Words: Kiki Darma Roberts
When asked to write about my identity I understood I would need to write about two separate experiences. On one side my experiences growing up male and on the other my new life as a trans woman. Confused? Tell me about it. The deeper I dive into gender topics, the more I realise how much we cling on to constructs that are fed to us. How important it is to be white straight male/female and how undesired, because challenging, it is to be anything else. When I think about all that, I can’t get that line from Stealers Wheel’s seventies' hit “Stuck In The Middle With You” out of my head. It goes “Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, here I am, Stuck in the middle with you.”
As a boy I hid in my masculinity, or at least my badly formed attempt at masculinity. Hiding my body shape, bulking it out with thick layers. (A trick I learnt from a Kurt Cobain documentary.) I refused to shave even though I was left with a beard that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a news story about an English teenager running away to join ISIS. I felt torn between what I felt was expected of me from the relationships I was in and how I should act around other men. There was no guide or anyone telling me I was fine. All I had was my own weird corners of the Internet with odd and often offensive in-jokes to make me feel at home. I was full of a deep rage at the world; I could have been part of the Jordan Peterson worshipping Incel Communities. Looking back I can see the signs of the toxicity taking its toll on my mind. How I would catch myself agreeing with statements that would now sicken me, laughing at jokes that make me uncomfortable to this day and, at its worst, I would find myself defending misogyny just because women were on ‘the other team’.
I was lucky to have been raised to know myself better than that and I was able to catch myself before I went too far. As I came out of that world I started feeling like a spy, hearing the things men would say away from female ears, not fully connecting to it and always feeling uncomfortable, but still feeling like I had to stand by ‘my team’. Of course there were times where I tried to join in, just out of pure desperation to be accepted. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work out for me, I just felt disgusting, like I was letting myself down. This is why I can understand where a lot of this toxicity comes from in the male sphere. I don’t call it toxic masculinity because, to me, that is something different. We are all aware of toxic masculinity, but haven’t been paying sufficient attention to this other form of poison taking over the minds of a lot of young, cis, white men.
There are many layers of toxicity in being a modern man; the amount of hidden insecurity and fear is breathtaking. As I worked towards my transition, I was shocked at how many internalised insecurities started to fall away as I separated from male life. It’s still a work in progress, in a similar way to me as a white person brought up in South Devon having to rewire the internalised racism that is picked up in those kind of all white environments. I still get that little angry cis boy voice pop into my head from time to time muttering some defence of a horrible act, or how hard life is for a man in this day and age. These are things you are taught by your environment and my environment, like many other isolated young cis men, was the Internet.
When I told a friend I was writing about this he raised a point, I hadn’t really heard before, about the effect of the lack of male role models in early life i.e. single mother households. To a point I agree, however, I think the problem is more complex than that and is far harder to solve. For one, all of my cis male friends who were raised by a single mother have always been more open and confident in themselves. I think it’s more down to a lack of positive male role models. I remember being in secondary school or college and Dapper Laughs being massive and so many guys I knew finding his antics absolutely hilarious because he was a grown man coming out with the same gross and misogynistic humour of a boy in secondary school. I always found it shocking, until I thought back to the kind of humour that was commonplace when I was in my first year of secondary school. It would be a competition to be as offensive as possible whether that be jokes about Jews, POC or gay people.
I’m shocked when I do think back to the things that were being normalised at such a young age and I’m scared when I realise a lot of those people probably still think those jokes are funny, they just realise they can’t say them in public anymore. So we end up back in the isolation of the Internet surrounded by other white cis men who feel like they should still be able to say these things and the fact that society won’t accept them do so is considered an attack. If those kids had a better role model to look up to at that time how different would it have been? Obviously there is more to this than Dapper Laughs and his terrible excuse for comedy, but he stands as an ugly truth of what a lot of cis men think is acceptable humour.
There seems to be a problem for no one really wants to actually try and educate these young men in why certain types of humour are not okay. People are more than happy to shout at them in comment sections, but amazingly enough, all this does is push them even further into isolation. It makes them feel like they are being persecuted and that does nothing but isolate them and give them more reason to stick to their guns and fight back. I noticed, as I transitioned and started viewing things from a different perspective, how lonely and frustrating it was being a white, cis guy. You’re born into a system that is all set up for you, then all of a sudden that system starts to be torn apart and nothing is built to replace it. Because you aren’t the focus of this new world we are trying to build, you are now just like everyone else and you don’t get to say and do what you want anymore. I am genuinely curious to see how the younger generations turn out because for my generation of boys we caught the tale end of this old system and have very much been here at the start of this new one. For the younger generations of boys there is more hope, I feel. There seems to be more understanding of this new view of society and more effort being made to educate young boys on how to be themselves. I always wonder who I would have become if I had been born 15 years later and been in school when being trans became a viable option. Because if I had mentioned anything about changing gender in my school days, I would have had to deal with being called a lady boy or a tranny by both pupils and teachers. From what I gather, things have improved but they still have a long way to go.
* * *
Transitioning gave me a very disconnected view of identity, not just my own, but those around me as well. Like I had broken through the identity matrix and could see all the broken codes leading to these extreme actions from men, women and gender non-conforming people. It still scares me to see the separation; it feels like we really are in the middle of an identity war from all sides. No one is really trying to solve any of the problems we are all dealing with, the focus seems to be on isolating further into echo chambers and denying any opposing views without conversation or debate.
Since transitioning I have made a greater effort to have conversations and debates with people who may not really understand or agree with what I am doing. I feel like this is the only thing I can do. I have managed to hold conversations with people who have very transphobic views; conversations that made me uncomfortable to say the least, but those conversations are important. Often when I have come across transphobia it has been down to negative interactions in the person’s past and I feel that the least I can do is give them a positive interaction. Often those conversations end with that persons view changing, even if that’s only a small change - it’s a step in the right direction. If we do nothing but fight and argue, is it any surprise that isolated young white cis men are finding solace in a man telling them everyone else is wrong and that’s why their lives are so hard? It seems counterproductive to me to only isolate these people further. It’s a hard subject to face, it’s unpopular to actually point out where these issues may be coming from because it’s a whole lot easier to call someone ‘trash’.
I refuse to take the easy path. I’m lucky in a way to be ‘thick skinned’, I’ve always stood out and always been a target that’s why transitioning publicly wasn’t too big a step for me. I have found myself in a public role just for choosing to exist in a way I feel comfortable with. A good trans friend described it very simply, “Our existence is an act of political rebellion.” This is sadly very true and unfair as I have other young trans friends who would love to be left alone to figure themselves out. Sadly, in this age as a trans person you will never be left alone. You will always have to be ready to answer the same questions over and over again. I’ve been tempted many times to print a T-shirt that says “NO, IM NOT GOING TO CUT MY DICK OFF” because of the amount of interesting conversations I have found myself in that have often boiled down to ‘that’ question worded in a slightly more polite manner. As a trans person you are also the focus for people’s own gender confusion, I have had cis boys confess their own hidden gender dysphoria to me or ask me to fulfil sexual fantasies that are out of ‘the norm’ because we are seen as the safe way to explore a desire for something more than they are allowed to want within the hetero sphere.
It’s a tiring existence and it can really take a toll, from the small things that you get used to, like being stared at every single day, to the bigger problems that you just have to accept. For me personally I have had to come to terms with the fact that as a queer trans person raised on roots reggae and Jamaican music I will probably never be accepted in that culture, I will not be able to safely go to a Dub or Dancehall event. That makes me incredibly sad, but I also know where to pick my battles and a long-standing cultural issue is a battle I am not strong enough to fight. That doesn’t mean I have stopped loving that music, I just have to find my own path around those problems. I think there is a lot to be said for knowing when fighting will do nothing but make the situation worse. I don’t think I have a right to enjoy those spaces; which drives me to want to make my own spaces and events where people like me can enjoy that music in a safe place.
I think this is the way forward. A general level of safety and understanding in spaces is important. The Exchange being a perfect example of a space not specifically trans friendly that is still one of the only places in Bristol I can go and not be the only trans person in the building. At the same time I feel like there is a bit too much pushing to make every place accepting, which is actually doing more harm than good. I think the way forward will be in new spaces created specifically for people out of the gender norm, whether that be events or event spaces. If you look at how gay culture has boomed in recent years it has been down to events like Bitch, Please creating events that are safe places for queer, gay and straight people to come together and enjoy music. Instead of being forced, it feels inviting and open, which leads to positive interactions we can all grow on.
No one knows how to be a transgender person or how to behave around transgender people because we haven’t had to deal with these questions before; this is new and confusing for all of us. If you genuinely think you know what to do, you are probably wrong. This will take time and it will take trial and error. The main thing I want people to realise is that conversations with people you don’t agree with are some of the most important conversations you can have. Just don’t expect them to agree with you because they probably won’t, but they will have at least heard a different view that hasn’t been shouted at them. Just look at how long it has taken gay people to be as accepted as they are in the UK. We have years of fighting ahead of us and this is only the start.
“Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you,
Yes I'm stuck in the middle with you,
Stuck in the middle with you, here I am stuck in the middle with you”