Transparency: an inevitable announcement.

I’ve been advised by a friend that it’s a strain to be anything other than a whole person.

That is, in a way, the point of this blog. No more cordoning-off of the various parts of my life, this is where I aim to inhabit them all: vaguely-established activist, burgeoning poet and fiction-writer, life-long geek, aspiring academic, committed feminist, proud queer, and so on. And yet I’ve been walking a rather awkward line for some time, and I’m tired of doing so. Rather than try to keep a lid on this any longer – and given what I’m doing in public life anyway – I think it’s easier just to say things outright, here and now.

I’m trans.

I’m the Trans Rep on the NUS Women’s Committee, and I have been since 2011. I requested that official documents refer to me only by my initials, and as such, have been doing this job with a certain level of ‘incognito’ status that has been increasingly frustrating to maintain. The (apparently) contentious nature of this position being held by a female-assigned individual who identifies both as a woman and as trans has, ultimately, strengthened the campaign’s policy on trans inclusion.

Since then, however, I’ve become increasingly vocal about trans issues under my own name. If you look at this blog, you’ll see that I’m presenting workshops and academic papers about trans and genderqueer identities, that I’m writing on trans issues and trans representation, that I’m performing poetry at trans and queer events – that I am already very publicly aligned with a movement that treats the broad spectrum of trans identities with legitimacy and respect. I’m also speaking in my Trans Rep capacity on a panel at the upcoming NUS LGBT Conference, and am shortly to begin an internship working for Trans Media Action – both will, one way or another, probably involve an awful lot of social media. With all of that on the table, I feel I have reached a tipping-point: I can’t believe there are many people who would respect me as a cis ally doing this sort of work, but turn against me to discover that ‘trans’ is also a word I use to describe myself. And perhaps more to the point, I don’t really want those people in my life.


I consider myself a woman in that it’s a term which more-or-less describes the gender role in which I live, the upbringing and socialisation I have experienced, the types of gendered oppression I face under patriarchy, and – inasmuch as one can use terms like ‘man’ or ‘woman’ to describe bodies in any sort of meaningful sense – the body which I inhabit.

I consider myself trans in that it’s a term which more-or-less describes my complex relationship with my body and with my gender presentation. Were I asked to use a more specific word, I’d go with genderqueer.

That is an accurate description of how things are for me right now – as with any other identity label, I use them descriptively rather than prescriptively. And that is about as much information as I feel like I owe the world at large right now.

Writing this blog entry for the public domain was surprisingly hard, given that I’ve been a vocal trans advocate for many years now and that I’ll often discuss my personal investment in this when in the rather more intimate context of my poetry readings or workshops. But I’m sure that for every friend or acquaintance reading this for whom it’s very old news indeed, there are a number of others scratching their heads. I am – honestly – not wanting anything out of this except to relinquish the sense of being constantly on my guard whenever I write publicly under my own name. The cat is out of the bag, and can now run off chasing leaves if it would like.

I would appreciate it if anyone who might want to get in touch to ask questions would take a moment or two to consider their tone, and perhaps see if those questions can be answered by reading that which is already out there. Below are a few (by no means comprehensive!) recommendations for starting points: I may add more later.

– A (still-running) series of questions from cis readers, answered at CN Lester’s blog by a panel of trans people and beginning with a list of 101 recommendations.

– Jack/Judith Halberstam (who has occupied and critically examined the ground between ‘butch’ and ‘trans’ for years) on pronouns.

– CN Lester again, with a tonne of amazing links: on ‘academic’ and ‘authentic’ understandings of oneself not being incompatible; on how appearance does not constitute identity; on dyadic terms being counterproductive; and since I’m linking to CN in a ridiculous frenzy already, you might as well read this one too. (And I’d also like to publicly thank CN: without their support, I wouldn’t be posting this today.)

– Brit Mandelo on navigating the space of ‘genderqueer’, and political identification as a woman. [Content note: instance of body-essentialist language; note added 29/03/13 14:40 after request in comments.]

24 thoughts on “Transparency: an inevitable announcement.

  1. I have very little to say on this because I am bad at comments, but basically – yay, go Hel!

    One thing I can think of to ask simply because you haven’t mentioned it in your post and it might be useful for people reading it to know – what pronouns do you prefer?

    • Ahoy! This comment is coming in terribly late, for which I apologise – but somebody asked me this question on and I managed to give them a reply, so I’ll copy and paste that now. 😉

      Question: Hello! What are your pronouns? (link:
      “Hi there! The simple answer is “they”. The slightly more complex is answer is “‘they’, ‘he’, and ‘she’ are all acceptable, depending on context, but ‘they’ is a safe go-to, and I don’t mind most of the neologistic gender-neutral pronouns, except ‘sie/hir’ because I consider it to be really aesthetically awkward”. (A full answer would probably be a blog post about the mutability of language… 😉 )”

      Question: Can I have a longer version of the pronouns thing? (link:
      “Okay, so: I used to live in a really lovely household where people were amazing about my gender, and I became very fluid in terms of what name and pronoun I was using on a given day. It reached a point where people could usually tell which name/pronoun to use on the basis of how I was presenting, which was pretty cool. But that’s not a level of nuance and understanding I’d expect from most people – it just came from living in close quarters and being really good friends. So I tend to say “they”, because it’s a totally neutral default, and (unlike constructed pronouns like “zie”) tends to slot pretty naturally into people’s language patterns, as it’s something that gets used within language anyway to indicate a person of unspecified gender. While sometimes I’ll feel more like I’d prefer “he” or “she”, hearing “they” never makes me feel weird in the same day that “he” or “she” can do, so I ask people to use it as a default. There’s kind of an exception about “she” when it comes to women’s spaces, though – I identify within the category of “woman” because it’s a social class to which I belong (basically: my feelings about my gender/body/sex/etc don’t change the fact that I’m treated exactly as a woman under patriarchy – see my blog for more stuff about this, and how it’s fitted in with the work I’ve done with NUSWC).
      And on the mutability of language – basically, I find the idea of “my pronouns” being a definite, solid Thing kind of weird? Not in a bad way, just a weird way. I understand the language of “your pronouns” vs “your preferred pronouns” as being a way of expressly treating trans experiences as legitimate – in the same way that one might say “your gender” vs “your gender identity”, because the idea that cis people have real “gender” and trans people just have “gender identity” is one of those nasty and insidious linguistic things that feeds in towards undermining trans people’s experience of self. But at the same time, I sort of think that all that ANYONE has (specifically when we’re talking about language and self-description) is “preferred pronouns” and “gender identity” – whether you’re cis or trans – because gender and language are semiotic systems that imperfectly describe the realities we live (and yes, they do also create those realities to an extent – but what I think I’m getting at is that there is never a perfect match between the signifier and the signified, if that makes sense? And this is why I said it should be a blog entry…)
      But also, thank you very much for asking me – I realise someone asked on the blog a while ago and I didn’t get around to replying because I was a little bit overwhelmed. So here we go, an answer. :)”

    • My apologies – I read that as Mandelo personally identifying as ‘female-bodied’ rather than necessarily putting that term onto others with a similar phenotype, but I see what you mean. I’ll add the content warning.

      • I’m sure others will disagree, but it seems to me that the word “female bodied” has often replaced notions of born/natural/womyn female, to denote those people who have equivalent bodies to cis women. While it may not be intended in that way, particularly by genderqueer cafab people, it nonetheless plays into that discourse. I know that I feel excluded, and that it implies that I as a trans woman are not female bodied. I’m not sure what would be a better term, perhaps some variant of “uterine bodied”; any better ideas would be gratefully received!

      • I get what Gabrielle said about the term “female bodied” and feel the sting of exclusion by “womyn born womyn”. I think Gabrielle is right that “female bodied” is usually more nuanced and not intended to exclude or offend. I don’t know how it is possible to differentiate between body types without excluding someone, deliberately or accidentally. We should be able to express ourselves without offending, but often it is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to use value-less language. A phrase like, “someone who is read as female” or, “someone who was assigned female at birth” are perhaps less excluding (although I’m not sure) but are clunky and inelegant. Sorry, I have no answers.

        Generally, I am quite a sensitive soul who gets offended easily, so I try to look at the context in which things are said and make an inference about the intentions of the writer. In this case, as Gabrielle said, Hel was obviously not intending to exclude anyone. It is a beautiful blog – thank you, Hel!

    • (I am dismayed by wordpress and can’t work out how to reply to your comments downthread.)

      As a genderqueer CAFAB person working (on a voluntary basis) in inclusive sex education/health, YES YES YES about how awful “female-bodied” is. I’ve written about it a bit in my blog, along with my suggestions for how else to talk about bodies (vis, always use accurate and descriptive language, rather than fuzzy and prescriptivist categories that will inevitably end up alienating people; use only the level of specificity required; etc).

  2. Hel, I totally already love you, but I love this post, and I’m really excited for you that you’ve finally been able to make it after the to-ing and fro-ing. It was an honour and a delight to serve on women’s committee with you two years ago, and by all accounts this year has been a wild ride of excellent things for the campaign. I’m so happy that your activism has brought you professional as well as personal joy and fulfillment, and I hope this comment keeps you feeling brave and proud, along with the whole rest of your communities’ support. Love love! ❤ xx

  3. Hurrah, Hel!

    I hope, and expect, that this piece of boldness will leave you happier. 🙂 Cats belong out & about, being awesome, not stuck in bags.

  4. You’re so amazing, sweetie, and such an inspiration, and I am so proud to know you & so proud of you for doing this – I know it’s something you’ve been struggling with, and I hope this is something that helps you. I can think of lots of ways it will. Best of luck. ♥

  5. *generalized message of support* 😛 well done – I hope you don’t get any kickback from this, and if you do then I hope the perpetrators get really nasty piles.

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