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PostPosted: Mon Nov 07, 2016 9:27 pm    Post subject:  Reply with quote

If you're not a fan of vaginas, give this post a miss.

In a few weeks some students in Cambridge are putting on The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, and I read it today to find out whether or not it was worth going to see. I'll probably go, primarily because I suspect it works a lot better on stage than on the printed page.

Not having looked into it much before (ahem), I'd imagined it was about the experience of being a woman generally, but no: it's about vaginas. Well, about genitalia at any rate. The use of vagina (internal) to mean vulva (external) is something that irritates me, but I don't complain about it much when I'm talking to people because it makes you look like a pervert (not to mention a pedant). As indeed will much of this post.

A recurring theme is that of 'connecting' with your vagina, a concept I was familiar with from quite an early age. I must have been ten or eleven when I first saw Fried Green Tomatoes, in which Kathy Bates, the housewife trying to emancipate herself, wails 'Ah cain't even look at mah own vajahna!' (The southern accent may be an embellishment of my memory; it's been a long time.) It's pleasing to read of women getting to know and enjoy the capabilities of their bodies, however belatedly, overcoming the shame that surrounds discussion of vaginas (and even possession of them).

To write the play (I suppose you'd call it a play – it's something intended to be read out loud, anyway) Ensler interviewed many women, and then transformed their words into a series of monologues. The play feels structureless and messy, and it isn't clear whether it's meant to be performed from beginning to end or whether you should pick and choose, randomise the order, leave bits out. I strongly suspect the latter.

Some of the individual monologues amount to little more than lists of answers to Ensler's facile questions: If your vagina could talk, what would it say? and so on. I suspect they're funny in performance; written down they're not, really. Elsewhere, the testimonies come thick and fast, single lines from voices piled one on another. I thought of Under Milk Wood (the bit below in particular), but Dylan Thomas is somehow more poetic than a load of vaginas, and you may quote me on that.

FIRST DROWNED: How's it above?
SECOND DROWNED: Is there rum and laverbread?
THIRD DROWNED: Bosoms and robins?
FOURTH DROWNED: Concertinas?
FIFTH DROWNED: Ebenezer's bell?
FIRST DROWNED: Fighting and onions?
SECOND DROWNED: And sparrows and daisies?
THIRD DROWNED: Tiddlers in a jamjar?
FOURTH DROWNED: Buttermilk and whippets?

I was tempted to scoff at some passages (no pun intended), but was taken aback by a short but powerful section that draws on testimonies related to the rape of girls and women in the Bosnian War.

The Vagina Monologues is twenty years old now and starting to show its age. A production was cancelled last year because it was thought that the piece's scope was limited (which is a fair criticism) and, in particular, that it failed to take into account transgender people. It's not a transphobic play, and as Ensler rightly said, 'The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman, it is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina.' Still, reducing people to their body parts, though it may make us aware of absurdities in the ways we treat human bodies, often doesn't do much more than that. There have been productions of The Vagina Monologues done by trans casts, with the participation of Ensler herself. I was intrigued. Casts of trans women? The relationship of a trans woman to her surgically constructed vagina is presumably quite a lot different to the relationship of a cis woman to the vagina she's had all her life. Why not include trans men in a production? They have vaginas too. I'm simultaneously intrigued by the possibilities of the play and frustrated by its limitations.

The Virago edition I read contained various appendices related to V-Day, an annual event pioneered by Ensler where performances are staged to raise money to combat violence against women. A wholly praiseworthy enterprise, but reading forty or fifty pages about it, including umpteen letters from male and female participants ('I must say that if I died tomorrow, after participating in such a wonderful event, I would be able to say that I lived a meaningful life. I of course hope that I don't die tomorrow so that I can continue to be a part of this wondrous movement' and so on), made it seem tediously self-indulgent and self-congratulatory. I suppose it was included as padding to make the book a bit more substantial; it would have been better omitted.

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 19, 2017 7:54 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I read a book of poetry by the American writer Joy Ladin called Transmigration, the first collection she published following her transition from male to female. It's split into four sections, the first of which treats the ending of her marriage. A favourite poem from that section:


I never meant to live.
I stayed silent as the Void
Summoned my atoms together.
The void remains
Silent at my center.

I never meant to live.  The steam above the teacup's lip
Doesn't mean to curl
Around your neck.  Amino acids do not mean
To twist into spiral steps.  Your shadow didn't mean
To fall at the top of the stairs.

I never meant to live
To become the flesh
Of disappointment groping toward you
From the empty side of the bed,
The life you won't believe

I never meant to live,
But before I disappear
Like the steam that twists
Around your neck, I mean you
To forgive.

The word transmigration makes me think of the journey of the soul, and the soul is the recurring theme of the second section. The third section deals with death and rebirth. There's a lot of 'as death kisses your neck' and so on, which is the kind of phrase prepubescent girls in my class at school used to use a lot in their poetry, but here it feels justified, not overwrought. If the temptation is to call it adolescent, gender transition is after all a second adolescence. I wish I were a more patient reader of poetry. A book like this shouldn't be gulped down, but that is how I read it, racing from one poem to another, occasionally going back to the beginning of a poem if I either liked it or didn't get it at all. The final section ('composed entirely of disparate words found in the Dec. 2006/Jan. 2007 issue of Cosmo Girl') is tentatively celebratory. This is how it ends:

New Year, New Body

Happiness isn’t

Something you’re born with.  
You have to decide.
New year, new body, girl, guy…

Love tattoos your insides
With humiliating stories,
Teen angst, breakouts and blemishes,

In vitro antagonism toward your skin.  
You look in the mirror
And freeze on the verge of tears.  You aren’t trying

To be sexy.  A tentacle of suicide
You thought you’d hidden
Hangs from the hide

That hides you.  You thought
Your death would soon be over.
You did the routine for years:

Broken-hearted girl
Hiding in a complete stranger,
Trying to choose to survive.

Girl, the information is out there:
Main characters
Are not supposed to die

Of the birth of their lives.  You
Are an episode
You haven’t been watching.

Sometimes you scare, sometimes you inspire,
Sometimes you buy the myth
Of your early demise.  Physically, mentally, socially stripped,

You wake up sad every day,
Too nervous to make conversation, poorly equipped
To grow up as a girl, stranded

At body central.  Whether or not
You change your appearance, this is your chance
To get what you want.

You have that light in your eyes.  Radiant hints
Awaken in your spirit,
The tears streaming down your cheeks

Together form one big shine.
You’ve lost yourself, your babies, your marriage,
In the name of a blank canvas,

An innate connection that can’t be explained,
A wave secured with pins, approaching yourself
From every angle, wishing

For that inner wisdom, wild and desirable,
That will transform you
Into destiny.

You feel your body
Is in the way.  Your body
Is the way.  Exuberant, luscious,

Young along the cheekbones,
Proud of what you are becoming,
Your skin speaks of singing,

Taking on tough roles, swapping lives
With the girl you couldn’t down,  
A hybrid of myth and fact,

Identity and kindness,
A new year, a new body
Lifting your roots to your crown.

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 14, 2017 8:26 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

My latest read is a book called Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities by Ken Corbett, which I noticed in Bluestockings bookstore in New York, made a note of, and borrowed from the library on my return. Corbett is a psychoanalyst and in this book he treats the subject of masculinity and femininity in several of his patients, typically young boys but also some adult men and fathers of boys.

The introduction, rather beautiful in its way, sets the tone:

The sights and sounds of boys at play have correlated with my efforts to capture
the lives of boys, in particular the movement, the aggression, the competition,
the rivalries, the friendships, and the muscular eroticism that inform boys' lives.
Over time, these boys have seeped, settled, and overlapped in my mind. Even
though I sometimes focus on individual players, they collect as a pattern – as
Walt Whitman might have it, "Every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme."
They fade and reconfigure. They disperse, only to return. The residue etches a
pattern of perpetual dynamism (imagine writing – over and over again – on a
chalkboard that is never fully erased).

Although I don't think it's controversial to suggest children have a sense of the sensual, it's difficult to write about their eroticism nowadays without arousing suspicions of something unsavoury below the surface. Corbett confronts the matter head-on at one point, mentioning that one boy's father wrongly assumed him (Corbett) to be a paedophile because of his equation of homosexuality with pederasty, but I'm not sure he confronts it very effectively. He ends the book with a light-hearted anecdote about a three-year-old boy noticing his (Corbett's) penis. I'm sure it's quite innocent, but I felt uncomfortable. It doubtless says more about me than it does about him.

It doesn't help that so much of his writing is couched in Freudian psychoanalysis, where (as far as I can discern) the phallus is more often symbolic than actual. Hence a question like 'Who among us has not been charmed by the phallic posturing of young boys?' is, I imagine, meant to be rhetorical, not meant to make you think, er, what? It's not that I don't respect Freud (though I don't, particularly), but I can't read a phrase like 'the phallomanic onus of sustaining aim over object' or (the best one) 'I began to think of his penis as a paternal ghost' without amusement being my primary reaction. For stretches of several pages I was completely lost.

The case studies, though, are fascinating, and treat a wide variety of personalities. I liked the case of Andy, where Corbett looks at how the boy creates his own notions of gender growing up in a family of two mothers. Elsewhere there's stuff about boys with anger issues and cross-gender identification (which Corbett seems sympathetic towards, if sceptical, which is probably a good thing up to a point). It prompted me frequently to think of my own feigned masculinity. As early as six or seven, I'd worked out it was a good thing to pretend to be interested in e.g. football even if you weren't. I didn't actively lie, but I never let on how boring I found it. If I had, I'd have been an easy target. I once tried to watch a televised match between Manchester United and Liverpool as an experiment (it might have been the League Cup match on 31 October 1990), but it was among the most tedious things I'd ever witnessed. By the time I suddenly got into football, aged 13, I'd got used to not being an alpha male. There were times, reading this book, when I caught myself thinking, therapy sounds both useful and fun, and perhaps I should try it out just to see what it's like; but as things stand I've not got many neuroses (that I know of), and I think if I started to analyse everything about my life I'd soon be a nervous wreck.

It's odd that the eroticism of Corbett's writing should recall Michael Cunningham, especially his novel By Nightfall, because Cunningham was Corbett's partner for several years, and is the dedicatee of this book. I don't think I deliberately engineered this, but the next book I'm going to read is by Cunningham. Small world.

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 15, 2017 12:55 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Interesting comments about a book on a fascinating subject but which I'm unlikely to read I think....

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 21, 2017 11:35 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Finished yesterday: Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote, another book I noticed in a New York bookshop and thought looked fun. I've just read a book dedicated to Michael Cunningham and a book written by Michael Cunningham, and I wanted something different. Some hope: this book opens with an epigraph from Cunningham's novel A Home at the End of the World. Thereafter it's a memoir of the life of a writer who doesn't fit into conventional gender boxes, told through vignettes and sketches. If I wanted to recommend a book to someone who's interested in gender diversity, this would be near the top of the list, a book about someone with a non-binary gender that focuses on the wider picture, not exclusively on gender issues. At times the gender aspect appeared to be an afterthought, though I suspect that was an illusion.

More than anything else I smiled as I read it, finding lots to identify and empathise with. The joy of being in a wind band, for instance; loving John Wyndham's The Chrysalids (this mentioned in a superb piece about the author's childhood friendship with a girl that falls away when she suddenly discovers boys). There are brilliant commonsensical pieces about pronouns, changing room indignities and the like, topics that by now are familiar but still evoke sympathy and anger. Best of all, I thought, was the book's cautious optimism, something it has in common with the writing of S. Bear Bergman, who shares Coyote's Canadian publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press. The piece that impressed me most was one about an talk Coyote gave at an Oregon high school that was picketed by conservative parents. The story doesn't turn out as expected, and the eventual outcome is inspiring. Altogether a lovely book. The text is interspersed with attractive technical drawings by an artist who ought to be identified (perhaps they are recycled from old books or manuals).

I'm on the phone with a credit card customer service woman:

'Royal Bank Visa, and how may I help you?'

'I have legally changed my name and I want to update my credit card,' I tell her.

'What is the reason for the name change?'

I pause for a minute, considering. 'I'm transgender.'

'Okay!' she exclaims, like I just told her I had a baby or got married. 'That's excellent.'

'Most days it really is.'

'I learn something new here every day,' she says. I like the sound of her voice.

'Do you really?' I ask.

'Well, no, not really. But I'm going to today.'

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2017 4:58 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks for all your writing on transgender issues, Gareth.  Sometimes I feel a bit inundated with it all, especially talk of not referring to anyone by their gender - was it here that I read about some Scandinavian people not allowing their children to refer to themselves as boys/girls, or somewhere else?  

But then I read with great dismay the news item here in socially liberal NZ, where a young girl, no doubt egged on by her parents and Family First, a very conservative group, is objecting to a transgender girl being allowed to attend the all-girls' school, on the grounds that she doesn't want to go to the toilet with a "boy"!!

It made me despair for humanity's inhumanity.

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2017 9:49 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I haven't read of people being discouraged from referring to boys and girls, Caro - it sounds like the kind of thing one might read in a sensationalist newspaper article... Most trans people don't want the complete abolition of gender, just a bit more understanding for those who don't fit society's narrow definition of what a man or a woman is.

'Egged on by her parents' is the nub of it - we aren't born to be sexist, racist, etc., it's bred in us (by peers, by parents, by the world we live in). One of the encouraging things about the book I wrote about above is that it suggests people are capable of overcoming their prejudices. Well, I know it's possible because I can see it in myself. The answer is almost always education. Trump's recent anti-trans bathroom legislation has been supported by conservative education groups. My brother's just told me that he's been on one of their websites and there's a hell of a lot about gender and nothing about education. Make of that what you will...

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 15, 2017 11:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Gareth, as you may know, I am reading for my bookclub a book about Afghan girls being brought up as boys, partly for the reputation of the family (women who don't produce sons are looked down on, as are their husbands), and partly to provide good luck for producing a boy next time.

The author Swedish Jenny Nordberg, an award-winning journalist based in the USA, has doubts about the wisdom of this, and tries to press the mothers about how they transition from "boyhood" to womanhood at or just before puberty.  She seems to think it is a randomly enforced suppression that might have long-term bad effects.  The girls who seem least affected are those who transition back at an earlier age.  She is very distressed by the example of Zahra, who says she is not a girl or a woman but male.  And she won't be forced or cowered into marriage or femininity.  This seems a reasonably valid stance to me, especially since she plans to leave Afghanistan (though that is doubtless easier said than done), but the author is very dubious.  What shocked me is her statement: "In another country Zahra would perhaps by now be suspected of hav ing what the WHO terms "gender identity disorder".  It is defined as "persistent and intense distress about being a girl, and a stated desire to be a boy." Resistence to growing breasts and to menstruating are two other things cited in such a determination.

Does the WHO really say this?  Disorder? It seems to go against all the modern ideas on gender fluidity that is talked of these days.  And the author doesn't seem to query this, though she does say, "What makes Zahra distinctly different from other children or young adults in the Western world with a possible gender identity disorder is that she was picked at random to be a boy. As with other bacha posh, the choice was made for her.  For that reason, it would be hard to argue that she was born with a gender identity issue.  Instead, it seems as though she has developed one.  That, in turn coud mean that a gender identity problem in a person can be created."

I find her language here distinctly disturbing.

When I was a child, I wanted to be a boy, but I think that was because I didn't have a lot of respect for what women did.  In those days none of the women I knew worked outside the house, and when I saw any together, they spent their time inside having cups of tea and talking about other people.  (I'm sure that's not all they did, and I stayed inside listening to their conversations rather than go outside, as I could have, so I can't have felt that strongly about this.  But I did feel that men had the important work.) I think of myself as a tomboy in those days and I think that bis how others described me, though my feeling is that I always liked to be curled up with a book rather than outside.  Maybe it was just that I didn't really like playing outside, but I did like farmwork (as long as it wasn't out in the freezing cold or too early in the morning).

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 16, 2017 2:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I find her language here distinctly disturbing

Totally agree with you, Caro. We should no longer live in a world where questioning gender is called a disorder. Binary systems are for computers, not for people.

There is of course the question if this girl actually has a issues with her gender, or with the limitations that her gender brings with it. She was brought up as a boy and has tasted of the freedom boys have. In another country where the girl got the same possibilities as boys and would not be forced into a marriage she didn't want she might not even have these issues.

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 17, 2017 1:33 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

'Gender Identity Disorder' is quite a common term, Caro, though it's going out of fashion. What the WHO says now I haven't checked, but the American DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which is used by doctors for psychiatric diagnoses and is generally quite slow to move with the times, has only in its most recent (2013) edition 'downgraded' what it used to call 'Gender Identity Disorder' to 'Gender Dysphoria'. Some trans campaigners, as you might expect, think it should be removed entirely, but pragmatists see some value in keeping it in, as without a psychiatric diagnosis of gender dysphoria it might become very difficult for gender-non-conforming people to get medical treatment (hormone prescriptions, etc.). A tough balancing act.

This is touched upon in a book I finished reading last night on the train, "You Can Tell Just by Looking" and 20 Other Myths About LGBT Life and People by Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini and Michael Amico. A student recommended it for the library so we bought it and I snaffled it. Its purpose is to debunk common myths about LGBT stuff, and not just anti-LGBT myths but also pro ones, which is what makes it interesting. So the 21 myths include the expected 'You Can Tell Who's Gay Just by Looking', 'Sexual Abuse Causes Homosexuality', 'LGBT Parents Are Bad for Children' and the like, but also some things that LGBT people hold dear, like the statistic that 10% of people are gay or lesbian, that homosexuals are 'born that way', and that homophobia is the result of repressed homosexuality (which I'm sure is a knee-jerk reaction I've had sometimes when faced with homophobia). From the introduction:

We are aware that in criticizing certain myths held by LGBT people, we risk
accusations that this book is 'bad' for LGBT people because we are publicly
airing disagreements within this community. First, a myth is no less a myth
if it is marshaled for 'good' purposes than for 'bad' ones. Second, we think
that social progress and meaningful freedom for LGBT people are best
advanced by creating the space not just for queer differences from the
mainstream, but also for differences within the LGBT community.

I wouldn't say I was disappointed by the book exactly, but the finding again and again (as you might expect) is that a myth is a simplification of something complex, and that there is always more to it than meets the eye. In most cases, I thought what was written was simply common sense, things I already knew, but the sections dealing with the way LGBT life overlaps with religion and race (intersectionality, if you like, though it's not a book full of buzzwords like that), and particularly the chapter called 'Lesbians Do Not Have Real Sex', I found especially enjoyable and thought-provoking. I remembered arriving at university in 2002 and a nice boy introducing himself as 'your LesBiGay Officer'. These days, the T is always present: progress. Reading this book, I found myself thinking, asexuality is the next step. Lip service is paid to asexuality, but it would have been nice to have a chapter on the myth that asexuality is the result of child sexual abuse rather than just another perfectly natural variation of human sexuality.

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