Hazel McHaffie

transgender issues

Image and appearances

It’s 4 years now since I published Inside of Me, but body image and transgender issues keep popping up above the parapet, and hauling me back into that world of tortured self-doubt and secret longing.
– In the last few weeks we’ve had the BMA saying that people should be able to gain legal recognition of their changed gender without the input of a registered doctor, and indeed with no more than a witnessed sworn statement. As things stand, you need a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and a report from a registered doctor detailing treatment received, and proof that you’ve lived for at least two years in your chosen gender, and intend living in for the rest of your life.
– But subsequently the government announced that plans to allow transgender people to self-identify as the opposite sex have been shelved; they feel that the current system means that ‘proper checks’ are in place. However the current fee of £140 is to be reduced to £5.
– Then, the transgender community, already incensed by JK Rowling‘s comments about what a woman is, have trained their sights on her yet again, because her latest Robert Galbraith novel, Troubled Blood, features a serial killer who dresses in women’s clothing.
– And then there’s the mother of a dead transgender 18 year old, campaigning to honour her daughter’s dearest wish: to have children. The youngster changed gender from boy to girl in the teen years, but had sperm frozen at 14. The mother is planning to launch a landmark legal case to preserve the sperm (now due to be destroyed) to enable her to have a grandchild via a donor egg and a surrogate mother.

Just a few of the news items. But of course, each one brought the complicated ethical issues very much back into my mind, and that in turn, led me to a book near the top of my tbr pile – For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu.

One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful woman.
One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl.
But for today, I am a child. For today, I am a boy

This truncated quote beautifully sums up the essence of this brave novel.

Peter’s father only ever wants a son: ‘In a family, the man is king. Without you, I die – no king.’ But two daughters come first, before Peter, followed by another girl. With only one chance, Mr Huang is determined to make a real man of this longed-for boy, forcing Peter into male ways from an early age. He teaches him how to shave when he’s 6 years old, tears anything female out of his schoolbooks, approves and rewards brutish male behaviour, makes sure his son doesn’t do ‘women’s work‘ like the dishes. Peter is acutely aware that his sisters get much more lenient treatment.

But Mr Huang is steeped in Chinese traditions about ancestors and what is right. Appearances matter. He has high expectations of his only son, even whilst being unfaithful to his own wife. Peter describes his father’s mistress, the neighbour Mrs Becker,  beautifully. She was …
‘Pale and thin and seemed to quiver at the edges, like she was made of water. She had limp red hair. Her freckles were a handful of sand tossed in her face … light shone through her skin to the blue veins along her forehead … her smile looked unstable.The structure of her face couldn’t sustain the weight’ … and when she betrays Peter – ‘a jittery nobody, the human equivalent of onionskin paper.’
Mr Huang is appalled at a deep level by Peter’s ‘differentness‘, his ‘weaknesses‘. his proclivities. He must at all cost keep them secret, not shame the family, not let down his ancestors. And even when facing his own imminent demise, he reminds Peter he’ll still be watching him ‘from the other side.’

With this threat haunting him, even excursions into the female world carried out behind closed doors are fraught with fear and guilt for the conflicted Peter. When he puts on a wig, pouts his lips, looks in a mirror, ‘I felt my father staring through my eyes, the grotesque image in the mirror, the halfsie freak. The grandfather I hadn’t known, the great-grandfather, all watching as my father strove not to shame them, every day until he died. All of them watching me now.’

In this fragile tale, shot through with melancholy, Kim Fu powerfully captures the young child’s only-partially-understood longing to be other than he was. The ‘nightmare years‘ of adolescence. The ongoing desperate struggle to live up to the expectations of others – gang members, pals, work mates, family. The terrible loneliness of not being understood. The pervasive malevolent forces that would crush people like Peter Huang, learning slowly and painfully the real meaning of being a woman. The terrifying consequences if he names his inner conviction.

He becomes increasingly aware of consequences outside his battles with his own body, too; the larger fight against hatred and prejudice. ‘It’s not just about me and my body. There were marches, vigils, hate crimes, unjust laws, a world that needs education. There were other people like me … there were forces that had crushed us.

I was struck by the essential loneliness or unresolved doubt. Do any of us really understand what goes on in the lives and minds of others? Books like For Today I Am a Boy help us to sidled a little closer, understand a little better.

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By the way

The old brain is somewhat discombobulated by rather too many competing demands at the moment. Not a time for deep analytical reading or serious long distance writing, but  even in the busiest times, my obsessions won’t allow me to abandon writing and reading altogether. And it’s curious what life throws in your path when you’re not looking, or when you’re tramping through the autumn leaves.

Who’d have thought to find the ethics of stem cell research buried in a Kathy Reich‘s murder mystery?! Grave Secrets is billed as a chilling murder in the searing heat of Guatemala. Forensic anthropologist, Dr Temperance Brennan, is searching for the remains of twenty-three women and children, victims of a brutal massacre. She’s then somewhat distracted by the disappearance of four teenagers who go missing, not to mention being physically involved in the retrieval of a skeleton of a young woman from a septic tank. I confess I got rather bogged down in the complexity of the plot at times, but interest was reignited by the excursion into my field of ethics.

And the newspapers yielded their usual challenging real-life sensations.

In the central German state of Hesse, for example, police are investigating a woman who forged documents to pass herself off as medically qualified, to see if she’s responsible for multiple deaths. She worked as an anaesthetist/anaesthetic assistant – different papers, different claims – either way, the mind boggles! How could she not be detected in that high-risk arena over two years? It’s reported that evidence links her with repeated medical failures and botched procedures, and many more are likely. If I’d put that in a novel, the critics would deem it ‘too far fetched to be credible’!

A birth coach has resigned from an association called Doula UK, claiming she’s been driven out because transgender activists took offence at one of her Facebook posts. Reacting to the trend towards gender-neutral descriptions she wrote: ‘I am not a cervix owner … I am a woman; an adult human female … Women birth all the people.’ Up flew the activists objecting to ‘trans exclusionary comments’. Out went the mother-of-four birth coach. Hello?

A 29-year-old Christian man who uses a wheelchair after breaking his back in a climbing accident, has become the first person to be arrested and prosecuted for praying in public outside an abortion clinic in Ealing, west London. A Public Spaces Protection Order is in place creating a buffer zone around that particular clinic, forbidding anyone to show either approval or disapproval with respect to issues relating to abortion. However, the case has collapsed because there is insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction. Cue another outcry re injustice!

Never a shortage of challenges to keep the grey cells buzzing whatever else my hands and feet are busy with in this gloriously autumnal month. In those situations, what would I do? What do I think? Could I defend my position?

What would YOU say?

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Rights and wrongs

What a week! And still the debate about the rights and wrongs of Brexit agreements and arrangements grinds on … and on … and on. Conflict. Tension. Lies. Threats. Who do we believe? Who can we trust? Whose interests and rights should take precedence? Who/what are these politicians really acting for – themselves, their constituents, their party, their consciences, or what? How much is Joe Public entitled to know? What will history make of these unprecedented shenanigans?

I sigh for the simple philosophies of a McCall Smith character … Todd the surveyor in 44 Scotland Street, perhaps, reprimanding his dishonest employee caught out in a lie: ‘All of our life is based on acts of trust. We trust other people to do what they say they’re going to do.’ Hmmmmm. If only.

No one is immune to doubt and uncertainty. Those much feted and privileged royals, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, revealed in an interview this week that they’re both struggling with the conflict between their privacy and media coverage in their lives. Taxpayers contribute towards the upkeep of the monarchy, but does that entitle us to put them under the microscope? What should be considered legitimately in the public interest? Where do the limits lie? What if their mental health is less than robust? Is the loss of a parent in childhood an ‘excuse’ for the rest of one’s life? Should they have broken with royal tradition and confessed to human frailty? Is it different when a child is involved? And so on … and on.

Then there’s the Northern Ireland abortion laws, decriminalised this week, although implementation of the change is still hedged about with caveats and fraught with peril. Was it ever fair that a woman was legally prevented from having an abortion, even for a lethal fetal abnormality or when her pregnancy was the result of rape or incest? Is it right for Westminster to legislate for Northern Ireland coming into line with the United Nations rules on human rights? Should religious belief influence laws? Should someone else’s scruples limit my choices? If you’re pro-choice, this is a momentous victory for women’s human and reproductive rights; if you’re pro-life in all circumstances, it’s a sad day for Northern Ireland … Where do you stand?

Speaking of women’s rights … the jolly old debate around gender continues to blow my mind. Not only must provision be made for gender-neutral toilets and changing rooms; not only must transgender women be permitted to win the awards in female sport; but now a rapist must be recorded as female if that’s how they self-identify. What about the rights and feelings of the victims in all this? A quintessential female symbol has even been removed from sanitary towels – yes, you heard right, sanitary towels – by Proctor & Gamble, apparently because not everyone who has periods identifies as a woman. Hello?!! As a leading feminist campaigner put it: ‘We’re now moving towards the total elimination of women’s biology’ . The rights and wrongs, the questions arising, are too numerous to enumerate on this blog.

Welcome to my world – constantly asking what’s permissible, what’s morally right, what’s fair, what’s expedient? And nowhere do I probe more deeply than in my fictional characters’ lives. I have to be totally immersed in their emotions and thoughts and beliefs and experiences in order to make them authentic and believable. Their dilemmas haunt me day and night. Especially when the novel is at an early stage and I have no idea how, or ever whether, they’re going to survive or resolve or surrender to the pressures. Their pain and anguish swallow me whole.

Ideas for my twelfth novel are at an embryonic stage at the moment, so tender and fragile indeed that they might even miscarry altogether. I have several characters lurking around disturbing my peace, and eventually one group of them will send down roots and cling on with more persistence than the rest. Once they’ve claimed my full attention, and I know they’re here to stay, that’s when I’ll start to sink below the horizon of their stresses. All those what-ifs and rights and wrongs scrambling for answers. I might be gone some time!

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Living the dream

What a week I’ve had! OK, I may be confined to barracks post-surgery, strictly forbidden (by authoritative medical personnel no less) from all housework or exertion of any kind, having to keep my leg elevated day and night … but, bored? Not a bit! Frustrated? Nope. Secretly sorry for myself? Certainly not! I’m capitalising on the situation and achieving far more than I ever anticipated. And buzzing! Has to be good for the soul.

OK, I knew it was coming. Before surgery I accumulated the usual materials for sedentary occupations like knitting, reading, writing, DVDs, etc etc. What I hadn’t bargained on was a complete takeover bid!

It started as soon as I began to actually write the annual Christmas story/play I compose and direct for my grandchildren. As part of my research I began dipping in and out of my all-time favourite books … soon lost in memories and other lives, somewhere in my head my own quite distinctive characters from different strata of society and various times in history who form the core of the play.

Then it was time to start actually committing ideas to the computer.

I began tentatively, feeling my way gently, setting the scene, getting to know the principals, but suddenly one after another they assumed accents and speech patterns and habits of their own. And away we went! Enormous fun. All without the constraints of my other kind of writing (this story is for a very select and exclusive readership indeed; not a single literary critic or publisher’s delicate sensibilities to be factored in).

On the day of the play itself, the youngsters will bring their own personalities to the characters as they assume their roles, but afterwards, once it’s in book form, I want these people to live on the page. Their mannerisms, their language, their reactions, must convey so much. It’s proved both a welcome challenge and a runaway delight!

Then there’s the side effect of recuperation. Lots more thinking-time. Without all the usual time-consuming domestic responsibilities there’s more leisure to watch TV and read papers, and it’s astonishing how many programmes and articles impinge on my own fields of interest. Factual as well as fiction, they make me reflect, which has to be good for my mental state.

So, for example, there’s the news this week of a patient who’s been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, who has now had his vagus nerve stimulated to some effect, putting him into a minimally conscious state. Progress, you might think. Clever stuff. Could this be the start of new hope for many? But hey! Is it really better to be aware you can’t move or do anything spontaneously? Would I want such a thing for my husband/son/brother in his thirties? Does this influence my thinking on assisted dying?

Then there are the up-coming court cases. Victims of the contaminated blood scandal from the 1970s/80s have finally won a ruling allowing them to launch a High Court action. Imagine! Forty years of waiting! And they’re a long way from a resolution or compensation even now. Something in the region of two and a half thousand2,5000! – have already died. Whose fault is/was it? What are the pros and cons of a legal system that grinds so slowly? How could we deal more effectively with such a catastrophe in the future?

And what about the families devastated by the consequences of giving Sodium Vaproate to pregnant women. That too goes back decades and it’s left to the families to fight on for justice. My brain is throwing up questions and doubts right left and centre. Not necessarily for a book; just challenges about the morality of what’s done in the name of medicine.

Ahhh, back again comes that old chestnut, abortion. Irish girls have been coming to England and Scotland to have pregnancies terminated for decades. (I remember being troubled by the questions way back in 1960s when I was in clinical practice and saw it first hand.) This week it was announced that Ireland is to hold a referendum next year on whether to repeal its ban on abortion in almost all circumstances. Are the issues any different today? Could this have been resolved more appropriately? Should religion influence laws? Is a referendum the best way forward? And what about all the other forms of medical tourism …?

Inside of Me coverThe BBC2 programme aired a couple of days ago, Being Transgender, was billed as dealing with ‘one of the hot topics of the moment’. Well, that was my thinking when I published Inside of Me last year. But even though I’d immersed myself in the topic of gender and identity for a couple of years, I was still fascinated by these personal experiences, still wondering about the issues, but be warned, the footage of reassignment surgery in this case is pretty shocking.

So all in all the days are flying by faster than I feared they would. My mind is in overdrive. And I’m hoping to be ahead of the game when I return to normal functioning … God willing.

 

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Peeling back the gilt of Christmas

Nativity carouselAt this time of year it somehow seems extra tragic when bad things happen to good people. Aside from the global crises afflicting our world and unravelling before our eyes in our living rooms, I personally have a number of friends currently facing serious illness, impending death, sudden bereavement, and yet it must seem like everyone around them is caught up in trivia and pleasure, festivities and excess – in reality of course, who knows how many others are only hiding stresses and problems from public consumption?

Mrs Santa straw figureIt’s in this spirit that my mind has been wandering over the huge dilemmas facing different families; what would I choose in their circumstances? how would I cope?

Metropolitan police officer Heidi Loughlin, 33, discovered she had an aggressive form of breast cancer the day after finding out she was pregnant with her third child. She decided not to have a termination of the pregnancy but to delay treatment until after the birth. Her condition became so serious however that her baby girl was delivered by Caesarean Section on Friday, 12 weeks early, and Heidi has been given a short time to recover from the operation before starting powerful chemotherapy next week. She faces a pretty gruelling Christmas, but is determinedly looking forward to March when she will get her baby girl home to her two brothers. She has risked her life to give her daughter a chance and says she has no regrets; it was all worth it. What would I have chosen in this situation, I wonder? What would you?

Then there’s fireman Patrick Hardison. He entered a burning house in Mississippi; the roof collapsed on him leaving him with severely disfiguring burns across his face, head, neck and upper torso. Think for a moment of the pain of a small burn from an oven shelf, a hot iron … Multiply that by ten trillion. Even after 70 operations he was still so terribly mutilated (see pictures here if you can cope with them) that he would only go out heavily disguised. What kind of Christmases has he endured, I wonder? He recently underwent the most extensive face transplant ever performed. Factor in not only the excruciating pain at every stage but the risks … would I have been courageous enough to want to go on living? Would you?Antique Santa candle holder

Within the last two months, two transgender women have been found dead in their cells in all-male prisons: 21 year old Vikki Thompson in November, and 38 year old Joanne Latham in December. No more Christmases for them. Many difficult questions present themselves where transgender people are concerned and there is generally much greater sensitivity to their issues, but what about when they commit crimes, serious offences that land them in prison? Not only their own welfare is at stake but that of their fellow prisoners. Where would you have housed these two? Nearly 150,000 people signed a petition to house a third person, 26 year old Tara Hudson, in a female institution even though she had been convicted of assault. Would you have signed it?

A 50 year old woman, mother of three, is so determined not to grow old and ‘lose her sparkle’ that she has refused to undergo kidney dialysis. Her kidneys were seriously damaged when she took an overdose following a diagnosis of breast cancer. For years her life style has been chaotic to say the least, and one wonders, what is Christmas like in that household? Whatever, the Hospital Trust responsible for her care appealed to the courts to have treatment imposed against her wishes. But a senior judge has upheld her right to an autonomous choice to die. Was he right to do so, do you think?

I’m merely scratching the surface by way of illustration. Remember all the cases we’ve heard about recently – various scandals around abortions carried out on the grounds of gender alone; teenagers killing themselves because they’re obsessed with losing weight; all the dire warnings about how to deal with declining fertility; the consequences of a simple blood test at 18 weeks pregnancy that allows screening for thousands of genetic conditions  … the list goes on and on. My files are bulging with clippings and articles.

Scandinavian figuresSo at this time of celebration and joy, let’s spare a thought for families caught up in tragic circumstances, and the courageous souls who try to support and guide them. May they find wisdom, courage and strength. And I wish all visitors to this blog peace as you prepare for the festive season whatever it means to you.

 

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