If a stranger approached me to ask me a question about my genitals, I'd be shocked and really quite angry. If a stranger assumed I was suicidal and depressed from knowing one incidental fact about me, that would also rile me. Happenings such as these are the reasons that I think Freiya is one of the calmest, kindest and most interesting people I've met to date, as this happens to her regularly. She has never punched anyone. In fact, her approach is to explain very articulately exactly the reasons she would not like to discuss her genitalia with a perfect stranger, or the reasons it is in fact unfair and judgmental to assume that she is suicidal or depressed because of one aspect of her identity. Freiya is a woman who just so happens to be transgender.
My reason for talking to Freiya is not only that she's woman and a feminist (and dealing with difficult situations related to these aspects of her identity daily) but that she is also facing an attitude from others that I am quite confused by. I mean, it is extremely rare to see in the mainstream media positive portrayals of people who are transgender, outside the gender binary or genderqueer. As a human, it's natural to be curious about somebody who is experiencing something you don't know about. I'm definitely guilty of asking a boyfriend if he wipes his penis after he does a wee; if you don't ask, you won't know, right? The difference is that asking somebody you are intimate with and have known for a long time is far different from asking a perfect stranger. Besides, a person's gender is not all that they are.
What is most interesting to me is what it's like to be transgender on a daily basis. Is it really that big a deal? Are most people liberal enough to see past one small part of somebody's identity? How does this play out every day? Since I spoke to Freiya, my eyes have opened to things that would not even have occurred to me. After all, why would it? The sex assigned to me at birth is the one I identify with. A wonderful and hilarious person, Freiya has enlightened at least one person (me) to the complexities of being a woman who is also transgender.
The first thing that I noticed about Freiya when she arrived was the enviable, long, ash-blonde hair she has. When I mentioned it, Freiya thanked me but quickly moved on to endearing self-deprecation by mentioning that she's worried she's going grey. We both moved on to our mutual hatred of discovering grey hairs in the mirror. Image is important to most people, and this is a great starting ground.
Freiya: I find there is a massive cliché to do with transgender women and style: People see us as badly dressed and frumpy -- either that or over the top. If you are not born in a certain gender, you have not had years of growing up to experiment with what you wear and how to do things like your hair and makeup. Everyone has made fashion mistakes; it just so happens that some transgender people make them later in life. For that very reason I pick clothes that help me to blend in. I am very aware of what I wear.
Kristen: Have you had many negative responses to what you have worn?
Freiya: In the street the other day I was wearing some shorts, and this builder shouted at me, "Nice legs!" because I obviously presented to him as a woman. The feminist in me wanted to go over and tell him not to objectify me, but the transgender person knew that if I walked over there to confront him and he noticed that I am trans, anything could have happened. It was also about my own mental state. I didn't have the energy to approach him and come out of the situation feeling awful.
Kristen: Have you heard about websites in which women would take the details of the company that guy worked for and complain to them?
Freiya: Yeah, they're great. I wish I'd had the quick thinking to do that. It's just better to avoid confrontation. Dealing with aggressive misogyny and abuse is ridiculous; you can't reason with it. I just have to think about my own personal reaction to what has been said.
Kristen: What do you see as the main aspects of being a woman and a person who is transgender?
Freiya: Really simply, equality, freedom and respect. It's about seeing the individual. I'm not just a woman or a transgender person; I'm many other things. Anyone can be a feminist.
Kristen: What do you feel about some movements within feminism that suggest only women might be called feminists?
Freiya: Well, I think to make feminism exclusive negates the notion of equality. If feminism were to become in any way exclusive, it is surely becoming what it is fighting. For it to become non-inclusionary would be a massive shame. I think it's important to involve as many people as possible.
Kristen: Have you seen Emma Watson speaking at the UN? What did you think?
Freiya: I've heard opposing viewpoints on it. I think that what she did was a very brave and inspirational thing. It couldn't have been easy. The main positive that I gathered from her speech is that a hell of a lot more young people will now be aware of a cause that they might have been blind to before. Emma Watson appeals to a young audience, and it's important to see the value in that. I also think it was really important to have a woman in a powerful position talking about this issue.
Kristen: Do you personally have an impact on young people around any issue?
Freiya: Yes, I work with young people as one of my two jobs. I think it's so important to have them as representatives for their cause. When we have award shows and things like that, it's the young people we want to speak. It would have far less effect if I did it. I'm not a young person anymore, sadly!
Kristen: That sounds great. What inspired you to work with young people?
Freiya: It's just so easy for people to be critical of young people, of feminists, of trans people, of anything. I really just want to encourage empathy. People are good.
Kristen: I've seen a blog post you wrote about dating. How's dating going at the moment?
Freiya: I actually broke up with someone a while ago that I was married to for 13 years. We got married very young! Luckily we're still friends, and she's just had a child. What I've found since her, though, has been a bit up and down.
Kristen: Do you date online as well as in person?
Freiya: Yeah, I do both. I much prefer not dating online, because you can see someone; you know if you fancy them or not, and there is way more flow. Online dating has thrown up some massive issues for me in terms of being trans. I find that it is massively stigmatized, so I've tried and tested various ways of disclosing it. It's so difficult, because it has such a potential for aggressive behavior and humiliation.
Kristen: What are the reactions people have to your disclosure?
Freiya: Well, if I haven't disclosed it on my profile and disclose it later on, I get far more negative reactions from men. It's all about the picture you see; it's very shallow. If someone hasn't noticed I'm trans and then I tell them, I either get blocked immediately or I get responses like "I would sleep with you, but it would only be out of curiosity," which is lovely. The tone of people definitely changes. Men will drop the whole flirty (sometimes sleazy) tone and become much more matter-of-fact; it's like they're not talking to a woman. I find it very depressing. I mean, ultimately there are a lot of dickheads online, people that, if I met in real life, I wouldn't consider dating, but I suppose that goes for everyone.
Kristen: Do you worry about your personal safety?
Freiya: Of course I do. Everyone does. What concerns me more, though, is thinking about my own mental well-being. Rejection after rejection isn't good for anybody, so sometimes it's easier just to opt out. I've found that I've had to develop a very thick skin; in my situation it's easy to get hurt. I also found that in past relationships that were unhealthy, I took on other people's issues because I assumed that it was me that was wrong, because so many people have told me that. It was so liberating, though, to suddenly realize that I didn't need to take this stuff on, though; I didn't have to be in that relationship.
Kristen: What would you say about the media and how they represent transgender/non-binary/genderqueer people?
Freiya: It feels like you are fighting an entire society sometimes, like one tiny person against the world. There's a few assumptions people immediately make because of the media: that trans people are somehow deceiving people, that trans people are into weird sex and fetishes, like everything you want will be kinky. Sometimes you just want to have boring sex. There are so many of these massive assumptions. Another is that I don't want a monogamous relationship. I want to dispel all of that. The most common one is that I'm going to have mental-health issues, or that I'm suicidal. A lot of people -- male, female, trans, binary, whatever -- have mental-health issues; it's not trans people exclusively. Because of the media reaction, I do feel like trans people are seen as lower in the pecking order. What I would like to happen is that all people that are from a minority are seen as people and these huge assumptions aren't made.
Kristen: Why do you think people freak out so much?
Freiya: People freak out because it challenges their identity: "What will the world think of me if I go out with a trans person?" The last serious relationship I had, when she told her friends, their reaction wasn't "Oh, it's great that you've met someone"; it was "Oh, aren't they really fucked up?" and "Are you sure you can deal with that?" I'm a person, you know, not a problem. This is why I want to challenge all stereotypes. The media are sensationalist and aggressive; hardly any of what they write is based on fact. People have this cycle of thought, a view of what the public expect of them. It makes the whole thing a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Kristen: Have you used humor to deflect situations?
Freiya: I would love to say that I use it every time I'm faced with a difficult situation, but it really depends how I'm feeling that day. I will often use humor as a self-defense mechanism, but what I have learned to do more often is to remove myself from situations; if I can't control anything else, I can control when I leave.
Kristen: Do you have a good support network?
Freiya: Yes, I consider myself to be a very lucky person in terms of friends and family being supportive. If someone is making life difficult for me, my friends are so good that I don't even have to say anything; they just step in and ask that person to leave.
Kristen: Does that happen a lot when you're out?
Freiya: It's ridiculous. People think they have the right to ask very personal questions. It'll be things from perfect strangers like "Are you a man or a woman?" or they'll ask me about my genitals. In those instances my friends are my protection; they'll just dive right in. It's your support network that save you every day. I suppose that's the same for everybody. And it's a select group of people; I have 10 to 15 people that I would call good friends. What's important is that their strength in me allows me to be strong for them. Friendship is a two-way thing, and I want to be as good of a friend to them as they are to me. It's symbiotic.
Kristen: Do you have any specific examples of people making a situation difficult when you've been out?
Freiya: Oh gosh, loads. I was at a party, and there were quite a few people there, and, you know, sometimes you just want to dance and not talk about being trans. So somebody there really wanted to talk to me about it, and the crux of her argument was "It's sad that trans people have to pick a gender." I understand what she was trying to say, but firstly I didn't really want to be talking about it in front of a load of people, and secondly it's a very naïve view. What if I'm a woman because I want to be a woman? I am a woman, which surely means that I am OK with picking a gender. Non-binary and genderqueer people haven't done that, and that's fine, but I have.
Kristen: How much would you say your identity is tied to your gender?
Freiya: I would say that my identity is definitely attached to my gender. I want to be a woman. For me, being a woman is what I am. If people couldn't see that I was trans, I think I would still tell them. It's a part of me; I feel attached to it.
Kristen: How do women react to you?
Freiya: Women are very interested in me being trans. There is a certain degree of empathy or trying to understand that comes from women far more than men. That curiosity is fine, but if I'm on a date with a woman, it makes it difficult to tell if they just want to know about me being trans or if they want to know me as a person. I think it's because it's such an interesting and confusing thing, and it's the first thing a lot of people see. I'm also the first trans person a lot of people have met, so it's completely new to them. People tend not to really know how they would feel about a relationship with a trans person. People have a very strong attachment to labels; it gives them an identity. I confuse that. In terms of dating, I did have a negative experience with one woman I met online, which goes back to the whole people-sleeping-with-me-because-they're-curious thing. We went on a date, and it seemed to be going well. Towards the end of the evening, we kiss, and she invites me back to hers. I agree, and we sleep with each other, and it's good and lovely. However, come the morning, she tells me that she had a nice time, but she doesn't want to see me again because she'd rather be with someone more feminine, as she identifies as lesbian. It's a tricky one to know how to feel about, and at the time I really didn't know what to feel, as, on one hand, I'd had an enjoyable night with someone, but, on the other, this same person, in my mind, is basically saying I'm not enough of a woman because I'm trans. I still don't entirely know how I feel about it, because, if she was being honest, I think she was trying to say that she slept with me in order to explore, maybe even confirm, her own identity, in a way that posed as little risk for her as possible, emotionally. I know it's not a massive shocker that people use other people for sex to explore what they want from it, but that was a specific experience for me being trans.
Kristen: How do you find older people react to you? Is it any different?
Freiya: That's difficult, because it's a bit of a generalization in itself. My own parents have been fantastic. They're really supportive. The reason older people find it odder sometimes is because they have no point of reference; in the '60s and '70s I imagine the stigma attached to trans people would have been horrific. But then again, I have friends who are trans and their grandparents don't bat an eyelid; as long as their grandchild is happy, that's all that matters. I would say that in all instances, people's varying reactions are down to their personality. I also live in a city in which trans people are way more visible, so the familiarity means that the shock isn't there.
Kristen: Are there any things that people have done for you that have really touched you?
Freiya: It's definitely touching, in terms of friends and family, that people give enough of a shit to step in. It's also really little things, like when people show me the respect of not misgendering me, referring to me as a woman, which is what I am. When people treat me in a way which means they believe me, because there is this narrative that trans people are misguided, that trans women are just fucked-up men. It's so touching when other people believe me, because it means not only am I committed to being what I am, but that others are committed to letting me be that. Also when people such as yourself ask me to do things like this! It's incredibly affirming and a very positive experience. Acknowledgment and representation done in a positive and empowering way is fantastic, both on a personal level and at a more community-based level as well.