Do you know what bothers me the most about this endless parade of supposedly intelligent, perceptive novelists and journos who just can’t get their heads around the idea of gender diversity, a concept many ‘unsophisticated’ cultures take in their stride?
Here they come, like clowns spilling out of a battered C-reg Mini in a circus which has visibly gone to shit since they can’t torture animals anymore: Greer, Bindel, McEwan, Murray and now, latest to clumsily tumble over the lip of the car door in a pair of oversized shoes and trousers with a hoop through, former advertising copywriter Franklin Birkinshaw, or as she prefers to call herself these days ‘Fay Weldon’, who seems to be getting the entirety of her information about trans people from Little Britain.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time here going into why ‘Weldon’ is wrong in her assertion that trans women put ourselves through unbelievable bureaucratic and medical hurdles, and expose ourselves to a risk of violent death massively higher than that faced by most cis people, because of a ‘frivolous’ obsession with ‘fashion and clothes’ (except maybe to say that – aren’t ‘fashion’ and ‘clothes’ pretty much the same thing? And shouldn’t novelists strive for economy of expression?), because if you want to disabuse yourself of that notion, seriously, just spend some time with actual trans people. I, for example, am currently writing this in a pair of old leggings which probably have a hole in them somewhere and a Star Wars t-shirt my brother bought me two Christmases ago. On the other sofa in this room, another trans woman is doing her online banking in her vest and pants. I will point out, though, that it seems a bit rich for ‘Fay’ ‘Weldon’ to be accusing other women of a frivolous interest in clothes.
Nor is it just that I find these bigotry-driven bids for column inches so fucking boring, as I pointed out when lunchtime radio presenter Jenni Murray came over all transphobic to shift a few units of her new paperback, though that’s part of it. As I pointed out then, the sheer bloody tedium of the Real Woman Question is something which can only even come up in a dessicated culture, trapped in binary thinking and disappearing slowly up it’s own fundamental attribution error. It’s boring because it’s such an entry-level question, hobbled from the start by the idea that something such as a ‘real woman’ exists as anything more than a label we slapped on a grab-bag of physical and social traits for heuristic purposes.
I’ve been reading Peter Grey’s excellent Apocalyptic Witchcraft recently, concurrent with my own return to what Grant Morrison calls ‘actual magical fucking-about’, and I’ve found it extremely interesting. I was particularly interested to see Grey drawing on the work of his namesake Peter Redgrove, a figure I’ve long been fascinated by. Grey’s book is good on a number of things about the craft, not least the importance of not being afraid to get down and dirty doing malefica, but one thing I found troubling reading it was how easily someone could distort the ideas therein, drawing as they do on the spiritual importance of menstruation and manly rasslin’, into the sort of horrible, gender essentialist bullshit which sometimes takes root in pagan circles. I don’t think this is what Grey is aiming for: elsewhere in the book he talks to some degree about the importance of magic to queers and vice versa, and my impression of Grey and his partner Alkistis when I’ve heard them interviewed on podcasts is that they’re more sophisticated than that. And it occurred to me, actually, that magic is more sophisticated than that.
Magic is about liminality, about crossing borders, altering states. One of magic’s central metaphors is of the journey of initiation, the ordeal in which the initiate passes from one state to the other, from neophyte to adept, And what is gender transition but an initiation? And not just that, but one of the most powerful forms of initiation a materialist culture like our own can provide?
Reading Grey’s book, and its engagement with the symbolic ideas of masculinity and femininity, I found myself responding not at all to some things, and responding very strongly to others, but these were spread across both columns, and I think that most people, trans and cis, would find themselves responding in a similar way (yeah, I like to wrestle, but so do a lot of cis women I know).
The question isn’t ‘what’s a REAL woman?’ anymore than the question is whether magic or witchcraft are real. The question instead is ‘what does it mean to be a woman (or an man, or a magician, or a witch)?’
Transitioning teaches you a lot more about that than cis people will know, however many middle-class novels they write about spas and Bulgari. When we transition, we learn so much about how fucked up it is that our culture attaches certain values to us based only on the appearance of our gender at birth to a member of a specialised caste. We learn so much about the ways men can be weak and women can be strong, about how both things are mostly the same, about how much it really is true that what matters is not, as Esme Weatherwax said, what side you’re on, but where you’re facing.
Sorting by binary gender is the very first low, mean, fascist divide-and-rule tactic the Dark Forces Who Would Rule This Planet use to try and limit our potential. If we can complicate that, what else might we call into question? It’s no wonder the system fears us, and no wonder that people who have benefited handsomely from that system would scrabble like rats on a drowning log to keep us down.
I used to cringe at the fact that one of the most popular UK websites for trans people, five or six years ago, way back before we were fucking everywhere, referred to us as ‘angels’. I still do, a little bit, if by ‘angel’ you mean a cute, soppy, New Age, protective cherub. But then if you actually take the trouble to read the bits of the Bible which aren’t about hating the gays, you realise that angels are dangerous. Angels are powerful. Angels are terrible.
Angels are harbingers.
Welcome, Prophets. The Great Work begins!