Sunday, 25 October 2015

Picking a side: Michelle Magorian, Germaine Greer and ManMulan

So, if you missed it, my Sunday was started by Germaine Greer being transphobic on a national platform. The general thrust of her arguement is that identification does not affect a person's gender and that "a great many women" feel like trans women do not "look like, sound like or behave like women". Hateful as I might find this I'm aware it's a fairly widespread view, that a good proportion of the population - female or otherwise - feel that one's ability to 'pass' as any specified gender is more important than one's own sense of it.

As a philosphocial arguement, of course, it fails. It's a bloody ridiculous standard. If gender is decided by comittee, then where do we stop? Because there are transwomen who pass in the eyes "a great many women" and *whispers* there are those who biologically female who don't. And, of course, what with my chosen soapbox being Twitter, I was halfway through my rant before I realised what I was doing.

Oh, bollocks. I was coming out.

Making it all about me:

Because I'm a special snowflake, I am. There, the self-denigration required my Englishness being done, can we ditch it? Excellent.

The fact is, my life has been haunted by my failure to exist as that nebulous thing called "a woman". Every time I've been in a meeting where a comment was made about how "we're all girls here" so "multitasking won't be a problem", I would smile falsely, flinch, and find myself excluded tacitly. Every time a friend has consoled another, "Oh, but real women have curves", I'd cross my arms over breasts that look more like mosquito bites and try not to think about the way I was wearing jeans that fell down because they were cut for someone with hips. I'd be told that women were less violent when I spent most of my adolescene with brusied knuckles from punching walls, that women 'prefer an emotional narrative to straight up pornography' when honestly...? That women have high voices, when my contralto is lower than some tenors. That oh, sigh, you know what girls are like about shoes when I have four pairs in total (walking boots, gig boots, smart boots, sandals.)

And, yes, this is all essentialist crap. But the fact is, "a great number of women" have a very narrow and exclusionary view of what womanhood entails. It didn't matter to 'a great many women' that my chromosones were XX, that I had breasts and a uterus, that I menstruated, that I have birthed and lactated - despite all of that, I didn't "look, sound or behave" like a woman. If we left it up to them, it wouldn't just be transwomen who wouldn't qualify. I'd be out on my ear as well.

But... but surely that was all just social constructions? Surely the real thing to do was just continue on my way. I am a WOMAN, hear me ROAR. Surely I'd ditched all that crap along the way. I didn't need social constructions of gender to inform me, I was a gender-nonconforming woman, I was an honest woman who didn't buy any of that bollocks, as the omnipresent e-card company has it...

Not a tomboy. Not a girl who likes boy things. Not a girl who isn't girly... @SAIBRPR @amyalisha @CCriadoPerez

 Yes. About that.

When the meme came up for the first time, I felt something inside me wince. I stopped, I rationalised. No. It was great. Behaviour is not destiny. The whole binary is fucked. Who cares if I liked comics and broadswords and tailcoats? Who cares if, at thirteen, being told that, yes, I had breasts now and should probably start wearing a bra, I asked my horrified mother "couldn't I just bind them?" So what if Viola has been my hero since I was seven years old, or that my crush of Gwynneth Paltrow stems entirely from her part in Shakespeare in Love?

None of that undermined my right, my ability to be a woman. Did it?

And, anyway, wasn't I more radical here? As a woman? Undermining all this backwards, sexist bollocks? Wouldn't I do more good as the voice of "well, actually, I'M a woman, and..."? And, yes. That would be a good thing to do. That was an important thing to do. My feminism required it.

Except... except.

Look, on the best days, on the perfect days, I don't think about my gender. It's irrelevent. Like, if you asked me what I was I'd answer like Eli in Let the Right One In, like my eldest daugther did when she was 3, "Just Eli", "Just [Sprog1]". That's me. I'm not straight, I'm not gay, not bi, not male, not female. I don't want to think about it. I'm "just Alys." Can we forget about this now?

But perfect days are pretty bloody rare. Always, there'll be someone. "I think this young lady was before me," "Oh, we're all girls here", "Come on, ladies, let's apply ourselves to this." A touch of fear, a flinching. Not always, not every time it happened. Sometimes, YES, I was a woman, thank you for noticing.

Why the gratitude? Of course I was a woman. Anyone would see that.


Surely it was just that bloody binary, the way it had been crushing me my whole life. Of course I was woman. Of course I was cis. I was just non-conforming and flat-chested and didn't buy into the popular construction. I'd had years of crap about it, imposter syndrome was a natural reaction. I was a woman. No-one could take that from me.

Picking a Side:

A Spoonful of Jam is probably my second favourite Michelle Magorian novel. It's a novel about courage, about being honest about who you are, to your family and to wider world, despite how bigoted those things might be. It is beautiful and compelling and heartbreaking in equal measure, and Elsie is the kind of heroine we need more of in this world.

So. Elsie be with me now.

The narrative is of a young, working class girl with a grammar school scholarship in post-War London, about how she faces all the obstacles put in her way by her accent, her class, her education, her family's poverty. And about how she longs for her father to accept her, the way he does her elder brother. She longs, aches to be a boy so that he will take her down the allotment and - finally brave after a novel of new experiences - takes herself to a barbers for a Number Two so that her father will finally accept her.

Of course, it doesn't work out that way. Everyone is horrified, "have you got nits?" becomes the refrain. But at the novel's end, at her final triumph, her father gives her a gift:

She pulled out a long cylindrical bundle tied with a piece of string and a bow. She didn't need to guess what it was. It was a comic. Not a second-hand one, either. It was brand, spanking new, and it was a girl's comic! It was then that she realised it was wrapped around something bulky. She undid the string. A heavy object fell on the bed. It had a wooden handle with leaves and flowers carved into it. Her father must have made it for her while she was in Kent. It was attached to triangular-shaped piece of curved metal. As she held it up to the shaft of streetlight that filtered through the threadbare curtains, she could see what it was only too clearly. It was a trowel. Her very own trowel. It was her invitation to the allotment. And not as a boy, but as a girl! [emphasis mine]

This moment, that should have been perfect, beautiful, affirming made something in me wither the way the courgettes at my very own allotment have gone limp and black at the frost.  Why must the comic be a girl's comic? Why the trowel carved with 'girly' patterns of flowers? Why must the haircut become some kind of shame? Some kind of mistake? Why she be invited to the allotment "as a girl"? It should have been a glorious scene, something affirming and brilliant. Instead it took my wonderful, brave Elsie and put her firmly back in the box marked XX, marked female, marked girl.

But surely that was right? Surely she was a girl and never doubted that she was a girl and her hobbies and interests never affected that one iota. Surely I was the one being essentialist and and stupid and...

Fast forward.

I'm a young mother and I'm Disneyed out. Of course, I've heard PAINT's fantastic After Ever After and I play it to my long suffering friends with annoying frequency, until the day someone says, "Hey, have you heard there's a sequel? It's got a Frozen bit."

No! Wild with joy, I flee to YouTube and play it. (For the purposes of this post, you only need to listen to the first segment, but listen to the whole thing anyway. It's hilarious.)

And, inside me, something is squirming. Something flinching.

No. No. That's wrong about Mulan. A woman who cross-dresses isn't automatically trans*. I mean, great for men who are and all power to them, but that doesn't mean... Look. I cross dress. Often. Frequently. Okay, for months. But that doesn't mean...

Couldn't Mulan just be... Mulan? Does she have to chose which side to play for?  Are those really the only options? Do I have to chose between getting to go to the allotment "as a girl", or admitting that I always was "a guy in my soul"?

Couldn't I just be me? And when I want to femme, couldn't people look at me and say, "yes, that's a woman" and when I want to butch*, could people just assume I'm a guy, and the rest of the time could people just say, "Well, that's Alys" and let the whole pronoun business be swept away?

 Bravery and Cowardice

Because, there's the thing. I could hide behind being "just Alys" my whole life. I could pretend it doesn't bother me that I'm read as a woman. Not just in the smash-this-fucking-patriarchy way, or the benevolent sexism way, but just the she/her/woman/mother/daughter/wife way.  The way my martial arts teachers call me "Ma'am" because the alternative is "Sir" and I'm not that either. I could pretend that I don't feel the blaze of total, helpless joy when I overhear people trying to puzzle me out because I don't fit into any of the boxes they've learned.

I wasn't being disruptive like that. I wasn't being challening or honest or anything like that. I was making myself the anomoly who would neatly be smoothed out because the alternative was frightening.

Elsie would be disgusted.

So. Here we go: I'm not a tomboy. I'm not a girl who likes boyish things. I'm not a girl who isn't girly. You're right. I don't have to qualify my femininty. Because I'm not female.

And I'm not male either.

I'm just Alys. Always. And Alys is genderfluid.

And sometimes that means I am a woman, yes. And sometimes it means that I'm a man. And sometimes I'm neither. My gendered behaviours are never more than a form of drag. Sometimes ultra femme. Sometimes super butch. Mostly just jeans and a t-shirt and hair in a mess with my nose in a book.

Genderfluid. No apologies, no qualifiers. If Germaine Greer and her "great number of women" read me as female then that is their problem, and if they decide I don't qualify for "real womanhood" then that's their fucking problem as well.

And to anyone else, of any other gender (especially cis men who are aggressive about it) I'm not playing that game any more. I'm not going back in that box.

I never fitted anyway.

*I'm not mad keen on this term because the masculinty I present is generally more dandyish than it would imply. I wear frock coats rather than plaid, cravats not braces. But for matters of comprehension, butch it will have to be.