An introduction to trans - a primer, by Clare Flourish.

Trans people have always existed. In Ancient Rome the priestesses of Cybele were trans women. The Roman Emperor Elagabalus proclaimed herself Empress and married a man. There are many stories of soldiers found to be "women", normally after they died. In 18th century England there were "Molly clubs" where men dressed as ladies. European anthropologists document cases of third gender or cross-gender expression in other cultures. Dora Richter had a surgical vaginoplasty in 1931. As well as binary trans people, who transition from one gender expression to the other, there are nonbinary people who may express themselves androgynously. Binary and nonbinary people may have hormone treatment or surgery.

All these people are self-identified. Being trans is not a mental illness, and in 2022 the World Health Organisation’s definition of what illness is will catch up with that. Now, psychiatrists define being trans by the desires or beliefs expressed by the trans person: that is, we are known to be trans because we say we are trans. Diagnosis adds nothing to our self-declaration, it just recognises it. Everyone has a gender assigned at birth- not by the midwife noting what is between your legs, but by the different treatment of boys and girls, men and women, from birth. Adults treat you differently depending on whether your baby clothes are blue or pink, and if you wear white they demand to know your name so they know whether to call you "strong" or "pretty". Such different treatment, and gender stereotypes, maybe a mix of genes and culture, and many people find it politically objectionable and oppressive, but there are some people who find the stereotypes particularly ill-fitting, and some of them transition. Some, who don't transition, find the distress of presenting as their birth sex crippling. Many trans people are aware they are trans before the age of five. Others become aware around puberty, and some, who may have been suppressing awareness earlier, in adulthood. Many feel frustration or failure that they have not lived up to the expectations of their assigned gender, and of adult trans people now most did not tell anyone else before they were twenty. The increase of children seeking treatment at the gender identity development service is because there is increasing awareness and toleration of trans people. Around fifty thousand people have transitioned in Britain, up from around 2000-5000 in 2001. The increase is probably because there has been a decrease in homophobia and transphobia since the 1990s. The extreme distress of being unable to transition because of social pressure has been documented since the 1990s, with trans women presenting as males curling up in the foetal position because of the pain of it.

Feeling unable to transition, perhaps because of work or family pressures, trans women sometimes get sexually aroused by the thought of expressing ourselves female. In the 1970s, one psychiatrist proposed that these fantasies were the cause of our desire to transition, but the evidence found since shows the need to transition causes the fantasies. Still, the discredited hypothesis is used to attack trans people.

And now we transition. NHS support services, which give a psychiatric assessment then hormones and surgery as needed, are overwhelmed, with two-year waiting lists. In Britain, anyone can change their name by statutory declaration, then change their gender marker on their driving license- it is coded in the “Driver number”. We can change the gender in our passports if we get a letter from a doctor saying our transition is likely to be life long. Two years after transition, we can apply for a “gender recognition certificate”, but for most practical purposes our gender is recognised without one. The law forbids discrimination against trans people in employment, education, and in providing goods and services, but the trans person has to enforce that themself, with a claim in court or tribunal. This is difficult, uncertain, and expensive. Trans people can compete in their gender in some sports, but for professional sports women there are stringent regulations on testosterone levels. It is too high a price for sporting glory for any man. The Olympic Games has permitted trans women to compete as women since 2004, but there are few trans women at the highest levels of women’s sport. There is a great deal of fearmongering in Britain about trans people, or about “predatory men” pretending to be trans in order to attack women. Trans people, a tiny, vulnerable minority, face accusations that we are a threat, and then some cis people feel entitled to use violence against us, because of that made-up threat. Trans people subject to other prejudice, such as racism or ableism, are particularly vulnerable. Fortunately, most people in Britain and across the EU agree that we should be entitled to change gender if we need to, so that we can express ourselves as we really are. Most people want to treat trans people with ordinary politeness. Using the right names and pronouns is one way of doing this. Don’t worry too much if someone makes a mistake. We can normally tell a mistake from a deliberate insult. Many people who are not trans find gender stereotypes restrictive or oppressive. Schools can help reduce social pressure to conform. Equality law can prevent unequal treatment, for everyone, not just trans people. So after a long, difficult transition we express ourselves in our true gender and are free to be who we truly are. All we want then is to live quiet, productive lives, contributing to society and reaching our potential. Society is better off when everyone can contribute, and is supported- “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.


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