Practical AndrogynyDevoted to the practicalities of ambiguous gender presentation within a binary gendered society

The binary gender system classifies all people into either female or male, man or woman. However not everyone fits neatly into these categories. Some people do not feel comfortable when assigned a traditional gender. Whether owing to choice or chance, many of these people are not readily gendered by others.

This state of perceived gender ambiguity can be described as androgyny.

Practical Androgyny is a resource for both those who are comfortably androgynous but struggle with the pressures of the binary gender system, and for those who wish to explore the possibilities of gender ambiguity. This site does not focus on the details of identity but on the practical aspects of living with, or obtaining, an appearance that defies gender classification.

When was the Mx gender-inclusive title created?

Posted by – August 28, 2014

MxA new version of the excellent Mx Evidence document establishing usage and acceptance of the Mx gender-inclusive title (equivalent to Miss, Mr or Ms) in the United Kingdom has recently been released by the Genderqueer Activist site (run by activist Cassian Lodge). This records examples of acceptance by organisations such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA),  National Health Service (NHS), various banks and utilities, councils and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

The document starts with the summary that Mx was created around the turn of the century, resulting in other sites covering the document also making this claim. This description bothered me because I’ve been frequenting transgender and genderqueer online discussion spaces since 1999 and, while 2000 was around the time I first saw it described, Mx was always presented as an idea that had been around for a long time.

Unfortunately most of online safe community discussion spaces of the late 1990s are impossible to search today. They were in private mailing lists whose archives are now gone or are locked away with no moderator to approve new members. Most of the genderqueer websites of this era are long gone and no longer searchable. However the more public discussion spaces provided by Usenet newsgroups have been archived and can still be accessed and searched today using features of Google Groups (formerly Deja News).

It’s somewhat challenging to search for Mx as a title when the these two letters can also refer to, variously, Mexican domain names, email server settings, Emacs commands, camera models, motorbikes, nuclear missiles and graphing calculators, but I was able to come up with some examples.

The Google Groups Usenet archive extends back to 1981 and the earliest example I found of someone suggesting and using Mx (albeit as a one off) was in July 1982 on the newsgroup net.nlang during one of their frequent discussions of gender neutral pronouns (intended to be used to refer to anyone without giving their gender) and nonsexist gender neutral language (such as ‘chairperson’ and  ‘womyn’):

Subject: More words and sex
Newsgroups: net.nlang
Posted: Fri Jul 9 15:48:43 1982

while we’re at it, let’s get rid of all this Miss/Mrs/Mr/Ms crap.
It wasn’t much of a step to go from Miss/Mrs to Ms; after all,
the issue should be that gender is unimportant. How about one
generic title for everyone? For instance, M. Smith, M. Jones.
But that’s flawed, it might be confused with Monsieur, a blatantly
sexist word. From now on, we should all go by Mx, pronounced
“mix” or “mux.” This will make the world safe for democracy by
concealing our genders from the sexist element.

Mx. John Eldridge                harpo!floyd!jce

Within the context of the discussion this appears to have been a somewhat facetious suggestion (context is difficult to gauge as this was before the practice of quoting of the message you’re replying to), although there is a sincere mention of the gender neutral pronoun ’tis’ around the same time.

The Mx suggestion got a positive mention in a discussion on net.women in January 1985, initially crossposted to net.nlang:

Subject: Re: Gender-specific honorifics
Newsgroups: net.nlang,net.women
Posted: Wed Jan 30 22:45:12 1985

I got one netter’s intesting suggestin that the all purpose honorific should
be Mx. (I think it’s nice to use the algebraic “x” for unknown. Very
elegant.)

Then my husband Barry suggested it would be more in keeping with the spirit
of UNIX to write it as M*.

(And besides that way there’s less chance of fallout from missile makers.)

–Lee Gold

That post references how the x is intended to be a wildcard character. Posts responding to this message on net.women humorously riff on how this would be pronounced, suggest an alternative asterisk pronunciation and correct the UNIX wildcard character. This was within a wider discussion of gender neutral language.

The earliest reference I can find to the idea of Mx being a mixture of gender titles comes in December 1998 on the newsgroup alt.callahans:

Subject: Re: Minor rant: Names
Newsgroups: alt.callahans
Date: 1998/12/09

[…]
I, for one, would like to see something like Mx. Mister, Missus, Miss,
and Mizz all rolled into one M(i)x. Mx. Asteris, Mx. S. Robinson, Mx. J.
Marshall, etc. You get the idea.

                                                         Ravan

This was posted in response to someone complaining about the gendered nature of titles, specifically referencing how titles forced them to reveal whether they had ‘an innie or an outie’.

It’s difficult to find examples of people using Mx as their title on Usenet as there was no convention to include a title in ones author name or sign off and because additional search terms are needed to filter from the large number of irrelevant results. However the earliest reference I could find to someone talking about actively using Mx as their title was in October 1998 during a crossposted discussion nominally about vegetarianism and vitamin B12 but by this point about gender bias in language, posted on various UK newsgroups including uk.misc and uk.politics.animals:

Subject: Re: Vegetarianism and B12 deficiency (was Re: Organic GE)
Newsgroups: uk.misc,soc.culture.british,rec.food.veg,uk.politics.animals, uk.people.teens,soc.culture.scottish,uk.environment
Date: 1998/10/19

[…]
Occasionally I have used the title ‘Mx’ before my name, with the idea
that it leaves in question whether I a woman or a man or somethinng in
between and gives no idea of my maritial status.


Gnome 11

That example is also the first occurrence I found that made any reference to nonbinary people (‘or something in between’). It was posted in response to someone discussing the connotations that had arisen from using Ms rather than Miss or Mrs.

Hopefully this evidence has established that the idea of the Mx gender neutral title was suggested well before 2000 and that it was being used by some people during the 1990s. Of course much of its use was happening away from online discussions in day to day interactions and requests to organisations, but when it comes to establishing the validity of a word evidence of longterm written usage tends to hold more weight.

What is notable about what happened after 2000 though is that Mx begins to be talked about specifically in relation to transgender and androgynous people, rather than as a gender neutral title that could be used without any connotation of what the person’s gender was. For example, the earliest example I found of Mx being given as the title for an androgyne came in a February 2001 post to rec.arts.dr-who (coincidentally the same month as the earliest discussion in my email archives).

I’ve written before about later inventions added to Mx where expanded names and pronunciations were suggested with ‘Mixture’ first appearing in mailing list archives in 2002 and ‘Mixter’ years later still.

While everyone who uses the title has their own way of explaining it, my personal preference remains for the pronunciation of ‘mux’, one of the two originally suggested in 1982. I feel that this gives no connotation of ‘mixed genders’ and is the most distinctive sounding option, less likely to misheard as ‘miss’ (for ‘mix’) or ‘mister’ (for ‘mixture’ and ‘mixter’).

Perhaps a more accurate way of explaining the origins of the Mx title to others is to say that it was created in the early 1980s and gradually began to be used more widely from the late 90s into the turn of the century. Either way, it’s well overdue more widespread acceptance and recognition.

(Note: If you’re aware of any earlier verifiable examples than these, do please let me know).

About that often misunderstood asterisk

Posted by – October 31, 2013

Recently this post by Natalie Reed on the use of ‘trans*’ was proving controversial among many of the nonbinary and genderqueer people I follow on Twitter. I’ve talked about ‘trans*’ before, most recently when answering the Beyond The Binary panel, question 4.

I personally have mixed feelings about words involving punctuation marks, especially ones that confuse search functions and hashtags, look like footnotes and don’t sound any different when spoken (unless you say ‘trans star’). I also strongly feel that ‘trans’ should be able to include everyone who’s in any way gender variant, genderqueer or gender role nonconforming (I’m firmly in the Leslie Feinburg Trans Liberation camp on this one). I’ve tried in the past to write resources to help keep trans and transgender the inclusive umbrella terms I feel they were meant to be.

Why people felt the need to add the asterisk

‘Trans’ was originally intended to be an inclusive term, not just including people who could access medical labels like ‘transsexual’, but including everyone under the wider transgender umbrella. However in day to day usage, the concept tends to be conflated with transition from the gender one was assigned at birth to another.

I think that this is in no small part due to how the constructions ‘trans man’, ‘trans woman’ and by extension ‘trans person’ seem to make it clear what ‘trans’ is meant to denote. Because this prefix usage is so ubiquitous, it’s also common to see this prefix separated out, with ‘trans’ falling elsewhere in a sentence, or on its own entirely, but still having the same connotations.

Perhaps I can make the issue with this clearer with an example (chosen out of the myriad possible as quite a common situation that was originally one of the primary things ‘transgender’ was used to describe). Take someone who was assigned male at birth, sees himself as a man, but also identifies as transgender by way of gender expression, and presents in clothing, hair and makeup that society would see as crossdressing. That person is clearly trans* and I would hope that he would also be included fully in transgender (although I’ve seen plenty of trans and nonbinary people argue otherwise, and plenty of definitions of transgender that would exclude him), but if I were to describe him as a ‘trans man’ that would not be the ‘correct’ usage – resources, information and organisations restricted to trans men would not include him, because ‘trans’ means something specific in this context. If he concludes that he’s not ‘trans’ but is transgender, genderqueer, transvestite or any number of other labels because of this, and therefore ‘trans*’ but not ‘trans’, I don’t think that decision would be difficult to understand.

The fact is that most transgender organisations and people writing about trans stuff (including me most of the time, frankly) don’t spend equal time talking about people who don’t have dysphoria, or don’t have anything to ‘transition to’, or whose gender changes too often for any one transition to make practical sense, or who transitioned medically but later officially ‘detransitioned’, or who did what they consider to be transition for them but are still usually seen as the gender they were assigned at birth, even in some trans and nonbinary spaces.

People using ‘trans’ don’t often talk about people who are transgender by way of gender expression not identity, or who don’t have a gender identity, or whose gender identity changes at different times. They don’t tend to cover people who feel that they are both cisgender and transgender in different ways, or who feel uncomfortable with gender but can’t see their experience reflected in any of the narratives, or if they do they use words other than ‘trans’ to describe this.

I believe that all those people fit my ideal inclusive definition of ‘trans’ and ‘transgender’, and I think that they should be able to feel comfortable using ‘trans’ for themselves if they wish. But I also know that for many of them, being in trans spaces is to expect and experience casual erasure and microaggressions, or even outright policing and hostility. And that no one has the right to insist that someone must be comfortable with a term they find problematic and unwelcoming.

Because of all this, ‘trans*’ was suggested as a way to explicitly include the genderqueer, gender variant, gender role nonconforming, crossdressing, fluid gender, agender etc people who didn’t feel ‘trans enough’ to know if they would be included otherwise. To say, “we know you’re usually pushed out of or erased by these sorts of things, but we’re trying to do better”. It’s meant to be a shorthand when space is limited, and it’s meant be backed up by actual inclusion in both words, policies and actions. But it exists as a quick and easy way to show those people who are used to being pushed out of trans spaces that yes, this is for you too.

And because it is a more comfortable and less pressured term for some people, there are now good numbers of people who feel more comfortable with ‘trans*’ than ‘trans’, or who still don’t consider themselves ‘trans’ but will use ‘trans*’, or who aren’t fully comfortable with any form of ‘trans’ but understand that ‘trans*’ is more welcoming to them. There are now even those who identify with ‘trans*’ itself as their primary label of self description.

I don’t believe that ‘trans*’ has done more to push people out of ‘trans’ than make people feel included. I believe that they were already feeling pretty strongly pushed and excluded before this. From what I’ve seen, it’s pulled in more people who previously only felt comfortable with descriptions like ‘transgender’, ‘not cisgender’, ‘genderqueer’ etc and allowed them to also use ‘trans’ or ‘trans*’ for themselves.

Who owns, and gets to criticise ‘trans*’?

While I do have problems with the way ‘trans*’ is constructed, and do find it unwieldy and somewhat inconvenient to use, I’m also very cautious about criticising something that is another person’s identity, or the only gesture that keeps some marginalised transgender people from disengaging from trans communities entirely.

I know that I shouldn’t really be criticising it, because ‘trans*’ isn’t really FOR me. It’s for people who have to defend themselves and their right to use ‘trans’ because other trans people outright tell them that they’re not allowed to. It’s for people who almost never see ‘trans’ used in a way that doesn’t casually erase their experience. And it’s for the people who are questioning whether they really qualify. And also for those who are certain that ‘trans’ definitely doesn’t include them, because they looked and already decided that it was talking about something different to their transgender, gender variant or gender role nonconforming experience. It’s for people who already discounted that ‘trans’ could include them and chose different words for self description, who have only come back to trans spaces at all since the asterisk has included them.

I also know that, even if I wanted to, I don’t get to say whether we should only say ‘trans’ or that people who use ‘trans*’ for themselves should choose a different word. And that’s because it’s not my word to criticise. As someone who’s confident that ‘trans’ and ‘trans person’ DO include me, it’s not me who would lose out if ‘trans*’ was taken away. Yes, I’m nonbinary, genderqueer and mostly agender and these are reasons that people are excluded, and reasons why I remember how crappy it is to be unsure, starting out and not feel welcomed or even understood by any groups or resources. But I now speak from the position of having a gender dysphoria diagnosis, validation from gender specialists and a clear transsexual medical history (albeit a nonstandard one).

If someone were to erase, ignore or dismiss my right to define as a trans person now (and it does certainly happen), I can laugh them out of the room. I know that I fit almost every part of the transition narrative except the binary gender that some people expect, and even then I can point those people to the DSM-5 and version 7 of the Standards of Care to show that ‘an other gender’ is now officially legitimised (even if many gender clinics are trying to avoid following those guidelines).

Do I think that fitting the narratives or having medical validation should be in any way relevant to who gets to count as ‘trans’? No, absolutely not, I would strongly reject that assertion. But I also can’t ignore the fact that this does nonetheless grant me a type of privilege, security or confidence that other types of transgender, gender variant and gender role nonconforming people might not have in many trans spaces.

It isn’t necessarily whether your gender fits the binary options that defines whether you’re secure enough in these spaces to not need more than just ‘trans’ to welcome you in (and, of course, I don’t just mean words or a symbol as ‘more’ here, I mean some actual inclusivity work to back that up and make sure they actually mean anything real), it’s whether you fit enough of the dominant transgender narrative. If you’re not one of the people who is used to being erased in the vast majority of ‘Trans 101′ primers, even the ones that include nonbinary identities in some way, then the asterisk probably isn’t meant for you.

Reasons for respectful, constructive criticism

All this said though, there is legitimate criticism of the way ‘trans*’ is misused, usually by people who don’t need the asterisk themselves. This isn’t to criticise the identities and experiences of anyone who uses ‘trans*’ for themselves, but to look at certain problematic ways that it’s used by or about others.

Since this current wave of criticism and controversy started, I’ve seen plenty of people who have previously used ‘trans*’ to describe others, make it clear from their comments that they had very little idea what the connotations of ‘trans*’ were actually meant to be. Most of them seem to have just assumed that it meant ‘transsexual and transgender’ (but not the all inclusive umbrella term form of transgender), some others thought it meant ‘binary and nonbinary’. This is worrying, but explains a lot of confusing misuse I’ve observed.

Since ‘trans*’ has spread and been adopted outside of the groups who coined and popularised it, I’ve seen way too many posts and discussions using ‘trans*’ in a way that excludes the people it was meant to be including (like the people who actually use the label) by, for example, talking in terms of transition or in terms of dysphoria or in terms of gender identity, using words that imply that these are universal experiences for all ‘trans* people’.

If we put an asterisk on the end of ‘trans’ and don’t change anything else, this could genuinely be worse than nothing. It really is ‘inclusion theatre’ as Reed suggests, no better than people who use ‘LGBT’ interchangeably with ‘gay’.

That trend honestly makes me wonder if we do need another word that makes the intentions of wide inclusion and not needing to fit the narratives as clear as possible, one that people can’t misconstrue. But then it also makes me wonder if there’s a general trend by which any word or umbrella term coined by marginalised people to include a wide disparate group who don’t fit the dominant narrative (e.g. ‘transgender’, ‘genderqueer’, ‘trans*’ etc) will ultimately end up being associated with the most visible group of people within that umbrella. Either way, we definitely do need more primers, resources and articles like this one that make it harder to misunderstand the intentions and connotations of the asterisk.

It’s also important to consider the types of exclusion that ‘trans*’ doesn’t address. There is no shortage of examples of events that advertised trans* inclusivity but in practice excluded some segment of the trans* umbrella. Intersectional oppressions are often at work here, be it the privileging of masculinity or androgyny, transmisogynistic exclusion of trans women or of people based on the gender they were assigned at birth. There’s also the intersectional oppressions that can affect people regardless of how they are trans*, be it the privileging of certain ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds, or the lack of effort taken to accommodate the access needs of all abilities and disabilities.

So what now?

The situation with ‘trans*’ isn’t perfect, and I’ve seen a lot of criticism from people on all sides of this discussion, including some marginalised people who don’t use ‘trans*’ and do feel that they have to resist the pressure caused by the existence, and potential policing, of there being two variations on ‘trans’.

And yes, maybe I’d prefer a better word, but it isn’t really my word to critique, it’s not me who needs it. ‘Trans*’ isn’t there for people who fit the narratives and feel comfortable owning ‘trans person’, it’s for all those whose experience of gender differs not just from societal norms but also from perceived trans community norms, who wouldn’t have shown up at an event or used a service otherwise, unless there was something to say that yes, this really is for you too.

Wherever you fall in this debate, whether you want to use ‘trans*’ or not, I’d suggest that the way to make a real difference is to actually demonstrate inclusivity, in your words, in your descriptions and in your actions. Don’t just use ‘trans’ or ‘trans*’ thoughtlessly, but actually consider who it is that needs transgender resources, events and services but doesn’t feel ‘trans enough’ to use them, or who experiences discomfort, erasure, policing or even outright hostility when they try to get involved. Think about what you can do to actually include everyone under the wider transgender, gender variant and gender role nonconforming umbrellas, and how to demonstrate this clearly to make them all feel welcome and included.

Lesbilicious writer asks how ‘helpful’ nonbinary gender is

Posted by – September 21, 2013

Lesbilicious logoIn the September issue of DIVA, the “lifestyle magazine for lesbian and bi women in the UK”, Meg Barker wrote a feature article ‘Gender beyond the binary’ (featured on the cover as ‘Queering Gender’) exploring nonbinary gender identities.

In response to this article, Hattie Lucas wrote an article for Lesbilicious “the web’s tastiest lesbian magazine” asking ‘Non-binary gender identities: how helpful are they for challenging gender rules?’

The Lesbilicious article discusses how nonbinary identities “have become ridiculous and provide fruit ripe for satire”, goes on to ridicule the “laughable” idea of asking for preferred pronouns and to generally conclude that having a nonbinary gender is impractical. Ultimately it focuses on how helpful adopting nonbinary identities can be for challenging the rules and roles around gender, and concludes that we’re as unlikely to cause a shift in public conscious as the Monster raving loony party.

Having been unable to access more than the first few paragraphs of the original DIVA article, I felt sure that it must have somehow misrepresented all nonbinary people as personal-as-political protestors choosing to adopt our identities as a challenge to society’s rigid gender roles. So I paid for and downloaded the September issue and read it for myself.

It turns out that Meg Barker’s article quite clearly and sensitively explains that those of us with nonbinary identities are people who don’t fit into the gender binary, a small but significant minority of trans* and/or intersex people who are unable to feel comfortable with living as either their assigned gender or the other binary alternative. The article discusses several ways that we, as a diverse group, have found language that authentically expresses our genders (or lack of gender) and pronouns that respect them. Talks about the difficulties of doing this and how gender clinics are gradually recognising the validity of our experiences and helping those of us who need it to access treatment for our gender dysphoria.

It does early on, while listing the meanings of various labels say that “Some […] explicitly want to challenge the binary (genderqueer or genderfuck)”, which I think is unfortunately ambiguous wording that should have made it clearer that it’s only some of the people using those labels who might want to do that, and that both are usually also from a position of self-expression. It might also have explained that someone engaging in genderfuck is usually presenting an intentionally challenging mixture of different gender cues that attempts to break the gender perceptions of others, not actually (usually) an identity in itself. But this was a detailed article limited to two pages of the magazine and so had to edit out at least some of the specifics.

It also concludes by mentioning that our existence can teach everyone that “gender is more complex than box M or box F” and that “humans are more creative than the boxes we’d like to give ourselves”, which may be some of the source of confusion due to its general message. But to take these two lines within an article that repeatedly talks about things like “being true to your experience” and “an authentic sense of self outside of the gender binary”, and then assume that all nonbinary gender is some kind of practical strategy for “challenging gender rules”, seems like an impressive failure to empathise with the personal stories within.

As most of the commenters on that article have said, most nonbinary people disclose, ask for their preferred pronouns and/or transition in order to authentically express who we are, or in many cases to resolve gender dysphoria that can be as significant as any binary trans* person’s.

Yes, many people who disclose or present their nonbinary status do so in order to challenge gender rules and conceptions that don’t include them, but this isn’t usually the primary motivation.

I can speak from my personal experience as an androgynously presenting gender neutral person and say that I most definitely didn’t transition with hormone treatments and surgery, or disclose my identity and preferred pronouns in order to educate people or break rules. I did it to be able to be comfortable in my skin and not feel like a fraud around others. This is who I am, not some kind of intentionally political statement, even if being myself in the world does sometimes have this kind of effect.

Yes, I would like to expand society’s understanding of gender and tolerance of gender variance, in so far as I’d like to be able to go through life without being misgendered or assaulted, without ‘respectful’ language hurting me, and without irrelevant details of my birth assignment and genital configuration being exposed by documentation. I realise that in today’s society this is often impractical and open to ridicule, but it is the reality of my existence.

I didn’t get to choose whether or not to have gender dysphoria and what type of transition, gender expression and language resolved it. I was able to choose a label and a description that helped me find comfort, helped people to understand me, and helped me to find others who felt the same way. I think that’s the measure by which our labels, gender expressions and pronouns should be judged, as that is their actual purpose, even if they have the side effect of also expanding some people’s conceptions of gender.

I hope Hattie Lucas will think again about nonbinary gender, and re-read Meg Barker’s excellent DIVA article, this time without the apparent assumption that the people described experience gender in the same way that she does.

A call for questions about gender beyond the binary

Posted by – May 4, 2013

After a successful project where a panel of trans people answered 21 questions, CN Lester is again asking for questions about trans* issues, this time focusing on the experiences of people with genders beyond the binary.

A new panel has been formed, and I’m pleased to be among the people who’ll be answering your questions after the 8th of May.

Do you have questions about genderqueer, androgyny, nonbinary and gender variant etc issues you’ve been embarrassed to ask? It doesn’t matter whether you think they’re extremely basic questions that should be obvious or if you’re worried they’ll upset us, please ask. Think of this as like an amnesty for questions you haven’t been sure about asking but genuinely don’t understand.

Once we’ve answered the questions, this will form a 101 resource for helping people to understand genders that can’t be explained with just ‘man’ or ‘woman’, so the most questions we have, the better we’ll be able to help.

Please go here and add your questions by Wednesday the 8th of May

Update: The master post of all 24 Beyond The Binary panel questions is here. Thanks to everyone who posed us questions, and to CN for doing such a brilliant job bringing it all together!

Nonbinary gender information and practical resources wiki

Posted by – January 27, 2013

nonbinary.orgYou may have noticed that this site has been conspicuously low on updates in recent months, and for this I apologise. I’m hoping that this will change in the near future, but in the meantime I wanted to draw your attention to a related project that I sent up last year.

Nonbinary.org has aspirations to create a nonbinary gender visibility, education and advocacy network, arguing for equal access to employment, services and medical treatment for those who don’t fit the gender binary. In its current state it’s a wiki open for anyone to edit, collecting information about all types of nonbinary gender identity and expression, including the kinds of practical resources that Practical Androgyny aims to provide.

Rather than focusing on androgyny or any other single presentation or identity alone, Nonbinary.org hopes to unite all gender variant and nonconforming people whose experience falls outside the binary. Rather than relying on the health, energy, attention and ability of one person, the wiki structure allows anyone to edit or add to the information and resources collected on the site.

Several people have already got involved. As well as articles by myself covering concepts such as the history and usage of the term genderqueer and agender identity, numerous people have contributed to the section on the recognition of nonbinary identities in the UK started by Lottiotta and there are lengthy articles on subjects such as nonbinary transition and UK NHS healthcare by MxZirself.

There’s a lot more work to do and numerous gaps in our coverage, and so new users are welcome and encouraged. If you’re able to provide resources and information relevant to your gender identity or expression, or to your region or country, do please consider getting involved!

WAM!-It-Yourself: Improving Media Coverage Beyond The Binary

Posted by – April 3, 2012

WAM!-It-YourselfOn Sunday March the 25th I took part in a radio-style talk show looking at how the media covers nonbinary and nonconforming gender and what we can do to make that coverage better.

Hosted by Avory Faucette of QueerFeminism.com and Radically Queer as part of Women Action Media‘s WAM!-It-Yourself events, the show featured guests with expertise in gender-neutral parenting, nonbinary identities, and media coverage of transgender issues. The discussion looked closely at some misunderstandings the media makes and how we can take action to educate and improve coverage.

As well as myself, guest included Arwyn Daemyir, creator of Raising My Boychick; Gunner Scott, Director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition and Marilyn Roxie, creator of Genderqueer Identities and intern at the Center for Sex & Culture.

During the discussion we considered topics including major media coverage of gender-neutral parenting and education in 2011, the media’s refusal to take supermodel Andrej Pejic’s stated identity seriously, and what articles on genderqueer and other identities get right and wrong. We also explored the best way to cover less familiar gender identities, how journalists can describe gender in a way that is less harmful to nonbinary or questioning individuals, and how blogs and social media are changing the conversation.

As well as speaking as an androgynously presenting nonbinary person, I also added a UK perspective and raised the differences between North American and British media coverage and activism.

Listen to the entire show as a streamed recording. My contribution begins at around 45 minutes but I’d recommend listening from the beginning. A transcript will be available within the next few weeks.

Resources mentioned

Trans Camp video responses

Posted by – January 12, 2012

The UK trans* activist organisation Trans Media Action is running Trans Camp on January 13th at the offices of Channel 4.

Trans Camp will bring together trans* people, developers, designers and innovators to come up with ideas to improve the lives of trans* people using web technologies and the media.

In order to make sure the widest range of experiences are covered, they asked for one minute video responses from trans* people around the UK explaining their experiences of childhood, media, comedy and family. (At the time of writing, you still have a day to upload videos of your own).

The following are my responses to the four questions Trans Media Action posed for Trans Camp:

CHILDHOOD: For those of you who knew, what was it like growing up as a trans child?

I didn’t know, but I chose to talk about how I was still a trans* child:


TransCamp. Childhood: Nat in Nottingham

Transcript

I didn’t know I was a trans* child but I was still trans*.

I was lucky enough to have a pretty gender neutral upbringing. No one in my family really cared about gender roles and there was very little gender segregation at my primary school, so I managed to just be myself, be friends with who I wanted and was happily oblivious to just how much of a problem gender was going to become for me.

I didn’t realise I was trans* until my late teens, but I knew I was different from about age 12.

Other kids at secondary school made a really big deal about gender and I was immediately singled out for being a bit weird and not performing my assigned gender in the way that peer pressure demanded.

This had a particularly negative effect on me because I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with my body as puberty began.

For most of my teens I was an unhappy kid who desperately wanted to fit in and be normal, but everything I did to try to conform just made me feel even worse about myself.

I desperately needed to be told what transgender was, how it could be a positive thing and how it could be me.

Notes

I often wonder if things would’ve gone differently had I realised that I could do something about it when I had the revelation aged 17 that I was supposed to be androgynous, and if I’d have had that revelation any earlier if this sort of thing were talked about as normal in schools or on TV.

As it was, it took until I was 19 to realise that I was so unhappy with my body that I ‘must be transsexual’ and another two years after transition to stop struggling to live with another gender role that made me just as uncomfortable as the first.

MEDIA: How does media coverage of trans people affect you?

I chose to talk about nonbinary erasure and misrepresentation:


TransCamp. Media: Nat in Nottingham

Transcript

I’m nonbinary, that means I live as something other than a woman or a man. It also means I have next to no representation in the media.

Even in documentaries featuring trans* people with genderqueer or gender binary challenging identities or histories, like some of the participants in My Transsexual Summer, these are simplified, glossed over or completely edited out in fear of ‘confusing’ the general public.

If my life experiences are ever touched upon, they’re simplified to the point of misrepresentation. If I’m to be hinted at, it’s in the suggestion that some people are ‘in between’.

My gender and my body are not ‘between’ anything. My gender is not a balancing act. I’m not in the middle ground, I haven’t gone halfway and stopped. I am not half a woman and half a man, I’m not following two sets of sexist stereotypes. I do not ‘pick and choose’ about gender. And I’m not ‘on the fence’. And I’ve definitely not ‘de-transitioned’.

I’m a trans* person, I’m doing what I need to do to be true to myself.

Notes

Of course not all nonbinary people object to being described as ‘in between'; that’s an accurate description of some people’s gender identities. But there are many more people besides me whose experiences of being agender, bigender, fluid gender, genderqueer etc are erased by that simplification.

In my case, I experienced gender dysphoria and I did what it was necessary to do to become comfortable with my body. Doing so didn’t fix my social dysphoria though. I tried to be a ‘classic transsexual’, I tried to pretend to be a gender I didn’t truly feel I was. But I found ‘passing’ made me just as socially dysphoric as my assigned gender role had done.

It turned out that transition just wasn’t the perfect ‘package deal’ I’d been sold in the brochure, I had to go off the beaten track to find my own way to authentically express myself to the world.

It would be nice to see this represented in the media at all, especially on TV shows where some of the participants have similar feelings.

(And no, ‘androgyny’ and ‘androgyne’ don’t have to mean ‘in between’; the dictionary definition boils down to ‘having both male and female traits’, and anyway that’s my appearance not my gender).

COMEDY: How do comedy portrayals of trans people affect you?

I talk about how comedy tends to only give problematic representations of a small subset of trans* experiences, and how it could be better:


TransCamp. Comedy: Nat in Nottingham

Transcript

When I tell people I’m trans*, comedy stereotypes often spring to their minds, but they almost always have the wrong idea. There aren’t many television comedy portrayals of androgynous or nonbinary people. Only the early 90s androgynous Saturday Night Live character ‘Pat’ springs to mind.

There are also almost no trans* men in TV comedy, and trans* women are either laughed at for not being able to ‘pass’ – like the deep voiced and hairy chested Barbara from League of Gentlemen – or shown as attractive, feminine and desirable, but with the punchline that they are ‘really a man’.

Comedy shouldn’t make fun of things people can’t help, but it could focus on the things they do. Trans* experiences are often funny. Barbara could’ve been brilliant satire if she was just a woman who over-shared about her transition.

Better still, comedy could focus on the often amusing ways that others react to trans* people – at their best the Pat skits drew their humour from the ridiculous lengths that polite people went to when unable to gender someone, of course, they never asked! – And this invited the audience to think twice about the nature of gender – something I’d like to see more!

Notes

I didn’t have time to mention the standup comedy of Andrew O’Neill whose material about being treated as androgynous while crossdressing has me grinning and nodding in recognition. But, as I hadn’t seen that in the media but in person, it didn’t make the cut down to one minute.

I don’t mean to imply that the SNL Pat sketches were perfect, only what they managed to do when they’re at their best. The Pat character is hardly a positive representation (although it’s nice to see the trope of androgynous people as highly sexual and desirable completely avoided!) and the movie spinoff It’s Pat is frankly terrible.

Is Pat really a trans* character? We’ve no way to know for sure as the character’s identity is ambiguous. In fact ambiguity is rather the point. However the character clearly transgress gender roles and transcends other people’s attempts to gender them, so that counts as trans* to me.

FAMILY: How have you experienced support, or lack of, from family and friends?

I talk about having a supportive family despite there being very few success stories to point to in the media when I first came out:


TransCamp. Family: Nat in Nottingham

Transcript

My family are accepting and supportive of me, they’ve never shown any disapproval of anything I’ve needed to do to be happy and true to myself. They’ve never had a problem with using my name and pronouns of preference. In fact my parents have become adept at gender neutral language, I often find myself being introduced to their friends with ‘this is my eldest, Nat’.

I know I’m very lucky in this respect, but I also know it’s clear to them and anyone else that my ‘transition’ was undoubtedly right for me, and I’m happier, confident and more successful having resolved my gender dysphoria.

That wasn’t always the case though. When I first came out as trans* in the late 90s, my parents had to make a ‘leap of faith’. All they ever wanted was for me to be happy and loved, but unlike if I’d come out as gay, there were no obvious ‘trans* success stories’ in the media, no trans* news readers or TV presenters, no trans* politicians. I couldn’t hand them a newspaper list of Influential Trans* People or pick up a trans*-focused magazine equivalent to Diva or Gay Times.

My parents were essentially ignorant to the trans* experience and so I had to become my own positive example.

Notes

I didn’t have time during the video to make it clear that I was coming out as a classic binary transsexual the first time around, when my family were most concerned and most in need of positive role models and representation to reassure them.

When I came out as being neither binary gender and living androgynously they’d had two years of seeing that I was clearly happier with myself and able to be loved and liked by others, so they were a lot less concerned and trusted me to know myself and what was right for me.

View all the Trans Camp video responses as a YouTube playlist


* The asterisk at the end of ‘trans*’ denotes that this is the wider inclusive form of trans that includes all transgender, transsexual, nonbinary, genderqueer, gender variant and gender nonconforming people regardless of gender identity or expression.

Vocal androgyny in speech and singing

Posted by – October 31, 2011


Video: Practical Androgyny – Vocal androgyny in speech and singing – Download audio-only version

Video Summary

Full summary of the video follows with links to all the people and songs mentioned. Alternatively you can skip directly to the bonus content at the end.

Introduction

The video talks about vocal androgyny, both in speaking voice and in singing voice.

I’ve seen a lot of videos out there aimed a binary transgender people (so, guys or girls) looking to develop a voice that is more easily perceived as their true gender rather than their assigned gender, but there’s very few for nonbinary, genderqueer, gender variant or gender nonconforming people who wish to produce an ambiguous, more androgynous voice that defies binary gender classification.

I like singing, it’s really important for me and I think my singing has helped me to gain more control of my voice in general, so I think it’s right to cover both speaking voice and singing voice in the same overview video.

Before I start, here’s a bit about me; I’m nonbinary, my gender is complicated but I live as ‘gender neutral’ with an androgynous presentation. I transitioned medically about 12 years ago but still experienced gender dysphoria from what was supposed to be ‘passing’, so about two years later I transitioned again to a more intentionally androgynous state. I’ve been presenting androgynously for over a decade now.

Obviously my voice has been changed by testosterone (I have quite a lot of resonance in my chest), but I’m lucky enough to have ended in a the higher end of a male range – I sing as a high tenor, possibly a little low alto too.

I want this video to be as useful to as many people as possible so I’m going to try to cover a lot of different types of voices, not just those like mine, but obviously I have the most experience with my voice! But I’ll try to cover people whose voices are higher than mine or lower than mine.

I don’t want to make assumptions about whether your voice has been affected by testosterone, or if it has I don’t want to assume when and why that happened. I’m also only going to assume your aiming to be more vocally ambiguous, nothing about your gender or identity – for all I know you could even be a cisgender voice actor looking for tips or you could be looking at this out of sheer curiosity!

I’m not a vocal expert or a trained singer, I have very little formal training (I had two singing lessons over the summer, that’s it). So I’m self-taught – expect any music theory I try to include to be a little bit wonky!

I have been dysphoric about my voice for a very long time. When I was a teenager I used to cope with my voice my being a mimic, singing in the voices of other people. I could sing songs I loved and think it wasn’t my voice but someone else’s, so disconnect from the fact that they were assigned a gender by those listening to me.

I’ve never felt comfortable with either binary gender and I’ve always been drawn towards androgyny, so I’ve been exposed to and singing like the voices of vocally androgynous people for most of my life. I think as a result I think I’ve become at least a bit more adept at controlling my voice.

Warming Up

If you’re going to work though these exercises yourself, especially if you’re planning to sing, be sure to relax (very important!), keep your back straight, loosen your shoulders and keep them relaxed but don’t slouch forwards (although I realise many trans* people have issues around their chests and prefer slouching posture). I’ve already warmed up, you have a vocal warm up of your own, maybe sing a little and get used to finding the lowest and highest pitches your voice is comfortable at. I have some sweet ginger tea here and as I’m asthmatic I also just took my inhaler as a pre-emptive strike (my doctor recommends this).

Pitch

OK so let’s start off with vocal pitch, how high or how low your voice is. Most people believe this is the only vocal gender cue. The pitch of your voice can be extended by altering where you’re speaking from, which part of your body is being allowed to resonate. Obviously your voice comes from your throat, but it’s affected by whether you’re making use of the ‘resonance chamber’ in your chest. The two extremes are singing from your chest only, or singing from your throat only. These are typically conceived of as a ‘chest voice’ and a ‘head voice’.

You’ve heard my normal speaking voice, well here’s my unaltered singing voice with nothing fancy going on

[Sings a verse of Second Hand Songs by Jonathan Turner]

Chest Voice

As I said before, my voice is affected by testosterone so my chest voice is quite resonant and so gives a more impressive contrast, so I’ll start there. Despite my vocal range not going down particularly low, it still sounds impressively deep compared to normal when I speak or sing in chest voice. Even if your voice has not been affected by testosterone and won’t be so dramatic, you will have a chest voice that you can speak in to emphasise the deepest parts of your voice (Look for resources aimed at men with high voices and naturally transitioning trans guys for help with this [if you have recommendations for these, please suggest them in the comments!]).

[Humorous chest voice example sounding like a pretentious Shakespearian actor and Brian Blessed]

My go to song for singing in chest voice alone is Mmm mmm mmm mmm by the Crash Test Dummies:

[Sings a verse of that]

If you’re planning on taking testosterone, I recommend singing that every day to track your progress as it’ll be deeply satisfying when your chest resonance kicks in.

Head Voice

So head voice is cutting out the chest entirely and only talking from the head, and I can go even higher and push into falsetto which with my particular sounds kind of unnatural and babyish or like a cartoon character, but can be useful for hitting higher notes. Depending on what your range is like, your falsetto may sound totally different to mine and might be something you’ll use far more than me.

If you’re interested in learning how to do push your pitch up like that, search for tutorials aimed at helping trans women to find voices they’re comfortable with, there are some excellent and very effective tutorials out there [again, I’m looking for recommendations of resources to link to – please comment below!].

As an example of me singing in head voice without putting on any of the vocal techniques I’ll look at later, I’ll sing something that sounds almost like a choir boy:

[Sings a verse from Who Will Buy This Wonderful Morning from Oliver!]

Now you’ll have noticed while I was going in and out of those examples that it’s perfectly possible to start in the chest voice, raise the pitch, gradually add more and more head voice and take away chest voice until you’re talking in head voice alone. Obviously regardless of what vocal range you have, somewhere within that process will be your ‘androgynous pitch’.

It’s been my experience that although voice pitch is a gender cue, it’s not necessarily the highest point your voice goes but the range it covers. If you have a voice with audible chest resonance under it, it can be quite high and still perceived as male or androgynous.

Mixing Both

If you’ve done any singing lessons you’ve probably been taught that mastering your chest and head voices is vital and the richest, most pleasing singing voices mix the qualities of both the head and chest voice into one unified sound. I’ve certainly found that this is something I tend to do when I’m singing androgynously, and you’ll likely hear that almost all the voices I’ll sing in (and the singers I’m mimicking) from now on have that quality to some degree.

As for speaking voice, my own speaking voice (as well as varying wildly in pitch depending on what I’m thinking and who I’m speaking to), having analysed it with a pitch range analysis computer program, has a low chest voice firmly in the male range and a high head voice that’s outside of the male range that I somehow unconsciously mix together as I speak. This results in my voice being surprisingly androgynous. Often if I’m passed between two people on the phone one may read me as female, the other as male. Which is annoying sometimes but also kind of brilliant as it means I’m ‘passing’ as androgynous.

Other factors

Vocal gender cues aren’t just based on pitch. The average vocal ranges for adult female-assigned (not affected by testosterone) voices and male-assigned voices affected by testosterone overlap quite comfortably. There are plenty of well known female voices that are well within the male range and vice versa. Pitch is not the only signifier of gender – intonation, speech patterns, range, choice of words and degree of chest resonance are all factors. If we’re in that overlap then the way they speak, like an accent, is what causes people to read their voices as female or male.

For example, Joanna Lumley of Perdy from the Avengers and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous has a particularly low voice that’s nonetheless perceived as female. That’s all down to intonation, speech patterns and a kind of whispery husky quality.

If you have a high voice, you could adopt aspects of the voice and intonations of Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones – this voice is quite high but it’s kept quite flat and drawn out.

[Speaks ‘in the voices’ of each as demonstration]

Obviously those were both extremely exaggerated and quite poor impersonations, but I’m not trying to sound like them exactly, I’m trying to take on certain qualities of their voices. By learning to do that and listening to the results, you can find places you can push your voice that sound more like you while keeping those androgynous qualities. I recommend listening around for celebrities of the other binary gender to your assignment with a speaking pitch similar to the highest or lowest (which every you’re aiming for) pitch you’re able to comfortably speak in, then practice taking on aspects of their voices.

Mimicking androgynously toned singers

Now for singing voice, there are a number of singers who sing in an androgynous way and within the female/male pitch range overlap. Find one that fits into your range and work to perfect singing in that style. Yes, you’re doing an impersonation but you’re really not singing in someone else’s voice. You’ll notice that when I sing ‘as’ other singers, I still sound like myself, I’m still using my voice and putting my unique interpretation on the end result. So it starts as mimicry, but really you’re singing in your voice just finding new ranges and techniques that you can adopt, and making all of these songs and vocal styles your own. So well done!

Singers featured:

James Blunt – Beautiful – Has quite a high voice

Tracy Chapman – Fast Car – Her voice is androgynous and lower than James Blunt’s

Nico – These Days – Her voice was useful to me as it involves going down to low notes without shifting into chest voice

Tori Amos – Cornflake Girl – Is in high tenor-ish range but firmly female sounding

Thom Yorke of Radiohead – Karma Police – Is in a similar range to Tori Amos but sounds male

Mama Cass Eliot – Dream A Little Dream of Me – Lower than Tori Amos and female sounding, could be more comfortable for lower voices to mimic

Soul music is often sung in a rich, multi-toned, androgynous style, for example a male singer and a female singer who have similar voices:

Aloe Blacc – I Need A Dollar

Nina Simone – Feeling good

If you want to learn the tropes of this vocal style, start with someone really exaggerated and work back to more natural sound, I personally learned to sing this way by impersonating Heather Small from M People.

Higher or thinner voices

If you have a higher voice and you’re looking for someone to mimic, try the legendary David McAlmont whose high male voice is mostly out of my range.

If you can only sing in a ‘thin’ high range, like a falsetto, you could find singers who have particularly high/reedy voice but manage to make that sound strong or androgynous. My favourite example of this are Skin from Skunk Anansie who talks in a surprisingly ‘small’ voice but has a bold ‘big’ singing voice:

Skin – Skunk Anansie – Brazen

And for a Male androgynous falsetto voice try icon Brian Molko from Placebo, my favourite of his is:

Placebo – 36 Degrees

If you have a female sounding ‘thinner’ high voice and you want to sound more male, try mimicking male singers with a classically falsetto sound. Jimmy Somerville is probably the archetypal example.

Wrapping up

Once you’ve mastered singing in a more androgynous way, then talking that way becomes kind of trivial. People with speak impairments like stammers often learn to sing as speech therapy and then put themselves in a singing state of mind while talking (this also means you can pretend your entire life is musical theatre, fabulous dharling!)

If you’ve got good at singing in the styles or androgynous singers within your range, you shouldn’t have too much problem taking a singer outside your range and pushing the song into a range you can achieve. So if you come across other singers with androgynous vocal qualities you wish to emulate, try singing in their style but in a lower or higher key to match your voice. If this proves difficult, listen to other singers in the same genre (my go to genre seems to be soul, yours may well be different) and start by emulating one closer to your comfort point.

You should also be able to take the aspects of other voices you’ve sung in and apply them to songs by other people, so sing a well known song in the style of a different singer, or mix up all the qualities you like from the voices you’ve mimicked and the new aspects of your voice you’ve developed to sing an interpretation that’s uniquely yours.

Well that’s the end, I hope you’ve found my perspective helpful!

[I end by singing my own personal interpretation of the Christina Aguilera song Beautiful, which on listening back sounds like a mash up of Tracy Chapman and Alex Parks‘ styles]

Bonus content

Speaking voice as an accent or an impersonation

A tip I meant to include in the video but don’t seem to have mentioned is to suggest that intentionally mimicking a particular person or a particular accent can be helpful when trying to learn a new vocal pitch or speech pattern.

When you put on an accent or do an impression of someone, you’re moving your voice into another ‘character’ rather than trying to make your own voice sound different. So it may be helpful to conceptualise your androgynous voice in the same way, as a character or accent you can move in and out of (as you’ll have seen me do several times throughout the video, including several times where I get ‘stuck’ in the wrong one!).

I think it’s significant that trans women who transition in a different city or country to where they grew up often find that the accent they were surrounded by when undergoing speech therapy ‘sticks’ with their new voice but report that their pre-transition voice in the lower pitch remains associated with the accent they grew up with.

Giving your voice more or less of a ‘singsong’ quality

Generally people who have been socialised in a female gender role tend to have a more expressive and singsong quality to their voice, while those socialised in a male gender role tend to keep their voice constrained in a lower range. Female socialisation also encourages women to raise the pitch of their voices slightly when talking to someone in a friendly tone.

Resources aimed at helping trans women to ‘pass’ vocally should be helpful in giving you a toolbox or palette of vocal social gender cues that you can then intentionally play up or suppress as you balance the other cues in your voice like pitch, range and husky qualities (as explained in the video).

There are also resources aimed at men with high voices (something that is deemed to be negative in our gender conformist hetero/cisnormative society) who wish to deepen their voices and naturally transitioning trans guys looking to make their voices more easily perceived by others as male without taking testosterone. These may well also give you tips that you can play up or play down (or do the opposite of!) to balance whatever vocal gender cues you’re trying to negate or blur.

If you have recommendations for your favourite existing voice therapy or voice training resources, please share them in the comments below!

Other singers with androgynous voices

My favourite sound is soulful and I tended to go back to soul singers for my examples, but there are a lot of androgynous voices out there across all sorts of genres. Look for the genre that resonates with you, fits your personality and feels like your most authentic self-expression.

Here are some vocally androgynous singers I love to listen to:

David McAlmont – One of the most influential singers in my teenage years. I briefly tried to sing the McAlmont and Butler song Yes in the video then realised it was too high for my range.

Alison Moyet – One of the most often cited female vocalists with androgynous vocal qualities

Greg Gilbert of Delays – Indie guitar band with a higher pitched male vocalist with a pleasant sound

Tanita Tikaram – Female vocalist with a lower voice that has ‘sultry’ aspects

Chris Colfer of The Glee Cast – Famous for having an amazingly pure sounding high voice with an impressive range. Much like with David McAlmont, I can’t hit half the notes in the high end of his range

D. Lucille Campbell of Help Stamp Out Lonliness – Strikingly similar to Nico but sings in a contemporary Indie style

CN LesterGenderqueer singer who sings early, classical and contemporary music. Their contemporary music tends to be in the high tenor range. (I recommend the song ‘Brackets’ on the EP Resurrection Men but all are fabulous)

Adèle Anderson of cabaret group Facinating AidaFamous trans woman singer whose voice was affected by male puberty but is firmly female sounding. She sings the lower pitched parts in the female cabaret group

Antony Heggarty of Antony and the Johnsons – Mecury music award winning transgender singer who seeks ‘an equilibrium between the genders’. Has a distinctive androgynous sound in the high tenor range

Alex Parks – Not necessarily androgynous but has an incredibly distinctive voice, one of my favourite singers of all time (you can hear her influence in my closing song)

If you’re looking for pop music, I’m afraid that’s not really my genre but Darren Hayes of Savage Garden and the ubiquitous Justin Bieber come to mind.

As I keep saying, please suggest your own favourite vocally androgynous singers in the comments below!

Useful links and resources

Practical Androgyny: Vocal androgyny: Speaking voice – From the Practical Androgyny Tumblr (which you should all be following!), talks about the voice pitch range analysing software I mentioned in the video

CN Lester’s Singing and vocal production for trans guys – Video tutorial aimed at trans guys but likely to be useful for everyone [disclosure – CN has given me two singing lessons in the past]

TransgenderVoice.net: Genderqueer – The genderqueer section from a transgender-specialising speech therapist’s website

Transguys.com: Testosterone and the trans male singing voice – Fantastic article full of videos about the affects of testosterone on the singing voice and the best way to transition using testosterone without losing your singing voice (NB, assumes male identity)

The Straight Dope: “That was a guy singing?!” wrong calls on singers’ genders thread – Useful for finding more androgynous voices

Please suggest your own resources in the comments!

Update: CN Lester’s Trans Beauty: Vocal Edition part 1 was inspired by this article – Packed with classical music videos showcasing high male/androgynous roles and female tenors, baritones and basses!

Being Constructive About the Independent on Sunday Pink List

Posted by – October 29, 2011

The Independent on Sunday Pink List 2011Last weekend the UK Independent on Sunday released their annual ‘Pink List’, described each year as a ‘celebration of the gay and lesbian community’. It’s been a tradition of mine to look through lists such as these each year and bemoan the lack of representation for the wider LGBT and queer communities. Last year’s list produced a lot of justified criticism for not including any visibly bisexual or openly trans* people and not representing the grassroots activists within the LGBT community. It’s been very easy to be critical of a list of ‘influential British LGBT people’ that reads as a hierarchy of mainly cisgender (as in, not identifying as trans*), apparently able-bodied, gay and lesbian famous people and politicians who mostly live in England, mainly London. Cynicism is especially easy when it’s arranged as a league table complete with comparisons to where each entry charted in the previous year.

Since last year’s list was released, Time Out Magazine produced an even more problematically structured ‘Pride Power’ list, which at least included one openly trans* person, highly deserving activist Christine Burns MBE, albeit handled in a pretty problematic way. As you’ll see from that blog post and its comments, that spurred Christine and the equally wonderful Trans Media Watch to put pressure on the Independent on Sunday to produce a truly trans* inclusive Pink List this year. As a result of this campaigning, and I’m sure pressure from other parts of the LGBT community, the IoS appointed trans* journalist and activist Paris Lees to the panel of judges and asked their readers to put forward their own ‘unsung champions’ and ‘heroes’ of the LGBT community for inclusion in the nominees for the 2011 list.

Real Progress

With those announced changes, I approached this year’s Pink List with some degree of optimism, and I was indeed extremely pleased to see a considerably improved list with:

  • The frankly amazing teacher Elly Barnes, who has done invaluable work to exorcise the ghost of Section 28 from the nation’s schools, in the top position
  • A performer clearly described as bisexual in the third position
  • More women included in top positions
  • An openly intersex activist in the ‘Nice to meet you section’
  • Six trans women and one trans man in the numbered league table
  • Another two trans women and one trans man in the Lifetime Achievement Awards
  • And yet another trans woman in the ‘Nice to meet you’ section

Note though, five of trans women included were not explicitly noted as trans*.

It was clear that this wasn’t just a small step towards token trans* representation as I’d worried, but a significant jump towards treating trans* people as equally valid members of the LGBT community.

Valid Criticism

Is the list perfect? No, by no means. It’s still arranged in league table format, it’s still mainly white, English, well educated, apparently able-bodied (there is not one mention of ‘disabled’, ‘disability’ or any particular impairments on the entire list), apparently dyadic (non-intersex) people. People who lampoon these things as ‘Pride Privilege Lists’ still have much to rightfully criticise.

My traditional scouring of the list has been to look for bisexual representation and, despite singer-songwriter Jessie J now appearing in third position with a clear declaration of bisexuality, there are no other entries described as ‘bi’ or ‘bisexual’. All other uses of ‘bisexual’ are simply writing out LGBT or ‘gay and bisexual’, there is not one usage of the term ‘bi’ which is preferred within the UK Bi Community or the word ‘queer’, my label of choice. There are other people on the list who I know are bisexual, but not one of them is identified as such, and so bi invisibility continues. As a long term active member of the UK Bi Community, which is hugely accepting of queer-identified, trans*, nonbinary and genderqueer people such as myself, I was particularly disappointed to see all the hard working bisexual activists overlooked yet again.

This year the Bi Community focused its visibility activism efforts onto equal bi inclusion in the Lesbian and Gay Foundation’s ‘Homo Heroes’ award, gaining hugely deserving nominees in four categories (none of whom won the popular vote). It’s quite telling that the trans community aimed its visibility activism one way, the bi community another and the end result was that two prominent perviously ‘lesbian and gay’ lists gained more inclusive representation for one of the usually overlooked B and T but not the other (although one of the bi ‘Homo Heroes’ nominees is also trans*, so L, G, B and T are all represented there). I think it’s highly likely that the next Bi Activist Weekend will be discussing strategy to get a bi activist judge on next year’s Pink List panel.

So yes, there is much to criticise and much of my immediate response (on Twitter) after congratulating those listed was to critique the list’s failings. Many others in the trans* community (and beyond) have criticised the list too, some with anger at how the trans* people who were included were all transitioned binary transsexual, mainly trans women rather than trans men, not people of colour and mostly from England rather than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There was considerable disappointment that not one openly nonbinary (living as neither a woman nor a man) or explicitly genderqueer (identifying as challenging the gender binary through non-normative gender expression – your definitions may vary, I find the distinction useful) person was included. The trans* people who were included all fit the dominant transgender narrative of cross-binary gender identity and transition.

Some people defending the lack of such people on the list have argued that no British nonbinary, genderqueer or solely gender nonconforming (as in not trans* in other respects) people have done anything notable enough yet and this will come with time. While this may be true of activists (those prominent in the field live overseas while British activists have only come to the fore recently), it isn’t the case of performers and famous people. What about Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror and Crystal Maze fame who came out as nonbinary transgender in 2009? What about stand up comedian, world famous actor, ‘executive transvestite’ and ‘male tomboy’ Eddie Izzard who has helped normalise femme male gender expression, has been an inspiration to a huge number of trans* people of all stripes for years and who recently ran seven weeks of back-to-back marathons (with Sundays off) across the UK to raise money for Sport Relief? Personally I’d have liked to see at least one nonbinary or genderqueer activist or performer on the ‘Nice to meet you’ list and I am hugely disappointed that CN Lester was overlooked for that honour. But I am hopeful for next year.

Unfortunately much of the perfectly valid criticism of the structure and composition of the list inadvertently reads as an attack on the trans women and men who are on the list for the first time this year. There is a very uncomfortable air of belittling or dismissing the achievements of the people who are on the list, because they are ‘tokenism’ or because others ‘more deserving’ are not there. Some of the critiques feel like they’re dragging those people down rather than lifting others up, which CN Lester eloquently describes and confronts here.

This Stuff Is Important

Much like CN, I had an ‘inspiration board’ on the wall of my teenage bedroom, full of printed out song lyrics, pictures and newspaper clippings that kept me going through my last couple of years as a closeted queer teenager at a rural comprehensive school (1996 to 98). My board included people like teenage Age Of Consent campaigners Chris Morris (who was the same age as me) and Euan Sutherland, and famous performers like Ellen Degeneres, Wilson Cruz, Brian Molko, David McAlmont, Ani DiFranco, Michael Stipe and Skin from Skunk Anansie. Being surrounded by images of successful queer and gender nonconforming people and listening to their music made me feel like less of a freak and gave me hope for the future.

As a community, we need visible inspirational ‘heroes’ to look up to. Some people survive, get through it and are inspired to succeed and perhaps become activists themselves due to newspaper articles just like this one. It is possible to critique the form of an award and the nature of the organisation that issued it while still seeing it as important and valuable. As little as I believe in the honours system and the monarchy, I still found it incredibly significant and inspiring when the establishment recognised the work of trans* activist Christine Burns by issuing her with an MBE in 2004 and Stephen Whittle by issuing him with an OBE in 2005.

Being Constructive

I see these lists and the tendency to single out certain prominent famous and notable people for recognition and awards as only problematic in isolation. If we let this be the only way that trans*, queer and LGBT people are celebrated in our communities, then yes, it is problematic. If we let this start a conversation about who else should be recognised and celebrated, the hard work that so many others do in our communities and all the different ways people make a difference, then it becomes just one of many ways that the deserving, inspiring people in our communities receive thanks.

When Dan Savage started the It Gets Better campaign, I was among the critics who found it deeply problematic. But it started a conversation that prompted complementary and constructive campaigns that focused on helping young people to Make It Better, and inspired many other It Gets Better videos that weren’t problematic in the ways that Savage’s had been. There are now some amazing trans* and queer It Gets Better videos out there and no end of testimonials from people saying how seeing them has helped them in the way my inspiration board helped me.

I would like to see positive and constructive reactions amongst the justified critiques of the organisation and form of the current Pink List. While campaigning for next year’s list to end bi invisibility, recognise bisexual, pansexual, asexual and queer activists and include more trans men, nonbinary, genderqueer and gender nonconforming people, we should also be putting forward our own lists of inspiring queer and trans* people, and thanking and celebrating all those who inspired us personally, or who have worked to make our lives better as queer or trans* people.

As such, last night I asked my Twitter followers to indulge me for a while as I thanked those who had inspired me. Rather than focusing solely on individuals, I tried to thank entire groups and classes of people who have helped our communities, while highlighting particular examples that I’ve personally come across and been inspired by. My own personal Inspiration List. You can read it in my Twitter favourites, starting at 10:12pm. Note, there are many many more people who I could name (each category was limited to 136 characters) and, as I was reacting to a list of inspirational British LGBT people, my list was intentionally focused on people from the UK. I would write a very different list if I was including those who are active in other countries and internationally.

I would love to read other people’s Inspiration Lists, especially international lists and lists covering queer and trans* communities of which I’m not a member. I encourage you all to thank everyone who’s inspired you, made it easier to be queer, trans* or gender nonconforming or helped you or your communities in practical ways.

Deserving Their Recognition

And let’s not forget that we do have eleven openly trans* people and several more trans* allies recognised within the Pink List article. Forget the numbering and the different categories and focus on the recognition these people have been rightfully given. As I said above, I want to see more trans* people included, more trans men, more trans* people assigned female at birth, more nonbinary, openly genderqueer and solely gender nonconforming people, and I want us to work towards getting those people into next year’s list and given recognition through our own community efforts, independent of The Independent. But let’s not play down the hugely important work those who are listed have done to represent, inspire and improve the lives of all trans* people.

So here’s my personal take on how some of the trans* people who are recognised in this year’s Pink List article have inspired and represented me as a nonbinary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, queer-identified, atypically transitioning, androgynously presenting trans* person…

Longterm Inspirations

I was extremely pleased to see people who have been personal longterm inspirations to me on the lists:

Stephen Whittle and Christine Burns, whose campaigning work for Press For Change was a practical help and inspiration to me while transitioning in the late 1990s, especially as their website and resources recognised that not all ‘trans people’ they campaigned for transition in the same way or at all, live ‘full time in role’ or identify as simply female or simply male.

It is thanks to Press For Change that Britain now has legal employment and provision of goods and services protection for trans* people (by adding the protected class of ‘gender reassignment’), including the changes in the Equality Act 2010 that mean those protections are no longer prerequisite on a ‘gender specialist’ psychiatrist’s approval or any medical treatments. Stephen has also featured in two prominent television documentaries about transsexual men and numerous trans* publications, providing inspiration to many. As mentioned above, Christine is one of the most vocal campaigners for recognition of the full diversity of trans* activists and influential people in lists such as these.

Travel writer Jan Morris whose groundbreaking 1974 memoir Conundrum and its journey through her transition (most notably chapter 12) was my first exposure to the reality that it was possible for me to become androgynous, it wasn’t just something that some people were naturally gifted with that I could never achieve. I cannot overstate how important this was to me and how much hope and inspiration it gave me as a dysphoric nonbinary person trying to find comfort with my body and social role.

Activists I Admire

I was also overjoyed to see recognition given to current activists who I admire, all of whom have in some way helped nonbinary and gender nonconforming trans* people as part of their work to represent the entire trans* community:

Sarah Brown, Britain’s only openly transgender activist serving in an elected political position; a Liberal Democrat Cambridge City Councillor, and chair of the Lib Dem Transgender Working Group. Sarah was instrumental (along with Zoe O’Connell) in influencing Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert to raise the issue of gender neutral documentation such as passports in the House of Commons. Something that will be vitally important to many nonbinary, genderqueer, transgender and gender nonconforming people in this country (including myself).

Jay Stewart of Gendered Intelligence, an organisation that does hugely important creative work with young transgender and genderqueer people and is explicitly inclusive of the wider transgender spectrum. Jay organised the wonderfully positive and inclusive Trans Community Conference, that I was lucky enough to attend this year, and was previously the chair of FTM London, an AFAB (assigned female at birth) trans* support and social group known for being inclusive of all identities and expressions within the wider transgender spectrum. I have briefly spoken with Jay and seen him speak from stage and on video. He comes across as someone who comfortably challenges stereotypical assumptions that all trans men are hyper-masculine. Read him here encouraging readers of the Times Educational Supplement to celebrate transgender students and allow male assigned students to express femininity in their schools.

Journalist Juliet Jacques (in the ‘Nice to meet you’ section) whose blogging for The Guardian has talked frankly about the process of coming to terms with being a trans woman and undergoing transition in a very public and visible way that has exposed the human story behind trans* people’s lives to a whole new audience. In her earlier articles, Juliet talks about how she did not have the stereotypical transsexual childhood story (in a way I hugely identified with), and tried on and explored numerous transgender identities and communities before transitioning. She writes about having been drawn to male crossdressers, made to feel less alone by the comedy of ‘action transvestite’ Eddy Izzard and going through years of identifying as a gay male crossdresser and later ‘transgender’ as described by Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein. As such she is one of the few journalists to have written about transgender people who ‘live beyond the traditional gender binary’ in a mainstream outlet.

Creative People

Creativity and consuming the creative works of others is hugely important to me. As such, I was pleased to see three creative trans women whose work I enjoy recognised in the lists as much for their non-activist careers and artistic merits as their work as ‘professional trans people':

Roz Kaveney is given recognition as a poet and novelist. I first saw Roz on television talking about science fiction and fantasy, then later met her in person through science fiction conventions (where she is well known and respected in the community of authors and fans). If you like a science fiction or fantasy author, Roz is probably friends with them. I later learned she is openly transsexual from her (highly recommended) poetry LiveJournal and from there found her Twitter feed, where she’s shared sonnets about transgender history, remembrance and bodies [NSFW], and challenged the prejudices of others (most notably Julie Bindel) in a relentlessly reasonable and open minded way. Roz is notable to the nonbinary community for having talked about neutrois (agender) identity along with the wider inclusive meaning of transgender, for the Guardian newspaper’s blog in June 2010.

Comedian Bethany Black is given recognition for being successful in the competitive and male dominated world of stand up comedy while being openly transsexual. She describes herself as “Britain’s only Goth, lesbian, transsexual stand-up comedian” and challenges binary transgender stereotypes enough to proudly feature in the MtF Butches Tumblr. She’s also very funny.

Actress and singer Adèle Anderson of marvellous humorous female cabaret group Facinating Aida is recognised under ‘lifetime achievement’. Adèle is recognised for her acting and singing career, and her campaigning for the British Humanist Association, most notably against the Pope’s recent state visit to the UK. Adèle came out as a trans woman in the mid-1980s after success while ‘stealth’, in part due to pressure from the press, she later talked publicly about how difficult that process was. As a transgender singer and lover of comedy music, I personally find inspiration in Adèle and her willingness to pursue a singing career despite the risk of it outing her.

To Conclude…

So while I am not aware of any nonbinary, genderqueer-identified or solely gender nonconforming trans* people recognised on the Pink List this year, every one of the trans* people listed above has either worked for their rights and/or recognition in some way, or challenged binary gender roles and the public’s stereotypical view of transgender people through their openness, their humour or their own gender nonconformity. I don’t know about you but, as a genderqueer and nonbinary person, I think that’s worth celebrating.

And let’s not overlook the significance of the inclusion of openly intersex activist and LGBTQQi addiction specialist Sarah Graham recognised in the ‘Nice to meet you’ section, who has been frank and open about her life experiences in an article for The Independent and an episode of the BBC radio programme The Essay broadcast on Radio 3.

Finally, we should not forget all the people on the list who work for trans* people as part of their careers or wider LGBT activism. I want to wrap up this article by pointing you at a video of the person who made the number one spot in this year’s Pink List, Elly Barnes talking about how her Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans History Month work in schools led to her pupils being exposed to positive queer and trans* role models in assembly and taught in science classes about how gender variance and transition is a normal part of some people’s lives. If Elly’s recognition in the Pink List leads to just one other teacher following her example and achieving the same, then it will have been an indisputable success.


* The asterisk at the end of ‘trans*’ denotes that this is the wider inclusive form of trans that includes all transgender, transsexual, nonbinary, genderqueer, gender variant and gender nonconforming people regardless of gender identity or expression.

Practical Androgyny talk at BiCon 2011, Leicester, UK

Posted by – August 20, 2011

BiCon is the UK’s biggest Bisexual Community gathering, running annually since 1982. BiCon 2011 is taking place in Leicester from Thursday the 1st to Sunday the 4th of September. Practical Androgyny’s editor Nat Titman has been an attendee since 2001, has run several transgender-related sessions over the last ten years and finds the UK Bi Community one of the most accepting spaces to express a non-binary gender.

For this year’s BiCon, Nat will be running a session on Practical Androgyny at 11am on the Saturday, 3rd of September:

In our binary gendered society where people are perceived as either female or male, androgyny is the act of presenting an ‘ambiguous’ gender that resists those perceptions. There are many reasons why someone might wish to adopt an androgynous gender presentation; they may have a non-binary gender (other than female or male), they may be in the process of transition between the binary genders or they may simply feel more comfortable expressing themself that way. This session aims to give a primer on non-binary gender and the practicalities of living with, or obtaining, an appearance that defies gender classification. There will be time provided for questions and answers.

Residential booking is now closed, but non-residential weekend and day passes are still available online. There are numerous other sessions, events and social spaces planned for the weekend, including ‘Trans and Sexuality’, ‘Trans Safer Space’ and ‘Intro To Intersex’. The event is open to all, regardless of who they’re attracted to and which labels the use to describe their sexuality. Everyone attending agrees to abide by a progressive Code Of Conduct including respect for gender identity and expression.

If you can’t make BiCon, there’s also a chance to see Nat give the talk at Recreation Nottingham trans* group at 6pm on Wednesday the 24th of August at The New Foresters, Nottingham City Centre.