Saturday, July 13, 2013

7.13.13 How to Help a Friend who is Gender Non-Conforming

I get lots of questions these days, and lately the questions I've been getting revolve around people wondering how they can help friends of theirs who are gender non-conforming from a radical feminist perspective. People want to know if there were things my friends and family could have said to me that would have dissuaded me.

Truth is that I have no easy and clear cut answer for all of this.  When you hate your body that much (especially your breasts and vagina for women, penis and adams apple for men), it's hard to listen to people try to talk you out of anything.  Compound that with the messages we get from micro and macro societies, pop culture/mass media, the workforce, religion, etc and you are bound to think there is no way out.  When the only successful women you see are women who incessantly pander to men, and strong, outspoken women get punished and silenced, you're going to think your only option left is to be a man instead.

I have decided it would be best for me to compose an advice/how-to guide, and this will be the first part in a three part series.  Part 2 "How to Help a Friend who is Considering Transition" and Part 3 "How to Help a Friend who is Considering De-Transitioning" will be coming later.  In the mean time, let's focus on how to help who I like to consider the "YouTuber" crowd, the "Tumblr crowd," and the general "snowflake crowd."

If you came onto this post wondering how to make someone conform to rigid gender roles assigned to their birth sex, this is not the place to be looking and I think you would be better off elsewhere.  I would suggest possibly mainstream media sources and queer theory will be more suitable for helping your friend conform to gender roles.

However, if you came here hoping to be able to help a friend who is starting to call his or herself genderqueer, zie/zhir/ etc and you're worried they might start down the path of transition only to later regret it then you've come to the right spot.

So, let's get started, eh?

Say you have a friend who was born a female.  Her birth name is Brittney because her parents figured they couldn't name her something like Johnathan for some strange reason relating to patriarchy.  Over the course of a few years, you notice some things about your friend.  She's cut her hair short (Justin Bieber surfer style length or shorter even).  She keeps going on and on about how awesome men are and how she aspires to be like men but she still likes wearing bras and makeup on occasion.  She wants to get into more "dudely activities" because she considers herself a dude, sometimes.  She's decided to let people know that the proper spelling of her name is "Brittneigh" because it's more gender-neutral that way.  She expresses how much she hates her breasts and might even in passing mention something vague about having "bottom dysphoria" too, but for the most part she just really doesn't like her breasts.  She starts using misogynist language and openly supports porn culture.

What's a concerned friend to do without scaring her away from feminism?

1.  DO be sensitive, first of all.  My own personal small first taste of radical feminism left me feeling as though radical feminists didn't give a shit about abuse survivors who suffered at the hands of women.  If they say that a woman verbally, physically, mentally, sexually abused them etc, TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY.  Do NOT be dismissive and BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU SAY.  One of my professors told me the reason women abuse their children has to do with feeling the strain of patriarchy.  I wasn't buying it, and it just drove me away from feminism for quite a fucking while. After all, you probably don't know the reasons why Brittneigh hates her breasts and vagina.  Never make assumptions about why people feel the dysphoria that they feel about their bodies.  In this regard, I would make sure that you tell your friend that you're available to listen to them any time if they want to talk about body issues.  It wouldn't hurt for you to open up to THEM too.  Be a mentor.  Remind young women like Brittneigh that they aren't the only women who feel dysphoria about their breasts and vaginas.  Millions of women hate their bodies.  It's what we're taught to do.  What we know as "butch" lesbians CONSISTENTLY feel butch shame and body shame.  Butch women often feel anxiety and stress over their periods, their breasts, etc.

2.  DO remind your friend in a gentle way that women are FAR more alike than we are different! In the same vein as the "NAMALT (not all men are like that)" argument, there is a flipside.  I call it "INLTOG (I'm Not Like Those Other Girls)."  Women, under patriarchy, often share some pretty basic nearly-universal experiences.  Our capacity to get raped and impregnated by some entitled man is one of them.  Hating our bodies is one of the other nearly universal female experiences. We often see people like Brittney who have an underlying alienating attitude of "MY own personal dysphoria is oh-so-different than all those OTHER girls.  I'm not like them. I'm a boy! I'm genderqueer! You just don't understand what it FEELS like!"  Remind friends that you have (like Brittneigh) that you've felt similarly but that doesn't make either one of you trans or genderqueer.  It makes you women who live your lives out in a way that doesn't reinforce gender.

3.  DO ask your friend questions.  Get to the bottom of this.  Short of having a PhD in psychology, there isn't much else you can do here, but try to ask really basic questions that stump them.  Ask them repeatedly to explain to you what "being or feeling like a boy" TRULY means without them having to resort to either 1. gender stereotypes 2. body-hating or 3. brain sex theory.  If they keep resorting to any of those three arguments, keep saying that you "don't get it" and ask them to elaborate or explain in a different way.  Sometimes this gets people thinking about the absurdity of identity politics.

4.  In the same vein as number 3, DO make it a point to openly call out misogyny and sexism when you're around your friend.  Make it obvious.  Let them know you won't tolerate it when even your FRIEND starts using sexist slurs around you.  Make it a point to lead by example.  Show them examples of women who defied gender norms and are still women, even if they still (into later adulthood) struggle with their self-image.  Patriarchy fucks us all up, yo.

5.  DO really really press those female role models!  I know it's hard to find them in the mainstream media, but if you keep calling out misogyny, sexism, and lesbophobia this is all a VERY good start!  Send your friend documentaries that are feminist.  Keep showing them things that were written and/or created by and for women.

6. DON'T have gender be the only thing you talk with your friend about.  This gets old and I used to be able to pick up on it immediately.  Trust me, it'll make your friend think that you see her as a one-dimensional person when I'm SURE she has other interests in life.  Help her focus on those interests.

7.  DON'T use her as a walking and talking encyclopedia of trans stuff.  Educate yourself.  You have the whole internet before you.  Use google liberally.  One of my biggest peeves during my transition was people asking me all about the sex change process.  DONT DO IT.  Google, google, google!  Your friend will NOT take your advice seriously if you seem uninformed on this stuff. Remember that not all genderqueer people choose to medically transition.  Don't make assumptions.  When in doubt, go back to point number 3.

8.  DON'T be patronizing.  DON'T use slurs like "tranny."  DON'T tell them this is just a phase (even if it is).  Remember, you are here to HELP your friend understand that it is absolutely OK to be a gender non-conforming woman, a tomgirl, whatever! Your goal is NOT to come across like the biggest bully on the planet.  Always remember your goal.

9. DON'T think that you can save everyone.  You can't.  But you can try.  Just remember that ultimately some people will be pigheaded enough to go through with transitioning thinking it will help make their suicidality and body hatred go away.  Sometimes you just have to let people make their own mistakes.  Go back to point number 3 again by asking questions like "are you aware hormone treatment has been linked to various cancers? Are you financially prepared in case a physical emergency happens and you need a hysterectomy? What about surgical mishaps or things that don't heal well?" Etc.

10.  DO present them with examples and stories of people who have actually experienced a lot of these things first hand.  Don't be afraid to refer people to me.

11. DO remind your friend that if she ever decides that identity politics isn't right for her, that she'll always be welcomed back to Sisterhood and feminism.  Not being welcomed back was actually a legitimate fear of mine, and I am so relieved to have been able to form friendships with women all over the world who care about me and support me.

12. On that note, DO remind your friend that YOU care about her and support her, but that you just want her to be safe, happy, and be able to make a positive difference in the lives of women and girls.

Part 2 coming soon.


Anonymous said...

This made me think a lot. (Hi, I'm the Anon from Dirt's blog, the one about to make a huge mistake, I'm thinking right now! :) ) For me, it all started with misogyny. I remember myself crying because I was lost in Barcelona even with a map of the city and telling myself "only girls get lost" and "only girls cry about it" and being very angry. At that point, I wasn't even "aware of my "real" me". I even ranted at home about how men are great, their minds are incredibly suited for maths and logic (duh, I have a Bsc and I had to learn loads of maths and logic) and how women are weak and emotional. That "phase" went away quickly, I thought, "because now I'm a feminist (according to queer "theory")". Wrong. It still was there, just buried deep down. It still is there now. I have to work against it. I'm ashamed of myself, but at least I don't deny my weaknesses. So, thanks for the post, I guess! :)

Heath Atom Russell said...

Hi anon! I'm glad you reached out to me. Sorry that it has taken a while for me to get back with you. Lots of things have been going on in my personal sphere, which has taken a lot of time away from my blogging, but I will soon have more time to devote to my writing and to reaching out.

Internalized misogyny is something that a lot of ftms unfortunately have to work through and face head-on before healing can start. It takes a LOT to get to the point of "I hate everything about myself that associates me with females" to being like "I'm a female, deal with it, society." You don't just simply jump from point A to point B. You're right, it takes a lot of effort. I deal with it every day...confronting my own ideas of how I view my body and how I view my own external expression.

Imagine being lost in Barcelona! I view that as an adventure, but granted it's always okay to cry, whether the person expressing sadness is male or female. I'm so glad you're learning to see through the lies of gender politics and gender itself. Power, strength, and solidarity to you! <3