An Entry Point

This post isn’t going to delve too deeply because it’s really just an opening to discuss the massive increase in people, and especially children, identifying as ‘trans’. Having had half an eye on the subject for the last four, maybe five years, I’ve involved myself directly over the last eighteen months. I immersed myself in the Twitter wars and read plenty elsewhere – arguments from both sides of the fence and even stuff by those who were sat on it. The transition of Caitlyn Jenner is obviously the most public within recent memory. He had more press coverage than necessary and before he’d even finished his transformation (he still had a penis), he adorned the cover of Vanity Fair and even won an award for woman of the year (complete with his penis). The media appeared to be largely in support of the whole process and as usual, the do-gooders, social justice warriors, and the so-called left-leaning liberals all came out in full force to say what a great thing it was. There seemed to be little criticism, or more accurately – little critical thinking about the issue as a whole. I found it disturbing to see the way everybody was supposed to celebrate his transition and see him as brave or you were labelled as shit.

Fake it – especially when you’re making it

I couldn’t help but think of his family – a mainly female household, and in particular his kids. As the weeks moved on, we were encouraged to forget his past and any reference made to his former life as Bruce was automatically assumed to be hostile. I was uncomfortable with the clear sexualisation of his image as a woman…and he was so often heavily airbrushed. And, let’s not forget how much money he had at his disposal to pay for the surgery. So, yes, there was much that pissed me off yet much of it, I felt, was me being trivial. I didn’t initially want to look closer at the reasons I was being so reactive to the whole event when it clearly wasn’t my personal life being affected. Instinct can be funny at times. Funny in the sense it’ll scream at you and it takes your rational mind a while to catch up. So, what was it about the Bruce Jenner situation? He was sixty-four when he came out of the tranny closet. Sixty-four? Essentially, here we had someone who had lived an outright lie for over forty fucking years and yet it was spun as some kind of victory when he was finally able to be the person he always was? Not only was he sixty-four, but he also had an incredibly successful life as a former athlete. Not only was he a man, but he had been successful at being a man and taking all it had to offer. Marriage and children too…so he clearly didn’t mind using what was between his legs. Lots of advantages… and fair play to him regarding the athletic stuff and making the most of his testosterone and all else he had. But if he really thought he was a woman, why had he not been more feminine in his youth? I thought trannies were supposed to be more like your stereotypical woman? Did he counteract his femininity deliberately by pursuing manly sports?

Courageous or coward?

The thing is, men have been transitioning for a few decades now and there has been limited public interest for the most part. Sure, there have been a couple of ‘high-profile’ trans-identified males – I’m thinking of Lily Elbe and Christine Jorgensen, who undoubtedly had considerably more challenges to face than any man wanting to transition these days. They both managed it…1882-1931 and 1926-1989 respectively, and with respects to Christine Jorgensen – had an enormous amount of popularity and acceptance. My point being, if Jenner wanted to be an honest man, he could’ve been – the precedents were there in history and if he wanted to pretend to be a woman he could’ve done so. I don’t deny it takes strength to defy stereotypes and neither am I ignorant of the abuse some trannies receive. People can be cruel, horrifically so, but it’s been a long time since it was deemed acceptable to level cruelty at someone for simply being a tranny. Many who don’t have Jenner’s public status or bank balance have, and are, living as they see fit and have done for years. Oddly, there’s a good number of them who refuse to lay claim to womanhood and can perfectly accept themselves as men. That’s not to say those men haven’t at some point flirted with the idea they were real women too…but their journey ultimately led them to accept who they were without shame. Some of those same people lived their truth through the 1970’s and had an inordinate amount of shit to tolerate – all without the cushion of wealth, status, or celebrity. I’d consider those types brave. But is Jenner? Is he fuck. He’s a privileged male who knows exactly how to court the media and make money from it.

Politicising the personal

With the identity of Caitlyn Jenner firmly established there was a shift to make it political. The media slant made it clear that no one was to question why people chose to transition – the preferred narrative fell along the lines of ‘born this way’ and that it should be seen as no different to sexuality. Except, being trans has fuck all to do with sexuality. In the UK, there has been a stream of constant pressure to relax laws around who can declare themselves a woman, and up until recently (like a month ago), I bore witness to some shocking stances by mainstream politicians and councillors who categorically stated that anyone who wanted to identify as a woman could do so and to call them men was a hate crime. They further insisted these men had the rights of women, as women, and should be allowed access to women only areas. I saw tweets by green party spokespeople who referred to women as ‘non-men’ so as not to marginalise the blokes who wanted to be seen as women – by this point, there had been a fair few public disagreements over who could actually be called a woman. I think it was their way of getting around the issue of what to call anyone with a penis who didn’t want to be called a bloke. Seriously. Then there’s a Labour party ‘women’s officer’, an official position, held by a then-teenage boy (he only recently crept into his twenties) who still has a cock and balls – demanding that all women shortlists be open to anyone who saw fit to call themselves a woman, even if they still had a cock. The elephant in the room here is those lists are seen as essential to get more women into politics – kinda defeats the purpose if half those women are actually blokes. But, more on the politics another day.

Down the rabbit hole

And then I fell down the rabbit hole. Honestly. I’m not quite sure when I realised what a complex issue I was looking at. It wasn’t as simple as some bloke getting more publicity than he was worth or Joe Public fighting for acceptance without exceptions. I’ve studied many subjects in my life and if ever there was one which needed someone standing there with a hand up saying ‘wait, it’s not what you think’- it’s this one. I began in earnest, fearing I had an irrational prejudice and simply needed to understand something. I sit here now wondering what fucking planet I’m living on..admittedly it ain’t the first time I’ve pondered that one.

Acknowledging the tree

I’ve been fearful of saying anything at all until I had the bigger picture, and part of the problem is there are many branches coming off the main trunk. It didn’t seem fair to have a half-arsed opinion when there was so much at stake for the individuals who are directly affected by it. I’m not. I have an interest in identity in general, and I feel strongly that people should be able to live their lives without too much interference by 1) the state and 2) shitty people who think it’s okay to abuse other people for lifestyle choices. Although to say I’m not directly affected isn’t entirely true – as a woman, it does affect me if there are men wanting to change in the same room as me if I go swimming. And do I really want any of my daughters having to deal with a grown man in the female toilet? Or my granddaughters? There has always been a part of me which felt compassion towards regular trans-identified men and women. I had long-since wondered what drove them to reject their bodies so vehemently and how hard it must’ve been to not just acknowledge those feelings, but to actually try and do something about it. I still feel that compassion – probably even more so now, and if anything, I’m more likely to shout louder in support of those regular trans people who have always battled with an intense rejection of their bodies. But, there’s a problem because not all trannies are cut from the same cloth. I’m not talking about your average human differences here – I’m talking a gulf so wide between the two main groups you’d need an aeroplane to get from one side to the other. Tis the group of ‘others’ who are the main problem in this whole debate and they really do not stand in representation for all trans-identified males. I’ll be posting about these ‘others’ next because I feel it’s important to differentiate between these two obviously different types early on. And yes, I’ve already found exceptions to the rule and will make sure to quote them. To end this introduction, I’ll say a heartfelt thank you to Miranda Yardley for writing so honestly and being brave enough to openly stand against the narrative.

Just a couple of links but much more worth reading.

‘Transwomen’ are not Women

Responding to Suggestions I’m A Big Meanie For Stating The Fact That Aimee Challenor is a Man

Fake It til You Make It

It’s taken me longer than I intended to finish reading The Presentation Of Self, but I finally found the necessary discipline to keep my arse in the chair. I then noticed I’d lost my voice, or maybe I should say – my ability to communicate in the way that I like. I think this is more an issue of identity, though. . . as in, I identify with being an outsider. And yet I need to let that go if I’m trying to include myself with ‘others out there’, even if those others are the socially reluctant. So, anyway, arse on chair and voice in mind – the chapter is headed Belief In The Part One is Playing, and in itself has me raising an eyebrow before I even begin reading the contents. Belief? What does belief have to do with any of this? I’m hoping to see Goffman ask a question or two because I am already concerned the tone isn’t going to be objective enough for me to take him seriously. I’m worried (as one who suffers the consequences of social angst) he may have been too close to the herd to see the absurdity of what he bore witness to. I’m reminding myself the book was written in the 1950’s, but I’m also reminding myself this was after the likes of Otto Rank, Kierkegaard, and many others. What I mean to say is, he seems a little stunted in his way of thinking, or rather, he’s not doing any thinking – just observing and going along with the flow.

Goffman makes a comment early in the chapter which again makes me question his mentality –

“only the sociologist or socially disgruntled will have any doubts about the ‘realness’ of what is presented.”

Okay, so how about psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and others who are socially aware? Or is he seeing all of those types as ‘sociologists’? It just seems a little narrow for my liking and possibly elitist too. I’ve come across many people who are considered uneducated and yet they are well aware of how insincere people can be, yet they’re not disgruntled in the slightest – they’re often perfectly capable of communicating on a one-to-one basis, and the real issue lies in dealing with groups, in the flesh. The problem can sometimes be one of depth – they’re unable to be satisfied or comfortable with superficial social interaction, which is what most groups demand. If I turn the clock back, sociology has its roots in philosophy which is not difficult to see nor understand, and yet it appears to lack the intellectual discipline visible in other arenas. I’m also questioning just how different the socially averse were back then; I think they can’t have been that different in temperament to the similarly afflicted today.

A little further in and Goffman talks about audiences who won’t allow sincerity and gives the example of shop assistants who will white lie to keep the customer happy, but my personal experience knows we can find the insincere audience at home. I’m wondering where integrity comes in, or whether it comes in at all. Could the inability or reluctance to white lie or perform be at the heart of the so-called-socially-inept?

More than once, Goffman refers to concealment of the negative stuff and how people tend to underplay the stuff which doesn’t fit with an idealized version of the role one is playing. But, why is this? Is it necessary? Does it not point to ‘the performer’ having a few issues themselves? Are we genuinely hardwired to present ourselves in the best possible light? That’s not to say everyone should have to expose every minor dysfunction, but why, when it’s so evident that not one of us is perfect (and no job is either), is it assumed that there isn’t an underside ~ a darker belly? What’s going on here? Is it the reluctance of the performer to get off his pedestal or does the problem lie with the audience’s inability to accept that people are human? Again, thinking of the socially dysfunctional people I know personally, the problem is often one of not being confident nor comfortable in pretending much of anything…and more often than not they’re great communicators so is it even fair to call them socially dysfunctional?

He further claims that (we) people tend to exaggerate uniqueness, and I can see that’s only true on a superficial level. Just because people make claims of uniqueness doesn’t mean it’s true, and I’ve become increasingly cynical over the years and noticed that people would make claims as to who they think and feel they are, but it rarely matches the impression I get. Mostly, people are so hypocritical that it beggars belief that anyone ever pays attention to what someone says about their individual self.

The mention of humiliation and possible loss of reputation when a performance fails is important and yet barely explored (it’s underplayed). This concerns me greatly, my main objection is if someone didn’t have to play a part to begin with there would be no loss…why do people have to pretend they’re some kind of one dimensional being? When Goffman talks about loss of reputation I’m assuming it correlates to those who have a professional reputation which also claims an unrealistic moral high-ground. This is not to say it is the members of said professions who make the claim, only that the insinuation is there in place and because it’s not considered appropriate to show the behind the mask, they just carry on with the performance. It’s the assumption that all judges, lawyers, and police officers are more law abiding than average citizen; or that doctors, nurses, and carers are more health conscious, caring, and humanitarian than the average citizen. The impression that vicars, priests, and nuns are more holy, spiritual, or moral than the average citizen. It’s absurd to assume a chosen profession says anything about a person’s character. Does it not say more about how the person wants to be seen, rather than saying something about inherent characteristics? If he’s right about the level of importance given to a performance, then it would stand to reason that people choose their role based (predominantly) on how they will be seen…and we all have good examples of people who think and feel they are something that they’re not. If people are trying to conceal a flaw from the outset would it not make sense to hide in plain sight, where it would be least expected to be found?

Goffman takes the time to explore where it’s acceptable to be found out (impersonation); such as the hero not having a low economic/social status and the villain not having a high one. But when he talks about the fatal flaw, I find it disturbing because (again) it presupposes moral direction. Those flaws can be anything from jealousy to hubris, and to be honest, if you strip those down it can be difficult to see how they can be classed as flaws to begin with. Goffman claims that a legitimate performance tends to say what is unique whereas a false effort tries to make it look routine, and this sounds fine, but where is the line between ‘uniqueness’ and ‘bragging’? And what does it say for those who genuinely find it easy to do what they do? Are they supposed to pretend their role is harder than it is in reality?

One comment I found interesting was when he says “A new position means a new part” – and this comment has me wondering if those who struggle to fake a front could have a more difficult time of social transitions, or maybe it makes it nigh on impossible to adopt a new role? What I mean is, how does this impact on their ability to progress in life? Does it limit social mobility if they’re aware of the connotations that a particular role carries? Could they maybe do the actual job but not fake the necessary performance which goes alongside it? Does it make the socially reluctant more likely to be drawn to work which the self has more room to be itself? Or does it imply the reluctance comes from narcissism, because I’m also aware of those people who would say “everybody else has to get on with it so why can’t you”…what I mean is, it seems almost compulsory that all people have to follow the ways of their land…what kind of personality objects to being a member of the herd if humans are a herd type of mammal?

So anyway the gist of it is; status and position rely on the individual portraying a pattern of appropriate conduct which is coherent, embellished, and well articulated. What this means for you and me, is that we need to be consistent in our behaviour and we need to be able to express the uniqueness of our self. However, this could mean we have to make the effort to get to know what it is that makes us unique, and if you’ve spent any time listening to others with issues around socialising then you’ll know that far too many are saying the same things. If your social anxiety is a result of hidden stigma, this is going to get complicated real quick because you probably won’t want to disclose, and yet it may be that very same thing which is a big part of your uniqueness.

Catch 22 indeed!

What I’ve realised since I began reading this book is that it freaks me out. The whole idea of what is considered normal, and what is expected of me as a person freaks me out. I mean all of this in regards to the social expectations, the way ‘society’ functions. Why do I have to downplay hardship or dirty work? Why am I not allowed to admit that I struggle, or that I get conflicted? Why is it not okay to let people know I’m complex? Why do I have to stress what is unique about me when it’s probably bullshit? What I mean is, I’m not so sure that anyone can be described as possessing unique qualities or abilities – I mean come on, a planet of seven billion people and we’re still trying to pull that card?


25 April 2016

First Impressions

Erving Goffman (1922 – 82) was one of the most influential Canadian-American sociologists of the twentieth century. I was disturbed to learn he had such a wide-ranging influence on a number of key figures from the twentieth century including the lieks of Michel Foucault. Even more disturbing is the matter of his work not being peer reviewed and neither did he ever enter into serious debate with anyone about his ideas. But anyway. . .

Continue reading “First Impressions”