By Warwick Cairns
People stared at the make-up on his face
Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace
The boy in the bright blue jeans jumped up on the stage
And Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and disgrace
Lady Stardust, David Bowie
Today I am struggling with gender identity issues.
And with the possibility of being seen to mock the afflicted.
And I am struggling, also, with the difficulty of knowing who the afflicted actually are, any more, and with the very real prospect of seeming to insult them unintentionally, even by describing them as such.
There was a time when, for good or ill, things were all very much simpler. It was largely for ill, I think. But there was a time when one knew exactly who the afflicted were. And by and large, mocking them was what one did. What one was expected to do.
It was called childhood, this time.
I don’t know about your childhood, but pity and the ability to imagine the suffering of others were latecomers to my emotional repertoire, back then. And also, I think, to that of many of my friends.
Mong was our favourite insult, for stupidity, as I recall. That and spazz. We’d do the actions as well, and tuck our arms into the sleeves of our nylon anoraks to shorten them as we ran around moaning, rolling our heads and with our tongues hanging out. The arms, I now realise, weren’t and aren’t strictly features of being a mong or a spazz, but thalidomide and its effects were all the rage back then, and flid, to our minds, was just another way of describing one of ‘them’. The mongs, if you know what I’m saying.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.
But some things I still struggle with.
Take what is known as ‘gender identity’.
Within living memory – within my memory, certainly, and I’m living – if a man let it be known that he believed that deep down he was not a man at all, but that he was in fact a woman; and if he let it be known that he wished, henceforth, no longer to be known as Dennis, but would be Doris instead, and that he intended to turn up for work at the bank in ladies’ clothing and a bra stuffed with tissues, and that in the long term he intended to take hormones and eventually to get surgeons to remove his male accoutrements and fashion for him, to the best of their ability, a semblance of female ones instead; well, you would have thought him… afflicted, let us say. And worthy of pity.
Whereas now that is not necessarily considered so. Small boys, I imagine, think much as they always did. But others think differently.
From this year, under government guidelines announced by the UK Justice Ministry, and drawn up by its ‘gender recognition policy team’, prisoners who’d rather be a different sex from the one they were born into are to be allowed to purchase padded bras and ‘gender-appropriate’ clothes and make-up from a home shopping catalogue. And warders will have to call them “Miss” or “Ms”. It is to become a human right.
Meanwhile, if you apply for a parking-permit in the town of Hove, you now have to answer a question that asks “Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were assigned at birth?” Perhaps babies in Hove actually are ‘assigned’ a ‘gender’ at birth, these days, from a range of available options. Perhaps they’re no longer simply born either male or female like babies everywhere else are, or were. It’s an interesting thought. But not one that has much to do with parking, I should imagine.
Fine, you may say, fine and dandy, and well and good and right and proper. And, snide remarks aside, this sort of sensitivity to difference does make the world a more tolerant place.
But I find that I am tormented by hypotheticals, when it comes to the matter of personal identity.
I imagine a colleague of Doris nee Dennis who also has issues with his self-image. Let’s call him Keith. Like his colleague, Keith feels that deep down he has been living a lie, and that what he really is, inside, is very different from how the world sees him. For a number of years – and unbeknownst even to his wife – Keith has been attending special clubs in the evenings and occasionally at weekends, where he is able to relax with others of like mind, and to act out his ‘real’ identity through costume and role-play. But as time goes by he feels that these snatched moments are no longer enough, and he wants to give up the pretence once and for all and reveal himself to the whole world as he really is.
It is a big step to take. He wants to be absolutely sure that he is doing the right thing. So he decides to seek medical advice first. He sends off for a testing-kit from a laboratory in Oxford, and receives in the post a little bottle and a brush with which he wipes the inside of his mouth. One lunchtime he does the test, packages up the sample and sends it off with two fees of £180 for two separate tests (he wants to be absolutely sure).
A week later he gets the results. One is an analysis of his mitochondrial DNA, inherited from his mother and from her mother before her in an unbroken chain going back for countless thousands of years. The other is an analysis of his Y-chromosome, showing his paternal heritage. And the results of both turn out to be positive – exactly as he thought they would be, and as he always knew they would be.
So after breaking the news to his wife – who is by turns incredulous, stunned and then tearful, he marches into the manager’s office at work and announces that the reason he has turned up at work wearing a stuck-on beard and a silver-grey plastic helmet, and a sort of brown sackcloth tabard thing over his suit, tied with a dressing-gown cord, and the reason for the plastic sword in his briefcase is that he is, in fact, a Viking.
And he has the DNA analysis to prove it.
He wishes the bank to recognise his new identity. He wishes them to start by issuing him with a new name-badge, under his new name, Leif Bloodaxe. And, yes, he does have to talk like Brian Blessed loud-hailing a ship in thick fog. That’s how Vikings spoke, he says.
And meanwhile, and to make matters worse – or to make matters more ‘inclusive’ (let’s be value-neutral here) – a third employee has also come up with a scheme to resolve his identity issues. I won’t go into the details too much, but suffice it to say that they involve changing his name to Fido, having surgeons construct for him a snout and floppy ears, cocking his leg up desks in the office, and doing things to the legs of staff and customers as the mood takes him.
The phrase ‘opening a can of worms’ comes to mind here.
Because for all that may be said about the blinkered certainties of earlier times, at least you knew where you stood with them. Whereas now it is hard to know quite which way to turn.
Back then, whether a man wore a suit and bowler hat and carried a briefcase and rolled umbrella, or whether he wore a cotton frock and headscarf knotted under the chin and carried a purse and handbag, or whether he did both at different times, according to mood and opportunity, a man was considered still a man for all that. As for the idea that a he might, somehow, really be able to become an actual she, to the extent that he (she) should be allowed to have his (her) birth-certificate and official papers altered – it would have been unthinkable, laughable, preposterous. Whereas now it is the done thing to believe, or to profess to believe, that a man really can ‘become’ a woman.
But if he can, then who is to say that he cannot also become something else that he was not born to be? Why does it have to be a woman? Why can he not become a cat, say? Why can he not become a dog, or a Viking, or Napoleon, or a space-alien, or anything else that takes his fancy, if he really believes himself to be so? And with the advances in prosthetics and surgery now available to us, and with the ready availability of fancy-dress hire shops in all of our major towns and cities, what is there to hold him back? Who has the right to say it is not so? Who has the right to deny him?
I am in this hole, and I intend to keep on digging.
What is this unexploded bomb I’ve turned up here? Ah! Civil partnerships. What I want to know about civil partnerships is this: if it is right that a man should be allowed to marry another man; and if it is right that a woman should be allowed to marry another woman, then why should a man who is attracted to both not be able to marry one of each? Or two of each? Or as many as he damn well pleases? It’s not as if multiple spouses are unknown in the world: the prophet Mohammed had eleven wives, and that was 500 years ago. So what is it about this ‘two people only’ rule we have here and now? Is there a good reason for it? Or not?
And while we’re on the subject, why should human-human partnerships be the only kind to be celebrated in society and recognised in law? Is that not a blatantly speciesist thing? Why should a man not be able to marry his dog? Why should he not be able to marry his goldfish?
Or indeed, why should he not be able to marry himself? If he were to start a ‘gender reassignment’ process and then stop it halfway through, then his male bits could marry his female ones. That might go some way to placating the traditionalists. And they could always adopt, if they wanted children. Who are we to stand in their way?
So I’m struggling, you see. In all sorts of ways.
More about Warwick Cairns can be found here
Warwick Cairns’ latest book is, In Praise of Savagery: the true story of a journey into uncharted land inhabited by murderous tribal warriors and ruled over by a bloodthirsty sultan – and the man, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who lived to tell the tale.
And the story of Warwick’s journey, fifty years later, to a mud hut in Africa to visit him at the end of his life.