Sunday , July 14 2024

Gender, Vikings, and parrots.

People stared at the make-up on his face

Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace

The boy in the bright blue jeans jumped up on the stage

And Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and disgrace

Lady Stardust, David Bowie

Today, like Caitlyn Jenner, I am struggling with gender identity issues.

And with the possibility of being seen to mock the afflicted.

And I am struggling, also, with the difficulty of knowing who the afflicted actually are, any more, and with the very real prospect of seeming to insult them unintentionally, even by describing them as such.


There was a time when, for good or ill, things were all very much simpler. It was largely for ill, many would say. But there was a time when one knew exactly who the afflicted were. And by and large, mocking them was what one did. What one was expected to do.

It was called childhood, this time.

I don’t know about your childhood, but pity and the ability to imagine the suffering of others were latecomers to my emotional repertoire, back then. And also, I think, to that of many of my friends.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.

But some things I still struggle with.

Take what is known as ‘gender identity’.

Within living memory – within my memory, certainly, and I’m living – if a sixty-year-old man let it be known that he believed that deep down he was not a man at all, but that he was in fact a woman; and if he let it be known that he wished, henceforth, no longer to be known as Bruce, but would be Caitlyn instead, and that he intended to turn up for a magazine shoot in a basque, and that in the long term he intended to get surgeons to remove his male accoutrements and fashion for him, to the best of their ability, a semblance of female ones instead; well, you would have thought him… afflicted, let us say. And worthy of pity.

Whereas now that is not necessarily considered so. Now it’s considered praiseworthy. Small boys, I imagine, think much as they always did. But you’re not supposed to, these days.

Meanwhile, if you apply for a parking-permit in the town of Hove, in England, you now have to answer a question that asks “Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were assigned at birth?” Perhaps babies in Hove actually are ‘assigned’ a ‘gender’ at birth, these days, from a range of available options. Perhaps they’re no longer simply born either male or female like babies everywhere else are, or were. It’s an interesting thought. But not one that has much to do with parking, I should imagine.

Fine, you may say, fine and dandy, and well and good and right and proper. And, snide remarks aside, this sort of sensitivity to difference does make the world a more tolerant place.

But I find that I am tormented by hypotheticals, when it comes to the matter of personal identity.

I imagine another man who, like Bruce nee Caitlyn who also has issues with his self-image. But of a different kind. Let’s call him Keith. Like Mr. or Miss Jenner, Keith feels that deep down he has been living a lie, and that what he really is, inside, is very different from how the world sees him. For a number of years – and unbeknownst even to his wife – Keith has been attending special clubs in the evenings and occasionally at weekends, where he is able to relax with others of like mind, and to act out his ‘real’ identity through costume and role-play. But as time goes by he feels that these snatched moments are no longer enough, and he wants to give up the pretence once and for all and reveal himself to the whole world as he really is.

It is a big step to take. He wants to be absolutely sure that he is doing the right thing. So he decides to seek medical advice first. He sends off for a testing-kit from a laboratory in Oxford, and receives in the post a little bottle and a brush with which he wipes the inside of his mouth. One lunchtime he does the test, packages up the sample and sends it off with two fees of £180 for two separate tests (he wants to be absolutely sure).

A week later he gets the results. One is an analysis of his mitochondrial DNA, inherited from his mother and from her mother before her in an unbroken chain going back for countless thousands of years. The other is an analysis of his Y-chromosome, showing his paternal heritage. And the results of both turn out to be positive – exactly as he thought they would be, and as he always knew they would be.

So after breaking the news to his wife – who is by turns incredulous, stunned and then tearful, he marches into the manager’s office at work and announces that the reason he has turned up at work wearing a stuck-on beard and a silver-grey plastic helmet, and a sort of brown sackcloth tabard thing over his suit, tied with a dressing-gown cord, and the reason for the plastic sword in his briefcase is that he is, in fact, a Viking.

And he has the DNA analysis to prove it.

He wishes the bank to recognise his new identity. He wishes them to start by issuing him with a new name-badge, under his new name, Leif Bloodaxe. And, yes, he does have to talk like he’s loud-hailing a ship in thick fog. That’s how Vikings spoke, he says.

And meanwhile, and to make matters worse – or to make matters more ‘inclusive’ (let’s be value-neutral here) – a third employee has also come up with a scheme to resolve his identity issues. I won’t go into the details too much, but suffice it to say that they involve changing his name to Fido, having surgeons construct for him a snout and floppy ears, cocking his leg up desks in the office, and doing things to the legs of staff and customers as the mood takes him.

You may mock. I know I do. You may think that a thing like this could never happen in the real world. But in this past week I have been reading the story of 56-year-old Ted Richards, a retired shoe-factory worker from Bristol, England, who now identifies as a parrot. And when I say ‘identifies,’ I mean it in the sense that he has had colourful plumage tattooed all over his face and – since real parrots don’t have external ears – he’s had his ears cut off. Unfortunately he’s also short-sighted and this caused some problems with his glasses staying on. So he had a couple of stainless-steel bolts screwed into his skull just above where his ears used to be, to keep them on. At the time of writing he is looking for a surgeon to transform his nose into a beak. And then, once that’s done, he’ll have fully ‘transitioned,’ as they say.

I do wonder, you know. I really do.

Because for all that may be said about the blinkered certainties of earlier times, at least you knew where you stood with them. Whereas now it is hard to know quite which way to turn.

Back then, whether a man wore a suit and bowler hat and carried a briefcase and rolled umbrella, or whether he wore a cotton frock and headscarf knotted under the chin and carried a purse, or whether he did both at different times, according to mood and opportunity, a man was considered still a man for all that. As for the idea that a he might, somehow, really be able to become an actual she, to the extent that he (she) should be allowed to have his (her) birth-certificate and official papers altered – it would have been unthinkable, laughable, preposterous. Whereas now it is the done thing to believe, or to profess to believe, that a man really can ‘become’ a woman.

But if he can, then who is to say that he cannot also become something else that he was not born to be? Why does it have to be a woman? Why can he not become a cat, say? Why can he not become a dog, or a Viking, or Napoleon, or a space-alien, or anything else that takes his fancy, if he really believes himself to be so? And if Bruce can be Caitlyn, who is to say that Ted can’t be Beaky (or whatever he wishes to be known as)? And with the advances in prosthetics and surgery now available to us, and with the ready availability of fancy-dress hire shops in all of our major towns and cities, what is there to hold anyone back? Who has the right to say it is not so? Who has the right to deny it?

So I’m struggling, you see. In all sorts of ways.

About Warwick Cairns

Warwick is Press Officer of the British Weights & Measures Association and author of About The Size Of It: the Common-Sense Approach To Measuring Things (PanMacmillan) and How to Stop Living Dangerously (PanMacmillan). He has degrees from the University of Keele and Yale University. Born in Dagenham, Essex, he has lived many places, including in Africa and a Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, USA. He now resides with his family in Windsor, Berkshire, United Kingdom.