Gender? What?

This post is one that is difficult for me to write. As most of my friends and family know, I was born female and have spent the last 4-5 years transitioning to present as male. This blog post is a sort of “announcement” that I have decided to stop my transition and go back to identifying as a woman and using my birthname. This is definitely going to surprise a lot of people, so I wanted to make a post to run through my reasoning and some questions that I anticipate people will have.

I want to start by giving a HUGE thank you to all of the people who have supported me through this. Most importantly of all my amazing partner Scott, who is a total angel. But there are so many other people I also want to thank. Marcus, Dana, Jenny, Chris, Helen, Sarah – and so so many others. All of my friends from uni and Scott’s extended family included. Thank you all for respecting my wishes and being endlessly understanding!

Right, so: what exactly do I mean by “stopping my transition”?

I have chosen to word it like that, rather than use “detransition” because I don’t like the implication that this decision is a step backwards for me. Coming out as trans, transitioning and figuring myself out has been incredibly difficult, rewarding and painful. I have done so much soul searching, hundreds of hours of research, really picked myself and the entire concept of gender apart numerous times.

I have realised that I do not identify as a man, nor do I really identify as a woman either. Gender is a social concept that I find incredibly difficult to pin down and define. I don’t know what my “gender” really is. This entire process has been equal parts enlightening and confusing. As I have gotten older, my understanding of the difference between sex, gender, gender roles and stereotypes has become much more sophisticated and complex. I was never a girly girl growing up. I always rejected traditional womanhood, I hated dressing up, I hated getting my period, I hated my breasts. I did not fit in, I did not conform. As a teenager I was angry at womanhood because it made life suck. I was bullied and underestimated and experienced constant sexism. Men seemed to have everything that I wanted. Reading about the trans experience resonated with me so much. I dreamed that if I pursued transition, finally, I would be happy and free.

What I have realised, is that presenting and living as a transgender individual sucks. I can’t emphasise enough how bad it is. Gender affects every single aspect of your life, it’s insidious, it’s omnipresent. And as soon as you step outside of society’s expectations, you are Other. Since I have come out I have experienced transphobia on an almost daily basis. I have had slurs yelled at me in the streets, strangers try to start fights with me in nightclubs, security guards escorting me out of toilets, embarrassing mix ups and dehumanising medical experiences. It just isn’t worth it. When I think about the pros and cons of living my life as female, the other option isn’t “male”: it’s trans. Society will never see me as male, they will see me either as a woman or as transgender. And one of those options is so, so much easier.

As for how I fit into being a woman, I suppose I can’t really say. But what I can say is that, unlike teenage me, I am no longer so angry. I have spoken to so many women who felt just like me growing up. I have met and admired gender non-conforming women, lesbian women, mothers, grandmothers, single women, career women, educators, writers, ministers, activists. So, so many of them grew up angry too. Just like me. They hated their period, they hated their breasts, they hated dresses and pink and expectations of subservience and femininity. Just like me. But that doesn’t make them transgender, and I have realised it doesn’t make me transgender either. Women have taught me that there is no such thing as a universal womanhood. To experience womanhood is to live life as a woman, and that is something that I have never stopped doing. Being angry about sexism, feeling trapped by femininity, rebelling against society’s archaic gender-roles: I mistook all of that for being angry with women. For being angry with me.

I know that this is hard to think about. Trust me, I have probably spent more time thinking about Gender than the average person does in their entire life! And what I’ve written isn’t the extent of my thoughts either, more like a brief insight. I know that people will have more questions so I am going to try to answer some in advance here. Don’t be afraid to ask me anything else, though!

Does this mean that you’ve changed your mind/ realised you made a big mistake?

NO!!!

It might be hard to believe, but I don’t regret transitioning. Not one bit. And I don’t consider it a “phase” either. Being goth in your teens is a phase, having a double mastectomy and fighting for recognition is not. This journey has been incredibly personal, and has changed me as a person for the better. I feel that it was something that I HAD to go through. If I could co back in time and change things, I wouldn’t. I would do it all again. I don’t want anyone to write off my transition as a mistake or a phase. It’s just one part of my journey. That’s why I don’t want to use the term “detransition”. My transition happened, and it will be part of me forever, and I embrace it.

Do you regret your surgery/ treatment?

I regret that I was not given more resources and support by the NHS throughout my treatment. For example, I was never offered therapy before receiving my diagnosis. I was on high dose muscular testosterone with no supervision of my bloods for well over 18 months. I was failed by the system along with dozens of others when the Aberdeen gender clinic closed and abandoned us to our GPs (who tried their best, but they are not specialists!)

But in spite of that, and in spite of deciding to “go back”, I don’t regret my treatment. The hormone therapy did not work out for me. I have been on testosterone for 3 years, and experienced minimal changes. My body is resistant to HRT. So in terms of permanent changes, I have some facial hair, and my voice is marginally lower than before. Neither of which I mind at all. I am glad that the acne has finally stopped!

But you had surgery!!

Yes I did!! And it was one of the best decisions of my life. Waking up after my mastectomy, I was literally grinning from ear to ear and crying. I have always hated my breasts. Before top surgery, I was an E/F cup and growing still. I always had to wear a bra, always ugly big ones. My back hurt constantly. I hated how my clothes sat. I hated everything about it. But now? I feel SUCH freedom. I love my body for the first time in my life. Top surgery may not have helped me to pass, but it helped me to accept myself. There are plenty of women out there who have breast reduction surgeries: maybe not as extreme as me, but still! I don’t regret my surgery one bit.

What about Scott?

This is something that came up SO much when I originally came out. But what about Scott? How could I do this to him? How can he cope with this? Are we breaking up?

Please…no. You think we are so weak…

Scott is amazing, brilliant, loving and compassionate. He honestly is not phased, nor was he phased when I originally came out.

Does this mean you’re straight/ cishet?

No, I don’t think so. I think I have been through too much to ever properly see myself as cis ever again. And as for being straight, I don’t think I ever was or ever will be. Labels are difficult, but I am still LGBT. My sexuality is complicated and personal.

Does this mean you’re a TERF/ Gender Critical now?

ABSOLUTELY NOT NO NEVER!!

I know that reading this will have a lot of my friends worried that I have somehow fallen into the trap of TERF rhetoric. Trust me guys, NO! Trans women are women, trans men are men, genitals don’t determine which bathroom you should be able to use and I don’t worship the moon or glorify menstrual cycles. Just because I’m no longer identifying as trans doesn’t mean I’ve lost my mind and joined the TERF wagon. I promise!!

If you have any questions for me, message me or comment and I’ll do my best. I can’t promise to be a completely open book. Thank you to everyone who reads this.

JK Rowling and the Retroactive Representation of Minorities

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone  was released on the 26th of June, 1997: just 2 months after I was born. I have grown up in a world where Hogwarts has always existed, the characters and plots are as familiar to me as any classic fairy tale. JK Rowling’s fantasy world has inspired a generation of creative minds to read, discuss, debate and analyse every scrap of writing she has ever published. Harry Potter has lead to a fandom boom, with millions of fanfics being written and shared and critiqued. Even now, more than a decade after Deathly Hallows hit the shelves, it remains the most popular Books & Literature tag on Archive of Our Own (AO3). For me, Harry Potter has been a huge part of my life and development. I was still in primary school when the series originally came to an end, but I returned to the books constantly throughout my teens. It is not difficult to understand the appeal of the Harry Potter universe, and I could write pages and pages on the impact the books have had on me personally (maybe another time!). What I want to write about here however, is the changing relationship between fans, Rowling herself, and the continuing production of Harry Potter media.

The past few years have seen the release of the play/ script Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016); and the two films Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (along with several related printed books). These releases brought huge excitement to content-starved Potter fans, but they did not receive nearly as warm of a welcome as the original series. The vast majority of Harry Potter fans are people like me: in their twenties and thirties, who love the franchise and know the content off by heart. So, you would think that such a loyal fan-base would be willing to eat-up all of the new content without complaint. However, JK Rowling’s repeatedly tone-deaf interactions with fans, controversial decisions and, let’s be honest, poor writing, have left many fans feeling incredibly disappointed. That isn’t to say the new instalments are completely without merit, but in my opinion, what they bring to the table with cutting edge CGI and incredible Wizarding World aesthetics is grossly let down by pretty much everything else.

For years now, JK Rowling has been stirring up fans by dropping small hints and titbits that she never included in the original novels. In 2007, she revealed to fans that Dumbledore is gay. In 2014, she highlighted a Jewish wizard among the ranks at Hogwarts. In 2015, she commented on her vague descriptions of Hermione, leaving her race up for debate. Progressive, right?

Source: chadstjames.com

The problem with these statements is that they come across as incredibly condescending and insensitive. LGBT fans looking for representation might be pleased with Dumbledore’s sexuality being highlighted, but the fact remains that it was never mentioned in the canonical books. And I might point out that it continues to be kept vague and covert in the new Fantastic Beasts adaption: which is ridiculous considering that Grindelwald and Dumbledore are major characters. At one point in The Crimes of Grindelwald, Dumbledore refers to himself and Grindelwald as “closer than brothers” following an incredibly PG, homo-erotic-if-you-squint flashback sequence. (Yes, my friends and I did audibly curse at this point and we weren’t the only ones in the cinema to do so…). If you want your franchise to be “progressive”, then you have to write in such a way that you organically meet the requirements to be so! If you want to be applauded for being diverse, you have to actually do it. It’s a complete insult to pepper in diversity after the fact via Twitter.

People have explored the issues surrounding race, ethnicity and JK Rowling in much more eloquent and introspective ways than I will ever have the ability to do. (See the bottom of this article for links!) But my own opinion on it is this: if you think that having a character’s appearance remain ambiguous equates actual representation, you are fooling no-one. All that does is leave fan artists and writers more room to create head-canon designs. It is not the same as writing a character and actually including their race as a human characteristic. Race and ethnicity are not just the colour of your skin, and to reduce it to such (a “colour in the character however you see fit” mentality) erases all of the cultural context, all of the potential struggles that diversity brings to the plot, all of the responsibility that you have as a writer to provide that representation in a respectful and informed way. Unfortunately, Rowling has shown that when she does attempt diversity, she handles it in anything but a respectful and informed way.

When she began to expand her Wizarding World to North America, Rowling made several very ignorant and hurtful mistakes. She appropriated many existing beliefs of various Native American peoples and equated them with her own invented magic.


The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.


JK Rowling, “History of Magic in North America”, Pottermore

There are multiple issues here. First of all…”the Native American”. In her writing she repeatedly refers to Native American peoples as if they are one monolithic culture, which is absolutely not true. The term “skin walker” is a Navajo term which I do not have the expertise to try and define here. It relates to very strong and powerful beliefs held by Navajo people.  Rowling tried to reduce it to simply being the same thing as an animagus: a human who can turn into an animal. This is incredibly demeaning and offensive for obvious reasons. White people have a long and ugly history of equating Native American peoples with magic in a way that marks them out as something to be feared, othered, viewed as sinful. Rowling’s clumsy attempts achieve nothing except further erasure of the actual living, breathing Native American peoples and cultures who are alive today. You could make the argument that, “Rowling isn’t trying to co-opt REAL Native American people’s beliefs! She’s inventing fictional beliefs for fictional Native Americans!” but…that is even worse. That would mean she is using real-life people in a way that reduces their culture to a fetishisation tailored to Western audiences, rather than doing actual respectful research and trying to imagine how those Real Life People would fit into her world (which is, after all, supposed to basically be OUR world plus magic).

With all of this in mind, the retconning of Voldemort’s snake (she was an Asian woman all along! What?!) did not come as a surprise to fans. Rowling decided to add Nagini as a character in The Crimes of Grindelwald, an Asian (Korean) woman enslaved as part of a circus and cursed to one day to permanently become a snake (played by Claudia Kim). This is supposedly based upon the Indonesian “Naga” mythology, but there are few to no comparisons that can be drawn between the Naga and Nagini. On the surface level this would seem to be a step in the right direction, but the actual representation is token and weak. Nagini’s character has barely any agency of her own and exists to basically be a doomed love interest/ damsel in distress. She has barely any lines, and those she does have are with Ezra Miller’s character Credence…who she is in love with? The details are foggier than her characterisation. This casting decision was announced as a triumph for diversity but instead was just another disappointment.

Source: Screen Rant

In terms of casting decisions, perhaps the most controversial of them all was Johnny Depp in the role of Grindelwald. Depp has always denied the claims of his former wife, Amber Heard, that he was abusive towards her. Regardless of whether or not the claims are true, the fact that he was not recast considering the high-profile exposure of abuse in Hollywood sends a clear message as to what Rowling believes. In a statement regarding the casting on her personal website, she said, “the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.” This angered a great many fans who felt that Rowling was undermining the struggles faced by women not just in Hollywood, but all over the world. Fans argued that men should not be able to get top-billed positions when in the midst of abuse allegations, especially not in children’s media, as such positions could be taken as an endorsement of their actions.

When I was younger, I idolised JK Rowling. I have wanted to write stories for as long as I have been able to read, and her story was inspirational to me. As I have gotten older, every new development in the Wizarding World leaves me feeling more jaded and disenfranchised than before. For someone who has achieved such enormous success and garnered such an expansive fanbase, Rowling seems to be completely out of touch with her own influence. I still love Harry Potter and I will always think of Hogwarts as my fictional home, but I can’t help but wish that Rowling had left the universe alone when she wrote, “The scar had not pained Harry for 19 years. All was well.”

What do you think? Would you like me to write on anything else Harry Potter themed? Leave a comment and let me know!

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Further reading: 

“Characters are not a Coloring Book or, Why the Black Hermione is a Poor Apology for the Ingrained Racism of Harry Potter”  https://www.thebooksmugglers.com/2016/12/characters-not-coloring-book-black-hermione-poor-apology-ingrained-racism-harry-potter.html

“Why Writing Colourblind is Writing White” Accessed December 16, 2018. https://www.kameronhurley.com/why-writing-colorblind-is-writing-white-a-rant/

“Native Americans to J.K. Rowling: We’re Not Magical”  https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160311-history-of-magic-in-north-america-jk-rowling-native-american-stereotypes/

“Magic in North America Part 1: Ugh” https://nativeappropriations.com/2016/03/magic-in-north-america-part-1-ugh.html

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References:

Fantastic Beasts director reveals how sequel handles Dumbledore being gay” https://ew.com/movies/2018/01/31/fantastic-beasts-dumbledore-gay/

“J.K. Rowling at Carnegie Hall Reveals Dumbledore is Gay” http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/2007/10/20/j-k-rowling-at-carnegie-hall-reveals-dumbledore-is-gay-neville-marries-hannah-abbott-and-scores-more/

“Grindelwald casting” https://www.jkrowling.com/opinions/grindelwald-casting/

“J.K. Rowling defends Nagini Casting” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-45666350

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw

The bulk of this text is taken from an essay I wrote last year for a course called “Making Masterpieces” at uni. I chose to write on this portrait because I have been in love with it since I first saw it. I love the personality that Sargent has woven into the expression of the sitter, and how the detailed face contrasts with the looser brushwork of her clothes and background. I haven’t seen this portrait in the flesh yet, but next time I am in Edinburgh I intend to go and spend some time with Lady Agnew.

John Singer Sargent was a very popular American artist who worked in the UK in the late 1800s/ early 1900s. This portrait was commissioned and exhibited in 1892, and the success and admiration it garnered lead to Sargent’s incredible popularity among the British aristocracy.

Lady Agnew, the sitter for this painting, was the wife of a barrister and new to high society. Her portrait launched both artist and sitter to fame in English high society, leading to a successful career for Sargent and an eminent social life for Lady Agnew.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw is currently hanging in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. The portrait shows Lady Agnew sitting to one side of a Louis Quinze-style chair, with the picture cutting off just above her feet. She faces the viewer directly, wearing a white silk gown and lilac sash. The portrait was painted over the course of several sittings at Sargent’s London studio, so many of the components are standard studio props of his. For example, the Chinese hanging in the background appears in his other works Mrs George Gribble, 1888 and Mrs Charles Thursby, 1897-8.

Mrs George Gribble
John Singer Sargent 
1888

Mrs Charles Thursby
John Singer Sargent
 1897-8

Sargent has carefully painted Lady Agnew with a strong personality, her casual pose and almost mysterious expression draw the viewer to her. Her face is given the most detail and attention, whereas her clothing and the background are made up of strategically placed brush marks. The portrait shows Sargent’s best technical skill in painting different textures and materials. Sargent utilises the brush marks rather than try to disguise them,as is most noticeable on the floral pattern of the chair. When viewed from a distance they appear as flowers, but up close it is obvious that they are just loose, but calculated, brush marks.

Details: Face, hand and ribbon, flower detail on chair.
Details: Face

Lady Agnew, as with many of Sargent’s portrait, has appealed to viewers from its first exhibition to the present day. Sargent has mastered the idea of sprezzatura, giving his sitter an elegantly crafted mask of deliberate nonchalance. Lady Agnew herself went on to enjoy a luxurious life for many years, even opening her own private salon in London. Eventually, her lifestyle proved unsustainable, and in 1925 she made the decision to sell her own portrait to the National Gallery of Scotland.

Lady Agnew propelled him to fame in Britain,after a very successful exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1893. The popularity of the painting lead to further commissions and was the foundation of his newfound reputation as a portrait painter of the members of Edwardian high society. In 1902, sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) described Sargent as “the Van Dyck of our times”. Although his style is quite different from Van Dyck, the idea and appeal behind his works is similar. Hired by rich English society families, Sargent produced flattering portraits as Van Dyck did for King Charles I in the seventeenth century.

King Charles I (1600-1649)
Sir Anthony Van Dyck
c. 1635-37

His works were very well received by his customers but did face deprecation from critics both at the time and since. Many thought his works to be superficial and lacking a deeper meaning or soul. In his autobiography, writer Osbert Sitwell (whose family commissioned Sargent) said that the reason the upper classes liked him so much was that through his portraits he allowed them to understand “how rich they really were”. His portraits were not just aesthetic decorations, but a symbol of wealth.

Sargent’s works may be considered to be superficial, but there is no denying the finesse with which he created his works. Lady Agnew is one of his greatest works because it exemplifies his style, approach and reputation. It is clear that Lady Agnew was the beginning of Sargent’s successful English career. The appeal of Sargent’s works has proven to be enduring, with his portraits intriguing viewers even now. For these reasons, the painting is without a doubt a masterpiece.

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“John Singer Sargent | Auguste Rodin |American | The Met.” Accessed February 13, 2018. https://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/21396.

“Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” Accessed December 12, 2018. https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/5396/lady-agnew-lochnaw-1864-1932.

“King Charles I” Accessed December 12, 2018. http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1139944.

Ormond, Richard. John Singer Sargent: Portraits of the 1890s: Complete Paintings. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Osborne, Harold, ed. The Oxford Companion to Art. First Edition edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Sitwell, Osbert. Left Hand Right Hand & The Scarlet Tree in Two Volumes. First printing thus. London: The Reprint Society., 1946.

Various. A Companion Guide to the National Gallery of Scotland. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2000.

Hello World!

First blog post!

The blank white screen is always very intimidating. I wanted to start a blog to have somewhere I can explore different themes and practice writing just for myself, outside of uni assignments. Up until the New Year I’m just going to mess around and get used to the website, write whatever I feel like. If I’m enjoying it, I might try to take it more seriously and come up with a schedule in the New Year.

Some things I’m interested to write about:

  • News and current affairs
  • LGBT issues
  • History 
  • Art
  • Video games
  • Literature

I’m going to make a start with a ‘proper’ post tomorrow on one of my favourite artworks: Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent, 1892 (Scottish Nation Gallery).