Sunday 18 October 2015

Abigail Austen

If you could look at my hit counter, you would see that one of the most popular blog posts I ever wrote was the one concerning Jan Hamilton, the elite British soldier who underwent transition and was firmly in the public eye a few years ago. The documentary Sex Change Soldier, followed her journey through transition, and every time it airs somewhere around the world, I get a bump in the hit counter as people get online to try to find out the latest. But there hasn't been any for years.

You can also see (from the comments under that post) that lots of people are interested in making contact with Jan, and I even went so far as to contact the producers of the documentary to ask if they could put me in touch. Nothing.

Abigail Austen
Then, out of the blue last week I got an email from Jan herself-- except she isn't Jan, she is Abigail Austen ("Abi"). I knew that already, of course, but I hadn't published that info on my blog because I believed that Austen was trying to move on with her life and try to find some anonymity.

But since she got in touch, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to interview her, and she agreed. It turns out there is a lot to tell. As always, I was a bit nervous about what questions to ask: I have never before interviewed someone who has been thoroughly trained to resist the most probing of interrogations! Here is how we got on:

It's been 8 years since the documentary about your transition. Can you tell us briefly what's been happening in your life since then?

I decided to quietly get my life into order, away from what had become a very intrusive press. It got so bad, I had to move out of my home for a bit. Journalists were hiding out in my garden!

The Scottish Police were looking for people, so I joined there for a few years. I enjoyed being a cop, but my profile made it difficult to avoid a fight. I was causing more aggravated assaults by myself than the rest of my division put together, merely for being me.

After three years, I was offered a job with NATO in Afghanistan. I went to Kandahar with the US Army, right into the heartland of the Taliban. I stayed on combat operations continuously for three years, coming home late 2014. After that, I took some much-needed time off and wrote a book about it all, called Lord Roberts’ Valet. Then, I took off for the Ukraine, where I work in security operations.

Can you tell us why you changed your name to Abi Austen? Was that an attempt to become anonymous again after the negative publicity associated with the name Jan Hamilton?

No, it was because my family rejected me. I didn’t want that name anymore. My grandmother was an Austin, and I loved her very much, so I went with that, and added a little Jane Austen twist to the spelling.

You briefly pursued a career as a police officer. How did that pan out?

Mentioned a bit about that above. The senior management were supportive of me, but it was a hard gig with some of my fellow officers. I had a publicised spat with them over the pension fund when they insisted in enrolling me as a man, which I am patently not. By the end, it was all becoming waaay too stressful… So I swapped it out for going back to war!

After how badly the military treated you, it must have been very difficult to return to a career in the armed forces, however tangential. What made you decide to return?

I have always found military service enjoyable, rewarding and exciting. So it actually wasn’t that hard. I love Afghanistan. I’ve travelled there for over twenty years. The offer from NATO was a real opportunity to put my life into order, and it all came good. It’s all in the book. My move back to Afghanistan was as much because I wanted to go back there (I do love the place) as any desire to work with the military. I am not some sort of military nut. Far from it. In fact, the book is quite scathing about military culture

What sort of reaction did you have from your colleagues when you returned to the military? Were they accepting? Or is there still an undercurrent of transphobia?

Back to the action: Austen
Well, I didn’t arrive with a rep where the Americans were concerned. They just saw me as another chick: and I had skills they wanted. So the Yanks were just great. I really owe the United States. They are a country of second chances, and they really helped me change my life about. Kandahar turned into one of the great adventures of my life and I will always admire and respect America for the sacrifice they make for all our freedoms.

You worked for the US military, not the British. Is this because they were more accepting of you, or because you didn't want to work for the Brits, or some other reason?

There were some Brit special forces in Kandahar. Reaction was mixed, which reflects society. I don’t really stand out in any way, I’m just a chick, but some of them obviously knew who I am from all the media stuff in the UK. For people under 30, nobody really cared. In fact, many of the young ones wanted their picture taken with me. Over 30, and it was more mixed. The army is a big ball of testosterone and men somehow feel threatened by people like me. I don’t know why, but it can be difficult sometimes.

Do you think attitudes to transgender people in the military are changing? In what way?

The military are a reflection of the society they represent. However, it is also a conservative organisation, so attitudes lag. The military is beginning to understand that gender dysphoria is a medical, not a psycho-sexual issue, so they are beginning to discuss it in adult terms. However, I think it will be a generation before gender is openly discussed in wider society, and the military will always be behind that curve of popular opinion because of its own internal culture.

Do you think the changes have something to do with you personally?

In my own small way, I think I have helped change attitudes. However, there are others out there who have fought the good fight. I’m about to take part in an exhibition here in the UK, on transgendered service personnel, called Dry Your Eyes, Princess, which will tour Liverpool, Belfast and Manchester. I did a three-hour taped interview for that exhibition which covers many of the details of my life.

I do know that the US is currently lifting their own ban, and my example in serving in Kandahar helped alter concerns on operational robustness. I met several very senior officers and politicians on that very subject. But I’d also say, I regard that part of my life as something from the past. These days, I am just a chick.

Now you have a book out. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Got it covered: the book
Lord Roberts’ Valet is the story of my 1,000 days in Kandahar, at the eye of the storm. It’s the inside track on how the war was fought and all the mess-ups we made over there. I experienced everything from the frontline, to the politics of the White House: and it’s all there in the book. The historic context, the story of the war, the sacrifice, the tears, the laughter and the madness. I genuinely don’t think there’s been a book quite like this before on Afghanistan and I’m quite proud of it. There’s a fair amount on the web now on it. Check out the website here:

Did Kristin Beck's book Warrior Princess have anything to do with your decision to write it?

Kristin Beck? Nope, good luck to her, but this is a different story.

How did you choose the title?

Lord Roberts’ Valet is about my war and the war the West fought. The story behind the title is in the book, so I won’t spoil it. I have a follow-up coming out later this year called Sugar and Spice, which will chronicle my own journey to where I am now.

What are your next plans? More armed conflict? Or have you something else in mind?

I’d like to think I have one more mission in me. My time in Kandahar proved to me that my skills are just as sharp as ever, no matter what physical form I live in. I also know that being me has made me a much happier and better person to be around. I have never regretted a single day of my life as Abi. I have a few irons in the fire right now, but I’ll hang onto those dreams for now...

You've been "stealth" for years; what made you decide to re-emerge?

I don’t like that term. I just call this living life. I’m proud of all that I am and all I have achieved. I’ve never hidden away at all. Right now, I have a book (and soon two) that I think worthy of a read and I’m just doing what any author would do: telling folks about what’s on offer. I’ve never hidden away. If anybody wanted to speak to me, I’ve been there; and, over the years, I have talked to and helped many people on their own particular journeys. That part of life will always be with me, but I regard the ‘trans’ part as ‘transformation’ and ‘transitory’. It’s history, nothing more. I am a female, and a very happy one too. There comes a point where you don’t need to fight anymore, and I am at that point.

Can you tell us a little about your personal life these days? A relationship?

Yep, very happily in love. My partner and I have a lovely life and we intend getting married quite soon. It’s all good….

What interests or hobbies do you have?

Love Zumba, I actually have an instructor’s certificate in it. And I still go running, but I’m not really made for sprinting these days.

What famous person would you most like to meet and why?

Not all fighting: Afghanistan
To be honest, I’ve met an awful lot of famous people already. Some I’ve liked, some I have wondered what all the fuss was about. I don’t judge people on their fame. I just like genuine people for themselves. So; happy to meet anybody, they don’t have to be famous, just real people.

Do you have a message for people out there who have been thinking about you?

I’d like to say ‘thank-you’ to everybody who has written to me and sent good wishes through the years. My documentary is still in rotation around the world and I get notes from the most unlikely places. I think that there are a lot more folks affected by this issue than have ever been able to express their true selves. I wish everybody true happiness and love. I’ve been on my own particular road. If my own experience is any use, I know it can have a very happy ending.

I will be on Lorraine Kelly’s ITV show on 05 November, here in the UK. Could you also mention that I have a Facebook page and a YouTube video will be up this week. All folks have to do is Google "Lord Roberts’ Valet".


As with all my interviews, a little discussion and analysis now follows.

First, I admit I was concerned about Austen. Having heard nothing about her life, I naturally assumed that she had fallen into obscurity and perhaps misery. And let's face it, the documentary doesn't exactly end on a high note. So I was delighted to hear that she is not only doing OK, she is actually doing brilliantly. My first emailed question to her was: I just want to know you are OK.

Second, I was intrigued to find that she had gone back to working with the military. On the one hand, this must have been a tough decision. The military treated her extremely badly at the time of transition, and it must have been very painful to consider returning. And yet, by her own admission, she loves what she does. She is extremely highly trained, and has a lot of valuable experience to draw upon. And, from the excerpt from the book (available on the website) it's clear she has lost none of that traditional coolness under pressure.

As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I view the military with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I admire the job they do. On the other, I find most military types to be intimidating, and I find their rigidity and inflexibility of thought to be stifling at times. But I can imagine that, if the military is your thing, you might find nothing in civilian life quite hits the spot. And the opportunity to do that thing, the thing you are trained for and love most of all, while being accepted as your true self, must be a very powerful experience. The press-release for the book contains this quote from an unnamed senior US general:
I don’t care if you are a man, woman, Martian or dachshund. My only question is whether you can do the job required or not. Welcome to the team.
Third, I'm a little surprised at one particular word which Austen uses more than once: chick. It doesn't quite fit for someone who is so trained and so capable, to refer to herself as "just a chick". It's not a word that I personally would feel comfortable applying to any woman, whether I myself was presenting as a woman or a man. Likewise, if someone applied it to Vivienne, it would make me bristle slightly because of its connotations of sexism. So why does Austen use it in reference to herself?

Fourth, I came away from this interview feeling that, while Austen has told us a lot about her career, she has told us surprisingly little about herself. This tone also comes across in our email exchange. My questions were intended for the reader to get a sense of Abi the woman, Abi the person, and yet she gives us little to go on: very brief details about her grandmother, her partner, Zumba, and some hints of "irons in the fire". That makes it very hard to get any sense of Austen's real personality. I guess she might say: read the book!

I can understand why Austen may feel a little bit reluctant to let too much slip. I suppose it would be easy for some tabloid journalist, hungry for a story, to take some little detail out of context, and blow it up into an article to fill up some column inches. So I am not blaming her for her reticence, just a little disappointed. I suppose I had hoped that we (she and I) might click a little over some common ground. That may yet happen.

Meanwhile, I await the Sugar and Spice memoir with some anticipation, and I will be sure to let you know if I hear of anything.


My thanks to Abi for taking time to answer my questions and send me her photos. The website again is here. The contents of this post are copyright © Vivienne Marcus and Abigail Austen 2015. No reproduction of any part of the text is permitted, altered or unaltered, in printed or electronic form, without permission. All photographs are copyright © Abigail Austen and used by kind permission.

Thursday 8 October 2015

Galileo's Middle Finger - Part Two

This is the second of my articles discussing the book Galileo's Middle Finger, by Alice Dreger. If you haven't already, it makes sense to start reading at Part One, which discusses intersex individuals.
Dreger: When people ask me how transgender is different from intersex, I usually start by saying that that intersex and transgender people have historically suffered from the opposite problems for the same reason. Whereas intersex people have historically been subjected to sex "normalizing" hormones and surgeries they have not wanted, transgender people have had a hard time getting the sex-change hormones and surgeries they have wanted. Both problems arise from a single cause: a heterosexist medical establishment determined to retain control over who gets to be what sex.
Manly: legs
Here she is, shortly into chapter 2, Rabbit Holes, and characteristically getting right down to the nub of the issue. (For my own, similar take on intersex vs transgender, I refer you to this post, though you might need to scroll down a bit).
Dreger: In the great majority of cases, medical scans won't detect any intersex feature in a transgendered person's body. Nevertheless, many people believe that transgender must be a special form of intersex involving the brain.
This fits with my comment that some transgender individuals look to the existence of intersex individuals to provide justification for their behaviour.
Dreger: Although there is very little science to support it, this has become the most popular explanation of transgender, probably in part because it is the easiest one for uptight heterosexuals to accept. (...) In practice, this story of transgender can function as a kind of get-out-of-male free card for men who seek to become women anatomically. When that card is played, the comforting narrative of "true selves" is preserved.
And there are scientific papers (such as this one) which seek to demonstrate anatomical differences in the brains of trans people. Though mostly their brains are very similar, some studies purport to demonstrate subtle differences in tiny regions of the brain (for example, some regions in MtF transsexuals are less like men and more like women). Most of these studies have small numbers of non-randomised participants, and even if these findings are robust (and I am nowhere near convinced that they are), correlation is not causation.

Science may indeed unlock some of these puzzles in time, but the only thing I am convinced of is that the science is pretty unconvincing so far.

Controversial: Bailey
It's at this point in the narrative that Dreger introduces Professor J. Michael Bailey, the author of the controversial work The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism, published in 2003. Bailey drew on the work of Ray Blanchard, and is therefore supportive of the autogynephilia model, to which I subscribe, as you probably already know. See here for a fuller discussion of this model. In that link, I also discuss how the autogynephilia model makes me feel uncomfortable about myself, because it insists the root of my crossdressing is in sexual desire.

Dreger points out that the French translation of autogynephilia is amour de soi en femme (love of oneself as a woman) which is a much nicer expression.

But where I feel uncomfortable about the autogynephilia model, a lot of people felt a lot worse.
Dreger: Before Bailey, many trans advocates had spent a long time working to desexualize and depathologize their public representations in an effort to reduce stigma, improve access to care, and establish basic human rights for trans people. (...) This is similar to how gay rights advocates have desexualized homosexuality in the quest for marriage rights, portraying themselves in living rooms and kitchens instead of bedrooms, in order to calm fearful heterosexuals.

Indeed, a few retrograde clinicians, like Paul McHugh, a psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, still actively use the idea that male-to-female transgender is really about perverted sexuality and mental illness to argue against access to sex-transitional hormones and surgeries.

For Bailey or anyone else to call someone with amour de soi en femme an autogynephile or even a transgender woman-- rather than simply a woman-- is at some level to interfere with her core sexual desire. Such naming also risks questioning her core self-identity in a way that calling the average gay man homosexual simply can't. One really must understand this if one is going to understand why some trans women came after Bailey so hard for naming and describing autogynephilia. When they felt that Bailey was fundamentally threatening their selves and their social identities as women-- well, it's because he was. That's what talking openly about autogynephilia necessarily does.
Lynn Conway by Charles Rogers
It's worth digressing here to make a couple of remarks. Just because a scientific theory makes you uncomfortable, doesn't make it wrong. And just because you insist upon something, doesn't make it right. If you want to convince me, you need to do a lot better than insist. I respond to evidence, not vehemence. This has occasionally caused me to get into uncomfortable debates with other trans people when I dare to question them about their views and beliefs. Sometimes, when they are unable to explain themselves, they resort to some variant of: "Of course, you couldn't possibly understand. You're only a crossdresser, where I am a woman".

But back to the book. Dreger goes on to describe how a prominent transwoman called Lynn Conway, at the University of Michigan, started "what became a war" against Bailey, assisted by Andrea James and Deirdre McLoskey. Together they began to systematically ruin Bailey's reputation. They campaigned to have the book removed from consideration for the 2004 Lambda Literary Award. They cooked up stories about him practising psychology without a licence, doing research without appropriate ethical oversight, and even having sex with one of his research subjects. And Dreger digs deeply and thoroughly into all of this, interviewing as many of the original people involved as possible.
Dreger: As a result of all this, Bailey came across pretty clearly as an abuser, a trans-basher, and a sexual pervert.

After nearly a year of research, I could come to only one conclusion: the whole thing was a sham. Bailey's sworn enemies had used every clever trick in the book-- juxtaposing events in misleading ways, ignoring contrary evidence, working the rhetoric, and using anonymity whenever convenient, to make it look as though virtually every trans woman represented in Bailey's book had felt abused by him and had filed a charge.
But why did Conway, James and McLoskey feel they had to do all those things?
Dreger: "Narcissistic injury," the physician-researcher Anne Lawrence said to me, by way of explanation. "Followed by narcissistic rage." That, she told me, was the only real way to explain what happened to Bailey. The whole thing had been an attempt to kill the messenger bringing a message that Lawrence guessed wounded the accusers' sense of self.
Captivating: the book
By this point, we are barely a third of the way through the book. Several things stand out. First, the book is extremely readable, and the narrative is told in a personal, conversational style. Second, Dreger's scholarship is impeccable: many hundreds of hours of interviews and research have gone into this book (you should see the references), and Dreger seems uncompromising in her search for the truth. Third, it's clear that a great deal of her personal energy has been invested, not just in writing the book, but in sympathising with the people in it, befriending them and becoming part of their lives. Fourth, writing this book has taken considerable courage, and Dreger has herself come under fire, risking her own career and reputation (drawing parallels with Galileo, of course).

Overall, the book is a phenomenal read; gripping as a thriller, scholarly, yet incredibly human. There are so many points in the book where I thought: I can't believe I am actually reading this! I can't recommend it highly enough.

We part company with the book at this point, partly because this blog post is already way too long, and partly because the book leaves the subjects of gender and sex as Dreger finds other (compelling) subjects to sink her hungry scholastic teeth into.

I think the world of gender is changing more rapidly than it ever has before. The emergence of transgender celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner has caused mainstream society to become much more aware (and thankfully, accepting) of trans people and trans issues. Nonetheless, I am very uncomfortable about what happened to Bailey: vilified for his views, not because they were wrong, but because they made people uncomfortable. Dreger points out (and I don't know why I didn't think of this before) that as a result of Conway's attack on Bailey, "no one in sex research will touch male-to-female transsexualism with a ten foot pole any more. Which must have been just what Conway meant to do". That explains why there isn't good science: because scientists fear personal retribution if they publish results which are unpopular.

The way to enlightenment is not to silence people, even the ones who disagree with us, but to engage in open, civil, respectful debate; to seek out the best evidence, and incorporate it into the picture, recognising that the picture isn't complete and may yet change as new discoveries come to light.

Dreger's book has inspired me to be a little more upright, a little more outspoken in defence of the truth, a little more questioning of the "facts", than I was previously. And perhaps, therefore, a little more willing to extend my middle finger, just like Galileo.

Monday 5 October 2015

Galileo's Middle Finger - Part One

My book this week is called Galileo’s Middle Finger, and it was recommended to me by my friend Patricia. You need to read this book, she told me. It took me a while to get around to it, but she was dead right.
Alice Dreger

Galileo’s Middle Finger is written by Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. I had not come across her work before. Her book is a personal account of her own involvement in a series of medical and ethical issues, over two decades of her life. For readers of this blog in particular, the first three chapters will be of greatest interest. The first discusses intersex people; the second and third transgender people. There is so much to talk about that I am going to split this article into two blog posts.

One of the themes of this blog (one I am always going on about) is that, when it comes to the study of sex and gender, hard scientific knowledge is pretty lacking. In its place is often entrenched dogma, coming from people (scientists themselves and their supporters) who insist on a particular paradigm or point of view; and the equally entrenched opposition of the activists and pressure groups, waving flags and making demands.

If someone comes up with a new idea, it can easily fall foul of one or even both of those groups, not because it is wrong, but because it challenges the way people think, and people (even scientists) can find themselves attacked and vilified, especially in this age of instant social media and viral messages.

Dreger is my kind of scholar: the one who is most interested in the truth above all, "a belief in evidence even when it challenges [her] political goals". In her book she describes how she has been on both sides of these debates; at times siding with the activists, pushing hard against dogma and accepted wisdom. At other times, she has sided with the scientists, defending them against unfair or personal attacks from critics.

Let’s cover some concrete examples. In the first chapter of her book, entitled Funny Looking, Dreger comes right to the point on the very first page.
Dreger: This was my stance: Children born with genitals that look funny but work fine should not be surgically altered just because their genital appearance upsets or worries some adult. Big clitorises shouldn't be shortened, and baby boys with very small penises shouldn't be sex-changed just because their phalluses induce Freudian crises of conscience in their caregivers.
Neither fish nor fowl: intersex
She is talking, of course, about intersex children, that 1 in 1000 or so babies who are born with genitalia which seem to be neither quite boy nor girl. In some (rarer) cases, intersex people can possess both testicular and ovarian tissue in an ovotestis. Cases of intersex people have been cropping up in the medical literature for centuries (I recall coming across them as a student) and are depicted in medical textbooks naked, in black-and-white, with a bar over their face to cover their "anonymity".

Originally, of course, medicine had nothing to offer those people. But over the last few decades, increasingly intersex children have been dealt with surgically. Big clitorises (and I'm sorry for wearing my geek hat long enough to point out that the official plural of clitoris is clitorides) were surgically shortened to look more normal (but often causing scarring and the inability to achieve orgasm). Small penises were sometimes completely amputated, and the child raised as a girl. Unfortunately surgery on children's genitals rarely turns out right.

I stress this was usually done with the very best of intentions by most doctors. I believe (and Dreger does too) that the doctors thought they were doing the right thing by these children. They believed that rigidly enforcing an anatomical binary would spare these children growing up different, and make them fit more comfortably. They believed if they did not provide the surgery, the children would commit suicide in puberty.
Dreger: Modern medicine now sought to reinforce the "optimum gender of rearing" by early management of children born with sex anomalies by means of "sex-normalising" surgeries, hormone treatments, delicate euphemisms, and sometimes lies.

This was also the system that led to a lot of really angry intersex adults who discovered that they had been harmed by the medical care meant to "save" them and who knew that the basic system was still being used on children who would likely grow up as hurt and angry as they were. In the early 1990's, a core group of these people formed the intersex rights movement I eventually joined. Some of these intersex adults had been physically harmed--left with damaged sexual sensation, incontinence or repetitive infections. Many had been psychologically harmed--left with a sense of having been too monstrous for their parents to accept as they came, of being sexually freakish, of being fountains of familial shame. All were left with a burning desire to try to save others from going through what they had.
Things were made worse by the actions of people like Dr. John Money. Money's most famous case was David Reimer, a healthy (non-intersex) boy whose penis was destroyed during a botched circumcision attempt. Money suggested that Reimer be raised as a girl, and he underwent removal of his testicles as a baby, together with hormone treatments intended to feminise him. Unfortunately, none of this worked: Reimer always identified as a boy (despite a rigid "girl" upbringing). Worse, Money continued to publish fraudulent reports (in what became known as the "John/Joan" case) that Reimer was doing well as a girl, and his reputation and prestige meant that other doctors followed his example of treatment. Money was a charlatan whose harms extended far beyond this one patient.

How do you measure up?
Together with intersex friend Bo Laurent, Alice Dreger formalised the Intersex Society of North America into a non-profit, tax-exempt organisation. Its purpose was to provide solidarity for intersex people, to realise they are not alone; to campaign to the medical profession for better, more understanding treatment of intersex individuals; and for more acceptance from society for intersex individuals.
Dreger: The problem in intersex care wasn't a problem of gender identity per se. The problem was that, in the service of strict gender norms, people were being cut up, lied to, and made to feel profoundly ashamed of themselves. Bo said it as plainly as she could: Intersex is not primarily about gender identity; it is about shame, secrecy and trauma.
Gradually, they began to gain some traction with doctors. One tool they used was the Phall-O-Meter (pictured), a ruler which is designed to measure the size of a newborn baby's genitals. Calibrated in inches, it was a way of showing how ridiculous it is, that one could use a ruler to categorise something as profound, as far-reaching, as a human being's sex. (This example misses out the humorous captions like "Phew! Just squeaks by!" for a barely acceptable penis).
Dreger: When I would ask treating physicians, "What is the goal of pediatric intersex treatment?" I was amazed at how often they could not articulate an answer. ... It would have been much easier if all these doctors had been evil. Instead they were good-- human, scared. They tried hard to write us off as evil, but when they met us, they realized that we were also good-- and human, and scared.
Giving the finger: Galileo
This is my second reason to love the book: that Dreger talks with compassion and a deeply-sensitive humanity. She adds more than a dash of her own personality to the book, so that, instead of reading like a dry academic treatise, it reads like a personal memoir, and is therefore approachable, funny and poignant. Alice, I would love to have dinner with you!

After some years involved in ISNA, Dreger decided to leave. It is here that the next chapter begins, the chapter involving transsexuals. But I wanted to finish this article by pointing out that the intersex community was very fortunate to find an ally in Alice Dreger: passionate, committed, articulate and seemingly fearless.

You might be wondering where the book's title comes from. It comes from the fact that one of Galileo's fingers (his middle one, of course) is preserved in a jar in the Museo Galileo in Florence. The museum insists that the finger is mounted pointing upward to the heavens which Galileo loved so much. But, because Galileo was fearless in speaking out against the Establishment of his time (getting himself in trouble with Pope Urban VIII over his views of celestial mechanics), Dreger impishly points out that an alternative interpretation is that Galileo is still sticking his middle finger up in the air against stubborn orthodoxy and entrenched dogma.

Join me for Part Two.

Sunday 16 August 2015

Men's Underwear and Fight Club

One of my correspondents, Scott, emailed me with a question this week:
What do men's underwear and Fight Club have in common?
Manly: string vests
The answer is obvious. Brad Pitt looks good in both! But Scott has a point. He goes on:
Men get seriously squeamish talking about their underwear. They don't like to talk about wearing it, or buying it, or whether it's comfortable or uncomfortable. This is in stark comparison to women, who blog about their bras and openly talk about their favorite styles of underwear online and in the break room at work.

Men hate shopping for underwear in stores. They avoid sales people and other shoppers. They buy "extra" stuff they didn't need to take the focus off of the underwear at the cash register. And they wait until their old underwear is falling apart before buying new.  Why do they hate buying underwear so much?

Men's underwear has really never been built for comfort, but guys never talk about that.  They don't openly discuss what they are wearing, or how it is too restrictive, not supportive enough, or causes chafing.  Guys just "deal with it" as the stuff of life. This is rather interesting, because underwear is worn longer than any other article of clothing, yet guys put the least thought into it.

So let's take a look at some of these assertions. One of my favourite ever books is called Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill. Insightful, impeccably researched, light-hearted bordering on hilarious, it's a wonderful book which made me think in a whole new way about shopping. Underhill runs a company which observes shoppers: how they interact with retail spaces, with products, with other shoppers, with parking and escalators and trolleys. And every gesture, every movement, is recorded and quantified. How long a consumer spends looking at item A before putting it back on the shelf and buying item B. As a result, Underhill knows how shopping works.

I do all my own modelling, you know.
Underhill's book has an entire chapter called Shop Like a Man. It describes men's behaviour when they shop for everything: groceries, clothing, power tools, detergent, cars. And it contains this observation:
We caught a signal moment in the life of the modern American male on videotape. A man was browsing thoughtfully at an underwear display when he suddenly reached around, grabbed a handful of his waistband, pulled it out and craned his neck so he could learn--finally!--what size pants he wears. Try to imagine a woman who doesn't know her underwear size. Impossible. Someday soon, we can all hope, every man will know his.
Underhill's observation lends credence to Scott's point above, that men hate shopping for underwear. He makes the point that, traditionally, women have bought the man's underwear: Men have always bought their own suits and shoes, but women, traditionally, shopped for everything in between. Another point he makes is that stores are not well-designed for men; they are often designed with women shoppers in mind, and as a result have a host of subtle discouragements to men to shop there.

Sir, do you have any budgies on your person?
To take Scott's next comment: men's underwear has never been built for comfort--until recently, that is. I bought some "performance briefs" (for men), like these Jockey ones. They are made of a black synthetic material, which is snug and stretchy. The waistband is neat and holds well. The fabric is breathable and doesn't smell, which makes it ideal for cycling (which I do a fair bit of). But here's what really struck me: those briefs are surprisingly similar to some women's panties. Overall, they are so comfortable that I plan to phase out my cotton briefs and go for these entirely. To be clear, they don't "do it" for me in a crossdressing sense; they are just comfortable and practical.

I think men's underwear is a microcosm of masculine attitudes. First, in general men want clothing which is practical and functional. Job done, moving on. Our fathers and grandfathers wore string vests and braces and other unattractive accoutrements. They would have snorted with scorn if you had offered them a selection of snug, comfortable underwear: "What's wrong with pants knitted from old sandbags? They never wear out!" As a result, men's underwear has tended toward the plain and functional, the sort of thing you would wear while sawing logs or changing an engine block.

Second, women's underwear has (I believe) been frequently seen as being sexy. Women wear sexy underwear underneath their day clothes to make them feel special. I am sure it is no accident that many crossdressers begin with wearing underwear as their first and most cherished female garments. Women's underwear is attractive to look at; it has all sorts of little details and features adorning it. The fabric is luxuriant: lacy or velvety. You wouldn't wear that for mundane physical jobs; you would wear it to feel fabulous, at a party, out for the evening, for a special event. That goes along with the traditional image of women themselves as being delicate, fragile creatures.

Batman probably wears underwear like this.
Men don't wear underwear to feel sexy; they wear underwear to hold their bits in place. And on that subject, those of you who haven't spent much time Down Under might not have come across one of my favourite pieces of Australian slang, which is that tight swimming trunks for men are called budgie-smugglers, the idea being that the bit down the front resembles a budgie tucked in there. Cheep cheep!

I think the field of men's underwear probably is changing. I think it is becoming OK for men to buy their own underwear; I know I do. Is it OK to choose underwear for comfort? I think so. Many companies are now deliberately marketing underwear which is designed to be fashionable and comfortable for men. (This image is from Tommy John).

But, as with skirts for men, I don't quite think men are ready to rethink the relationship they have with their underwear. This underwear, pictured (the grey number), is indisputably comfortable and practical, and is definitely cool; the sort of thing which would look great in the changing-room at the gym. It looks like something Bear Grylls or Daniel Craig would wear. But here is what I see. It still says tough. It still says rugged. It is still (resolutely?) unadorned, in that gunmetal-grey colour. It might possibly be something a woman, or a gay man, might describe as sexy (though the occupant might have as much to do with that as the garment). But it definitely doesn't seem like something that most men might describe as sexy. It seems designed to evoke feelings associated with masculinity: preparedness, resolve, decisiveness, leadership. Let's face it: James Bond doesn't wear underwear which makes him feel sexy.

Crikey: you could smuggle a whole aviary in this lot!
As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, for both women and men, beauty is something associated with women. So for underwear to make you feel sexy, it seems that both women and men turn to underwear associated with women. I've already drawn your attention to tights for men, but Australian company HommeMystere seems to be taking their lingerie collection for men to a whole new level: I see gorgeous little details. I see lacy. I see frilly. I see delicate. I see fabulous. I see some very awkward-looking male models! I also see their marketing seems deliberately heterosexual: sure, your girlfriend is gonna love you wearing that!

I also give an honourable mention to HerRoom, an online lingerie retailer which provides a very detailed section about lingerie shopping for men: forthright, welcoming and helpful (though it's not easy to find it from the front page). The wording and layout says: hey, if you're a guy who likes lingerie, we have no problem with that. Let us show you something you might be interested in.

Though I am quite impressed by HommeMystere and HerRoom and their approach (surely another sign that whatever men like to wear, it's all good), I am certain that they will remain on the periphery of the male market for a while yet. Men's underwear is already very in touch with Fight Club. What it needs is to get in touch with Titanic, with Mona Lisa Smile, with Mamma Mia. And that might mean breaking the First Rule.


My thanks to Scott for suggesting this topic. I've also written a blog post about men who like long nails.

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Caitlyn Jenner

No doubt anyone in the world with access to a television has become aware of Caitlyn Jenner (whether they like it or not).

Born William Bruce Jenner in 1949, and known as Bruce Jenner for many years, Jenner (now 65) is probably the most famous openly transsexual person in the world. Jenner was an Olympic athlete, winning the gold medal at the Men's Decathlon in Montreal. Earlier this year, Jenner publicly came out as a transwoman, changed her name to Caitlyn and underwent a highly publicised transition (although there had been some signs for a long time). I dare say she will figure prominently in the reality TV schedules for some years to come. (And, no doubt, the wearisome jokes and mockery will continue for a while longer).
Trying to be Bruce

But you already know all this. Why am I troubling to write about it?

Lately I've spent quite a lot of time reading and writing on Quora. It's a wonderful website for people like me, who are curious about all sorts of things, and have an opinion (and occasionally some pertinent knowledge) about all sorts of things. (You can find my Quora content here). Although I have added links to Quora content throughout this article, I am not sure if you will be able to access them all without registering to the website.

Someone posted this question:
What is the appropriate name and pronoun to use when talking about things that Caitlyn Jenner did in the past, while she was known as Bruce and thought to be a man? 
That really got me thinking. Who won that gold medal?

From one point of view, it's pragmatic to say that the winner of the medal was Bruce Jenner. The competition was the Men's Decathlon. Therefore the correct pronoun to use is "he"; he won the medal. On the other hand, Jenner herself says she struggled with gender dysphoria her whole life, even when competing and winning that medal. And now the person who won the medal is Caitlyn Jenner, and takes female pronouns. Therefore she won the medal.

Call me Caitlyn
There was a reasonable amount of discussion in the responses to the question. As one might expect, some people felt quite strongly about the matter.

Tessa Norris writes:
The correct way to refer to a transitioned trans woman is to refer to her with her current name and pronouns, and to abandon her old name and pronouns.
Tamara Wiens writes:
Referring to a trans person by their "dead name" is usually taken to be very offensive. Personally, it's bothersome in an ill-defined way - when anyone says it, it makes my skin crawl, and I want to be ill, so it's fortunate that it is happening less and less all the time.
My preference is that no one use my former name, ever.

Whatever I did under another name, I did it. Katie was born in 1963. Katie married in 1990 and divorced in 2006. Katie fathered two beautiful children.

In the same sense, Caitlin Jenner was an Olympic athlete. She won a gold medal in the decathlon. She got married. She fathered children.
I disagree with Tessa Norris. There isn't, as yet, a "correct way". There is only a society struggling to agree on a way to get a linguistic handle on what is, for many people, a comparatively new phenomenon. I accept there are ways that some people would prefer over other ways, but that isn't the same thing as a "correct way".

I must say I had never heard of the term dead name or deadname before this discussion, and it struck me as a term laden with powerful connotations. It reminded me of the notion that in mediaeval times, a "funeral" service would be held for novice nuns and monks on entering their religious community, to symbolise their "death" to society; that the person who had previously lived was now gone. I don't really know how often this actually happened, but it seems terribly barbaric.
More from Vanity Fair

I can understand Katie Anne Holton's perspective. Nonetheless, it makes me a bit uncomfortable. When Bruce Jenner competed in the Olympics, everyone thought he was a man. He presented externally as a man (regardless of his inner feelings). All the documentation at the time used male pronouns. (In fact, even in the recent Bruce Jenner Interview With Diane Sawyer, Bruce agreed to be called Bruce and asked for masculine pronouns to be used even though transition was already underway).

Then there came a change, which was initiated by Bruce himself. He has asserted a new identity and changed his name. I think that we should now respect Caitlyn's new name and identity, but for me this doesn't apply retrospectively.

One's innate preferences and choices do not, in my opinion, compel the rest of society to rewrite the past. (And by preferences, I don't mean that gender is a preference, but I do consider that how people act and present is a preference and a choice. I think that Bruce was choosing at that time to try to be Bruce, even though that was difficult and painful).

I tried to take the discussion further, but the fact that I somewhat disagreed was met with some hostility at first:
Tessa Norris: You have the "right" to refer to my past against my express wishes in any way you choose. But only in the sense that you have the free speech right to call me a "tranny faggot" if you want.
Then came an answer by Elliott Mason, which I think was extremely pertinent:
How would you refer to the sports accomplishments of Muhammad Ali before he changed his name? It's an interesting parallel case to think about, because at the time his change was just as shocking and just as much of a media circus as Ms. Jenner's name change is now.

Also, very many female Olympians have married and changed their last names after their athletic careers are over. I don't think I've ever seen anyone make a big deal about using their maiden name to refer to their accomplishments in their former athletic career. One mention near the top, at most, and the rest of the article in their current name.
It certainly seems right to compare Muhammad Ali and Caitlyn Jenner, although Ali's name change came before much of his sporting success. I am not aware of any situation where Ali would be referred to by the name Cassius Clay, except in articles which say something like "Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay)".
What could they make me look like?

Elliott goes on:
Would you apply the same rule in the same way for people who changed their name for any other reason? When referring to childhood accomplishments of, for example, movie stars who use a screen name (Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Queen Latifah, and Judy Garland come to mind), do you insist on always pointing out their old name and saying that they changed it?

If you do not, then the only reason for a difference in how you treat them and Ms. Jenner is that you have some issue about her name change that you don't have about theirs, and you should think about that.
My response to this is much easier. All those names are stage names. A stage name is deliberately chosen for its attractive or unique qualities. A stage name is something one adopts for a stage persona, not a personal identity.

Do Olympic stars have their names engraved on their gold medals? I don't know. But suppose they do. Will Caitlyn Jenner have hers changed? I think probably not. To me it would seem as ridiculous as Laurence Tureau having his junior school Bronze Swimming Certificate changed to the name of Mr. T.

But I guess my final point is this. I can only comment from my own perspective. I don't consider myself to be a woman. I prefer to be treated as one when I am presenting as fem, but I regard this as a privilege which I need to merit, not a right.

Right now, I am not sure about what the future holds. Maybe I will transition at some point (say Jenner's age) and maybe not. Suppose I do, I would be quite happy to acknowledge my former identity; in fact, I quite like it (my current identity), which might be one reason why I don't feel I need to transition.

I don't see, if you could compare me to Jenner at an equivalent age, that there would be much difference between us. I have tried to suppress my feminine side; I have struggled (and still am) to find some balance.

And yet, I don't consider myself to be a woman, though I certainly don't consider myself to be an "ordinary" man either. I can understand how trans people might feel uncomfortable about their previous lives, but nonetheless those lives existed, objectively, sometimes for decades.

I would argue that one should respect an individual's choice of name and gender presentation. To me this is a facet of basic human understanding, tolerance and compassion. On the other hand, I don't think it's OK for an individual to insist that the past be rewritten just because its existence makes them uncomfortable.

As always, this is an ongoing discussion, to which your contributions would be welcomed.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Faking It - Part One

One of my favourite podcasts is the one from Freakonomics Radio. Presented by Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner, and frequently featuring the other co-author Steve Levitt, it is a whimsical, funny and fascinating look at the "hidden side of everything". If you haven't read the book, or its sequel, you should stop reading this and go out and do so immediately.

The fundamental premise of the books is that economics isn't just about money: it's about incentives of every kind. Any kind of gain or loss, any kind of reward or punishment. And that humans respond to incentives in predictable ways. The book provides many astonishing examples of statistical evidence of its claims, but the podcast builds on some of the details. Here is a partial transcript from the episode Faking It.
Dubner: You keep kosher. How kosher do you keep?
Kara: Extremely kosher. We allow no non-kosher foods into our kitchen, our refrigerator; we have three different sets of plates, plus another one for Passover—the whole nine yards.
Dubner: What’s your relationship with bacon?
Kara: (laughs) It’s secret and illicit–It was probably the first thing that I started cheating with.
Dubner: You cheat with bacon?
Kara: Again, not in my own kitchen, but I’ll go out and order bacon and pancakes. But at home it would be simply pancakes.
Dubner: Now, does you husband know about this?
Kara: He knows, he knows, he’s very forgiving.
Dubner: He knows because you tell him, or because you come home with the scent of your lover on your lips?
Kara: (laughs) A little of both, I have to admit.
Dubner: So you’re not really faking it with him, correct?
Kara: Correct, but we don’t tell my mother-in-law.
If you're thinking this post will be talking about how it feels to be a man who sometimes pretends to be a woman, then you will be disappointed. This post is about how my "ordinary" daily life involves faking it. This post touches on a previous post of mine which deals with privacy and secrecy, which was also inspired by a discussion on a podcast. Dubner really got me thinking.
Dubner: If the human psyche were a big map, nestled somewhere between the Sea of Cheating and the Valley of Lying, you’d come to the Kingdom of Faking It. I know what you’re thinking: No– I don’t fake it.
But actually I was thinking: yes, I do, every day. The examples which he provides are very similar, uncomfortably similar, to how I go about my life. In the example above, a Jewish woman admits to enjoying bacon, despite maintaining the façade of rigid observance of Jewish dietary laws. In another example in the podcast, a happily childless couple living in the Deep South pretend to attend church and pretend to be trying for a family because it is easier to get by in a society which expects those things. (They have gone so far as to choose a particular church which they pretend to attend, so that if the conversation gets a little more detailed, they are not immediately revealed).

Dubner even goes so far as to describe in detail Barack Obama's attempts to convince his voters that he is a regular churchgoer, and how he came a cropper when the preacher he claimed to admire turned out to have said some very questionable things.

I went to a private high school. My parents saved hard to get the money to send me there. I rubbed shoulders with kids who were from very wealthy families, and very quickly learned that my own modest background just didn't stand up. As a result, I started to pretend that I had travelled widely; that my father owned a luxury sports car; that we were wealthier than we really were. I hated myself for this pretence. I hated the fact that I had to be careful not to get caught out in a lie or a contradiction ("Wait a minute, I thought you said it was a green Aston Martin?"). I hated that it made me feel so inferior that I had to pretend to be something else, just to fit in.

Why doesn't Kara come clean? It seems to take a lot of effort to keep kosher as rigidly as she does, and yet she admits she breaks it with relish. Why not simply say: hey, I like bacon! Deal with it! Surely it's harder to maintain the pretence than just to abandon it? But I get it. By standing up, distancing herself from the observances of her community, Kara would be sending out a powerful message of dissonance with its core values. It is a lot easier to pretend, in front of people, and scoff her bacon quietly, behind the scenes. (There is a good chance her mother-in-law is doing the same!) And those societal forces extend right up as far as the President.

I am sure that most people who are doing this are not doing it for malicious reasons, but because the little white lies slightly oil the wheels of society. It's easier to fake it, to blend in. And to some extent, all of us, from the greatest to the least, is doing it too, to some extent.
Dubner: I’m a big fat faker, just like... Brian, the guy with a fake church, and Kara — that’s the woman who can’t tell her kosher-keeping family how much she loves bacon. Scientists have a framework for talking about this problem: signalling theory. It’s my way of telling the world that I’m a good friend; I’m not a sociopath; I’m a good candidate for that job you’re offering, or that last slot you have at an Ivy League school, or the sex you’re willing to have with someone. I’m faking it because I want you to like me, and I know I’m not worth liking (my italics).
I included this quote because it sums it up perfectly for me. It explains why, at school, I felt I had to concoct fake skiing holidays and fake sports cars, because I felt that my own personal qualities were insufficient.

And it also explains why, right now, I am faking it as an ordinary man with an ordinary life. I hide my crossdressing identity, even though that costs a lot of effort, because it's easier to just pretend it doesn't exist in public, then do it quietly, behind the scenes, where nobody can see. And, just as in high school, I hate the way that makes me feel. I am also fearful that if people find out, there will be unpleasant consequences. But I am also fed up; fed up of the effort it is costing me to make the pretence, and fed up of the sensation that people like the person they think I am rather than the person I actually am.

Portrait of Vivienne by Hannah
But lately, something has changed. I have come out to two of my friends. The first is a woman, whom I respect and admire greatly for her wisdom and compassion. She would also describe herself as a feminist, which gave me pause, and I sounded her out first by trying to engage her in conversation about the whole bathroom thing.

We were sitting in a café, and she knew I had something to tell her. I more or less blurted it out, and then started to talk about it very rapidly, but she silenced me by holding up her hand. "It's fine," she said. "It's cool". And there it was. I had more acceptance from her in the ten minutes of that conversation than in the ten previous years from my wife.

She asked a lot of searching and penetrating questions: had I considered hormones? Or surgery? I was disarmed by her directness. And all the way home, I was anxious: how would it affect our friendship? But there was also a great sense of relief, of being unburdened.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a male colleague. Again he is a man I admire, for his emotional awareness, his insightfulness, and his ability to relate to his masculinity without compromising any of these things. And again, I told him. He was visibly surprised, but has also been completely accepting. This second time around, it was easier to have the conversation. I wasn't sure I would get much sympathy from a man, but he tells me he completely understands it. Again he was curious, but about different things. Did I have a fem name? How did I choose it? Did I go out dressed to clubs to meet others?

I told both of my friends about this blog, and they have both visited. It seems not to have affected my working relationship with either of them, and they don't seem to have lost any of the respect for me which I think they both had to start with. Both of them, independently, have said they would like to meet Vivienne, and I will be sure to let you know if this happens.

Whether I tell anyone else, or whom I tell, I am still not sure. I already feel much better about myself. Both my friends have been able to see the positive side, the funny side of crossdressing, which are aspects of it which I haven't really been able to enjoy much. What I was looking for, most of all, and got from both of those wonderful people, was simple acceptance. Now I no longer feel like I am faking it, at least with those people, and I feel that the closet door has sprung open a little wider.

And to quote the punchline of a very old joke, it's better than bacon.

My thanks to Hannah for the lovely portrait of Vivienne. You can check out Hannah's blog here.

You can find the followup to this article here: Faking It- Part Two.