The Age of Gendersaurus

cropped-tumblr_nemy3egp9n1rl2q3to1_1280Here’s a curious little fact. Last year the Imaginate children’s theatre festival hosted a morning discussion about gender. Six people turned up. This year the festival did it again, and the room was so full you could barely get in. And everyone there seemed completely gripped by the subject.

What changed? It’s difficult to be sure. It might have had something to do with Gendersaurus Rex, an Imaginate-funded research project by theatre-maker Eilidh MacAskill into gender, sexuality and children’s theatre, which MacAskill began working on early this year. Or it could simply be that, in zeitgeist terms, gender is having a bit of a moment. This year, for example, transgender people have become more visible than ever. There is, most obviously, Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenner, eclipsing Laverne Cox as the world’s most talked about trans person (although Cox herself almost broke the internet herself this year when she was photographed naked for Allure magazine). There is model Andreja Pejic, who this year did her first catwalk show as a fully transitioned woman, and there is Aydian Dowling, a trans man who made headlines in April after becoming the frontrunner in Men’s Health magazine’s ‘Ultimate Guy Search’, with 40,000 votes – an ultimate guy who had grown up as a girl.

Then there’s this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. The comedian Will Franken, a Fringe regular, will appear for the first time in her new identity as Sarah Franken; veteran Fringe producer Paul Lucas is bringing a play called Trans Scripts, based on interviews with trans women. Dance Base has a show called Boys Who Like to Play with Dolls, in which two performers “morph from one body to another, attacking the conventions, norms and clichés of gender”. And one of Traverse’s flagship shows is Swallow, a new play by Stef Smith in which gender and sexuality are, apparently, key themes. All are likely to be talking points.

Two 2015 Fringe shows I recommend in particular are by veteran Scottish artists who have been exploring this subject for years. The first of these is Jo Clifford, whose The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven had a low-key Fringe run in 2014 but is back this year, this time in the prestigious Made in Scotland programme. Suddenly an intensely personal, poetic solo show in which Jesus, like Jo herself, is transgender, is considered to be something that might be internationally sellable – six years after it premiered at the Glasgay festival to howls of religious protest. Jo was ahead of her time, but then she has been ever since the 1980s.

The second is Diane Torr, whose Donald Does Dusty is another very personal show, a tribute to her late brother, in which Diane plays a man playing a woman. This should be no stretch for Diane, a pioneering drag king whose Man for a Day workshops have been teaching women how to disguise themselves as men for 25 years now. Diane never planned to do the workshops for so long, but demand has rarely diminished. In 2010 she co-authored a book called Sex, Drag and Male Roles: Investigating Gender as Performance. In 2012 Man for a Day was made into a film that she has since toured to Germany, Mexico, and cities across India.

I had long conversations with both Diane and Jo recently, as part of the research for a book exploring gender, and in particular my own ambivalent relationship with masculinity – a project I am currently tempted to abandon after realising how brain-meltingly complex and contested the subject is, every tangential piece of research sending me off on another tangential piece of research rather than to an actual finished chapter. Last month I also discovered via friends in publishing that at least three extremely famous men are planning to write more or less the same book. The one you may know about is Matt Haig, who caused a stir recently after sharing a half-formed book idea with 76,000 people on Twitter and provoking a backlash from feminists weary of being mansplained to, but also a huge wave of support from people who knew what a good job Haig had previously made of writing about depression and thought he’d make a great job of this one once he figured out what he was doing. Everyone, it seems, is interested in gender now, even if we don’t always know what we’re talking about.

At time of writing, Caitlyn Jenner has gone viral once again, with the acceptance speech she gave on Wednesday for the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Like a lot of people I have become slightly transfixed by Caitlyn, who has done for transgender rights what the Spice Girls once did for feminism – turned an important and complex issue into a cartoon that is largely about her. In her speech Jenner said her responsibility is “to tell my story the right way”, which is quite a Kardashian family thing to say, but perfectly fine as long as it’s clear to everyone that Jenner represents a very specific and not at all typical transgender identity -binary, ultra femme, with access to expensive make-up and clothing, and propped up by several layers of privilege (rich, white, famous, and raised as a man). There are not many young, isolated trans people for whom Jenner will be a very practical ‘how to’ manual. To be fair, she seems to recognise this; Wednesday’s speech concluded with a desire “to promote a very simple idea: accepting people for who they are, accepting people’s differences”, and an aspiration “to keep learning”.

Still, Diane Torr, Jo Clifford and Eilidh MacAskill feel like more solid bets to me, as models for alternative ways of living. Diane’s life story is a textbook example of why you should never assume anything about anyone based on their sex. As a child she was a tomboy, while her brother Donald, later to become a flamboyantly gay man who modeled himself on Dusty Springfield, loved playing with his sister’s dolls and kept trying to make her look more feminine. “I was very skinny, but Donald would dress me up and stuff a bra with old socks so it looked like I had breasts,” she told me. “He taught me how to walk in high heels. I was not interested in that at all, I played centre forward for Aberdeen High School for Girls hockey team. I loved winning and getting the ball through the net and hitting people in the shins. I loved sports. My brother was always trying to get me to put on make up. Because I loved him and I admired him I would let him experiment with my hair. He would try to do a Mary Quant cut and it would be all jagged and he would start laughing and I would look in the mirror and it would be awful.”

“It’s all made up, the idea of what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman,” concluded Diane. “For people who can’t, won’t or have no idea how to think for themselves, society has a plan about who you will be. Personally I have no idea what it is to be a man or what it is to be a woman. I only know how it is to be me.”

Jo Clifford, meanwhile, spent years as a married man, John, and had two daughters. “I was a very good man,” she says, but one whose earliest memory was looking in a mirror and feeling traumatised because she didn’t recognise the boy she saw. It was only after John’s wife, Sue, died in 2005, that John felt able to become Jo, but she has never had full gender reassignment surgery. “I think there are many more genders than our society allows,” she told me. “I wouldn’t say I’ve always had the feeling I’m in the wrong body. I live as a woman because the law doesn’t offer me any other option really. I’m not a man but I wouldn’t say I was a woman in the sense of somebody who’s been born and brought up as a woman. I’d say I’m a third gender person.”

Clifford’s website and email signatures describe her as “a proud father and grandmother”. “I think it’s very important to tell the world that I’m transgender, I’m very proud to be the person I am. But it’s also true. When I told my daughters that I couldn’t go on being a man I also said ‘I will always be your dad whatever happens, and I’ll always love you.’ And that was true. I couldn’t possibly expect them to start calling me mum, especially so soon after their mum had died. And then about three years ago my daughter said to me, ‘Dad you’re going to be a grandma’ and that’s also true. Gender is so much more complicated and diverse and miraculous and wonderful than we give it credit to be and I just kind of want to make a public statement about that.”

And then there is Eilidh MacAskill, who is not transgender but says she doesn’t always feel as if she’s a woman. “I think biology is murky and complex,” she told me. “Within a transgender point of view I know some people who are not going from one gender to another but are somewhere in between. As an adult that’s quite appealing.” MacAskill’s research into gender and children’s theatre is particularly interesting because childhood is where so many of our ideas about gender are solidified – in the roles we are expected to play, the toys we are expected to play with, the stories we are expected to read, the subjects we are expected to be interested in. The forcing of binary concepts of gender on to children is so pervasive that it is often invisible to most of us. Eilidh’s blog at Gendersaurus Rex is becoming essential reading on this subject.

At this year’s Imaginate Festival there was a show called Bounce, performed by two acrobats, one male, one female, whose characters were identical frog-like creatures that were neither girls nor boys. This is such a rare thing in children’s theatre that it felt revolutionary – an idea more at home in Sweden than Scotland. Sweden – as described in more detail in one of Eilidh’s recent blogs – has been attempting something quite radical when it comes to gender: a plan to become a gender-neutral nation. In 2012 the country introduced the gender-neutral personal pronoun ‘hen’, a combination of the words for he and she. In schools, children are encouraged to wear gender-neutral clothes, play with gender-neutral toys, while teachers address them as “buddies” rather than “boys and girls”.

The risk of such projects is that they turn into social engineering rather than exercises in “accepting people’s differences”. Gender is a subject that can inspire extraordinary levels of intolerance even in people you would hope would be a source of understanding and empathy. The hostility towards Caitlyn Jenner from some feminists, and even some fellow trans people, has been dispiriting to watch. Jo Clifford has experienced something of this herself, from other trans women who don’t think she’s feminine enough, and find talk of being a third gender person, as Jo puts it, “unbelievably threatening”. Caitlyn Jenner has faced the opposite – condemned for being too femme, a caricature of female sexuality.

“It’s so distressing to see it,” Jo told me, “but a bully is often the person that’s been bullied. When you grow up transgender you feel incredibly excluded from the rest of the human race. I couldn’t really be with men and I wasn’t a woman so I couldn’t be with women either. That sense of exclusion is horribly painful and so one of the things that tends to happen is that when trans women come out they develop this very strong idea of the pathway – this is where you belong, this is what you do and this is how you behave. When you transition, which is so terrifying, it offers you a way forward, a kind of refuge from the fear, from the terror.” What Jo is describing here is the “transgender narrative” – the pressure on transgender people to stick to a script in the name of solidarity. For example, transgender people who have mental health problems are discouraged from talking about them because, as a community, trans people are fighting the prejudice that being transgender, in itself, is a mental disorder. This, though, is not solidarity, it is an attempt to impose a simple political agenda on complex, often contradictory human lives.

This, for me, is why art plays such an important role in this debate. The best artists constantly question things and resist simple answers, or indeed any answers at all. And they are perfectly at ease with contradictions. So it should be an interesting Fringe. Just be wary of people who act as if they have any sort of sophisticated understanding of this subject – including me. And assume nothing. About anyone.

The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven is at Summerhall, 5-30 August, 10.45am.

Donald Does Dusty is at Summerhall, 17-30 August, 7.35pm

Comments (21)

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  1. James Campbell says:

    The name of the play is obviously insulting to many Christians. Something to lament not celebrate.

  2. leavergirl says:

    Utter lunacy. Yet another corner of the spectacle, the circus, the Kardashian-like freak show that keeps us all transfixed on stuff that has nothing to do with stopping the rape of Mother Earth.

    “It’s all made up, the idea of what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman”

    The ideas are made up, but the reality behind the ideas isn’t.

  3. David Craig says:

    I appreciate that some people have felt prejudice and unaccepted by others. I also appreciate the problems some must feel at feeling trapped in a gender they don’t want to be in. I just think that society seems to be getting more and more confusing for all of us. I worry most about the messages that children are picking up. What does it mean to be a little girl or little boy growing up these days?

  4. Frank says:

    Am I the only one who finds Sweden’s plans to become a ‘gender-neutral’ nation terrifying? Postmodern totalitarianism….

    1. leavergirl says:

      I am curious who is driving this campaign. There are suddenly many children’s books doing propaganda for the trans thing. Small children are bombarded with messages that most of us do not accept as true, and as far as I can tell, are just made up on the spot.

      Like the claim of some? many? trans presenting as women who say, oh, I never was a boy! Where does one even begin with that one?!

      1. Kimberley Cadden says:

        Someone who is transgender/transsexual is someone who literally has the experience of being born into the wrong body. Genetics and biology supports this, with scientific findings on the behaviour of certain hormones and the make up of the brain etc (in terms of structure, plasticity and function) performing in many ways as the sex the person feels they are, not the sex they were born with. So yes in certain ways a MtF transsexual might feel that they were never male (same with FtM). There’s no threat here – it’s a statement on their reality AND there will be different ways of expressing this – based on that unique person’s unique journey and understanding of themselves.

        I am not saying that there is no room for confusion on this area and that there might not be aspects of denial etc in certain ways – with such a massive life change, and the pain that often precedes it, the tendency might be to equate things that aren’t the same and ignore differences because it may feel easier and/or safer that way (as Andrew highlights brilliantly above); or it may just genuinely be unclear. But the answer here is surely to have the ongoing conversation/debate/exploration in a way that seeks to understand and not exclude.

        I don’t know enough about the Sweden approach to comment but I will say that I utterly fail to see any issue at all with children coming across books looking at gender in ways that are based on realities and thus possibilities; I think the most important time to open up our understanding of such a core aspect of personal identity would be when we are children.

        1. leavergirl says:

          Kimberley, regardless of how a person feels, someone growing up as a boy gets the male body, its hormones and its strength, gets the entitlements and privileges males are accorded in this society, as well as the social gestalt that goes along…. girls don’t get that. So while I can see how a young person can experience a certain mis-fit or dysphoria (girls do too, and most people grow out of it), they are not entitled to override reality and claim something that is patently not so. Perhaps, as you say, the language is wrong.

          The other thing is… much about the trans scene suggests that being a woman is about hair, tits, dress, makeup and mannerisms. So you go and acquire those, and abracadabra, you are a woman, and god help some hapless person who say no, you are not, that is the shallowest conception of being a woman there is.

          1. Kimberley Cadden says:

            I understand where you are coming from – I was kind of alluding to it in my reply in that yes it isn’t exactly the same, and I agree with the reasons you give regarding the ways in which being born a girl is not the same as transitioning to a woman at some point in adulthood.

            I find that transsexuals themselves are usually the first to point this out though, not least because they are acutely aware of the challenges and difficulties unique to their situation, and that there are still sadly issues around acceptance (and probably much more); point being that the fact the reality is different seems widely understood – but how it’s different and how we understand and handle this is clearly an area of much debate.

            I personally feel that all I can do is learn from transgender/transsexual people when it comes to their unique journeys in terms of how they understand and experience themselves on an individual level; but when it becomes relational in any way, and certainly when it comes to how someone who was born in the wrong sex might relate to my journey as a female from birth, then that involves my sense of things too and as such opens up a space for debate and mutual sharing, understanding and hopefully support.

            For eg I don’t like the label ‘cis female’ as it’s often closely followed with the notion of ‘cis privilege’ and I firmly reject this notion – I am not privileged as a woman and my voice isn’t worth any less because some women have a different experience to me where they have some challenges I haven’t faced – not least as this goes both ways (this is a view of some women both trans and non trans). But I see the kind of misunderstanding this view of privilege is rooted in and the likely reasons for this too – it’s really a form of understandable ignorance imo; to me the response is to engage and discuss, respecting each other in the process.

            When it comes to a MtF transsexual saying ‘I was never a boy/man’ I think it’s perhaps because they are responding to the general societal view of what a male is and as a complete, fixed notion it isn’t something that applies to them, in that if you were never fully a ‘male’ (i.e. you are in some ways but not in others, and certainly not in the ways in which you define and experience yourself) then you may not identify as ever having been a male; and this doesn’t negate the things you say – i.e. that there are differences in the realities of trans and non-trans people – it just means that the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’, as loaded and as fixed and binary as they often are, together with how differently they can be understood, thus may well not mean what we think they do when they are used by others.

            I will just add lastly that, as you say, being a woman physically is extremely primary in many, many ways when it comes to what defines our whole reality. Therefore it’s not surprising at all that for many (and probably most) transgender people being able to be as close to their actual gender as possible in terms of the conditions of their reality is of vital importance to them. And yes this often ends up with surgery up front and centre in how they go about achieving that, but that is because it’s this surgery together with medication that allows them the possibility of feeling their gender more, and to experience the automatic recognition of their gender within society and all the possibilities that come with both that and sexual reassignment. Of course many don’t have surgery and hormones for all sorts of reasons including not wanting it but I think whatever the situation transgender people are the epitome of the view that gender doesn’t simply equate to superficial physical markers.

          2. Timothy says:

            Men are not entitled or privileged, women are. We live in a gynocracy that expects men to have responsibilities while women demand privilege without responsibility. The fact that you think men are privileged in a society where the vast majority of suicides/homelessness and workplace deaths are men says a lot about your ideology. Men do all the tough and dangerous work that keeps society functioning from day to day so maybe you can show some empathy for half the population.

    2. leavergirl says:

      I agree with you, Kimberley, about the cis thing. I started to use it, and then I realized that it was a term created by “them” about “us”. Nuff said.

      But I would point out that a man cannot “transition to a woman” as I understand reality to work. I think the American Indian term “two spirits” is very evocative… they are neither man nor woman but a third variant.

      Being a supporter of the movement to alert (esp. women) to the dangers of self-altering plastic surgeries, I also feel the trans that do reach for the scalpel set a bad example. Fortunately, most don’t, I have been told.

      Finally, I am very uncomfortable with the aggression some trans show toward women who don’t take their story as holy writ. I have seen it online, been exposed to it personally, and read about it. It seems, unfortunately, just another way display male entitlement we know so well from other areas of life.

    3. leavergirl says:

      “Men are not entitled or privileged, women are. We live in a gynocracy”

      What color is the sky in your world, Timothy? 😉

      I suppose this is what male entitlement always did and still does: reversal, projection and denial.

      1. Muscleguy says:

        It seems to me that Timothy is simply pointing out that many men do not feel privileged and do not act privileged and are expected often to do the hard, difficult and dangerous stuff and are not infrequently told to ‘man up’ by women when they balk at it. They look at other men who might have been blessed with brains and have forged privileged lives for themselves, often with the nubile young woman on their arm too and they do not feel very privileged.

        So just as feminism is grappling with the issue of powerful, privileged women who pull the drawbridge up behind them when reaching the heights so men see that in their fellows and do not recognise being told they are privileged.

        I just think a bit more empathy and openness to EVERYONE’s experiences is required here and blanket descriptions of someone and the imposition of labels is rather anathema to the point of this discussion is it not?

        We live in societies where those with the most privileges are the rich who can buy themselves nice lives and I would, partly, put Caitlyn Jenner in that box.

        I was blessed with brains and health and a fairly middle class upbringing. But that doesn’t mean I don’t or can’t recognise the lack of privilege in others. We also need to recognise that the claim of lack of privilege can be a privilege all of its own and such claims need to be examined. As it was with the non Black woman in the US claiming to be Black.

      2. Timothy says:

        I would ask the same question of you leavergirl. It is your female privilege and a blind adherence to a twisted hateful ideology such as feminism that allows you to look at the world around you and conclude that men have wonderful lives full of advantages. Men still do all the hard work in the world which enhance our lives and enable selfish ungrateful brats to whine about us on the internet. Feminists are just like spoiled selfish children. You should contemplate that from your cosy house which was built by men. Or perhaps while walking down the high street which is built and maintained by men or even when you call your internet provider because your internet is down because that will have to be repaired, often in dangerous conditions by men. Grow up leavergirl.

        1. leavergirl says:

          Despite knowing nothing about me, you seem to feel entitled to tell me what I believe, how I live, about my high street, and about the “twisted hateful ideology” I adhere to. I am hearing abuse from you, Timothy. Stop.

    4. leavergirl says:

      Muscleguy, we had a peaceful discussion about trans issues from our perspectives. Then Timothy barges in with a lie. This is not a gynocracy by any stretch of the imagination.

      It is also not a discussion of male entitlement and it’s awareness by men across the population (though such a discussion would not be unwelcome). It was about trans, and really just scratching the surface.

  5. Kimberley Cadden says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this post – I do hope Andrew writes the book!

    I am grateful we are at the point where there is more exploration going on regarding the realities of gender; not just of different genders but also of gender fluidity (including of course all the ways these are experienced).

    I agree that solidarity comes from responding to the complexities and differences to be found between us all in a way that embraces, rather than negates them.

    I think on a human level, if we value the welfare of our fellow human beings, a good step to take is to try to better understand how different our experience of gender can be, and how much harm certain societal attitudes can cause; and of course how can we effect helpful changes in light of what we find….

  6. Frank Lynch says:

    Utterly sick of this pandering to the narcissist navel gazing, explanation and ‘heroine’ worship of psychologically flawed men and their apologists; plus the government/local authority funding spent in their extreme form of genital mutilation; NHS spending on carcinogenic hormone replacing drugs and the necessity of life-long tax payers cash to tighten up the original surgery over a life time. It’s nothing to do with women trapped in men’s bodies. It’s mental illness: not usually solved by the measures above. They were born with X and Y chromosomes: that makes their gender male.

    I speak from personal experience. My son has chosen the same path; yet chooses to keep his current girlfriend; that verges on the crazy. This kind of self regard has not only estranged him from me (although he still expects financial help when he needs it; which I give); it has forced his mother onto strong anti-depressants; while his sister can’t even bring herself to talk about him. He has made a decision to ruin his life, body and future and wonders why he has lost a plethora of friends and relatives as we’re forced to watch the carnage that will ensue.

    He is reliant on his financial survival from others and his transitioning stage makes him unemployable; and no doubt when he gets back, a laughing stock to university pals. The age of the gendersaurus, my arse. Pure dangerous delusion.

    1. leavergirl says:

      Thank you for speaking up, Frank.

    2. David Craig says:

      I totally agree, Frank. It seems the world is going crazy and we are all letting it happen. It is as though there is no sense in the world, no ‘normality’ anymore. If anyone speaks out against something that would have been considered ‘weird’ not long ago, they are considered small-minded and biggoted. I am sorry for your situation and I pray for you with all that confusion and difficulty in relating to your son.

  7. Frank says:

    I do support equal rights for people who are transgendered but the concept of ‘gender fluidity’, which I understand, is also problematic. This is partly because it is informed by a blank slate, social constructivist view of human nature in which gender is ‘learned’, ignoring the inescapable realm of the biological. This view, whilst legitimate is entirely ideological. I may be wrong on this, and I write this from a purely anecdotal perspective, but there seems to be more men wishing to become women compared to the other way round; could this be something to do with male physiology and psychology, with men perhaps seeking gender certainty instead of fluidity? But again, I must emphasise this a sensitive topic, and these reflections are intended as a philosophical contribution to the discussion.

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