This past year it was confirmed beyond all doubt that Dr Who is trans as Jodie Whittaker began playing their latest incarnation. During the same year we’ve been in the midst of an unprecedented moral panic where trans people have been treated much like the mutant characters in the X-men, echoing similar treatment of gay people in earlier decades.
Here I want to play with the idea that trans people can usefully be regarded as time travellers and shapeshifters – or shifters of space. Given these impressive superpowers it’s sad indeed that we tend to be regarded as threats to time and space, rather than as heroes who may be able to transform both time and space for everybody’s benefit.
This is – for me – a reaction against the unremittingly horrible onslaught against trans people that we’re going through. It’s an onslaught that I feel the visceral impact of on a daily basis, like most trans people. It’s one which has come close to home many times over, requiring levels of heroism from myself and the people I love which has left us exhausted and shredded, retraumatised and barely able to continue.
As we head towards trans day of remembrance on November 20th we remember the lives of those – mostly trans women of colour – which have been lost to anti-trans violence: a list which this year includes Naomi Hersi who was murdered in London last Spring. Those of us in the trans community are also painfully aware of the toll that the past year of virulently anti-trans media reporting has undoubtedly had on the already high levels of distress among our trans siblings; how many young people in particular have likely been pushed over the edge by the prevailing climate and the impact it has likely had on the reactions of their family and friends. And yet we continue to be used carelessly by journalists, politicians, researchers and others who feel entitled to take our stories, to make decisions which impact our lives for their own gain, and to get money and recognition on the back of our struggles.
In the face of all this violence and suffering I wanted to write something unapologetically celebratory about trans people. I know that the picture is more complex than this. I know that the world is a bleak place to be trans right now and getting bleaker all the time with the news from the US and Brazil. I know that trans people don’t really have magical superpowers (don’t we?) But humour me: we all need a bit of gender euphoria right now.
Trans Time Travellers
Two excellent colleagues of mine, activist-academics Kat Gupta and Ruth Pearce have been exploring the concept of trans time in their work. They point out that the way trans people are treated often denies us vital experiences of time that other people can easily access and take for granted. For example, the way that the media often continue to misgender trans people when reporting about us can be seen as refusing us the possibility of a future in our gender. At the same time, popular trans narratives may mean that we feel we have to erase our pasts to be granted rights and recognition.
There is what CN Lester calls ‘cultural amnesia’ around trans past, where anything trans related is always reported as new and therefore shocking and sensational, even when it has happened many times before: like a trans man being pregnant, or recognition of genders beyond the man/woman binary for example. The strong trans movement going back decades which Christine Burns documented in Trans Britain is written out of history as trans is presented as a new and fashionable threat to young people.
Policies and practices often expect trans people to be clairvoyant: promising to remain a certain way forever if we are to access services or obtain a gender recognition certificate, for example. Finally, the lack of sufficient services for trans people means that those seeking physical transition often feel like their life is delayed – or on hold – while they wait for treatment.
Quiet, I’m trying to think. It’s difficult. I’m not yet who I am. Brain and body still rebooting, reformatting.
Right now, I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was, and a sort of call towards who I am, and I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts. Shape myself towards them. I’ll be fine, in the end. Hopefully.
But Ruth and Kat suggest that trans people respond to such challenges in skilful and smart ways, finding many ways to travel, trick, and transcend time. For example, trans folks often experience non-linear life-courses which include disruption, disjuncture, and discontinuity of time. We might go through more than one puberty, with the second adolescence occurring later in life, which we experience in diverse, creative ways. Many trans people also look younger than we are. Some talk of our age in terms of ‘trans years’: the number of years since we came out or transitioned. So trans people of the same chronological age who came out at different ages are likely to have vastly different trans time experiences, which belie our apparently similar ages. Like Dr Who many of us find ways to regenerate over time as we find our ways to bodies, identities and expressions which feel like a better fit.
Another common form of time travelling is that of revisiting past versions of ourselves. For example, in her anthem for trans and gender non-conforming people, Black Tie, Grace Petrie sings to the younger version of herself, letting her know that she will find her way to a version of herself that fits. At the same time there’s a sense of a future version of Grace holding out hope that we’ll get through the current tough trans times.
I’m in black tie tonight
Get a postcard to my
Year 11 self in her year 11 hell
Saying everything’s gonna be alright
No you won’t grow out of it you will find the clothes that fit
And the images that fucked ya
Were a patriarchal structure
And you never will surrender
To a narrow view of gender
And I swear there’ll come a day
When you won’t worry what they say
On the labels, on the doors
You will figure out what’s yours
Grace Petrie, Black Tie
My own experience of trans time is of returning to sides of myself that I lost – or disowned – along the way because they were deemed inappropriate or unacceptable on a body like mine. Each shift and change becomes a way to reclaim part of me that was left behind, leaving me with a sense of being many different selves, ages, and stages all at once.
Trans Shape Shifters and Space Shifters
This brings us on to being a trans shape-shifter or space-shifter.
Again, most trans people have pretty negative experiences of space. We’re deeply unsafe in many spaces, risking discrimination, ridicule, and even violent attack if our transness is read off us. At the same time we’re called snowflakes and dismissed if we point this out or try to fight for spaces to be safer for us to occupy along with everyone else.
Cruelly, despite our own deeply unsafe experiences of public spaces – and domestic spaces – the only images we tend to see of ourselves in the media are of being a danger to other people’s safety. It is a deep irony to see the battle being fought over our assumed threat in public toilets, when most of us have experienced bullying, attacks, and violence in such toilets. We all know about the strong ‘trans bladder’ that we develop to avoid using restrooms when we’re out and about, or at school or work. We do a violence to our own bodies because such spaces are so unsafe to us.
Many of us, particularly non-binary trans people, also have the disorienting experience of moving through space and being read differently at different times: but in ways that rarely mirror the ways we experience ourselves, even when we’ve repeatedly told people what that is. The affirming experience most people take for granted of having themselves correctly reflected in the important spaces they occupy day-to-day is unavailable to many of us.
So, as with time-travelling, we find ways to shapeshift in order to survive dangerous spaces, as well as ways of shifting space itself to turn it into a better fit for us, despite all the resistance to us doing this.
Like Mystique in the Xmen many of us learn to use our shapeshifting powers to present in ways that enable us to navigate the spaces of our lives. Perhaps on the street we learn to present as more feminine when we might be perceived as a threat to others, but more masculine when we might be at risk of harassment. Maybe we learn in which spaces it is safe to foreground our transness, and which we need to background it or pass as cis. As H Howitt points out, we may well learn, for example, that the only way to access vital gender services is to foreground certain versions of transness, and the only way to access services for our disabilities or physical/mental health conditions is to deny or downplay our transness. It is another cruelty then that these vital survival strategies are turned against us in accusations of inauthenticity and deception.
Like Magneto in the Xmen we also find ways of shifting the space around us to make it safer for ourselves and other trans people. For example during this moral panic trans people have found creative and innovative ways of making the online and offline spaces where we support each other safe-enough to occupy in spite of the frequent attacks and trolling we receive there. We may use certain platforms rather than others, curate our friend-lists, employ transphobe blockers on Twitter, or – as @1queer1 does – use algorithms to fill transphobic hashtags with cute animal pics or similar. We organise events of all kinds where we can support each other and share our experiences, or just know that we’ll be mirrored accurately by the people around us for once. Some of us take it a step further to make our whole lives more like these spaces.
In shifting space we often create something that’s better for everyone. For example the practices developed by Open Barbers to develop a hairdressers that is safer for trans people are ones that would be useful everywhere: not gendering customers or haircuts, creating a space that is also available for the community to use in other ways, and putting accessibility and consent at the heart of the project with diverse staff, sliding scale payment, options not to talk or look in the mirror, and more.
Travis Alabanza’s beautiful chap book Before I Step Outside [You Love me] brings together these themes of trans time and space. Travis speaks back to the older version of themselves that they were before they stepped outside into the risky space of the street and – in so doing – speaks to all trans people – particularly femmes and trans people of colour – who have to face this fear and uncertainty every time they step outside. Through their work they offer themselves – and the reader – the love that can give them the strength to step outside and to feel as though they matter.
Trans people are repeatedly presented as threats to time and space. In relation to time, we’re accused of taking the world back to older versions of gender that threaten equality while simultaneously being accused of taking the world forward towards new versions of gender that will hurt the next generation. We’re perceived as threats to spaces such as public toilets, refuges, prisons, and schools. We’re mutants who threaten others through gender contagion and supervillains who hold ridiculous amounts power in some mysterious trans cabal.
But maybe we shouldn’t reject this perceived power. Travis suggests that rather than being pitiable people who rely on others’ benevolent generosity, trans people should be seen as a gift to those around us. We invite our friends and family into new ways of thinking about themselves, their genders, and their relationships, which can ultimately be just as liberating for them as it is for us. Imagine if families could celebrate finding out that one of their kids was trans instead of being horrified or sad.
How to Understand Your Gender with Alex Iantaffi was our attempt to write the book we wished we’d had when we were young. In a way it’s a love letter to our former selves and also an attempt to contribute to changing the space of gender for the benefit of everybody. Nobody is served by the current rigid gender system: not men, not women, not non-binary people, not trans people or cis people. All of us suffer from it.
The normative check-box life which is set out for people from the moment of the first scan or gender ‘reveal’ party hurts all of us, and will inevitably be painfully disrupted at some point because it’s an impossible task to follow it perfectly. Trans people remind us not to make any assumptions about how a person’s future will unfold, and to prioritise shifting spaces to enable each person to find their own ways rather than imposing any ideals or assumptions upon them.