Learning from my elders

Image: yellow bell-shaped flower with red leaves behindI was told when I was a counselling student that teaching is by far the best way to learn about anything. This month’s learning was gained by delivering Trans Awareness Training to Age UK Nottingham.

The Trans Awareness part comes easily, obviously. Not only am I a lifelong (non-binary) member of the trans community myself, but I have spent years advocating for trans women, particularly in spaces that have not historically been friendly and welcoming for trans women. I wasn’t always a knowledgeable ally, I made a lot of mistakes on the way, but I learnt.

I am also married to a trans man, and am an active participant in my local trans community, and a seasoned campaigner. I like to think, and I hope, that I’ve been good at absorbing and understanding the diversity of stories the trans community has to tell.

But it’s easy to stumble when it comes to listening to our elders. Elders often speak in an older language and we think we know better. Elder trans experiences were forged in an environment unimaginable today, and so sometimes their experiences feel less relevant. When an older person tells me that transgender was just image: Alexis, 64, Chicago - a brown-skinned trans woman, close-up of her face“something she went through” on the way to being a woman, that she rejects the idea of trans as an identity to be proud and accepting of, I know her world is very different from mine, and that I must tune in hard in order to be sure I don’t dismiss what she is saying to me.

Because, particularly in the past, and particularly for women, transgender or transsexual has been a qualifier, a diminisher. When added to the word “woman” it was not a neutral descriptive adjective, but almost a negating one. Where “trans” should have simply stated what kind of woman you were, it instead undermined your woman-ness. No wonder so many people with a transgender history wanted to drop the adjective entirely, and simply be understood as men and women.

I remember, some time ago, speaking to a stealth trans man and telling him how different things are now – that my partner and I have had our struggles, but that we feel relatively safe to be out in our workplaces and in our social lives. Violence and harassment are not a thing of the past but things really are getting better.

My research teaches me how much things have changed, and changed because of pioneers like Christine Jorgensen and Lili Elbe, warriors and outlaws like Kate Bornstein and the late great Leslie Feinberg , campaigners like Press for Change’s Professor Stephen Whittle, and Stonewall veterans Marsha P Johnson and Silvia Rivera.

And it also teaches me how difficult things have been for so very long, and the reason why so many of us have hidden our trans nature until laterImage: Richard O'Brien - full length shot, he is wearing a classy pale skirt and wrap-top, high heels than we might have liked. I think Richard O’Brien’s story brings this home to me more than anything. This is the person who wrote the words “don’t dream it, be it” at age 31, and yet was unable to come out as a non-binary transgender person until the age of 67.

My training brings in the words of two contrasting trans women. The wonderful Alice, whose beautiful poetry I had the chance to hear last year at Brighton Trans Pride, speaks eloquently of her relatively late transition in her My Genderation film. Joanne Keatley, in this recent Daily Beast article, tells the other side of the story, What it was like to transition 50 years ago.

Both tales are mirror images – neither Alice nor Joanne were afforded the opportunity to be out in the open, free of hate and stigma, in their early lives. Both took a long time to find a community and I appreciate the idea of a trans community is still probably an anathema to many trans people who were sold the importance of being assimilated into mainstream culture and becoming as invisible as they possibly could.

I often reflect on how much luckier trans guys (a group I sort-of fall into) are for being relatively invisible, but I don’t think that invisibility is necessarily a good thing, nor is it exactly a privilege. It affords you relative safety from direct violence and harassment, but it is a condition that is inherently psychologically oppressive. To keep your head down and not raise your voice about just how much things need to change is suffocating. Both the closet and a stealth life may afford relative safety but neither are anything close to freedom.

Anyone who knows me knows my passion for intersectionality, the idea put forward by Kimberlé Crenshaw that the feminist movement is nothing if it does not take other oppressions, particularly the oppression of black women, into account. This is equally true when the trans community ignores ageism and how we might neglect and ignore the needs and stories of older trans folks that do not tally with our own.

A realisation hit me as I thought about trans ageing – many trans folk don’t expect to grow old, and if they do, they fear it. The health inequalities, compounded by poverty, assault, HIV, mental health and suicide, and difficulty accessing generic healthcare with a trans history, mean we  have a right to be worried, but the positive health outcomes for our treatment, both physical and psychological, are cause for optimism.

When we do think of ageing, we think of the disrespect and abuse sometimes afforded older, and particularly frail or sick, people. We think of how our trans status might compound this. We think oimage: red hawthorn berries against green leavesf how our sometimes unusual bodies may be treated and responded to when we are given personal care. We wonder how we will fare – whether we will be treated, housed and clothed according to our gender when we lose the freedom to make our own decisions, and we wonder if anyone will understand the vital importance of this.

As more and more of us come out and live our true lives before it’s too late, the necessity of making the world safe and respectful for our trans elders and our future selves becomes increasingly clear to me.

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