Occasional thoughts from a boy-girl quantum superposition.
Jean-Paul Sartre said that “hell is other people”: the “look” of others objectifies us. When as a subject I regard others, they become to me objects; and to other subjects I am an object. It seems to me that for many of us who are trans, our objectification in the “look” of others has a peculiar significance because we hope to be objectified as female, which is what we are not when we are naked. I wonder if this is why t-girls love photographs so much. The inner self knows that it is male, but wishes to be female; while we are out and about we are acutely aware of the gaze of others (in the Sartrean sense – I don’t mean gawping, although that does happen occasionally!). We develop a heightened sense of our difference (physical frame, facial bone structure) in the moment that we are most earnestly trying and hoping to appear unremarkably female. We are acutely aware of our objectification in the look of others.
What we would love most of all is to be objectified as female, as an external reinforcement of the internal yearning that is felt but not manifest externally, except through a choice of clothing. Photographs, organised carefully through social media, provide a means to choose our self-objectification. In a sense, this is an inversion of Sartre’s maxim: if only the others would objectify us as female, then heaven would be other people.
Of course the rest of society has now caught up: every phone has a camera, and everyone on a night out has their phone close at hand. Young women navigate their evenings as carefully through cyber space as they do through “real” space; we are all acutely aware of the “look” of others. When I first went out and about with my digital camera I felt rather self-conscious as I tried discretely to pose for a photo somewhere. But one doesn’t need to sit in a bar for long to see a group of young women composing themselves quickly, efficiently and carefully for a group selfie. Taking a selfie is now so commonplace it has become an almost invisible act.
Is Instagram heaven or is it, indeed, a Sartrean hell? There is a mundane sense in which it is hellish: nobody remembers the daft things I said and did in my teens because they happened in real space before the internet; however, nowadays teenagers have to grow up in cyberspace with every failing immortalised. And of course there is the pressure to be beautiful, happy and surrounded by friends on Instagram; whatever your inner state and your experience of the subjects who gaze upon you, your self-objectification must be carefully curated.
I think that for most of us who are trans, Instagram can be hell in Sartre’s sense. A few t-girls look genuinely feminine, bit it is not hard for most people to spot the imposters (among whom I count myself). I look at my “best” photos and realise that although I’m happy with them as representations of myself, they are unlikely to survive careful scrutiny with the viewer believing that I am a natal female.
If hell is this objectification in the look of others, where does salvation lie? Surely it comes from accepting oneself for what one is, for being content with what one is? It is only by choosing (another Sartrean doctrine) to find our signification in the look of others that we open the door to hell. Demanding that “others” objectify us as female will not solve the problem, because to them, we are objects and it is they who choose how to objectify us. But the path to salvation, surely, is to choose instead to live authentically, by accepting, celebrating and enjoying our trans-ness. If the photograph objectifies me to others as trans, what is that to me? I am what I am. I choose to be what I am. Coming out as trans is an act of will – a choice. I express my inner sense of femininity not for the gaze of the others, but because in its authenticity it makes me happy and whole. In choosing authenticity I find my salvation.
It’s always flattering to be pictured alongside somebody older than oneself. A kind lady took this photo for me in Chicago’s wonderful Field Museum. There, I was thrilled to see a fabulous collection of dinosaur fossils. The Museum estimates that at least 90% of the bones on display are genuine fossils. A small fraction are reconstructions, because of course no dig, however, careful, can recover an entire fossilised dinosaur undamaged.
The Museum’s exhibits addressed head-on the reasons for the great cycles of extinction that the Earth has witnessed during its 4 billion years in existence. Above all else, climate change has been a driving force for mass extinction. The Earth is now on an irrevocable course for climate change on a scale that has only previously been witnessed during mass extinction events. Indeed, mass extinction is already underway on Earth; species are being lost at a colossal rate. The Museum presented evidence fearlessly and without pulling its punches. The candour of the exhibits was impressive, given that President Trump dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax, and mounted a campaign of repression against government-funded scientists who published data on climate change. It was alleged that work on climate change was political, but it was in the publication of hard data that so many US research groups and agencies, for example NASA, have made such important contributions to scientific understanding of the catastrophic consequences of fossil fuel use and the destruction of ecosystems.
I first taught a course that touched on climate change nearly 30 years ago. I began reading the burgeoning literature with horror. There was already, in 1995, a vast amount of evidence for correlations between global temperature changes and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. The famous “hockey-stick” graph published by Michael Mann in the late 90s, predicting rising global temperatures over the next decade, has been tested and corroborated; Mann’s predictions have been found to be – sadly – all too accurate and worse, the trend of global warming appears well set. In the media, and in the minds of lobbyists for petroleum companies, perhaps it is acceptable to speak of debate about the science. However, for scientists, who understand the scientific method, and the uncompromising role of data in falsifying defective hypotheses, there is no significant doubt about the substance of the theory of global warming, just uncertainty about how to respond and sadness about the inaction of governments.
I am not a climate scientist, but I have followed the literature for the last three decades. Sometimes I find it too depressing to read, because I fear the future that my children will inherit. Recently scientists have begun to ask whether they have in fact been too cautious about sounding the alarm bell. For many years, climate scientists feared being accused of alarmism if they looked at “worst-case” scenarios. They preferred to talk about aiming to limit global temperature changes to 1oC, then 1.5oC. It now appears that it will be difficult to limit warming to 2oC, and some scientists are warning that in their anxiety to avoid the accusation of fear-mongering, climate scientists have failed adequately to inform the public of the extreme consequences of climate change that we are racing towards. The fear is that the Earth will simultaneously reach a number of tipping points, that will push it into a vicious circle of warming events from which it will not easily recover. For example, the Siberian permafrost is thawing; it contains billions of tons of methane, 100x more potent an absorber of heat than CO2. If this methane is all released into the atmosphere, as is already starting to happen, the impact on global temperatures will be colossal.
What is so desperately sad is that the notion of a greenhouse effect is not new. Ursula Le Guin talks about it in her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven, by which time this scientific idea was already spreading in popular culture. The intervening five decades have been marked only by a relentless accumulation of data and a continuing and terrifying corroboration of the core models and hypotheses. We knew this catastrophe was coming, and it was entirely preventable.
In that context, President Biden’s announcement of a massive Federal programme of expenditure designed to transform the infrastructure for generation of energy in the US is very timely. The US is the world’s greatest emitter of CO2; without sweeping change in energy use in the US, the world may not be able to tackle the challenge of climate change. Moreover, US leadership in energy will make it increasingly hard for environmental criminals like Jair Bolsonaro to continue their vandalism unchecked. Biden’s announcement has come not a moment too soon; there may be time to haul ourselves back from the abyss, but make no mistake, the clock is ticking. There is not much time left to save ourselves.
As will be evident to anybody who is familar with these pages, I’m quite a well-travelled girl. My work has taken me regularly to the United States, in particular, and to other destinations internationally – until Covid-19 changed everything. Meetings went online, and business travel, like so much else in life, became part of that different existence we led before the pandemic. In truth, while I enjoy travelling, I missed it much less than I might have expected during the pandemic. Perhaps because so much else in life changed it was less noticeable that I travelled less; I spent a lot more time at home and my social circle shrank. Moreover, while I do enjoy travelling, business travel is pretty hard work. Travelling en femme adds fun but also work – all those additional changes of clothing! Hauling bags down to Heathrow is a drag, and jetlag dents the week after one returns. There are trains, taxis, connecting flights…
For many years while I wrestled with my gender dysphoria and struggled to deal with its impact on my marriage, a week away from home on business also gave me opportunities to be myself; I regularly added a day or two of leave to a trip to allow myself a little “me time”, and this became an important source of solace, a chance to recover equilibrium and untangle some of the knots in my psyche, as well as providing adventures. But nowadays I step out regularly from home, and have much more liberty to be myself in Sheffield. Perhaps this also tipped the cost-benefit analysis of business travel more towards “cost” than “benefit”.
However, a couple of weeks ago I visited Chicago on business. As I booked my flight and hotel, I found myself increasingly excited by the prospect. I love visiting America, and Chicago has always been one of my favourite places; thus, while I had a packed programme of work ahead, I planned to sieze opportunities for a little pleasure while I was away, including a full day to myself at the start of my stay.
The excitement of travelling was returning, but as the day of my departure drew near, so, also, a less welcome apparition made a reappearance. If you’re familiar with my other posts, you’ll know that I have wrestled with what I call an “internalised transphobia”. That’s the best diagnosis I can manage, anyway. My best explanation is that after decades of attempting to cure myself, there is a part of me that still wants to point out the strangeness of a middle-aged man hauling a suitcase full of ladies clothes and make-up across the Atlantic. My sub-conscious generates “reasons” at quite a rate: it’s a busy week, and you don’t really have time; doesn’t all the organisation stress you out? Wouldn’t it be more relaxing to spend your time off with a novel? Haven’t you done this enough by now?
The “reasons” all feel compelling. Perhaps the last of those arguments was the most beguiling, because at some point while I was folding dresses and organising my suitcase I remember thinking to myself “maybe this is the last time”. Is it rational? Isn’t it actually exhausting – all the planning, the rushing back to the hotel to get changed in the evening? And of course the answer is that it is. But my rational self has plenty of experience now. This very familiar morass of self-doubt is now countered by (most of the time) a determination to ignore the voice of inner doubt, get a frock on and get out and about. And invariably, by the time I am strolling down the street, my gremlin has vanished and I feel at peace with the world; the only genuine battle remaining for me is to acknowledge, at the end of the day, that it really is not possible any longer to avoid removing my make-up and turning drab again. That, after so many years, there is any need for argument and determination to do what is so manifestly good for me as a person is perhaps the clearest testament to the self-harm accumulated during all those years of repression.
Arriving in Chicago at 3 pm on a Friday, I planned to head out for dinner. By the time my taxi had fought its way from O’Hare to my downtown hotel, it was nearly 5 pm. Somewhat weary after long journey, I nevertheless managed to shower, change and get out for dinner. As I hauled myself out of the shower and opened my make-up bag, the weariness was dissipating; by the time I stepped out into the warm evening air to walk a few blocks to Dearborn Street, where I dined outdoors, I was smiling, savouring the moment and looking forward to dinner outdoors.
I cannot rationalise how, given comparative freedom after so many years of repression, I experience this instinctive desire to do what is self-harming, in denial of the identity that I have striven to hard to come to terms with and to accept. I know from the many conversations I have had with friends that these sorts of feelings are not unique to me. I suppose that there is a kernel of rationality at their heart: I am a genetic man, and my physiology betrays that to even fairly casual observers. There is no sense in which I really believe that I can “pass” as a woman. But to undergo this transformation is not a piece of frippery for me, but something profound – for all that it also brings a lightness of spirit and a careless capacity to live in the moment and enjoy what the day brings. Whatever affront it brings to rationality, it also brings peace, contentment and wholeness. Sometimes it is necessary to set aside the fruitless pursuit of logic, for this thing, this self-realisation, transcends rationality.
The Winter Gardens have been decorated for Christmas, and a more traditional fir tree has been installed temporarily among the tropical foliage. It looked rather lovely so I attempted to take a selfie with the tree as a backdrop, but it didn’t quite work. A very kind lady popped up out of nowhere, having seen me struggling to get the angle right, and offered to take this picture, which was very sweet of her. I think she’s composed the photo rather well.
Human interaction is the more precious when it occurs at present, because of its comparative scarcity. We wear masks and keep our distance for good reason, but we need each other. It has been lovely to meet up with friends during the last year, despite these constraints, but I miss the carelessness of social interactions before March last year. I hope it may return. But there is a sense in which the pandemic mirrors the experiences of so many of we t-girls: I cannot express myself in the way that I would like whenever and wherever I like, and understanding and living with those limitations is necessary if I am to have a contented existence. When opportunities come along, they must be grasped with both hands, savoured, and memories treasured; the knots unwound, and equilibrium restored, if only for a passing interval. Carpe diem.