Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Trans and Cis

The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently had a spot of bother after she suggested that the experiences of transgender women were different from the cisgender women (I believe this is the term for those individuals who are born women, and either are happy to live as women, or, if they aren’t, don’t make a fuss about it—so we don’t know).

You might argue that it is impossible for Adichie, or any other cisgender woman, to talk with authority about the experiences of trans-gender women, because Adichie was not born a man, and therefore cannot possibly know what it is like to be a man, and, by extension, what it is like to be convinced that one would be better off as a woman, because in spite of one’s chromosome and anatomy one is convinced in one’s mind that one ought to be a woman.

Adichie’s explanation as to why she is reluctant to consider trans-gender women as—for the want of better phrase—real women was neither medical nor psychological; it was socio-political. Adichie said in her interview that if you lived in this world as a man with the privileges the world accords to men, and then switched gender, it was difficult for Adichie to accept that you (a transgender woman) could equate your experience with the experience of a woman who had always lived as a woman, and not enjoyed the privileges as a man.

Adichie’s answer to this dilemma? Trans-women are trans-women, and cis-women are cis-women.

Adichie’s argument risks attracting the accusation, among other things, of making sweeping judgments about the privileges the men supposedly enjoy, and women don’t. She tries to link it to this peculiar condition, which, I believe, is recognised as some sort of psychiatric condition—although I’d wager a hundred pounds that such individuals, while they may experience a variety of emotional distress, do not consider the core issue, that they are born in the wrong body, as a psychiatric condition.

Going by Adichie’s argument, a man, who wants to be a woman for reasons best known to him, is, therefore, willing to give up the privileges of men. Why might he do that? I read that the Indian leader of the twentieth century, Gandhi, who led his country to freedom from British Imperialism, gave up on the Western attire and went through his life wearing a loin cloth. Gandhi took this step because he felt uneasy about wearing Western (or, for that matter, Eastern) dress that would cover his spindly legs and chest hair, when he saw that his countrymen were going around semi-naked because they were so impoverished under the British Raj that they could not clothe themselves adequately. Gandhi, who was a Western-educated barrister, and, at one stage, had a flourishing practice, decided that he too was going to live like his poor countrymen: if they could not afford to wear clothes and went around half-naked, so would he. You might say that Gandhi was displaying an extreme form of empathy. I should doubt very much that the men who choose to be women, and go all the way to have reconstructive surgery, do this because they want to experience, in a Gandhiesque manner, the disadvantages of womanhood. These men want their penises chopped off because they don’t like their penises; they want to have vaginas, instead.

And what about women who want to be men? This trans-business, surely, is not confined only to men who are desperate to be women. Adichie makes no comments about women who have had reconstructive surgeries, and, with hormonal treatment, boast cobwebs on their chins. One would, going by Adichie’s argument, suppose, that these trans-men can’t be real men because they have not enjoyed the privileges of being men right from birth.

Not surprisingly, many trans-women (if that is the correct term to describe these individuals) were unhappy at not being considered for the privileges of being full-women (or cis-women), although Adichie seems to think that it is no picnic going through life as a woman, and you’d be better off as men if you love the privileges (what might these be?). You can understand the dismay of the trans-women. They have gone to get lengths to achieve the appearance of what they always believed themselves to be in their minds, only to be told by some uppity novelist, who does not look like she has lacked privileges any time, that sorry, you are not a real woman because you lived as a man. It’s a bit like telling Nigel Farage that after all he is not going to be the British ambassador to the USA, when in his mind (and in the mind of, or, what passes for the mind of Donald Trump), he is the most suitable chap for the job, and, moreover, has gone to great lengths to improve the relationship between the UK and the USA now that we shall crash out of the Euro. Life is a bitch (or a trans-bitch).

I have not personally known any trans-gender individuals. Years ago I vaguely knew a woman who was married to an IT specialist. I had met her husband in a social do. He was a pot-bellied man with an Arafat-style beard and thick glasses. He had a square face, rubbery lips, and kept one hand in the pocket of his trousers, twiddling, I hoped, loose change. He looked rather dull and did not speak much. The woman, on the other hand, was physically attractive, if slightly on the bigger side (nothing wrong with being a full breasted woman who likes chocolate gateaux) and had an air about her, the way she looked at you, which suggested that she had just finished a marathon sex session. She also had opinions on most matters which she did not hesitate to express. I had also heard that a few years earlier the woman had had an affair with one of our colleagues in the company. In the course of the evening the main topic of the woman’s conversation was how she was going to have children, and how a year-long maternity leave (even on full pay) was not enough. The husband sat listening unenthusiastically to all this. I asked the woman how long the two had been married for. They had been married for almost ten years. I asked her whether they had now decided to have children. This turned out to be a mistake. The woman became tearful, and I was subjected to a tedious account of the unsuccessful efforts the couple had had over the years to have children. I wanted to tell her, “Look woman, I am just trying to make small talk, seeing as you have been rabbiting on about maternity leave for the past half an hour.” But I didn’t, because that would have been rude. “We even had David’s sperm count done,” the woman announced at a volume that could have been heard in the next restaurant. We all waited to hear what she was going to say. “He is OK,” the woman revealed after a dramatic pause. My only thought was that the talk of maternity leave was a bit premature seeing as the woman had trouble conceiving. The couple, I learned later (by this time the woman had left the company), did not have children. In fact the marriage broke down, after the woman found the husband dressed in women’s underclothes late one night in the garden shade. (Poor woman. She thought that all the lingerie he bought was for her). The man with the beard is now a woman (probably as photogenic as psoriasis). He provides support to trans-gender individuals, and is also writing a novel (what a surprise!).  

I wonder what the square faced man with rubbery lips would have made of Adichie’s comments about the male privileges. To me, Adichie’s comments do not ring true. If she were to say that she did not consider a trans-woman a woman because, let’s face it, no amount of cosmetic surgery is going to change your chromosomal make-up; you may shave off your chest hair and have false breasts hoisted on your chest, and pay (or, if you are in the UK, get the tax-payers to pay) to create a vagina that is literally and figuratively going nowhere, you will never have other female internal organs such as the uterus and ovaries, you are never going to menstruate, you will never have children, and, most importantly, you are never going to be as good as the real women at being upset, that would have been accurate. I should hazard a guess (and it will be a guess) that most men would not be interested in a facsimile when they can get the real version, if you get my drift. Would you go on a vacation to Slough when you can go to London? (Even the tourist office in Slough probably advises the tourists that they should get the f**k out of Slough on the first available train, and go to London).

That’s what Germaine Greer—bless her!—the old battle-axe did a couple of years ago. Greer said: “Just because you lop off your d**k and then wear a dress doesn't make you a ******* woman. I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat but that won’t turn me into a ******* cocker spaniel. . . I do understand that some people are born intersex and they deserve support in coming to terms with their gender but it’s not the same thing. A man who gets his d**k chopped off is actually inflicting an extraordinary act of violence on himself.”

There was a predictable furore over Greer’s comments, and I think some lecture of hers arranged at Cardiff University was cancelled, because some student body with the collective maturity of minus 250, and outraged members of Idiots’ Anonymous were threatening to throw tomatoes at her.

Greer does have a point, it could be argued, which she expressed in her customary forthright manner (she is Australian, so she hasn’t got the British talent, despite living in Britain for decades, of saying unpalatable truth without sounding offensive).

If you ask me, the issue is the sense of entitlement. Not happy that you are going bald? Have a hair-transplant. Unhappy that your tits are too small? Insert breast implants. Ashamed of your chipolata, and want a big fat sausage?  Go under the surgeon’s knife. Not prepared to age gracefully? Have a botox. Not happy that you are a man (or a woman), and would rather be a woman (or a man)? No worries; the medical science will make it possible for you. Except that it won’t. You can inject yourself with a bathful of hormones and chop off as many body parts as you want, the reality of your chromosomes will not change. Psychiatrists and psychologists may disagree. They will lecture you on the intolerable inner turmoil these individuals face because of their conviction that they are born in the wrong body, and the only way to bring some sort of inner peace is for them to be allowed to have series of medical and surgical procedures so that they can go through rest of their lives as parodies of sex they can never genuinely be. OK, being eaten up by misery usually does not improve things, but, surely, there must be other ways to deal with this self-pity (preferably those which do not put extra burden on the cash-strapped NHS). You could try Stoicism, or Mindfulness . . . whatever. Somehow train your mind to accept that you can’t get everything in life you want. You were born a man (or a woman). Deal with it. If you are not able to crow that is probably because you are not a rooster. You are a hen. Learn to live with it.

There are some barriers between men and women which simply can’t be breached: men can go to great lengths to look and live like women, they can’t be women. Women, similarly, can never be men. That is the biological reality.