This is our truth, tell us yours
One of the great things about blogging in the same place for a decent length of time is you can watch your own growth and progression, your ideas develop in-depth and nuance. On my private blog I marvel sometimes at how my grasp of what submission is has developed, it helped me greatly when, according to my own standards, I let myself down.
In this space its been more about coming to understand the why of the things I believe . I have not changed any substantial opinion, I have however learned to see those links that make my thoughts congruent. It’s perhaps with regard to gender that the why of what I think has needed the most exploration. I started from a basic premise, the tagline of this blog, this is our truth, tell us yours. If people explained their concept of their gender to me, and it differed from my concept of my gender, I believed them. This meant I had to drop some pretty patronising attitudes ( 10 years ago whilst I still believed that people are/were the gender they tell me they were/are I had quite a white saviour, that must be awful to go through attitude). Over the years I realised that was a pretty shitty way to gloss over a huge range of human experience.
So I grew, I became, in my opinion, a better person, all based on, this is my truth, tell me yours. I didn’t even know the phrase at first, I just knew its how I wanted to encounter the world, to treat other people. It’s about not wanting to be one of the dinosaurs mentioned here as much as anything. The world changing should never be seen as a threat, but as an opportunity.
There is one thing I still struggle with around gender though, and its the concept of socialization. I see terfs quite often claim that trans people are socialized as their assigned at birth gender, I also see trans men (upon occasion) claim admission into women only spaces because they were socialized as women. I suppose people will say I was socialized as a woman, or a girl, but what does that mean? The main gender marker I remember as a child was NHS specs.
The first two pairs were the ones I was allowed to have (yes pinkification really is that recent, blue glasses were girl glasses) and the last were the ones I could not have. This speaks as much to my class as to my gender. We were poor, not no second holiday poor but no bathroom and an outside toilet poor. I didn’t know we were poor, because hiding behind the sofa when the co op man came for his weekly insurance money was my normal. Any wander down memory lane when you are working class in the way I was (am?) working class runs the risk of turning into the four Yorkshireman sketch. So let it be said that I don’t think that poverty makes me holier or more worth listening too. I was well clothed, my mother could knit, my grandmother sewed, well fed, and running to the top of the street for a bag of kindling for the range on tick was not humiliating, since everyone did it. Was I socialized poor? Or Working Class? How does that impact on me? I know I still jump when someone unexpected comes to the door, I mentioned this once to carter and he understood instantly. Unknown people at the door never bode well when they could be the bailiffs or the police. I cannot pay for anything with a debit card without silently holding my breath, in case it is declined. I am pretty sure my failure to save is due to this legacy of poverty, something every tory attack on the poor as feckless will never understand.
Another distinctive gender marker I do remember from my childhood was my first Holy Communion. We got to wear dresses that would make a Disney designer weep, whilst the boys wore their school uniform with a red sash. We pitied them, mt tiara was silk flowers with diamonds (OK, probably not real ones) and a veil that reached my waist, a red sash in no way compared. I was most certainly “socialized as Catholic” as the hashtag #growingupcatholic made clear. Interestingly despite an obsession with sex in other spheres, catholic primary schools were degendered to a degree that the most ardent second waver would approve of. For example at the age of 11 we were still changing for PE in the classroom, as a mixed group there would be no pesky sexual markers until the nuns said there would be sexual markers. We were innocent, sexless, children if they said we were innocent sexless children. The messages we received were universal, be good or the fires hell consume you eternally, you will sin, and God is watching EVERYTHING. Being socialized as Catholic certainly impacted on me growing up more strongly than almost anything else. The word was a dangerous place of sin and punishment, and since I was born a sinner the chances of eternal damnation were pretty high. From the age of 8 I fasted every saturday from sundown, determined to avoid that ultimate separation, the removal of Gods love.
Presumably I did receive messages specific to how the world saw girls and women. These however are very context specific, women worked, usually in factories, and it seemed fun, you had friends, loud women with rough hands who belonged to each other in a way that never needed explaining. You called these women auntie, and in an emergency any of them could be called upon. Women had babies, and went through something called the change, and tended to send you for more biscuits when the conversation got interesting.
To move from the personal to the more general, this wander into the forests of the past is because of my struggle with the idea of being socialized as a girl, and the attendant suggestion that overrides any other influences on someone growing up. I suppose part of the issue is exactly what socialization means. It’s presumably around those contacts and interactions with the outside world, so I cannot say I was socialized as a child sexual abuse survivor. Dictionary.Com defines it as
So I don’t think I am too far off the mark. By this definition I cannot say I was socialized as disabled, since I was simply seen as slightly odd, and at times violent, rather than autistic. My inability to tell the time, tie shoe laces was simply me being contrary, since I was “clearly” intelligent enough to do both. However my personal identity obviously also includes being a survivor and autistic, in fact now they are probably to of the biggest observable features of my social interactions.
Socialization is it seems not just a process whereby you are treated in a certain way, but you absorb certain messages about what that treatment means. As the quote says it is a continuing process. Therefore to claim someone was socialized as a boy, or a girl, and that this means they carry this into adulthood unchanging is to ignore the fact it is a continuing process. I was not socialized as a CSA survivor, or disabled, I am now. I am not however socialized as someone with physical disabilities, but at any moment could be.
So this socialization which terfs claims somehow excludes trans people from the gender class they belong to seems, when you dig down into it, seems to hold as much water as a chocolate teapot. The process of acquiring a personal identity is not a static one, nor does it end at any defined moment. Our personal identity is a complex interweb of internal objects, external relationships and the interplay between the two. The class of objects around gender which were absorbed by me growing up cannot be separated from those objects called working class, catholic, northern, undiagnosed autistic and no doubt many others. Perhaps I was socialized as a girl, but that statement without context, of being working class, catholic, a CSA survivor, autistic and undiagnosed (trips to the ed psych are very different when they think you are merely violent, rather than disabled) is meaningless. It is meaningless because there is no universal experience of being a girl, and to claim there is to erase important issues such as class, disabilities, abuse, race, religion. Or to put it in terms everyone might understand, a Syrian girl growing up in Calais will have a very different experience of childhood to a white british girl growing up in the North East.
This might seem so obvious as to be trite, but it clearly isn’t, because “socialized as a girl/boy” keeps coming up. I am unsure if I was socialized as a girl. Largely because of those other things I was not socialized as. Many females with autistic spectrum disorders have spoken of their difficulties in navigating girlhood. One of the reasons that autism is still seen as a male disorder is girls apparently socialize themselves,a seemingly catch 22 situation if socialization is an inevitable thing, learning to navigate the complexities of social groupings, and how to mimic acceptable behaviour. If anyone understands Butlers idea that gender is performative it is girls on the autistic spectrum.
The title of this piece comes from this hauntingly beautiful song, Born a Girl, by the manic street preachers. It makes me weep every time I listen to it. It speaks to that loneliness of being on the outside looking in, not understanding the rules , the supposed socialization which is claimed to magically happen having passed you by. I cannot know what it is like to be a trans person growing up however the analogy of being autistic, but being treated as neurotypical strikes me. Any messages I received, any treatment at the hands of others, any socialization as a girl, was based on the false premise that I was neurotypical. So I was sent to the Headmistress to be whipped when I misbehaved, rather than to a special school for children with learning difficulties. I do not regret this. However being treated as someone neurotypical did not make me neurotypical, which is where the analogy with being trans comes in.
I wish I had been born a girl, born someone who knew how to girl, to absorb those class of objects around girlhood, process them and act in the seemingly natural way my peers did. If socialization into the gender you are assigned at birth actually existed, as some overriding and all encompassing process then the aching loneliness of my childhood, caused by the combination of CSA and autism would not have existed.
As the inspiring CN Lester said to the frankly, ever increasingly irrelevant Sarah Ditum recently, we are all born babies. Those babies are born into a specific cultural, social context. Class, race, disability, religion and perceived gender all intertwine to create patterns of expected behaviour as we grow from infancy. We, if we are not autistic, pick up those rules apparently innately. Others of us struggle, perpetually looking in, wondering why everyone else seems to understand the norms and cues which elude you.
Richey Edwards experience is not my experience, but loneliness is universal. In anticipation of the criticisms of those who want to fight on the hill of some universal experience called girlhood, by saying that an individual experience of a variety of different social and cultural objects is as much about the interplay between them as about each individual object, is not saying that certain social and cultural attitudes do not exist. Part of this is our horrific inability to understand statistics in this country. For example as a sex worker I am, statistically more likely to be murdered. However as a white cis(ish) indoor sex worker living in the UK my actual level of risk is low. It is however still higher than the probability of being murdered if I were not a sex worker. Thus sweeping statements about how women as a global class face certain risks actually erase specific risks. A woman is more likely to be murdered by her husband, or the victim of domestic violence, in the UK. However someones individual experience of those risk factors should not be swept away to make a generalised political point.
There are a lot of words here, because it is complex when you try to link the personal and the political, despite that being for so many years the cornerstone of feminist thought. De Beauvoir famously realised within capitalist patriarchy woman is other, however her position as a white, cis middle class abled woman meant she had not considered how many ways one could be other. The insight of otherness was of course revolutionary, but other is not a static, or single category, instead we exist within an overlapping series of Venn diagrams, all of which collide into that being we call ourselves. That collusion is an ongoing process, a series of moments in which the past of necessity always informs the present, but does not create the present, for that would make us simply the products of nurture, the impossible tabla rasa which said I had indeed been born a girl.