Young adult author Juno Dawson used to be a primary school teacher – and a man. In her new book she traces her journey from James to Juno, writes Suzanne Harrington
Meet Juno Dawson. Juno is an awarding winning writer of fiction for young adults, a columnist with Glamour and Attitude magazines, and has just published her first book for adults, The Gender Games. Juno is 32, and has been writing full time for five years with considerable success – before that she was a primary school teacher. And a man. While still using the male pronoun, James Dawson taught my daughter for what she says was the most fun year of her school life – Mr Dawson was her favourite teacher.
His classes fizzed with enthusiasm. And then he left to pursue writing full time, and to become Ms Dawson.
The Gender Games traces Dawson’s transition from James to Juno, in a saucy, sassy, sweary look at gender, and how it trips and entraps us. “Gender and I were always heading for a showdown,” she writes. “One of Gender’s most common refrains is that ‘if it looks like a boy and it sounds like a boy, it’s a boy.’” Except in her case, she was a girl inside a boy’s body.
While ‘sex’ refers to five physical characteristics – XX or XY chromosomes; ovaries or testicles; levels of oestrogen and testosterone; uterus or prostate; clitoris or penis – gender is manmade. Slugs and snails, sugar and spice.
The World Health Organisation defines it as “socially constructed ideas about the behaviour, actions and roles a particular sex performs.” Or as Dawson puts it, “Gender is not sex. Gender is something else. If that’s all anyone takes away from this book, I’ve won.” Gender, says Dawson, “is neither science nor God”. Instead, it comes from us – “me, you, society, religion, doctors, the media, teachers, language, culture, your parents.” Boys don’t cry, girls don’t fight. That’s gender. “Gender is messages from the patriarchy,” she tells me. “How women should be, to better suit men.”
As a trans woman, her transition meant automatically losing male privilege; she therefore identifies strongly as a feminist. “Gender only survives if men and women get treated differently. Feminism is the best weapon against gender…. All people, whatever their sex, benefit from feminism.”
Dawson wrote this book not for other trans people, but for everyone. “If I’m only going to talk to the LGBTQ community, nobody is ever going to learn,” she says.
“But trans issues are women’s issues, and vice versa.” For this reason, Dawson remains unimpressed with TERFs – Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists.
Famously Germaine Greer, who has repeatedly proclaimed that trans women are not ‘real’ women. (Her exact words — “Just because you lop your dick off and wear a dress doesn’t make you a fucking woman.”)
Her sentiments have been echoed by feminist writers Julie Bindel and Julie Burchill. But why, in a man’s world, would a man give up his male identity unless he really was she? From the gender pay gap to sexual assault, women always come off worse - transitioning to the less culturally empowered sex to identify and live as a woman is rather more than being a cock in a frock. It’s bigger than which public loo to use.
“If you’ve never experienced gender dysphoria, then how can you talk about it?” asks Dawson.
“Whether you prefer TERF or ‘transphobe’ or ‘bigot’, I really don’t care,” she writes “Non-trans people weighing in with opions about trans bodies is very much like men weighing in with opinions about childbirth.”
Having told her mum and dad – both responded with cautious positivity – James officially became Juno by changing her name, passport, and driving licence in January 2016, after one last Christmas as James. “My transition started four years ago when I identified I was a woman, and it’s my life that’s shifting, not just by body. By not talking about my genitals, you might have to listen to what’s on my mind.”
Which, given a mind as clear, broad and sharp as Dawson’s, is a lot.
“I sometimes wonder if people are so wary of transgender progress because we [trans people] highlight how something we [society] often consider carved in stone can be so easily manipulated,” she writes. “I’m not suggesting I’m Tranny the Gender Slayer… [but] as a culture we might want to examine our tenuous links between sex and gender.”
Gender conformity begins in earliest childhood, she says: “Put that doll down. You look like a boy. You throw like a girl. She’s got a tash. He screamed like a girl. That’s not for little girls.”
It follows us around from birth to death, moulding us early on and excluding us if we fail to fit in. Although thanks to individuals like Dawson, this may be changing. Even Miley Cyrus has identified as gender fluid.
Meanwhile, there’s the issue of trans women and sex.
For a start, trans women tend to be fetishised by straight men. “I have a theory about festishes,” says Dawson. “
“If society has no issue with your tastes (tall men, big boobs, leggy, beards, tattoos) it is a ‘type’. If you’re into something society frowns upon (plus-size people, trans people, leather, rubber, watersports) it is a ‘fetish’.”
As a gay man, Dawson had given it his best shot. Bulked up on weights and protein shakes, bearded and lumbersexual, he frequented gay saunas (“Like the last days of Rome. All for fifteen quid. Bargain.”), but concluded that “there is a line where sex becomes self-harm.” As a man, she felt like an imposter: “My male role play was exhausting.” Nobody, however, transitions to improve their love life, she says.
“Anyone who thinks that transitioning is a choice or a trend should be very aware of how gruelling it is and I don’t hink anyone would stick it out for more than a week unless they absolutely HAD to.” Dawson, like many women, wishes for romance, a lasting relationship, marriage, love.
“Being trans isn’t a twenty four hour kinky fetish party,” she says. “As a lived experience, it’s just not exciting, I’m afraid. I cannot be a sexual fantasy. I want the same thing as everyone else – scintillating conversation, dinner dates, sex, someone to moan at, Netflix and chill(ed) wine.” “It’s funny,” she writes.
“As James, I had little interest in getting married. Now as Juno, now that I can be a bride, I’m quite into the idea. I want to wear a big dress (think Jennifer Connolly in Labyrinth), walk down the aisle and take those vows in front of my friends and family.
“But I’m in no rush. Now that I’m the right woman, I’m happy to wait for the right man.”
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