Happy to be called ‘she’

This is an issue that has come to prominence for me as I prepare my teaching module on Gender Diversity for the Cambridge Institute of Clinical Sexology. My thoughts have also been further reinforced following an interview I gave to NHS Direct as it prepares to update its on-line information about trans issues.

I grew up in a society which was wholeheartedly binary in nature and anything that was remotely different was either illegal (homosexuality) or the subject of front page tabloid sensationalism (sex change). Homosexuality was finally legalised, in England at least, in 1967 and the prurient exposés of transsexual women slowly declined as the procedure became more common, although the condition was still very much misunderstood by society in general. It was not until the 1970’s that ‘gender bending’ became front page news, with the advent of Ziggy Stardust, Visage and then ‘Boy George’, together with the more cutting-edge night life which started in London and other major cities. As far as society at large was concerned, this was a time for curiosity and exploration, and was the start of a period of change when music and fashion became the front line for introducing diversity to the world.

Queer Theory challenges the binary basis of society (i.e. there are just males and females, and anything else is not ‘normal’). It is nothing new but it has now been named; as such, it is a topic which can be openly discussed and debated by anyone. Queer Theory postulates that this binary ideal has been imposed on us all by society and that the natural condition is actually more diverse. We should be free, it suggests, to identify ourselves however we wish, and able openly to express ourselves in our own individual manner. This is a radical concept for many to accept. It leads to confusion, and perhaps even fear of the unknown, in the more fundamental and the older sections of society, in much the same way that the fashion and music industries challenged the boundaries back in the 1970’s.

Today there is a worldwide movement toward change and recognition of diversity, helped by the prominence of musicians like Miley Cyrus and the Austrian singer Conchita, and fashion models such as Andreja Pejić, who works in both the male and female roles. This questioning of the binary norm is not restricted to Western culture. The cultures of the Far East have always been more accepting of diversity: the katoi (so-called ‘ladyboys’) of Thailand and the hijra or aruvani in India are classic examples. Even so, until recently the acceptance of a third gender, even in more liberal cultures, has always been associated with the seedier side of society. This is changing. In Japan, for example, there has been a significant element of ‘gender blending’ within the music industry, where many male groups will give a very feminine appearance to their performances. These young men, or ‘danshi’, are now promoting a genderless identity which is well-received by their young, almost exclusively female, audiences. One girl when talking about her favourite performer, Toman, summed it up like this:

“He looks like a girl but when you put that together with his maleness, I see him as a new kind of man” (New York Times, 5th January 2017)

It is often the role of youth to rebel against existing societal rules and to seek change, to make society a more comfortable place for themselves, rather than being bound by the ‘outdated’ ideologies of previous generations.

As a therapist, I fully recognise this drive for change and, as a trans woman, I understand and support the need for freedom of expression. I can acknowledge that society has changed during my life and is becoming more accepting of diversity. However, recent political changes around the world, such as in the USA, would appear to indicate a regression to the ‘old ways’ of a binary society, and a demonising of sexual and gender diversity. It is not surprising that this turn of events is causing great concern and fear among those who feel they do not fit into the historic binary concept.

This, though, is where I take issue with some of the more radical voices of protest. A key part of the change being promoted is the proposal to remove ‘he’ and ‘she’ from the language. These pronouns, it is suggested, should be replaced with the ungendered ‘they’. It is this idea which has urged me to write this short piece, as I personally disagree with it. My thoughts were brought into sharp focus during my interview with NHS Direct, when I was told that some contributors were requesting that all gender pronouns on the website be removed! The editor of the site is in a difficult position, trying to satisfy two opposing opinions, but I made my own feelings about this very clear. I know that people who wish to be considered as gender neutral (or one of many other terms) find it offensive when they are called by either the ‘he’ or the ‘she’ pronoun. I, on the other hand, find it offensive in much the same way when I am degendered and referred to as ‘they’. It is in this way that I find there to be a generational difference in how individuals wish to be addressed and also, I believe, in how the younger and older generations wish to be included within society.

It was the requirement of society that I be part of the binary, and that I fit the male gender role expected of me, which delayed my transition until I eventually reached a stage in my life when I could deny the truth no longer. (The process, and my progress, can be followed in my autobiography ‘Just One Letter – my journey from M to F’, Lulu Press, November 2011). I find that this wish to be accepted as part of the binary is much stronger, but not exclusively so, in those of a similar age and generation to me. I waited a long time and fought many battles to be acknowledged as ‘she’ and am now very happy to be called just that; I have no wish to surrender my hard-won female pronoun for an anonymous ‘they’ to satisfy the wishes of a younger, more radical, generation. I concede that there may also be a greater need to be included in that binary, and a greater wish to live ‘in stealth’ or at least to ‘blend-in’ with the norm, among the older generations than there is in younger, more rebellious groups. It is easily within living memory that to advertise one’s difference, whatever form that may have taken, was to invite trouble and violence.

Social media, in my opinion, bears a lot of the responsibility for this change of attitude – whether for good or for ill. Global information exchange is almost instantaneous; language changes can happen overnight. An example of this was seen in adjustments introduced by the dating app Tinder. Until recently the app had just two gender options – male or female. Following a review of clients’ needs and wishes, a further 37 gender identities were added, in order to show that the app was not bound by the concept of binary and therefore open to all. (Time magazine, 15 November 2016). The use of this and other similar apps is largely the province of the younger generation, who are far more vociferous than my own generation who, I believe, are largely settled in their lives. This example, and other attempts at inclusivity or at avoiding any possibility of offence, run the risk of muddying the waters and of alienating many perhaps less-radical supporters of gradual change and greater understanding.

The need for individuality and acceptance of diversity is, in my opinion, counterproductive when taken to these extremes. Indeed, this has led to what has been described as the growth of the “narcissistically unaware” in society (Prof. Mark Lilla, Columbia University): so fixated are they on trying to satisfy every tiny requirement of their own particular minority group that they fail to see the bigger picture or the unintended consequences of their demands. Society at large already had difficulty dealing with the meaning of LGBT and with remembering what the letters stood for; things were then further confused when A, I and Q (or even Q+) were added. How do we then explain the addition of 37 different identities to people who already struggle with more than two? The fact that some of the letters refer to sexual orientation, while others stand for sexual and gender identity, is a different argument altogether. In short, it is my belief that we can’t justify such interference with what is understood by the majority. I embrace and work with diversity. I am open to change but at a rate that is explainable to all. I also acknowledge that, for change to happen, the more radical and outspoken need the opportunity to press for that change and perhaps that is where my own conservative background baulks at accepting too much too soon.

Blog Post written by:
Kirstie McEwan
CICS Lead Tutor on Gender Diversity