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Stigma

Social acceptance is very important to us all as individuals, although while we have it, we tend to give it little consideration. In fact we become those who stigmatise, although we may not realise that we do it.

From our formative years, each of us is brought up conditioned, to a greater or lesser degree, with a set of expected norms that we internalise and continue to hold into our adult life.

When we see someone whom we perceive as ‘not fitting in’ we fall back on our pre-programmed knowledge to deal with the situation. When the person with whom we are romantically involved becomes the subject of social stigma, we then have a real problem.

As a woman and the female partner of a transsexual, stigma has been my biggest problem. I have always considered myself to be an understanding person, someone who accepts another’s choice without question. Yet how hard I have been made to question myself, when that stigma is then attached to me!

The problem is that whilst someone else is living it, dealing with it and going through it, I am the first to give support, the first to sympathise and advise, and i am a total hypocrite!

When I have been out with my partner in the early days of transition, I have suffered full blown panic attacks, the fear people are looking at me, at her, judging, hating, pitying. My gut instinct is to run, distance myself, normalise and also to protect. So, having real experience of this, I thought I would look at it a little more closely. How is it that I am happy to walk down the street with an individual or group of transvestites / transgendered/ transsexual people? Yet going out with my own partner evoked such feelings of panic and fear?

I looked first at the media, film and television, to try to shed some light upon it. Firstly films, two of which stood out for me above the many that have included trans and supposed trans people. Firstly Psycho, Anthony Perkins's portrayal of Norman Bates, and secondly Silence of the Lambs, the Jame ‘buffalo bill’ Gumb character played by Ted Lavine. Both harrowing portrayals of people with deep-rooted emotional problems, but trans? No, they are not; however, through the act of wearing female attire they are perceived as such.

This threw up stigma number one, unjustified beliefs that trans people are perverted, are paedophiles, mentally unstable, generally unhinged people.

Unfortunately for us, both films are excellent pieces of work, but they do reinforce the idea that there is something very wrong with men who choose to dress as women. So a message is sent that men in women’s clothes is something to be feared.

Reaffirming I have no shower curtain in the bathroom I continued on….;-)

There are a multitude of films portraying cross-dressing as comedic, something done for a purpose by very manly heterosexual men, for a specific reason, such as Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Some like it Hot, Big Momma’s house and the like. All very non-threatening viewed as men using women’s clothes with no question of their gender or sexuality. Which tells us that so long as they remain male, there is no problem after all. In the above instances, they are usually the good guy, the main character, some even finding the love of a good woman at the end, after all it’s only playing dress up and not sinister, like the first two examples given.

Middle ground, if I can call it that, is occupied by films such as The Crying Game, Just like a Woman, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. These films give a more accurate portrayal or a more sympathetic showing, yet the shock factor still remains. But these films don’t stick in the mind like the more shocking, alarming characterisations and are often unappreciated.

We have now a more mainstream portrayal of transsexuality, in both Coronation Street and on Ugly Betty. Julie Hesmondhalgh, who plays Haley Cropper, has been in the news frequently, following a shaky start in the portrayal of her transsexual character, which led to heavy criticism, yet the actress herself has become more aware of trans issues and is now a patron for Press for Change, often taking interview opportunities to give a voice to Trans problems. This is a recent wind of change, and one that can only be for the better, portraying trans people as the real and human individuals they actually are.

So instead of worrying about me or you for a minute, or society's view of those who are with a trans person, let's look at how stigma has affected, and continues to affect, trans people.

They may lose their families, feel that they are unworthy or useless, loose their jobs, be shunned by former friends and family members, be shouted at and abused on the street, attacked or injured. They may have low self esteem, or be the butt of mocking jokes made by others to try to make themselves feel less threatened. All in all, when you start to look at things, the fear described above, that even to me is very real, is magnified a thousand-fold for the trans partner.

Personally, I don’t want to be judged by others - to be frank, it’s none of their damn business how I live my life or with whom, so why exactly am I so bothered?

In European law, under The Human Rights Act , everyone has the right to live peaceably without threat of violence, and so on and so forth, but what actual use is that, when you're walking down the street at night with an unfriendly mob coming towards you?

Rights afforded by law are obviously essential, but education holds the key to acceptance. We are a very visual nation influenced greatly by the media in all forms.

So what have I learnt? Well, I have learnt that it is worse for my transsexual partner than for me. I have learnt that the way people perceive me personally is a much, much bigger issue to me than I ever realised it was before it was challenged. Am I comfortable with it? No, I am not, but I’m working at it.

For some women the stigma and fear are too great for them to even try to remain with their partners.
But what I have also learnt, is that when you put aside those fears in a safe environment, and actually think, you realise that your partner is still the same person you have always known.

Does this make it easier or harder? Well I can’t say, but it is never the less a simple fact.

Coping with stigma is probably best left to the experts, but sometimes some of us are left to do the best we can.

  © Transpartners 2008