This post was supposed to be about Janelle Monae (don’t worry, that’s still coming), but something came up that I couldn’t ignore.
On Monday night, ABC’s Four Corners aired an episode called “Being Me“, which featured three transgender people talking about their identity and the obstacles they face in their efforts to be recognised as their true gender. In the intro, host Kerry O’Brien uses the words “courage” and “inspirational” to describe that struggle, and usually this would send me scurrying for the unsentimental hills, but this story is especially powerful, and personally relevant.
Of the three stories, one focused on transgender man Paige Elliott Phoenix and his very public coming-out on The X Factor; another introduced Jamie, a transgender woman in her teens, and dealt with her family’s legal battles to access hormone blockers without requiring a court order. Both Paige and Jamie’s stories are heartbreaking and critical to our conversations about gender. Paige’s estrangement from her mother and Jamie’s depression and suicidal ideation are trials we can save future transgender people from having to face if we share these stories, and help others to understand the very real nature of their gender dysphoria.
It was the story of Isabelle, age 11, that struck me hardest. An articulate and sweet child, Isabelle (then called Campbell) told her mother 18 months earlier that she didn’t feel like she was in the right body. Parents Andrew and Naomi weren’t expecting this revelation, but their response was the kind I think all transgender folk hope for. Supportive and caring, they’ve helped Isabelle in the transition into living as a girl, and she’s now seeing a paediatrician who works in the gender clinic of the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.
I can’t quite explain what it is about Isabelle’s story that hit me so hard, but the effect was unmistakeable: mid-bite into a huge sandwich, I was ugly-crying, heaving with sobs and trying to not inhale chunks of haloumi. Maybe it was the serious, matter-of-fact way that Isabelle discussed her dysphoria, or the idea that 30% of children like Isabelle attempt suicide if they don’t receive treatment. In truth, it was probably all of those things, plus a personal connection.
I first noticed the way stories of transgender women affected me when Against Me!’s lead singer came out as trans in an interview with Rolling Stone. I’d been a long-term fan of Tom Gabel, as he was known then, but my response to his revelation struck some chord deeper than that. She’s lived as a woman for the last two years, going by Laura Jane Grace, and put out the best album of her career.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues isn’t just a cracker of an album title; it’s a fierce and furious statement of identity, and a scathing attack on the people who reacted poorly to Laura’s transition. That it also happens to test the limits of her songwriting and take her into new genre territory is an excellent bonus that makes repeated listening even more necessary.
The title track, which opens the album, pulls no punches. As a taste of the abuse a transgender woman gets, it’s devastating: Laura doesn’t shy from slurs like “you’ve got no cunt in your strut”, but the fire-eyed intensity with which she responds is electrifying. On the other hand, ‘Unconditional Love’ drives home the loneliness and hardship of dealing with gender dysphoria, where even the support of a loving wife isn’t enough to get by. It’s a strange subject for a raucous rock song, but then, Grace has been writing Against Me! songs about anarchism, racial politics and the redundancy of protest songs, so nothing’s out of bounds.
The personal connection that binds these subjects is something I can’t dismiss, though it’s maybe not so clear as it might seem. At this stage in my life, I don’t consider myself transgender. As often and as intensely as identify with women, I don’t think that I am one of them. Nor, however, do I think of myself as particularly at home with the idea of being a man. I don’t mean that in the sense that masculine identity is nebulous and ill-defined (though it’s true, and relevant); I mean it in the sense that I don’t think of myself as a man any more than I think of myself as a woman. I don’t know exactly what I am, and I’m really at the beginning of working all that out.
What I cannot deny, though, is the way that stories like Isabelle’s and Laura’s affect me. I’m only relatively new to these ideas of gender, and I can’t be the only one struggling to recognise their identity in that way (plus the many, many other factors that influence it). Isabelle’s paediatrician, Michelle Telfer, notes that referrals have jumped from 1 in 2003 to hundreds now, and that such increases are occurring internationally. As she observes, it’s less likely that there are more transgender children, but more that there are greater numbers recognising their situation and seeking support. These sorts of stories are critical to help more of us understand our gender identity, and equally critical in legitimising the people grappling with dysphoria so they can get access to the medical care and support they need.