Dismantling the Default: Transness & Disability

Image credits: Em Travis

Image credits: Em Travis

CN: allyship, cis privilege, medical gatekeeping, medical & systemic transphobia & ableism

The Transness and Disability panel event on Thursday was the second Trans Awareness Month event I’ve attended so far. At the first, the allyship workshop, I talked with other cis people about how best to be an ally to trans people. Although one of the main aims of that allyship workshop was to emphasise the fact that there is no one single thing you can do to magically gain Ally Status, one of the main conclusions we all reached was undoubtedly the importance of listening and educating ourselves as cis peopleas Jun Pang wrote in her reflections on the event, the need to ‘come to terms with [our] own ignorance’. Time to put that into practice, then, by listening to voices and experiences from the intersection of transness, an oppression I don’t experience, and disability, one that I do.

The event was organised as a panel discussion, but as many of the attendees were also both trans and disabled, there was a wide range of experiences across the room. Panellists and attendees shared the problems and frustrations they have faced in the healthcare system where many doctors and practitioners are incompetent dealing with disability and incompetent dealing with trans patients. There was discussion of the sheer amount of mental energy and self-advocacy involved in getting accurately diagnosed with disabilities and health conditions while trans, getting access to medical transition pathways while disabled, and trying to do both at the same time. I reflected that although my own diagnosis with mental illnesses felt painfully slow and difficult at the time, I was and am in a position of immense privilege as a cis person: I didn’t have to fear that the doctor would use my mental illness to invalidate my gender identity, or use my gender identity to invalidate my mental illness.

It’s incredibly important that cis people make themselves aware of these issues, not simply so we can understand disabled trans people’s experiences, but so that we can do something about it. Not everyone will become a doctor or be directly responsible for controlling access to healthcare or transition pathways, but this discussion was about more than encounters with individual doctors – it was about living in an entire society that’s cissexist and ableist. One of the panellists, when talking about choosing whether to disclose their transness and/or disability in their workplace, talked about “using up all [their] awkward points” – the idea that once they’d asked for adjustments based on disability, it would be seen as being too ‘awkward’ to ask their colleagues to accommodate them even more by using the correct pronouns. We should all be fighting to make the concept of “awkward points” unnecessary: helping to create environments where acknowledging people’s gender and making adjustments to accommodate disabilities are not seen as ‘awkward’ or ‘difficult’ or even at all remarkable, just totally normal everyday things. We can all help dismantle the assumption that the ‘default’ person is abled and cis, and challenge it wherever it is allowed to appear unchecked.

One of the points which came up again and again in discussion was the tendency for cis people to reduce and simplify disabled trans people’s lived experiences to a narrative which ‘made sense’ to the cis (and abled) gaze, inevitably reducing their complexity and nuance. It would be wrong, then, to end this piece with any attempt at summing up or closing off. I will instead use the end of this piece to thank the Make No Assumptions team for the incredible work they’ve put in for this event and for the ones to come, and to simply say to cis people of Cambridge: go and listen.

Mel Bee, Get Real. contributor 

If you would like to know more about any of the Trans Awareness Month events in Cambridge this November, head to the Trans Awareness Month event page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/810523649065005/

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