Transphobic Britain

How, given the history of the black community in Britain after centuries of slavery, do Black people explain the rampant transphobia that they accord black transgender/transsexual people? Indeed, how does anyone who has ever or still suffers oppression, whatever form it takes? These were the question that assailed me for the best part of ten months of living in a predominantly Black and immigrant part of London.

In this area, it seemed factual that a multicultural melting pot is a force for good. The question is, is it? It has existed until now and has continued whether you are made aware of the varying conflicts of raging heterosexualism, homosexist, which is less mentioned for fear of what the so called Gay Mafia might do, and internalised sexism despite all the other worries the impact on us all one way or the other: of racism, homophobia and the plethora of unmentioned isms or phobia beset us in this capitalist world.

Faced with the fact that it is now over thirty years since some of the essays that appeared in Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider” the theme of Black Women uniting in one voice was been raised consistently and we must continue in this vein. We must raise our voices transgender people or otherwise until oppression is completely vanquished.

As a Black, transsexual woman, a lesbian and a Buddhist, the issue of whether much change has taken place lingers in my mind. Audre Lorde’s inspiring words are still with me. Writing in the seventies, she asserted that, “…since you have so completely un-recognised me, perhaps I have been in error concerning you and no longer recognise you.” Here, I revisit the same themes predominantly in Britain where the multicultural inner cities are increasingly becoming so fractured due to growing prejudice based on a compulsory heterosexuality.

In this melting pot, multicultural Britain that is, the same evils prevail in a mediocre, glazed over worldview that seems to internally scream for perpetual profit, heteronormativity and all else in its blindness especially if as an individual you question traditional gender.

Suddenly, all the laws of the land fall flat on their faces when even those credited with law enforcement themselves become blasé towards victims reporting hate crimes. Recently for instance, while trying to report a transphobic incident, an insensitive police officer barked, “What’s wrong with you?” down the phone at me causing me to quiver fearfully in from of my assailants. The two transphobes that were harassing me fled as soon as they heard I was talking to the Police. One was Black, stereotypical in her language and feisty too. She seemingly untouched in her quest. She brandished her store of denial to ward off any and all accusations. The other was an Asian girl of about seventeen, probably theistic, aggressive in her delivery and somewhat head strong. The gossip was all they seemed to follow me for. They wanted to forcefully share what they viewed as knowledge with me in prepared utterances that suggested: “everyone knows!” “I know,” “He’s a liar” and things to that end which they denied when questioned about their behaviour. Or the coldly withdrawn of some Hasidic Jewish people out for a walk. They roamed the area with their own brand of exclusionary chides, shoves and in your face overt condescension as they encouraged their children to follow suit right after the dictates of their tradition. Not to mention the East Europeans speaking loudly and laughing more threateningly than empathically only to push children forward to continue the onslaught on the so called, “outsider!” How can such children learn respect in a climate of rank prejudice? Goodness forbid a child voice their own transgender feeling not to mention a specificity for transsexuals at the age of eight. Not to mention Africans too jumping on the age old bandwagon and branding the poor children in their care as, “witches” simply because adults could not understand what the child has presented them with.

So, is this what multicultural Britain has become? A melting pot of media constructed conflicts through stereotypes and sensationalised storylines? Is this anywhere for children to be brought up? Not because of any fault of transsexual people in the area but because of unreason parents and their hatred of individuals they do not understand, I wondered. Deep in my mind I knew this was the only place for transpeople. The idea that we belong elsewhere is and can only be made by the narrow mindset that blames transsexuals/transgender people rather than take responsibility for their own actions and what they introduced their children to by proxy. Transsexuals exist in bodies in the here and now and we will always do. One of the problems with multicultural Britain apart from the assumed “integrated communities” is that there is a sense in which we seem to be doing our host’s dirty work for it. Some of this stems from the aftermath of twin incidents of nine, eleven and seven, seven, the second Gulf war, and presently Afghanistan but that hasn’t removed a section of the Asian community’s fear nor will it stop their young, adult or old intimidating members of the lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and transgender communities (LGBT) and perhaps more so the transgender in my experience in.

However after Audre Lorde we must take our own stands of course reviving her fighting spirit in every one of us today. Outing ourselves is only a starting point and by this I do not mean that we throw caution to the wind in blank free for all disclosures. Rather what I am saying is that we, transgender people especially, should start recognising ourselves as no one else seems capable of fighting our fights for us nor should we expect them to. Daily when we hear disapproving voices our first instinct is to take cover out of the fear of being adversely labelled at our cost, ostracised or opened up to a spectrum of abuses from verbal to violent because of our gender identity. Personally, although I am terrified of the prospect of violence, I will not be quiet in the face of virulent transphobia.

Meanwhile in multicultural Britain as I have said above everyone is complicity in transphobia to some degree. I feel the sooner we nip this in the bud the better. When did our local libraries become havens for transphobic abuse by members of the public, staff or passers through alike? When such abuse takes place is it enough to report such incidents to staff who may be culpable themselves or does one bite the bullet and go straight to the Police? What does one do caught between the hard face of a stranger and the soft smiling yet complicit face of a friend holding court with the same stranger? Or even more so, if one’s abuser turns out to be the landlord one is renting a flat from (who wantonly goes about setting off verbal incendiaries of his or her own to make good with other residents)?

So many questions and obviously we get our heads around them just as many answers. However, stating this particular standpoint with my experience I will not play court with a “passing” trans sister whose only reason for befriending me is to forward her own selfish need for approval. From where I stand such invitations in individuals or by the media as we see so often these days is tantamount to making piccaninnies of us all. The misappropriation going around these days suggests that transgenderism is the last play thing for traditional hetero-normative gender but this is not so. Transgenderism is nobody’s play thing but one of many challenge it will do us to get used to quickly. Nor do we all fit so narrowly into femme transsexuality as in Hailey on Coronation Street. Our dress code is just as fluid as nature ordains whether we like it or not.

I am transsexual lesbian with no leanings in the heterosexual direction which makes it insulting when men come onto me. I will not accept any such attention because in doing so I with be complicit in their abuse sooner or later and I can do without that. I am grateful that I am happily in a relationship with a lesbian who accepts me as I am but I am cautious there too for obvious reasons that I will explore in a later instalment.

The multicultural face of transphobia is judgemental, self-centre, paranoid and fearful of difference. How can we avoid talking about difference and then hope to rejoice in diversity? Perhaps it is time we realised that a staid old fashioned idea of gender has had its day. Perception like gender is not fixed. Like any other form of bad behaviour perception too is open to change. Without a nudge in the right direction it festers and rots.

In this multicultural ghetto is there really any let up? Children parade the place, raising their voices, adults too; almost seem to be saying, ‘get out! You do not belong here, out, out!’ in their clamour for their selfish ideas of “normality”. Who’s paranoid? Over powerful junior managers trying to hold shop at the expense of transgender staff? A bus driver rolling his eyes into an already clogged head of religious fodder? Or the confident transgender person unwilling to be labelled second best. I know who I’d choose.

However immigrants are not alone in this detestable behaviour. Elsewhere Audre Lorde draws our attention to the fact that, “One oppression does not justify another” but this does not stop people for a moment to think. I recall a LGBT youth worker once getting together with a lesbian co-worker to have a laugh. A couple of days afterwards, I wasn’t surprised to see his discomfort when asked about his view of transgenderism he frowned spluttering righteous nothings.

In the middle of writing this a European man (most likely, Eastern European refugee, unemployed and illiterate) used his mobile to spread his own particular brand of hatred. ‘He is a liar! He doesn’t go to work. Man, man, man!” he screamed into his phone. He must have looked a state but whether his opprobrium was projected my way or not he must have depicted a picture of insanity. As far as I was concerned, he couldn’t possibly be talking about me. So, I wondered, is he gay or something? Or was that the fear of losing a possible lay? He could easily have been venting at the air! As if I cared.

In the end, one must define oneself and this applies to everyone transgender or otherwise. Audre Lorde again when she led the way, writing, “we welcome women who can meet us, face to face, beyond objectification and beyond guilt” and conversely, everyone, especially for those “friends” who oppressively adlibbed opinionated African Diaspora women out of The Company -“theirs” or what a friend called, “enclaves of oppression” to think about. Audre Lorde couldn’t have been more apt in her rallying call. The initiative is ours to take.

Mia Nikasimo © July 2010.

Letter to Mary Daly in Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches, by Audre Lorde, Crossing Press, Berkeley, 2004, p. 70.

Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface, op. cit; p. 63.

The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism, op. cit; p. 133.

italics are mine.