It's hard not to have compassion for people who experience Gender Dysphoria. I firmly believe that almost all female people experience it to some degree. See, I'm not convinced that Gender Dysphoria and Body Dysmorphia are all that different, not just in terms of how they are experienced but in their very origins. I know that my own experiences of Body Dysmorphia are tangled up with the feelings I had as a girl about being female. I remember vividly looking down at my once lovely simple flat chest and seeing two obscene lumps, maimed with purplish scarring, and being disturbed and appalled and frightened. The loathing I learned to have for my body was inextricably linked to my being female.
The reason anorexia presents so often in adolescent girls is not a coincidence. It is an attempt, very often, to keep the body childlike, to stave-off incipient womanhood. If you ask me that is Gender Dysphoria of a kind. So while I don't think men with Gender Dysphoria are any more deserving of my sympathy than women and girls, they still have it, particularly if it is sufficiently severe that the sufferer feels the need to have endless surgeries and hormones and potentially becoming a life long patient in order to endure it. And those men who recognise that their dysphoria is not an excuse to manipulate everyone around them, or blame women for the fact of their not being one, or a bludgeon with which to beat women into submission, have not only my sympathy but my respect.
The subject of this essay is no such man. He is by no means unique (although he does his utmost to have us think otherwise), he is ten-a-penny, but he is illustrative. I have tried, I really have, to dredge up some pity for him. But I can't: there is no room for my pity, there is no room for anything real.
As it turns out, there’s nothing like a bit of “biological essentialism” to drive home some Feminist maxims. So before I get on with the business of addressing our friend Alok's breathtaking narcissism, its place in our culture, and its implications for women, I’d like to talk about me, me, me, for a sec. Specifically my ovaries, well ovary, my left. It feels like good place to start, since it is of course the place where all of us start, and always have and I suppose always shall.
Following months of agonising periods, sleeping on towels, wrenching fatigue and the kind of psychic exhaustion that comes from seeing a scarlet toilet bowl every time you go to the loo, I had an ultrasound. I had what is called a "transvaginal" ultrasound, which means they insert a probe into the vagina, rather than the KY jelly on the tummy situation that we see happen to pregnant women in the fillums. The radiologist had only just inserted the probe thing, when she rather crossly told me "You were supposed to empty your bladder before the procedure, did no one tell you?" I replied that I had indeed been told and had indeed emptied my bladder. She begged to differ. "I can't see anything, your bladder is full, look". She showed me the screen which was filled to its edges with a large black sphere and not much else. I duly waddled back to the loo, and tried to pee. I turned on the taps, I thought of waterfalls, nothing happened, because I emphatically didn't need to urinate, since I had done so about 10 minutes ago, as instructed. Stanley Milgram should have done another experiment to see whether anyone could produce urine just because a doctor told them to...
I returned sheepishly, and feeling upset and confused. She seemed to think I was a bit of a dick. She said since my bladder was so full she could conduct an external ultrasound (like the ones on the telly) where the quality of the image is actually improved by having a full bladder (women reading this who have been pregnant will know the drill). After a few minutes, I watched her brow furrow. She finally said "You're not going mad, that isn't your bladder, your bladder is empty, it's a very large cyst".
Cysts are very common and don't usually cause problems, but anything above a couple of centimetres might be considered for surgery if it is. Mine was (at the time of viewing) 11.5cm. It is not malign, not cancer, not in and of itself doing me much harm, but it has turned my menstrual cycle into a fairly harrowing monthly ordeal that has made my life small and tricksy, and turned my partner into a sort of kindly Nurofen butler. The main issue is the risk of torsion: that is, the ovary twisting off like a dead lightbulb. If that were to happen, it's sayonara to half of my fertility. I'm in my twenties and would very much like to give birth one day.
The appropriation of womanhood, which consists of denigrating the condition of being female to mere sensation, rather than material reality, is something that makes me seethe. Femininity is up for grabs as far as I'm concerned. Alok, mate, fill your thigh-highs, it's never done women all that much good as far as I can tell: it mostly just tricks us into spending money we have less of be dint of being female in the first place, and minimising our voice so as to maximise appeal to insecure men. But Womanhood, or womanness or being a woman - whatever you want to call it - it's not. It is most certainly not up for grabs. No more grabbing, we're sick of it.
My diagnosis brought relief. I had an explanation at last for why I felt so unwell. (It actually bought me considerable relief because there was a truly dreadful moment there when I thought I was going to have to give up wheat, since a spontaneous gluten intolerance was the only explanation I had for the constant abdominal discomfort and protruding tummy even when not on my period. And fuck that shit, I'm vegan, what more do you want?). But then the waiting began. It has been agreed that the thing has to be removed, but Covid has complicated matters, and for now I must just endure. As I write this, I still very much am.
On the bad days since my diagnosis, as I wait in this hinterland of intermittent pain - vacillating between feeling a bit shitty and feeling like total shit - as I try to navigate the uncertainty of what's going on in my body and try not to resent it too much, and as I try to be present in my relationship, and answer emails and all other manner of grownupping, I find sex-denial and the assertion of the supremacy of non-binary identity - the supremacy of "identity" over reality in general - as something way beyond offensive. It produces a feeling of impotent rage I'm actually incapable of describing here, and it is not directed at the person issuing the denial per se, but at the denial itself. So a couple of weeks ago, as I was lying with heat pad on my groin on a swelteringly hot day, pondering dully why the word "cyst" sounded so much like the word "cis" and whether that meant anything (it doesn't beyond both: bad), flicking idly through Instagram I came across this here post of Alok's.
I wanted to discuss this thing of narcissistic non-binary men without recourse to specific individuals. What would be ideal is to talk about this person without reference to this person. Because people like Alok don't really exist if you don't talk about them, and after all the harm he and blokes like him have done and continue to do, I wasn't massively keen on poking content into that vast gaping maw. He's like Trump in that sense, the more you talk about him the more power he has. I don't want to be a part of further enfranchising anyone who's doing such a sterling job of female erasure, but in the end, I figured this level misogyny and narcissism really does have to be seen to be believed. And it was one image in particular - one instagram post - that was especially demonstrative. In it, Alok stands, defiant, framed by what he calls abuse.
It's a trope of his, he does these posts a lot, but this one was different. Ordinarily when one side intends to malign the other, a certain amount of selectivity is called for. We all know there is transphobia out there, we all know there are some people who for whatever ugly reason cannot tolerate the sight of a man in a dress and gold platforms. It would have been all too easy for him to find genuinely cruel comments I daresay. And yet, these are the comments he chose, these are the ones he feels the most aggrieved by. Read them, read every one. Don’t let the contemporary moorings of the phenomena that is the instagram post confuse you: every one of those comments was written by someone's daughter. They all have real names and real fears. Read those comments stamped around him, like captions in the cartoon that he's made of his own life. All there is, in one form or another, are pleas to respect boundaries, that is simply all that can be found there. And yet here is the text that accompanies the post:
"It’s not a contradiction that cis women claim to know trans people better than we know ourselves (as they critique cis men for doing the same to the them). It’s not ironic that cis women legislate around trans bodies (as they condemn cis men for doing the same to them). It’s not a discrepancy that cis women deploy the rhetoric of biology to justify discrimination against trans people (as they denounce cis men for using it to discredit them).
It’s just two sides of the same coin. Trans exclusionary feminism is patriarchy. So many women are fighting for cis privilege, not against patriarchy. There’s a difference.
This is not about a few bad apples. This is about a system of patriarchy which rewards people for upholding heteronormativity, sustaining the gender binary, and distancing from gender non-conformity.
Womanhood is far more expansive than reproductive function. There are plenty of men and non-binary people who can give birth and plenty of women who cannot.
But this has never been about facts or even cognition. This has always been about a deep, ingrained hatred and distrust of us. In order for patriarchy to work we must be demeaned and disappeared.
It makes me so sad. So scared.
So, so tired."
Aren't we all Alok, aren't we all. Tired of space being taken up by men who fail to distinguish between sex and gender because that conflation costs them nothing, because they don't live with the impositions of being female (we call this privilege, Alok...). Too tired to explain that a preference for androgyny or a Feminine aesthetic or a manifest discomfort with gender norms is a personality trait, nothing more or less. And too tired to sift through this dreck line by line, in order to explain what a massive phoney you are to my readers. They already know. Many of them like me, upon seeing your face hear Magdalen Berns's words "I'm beginning to suspect you have no problems, Alok" and might be able to manage a grin. Many of them hear her say "you're not us".
Alok would like to imagine that people who object to him do so on the grounds that we object to the way he presents, the way he is, his preferences and proclivities. Imagine the dismay of the woman who wrote "Why can't he be his beautiful self and proudly call himself a man?" upon seeing her comment thus contextualised. I'll tell you why sister, because he's not as non-conforming as he likes to think, and not anywhere close to brave enough. There is nothing you or I could say that would convince him that we have no issue with his presentation. In the end he's just another bloke demonising women because it makes him feel better, because it's simpler than having to think.
People like Alok have externalised themselves to such an extent that they have made validation as necessary to themselves as water. At the end of many of his posts he tells his well wishers that he "loves and needs [them]". You bet he does. He does need them. I cannot give Alok what he needs, because I don't believe him. And because I cannot give him what he needs, he calls me a transphobic TERF and assures the world that I - and women like me - are the source of all his problems. He dares tell women that they are his oppressors, that they are Patriarchy. It would be funny if it weren't so sick. How many more existential tantrums smeared over social media are we going to have to countenance?
There has been a shift of late, something has happened in our culture, where Genderists aren't even having to lie about our views to present them as hateful, and that should concern you, it does me. And yet I try to console myself that what we are witnessing is an ideology in its death throes: increasingly absurd, deranged and destructive, in a way that cannot be sustainable.
His social media posts are always a grandiose stream of embarrassing Butlerian wank, broiling self-pity, self-importance and self, self, self. He says he is an artist, but he doesn't make things, he just takes them. He says he is an artist but he's frightened of the truth, which is that he cannot know everything, or have everything, and that's OK.
Most people are familiar with the etymology of the word Narcissism, and Ovid's version of Narcissus is the most famous of the myths about him. The story goes that Narcissus stared so long at his own image that he wasted away before it. But that's not a tragedy because that's Just, and that's not how the mechanisms of tragedy work by definition (there is some dispute about this but the Ancients basically agree with me). The story of the woman (a nymph, technically) named Echo, is less discussed, but the whole story doesn't make its full poignant sense without her. Because Echo fell in love with Narcissus too, and she perished as she watched him watch himself, perished before he did.
Echo was cursed by Zeus's wife Hera to repeat whatever was said to her. She is every bit as potent an archetype as Narcissus and every bit as useful a metaphor in making what's happening comprehensible. Because for every defiant woman and girl who told Alok, variously, to go fuck himself, or even a more conciliatory "listen, please, we get you like dresses but you're not a woman, this matters, please please listen" there is a hundred more in the comments telling him how wonderful he is. I cannot find sympathy for Alok as long as he blames women for the adversity he faces rather than homophobic men, but I want to weep for every one of those women in the comments. We call them handmaidens, they are mostly young and they are mostly pretty wounded I have found.
I will continue to love men who wear dresses and dangly earrings, I will continue to love men who don't conform to gender stereotypes, but I will be no man's Echo. The only kind of echo I'm interested in is the kind that produced the sonogram that helped diagnose a potentially serious health problem happening inside my woman's body.
And time is on our side. Young women grow into older ones, and whether they like it or not they will have to live in their bodies, and there is only one consequence that can emerge from coming to terms with your body, and that is a rejection of gender grifters, ideologues and gaslighters, and all they're selling, and an acceptance of truth, cysts and all.