On ‘Being Me’

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.

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On ‘Being Me’

Thanks, Carol.

Thanks, Carol

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This whole idea came about by accident.

A few weeks back, we were recording the most recent episode of the podcast I do with my friends Jen, Dan and Lucas (cross-promotion alert!). Coming back from a long break over the new year, we eased back in with a free-wheeling conversation about the stuff we’d seen, read and played in our absence. One of the things that had thrilled me was Kelly Sue DeConnick’s terrific run on the comic Captain Marvel (the dynamic woman pictured above). It’s a brilliantly drawn adventure that finds real depth and vitality in a character whose history is otherwise generic, but the thing that stuck with me was the simple fact that this was a comic about a woman (rare) written by a woman (rarer still). Not only that, but the rich characterisation didn’t revolve around Carol Danvers’ gender. She grappled with friendships, with the heroes she’d idolised since childhood; pushed against limits and fought to mark out her own identity. She is a normal person, albeit one who can fly into orbit at will and blast energy from her hands. This should be normal, I heard myself say (though I think I used more swearing for emphasis).

That was enough to plant the seed. It didn’t take long for me to realise that most of the stories that had resonated most strongly with me in recent memory were stories about women. Friends know better than to get me started talking about a treasured game, The Last of Us, but it’s hard to go past Ellie as one of my most beloved fictional characters. Her journey is amazing, with stellar storytelling supported by Ashley Johnson’s intense, sincere, and deeply human performance. In a very different way, Laura Jane Grace of kinda-punk band Against Me! made an impact on me. The band’s newest album is a roaring, defiant statement that deals in no uncertain terms with Grace’s struggle in identifying as trans, and ultimately living as a woman. Raw and unapologetic, Transgender Dysphoria Blues (probably the best album title in living memory) couldn’t be further from my own experience, but it resonated with me in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Part of that is down to Grace’s breathless ability to turn dense sentences into singalong choruses, for sure, but it’s the emotional energy on display that keeps me coming back.

 

After realising that, it was only a matter of time before I came up with this project. It didn’t hurt that I found myself cringing and pulling away from the dude-heavy podcasts that seemed to be everywhere, so the decision to cut my media consumption back to ‘More Sisters, Less Misters’ was pretty much inevitable. I can’t say for sure why I chose to commit to the plan for a year, only that it felt right. And as soon as I’d decided that, I started to look at my library in a different way. I saw with fresh eyes all of the musicians I’d meant to listen to, all the shows I’d meant to watch, and realised how many women I had overlooked or taken for granted. Having chosen this path, I found myself more excited to look at my shelves again; I positively gasped with joy when I found a copy of Patti Smith‘s autobiography, Just Kids, that I’d been meaning to read since god knows when. So maybe there’s a certain amount of selfishness in play, or at least as an unintended consequence — a feminine filter to pare down the near-infinite pop culture around me.

So this is it: as of tomorrow, I’m going to try to live a year listening to, reading, watching and playing things that star women. It’s going to be hard; I picked a start date mere days before Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Lego Movie premiere in Australia, so I’m going to have to wait until next year for that. Hell, I’ve basically failed before I started: I committed to review the new Chet Faker album well before I came up with this decision, and that’s not including the frank impossibility of escaping male-dominated pop culture in the world at large. I can’t control the world around me, though; only what I choose to consume, and that’s all that really matters right now. This is a decision I’ve made for myself because I think it’s a good idea — I don’t want to make a martyr of myself, nor am I trying to tell anyone else how to live.

That said, I need rules: rules to keep me honest, and to give me guidelines so that I don’t end up a guilt-ridden mess every time I wander into the DVD department at work (I am the son of a lapsed minister, so guilt comes naturally).

Laying down the law

This is the most complicated part of this whole experiment. Some media are relatively straightforward: music, for example, is pretty clear cut. I’ll be listening to heaps of solo female musicians like Joanna Newsom and Gillian Welch, and all-girl bands like Sleater Kinney and First Aid Kit. Things get curlier when you get to groups, but I’ll make it easier on myself by allowing any bands fronted by women, as is the case with Against Me! or Camera Obscura.

Reading is also pretty clear-cut: female authors like Zadie Smith and Donna Tartt make life easy, not to mention the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and the like. I’ll do my best to stick to stories by women about women, but I might allow for the odd novel by a guy, so long as its protagonist is female, and/or the majority of the key cast. Comics are more complicated: returning to the example of Captain Marvel, it’s written by a woman, about a woman, but drawn by a man. Dexter Soy’s involvement doesn’t negate the importance of that book, though, so I’m going to keep reading it, along with G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel. I’ll make excuses for stories about female characters created by men: Ed Brubaker’s Fatale and Velvet, Dan Slott’s She-Hulk and Brian K. Vaughan’s Runaways are potent stories about complex female characters, so I can’t hold their Y chromosomes against them (I also bluntly refuse to miss out of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s forthcoming series, The Wicked and Divine — there are only so many sacrifices I’m willing to make).

The pain starts when you get to more complicated media like film and TV. Giving credit to creators becomes a lot murkier when you have writers, directors, producers and a thousand other roles feeding into every show and movie, and I don’t have the time or patience to go through the credits of everything I watch before I can start it. I’m going to be forgiving on myself, and work on the idea that any film or TV show that has a woman as its protagonist or a majority of women in its central cast will get the OK from me. That means 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and The Killing make the cut, but I’ll have to leave it for a while to catch up on Game of Thrones Season 4. Even otherwise progressive stuff like Brooklyn Nine Nine, which I fucking adore, will be outside my remit for a few months.

Gaming is worse still, due in no small part to a serious underrepresentation of women in the industry. There are many talented and brilliant women working in games, but they’re as rare as a redhead on a beach (as a Class 4 Ginger, I can say that). As such, my games will be limited to those that feature women as protagonists, but only if they’re considered important enough to put on the cover. That means I could theoretically play the hinted-at PS4 re-release of The Last of Us, but Bioshock Infinite will gather dust. Of course, I also have the escape-hatch of games that either let you dictate your character’s gender (Mass Effect, Skyrim) or that don’t identify your avatar’s sex (many puzzle games don’t even have a humanoid figure in play), but since the point of this is to open myself up to women’s stories, I’ll try to keep that all to a minimum.

Podcasts, thankfully, are easier to navigate. Like music, I’ll be mainly concerned with podcasts that feature only women, but I’ll make my peace with podcasts like Pop Culture Happy Hour that include men, but have a woman as host. Maybe I’m making excuses for PCHH because I love it, but I’m ok with that.

At the end, though, I’ll follow my gut. I can’t quite articulate why, say, Game of Thrones doesn’t feel right, only that it does. I’ll prioritise those stories that are by women, about women, but I’m also content to support men who write female characters, so long as they do it well, and with empathy (also, I’d rather not make myself any more of a hypocrite than I already am).

It’s getting late now, and my time with guy-heavy media is almost at an end. I’m going to update my music collection on my phone in preparation for tomorrow, then go read Powers before I fall asleep (Brian Michael Bendis has a female POV character, and he writes her well, but the kind of gender-specific torments that he puts Deena through make his work a poor fit for this year).

Thank you to everyone who has followed my @aLadyist account on Twitter, to those who sent me brilliant recommendations, and to those who shared word of this Experiment. It’s starting to get scary, because I’m not sure what you all expect of me, and I don’t know whether I’ll be able to hold your interest. What it tells me, though, is that this little project, so small and personal in its conception, it resonates with some of you. I’m really pleased by the amount of support and interest you’ve all shown me so far, and I appreciate every bit of it. If you have any suggestions for me, or have a question, or just want to say ‘hi’, you can e-mail me at theladyistexperiment[at]gmail[dot]com.

Now…wish me luck!

Joel

Thanks, Carol.