Saturday, April 09, 2011

Man Gives Birth?

*This article I wrote about gender reassignments was published in Pelican magazine, August 2009 - but not a whole lot has changed since then, so here it is again.
 Man Gives Birth?

About a month ago, a man named Thomas Beatie (dubbed 'the Pregnant Man' by the media) gave birth to his baby daughter in the USA. This story sparked a highly intriguing headline: 'Man Gives Birth'. Bad news for women – giving birth was the one thing we could claim over the male gender. Men get higher salaries, the Presidential candidacy, and standing up while they pee – and now, apparently, they can get pregnant as well. But … is Thomas Beatie really a man? He was born a woman, then went through a gender reassignment and had his gender legally changed to male. However, he kept his female reproductive organs. So, at least in a biological sense, it was a female giving birth. Yet Beatie is legally a man. Confused much?

In an article that Beatie wrote for an American newspaper, he repeatedly affirmed that throughout the pregnancy his ‘gender identity as male [was] constant’. I find it interesting that a transgender person such as Beatie can so emphatically claim a fixed gender identity. What defines the male gender? Beatie has had his female breasts removed, and has taken testosterone to grow facial hair, but kept his female reproductive organs. So does this mean that every woman of flat chest and hairy upper lip is actually teetering on the edge of the male gender? Or, that any man who cannot grow a full beard is not a man? (I’m sure there are numerous Facebook groups with opinions on that.) Gender is not governed by indisputable boundaries, not for anyone, and the issue of gender identity can become confusing when you are trying to shoehorn each unique individual into one of two categories. Philosopher Judith Butler stated that the body cannot serve as a foundation for gender definition; there are simply too many different kinds of bodies for us to categorize all of them into 'male' or 'female'. When you consider gender as a fluid concept, it becomes easier to accept a wider range of gender identities.

In Oregon, where Thomas Beatie lives, he is legally recognised as a man. Despite this, he reportedly still has trouble convincing some of his neighbours to recognise this. However, the media coverage of the Beatie story has consistently referred to him in male pronouns. Since the story came to the media’s attention, even the most sceptical headlines said 'Man Claims To Be Pregnant,' instead of 'Pregnant Woman Claims To Be A Man'. Looking closer to home, how does our own state treat its transgender community? If Thomas Beatie were a Western Australian and had delivered his baby in this state, would the papers have announced 'Man Gives Birth', or would WA have denied Beatie’s status as a man? It is true that in the last decade WA has radically improved its legislation with regards to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. However, many of WA’s transgender residents are still stranded in legal limbo. It all comes down to the question of defining gender, at least in terms of the law. Under the Gender Reassignment Act 2000, a person hoping to apply for a recognition of gender change must have taken on the 'characteristics' of their adopted gender. The Act defines gender characteristics as 'the physical characteristics by virtue of which a person is identified as male or female.' Whether this extends to include such physical traits as muscle size or hair length is not specified; in fact, the Act’s definitions are extremely vague. At one point in Australian history, it was commonly considered a male characteristic to wear trousers. That social viewpoint has clearly changed; what else could change? Who decides which characteristics belong to each gender?

In 2006, New York City proposed a new rule, to allow people to legally change their gender without medical alteration or surgery. The intent of the new legislation was to let people decide for themselves which gender they are. In WA, however, in order to legally change your gender, you must have undergone 'a medical or surgical procedure … to alter the genitals and other gender characteristics of a person.' Gender reassignment procedures can be extremely expensive and painful, and are not within everyone’s means. Some transgender people don’t view surgical alterations as necessary. Is gender, therefore, a personal choice or governed by our physiology? If it were the latter, where would that leave Thomas Beatie?

So far, in this article, I have used the word 'gender' twenty-four times. Often, when you have used a word so often within a short space of time, it begins to lose its meaning. Perhaps gender is beginning to lose its meaning and its importance – after all, why are we so concerned with gender? In making it difficult for people to change their gender, what is our society so jealously guarding? For many people, an ideal world would consist of men and women having equal opportunities and an end to gender discrimination. For decades, activist groups have been fighting for this very cause. In practicality, gender discrimination still occurs in Australia. For example, women in the army or navy are not permitted to fight in direct combat, on the basis that their physiology is inherently weaker. Where do transgender people fit into this? Could a man who was born a woman fight in combat?

If everyone was considered equal regardless of their gender, it wouldn’t matter which gender we claimed. Thomas Beatie is a man who wanted to have a baby, so he did. As Beatie said himself, 'Wanting to have a biological child is neither a male nor female desire, but a human desire.' While Beatie’s pregnancy may not quite be a biology-defying miracle (some women may have been thinking, 'Damn, so I can’t get my man to go through labour for me, after all'), his story’s worldwide exposure has shown that our society’s view on gender is gradually broadening. And that, in itself, is a miracle. 

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Follow @NYWM_wa

National Young Writers' Month kicks off in June 2011, encouraging all under-25s around Australia to get writing!

As the WA Ambassador for NYWM, I'll be spreading the word around our great state, and tweeting as I go. Hit up Twitter and follow @NYWM_wa. 

West Is Best. Wesside.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

There's Nothing Wrong With Me

This article was published in Pelican magazine, November 2010.

There's Nothing Wrong With Me
Kaitlyn Plyley defends a controversial body shape.

Recently in Australia, as part of an initiative to improve national body image, the Government ruled that our fashion industry must refrain from using models with dangerously low BMIs. In the media frenzy over 'healthy body image', certain body shapes are being discriminated against. People are calling for 'real women' to appear on catwalks and in catalogues - by which they mean rounder, curvier, shorter women. Are tall, leggy, slender women not real? If you cut us, do we not bleed? For too long, thin girls have been discriminated against, suffering taunts about their weight and comments that they should 'eat something'. This cannot go on.

I weigh about fifty-seven kilos, and according to my body mass index I am dangerously underweight. I do not diet. I do not have a punishing exercise regime. In fact, I spend most of my spare time lolling on the sofa, watching The IT Crowd and eating salted peanuts. I’m not trying to be thin - I just am.

As if being thin wasn't enough, I'm also quite tall. At 185cm, I stand head and shoulders above the average Australian woman, and around ten centimetres taller than the average Australian man. My height is almost always the first thing people remark on when they meet me. I also get the occasional unsolicited comment from people on the street. (The term 'BFG' comes up a lot.) One guy tried to pick me up in a nightclub by whispering into my ear, 'Hey, you're really tall.' It wasn't even a compliment - it was just an observation. People always seem to feel compelled to point out my obvious physical difference.

Think of those poor skinny little girls in the schoolyard, being ostracised by their curvaceous peers just because they're 'different'. They dread swimming carnivals because swimsuits draw attention to their bony shoulder blades. Every lunchtime, they stuff hedgehog slices into their faces, hoping to one day have big thighs like Beyonce. But there's no fighting the inexorable force of their quick metabolism. Who will give these beanpoles a voice? Won't someone please think of the skinny girls??

My teenage years were a harrowing experience. At high school I had to endure nicknames like Twiggy and Stick Insect. It got even worse when I went through my unfortunate 'punk' phase: with the combination of short spiky hair, band T-shirts and teenage-boy body, I was often mistakenly addressed as 'sir' by people. 'I'm a girl,' I wailed. 'A GIRL!'

Later, I grew more comfortable with my body. At nineteen, I spent a summer in the US, eating my way up to sixty-two kilos. It is the heaviest I've ever been; it was the happiest time of my life. But all good things must come to an end and, for all my good intentions, I just couldn't keep the weight on. Back home in Australia, the temptations of muesli, lean meats and fresh vegetables were all too great. I even started jogging. Before I knew it, I was back down to fifty-five kilos (sixteen kilos less than the average weight for Australian women). But it's important to be true to yourself, so I have to own who I am. I am a thin girl. God, it feels so good to say that!

A lot of women wouldn't feel comfortable with me talking about my weight. When women get together, conversation often turns to body image; girls lament their pudgy bellies and jiggly arms, or hours spent in 'Body Pump' (whatever that is). But if I voice a concern that my stomach is not completely flat anymore, I'm met with groans and scathing glares. The thin girl is not allowed to express body issues. She can't refuse a second helping of dessert without being accused of having anorexia. One time, I turned down a slice of chocolate cake (because I'm genuinely allergic to chocolate), and the other women rolled their eyes at each other. 'Oh piss off, skinny bitch,' they roared. Must I bear this ridicule? I would never rebuff another woman based on her weight, so why is it acceptable for other women to judge me thus? 'Skinny bitch' is a particularly spurious insult, since it implies that all women of slight build must be rude. Pffft - whatever, jerks!

I'm aware that women of larger build face many challenges, but being a tall, thin girl has its challenges as well. Shopping for clothes is a hassle: it's as if mainstream clothes manufacturers think that as women get taller, they get exponentially wider. Knee-high boots aren't an option, since they simply flap around my chicken legs, and don't even talk to me about buying jeans. Fashion dilemmas aside, there are also physical disadvantages. I am hungry literally all of the time, and cold, because I lack a natural layer of insulation between my skin and my bones. If I were lost in the wilderness, the only thing between me and starvation would be the small store of fat in my tiny backside. I wouldn't last long.

I'm tired of the media telling me about 'real women'. I am a real woman. I'm abnormally tall, and naturally slender, and I'm fine with that. Our fashion industry is changing: Australia is working towards having a popular culture that celebrates every body type. It's definitely a change for the better. For too long, too many people have been made to feel that their natural body shape is not good enough. So please, don't punish the skinny girls - their lesser weight doesn't make them lesser people. Be thin, be proud! I am a thin girl. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Barefaced Storytelling at The Blue Room!

I was lucky enough to take part in the Blue Room's "NYC Storytelling" workshop, which culminates in the Barefaced Storytelling nights this month. I've seen many of the storytellers perform already, and they are unfailingly awesome. The best part is that all of the stories are true - and some of these peeps have gotten up to some crazy stuff.  

I'll be performing my story this Thursday night (8.30pm at The Blue Room). It's called "My Muse" and it reveals how utterly uncool I was in high school. Oh dear.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

I Am The Thin Woman

Inspired by Zan Ross's slam piece at the 2010 WA Poetry Slam.

I am the thin woman. The skinny woman.
I can sidle through narrow spaces,
and count all my ribs.

I am the tall woman. The long woman.
People say "Oh! Is it raining? You'd be the first to know."
I have to order my jeans from a special warehouse, interstate,
because I want jeans that reach all the way down to my feet.

I am the shallow woman.
I am very, very shallow.
And because I lack depth, that is as far as my self-analysis has gotten.

I am the discreet woman. The sexy woman.
I will laugh at your dirty jokes
and pretend not to know what you mean when you say
"Want to come in for a coffee?"

I am the watcher of daytime TV -
it's a boring job, but somebody's got to do it.

I am the thin woman. The skinny woman.
And yes, I will have something to eat -
but not because you told me to.