Indonesia. Pride is a protest, Stonewall a riot and trans people of colour were always at the forefront. My hope is that one day, we will all open our hearts and minds to fully embrace diverse identities and joyful authenticity.