Societies Column - UCD LGBTQ+: Do ghosts feel dysphoria?

Image Credit: Courtesy of: UCD LGBTQ+ Society

The daily lives of non-binary trans people are often framed as curious phenomena and therefore utilised as cheap ploys for garnering media attention.

In the still ongoing case of Enoch Burke, the topic of non-binary existence and the debates surrounding its legitimacy were used by Mr Burke as a believable sort of decoy to conceal his repeated intentional breaching of laws that have nothing to do with mandated speech, and to instead portray his arrest as a direct consequence of his philosophical and religious views on gender. The former secondary school teacher began his quest for martyrdom by intruding on Wilson’s Hospital School’s premises after he had been put on paid administrative leave. His goal had been to protest the school’s inclusive policy that he violated by adamantly refusing to refer to one of the students, who he wasn’t even teaching, using they/them pronouns. Enoch Burke was ultimately imprisoned not because of the trespassing, nor due to his ‘philosophical’ protest against non-binary identities. The reason for the former teacher’s arrest was contempt of court after he failed to attend the scheduled hearing for the trespassing charges. It is also important to note the fact that Mr Burke is essentially holding himself captive, as he has the ability to leave prison if he purges his contempt, complies with the injunction and agrees to no longer enter the school premises pending the results of his disciplinary hearing.

The unfortunately effective red herring tactic for transphobes relies upon wrongfully portraying the advocacy for non-binary transgender rights as a part of an authoritarian leftist regime that jails detractors for speech crimes and religious views. The reality is instead that, independent of the iron-fisted policies of a fictionalised oppressively tolerant government, with time more people willingly adopt progressive views on trans issues, which then complicates the social lives and employment of transphobes. Another curious pattern worth pointing out is that unlike the cases of J.K. Rowling, Joe Rogan and Dave Chappelle, (that is, people who already have established careers, and use their platforms to vilify and ridicule primarily binary trans people, especially women), ‘disagreeing’ with non-binary existence serves as a stepping stone into media prominence under the aegis of political activism, philosophical debate and ‘rational’ thinking. A fine example of this is the uncannily similar self-crucifixion and subsequent rise to popularity of the former Toronto University professor Jordan B. Peterson.

I believe that it is easier to frame transphobic views against non-binary people as philosophical disagreements, and arguments against intrusions on free speech and religious freedom because of the mysterious and mystified nature of non-binary identity. Coming out as any non-binary identity is portrayed to be a fad, a fashion choice, a cry for attention, a superficial change and thereby a conscious, political opposition to the gender binary and its norms. The truth is, however, that my opposition to the gender binary is not conscious. It is innate to my organism.

I want to demystify the non-binary identity. Yes, it is mysterious, my discovery of it, my discovery of myself was then a mysterious, wondrously odd affair. But despite this, I don’t think my identity should be obfuscated, portrayed as magical, politicised semantics. A non-binary person’s view of themselves is natural and it is understandable. It could be understood through exposure to stories of non-binary identification and most of all through empathy.

Having the language to call oneself queer in regards to sexual orientation serves to alleviate pain in the early stages of self-discovery, but most of all it serves to alleviate tremendous amounts of confusion. In the absence of such language to describe queer genders, confusion blends unscratchable itches of gender dysphoria, fear of one’s own body and a sense of not belonging with mental illness. You begin to scrutinise and medicalise your experience of yourself. Do I not belong in gender normative society or am I ‘just’ depressed? Do I have body dysphoria or body dysmorphia? Is my inner conception of myself truthful or is it distorted by disordered thinking? And maybe I would feel the gnawing pressure to recognise that I’m not what I’ve been assigned to be if the world was a little bit kinder to girls, if it objectified their bodies a little less often, stopped making them sights of contention. But the frequency of the itch - the dysphoric or sometimes euphoric echo of my gender, does not change the body from which that itch is coming.

For many years I’ve pictured myself as being a ghost that has opportunistically bound itself to whichever body was available as it hungrily glanced up from the underworld through the ouija board belonging to its summoners. The ghost doesn’t have a better option, won’t modify the body it possessed to resemble what the ghost truly is, because the person behind the spirit has died; the real essence of them is now long lost to history. Whenever I watch films or read books with ghosts in them, I ask a seemingly absurd question - “Would the ghost feel dysphoria? Would it long for its body back?” Now I ask whether if the ghost didn’t feel dysphoria does that then mean they are defined by their current body, the one they have acquired by accident and not by choice? Of course, people aren’t ghosts; we aren’t living in fantasy. But our minds are ghost-like. Whether you believe in souls, or if you simply conceive of the fluttering complexities, the murky, unexplainable, shadowy processes that govern our minds, you might sympathise with my allegory. Our minds are like ghosts - they don’t inhabit our physical features: the pattern of someone’s hair, the length of another one’s bones. They live to feel and to define themselves through feeling. That’s why I was able to understand that anyone’s gender, including cisgender people, is a feeling. A feeling like happiness, anger, sadness, or love. A feeling that is unconditional, persistent, alive.

The mystification and ridicule surrounding unorthodox gender identities might make it tempting to be ghost-like, to lock away your identity, to deny your feelings, but it won’t change my mind, literally. Our minds dictate our gender, make us understand who we are. And unfortunately, we aren’t ghosts possessing strangers’ bodies, we are whole human beings living through our very first attempts at life. This account of a trans experience is not a rebuttal to trans medicalism or fundamentalist views on gender, it is instead an explanation of what gender feels like in universal terms. Hopefully, my experience can be helpful in guiding your understanding, and with time fewer and fewer trans people will have to become ghosts in their own bodies.