Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Transgender Actors

Here's a question. You want to make a film where a transgender character is the lead. Do you need to cast a transgender actor or actress in the role?

Victor Polster in Girl (2018)
For mainstream cinema at least, the choice is easy: you pick a cisgender actor or actress and cast them. That has been true over many years, from Felicity Huffman in Transamerica to Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto, to Terence Stamp in Priscilla, right up to Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl and most recently Victor Polster in Girl.

For some trans people, this is definitely a problem. The film Girl, which I haven't yet seen, has stirred up quite a lot of protest, in particular because there seems to be a lot of depiction of genitalia. Several questions about transgender actors have been debated on Quora, and some of the answers and comments are very interesting. All of the quotes come from Quora and are unchanged from the original authors' text, though they are not all in response to the same question.

The first comment people make is that there are plenty of trans actors out there now.
Elliott Mason: There are hundreds of working trans actors, of all stripes and appearances. If none of them are considered "bankable" it's because productions won't cast them to play cis, but won't let them play trans either.
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl (2015)
This is a very fair point: if you are a trans actor, then you might find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place: no trans roles-- and no cis ones either!

The next point is that it’s not acceptable to have black or Asian parts played by white actors in makeup—and for the same reason we should have trans actors playing trans characters.
Joanne C Wittstock: There was a time when women were not allowed on stage. Then a time when no suitable black actors were available and the roles went to whites. For decades there were apparently no Asians with theatrical skills. The frontier is slowly moving. To a large extent trans people are the visible minority of this moment.
I completely take this point. One of the things which spoils what would otherwise be one of my favourite ever movies, Breakfast at Tiffany's, is the dreadful "comic relief" turn of Mickey Rooney in yellowface as Mr. Yunioshi. And one of the best of the classic Doctor Who stories, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, features John Bennet in the role of the villainous Li H'Sen Chang. This time, it's not played for laughs, but the show still manages to throw in some dreadful Chinese stereotypes. The few actual Asian actors in the production are relegated to non-speaking parts.

Another common theme is the failure of Hollywood to recognise the legitimacy of trans people themselves; instead making them out to be a pretence.
Helena Almagest: The persistent practice of Hollywood to have cis men portray trans women and cis women trans men promotes the misconception that transgender is merely a disguise, and that trans women are merely men dressing up, and trans men, women dressing up. A misconception that gets us killed. (her emphasis).
A trans woman should be portrayed by a woman. It needn’t even be a trans woman (although suitable trans actresses are out there and desperately seeking jobs), it could also be a cis woman. Just not a man.

Likewise, a trans man should be portrayed by a man, trans or cis.

Tara Nitka: Hollywood has made me quite skeptical about the ability of cis people to write and portray trans characters, but that might only be true of Hollywood.

But ultimately, casting cis men and boys to play trans women and girls sends the message that we’re men pretending to be women. If you can’t cast a trans girl, at least cast a girl.

Felicity Huffman in Transamerica
From the (short) list of famous movies at the start of this article, only Transamerica would meet with approval here, with Felicity Huffman cast as a transwoman.

Sara Clarke: When we cast a cis person to play a trans person, we’re at the mercy of that person (and their most likely cis director and writer) to tell us what trans people look and act like, how they feel about things, what choices they would make, etc. Considering how ignorant most cis people are of the trans experience, that’s not doing anybody any favors: either other cis people learning about trans issues through the lens of other cis people who may or may not know what they’re talking about, or other trans people who want to see authentic versions of their lives represented in the media.

These are powerful points. The criticism is that the films don't depict trans people, or how they feel, but only what cisgender people think trans people are like, and how they feel. I definitely share this point of view: several times during The Danish Girl, I found myself thinking that elements of the plot didn't strike me as real.
Chrystal Andros: My issue is what is called agency. With women it used to be (and still is in some aspects) that men define what is good for them. They cannot speak for themselves, so they have to have someone else speaking for them.

In the same way in Hollywood, managers and focus groups define what is good for the audience and define their selection of actors.

With trans-actors and trans-actresses they fit into a certain category - they are becoming more mainstream, but they are considered like women from 1950s who go out and become professionals - the freaks of today.
Three of the films I have mentioned have received very positive reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, Priscilla has a 96% approval rating; Girl has achieved 84% and Transamerica has 76%.  Meanwhile, The Danish Girl managed only 67% and Breakfast on Pluto achieved 57%. So the filmmakers are doing something right (if not exactly breaking box-office records with any of them). But of course, if these are films made by cisgender film-makers, pitched for a (predominantly) cisgender audience, I suppose that doesn't necessarily mean they please transgender people.

Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto
But not everyone agrees with the sentiments above. Some commentators reported that, as long as the actor does a decent job, it shouldn't matter whether they are cisgender or transgender.
Mark Grinstein-Camacho: Actors play different characters all the time. It is their job. You can find actors who play straight people, gay people, billionaires, emperors of the galaxy, penniless street urchins, genius computer programmers, or zombies hungry for human flesh.

Studying for those roles and preparing for them is a big part of an actor’s work. Maybe it means watching Hitler’s speeches, or spending a day at a boot camp, or attending a conference. Maybe it means learning to play the violin for a year. Maybe it means watching other movies. Maybe it means interviewing people who were there. Any good actor can do this.
Karissa Cook: One point that most people seem to miss with these questions is that an actor acts. That is what they do.

Would it be a good thing for more transgender actors to get cast? Absolutely! Should we get bent out of shape about who is portraying trans characters? Not unless they are doing a poor job.

Look folks. If you want only trans actors to have trans roles then you aren't really looking for actors, you are looking for representatives.

Actors play a part. Their job is to make us believe that they really are the characters they portray. Stop worrying about who is playing the role, just pay attention to how well or poorly they did.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing
This is also a point I have some sympathy with, although my own point of view comes from a different angle. Film-making is driven by economics. Film-makers make films because they want people to pay money to see them. Along the way, they may inspire, entertain, or inform--they may even achieve art--but those are very secondary considerations.

In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch plays cryptanalyst Alan Turing (who happens to be one of my heroes). Turing was gay, but Cumberbatch isn’t; nonetheless Cumberbatch gives an extraordinary performance.

People have criticised the considerable liberties with historical events which the director took. But the director Morten Tyldrum has said that the film was really about using the medium of film to give the audience a flavour of what Turing was really like (rather than to just make a historical documentary). In this, I think he succeeds. The role of the tortured genius has been done dozens of times, but Cumberbatch manages to bring a nuanced performance which includes the awkwardness, the vulnerability and the arrogance of the character, without ever feeling forced or unnatural. Though we sympathise deeply with Cumberbatch's portrayal of Turing, he doesn't make the character necessarily likeable.

By casting a star like Cumberbatch in the role of Alan Turing, I believe people will watch the film who otherwise wouldn’t. And I believe that, unless they have hearts of stone, they will come away feeling sympathy for Turing and how he was treated, perhaps in a way they haven’t sympathised with gay people before. Other recent films which show gay men in a very positive light are Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent
I think that we are in this place right now. I believe it’s more important for the public to see us, and to sympathise with and accept us, (even using the medium of fiction and the artifice of film) than it is for trans actors to be cast in those roles. Some cisgender actors have also done a wonderful job, such as Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent.

I hope that the day will come when trans actors are just actors. We are not there yet. Meanwhile, cisgender actors playing transgender parts is fine by me. What I want, right now, is awareness and exposure, and for people to view us with sympathy rather than scorn or discomfort. I think overall that we should be pleased that films with a transgender theme are being made and released. While they may not be perfect, I think that the casting of cisgender actors in transgender parts is doing more good than harm.

Monday, 31 August 2020

In Search of Beauty

Hallowe'en is a time of year when a lot of closeted cross-dressers feel safe to dress in public. It's acceptable to put on a face and a costume you wouldn't normally wear, and show yourself off. I've read quite a few descriptions of this online. It tends to be more marked in the US, where Hallowe'en is an enormously popular occasion, and where people seem to spend a lot more time and effort on the whole business than the rest of the world, though what I see is that, year on year, Hallowe'en is growing, everywhere.

One leg to rule them all...
So imagine my discomfort when I was invited to a very large and "authentic" Hallowe'en party last year. The party was hosted by a woman I work with. Unfortunately my partner couldn't attend, so it was up to me to go along, with the kids.

I very quickly dismissed the idea that I would go dressed as a woman. First, I'm not out to this woman. Second, I didn't know who else from work might be invited and show up. Third, the irony is not lost on me that Hallowe'en costumes are supposed to be a costume; as I've mentioned before, putting on a costume feels like pretending to be something I'm not, while getting dressed as a woman feels like becoming something I am (even if not every day). I definitely didn't want to do some sort of costume version of Vivienne; I couldn't imagine something less comfortable than turning up dressed as a pantomime dame. While if I dressed nicely, it could be a dead giveaway that this wasn't a once-in-a-year costume, but something I do much more frequently.

Mind you this Gandalf outfit, by Melbourne student Tjitske van Vark, might possibly work for this year. Gandalf the Pink, anyone?

But there was a further catch, which is that the hostess herself is extremely good at both makeup and costume. I've seen some of her work before, in pictures, and it's dazzling. So I knew she was going to set the bar very high, which in turn meant I didn't feel I could just cut two holes in a sheet, put it over my head, and call myself a ghost. In the end, I got a decent fantasy swordsman costume, and some decent props, and I didn't disgrace myself. But that's not what this post is about.

Lex Fleming from MadeYewLook
The hostess had indeed gone to great lengths. Her house was lavishly decorated, inside and out, with skulls and spiders and pumpkins and gravestones. But her own makeup was simply extraordinary; it was clearly professional-quality work. In addition, she had spent a lot of time getting her costume just right. It must have taken weeks of planning to put the whole thing together. While I am not going to include any photographs of the hostess herself, here is a comparable image of a young woman doing something similar, and let me say, the hostess was every bit as striking as this image here; not just her face, but also her costume.

Understandably there were a lot of photographs. The hostess took photos of all the guests; in groups, posed and unposed. And she was also in lots of photos, including photos of me. Standing beside her while those photos were taken made me feel uncomfortable, and I've been reflecting for some time on why this should be.

First, I am extremely conscious of beauty around me. When people talk about beauty privilege, I completely understand exactly what they mean. I cannot help paying attention to beautiful people, and it's almost always female beauty that I am talking about here. So when there is someone beautiful near me, and I want to just have a normal conversation (with someone else, about something else), I can sometimes find it difficult to concentrate unless I sit where I cannot be distracted by the view.

Has anyone got a pen I could borrow?
For me (at least) beauty doesn't necessarily have to be the sort of thing you would put on a magazine cover. There are a thousand things which women around me do which I think are beautiful. It can be as simple as a particular smile, a turn of phrase, or an endearing gesture (such as putting your pencil into your bun, which I think is gorgeous), while others might see nothing particularly special.

Second, beauty is something I really aspire to. Perhaps it's because I had a rough time at school (as a sensitive child I was commonly picked on), I tend to equate beauty with popularity, and I am envious of people who are beautiful.

This is something which I have really struggled with. As I've mentioned before on this blog, it's not enough to look feminine: I really want to look pretty. I don't think that the camera is anywhere near as flattering as the mirror, but I also think the camera comes a lot closer to showing me what other people see when they look at me. I love to take photos when I'm dressed, and I can feel very flat afterward when I look at the photos and don't feel great about what I see.

Meanwhile it's hard not to feel even more dejected when I look at the Internet and see what seem to be thousands of gorgeous images of trans women, and I think that, in a month of Sundays, I could never look that good. I know I am not alone in feeling this. Even Hannah McKnight (whom I admire for many reasons) has posted lately about feeling this way, and I've had conversations with some of my Facebook friends about it. Sometimes I think: why should I even bother? What would be the point?

The third thing which I really noticed about my Hallowe'en friend is that she wasn't just looking spectacular, she was also acting differently. She was definitely acting more flirty, more sexy, especially in front of the camera. She was owning it. She was doing beauty.

So there I was, feeling awkward and foolish in my own costume, seeing my friend completely owning the Hallowe'en femme fatale thing, and knowing I will never look remotely as good. That was a potent stew of emotions indeed. My costume was no disgrace, and I could have been strutting around and posing like Conan the Barbarian--but honestly I just wanted to get it over with and go home.

I know that these feelings are temporary; that there will be times when I feel fantastic--both pretty and feminine--again. I am also enough of a realist to recognise that probably everyone feels a bit like this, when they try to compare themselves to others. And of course the people on the Internet post their best photos--of course they do!-- and they don't show you their mascara malfunctions or their bad hair days or their photos taken at unflattering angles.

Mind you, it's interesting to consider: if I were an attractive man, would I be less bothered about trying to look pretty as a woman? Would I be able to get some of that beauty "fix" in my male persona? It's impossible to know. If Timberland decides to pick up my modelling contract again, perhaps I will be able to let you know.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

The Medical Profession is Female

A man and his son are terribly injured in an accident. They are taken to hospital requiring surgery. A surgeon is called, but looks at the boy and says "I can't operate on this boy: he's my son!" How is this possible?

Does this riddle perplex you? If so, you may be demonstrating your innate gender bias, that surgeons ought to be male, and therefore you expect the surgeon to be the boy's father. Of course, the common answer is that the surgeon is the boy's mother (though it's becoming increasingly possible that the boy is the child of a gay couple).

My media feed this week sparked my interest with its announcement that the "Medical Profession is Female", and I followed the link.

Professor Elizabeth Loder is a professor of neurology at Harvard, and the head of research at the British Medical Journal. She writes (my italics):
Loder: Soon, most doctors in the US, the UK, and Europe will be women; this is already the case in many countries (...) The stereotype that doctors are men persists at a time when almost half of physicians are female—and it has been internalised by women physicians like me—so it’s a problem that needs to be fixed. How to do this? It would help to retire “he,” “him,” and “his” as the default pronouns for doctors and make a deliberate switch to “she,” “her,” and “hers.” Pronouns are in flux, and it’s possible that “they,” “them,” and “theirs” will become standard. Until that happens, I have a proposal: when in doubt, and the gender of the doctor is unknown, let’s use female pronouns to send a message and open minds.
Professor Elizabeth Loder
There is no doubt that she is right. Women outnumber men at admission to medical school already, and my own belief is that more than half of all doctors are already women.

Loder's piece was prompted by a paper recently published in the BMJ which shows that female scientists are less likely to use positive terms to describe their research findings compared to male scientists. The men tend to use positive-sounding words like novel, unique, or unprecedented, and papers with this more positive language get cited more often.

Academic papers are usually cited in a way which masks the first name of the authors. They are usually given by their initials only: (Lennon J, McCartney P, Harrison G, Starr R), which makes it pretty hard to infer anyone's gender. I had always considered that this made academic publishing encouragingly gender-neutral, but the BMJ paper shows that there is a measurable male-female difference.

As an amusing aside, those of you who are familiar with British English will know the expression "old Uncle Tom Cobley and all", meaning "everyone imaginable". I was delighted to discover that there are several listings in academic journals where Cobley UT has been listed as a co-author!
Loder: Using female pronouns for doctors would force everyone, on a regular basis, to remember that women can be doctors. Soon the default use of female pronouns will make sense for the same reason we’ve defaulted to male pronouns: it will be the best reflection of reality and the new gender makeup of the physician workforce. Furthermore, in situations where most doctors are male (surgical subspecialties, for example), it’s then even more desirable to use a default pronoun of “she” to expand people’s ideas of who can be a doctor.
I'm already doing this very deliberately in my Quora answers, and at work I am careful to deliberately avoid assuming male pronouns for doctors (instead I tend to use they). The very first post I ever wrote on this blog, back in 2011 (!) was about pronouns, although I must say that the invented, gender-neutral pronouns still grate with me wherever I see them.

What I saw, twenty or more years ago, is that to succeed in medicine, women had to outperform the men. That meant that the few female consultants and professors, that I knew then, tended toward the ferocious spinster archetype. I got the impression these were women who had sacrificed a lot (personal life, family life) to get their positions. Many seemed to me to be bitter and battle-hardened: sick of proving themselves right in front of mansplaining men who were not as good as they were.

Before she was that doctor, she was this doctor.
It was considered acceptable for women to do the “touchy-feely” specialties, such as general practice or psychiatry. But women found it very difficult to succeed in the “tougher, harder” specialties such as surgery (especially orthopaedics). The following quote comes from my favourite dark medical drama, the wonderful Cardiac Arrest:
Just because surgery involves a bit of sewing doesn’t mean it’s any job for a housewife!
I personally witnessed the deliberate, ritualised bullying of a highly capable surgical trainee who had committed two grave sins: being a woman, and having brown skin.

But things have changed, and are still changing. Those battle-hardened spinsters have blazed the trail, and women are streaming into specialties which have previously been off limits. And they no longer need to do battle with the boys, which means they are more relaxed and able to express themselves. Some female surgeons operate with little feminine touches: fabulous pink surgical boots (instead of boring white) or operating spectacles with little sparkly bits glued onto the legs and rims. These sound like little things, almost trivial, but they represent ground which was hard-fought for, inch by inch.

The men are, in general, much more respectful and better-behaved. Some of the older ones have ascended to higher echelons, which means that Medical College councils and presidents still tend to be mostly men. But even here I am hearing new dialogue. The president of my Medical College (a man) announced that, considering all the Annual Scientific Meetings our College has ever held, over 100 keynote speakers have presented, and only six were women. Imagine, he said with genuine sincerity, all the talented speakers we have missed out on. (This year nearly all the keynote speakers were women).

That talented surgical trainee I knew back in the day has made it; she was far too talented not to. But she lost something along the way: her compassion is far less now than it was when I knew her. She too has been battle-hardened.

I remain hopeful that these trends continue, and I remain certain that medicine (and hence patients) will benefit from improved gender balance.

But there is one thing still missing: where are the trans doctors? If, as I suspect, there are just as many transgender doctors as there are in the general population, where are they all? This is a subject I intend to explore more fully in a later post, because I've been doing a lot of looking. Meanwhile, if you have a story or viewpoint to share, please leave a comment.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Shifting Sands

Although it's over a year since its release, I came across this amazing publication, and I wanted to give it wider recognition.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) is the medical college responsible for setting training standards for doctors specialising in the field of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Australasia. So it's a very large, prestigious, academic organisation.

As most medical colleges do, it publishes a flagship academic journal; but also a more informal publication, O&G Magazine, which I admit I had never come across until I saw a pile of them lying in my hospital. The top one caught my eye, because it was colourful, and because it looked like Tetris (which is one of my favourite games). When I looked closer, I saw that the theme of this particular issue was "LGBTQIA", so I picked it up to have a read. I was immediately captivated. Best of all, the entire issue is available free online here.

Let's start with the editorial, from incoming RANZCOG President Dr Vijay Roach:
Roach: This issue of O&G Magazine addresses an important aspect of social, cultural and clinical life in Australia and New Zealand. Members of the LGBTI community have experienced a long history of marginalisation and discrimination, often to the detriment of their physical and mental healthcare. While the College acknowledges a diversity of opinion in the community and among our members on many issues, on one thing we are united: RANZCOG believes that every person, independent of their sexual orientation, has the right to high-quality medical care. 
In 2017, the RANZCOG Board issued a statement on same-sex marriage which read, in part '… the Board affirms its support for marriage equality and calls upon the Australian Parliament to ensure equal opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians in same-sex relationships and their families …' I was proud to be a member of that Board and grateful to then-President Prof Steve Robson for his leadership.
In this issue, the O&G Magazine editors have assembled a diverse series of articles relevant to the care of the LGBTI community. It is compelling reading and relevant to everyone’s practice.
The list of articles is impressive:
Fertility options for gender and sexually diverse people (Bronwyn Devine)
Rainbow IVF (Sarah van der Wal)
Gender dysphoria (Simone Buzwell)
Gender dysphoria: a paediatric perspective (Noel Friesen)
Fertility preservation in the transgender child and adolescent (Tamara Hunter)
Intersex: variations in sex characteristics (Jennifer Beale)
What do intersex people need from doctors? (Morgan Carpenter)
Hormonal treatment of the transgender adult (Rosemary Jones)
Surgery for transgender individuals (Charlotte Elder)
LGBTQIA gynaecological screening (Kimberley Ivory)
Takatāpui (Elizabeth Kerekere)
Tekwabi Giz National LGBTI Health Alliance (Rebecca Johnson)
Glass closets and the hidden curriculum of medical school (Amy Coopes)
Australia's queer history (Robert French)
I read these articles with two sets of eyes. The first were my medical eyes: was this the sort of thing that, as a doctor, would be helpful for me to read? The answer is clearly yes. The second were my transgender eyes: was this the sort of thing that, as a trans person myself, I would want doctors to read and know? The answer is also a clear yes. There is no doubt that transgender people are becoming more and more visible; their care has been, in the main, not that great; most doctors have very little training in care of transgender people, and reliable resources for doctors to draw upon are few.

The various authors all have special expertise and interest in their various fields, which is commendable. But it's the range of subjects which strikes me as particularly noteworthy. I've sometimes felt that the T is kind of tacked on to the end of LGB as an afterthought. But here we are, right in the middle, with articles dealing with not just hormones and surgery but issues like fertility and childhood and emotional wellbeing. Amazing.

I was pleased to note that the tone of all the articles was spot on, from the acceptance of the individuals, to recognition that care matters but is frequently lacking, to pragmatic information and guidance for practitioners.
There are several points which are very much worth making about a publication of this type.

(1) First, it's great that a major medical college is being so overtly inclusive. That alone is magnificent. RANZCOG is setting an example for others to follow. There has been lots of Twitter support for the issue.

(2) Second, most medical colleges publish guidelines for the care of patients with X condition. What strikes me about this one is a subtle but powerful shift in tone: not "this is what these patients are like" but "this is us, and that's OK". As Amy Coopes points out in her article, there is still great stigma in medicine if you are gay or non-binary. So a publication like this is extremely affirming. As a transgender person with a medical degree myself, I immediately wanted to reach out and make contact, so I wrote to RANZCOG and congratulated them on their magazine (and I’m not the only one: there is a very heartfelt response from a gay obstetrician in the following issue here).

(3) I wouldn't have necessarily expected O&G to be the specialty which would deal with the care of transwomen. Post-transition, care could potentially be complex, since O&G specialists are more used to the care of people with a uterus and vagina than a prostate gland. But this issue seems to be saying to its readers: don't panic, you can do it! It's started me discussing these issues with some of my colleagues much more openly than previously.

Whether you are medical or not, it's well worth having a browse through this magazine. If you're aware of any other medical organisations being explicitly rainbow-inclusive, please let me know.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Vivienne at large!

In the last few weeks my desire to express Vivienne has risen enormously, culminating in a series of public outings over the last couple of weeks, which have been unbelievably successful and affirming.

Having Vivienne time isn't easy. We both have full-time jobs, and between us we have a bunch of kids that have all sorts of things on: school, sports, music, social lives, you name it. However, there has been a series of days where I have managed to get some completely free time. It was time--it was past time--for Vivienne to get out and about.

My partner Missy could see that I had been getting cranky because I was feeling increasingly feminine, but had no opportunities to express it. So she asked me what I wanted to do. The top item on the bucket list was to go dressed to the cinema, so that's what we did.

Please turn your phone to silent.
There were a few matinees which I wanted to see. Normally I like thrilling action-adventure blockbusters--but as Vivienne, I feel much more comfortable to watch more emotional, dramatic or historical films, and in my town there is a cinema which specialises in arty-type films. We settled on a historical costume drama, which had no lightsabres or giant robots to be seen anywhere.

Missy helped me to pick out an outfit which would work. My tendency is to do more. More makeup! More nails! More shoes! She suggested that I tone it down to an outfit which a woman would actually wear, and she had a really good point. I've pointed out before how I tend to become voracious when dressing after a drought.

I am naturally aiming for a compromise with both my outfit and makeup. In one direction, there is too much, and I look like a clown, or a bad drag queen, or a caricature of a woman. In the other direction, there is too little, and I look like a man. Somewhere in the middle is a sweet spot, where I can look, if not exactly like a woman, at least like someone who is trying to make a go of looking like one. Previously I only had my own frame of reference to guide my choices; now I have Missy's sensible viewpoint.

Day One

I felt completely comfortable until we got to the mall and I got out of the car. Suddenly I was aware that everyone's eyes would be on me. This wasn't a frightening sensation, but probably the sensation that the meerkat has when out on the Kalahari desert. We walked into the cinema. Missy ordered the tickets, and I stood behind. The attendant (a woman) spotted my nails, and said they were lovely. I was taken aback by this sudden compliment, having been out for a total of about ten minutes. "Thank you!" I responded. Then she looked at me, having not really looked at me at all. She must have clocked my man-voice, and I braced myself for some sign of discomfort, but there was none. (Missy chided me jokingly for my deep manly voice, but I don't have a fem voice, and I was totally unprepared!)

We made our way into the cinema, which of course was dark and quiet. We got the luxury seats and watched the film. I couldn't believe how lovely it felt. I wanted to pinch myself. None of the other people paid us the slightest attention, though I felt as if I had a huge flashing neon sign above my head.

I came out of the cinema floating on air. This is the sensation some people call the pink fog; others gender euphoria. I drank it all in. I wanted to absorb as much of it as I possibly could.

Still getting used to the handbag thing.
Missy had an appointment for about an hour. I could retreat home, or I could go to a cafe and wait for her. Cafe of course! This meant two new things: going somewhere on my own (already!) and also visiting the ladies' room. But I felt pretty comfortable and pretty confident, and I walked into the cafe. The ladies' room was near the entrance, so I went straight in. It was empty, so I just used a stall, straightened up my clothing, checked my makeup, and came out. I took a table, ordered a drink, and sat looking out of the window, unable to believe this was actually happening. My interactions with the wait staff (male and female) were pleasant and ordinary; again they must have clocked me instantly, but they seemed completely comfortable with me for a customer. When Missy came back to pick me up I was still happy and floaty, and this feeling lasted for the rest of the day and into the evening.

Day Two

The following day, Missy was at work. I had the option to dress again--or I could do ordinary stuff (as if!). I decided to dress and go out on my own. I wore the same outfit as I had before, and I went back to the same mall. It was much more crowded than the day before!

I was so nervous at first that I decided to just stroll around. I was extremely self-conscious! There were so many things to remember, including a whole new way to walk and carry myself. I had, of course, been practising, but it's one thing to practise when there is nobody looking, and it's a different kettle of fish if you feel like everyone is looking at you!

At first I jumped at every noise. As I passed a sports store, I heard a burst of male laughter from within. At the time I was sure it was directed at me, but in retrospect, there is no reason at all to think it was. I began to look up and take notice of the people around me more. A woman coming the other way caught my eye, and smiled. I smiled back. Was it because she clocked me, and was being reassuring? Or was it because women sometimes smile at one another when they make brief eye contact in the mall? I was especially fearful of large, muscular men. I fear that, of all people, they are the ones who would express their discomfort most vocally.

I braced myself for strange looks; for weird expressions; for expressions of distaste. Nothing. Nothing at all. Nobody seemed to pay me the slightest notice. Was that, I wonder now, because they were silently sniggering and pointing behind my back? Maybe. Or maybe I just didn't stand out enough for people to notice me (and I am sure most people are wrapped in their own business, so that if you mostly blend in, you become effectively invisible). Or maybe (and here's the kicker) they did actually notice, and clock me, but were not bothered in the slightest?

Hot as any Hottentot?
My self-imposed task was to buy sunglasses for Vivienne. The weather has been bright and sunny lately. I could hardly buy sunglasses for Vivienne in male mode ("Do you think these would look good on me if I was wearing a wig and a frock?"). And sunglasses add a layer of disguise.

I went into the sunglasses shop, and approached the counter. The assistant, a young woman, said "Can I help you?" I smiled and said "Yes, I'm looking for sunglasses to go with this look," and indicated myself. She didn't seem fazed in the slightest, but asked me how much I wanted to spend, and then showed me lots and lots of frames, several of which I tried on.

Every time--every time--I looked in the mirror, it was a surprise to see Vivienne's face looking back out at me. The assistant was lovely. I told her I wanted large round lenses, but she suggested a few alternate frames. Some of them didn't work at all, but some of them looked really good. Eventually, I settled on a pair, and bought them. She asked me if I had shopped there before, and I laughed and said "Yes, but I didn't look like this!" and she laughed too.

When it came time to pay for my parking ticket, the attendant smiled and asked if I was having a nice day, and I said "Yes, it's lovely, thanks!"

In the afternoon I went for a long stroll round the park. With my sunglasses on, nobody looked at me at all, and I seemed to blend right in. I went into the little cafe next to the park and ordered a drink, and sat writing my journal with my lovely fountain pen and its lovely sparkly ink. Other patrons came and went, and nobody seemed in the least troubled. I once wrote in this blog I considered this simple activity to be pie in the proverbial sky, and here I was, doing it and loving every moment.


You would think that no human being could stand this amount of pink fog, and perhaps you would be right. There is a definite sense in which Vivienne time seems to stand apart from ordinary time; no work, no commitments, no obligations. It's probably the same sense of "getting away from it all" that some men enjoy when golfing or fishing--but surely it's much more pleasurable than either of those activities? In any case, after a couple of days, I had to come back down to Earth.

But my reflections are these. First, going out as Vivienne seems to be OK. That is, nobody seems offended or horrified. The people of my town seem very tolerant, which is extraordinarily gratifying to me. Why should this come as a surprise? Perhaps because I've had about 20 years of being told how disgusting crossdressing is (by my ex-wife), and though I knew that her view was very skewed, some of it had inevitably sunk in. To discover that it isn't right; that people are apparently totally fine with it, has come as a revelation, and a delightful one. My biggest goal, in all of this, is simply acceptance, as I have written before.

Second, I think for me, the key is to not pretend to be a woman: I shall surely fall short. Instead, I can simply be myself, and let people make of me what they will. The woman in the sunglasses shop didn't seem remotely uncomfortable with my attitude or presentation. I am hopeful that with time and practice the anxiety will fade and the pleasure and comfort will grow, but even if it doesn't, where I am right now is fabulous.

So far, everything has been completely wonderful. I fear that there may yet be an event, which in my mind I am calling The Puncture, where I have a truly unpleasant encounter with someone, or some other experience which really puts me off going out like this. The reason I think such a thing will happen is that a part of me thinks that moments of bliss must be balanced out somehow, for the universe to keep turning. But the reason I think it might not, is that very few people (and I've read a lot of stories) mention events like this.

In any case, for each time I go out, and meet smiles and acceptance, it adds to the store of goodwill and optimism in the bank. As these experiences accumulate, it will become harder and harder to demolish the pile, and easier and easier to accept that an occasional uncomfortable encounter represents the exception, not the norm.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Vivienne-- The Next Steps

It's been a little under three years since I wrote this post, about the end of my marriage. During that time I've been going through a tremendous reframing of my life. There were several things which happened which were quite surprising, and I wanted to put them down here.

Meeting someone new

It will come as no surprise at all that I adore women. I always have. I'm more comfortable in their company, and I just feel better being around them. It was therefore inevitable that I would start dating again.

To get a few things out of the way, this was not about "sowing wild oats". I've never been that person before, and I am not that person now (even though one of my male friends, with the best of intentions, but without much delicacy, told me it was time to get shagging). So I was just looking forward to dinner, wine, and pleasant company.

Actually neither of us drinks coffee!
To my surprise, on one of my very first dates, I really clicked with a woman from work. We found we had a lot in common, and we were texting each other constantly. This presented a problem: to tell, or not to tell?

On the one hand, Missy was lovely, and funny, and had a host of good features. I was enjoying feeling attractive again, and I was looking forward to spending more time with her. On the other, I had escaped from a previous relationship which had been ruined, in large part, because of cross-dressing. I didn't think it was fair on this woman to take the relationship further without her knowing. I didn't think it was fair on me, to have to keep hiding who I am. So, on our second date, I told her there was something important she needed to know.

She blanched immediately. If you ask her about it now, she will tell you that the expression on my face made her think it was something dreadful, such as terminal cancer. But I slid my phone across to her, and showed her some pictures of Vivienne. She was surprised, of course, but her response was basically "Is that all?" And she was completely fine with it.

Having got that out of the way, the relationship blossomed. We moved in together a year ago, and things are looking great. I am enormously fortunate.

Vivienne went away

Missy wanted to meet Vivienne. I was incredibly nervous, but again, it was a lovely encounter. She didn't laugh. She didn't wince. She gave me makeup tips and bought me thoughtful gifts, including perfume, and a lovely handbag.

Vivienne in the kitchen
We went out together for a stroll round the town. I was unbelievably nervous, but I can't tell you how much I wanted this experience. I wanted to know what it would be like--for me, for her, and for other people. Amazingly, it was completely fine. We hosted a dinner for friends at home. It was bliss.

Having spent nearly 20 years being told that Vivienne was grotesque and perverse, I struggled to process all these feelings. I couldn't believe, at first, that being Vivienne was suddenly OK. One night I was in the bath, with lots of bubbly foam, and shaving my legs. Missy texted me to ask what I was doing, and I told her, and she responded very positively and said she hoped I was enjoying it. I was!

I found myself dreading, at any moment, that she was going to turn round at some vulnerable moment and say "Ha! Fooled you, you horrible tranny freak!" And of course she hasn't done this. After 3 years, it's beginning to sink in that she isn't going to. The trust is building, and it's a feeling which doesn't get old.

But the next part was another surprise: the compulsion to dress nearly vanished. I didn't change who I was. I continued to be Vivienne online. I continued to buy nice Vivienne things when I saw them. But the drive to dress, to express myself openly, seemed to go away nearly completely.

I wondered why this was. Was it because Vivienne was forbidden fruit, which, when suddenly available, lost some of its sweetness? Was it because I was so wrapped up in a new relationship that Vivienne was forgotten? Was it because there was so much else going on, with kids and work and school? Was it because all of us wax and wane with time; that we are not constant in our feelings and wishes?

There have been times when this has happened before, and I reasoned that Vivienne would return in time. Meanwhile, I wanted to be ready! I had new clothes, cosmetics, accessories. Not grabbed off the rail in the back of gloomy charity shops, but carefully considered to be part of a look that works well; these shoes would look great with that skirt.

Vivienne came back

And then, Vivienne came back. I gradually became aware of an insistent nagging feeling, which became more and more prominent with time. I realised that the feeling was unstoppable, and that it was time. So I've just gone with it. And there has been an explosion of experiences; more Vivienne time in the last month than there has been in the past three years put together. It's been amazing, and intoxicating, and it's still going on. Where will it lead to next?

Friday, 19 January 2018

Rachel Dolezal

Here is a question. Is a person's identity something they determine for themselves? Or is it something which is imposed upon them by society? Is it a bit of both? Or is it neither, but somewhere in between?

I do not have an answer to it, but I do believe that a consideration of Rachel Dolezal* is pertinent to the discussion.

Rachel Dolezal as an adult
First, a brief bit of background. Born in the United States in 1977, Dolezal attended Howard University, a historically-black university in Washington, DC, and obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree in 2002. She taught part-time in Africana at the Eastern Washington University. In 2014, Dolezal was elected the president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. By all accounts, she fulfilled her duties with energy and enthusiasm.

But in June 2015, things hit a real snag. I need to pause now to make a few further points. I don't live in the US, although I have spent some time there. I don't pretend to understand much about race relations in the US, although I have read about it to some extent. But the simplistic bottom line is that, up until this point, nearly everyone thought Rachel Dolezal was a black woman.

In June 2015, Dolezal's parents publicly announced that Dolezal wasn't black. They themselves are European Americans, of Czech, Swedish and German descent. And they released photographs and even a birth certificate to prove it. "She’s clearly our birth daughter, and we’re clearly Caucasian", they said. Dolezal had been estranged from her parents for some time prior.

Not actually black? Dolezal as a teenager
There followed an explosion of interest in Dolezal. She was immediately scrutinised from all quarters, and came under an enormous barrage of criticism. She stated:
Dolezal: I acknowledge that I was biologically born white to white parents, but I identify as black. (...) I don’t, as some of the critics have said, put on blackface as a performance.
She was forced to resign from her post in the NAACP, and was later dismissed from her post at the Eastern Washington University. Later there was some confusion when Dolezal seemed to use terms such as transracial to describe herself; this term was already employed to describe children adopted and raised by a different race.

In a detailed interview with the Guardian, Dolezal "rejects the idea that she is a black person in a white person’s body – and spurns the concept of transracial. (...) Dolezal has made a point of describing herself as black, not African American, a distinction derided by Vanity Fair, but one that black Africans in the US would recognise. She describes African American as a particular historical experience. To be black is broader, unbound by dates or borders."

Let's steer clear of any further terminological confusion, and get right into some of the criticisms.

Guardian writer Syreeta McFadden writes:
McFadden: Dolezal’s messy theft and fiction of a black American identity uses the currency of a subculture of privilege that is rooted in white supremacy too. If anything, to believe that one can transfer one’s identity in this way is a privilege – maybe even the highest manifestation of white privilege. The ability to accept marginalization, to take on the identity of blackness without living the burdens of it and always knowing you could, on a whim, escape it, is not a transition to blackness; to use it to further your career or social aspirations is not to become black.
Meanwhile, across the pond, Denene Millner writes that Dolezal's chosen (African-derived) name represents "doubling down on her insistence" of her black identity in response to the controversy:
Millner: The woman formerly known as Dolezal is still a white lady with fussy hair and a bad tan, trying to make fetch happen. Snatching two words from two separate African languages and claiming them as a reflection of her connection with blackness cannot — and will not ever — earn her the soul of black folk.

Blackness is a bright and shiny diamond, and here in America, everyone wants to wear it like a Rockafella chain around their neck. (...) Like diamonds, blackness is created under extreme pressure and high temperature, deep down in the recesses of one's core.

And it is the ultimate in white privilege, really, for a white woman to see that diamond, all shiny and hard and unbreakable, and pluck it for her own, like it's a gift from Tiffany's, with seemingly zero regard for the pressure, the heat, the pain it went through — that we went through — to earn that shine.
And Britain's Dominic Lawson writes:
Lawson: Rachel Dolezal is merely the most spectacular example of the growing phenomenon of people posing as victims — itself the consequence of a culture which portrays victimhood as a form of moral superiority.
I was being me: Rachel Dolezal
Criticism was not confined to Dolezal herself. An article supportive of her entitled "In Defense of Transracialism" and published in April 2017 in peer-reviewed feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, provoked a storm of protest on social media, culminating in an open letter to the editorial board demanding that the article be retracted, and a subsequent (unauthorised) apology from some of the associate editors. The Editor-in-Chief and the Board of Directors have stood by the article, and have refused to take it down. The Wikipedia article offers a good summary and is well worth a read.

The author of the article, Rebecca Tuvel, pointed out that in 2015 Caitlyn Jenner came out as trans, and was widely praised and accepted, appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair and being named one of Glamour's Women of the Year 2015. In contrast, Rachel Dolezal was widely vilified and lost her job and status. I think Tuvel has a very good point in highlighting the significant contrast there.

So where is the damage?

Until I started to write this article, the above was all I knew of Rachel Dolezal, and it prompted me to consider several points.

First, until her parents outed her, Rachel Dolezal was accepted to be black by everyone around her: her employers, her friends, her students, and the wider community. Nobody seemed to notice. Nobody seemed to point at her and say "Hey, you know, you don't seem very black to me?" Nobody seemed to think she was doing harm. Nobody seemed to think she couldn't do her job, and it certainly doesn't seem as if she was breaking any laws. What, I wonder, was she doing wrong up until this point? Where was the damage?

The Guardian quoted NAACP president Cornell William Brooks, who said that the NAACP is “not concerned with the racial identity of our leadership”, and went on: “Our focus must be on issues, not individuals.” And her colleague at NAACP, Cedric Bradley, spoke up in favour of Dolezal's positive work in social justice. Some of her other colleagues and friends have spoken in support of her.

Rachel Dolezal's biological family, with her four adopted brothers
My next question was: why was she outed in the first place? And that's where the story takes a darker turn. Dolezal seems to have been very creative with her own life story. She has stated that she was born in a teepee and that her parents hunted for food with a bow and arrow. She told people that several different black men, most commonly a friend called Albert Wilkerson, were her father, (while her biological father was only her stepfather); and that her adoptive brother Izaiah was her son. She described herself on some websites as a professor, without ever having been one.

Worse, Dolezal complained to police on several occasions that she had been a victim of hate crime, presumably race-related. Police investigations revealed no evidence of crime, but did reveal strong suggestions that Dolezal had fabricated racially-motivated threats against herself. It was as part of the wider investigations into Dolezal's background which turned up her true biological parentage.

So now the question of where the damage is can be answered. Dolezal's fabrications have wasted police time and resources investigating crimes which never took place, invented for the purposes of attracting sympathy and validating Dolezal's own identity and sense of victimhood. There was a deception there. One can argue about whether it was malicious or not, but it was deliberate and indisputable.

A bright and shiny diamond?

Dolezal's birth certificate
So the next question becomes: why did all this arise? Dolezal's upbringing in rural Montana was pretty tough. In the 2015 Guardian interview, journalist Chris McGreal writes "Life was dictated by the couple’s strict interpretation of the Bible, including a strong belief in creationism and a puritan-like commitment to simple living and harsh punishment". Even the identity of the medic who delivered her as a baby is recorded, on her birth certificate, as "Jesus Christ". Perhaps he works for the State of Montana.

She grew up with her natural brother Joshua, and they were home-schooled. Her parents adopted four further children when she was a teenager; three African-American boys and a Haitian boy. Dolezal accuses her parents of frequent beatings, and these accounts are corroborated to some extent by her brothers. It certainly seems pretty likely that her childhood was unhappy, and probably pretty miserable and cruel at times. The Guardian reports that she used to imagine herself as really an Egyptian princess who had been kidnapped by her parents.

We can only speculate on where the idea of associating herself with black identity came from. Was it distancing herself from her parents' culture? Or attempting to pursue a new identity (Denene Millner's bright and shiny diamond)? Some people have accused her of mental illness, which seems to me unduly harsh. She told the Guardian:
Dolezal: As long as I can remember, I saw myself as black. I was socially conditioned to discard that. It was an all-white town. I was very unhappy. I felt like I was constantly self-sabotaging in order to conform to religion, culture dynamics. I was censoring myself. I was shutting down inside.
Given some of Dolezal's other porkies, I think it's reasonable to take some of this with a grain of salt, although I accept her point that she felt stifled and unhappy by her strict parenting, and I feel reasonably sure that Dolezal's attempt to switch race has been triggered by her difficult and painful childhood.

Let's set aside, for a moment, what Dolezal's motivations are, and accept at face value her comments that she identifies with being black; she feels black (and always has); and that she wants to continue to be black. Let's also set aside the lies she told to get into her jobs, and the indisputible hurt and anger she has caused to lots of people by pretending to be black.

Let's just consider this one point. Consider a white woman, born to white parents and raised accordingly, who describes herself as black. She has adopted brothers who are black. She was married to a black man between 2000 and 2004, and the first child she bore is thereby of mixed race (therefore black). She went to a formerly black university; taught African studies; and worked for a group to further black rights. I have no doubt that she affects mannerisms of speech, posture, gesture, dress and custom which would be considered "black". Not least, she was accepted and taken to be black by hundreds of people over many years. Is that enough for her to be accepted as black? And, if the answer is yes, is that OK?

Establishing race and identity

Black and white: not as simple as that
How much of "you" has to be black, for you to "be" black? Is it enough if you are one half? One quarter? One eighth? Is it a matter of inheritance of genetic material at all? Is it a matter of exactly what tone your skin is? Is it a matter of your upbringing, your culture? Is it (as Denene Millner writes) a matter of shared experiences? Is it a matter (as Touré Neblett insists) that the one thing all black people share is experience of racism? Or is it something intangible, something indefinable?

Bliss Broyard writes an excellent piece exploring what it means to be black, having first discovered that her father was of mixed race, literally as he lay dying. This revelation had a subtle but far-reaching impact on her image of herself and how others related to her. Broyard's article points out that, since 1970, Americans are allowed to "self-identify" their race on the Federal census. Nobody checks up on which box you tick, and the results form national statistics guiding official policies. Since 2000, Americans have been allowed to tick more than one box to identify their race.

And her piece was linked to this article by Steven Thrasher (my italics for emphasis).
Thrasher: I have zero personal insight into why Dolezal chose to perform race as she did. But the reason that her story is so fascinating to me and to the rest of the world is that it exposes in a disquieting way that our race is performance – that, despite the stark differences in how our races are perceived and privileged (or not) by others, they are all predicated on a myth that the differences are intrinsic and intrinsically perceptible. (...) Like it or not, she’s exposed how shaky and ridiculous the whole centuries-old construct of individual “race” is.
This certainly feeds into my own thoughts, which I touched on five years ago on this blog, writing about Jaye Davidson, who is considered "Black British" by virtue of his Ghanian father, even though he doesn't look black. Does blackness "trump" other aspects of your ethnicity? And it brings me back to the essence of this article. Is your identity something which you determine for yourself? Or is it something which is imposed upon you by others?

Dolezal: Black like me
Rebecca Tuvel's article considers four questions about Dolezal's purported black identity. The first is the necessity of cultural experience, including the experience of racism (as per Touré Neblett's article). Dolezal seems to have been so determined to experience this that she concocted it for herself. The second is the question of ancestry; the truth is that we are all mixtures of various races and ethnic groups, and Bliss Broyard has had her DNA tested four times with four different results.

The third is the idea that the black community could be harmed when a white individual seeks to enter. For me, it seems plain that nobody seems to have complained that Rachel Dolezal harmed the black community, until she was revealed to be white.

And the fourth question is an extremely sensitive one: the idea that Dolezal is wrongfully exerting white privilege. As touched upon by Syreeta McFadden, this would mean appropriating black identity without accepting any of its burdens, and with the luxury of being able to leave it at any time. Tuvel quotes the writer Tamara Winfrey Harris: "I will accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her". My point is that Dolezal seems to not have changed her mind in response to some extremely negative experiences, and (in the words of Denene Millner) "doubled down" on her identity. If she could retreat, wouldn't she do it?

Tuvel considers these questions and argues against them all, drawing parallels with gender reassignment, and coming to the conclusion that Dolezal should be accepted to be black. It is this conclusion which led to the outburst of protest against her paper. I am pleased with the decision by Hypatia to let the paper stand. As I have written elsewhere, protesters should not be allowed to silence considered, peer-reviewed publications, just because they get upset about them.

Wrapping it all up

So let's try to wrap this all up. As always, there are many layers of complexity to consider.

We don't know why Rachel Dolezal chose to attempt to switch races, and we will never know. I think it's likely she will say whatever casts her in the best possible light, so I don't think her own personal accounts of her motivations are completely reliable. The best we can do is to accept her statements that "I wasn't identifying as black to upset people. I was being me."

It's clear that, along the way, she fooled a lot of people, to her own advantage. In other countries, I suspect people would be much less bothered about what Dolezal's purported race was, but this was the United States, where a lot of people take race identity extremely seriously, and she must certainly have known that, and how upset they would be if they knew the truth. As a result, her deception was harmful, and deliberately so. In addition, there was the issue with fabricating the hate crimes, and a further issue around legal action against Howard University. (This article is already too long to go into this!)

Nonetheless, I have some sympathy for Rachel Dolezal. I don't know if it would be possible for her to try to live her desired black lifestyle without an element of deception. At first, she seems to have achieved a sense of belonging, only to have it torn painfully away when her deceptions were revealed. Ironically, if she hadn't cooked up her stories of experiencing hate crime (which presumably she did to validate her identity), she might never have been outed. In any case, it will now be extremely difficult for her to escape from the shadow of what has happened. She has written a book about her experiences, entitled In Full Color. Although I disagree with her wrongdoing, I cannot find it in me to condemn her for wanting to live and identify, and be accepted, in the way she chooses.

It certainly seems to me, as per Steven Thrasher's article, that the notion of race is very vague. Nobody can quite agree on how it can be defined, or determined empirically. It clearly isn't based just on what you look like. It's a phenomenon which comedian Sasha Baron Cohen has deliberately satirised in his Ali G persona. ("Is it because me is black?") I will not be convinced that blackness is something indefinable, intangible; something I couldn't possibly understand because I am white.

Is he really black?
Are there others like Dolezal? Living "stealth" in different races or cultures? Should we be asking ourselves, when we meet a black person: is this person really black? Or are they an impostor? There are, as Bliss Broyard points out, many people of black ancestry who are pale enough to pass for white, getting by and wisely keeping their mouths shut. Before today, the only person I know of who was even remotely similar to Rachel Dolezal was the writer John Howard Griffin, who passed as a black man in the Deep South in 1959, and wrote the book Black Like Me about his experiences of racism from the opposite side. Griffin's project also necessitated deception, of course, but this deception was not to Griffin's personal advantage, and Griffin resolved not to hide either his name or his true identity if confronted. His book is well worth a read.

And then today, I learned of the existence of Martina Big. She is a white German woman who has taken medication in order to darken her skin, seemingly with considerable success. She also has gargantuan breast implants. Deary, deary me.

But that aside, I wonder about what happens in other countries. India, for example, has a rigid and elaborate caste system, which prescribes rigid social codes for people at every level. Nonetheless, it must be the case that people purport to be in a different caste, from time to time, and I bet you can't always tell by looking who is whom.

Race and gender

And of course I need to consider this aspect of the discussion. There are so many parallels between Rachel Dolezal and trans people that I don't know where to begin. And there are comments from across the board (which are hard to refute): if someone is born and raised as a boy, how can that person become a woman (and legally recognised as such)? And if we accept that this is possible, how can we refuse to allow a similar change of identity for Rachel Dolezal? Some of the statements made by Dolezal sound very like the statements made by trans people. And some of the criticisms aimed at Dolezal sound very like the criticisms aimed at trans people, including the one that a transwoman in a female-only environment is merely trying to enact male privilege.

There is certainly a very blurry area between the two conceptual boxes labelled "male" and "female". Likewise, there is a very blurry area between the two races labelled "black" and "white". There are some people who are incredibly uncomfortable about these blurry areas; and some people seem to be fine with one but not with the other.

For their part, many trans people seem to be falling over themselves to distance themselves from Dolezal, when in fact I think the parallels are clear, and certainly worthy of exploration and discussion. This distancing seems understandable, given the amount of ire which Dolezal has provoked. On the other hand, not all of it is objectively demonstrable. Statements like "I am a woman, while Rachel Dolezal is only pretending to be black," just aren't persuasive enough for me. And statements like "Transgender brains are different; it's medically proven," are just not convincing enough for this neuroscientist to accept. And the idea that, while gender and race are both social constructs, there exist fundamental differences between them, seems unsupportable to me.

I think a discussion of Rachel Dolezal is very pertinent to a discussion about gender. I think there are many more similarities than differences, and writers like Rebecca Tuvel are right to consider them and debate them in the scientific literature. I think that ultimately, even if a person asserts a particular identity, there are always going to be other members of society who will reject that identity, if it doesn't fit their own world view.

The last words will go to Tuvel and Dolezal.
Tuvel: I wrote this piece from a place of support for those with non-normative identities, and frustration about the ways individuals who inhabit them are so often excoriated, body-shamed, and silenced. (...) My article is an effort to extend our thinking alongside transgender theories to other non-normative possibilities.
Rachel Dolezal told the Guardian: “The discussion’s really about what it is to be human."

* Although her birth name is Rachel Anne Dolezal, she legally changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo in 2016. For clarity I have stuck with her original name, since that's where most of the information out there on the Internet is to be found.

Update: 8th September 2020

Jessica Krug
Although I wrote this post some years ago, I hadn't heard of anyone else doing what Rachel Dolezal did--until this week, when a BBC news article caught my eye. Jessica A. Krug, an associate professor of history at George Washington University lived for years pretending to everyone that she was black. The BBC story can be found here.

Krug did not give a reason for her decision to come clean, though she was full of apology. (Unlike Dolezal, she hasn't seemed to double down on her black identity but to relinquish it immediately). The BBC reports that screenwriter Hari Ziyad said her admission came "because she had been found out".

Wikipedia gives two more people who have apparently feigned a different race. H.G. Carillo, also an assistant professor at George Washington University (perhaps there's something in the water) claimed to be a Cuban immigrant, although he was born in Michigan. When Carillo died (of COVID-19), the true details of his life became publicly known. And Andrea Smith maintains she is a Cherokee, but actual Cherokee scholars have claimed she has no family connections to documented Cherokee ancestors or relatives.