Wednesday 22 October 2014

Georgina Beyer and Transgender Politicians

Georgina Beyer is a transwoman whose achievements have been extraordinary. Beyer is a New Zealand institution and the world's first transsexual Member of Parliament. But for those of you not from these shores, it's worth adding a little background.

Beyer was in office when I first came to New Zealand. What struck me about New Zealand (as I mentioned here on this blog) is what a masculine country it is. Men here are real men: they drive trucks, they shoot animals, they drink beer. And you can keep your other namby-pamby ball games: the national sport here is rugby. In fact, I stated here without irony that I have found what I consider to be the pinnacle of masculine behaviour here.

And yet, behind that façade there are some curious observations. New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote, implementing true universal suffrage in 1893 (it took the US until 1920, and the UK languished until 1928). Wikipedia describes New Zealand as considered "one of the world's most stable and well-governed nations".
Wikipedia: Between March 2005 and August 2006 New Zealand became the only country in the world in which all the highest offices in the land (Head of State, Governor-General, Prime Minister, Speaker of the House and Chief Justice) were occupied simultaneously by women.
And one of my other heroes, Richard O'Brien, author of the Rocky Horror Show, grew up here and is now a citizen. For more of my reflections on New Zealand, read my article about him.

Georgina Beyer
So it's in this unusual environment that we find Georgina Beyer. Born in 1957, she had a turbulent and unhappy childhood. Her natural parents divorced when she was five years old. Her mother soon remarried. Beyer's stepfather was a lawyer (whose surname she took), but the marriage was not a happy one. Beyer was sent to boarding school where, feeling rejected, she attempted to take her own life. She left school at sixteen to pursue a career in acting.

Beyer always looked feminine, and was sometimes taken for a girl, which made her feel "far more comfortable". She moved to Wellington, where she met members of the gay and drag scene for the first time, including Carmen Rupe. "It was as if I had arrived home". She began to work as a cabaret artist and occasionally a prostitute, and took drugs. During this time, she was attacked and raped by a group of men.

She underwent full sex reassignment surgery in 1984, at the age of about 27. She began to have success as an actress, but was usually typecast as transsexual or transvestite characters, and she had difficulty finding work. Eventually she enrolled in a government-sponsored training scheme in the small country town of Carterton.

Her Honour the Mayor of Carterton
Carterton, a small "redneck" country town, predominantly white, was slightly taken aback by the presence of a Maori transsexual woman. But it's clear that Beyer is a person of extraordinary abilities, and her openness, ability, integrity, and determination, soon won over the locals. Friends suggested that she stand for election to Carterton District Council, to some outrage from the standing members, and she was eventually elected Mayor, in 1995, at the age of 38.

A natural leader, outspoken and fearless, and with great experience to draw on, the new Mayor of Carterton was a great success, and did considerable good for the town, winning the hearts of its inhabitants, who are still very proud of her. She was approached by the NZ Labour Party to stand for election to Parliament for the entire region, the Wairarapa. She won by a landslide, taking the seat from the expected favourite NZ National candidate.

She served as a member of Parliament until 2007. For much of that time, Helen Clark was the Prime Minister. Since resigning from Parliament, Beyer's political career has been impaired because of health issues, and she is currently awaiting a kidney transplant.

A tribute evening was arranged for Beyer by friends and family in November 2013.

Beyer agreed to be interviewed by me, but unfortunately, after I sent her my questions, she suffered a bout of illness. Since that time, she hasn't been responding to my emails. I waited several months for her to get well, and sent some reminders during that time, but there has been no response. She did, however, approve the text above, and the images I selected, for publication in this blog.
Vladimir Luxuria

Naturally if I am able to make contact with her again, I will keep you posted about the result. The NZ media reported that Beyer had stood as a candidate for the Mana Movement in the most recent General Election in this country, earlier this year.

Beyer published her autobiography, Change for the better: the story of Georgina Beyer with Random House in Auckland in 1999. A TV documentary about her life, Georgie Girl, was made in 2001, and you may be able to see some of it here or even here (though it may be unavailable outside NZ).

In research for this article, I came across the story of Vladimir Luxuria, the second transsexual member of parliament in the world. Luxuria held office in Italy from 2006-2008 for the constituency of Lazio. Luxuria lives as a woman but has not had sex-reassignment surgery, and (according to Wikipedia) is legally a male.

I wonder who will be the third?

Addendum 23rd October 2014

Nikki Sinclaire
Well, that took less than 24 hours! My thanks to Sam for bringing to my attention Nikki Sinclaire, a British parliamentarian, who held a seat in the European Parliament from 2009 until June 2014, for the West Midlands constituency.

According to Wikipedia, Sinclaire underwent sex reassignment surgery at the age of 23. She came out as a lesbian in 2004 at the age of 36. However, she only publicly revealed that she was born a boy in 2013, which means she was elected without anyone knowing of her trans status.

In 2013, she released her autobiography, entitled Never Give Up, published by Junius Press. Sinclaire's personal website can be found here.

Okay, so my question is now: who will be the fourth?

Addendum 28th October 2014

Anna Grodzka
Now I am beginning to feel foolish. My thanks to Carole Fraser for pointing out that there is already a fourth, Anna Grodzka, who was elected to the Sejm, Poland's lower house of parliament, in 2011, representing the anti-clerical Palikot party. She is still in office, although has switched to the Green Party earlier this year.

Details about Grodzka are somewhat sketchy. Wikipedia reports that she transitioned in 2009, having sex-reassignment surgery in Thailand. Grodzka's own website seems to be blank apart from a background.

The Polish Wikipedia article (using online translation software) says she was formerly married and has an adult son. She has a degree in clinical psychology from the University of Warsaw, and has been in the military, and worked in publishing and in radio.

It's interesting to compare these four. They seem to have very little in common. Beyer transitioned at a young age, but was very open about her transition and was elected very publicly (mentioning her transition in her maiden speech in parliament). Sinclaire, who transitioned at a similarly young age, told no-one and only came out recently, after leaving office. Grodzka (aged 60) transitioned much later in life, and was elected as a transwoman. And Luxuria hasn't transitioned at all!

Stu Rasmussen
Apart from their interests in politics, there seems little to unite these women, other than them all being male-to-female. I wonder if the fifth transgender politician will be a female-to-male?

Addendum 29th October 2014

My thanks to Ralph for drawing my attention to Stu Rasmussen, mayor of the town of Silverton, Oregon. Rasmussen (aged about 66) prefers male pronouns, but has breast implants and lives full-time as a woman.

If I were going to be strict, I would say that Rasmussen doesn't "count", since he hasn't been elected to a nationwide governing body such as a parliament or a senate. Nonetheless, he is clearly a transgender politician, and I think he (along with the others on this page) deserves a considerable amount of congratulation for standing in public office while being transgendered (and seemingly being successful enough in post that he was re-elected after coming out). It's worth looking at Rasmussen's website here.

Keep them coming, folks!

Addendum 10th May 2016

Geraldine Roman
Over in the Philippines, known for their traditional Roman Catholicism, Geraldine Roman has just been elected as congresswoman for the 1st district of Bataan. Roman (49) has been living as a woman for 22 years. She has a degree in journalism from a university in Spain and is married to a Spanish citizen.

Roman comes from a politically-influential family. She holds the same office that her mother vacated, representing the Liberal Party. Both her parents are politicians, and are supportive of Roman's openly transgender status. In the Philippines, divorce, abortion, and same-sex marriage are illegal, and transsexual people are forbidden to change their name and legal sex.

As of yesterday, Roman didn't have a Wikipedia page. But she does now! Meanwhile, a good article about her can be found here on the BBC.

Addendum 28th August 2016

I have just come across Enza Anderson, a Canadian transwoman who has run for mayor of Toronto (unsuccessfully) as well as other public offices.

Addendum 7th December 2016

This BBC article mentions Tamara Adrian of Venezuela. Adrian was sworn into the National Assembly of Venezuela in 2015 using her male birth name, since in Venezuela it is illegal to change sex.

Monday 25 August 2014

Frightening the Horses

When asked to comment on a supposed homosexual relationship between two of her colleagues, British stage actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell (her stage name) made a comment which has become legendary.
Does it really matter what these affectionate people do-- so long as they don't do it in the streets and frighten the horses!
Hay! How you doin'?
I suppose there are two ways to look at this comment (which has been widely quoted, misquoted, and even mis-attributed). The first is to interpret it as saying that homosexuals should keep themselves hidden from public view. The second way to interpret it (and the way I choose) is to take it as a whimsical remark saying: who cares what they do? What harm could possibly come of it?

This quote came to mind when my attention was drawn to this article, Conservative Men in Conservative Dresses, which was mentioned and discussed over on Thorin's blog. Written by Amy Bloom, and published in Atlantic Monthly in 2002, it is a ruthless (but not wholly unsympathetic) critique of male crossdressers. Bloom is observant, smart and articulate, and the article is well worth reading in its entirety. But it really hurts, and I've been struggling with my reaction to the article all week. The sub-title, taken from the body of the article, is this:
The world of crossdressers is for the most part a world of traditional men, traditional marriages, and truths turned inside out.
And the first line begins:
Bloom: Heterosexual cross-dressers bother almost everyone.
In the first half of the article, Bloom describes crossdressers. Distinct from transsexuals; distinct from drag queens. She talks to Ray Blanchard, and repeats some of his well-trodden dictums. Some of these, you will know, I agree with, including the one that crossdressers don't want to be like women; they want to be like men think women are. She talks to Tri-Ess, and quotes some of their material. So far, so non-descript. However, this material is probably new to the readership of the Atlantic, who are probably unfamiliar with the background.
Blanchard: Of course it's not relaxing. Heels and makeup and a wig and a corset? It's preposterous. Even women don't find that relaxing. Relaxing is a pair of sweatpants, clothing that doesn't even feel like clothing. Cross-dressers want to normalize this, to have it seen as relaxation and self-expression. Cross-dressing is an attempt to resolve an internal conflict, and it's not about fabric. If we had clothing for men and women that was identical in every way except men wore shirts with four buttons and women had shirts with five, cross-dressers would want more than anything to have the shirt with five. We don't know why.
Matronly: the Two Ronnies
I happen to agree with this viewpoint; it's not about the clothes! I would say that my crossdressing feelings are not about the clothes but about the role or expectations society has for me. It's a question I often ask myself (and consider on this blog): what would happen if men and women were all truly free to wear whatever they want? I think Blanchard's interpretation of the answer is as good as any other. And I absolutely do have an "internal conflict", whether it pleases me to admit it or not.
Bloom: This seems to me to be the heart of cross-dressers' dilemma, and the heart of mine in writing about them. Cross-dressing is a compulsion, but we must not see it as a sickness. A good wife should tolerate it because the man has no choice, but it isn't too hard to tolerate because it's a gift. It is about fun and pleasure—and it's a necessity. The necessity of cross-dressing is frightening to the men and to their wives, and their wish to tame it, to characterize it as a preference and a gift, is understandable.
In the second half of the article, Bloom deliberately goes on a cruise, with 25 crossdressers and their wives. She takes time to get to know them, motivated by an interest "in the less common ways in which people inhabit their gender". Bloom describes the appearance of the crossdressers.
Bloom: I have met cross-dressers whose presentation is just this side of Christina Aguilera [but] they look more like my formidable fourth grade teacher, a big, tall woman with a bolster-like bosom, thick legs, sensible pumps, hennaed hair, and twin spots of rouge on her cheeks. They have the matronly look so common to straight cross-dressers. A pronounced face requires pronounced makeup, and after the false eyelashes and even the subtlest contouring of the wider jaw and the thick brow, one can look beautiful or ridiculous, but one cannot look like most of the women around.
How they see themselves?
She describes how most of the crossdressers are eager to talk about themselves (something I can certainly relate to!) But then Bloom starts to discuss the wives.
Bloom: Sometimes the wives wish to come, to support their husbands and to enjoy the trip, or to hang out with other wives, like golf widows or wives in Al-Anon. Some come because their husbands need them to. Happy wives are everyone's favorites, but happy or cowed, enthusiastic or grimly accepting, the wives at these functions are simultaneously objects of much public appreciation and utterly secondary to the men's business.
It would be easy to dismiss this entire article as full of hostility, but I don't think it is. I think it is the result of someone who has really taken a good look at crossdressing, and come to her own (somewhat ruthless, but not entirely unsympathetic) conclusions. I suspect that Bloom and Helen Boyd would find much common ground.
Bloom: I come to see why so many women find themselves sympathetic to cross-dressers: Women are raised to be sympathetic, and protective toward the vulnerable, and there is something sweet, unexpected, and powerful about being a woman and sympathizing with a man not because he demands it but because you genuinely feel sorry for him, for his debilitating envy and his fear of discovery and his sense of powerlessness to live as he wants.
Debilitating envy? Check. Fear of discovery? Check. Sense of powerlessness? Check. Add in guilt and shame, and it would be a full house! But for me, the most powerful parts of the article are the vignettes of conversation with the various crossdressers and their wives. Here, she discusses "Felicity".
Bloom: On the third night of the cruise Felicity comes to dinner "en drab" as they say, looking like what he is— a heavyset Baptist minister who worked construction in his youth. With a flourish the headwaiter delivers roses to his wife, to applause from our four tables. Felicity puts his big hand on hers and squeezes it. He makes a toast to their thirty years of marriage and to her goodness and support. He begins to choke up; her remote look never changes. I can see that she is not pleased that he decided to dress like a man for her tonight. She is not pleased that he is so grateful to her for trying to believe that he cross-dresses only because he cannot express his warm and nurturing self while wearing trousers. Nor is she pleased, God knows, to sit with a bunch of men in makeup and dresses, some modest, some outrageous, some passable, most not, and call it an anniversary party.

Felicity says, "It's like there are three of me in this little boat: the husband, the cross-dresser, and the minister. I can hear the falls approaching, and I know, I know with all  my heart, one of us will not survive this ride." He begins to cry, and I get tears in my eyes. As I hand him some tissues, his wife glares at me and says, "You sure do get involved with your interviews".  She must think that some pretty fancy footwork is required to wind up so sorry for the crossdresser and not for the wife; when I look at her sympathetically, she almost spits. Pity from people like me is not what she wants either.

The men I met were by and large decent, kind, intelligent, and willing to talk openly. Their wives were the same, many of them under the additional pressure of having to make the best accommodation they can to a marriage they did not envision and do not prefer.
The final section is the one which Thorin quotes; the one where Bloom talks about crossdressing as an exclusively sexual fetish.
Bloom: The greatest difficulty people have with cross-dressers, I think, is that cross-dressers wear their fetish, and the gleam in their eyes, however muted by time or habit, the unmistakable presence of a lust being satisfied or a desire being fulfilled in that moment, in your presence, even by your presence, is unnerving. The combination of the cross-dressers' own arousal and anxiety and our responsive anxiety and discomfort is more than most of us can bear. We may not mind foot fetishists, but we may not wish to watch them either.
Wearing her fetish?
This notion touches on what another of my correspondents called, with unmatchable turn of phrase, "wanking in public". It is clear that Bloom considers this to be what crossdressing is: a sexual fetish expressed publicly. Perhaps she is worried about the horses.

So much for the article. Why does it upset me so much? Because I can see truth in it. I can pretend that none of it applies to me, but the fact that it makes me deeply uncomfortable doesn't make it wrong. I seem to fit Bloom's model pretty well: educated, professional, intelligent, kind, and willing to talk openly.

I do wonder what other people see when they see Vivienne. I am sure they don't see the same as I see. I wonder if they look at me with abhorrence, with scorn, or with pity, with silent tolerance rather than open acceptance. But I can cope with all that. What is worse is something Grayson Perry touched on: crossdressing causes everyone a lot of pain; the crossdresser himself, and his spouse (and sometimes their kids).

My wife really struggles with crossdressing, and we are a long way from her coming with me on a cruise where I can wear a dress every day. And yet a very good description of my wife would be "having to make the best accommodation she can to a marriage she did not envision and does not prefer". Grimly accepting, indeed.

I had hoped to summon a series of carefully constructed arguments to demolish Bloom's article, but I find I cannot. What she describes is not my present, but it comes uncomfortably close to what might possibly be my future.

Interestingly, Atlantic Monthly doesn't seem to have this article available in its online archives, though other articles from the same issue are available. I wonder if it has been deliberately withdrawn, and if so, why?

I can make some points, though. Whether Bloom likes it or not, my own crossdressing desires will never go away. I would rather not be this way, and I would really rather not cause anyone else (especially my wife) any discomfort as a result.

The fact that this is the way I am does not make me a bad person. It does not make me cruel, manipulative, exploitative or otherwise objectionable. Trust me when I say, I have a host of positive attributes. There are a lot of behaviours out there which are a lot worse than crossdressing, which seem to be tolerated.

I think things are changing. I don't think all crossdressers fit with Bloom's archetype (even she says as much), and I think that public crossdressing is becoming commoner (and less noteworthy) all the time. A generation ago, if we had seen two men or two women showing affection publicly, there might have been societal discomfort or even overt disapproval. These days, it's no big deal any more (though no doubt, disapproval persists in some quarters). Is homosexuality a fetish? Are gay people acting out their fetish in public? Surely homosexuality is all about sex? Actually no. But people may well have felt that way once. And in the same way, perhaps crossdressing will come to be accepted as nothing out of the ordinary. Nobody bothers any more to ask why some people are gay. The accepted answer is: they just are.

I can promise you one thing in closing. No matter what I wear, no matter how high my heels, or how red my lipstick, the horses will not mind one little bit.

Addendum 24th September 2014

I sent an email to Amy Bloom via her publisher, telling her the article was continuing to provoke debate, and inviting her to comment. I received this reply:
Sorry! I wish to thank you for the invitation and say that I am currently up to my eyes in a new novel. I don't have the psychic room, right now, to engage with other, interesting projects.

I am naturally disappointed that she has declined to discuss the article with us. If she changes her mind, I will be sure to let you know.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

That Whole Bathroom Thing

One of the issues which seems to really face trans people who are out and about in society is what toilet they should use, and what reaction they might face when they get in there. Can it really be that much of a big deal?

Unequivocal: Bathroom Sign
This topic entered my mind the other day when I went to work and noticed a sign which looked a bit like this one. It might be worth a discussion of what this sign actually says.

This sign is an example of what linguists call proto-writing; the sort of thing you see on road signs and the like. The idea is that the sign conveys a message which is clear even to people who cannot read, and is designed to be culture-independent. It contains a diagrammatic representation of two figures. One of the figures is a rudimentary outline of a human body, where the other has a triangular body to represent a dress or skirt.

Nowhere on this sign does it say "Men" or "Women". Genitalia are not depicted. Chromosomes are not discussed. The presence or absence of any characteristic is not questioned, other than some vague depiction of clothing.

It would seem quite reasonable, according to this sign, for people wearing skirts to turn right, while people wearing trousers should turn left. So why should anyone object if a man dressed in a skirt wanted to turn right? But how many women, wearing jeans, would turn left?

Different cultures
I know, of course, that this sign is a convenient shorthand. We know what it means, even if what it means isn't quite what it says.

This sign isn't quite as cross-cultural as it purports to be. In some countries, robe-like garments are common for both men and women. On a trip to the Middle East once, I was amused to see a toilet sign which had identical images for male and female, wearing robes, except that the female one was pinched in around the middle to represent a waist, where the male one wasn't.

I didn't take a picture of the sign, but this one is reasonably similar. It is a reminder that our Western cultural norms are not shared worldwide; that some cultures would look at the figure on the right (above) and decide the skirt was indecently short.

Trans people can find themselves in a real pickle about bathrooms. For example, Victoria Askey says of her transwoman spouse Treva:
Victoria: I hate the fact that she has to go through... wondering which toilets she can use without causing problems. I mean, use the men's and get beaten up, use the women's and get some female complaining, use the disabled and get someone complaining, and this can all be in front of my children. Some people don't seem to think before reacting. I hate the fact we are stared at. What happens if we go some place and she needs to use the toilet but there is no option to her? Then we have to come home just so she can pee.
Meanwhile, Rachel in Auckland reports this:
Rachel: After my drink, I need to visit the ladies room, weaving in and out amongst all the tables, a pretty blond woman stood (6ft 2 in heels to my 5ft 11) and motored her way to the ladies, just beating me. After she entered, she held the door open for me and smiled.
And Megan, one of my correspondents, writes:
Megan: To my surprise, women are somewhat friendly and just assume you're gay and have no interest in them. One particular outing, a young lady about 22 or so noticed the stall door lock was broken and asked me to guard it while she was in there. Fox watching the hen house came to mind! As she left, she guarded it for me.
Victoria is in the UK, Rachel in New Zealand, and Megan is in the US. So perhaps there is a cultural aspect to it. Perhaps some countries (or cities) are fine, where others are not. So hard to know for sure. Why do I have to rely on the word of my correspondents? Because I don't (yet) go out dressed, so I have never had to face up to this problem in a practical sense.

The solution?
I don't doubt that there are dozens of stories, good and bad, about trans people in bathrooms. I found myself in a debate with some radical feminists on the Gender Trender blog about this issue. Though I tried to be reasonable and balanced, it didn't work; I was roundly flamed, and everyone had plenty of fun calling me "Mr Vivienne" and so on. I suppose some people resort to insults because they can't argue articulately.

Nonetheless, some of them had a point to make, and I think it's worth bringing out that point here. How would a woman feel if she went into a public bathroom and found someone who was clearly a male-to-female transgender person?

Some women, such as the women that Rachel and Megan met, seem to be genuinely untroubled. It seems no big deal to them. But I am reasonably sure this isn't true of everyone. Some women might feel really uncomfortable. Some women might feel threatened, or in danger. How do those women react? Most likely they say nothing, avoid eye contact, hoping that this unwelcome interloper will quietly go away. That reaction may be misinterpreted as acceptance. In other words, just because the women in a public bathroom don't run screaming when a crossdresser walks in, doesn't mean they are all comfortable and accepting.
Random Radfem:  It is also not the responsibility of any woman to object to your presence. Most woman are not going to confront a man- probably a much physically larger man- in an enclosed private room. No matter how uncomfortable they are made to feel, it is safer to get out than to risk the chance of being physically attacked if the man in question is mentally unhinged.
Seriously inclusive
I think that some male-to-female transgender people deliberately seek to insinuate themselves into spaces which are traditionally women-only, as a means of validating their identity as women. The radical feminists see this as a violation, a masculine act: the imposition of male privilege on other people, whether they object or not. Nonetheless, I don't see this. I see it as being essentially a personal thing, perhaps even a selfish thing:  I think the transgender people are trying to say: “look what a real woman I am”; rather than saying “women do not deserve legal recognition”. I don't accept the radical feminists' express accusation, which is that any trans person in a women's bathroom is a sexual predator with the intention of molesting its occupants.

(I am reasonably certain that a crossdresser visiting the men's bathroom while dressed, would provoke anger, outrage and bewilderment. Mind you, this isn't a subject on which I have read much at all).

Why is it that bathrooms have become the battlefield upon which these bloody conflicts are played out? In this wonderful article from The Atlantic, journalist Julie Beck analyses our attitudes to public bathrooms.
Beck: The public collides uncomfortably with the private in the bathroom as it does nowhere else, and the unique behaviors we perform stem from a complex psychological stew of shame, self-awareness, design, and gender roles. This culturally agreed-upon separation creates unique single-sex spaces. There is perhaps no other arena that so stridently reinforces gender separation and difference.

Biologically speaking, men and women don’t need separate bathrooms—they’re using them for the same reasons. While there are a few functional differences—many men prefer to pee standing, women need receptacles to throw away tampons and pads—it’s not hard to imagine a unisex bathroom that would, at least in theory, work for everyone.
The public bathroom is therefore a focal point in the behaviour of men and women. Beck comments that men and women behave very differently in public bathrooms. Women are more relaxed, chatting, sharing makeup, where men avoid eye-contact, don't speak to each other, and don't even stand near one another if they can help it.

This cartoon came from a website for librarians.
As an aside, I am indebted to Beck's article for making me realise that I am not alone in being too uncomfortable to pee in the presence of strangers. Where possible, I choose a cubicle in public toilets, because I need privacy, otherwise I can't go. It seems there are plenty of people out there who are worse than me in this regard!

Overall, then, these are my thoughts about the whole bathroom thing. First, I think that men who wear women’s clothing in public are, in general, politely tolerated. While I completely welcome this, I think this tolerance is a privilege; I do not see it as a right. (And, as I have mentioned on this blog, there are some people who are not helping the cause here).

Next, I think that women should be entitled to safe, women-only spaces, for any reason they think fit, or even for no reason at all. For me, this means that they are entitled to object to the presence of a trans person in the women's public bathroom. If someone objected to my presence in any public space (e.g. a mall, an airport, a library) I would quietly leave without making a scene or causing a disturbance. If someone objected to my presence in a women-only bathroom, I would immediately leave without question. I do actually worry that it might offend someone or make them uncomfortable, and for me at least, this would not be OK.

I think that things are changing. I have noticed several restaurants in my town which just have a series of unisex cubicles. No problem. Beck's article says that gender-neutral public bathrooms are now mandated by law in any new or renovated building in Philadelphia. In addition, see here for the story of parents using the law to force a school to allow their transgender daughter to use the girls' bathrooms. Once again, the tip of the iceberg.

While transgender people are trying to get into the women's bathrooms, women themselves now have access to a range of devices which allow them to pee standing up. Nonetheless, I suspect it will be a while before women are elbowing men out of the way at the urinals!

My thanks to Tasi, for drawing my attention to Julie Beck's article and Lexie Cannes' article, and to Melissa Lyn for the Unshelved cartoon, which came from this webpage. See also here for my comments about the tampon advertisement featuring a meeting between a woman and a crossdresser in a public bathroom.

Addendum 27th April 2016

The bathroom debate continues to feature prominently in public media, with several US states enacting laws which restrict which bathroom trans people can and cannot use. Other states have had similar laws thrown out.

Meanwhile, the Huffington Post has produced this interesting article which summarises and synthesises the status quo. In addition, Lexie Cannes has written this eyebrow-raising article which contains reports of several women being thrown out of public bathrooms for being mistaken for transwomen. Ouch!

Saturday 24 May 2014

Women with Beards

My recent article on Conchita Wurst (and all of the discussion she has provoked) got me thinking in a more general way about women with beards. In fact there are many variations on this notion, which I hope to explore briefly below, and round up with a discussion at the end.

The History Books

La Mujer Barbuda
There are two bearded women which I am aware of from the history books. First, the semi-legendary Saint Wilgefortis, dating from the 14th century. I've actually written about Wilgefortis before in this blog. According to Wikipedia, no precise details of Wilgefortis' life can be verified. The legend is that, as a beautiful teenager, she was promised in marriage to a cruel nobleman. She prayed to God to deliver her from this fate, and promptly sprouted a beard. This angered her father and he had her crucified, and her traditional depiction is a crucified woman, with a beard (often with one shoe missing).

A more pragmatic (and to me, plausible) explanation is that some statues of the crucified Jesus were created, wearing a robe instead of the expected loincloth, and the legend of a crucified, bearded woman was cooked up to explain this away.

The next figure from history has been immortalised by the artist Jusepe de Ribera, in his 1631 portrait entitled La Mujer Barbuda (The Bearded Woman). Take a look at the painting. To me, it looks exactly like a portrait of a man; there is nothing feminine at all about the face, including the male pattern of hair at the forehead.

My first impression of this portrait was that Ribera had deliberately painted a man, dressed in a gown and suckling an infant. Then I started to read more. It turns out that the story of the figure in the painting is well-known and corroborated. She actually was a bearded woman; the miserable-looking guy in the background is her husband. Her name was Magdalena Ventura from Abruzzi, and at the time of the portrait, she was 52 years old. She bore her husband three sons before growing a beard at the age of 37. Some aspects of her life are recorded in Latin on the stone tablet at the bottom right of the picture.

Annie Jones
Some aspects of the painting are allegorical: at 52, she would be too old to bear a child or breast-feed, but Ribera has included this aspect to deliberately underline the female sex of the subject of the portrait. Ribera also had a reputation for deliberately painting accurate but cruel depictions of people with disfigurements, such as The Club-Footed Boy. What this says to me is that Ribera's depiction was probably reasonably accurate. Did he go out of his way to enhance the apparent masculinity of the image? It's hard to say for sure; I think probably not. It's clear, however, that he didn't make any effort to flatter the subject.

The Circus Freak

The next, and most widely-known, archetype of the bearded woman is the Circus Freak.

Freak shows entered their heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, exhibiting malformed, and disfigured humans as objects of scorn, ridicule and sometimes loathing. Dwarves, giants, conjoined twins and other rare anomalies (such as Joseph Merrick, the "Elephant Man") were staples of this form of popular entertainment. In this environment, bearded women were right at home, as this example Annie Jones, shows. I can't imagine what those performers were forced to do, in order to prove that they were actually women (and not simply men in frocks), but I suspect it was degrading and unpleasant in the extreme.

Jennifer Miller
A debate continues to this day over the role of such shows. Some showmen, such as Tom Norman, argued that his shows allowed people who were unable to work normally to provide a living for themselves. (Indeed, some people continue to deliberately exhibit themselves in this manner even today, such as the performer Black Scorpion). Critics argued that the shows were cruel, exploitative and inhuman. Eventually, of course, they were banned, but I see their echoes today in documentaries about conjoined twins, or people with morbid obesity. I think the public appetite for gawping at unfortunate people has not, in general, gone away.

Modern Examples

This brings me on to some modern examples. The first one I came across was Jennifer Miller, whom I saw in a TV documentary. Miller's beard started to slowly grow in in her early twenties. According to this interview, she has had an ambivalent relationship with it ever since.
Miller: I embraced the idea of it right away, and then had on-and-off relationships with it over the years. I basically believed that it was a good idea to keep it, but that it wasn’t always easy. I felt stronger and weaker about wearing it depending on what was happening. If at some point I were just feeling more vulnerable in general, that would make it harder. If I was worried about getting a job, I might feel some doubt about my commitment to keeping it.

Mariam with Harnam Kaur
Miller has worked as a circus performer, but also a writer and a university lecturer.

And then, more recently, a woman identified only as Mariam was interviewed on British television. Born in Germany, Mariam's beard started to grow after the birth of her son, 28 years ago. According to this article, she used to pluck out each hair every day with tweezers, but eventually decided to let it grow out.

Mariam keeps a blog of her own. She is quite open about how difficult it is to live as a woman with a beard. She writes:
Mariam: I remember, that when I was a child, I always wanted to be a boy. Boys had more freedom than girls. Could be more wild and climb on trees and do all these handycraft things that I liked.

In our family it was better to be a male, because then everybody believed in the success and intelligence of this person.

Meanwhile I appreciate myself as a woman and I see what I can do as a woman, and that I am not better or worse than a man. And I must say I am not all the time aware about being a woman. I feel like a being. And I would say some of my abilities you can name male others female. I do not like this labeling with male and female. I would wish we could just be ourselves and not to be fixed on any gender or sex.
Alex Drummond
Mariam describes unpleasant incidents in public places, such as people taking pictures or video of her on their phones, without permission. As a result, she (naturally) avoids very public places.


Until now, I have considered only genetic women with beards. But I can't help finding an overlap with genderqueer: an expression of gender which is neither male nor female, but both, neither, or any variation you like. Is a woman who deliberately sports a beard genderqueer? Maybe, I guess.

Conchita Wurst has, without perhaps being genderqueer herself, driven that aesthetic into the public eye. But what about people who live that life all the time, and will continue to do so once Conchita's star has faded?

Photographer Alex Drummond is one such person.
Drummond: Being transgender gives me a unique perspective on my work. Born as ‘male’ but having always identified as female I nowadays embrace genderqueer as a way of living authentically as a trans-female.

Some people will live in a full time presentation of their preferred gender, others will live part-time. And a whole new movement is emerging of people who are living between genders, embracing the potentials of gender-queer and gender-fluidity.
Part of Drummond's website is given over to a blog, but as you could expect from a photographer, it's quite image-heavy. I wonder to myself whether Drummond experiences the same public reaction as Mariam? And is it a problem?

Some people seem to just like the deliberate androgyny, the deliberate mixture of male and female, that you get by combining an essentially feminine aesthetic, with an undeniable statement of masculinity: a beard. One example seems to be Bulgarian singer Azis, pictured here. Azis is apparently another Eurovision alumnus, having co-performed Bulgaria's entry in the 2006 competition, which finished a resounding 17th.

And I guess finally there is farce, the deliberate use of the beard with female costume as an instrument of amusement or comedy. As I have frequently mentioned on this blog, I don't think crossdressing as a vehicle for comedy is funny. Likewise, I find deliberate farce to do with crossdressing to be, at best, in poor taste, and at worst, hurtful.
Richard Branson: seriously?

Nonetheless, it's hard to get too steamed up by Richard Branson's performance. After losing a bet with Air Asia chief executive Tony Fernandez, Branson had himself made over as a Virgin stewardess, complete with uniform, high heels and fishnet stockings, and served drinks on a 6-hour flight from Australia to Kuala Lumpur. I can't say that he looks especially gorgeous, but I admire his courage and his sense of humour in agreeing to honour the bet (and no-one could accuse him of somehow not fulfilling his end of the bargain).

What do I think about all this?

My first thought, on seeing photographs of Jennifer Miller, Mariam and Harnam Kaur, is that they look very strange. Without doubt, the juxtaposition of a beard-- that most masculine characteristic-- on a woman, causes a slight jolt of surprise, which makes you look again. For whatever reasons: hormonal, or genetic or just plain bad luck, it is clear that women can also grow beards.

I am certain that the women who keep the beard represent the tip of the iceberg. (On Mariam's blog, some of the commentators admire her courage, while admitting that they rid themselves of their own heavy facial hair). I think therefore there are probably many hundreds of women out there who deal with the facial hair with wax, or electrolysis, or laborious plucking. I can completely understand this: the societal pressure must be huge.

That makes me think that for those women who embrace their beards, there must be something different that makes them willing to resist that societal pressure. Unlike Annie Jones a century or more ago, women in the 21st century have a choice about whether to have a beard. Having it permanently removed would be reasonably expensive, and reasonably uncomfortable, but certainly doable.

For bearded women, it must come to be their defining characteristic. It reminds me of the old joke about the two men in the pub overlooking the little village in Scotland. One laments to the other that, despite his lifetime of contribution to the life of the village, they still haven't honoured him with a decent nickname. "Do they call me Hamish the boat builder? Or Hamish the roofer? No! But you shag one sheep...!"

The same is true of bearded women. Do we know these women for their other accomplishments or qualities? No. The reason they are here for me to write about is their outlandishness. Is that what they like? The notoriety? Does that make up for the whispers and the stares and the rude picture-taking? Is that why they keep their beards?

And yet, Mariam speaks on her blog of simply wanting to live as herself. Isn't that exactly what I want? What other trans people want? Doesn't it bother us when people focus on why we cross-dress? Isn't it enough that we say that the why doesn't matter?

What Alex Drummond and other genderqueer people do is (from my perspective) a also bit weird-looking and a bit inexplicable. And yet, is what I do not a bit weird-looking and a bit inexplicable from someone else's perspective? How can I plead for sympathy and acceptance while not granting it (automatically!) to someone else?

Comments welcome, whether you are bearded or unbearded. If you are interested in women with big muscles, why not read my article about Female Bodybuilding? You might also be interested in the related, but different topics, Men in Skirts, and Men with Long Nails.

Addendum 17th July 2014

If you're going to Saaaan Francisco...
A local news website has reported that men with flowers in their beards are "the latest hipster trend".

Apparently "spreading like wildfire" across image-sharing websites, the website gives 10 examples, captioned with more than a hint of mockery.

Though it doesn't especially do it for me, I don't really see what the fuss is about.

Meanwhile, I have been discovering that one of the reasons Harnam Kaur (above) does not remove her beard is that her particular religion, Sikhism, mandates complete acceptance of the body in the way it was born, and forbids the cutting of hair for both men and women. I think that helps to explain her motivation. For some people, that must be a pretty tough commandment to live up to, and I salute Harnam Kaur for her adherence to it.

Monday 12 May 2014

Wurst Case Scenario

For those of you who don't live in Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual tournament of pop music which involves most European nations (and a few which are not, strictly speaking, in Europe, such as Israel). The rules are that each country submits a brand new song by a chosen artist (often a newcomer act), which must be performed live on the night of the contest.

What's the Wurst that could happen?
The contest has given rise, over the years since 1956, to some very famous acts, such as ABBA, and even Celine Dion, singing for Switzerland in 1988. However, the tendency of some acts to compete in bizarre costume and with bizarre lyrics (who could forget the majestic poetry of Ding-a-Dong?), lends the entire contest an air of camp, verging at times on the farcical. It's screened live all over Europe, and it's a wonderful evening's entertainment, albeit pretty low-brow.

The other problem with the contest is the tendency of countries to vote for their political allies, regardless of the artistic merit of the songs. Each country, including the minnows like Malta, is allocated an equal weight of voting in the contest. This tends to make for some tension, as occasionally obviously good songs get gradually nudged downward in the rankings by political voting.

This year, of course, the winner was Austria, whose artist, Conchita Wurst, won by a comfortable margin. So far, so normal. What is different about this contest (and the reason I am writing about it) is that Conchita Wurst is a drag queen, with a beard. (I love that in German, wurst means sausage). Take a look:

Before Wurst even sang in the contest, she came under fire from Russia, Belarus and Armenia, who demanded she withdraw. Russian lawmaker Vitaly Milonov branded Eurovision a "hotbed of sodomy", while Armenian competitor Aram Mp3 described her as "not natural". Russia, in particular, has been institutionally homophobic for many years.

If the Wurst comes to the Wurst
Though I haven't listened to all the songs for this year, I don't think this one, Rise Like a Phoenix, is all that brilliant. Even allowing for the handful of songs by fishwives in knitted shawls with accordions, which we are usually treated to in Eurovision, I can't believe this one, though it's all well and good, is actually the best in the competition. (The second-place song, Calm After the Storm by the Netherlands' Common Linnets, is, I think, a much better song).

And that leads me to believe that something else is responsible for Wurst winning the contest.

The most obvious thing which strikes one about Wurst is her appearance. Conchita Wurst is the drag persona of Tom Neuwirth. As a woman (i.e. without the beard), she would be absolutely dazzling; a knockout. On the other hand, the beard looks very odd indeed, very disturbing and out of place (while everything else, from the exquisitely curved eyelashes to the lip gloss, to the flowing gowns and fabulous shoes, screams "gorgeous woman!").

But perhaps gorgeous drag queens are too common; too mainstream? Perhaps an "ordinary" drag queen wouldn't have captured everyone's attention. The beard, without doubt, is the hook. The beard is also cosmetically enhanced; it looks just too perfect. And yet, Wurst is beautiful, in a strange and unusual way. Like chilli pepper on fruit salad, the whole package kinda works. I think it may be because she reminds me of another figure, with long flowing hair, a light beard, and deep, soulful eyes.

Wurst bears an unmistakeable resemblance to popular depictions of Jesus. There is no evidence that this is intentional, but it is (at least to my eyes) inescapable. Before you deluge me with hate mail, I intend to draw no further parallels between those two figures (and other commentators have noted a resemblance to a much more secular figure, Kim Kardashian).

Wurst hasn't been the first gender-blurring competitor in Eurovision. Israeli transsexual Dana International won the competition in 1998, with her song, Diva. Wurst isn't even the first bearded woman in the contest: France's 2008 entrant, Sebastian Tellier, had a backing group of five women with false beards (to match his natural one), when he sang his song Divine.

Kim and Conchita. Which is Wurst?
When she won the competition, a delighted and emotional Wurst took the microphone:
Wurst: This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are - we are unity and we are unstoppable.

I dream of a world where we don't have to talk about unnecessary things like sexuality, who you love. I felt like tonight Europe showed that we are a community of respect and tolerance.
Wurst's particular appearance is more in alignment with genderqueer than anything else I can think of. Nonetheless, from her personal website, it seems clear that tolerance is her most deliberate and explicit message. And for this, I think she deserves our congratulation and support. Though her motivations for wearing a frock may differ from my own, I think she is doing positive things to further acceptance of trans people in general.

And I think the reason that Wurst won Eurovision was the combination of those two things. First, that gimmick: an outrageous bearded drag queen, eye-catching and flamboyant, beautiful and proud. This might not have been enough to do it, but set against the background of Russian homophobia, it gave the more progressive Western nations the opportunity to poke one in the eye of those stuffy old Russkies; a chance which they couldn't pass up.

By competition rules, Austria will host the contest next year. At least one commentator is predicting a lot of false beards among the audience!

No sausages were harmed in the writing of this blog post, though some had the Wurst night of their lives. No more puns on the name: I promise!

Addendum 22nd May 2014

Some of my commentators, including Janice, below, have pointed out that Conchita Wurst's name, although it translates as sausage, was chosen because of the German phrase es ist mir Wurst, meaning it's all the same to me. Whilst I accept this argument, I can't help thinking that sausage is also an excellent drag queen name, because of it's suggestive nature. Mind you, in the context of drag queens, it's hard to find the name of any fruit, vegetable or foodstuff which is free of suggestive connotation!

But taking the name literally, one Austrian butcher has produced an actual Conchita Wurst, a sausage with her face on every slice. How wonderful is that?

Meanwhile, the trans blogosphere has been convulsed with debate about the exact place (if any) that Conchita Wurst occupies, and whether she is doing us good, or harm, by her antics.

One viewpoint seems to be that Conchita Wurst is the female drag persona of a male entertainer, and that therefore Wurst isn't trans at all. A second viewpoint seems to be that, as a man in a dress, Wurst is perceived as being trans by the general public, whoever they might be, and is (whether we like it or not) going to get lumped in alongside the rest of us crossdressers, transsexuals, and so on. A third viewpoint, from the trans community (and expressed by Tasi in the comment to this article) is that, by deliberately mashing together a beard and a beautiful woman, Wurst is doing harm to the trans community by furthering a popular perception that we are all a bunch of weirdos.

I have been struggling with my own feelings about Wurst, but nobody has put it better than my correspondent Janice Lacey. With her agreement, and building on her comment below, I am quoting her here:
Janice: Firstly let me state that I wasn’t at all impressed with the bearded lady thing and deleted nearly all the posts on the social group I follow referencing it. I personally felt threatened by someone dressing as I like to, and also sporting facial hair. That being said, I eventually put aside my own fears of this subject and dived in with both feet.

I read about a boy with a desire to dress as a girl. I can identify with that. He was restricted from doing so and I can identify with that too. He is teased because of his desires and I can identify with that. At some point, when he had gained the confidence and tough skin one needs to be dual-gendered he creates a character that goes beyond the envelopes of discrimination. Not just wearing a dress, but wearing fabulous dresses. And why not? Just add in the beard to really irritate those that hate him and discriminate against him. Conchita was born.

As Conchita, Tom is allowed to wear a dress. The little boy that only wanted to wear a dress is now allowed to dress as he pleases. The beard, in my opinion, represents the male child. Tom is a performer and loves to sing, and as a drag performer is able to earn a living singing while wearing a dress.

Lastly let me summarize my thoughts: Tom Neuwirth and Conchita Wurst are a threat to me as a trans-gendered person. So much is being said about her being “Trans” that people are going to be looking at me and wondering if I am like her.

I AM MOST DEFINITELY NOT! I stand for something deeper, more significant, more important, and more meaningful!

Whoa there! What did I just say? My statement could also be made by my coworkers, my friends, my parents, my wife, or perhaps your parents, friends, co-workers and wife that can’t accept you as you are completely. How can I be who I am, as both Janice and James, and expect the general populace to accept me while I stand in as judge and jury against someone so totally different from myself? Tom/Conchita is unique, but not all that different from me really.

I vote to support his cause, for in doing so I am released from my own fears.
One of my correspondents wrote of Wurst: She makes us look ridiculous. She's neither man nor woman but a half-assed caricature of both. And while I can completely understand this viewpoint, from someone who wants to look as feminine as possible, I can't help thinking that, actually, that same comment could equally be applied to me, or other crossdressers.

Janice's comment has crystallised it for me. I cannot demand acceptance for myself as a crossdresser, and refuse that same acceptance to someone else who has a different way of presenting themselves.

Friday 9 May 2014

Big Brave Soldier

My recent interview with Treva Askey, a former British soldier who is now transitioning, took place amid my thought processes about transgender people serving in the armed forces. There has actually been quite a lot of discussion about this topic in the press lately.

When I was a child, I was a sensitive boy who cried easily. I remember often being told to be a "big brave soldier". This phrase bristled with me then-- and continues to do so today. My parents were not being cruel: they were simply trying to encourage me to behave in a certain way, which they felt was more appropriate (for the record, it didn't work: I am still a sensitive person and I still cry easily).
Upper lips: stiff

It was clear why they chose this phrase. A soldier is someone who is the archetype of courage, discipline, and moral clarity. It is unspoken, but a soldier, of course, is someone who doesn't struggle with his sexuality, nor with his gender identity.

But, for what it was worth, I realised that, as a child, I was braver than many of my peers in some circumstances. For example, I was untroubled by some things (like big scary bugs) which made others visibly queasy. So this other kid, he can kick a football like a cannon, but can't pick up a spider: why is he considered braver than me? That seemed unfair.

As I have grown older, I have viewed military people with a mixture of both admiration and fear. Admiration, in that (in the main) I admire what they do, protecting the interests of my country and ensuring that my family and I can sleep safe in our beds without worrying about being invaded or bombed or have our way of life brutally suppressed. But also fear, in that they achieve that by learning how to hurt and kill other people, sometimes with truly dreadful efficiency. I find some military types to be overbearing and intimidating.

You will be familiar with the notion that the military has to "break you down" before they "build you up". Nobody enters the military willing to hurt or kill somebody else. The military needs to remove your inhibitions to cause harm, to hurt, to kill, and it does that very precisely: by subjecting you to gruelling physical challenges, to strict and dehumanising rituals, to harsh and disproportionate punishments. And to make it stick, it dresses this up in very attractive guise: flags and uniforms, medals and heroism, music and pageantry, and intense camaraderie.

Of course, it needs to do these things to make you an effective fighting person. You need to learn that you are less important than the whole, and you need to subsume your will to the orders you need to carry out. The military can't work as a democracy: ("Excuse me, sergeant? I don't really think advancing on that hill is a very good idea, when you think about it". "You're quite right, private. Raise your hands if you think we should all go to the pub instead").
Autumn Sandeen

The military also needs to inculcate a very powerful sense of moral clarity. We are the good guys. They are the bad guys. They are not like us: they don't look like us, they don't talk like us, they eat weird foods, they don't worship like us (and in any case, God is on our side). In fact, they're not really human, and that makes it OK to get rid of them.

I am certain that being in the military would cause intolerable psychological harm to me. I prize my individuality extremely highly. My inability to take orders from stupid people would require that I be brutalised until I gave up resisting. And I cannot contemplate the person they would "build me up" into becoming.

But (as I said elsewhere), that's not to say I would have nothing to offer my country. Give me a gun and put me in a uniform, and I would be useless. On the other hand, put me in Bletchley Park with the other misfits, and we will win the war for you. To put it bluntly, I don't need to be broken down before I can be useful! (And my loyalty to my country is not in question).

It is this ability of the military to assign us and them which troubles me. If you are not 100% with us, you are against us. It makes it easy for people in the military who are not quite like "us" to be rejected and brutalised. And who is not quite like "us"? Well, homosexual and transgender people are a good place to start. Private Barry Winchell was bullied and eventually murdered by one of his comrades for dating a male-to-female transwoman.
Discharged for transitioning: Sage Fox

We all know of course, that a man who falls in love with another man (or a man who thinks he was born a woman) is somehow soft, somehow effeminate, somehow morally twisted, and therefore prone to cowardice and treachery. We can't have that in the military. First of all, a man needs to be a real man with no hint of femininity. Second of all, imagine the effect on morale if you are constantly on your guard in case your buddy wants to molest you sexually instead of guarding your back. The solution, of course, is to keep all those queers and gays and trannies out.

These arguments are obviously flawed. The reason is that there are (and have always been) gay and trans people in the military (we can start with the Chevalier D'Eon!). They have in many cases served with distinction, shown great valour, and have sometimes been highly decorated. So much for their intrinsic weaknesses. Second, those reports of soldiers sexually abusing their comrades just haven't materialised. It turns out that your gay buddy is every bit as interested in surviving the conflict alive as you are, and he has no more interest in sexually molesting you than you have of him. So morale hasn't suffered. The military hasn't collapsed amid a shower of pink sparks.

There are hints that the tide is beginning to turn. This article isn't big enough to explore the US military, where acceptance of gay people is on the rise. Instead, it's about trans people, where acceptance lags quite a long way behind. This excellent article in the New York Times by Julia Baird reports that 20% of US trans people have served in the military. This is borne out by my personal experience corresponding with other transgender people. In addition to the military, there are plenty of others who have served in the police and other "masculine" occupations.
Baird: Nine percent of transgender people who have served in the American military report being discharged because of being transgender or gender nonconforming. Almost all of the rest stay quiet for fear of harassment or abuse.

A Harvard study published last year found that most transgender military personnel in America are white, educated and middle-aged. And most eventually transitioned from male to female. It also found that 20 percent of transgender people had served in the military — double the rate of the general population. (There is a theory that many seek “hypermasculine” experiences to suppress their desire to be female.) A University of California survey found almost all — 97 percent — were not able to transition until after they left the service.
And she quotes a female-to-male serviceman whom she identifies only as Ryan:
Ryan: I wear an American uniform and I represent a country supposedly defined by liberty and equality. But my allies are welcome to serve in a way that has most certainly just cost me my livelihood. If these countries’ soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines can serve openly and authentically as transgender women and men, why can’t I?
Still serving: Cate McGregor
And serving officer Captain Sage Fox writes:
Fox:I'm a transgender woman and an Army Officer. I want what everyone who cares about our military and our country should want: The freedom to live our lives in peace, raise our children in safety, and live according to our personal and collective ideals. Without these, what ARE we fighting for?
The first military transwoman I heard of was Jan Hamilton in her famous documentary Sex Change Soldier. Jan served in an elite Special Forces unit, and there is a short sequence in the documentary which shows some of the comments she received from her former comrades after she came out. They are unbelievably painful and hurtful. At the time of this documentary, it wasn't possible to transition and remain serving in the British army, although it now is.

But the second had a slightly more hopeful story. Lieutenant Colonel Cate McGregor came out while serving as a senior (and decorated) officer in the Australian Army. However, her commanding officer refused to accept her resignation when she tendered it, and refuted her claim that she was bringing embarrassment to his office. Although McGregor has continued to serve, she describes the "drumbeat of personal abuse" she has suffered since coming out, and also talks of difficulty explaining things to her wife.
Warrior Princess: Kristin Beck

And most recently, highly decorated US Navy SEAL and transwoman Kristin Beck has published her autobiography, Warrior Princess. Beck is literally festooned with decorations. Her Wikipedia article speculates that its publication has encouraged US Defence officials to reconsider their policy about trans people serving in the military, and Una at TransasCity mentions a study which shows that it would have few negative consequences (although Una points out that the study cannot be considered unbiased, commissioned as it was by billionaire transwoman Jennifer Pritzker-- herself a former Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army). This doesn't seem to be the same study which Julia Baird mentions above. In any case, you can read the whole report here. Most recently, Chuck Hagel, the incumbent US Secretary of Defence, has recommended that the US policy of not allowing transgender people to serve should be reviewed.

Which countries allow people to transition and still serve? Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Israel, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. (If you know of any others, please let me know). And of course, my home of New Zealand, which was, I am delighted to say, recently judged the most tolerant of LGBT servicemen and women in an international study (the Brits came joint second). Nonetheless, I suspect that, in general, the bar isn't set very high for this particular contest!

From my own perspective, it seems encouraging that one can survive a couple of decades of military service, and it doesn't grind out all your femininity, all your sensitivity, as many of the above people have shown.

In the grand scheme of things, this is all a very small problem. As far as I can judge, although Australia permits transition while serving, there seem to be only six people to whom this currently applies. And Wikipedia's list of transsexual or transgendered people who have served in the military is pitifully small. Nonetheless, for those few, it's a very big deal indeed, and (as with other areas) I suspect what we see is only the small tip of a very large iceberg.

For those still serving in painful silence, coming out and finally being true to themselves may call for another manifestation of the "big brave soldier".

My thanks to Melissa for drawing my attention to the New York Times article.

For my exclusive interview with Jan Hamilton, now Abigail Austen, click here.

Addendum: 14th September 2016

As of the 1st July 2016, the US has lifted its ban on transgender people serving openly in the military. The BBC carries the story here.