No, I will not help Sundog make a documentary on trans “regret”

23/10/2014

This afternoon I received an unsolicited email in my work account from an employee of Sundog Pictures. An excerpt follows:

I’m currently working on an idea alongside Channel 4 following transgender individuals who have come to regret their sex changes and are keen to undergo further treatment / operations to reverse the change. The doc will be insightful and sensitive and will look at the way in which transgender individuals are treated in society and whether the process before someone is permitted an operation is robust enough.

I’m currently looking for real life cases to include in my pitch document and was wondering whether you might be able to recommend people I could speak to, or places I could contact to find individuals who are currently thinking about a reverse sex change. Any help would be really appreciated.

Given the email account used, I feel that I can safely assume that I was contacted because of my academic work, which looks at discourses of trans healthcare provision. Sundog seem to hope that I will (without compensation) draw upon my community contacts and research findings to recommend participants for their television programme.

I couldn’t think of anything more inappropriate.

There’s a lot to be said about research ethics and a duty of care towards participants, but plenty has been written about that elsewhere (the BSA Statement of Ethical Practice offers a decent broad overview). So in this post I focus on the huge problems that come with the proposed topic of the documentary: that of trans “regret”.


The numbers

The mainstream media take an undue interest in trans “regret”. It’s very easy to come across such stories on daytime television and in both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers. The popularity and frequency of such stories suggests that it’s not too unusual for people who have undertaken a physical transition from male to female, or from female to male, to consider or undertake a “reverse sex change”.

In reality, research has shown time and time again that the actual rate of regret is extremely low. For instance, only 2% of respondents in the Trans Mental Health Study (the second-largest trans study undertaken in the UK) reported “major regrets” about the physical changes experienced during transition. Reported regrets from participants included:

“…not having the body that they wanted from birth, not transitioning sooner/earlier, surgery complications (especially loss of sensitivity), choice of surgeon (if surgery required revisions and repairs), losing friends and family, and the impact of transition on others.”

It’s clear therefore that “regret”, when it occurs, is likely to stem from societal and surgical issues rather than the process of physical transition in and of itself. The Trans Mental Health Study also demonstrates a clear link between physical transition and wellbeing in terms of mental health, body confidence and general life satisfaction.

With so few trans people regretting physical transition – and even less considering some kind of “de-transition” – it’s no surprise that sometimes the same individuals are trotted out time and time again to re-affirm a discourse of regret.


What’s missing from this story?

It’s pretty clear from the email I received that that the author has not done their research. Given the existence of organisations such as Trans Media Watch and All About Trans who are entirely keen to offer advice, this does not exactly inspire confidence.

For a start, transition is conflated with “sex change”, a term that is not only most frequently associated with transphobic tabloid headlines, but is also broadly meaningless. At what point can we talk about a “sex change”? When an individual undertakes hormone therapy? Chest surgery? Genital surgery? What about individuals who transition socially, but only undergo some (or even none!) of these processes? It’s not the kind of language that suggest an “insightful and sensitive” documentary can be made.

There’s a couple of more fundamental mistakes in the proposal, however. The first is the question of “whether the process before someone is permitted an operation is robust enough”. My own initial research findings suggest that if anything, the process in question is too robust – in that patients requiring surgery are typically required to wait many years before treatment is available.

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health Standards of Care require patients to undergo at least 12 months of hormone therapy prior to genital surgery. In reality, patients in England and Wales face a substantial waiting list (sometimes lasting years) before they are able to attend an NHS Gender Clinic, where two separate clinicians are required to approve a regime of hormone therapy before it can be undertaken. An additional two opinions are needed at a later date before a referral for genital surgery can take place. There are many, many opportunities and a great deal of time for patients to consider and re-consider their option – and that’s even before we take into account the horrific scale of the current crisis in surgery provision for trans women.

The current system is not constructed to facilitate transition so much as prevent the very possibility of regret. The result is increased suffering – in terms of the mental and physical health impact upon individuals who are forced to wait many years for hormones and surgery, whilst fearing (sometimes with good reason) that they will be denied treatment on spurious grounds. It’s no surprise that the Trans Mental Health Study found that “not transitioning sooner/earlier” is a major cause of “regret”, as individuals who have waited until breaking point to transition soon discover that there is still a long, long road ahead of them.

The second fundamental problem with Sundog’s proposal is their idea that trans people who aren’t too happy with their transition might be “keen to undergo further treatment / operations to reverse the change”. This is a very binaristic notion that both stems from and reinforces the notion that transition is a one-way process, from one (binary) gender to the other. In reality, there are many people for whom transition is a complex, ongoing process. For instance,  an individual who initially transitions from male to female might later feel that their identity is better understood as genderqueer, and may allow or pursue further physical changes to reflect this.


The wider political context

Given the tiny proportion of trans people who “regret” transition and the realities of service provision, the choice of a documentary about the subject appears at best to be somewhat misguided. However, the impact of insensitive coverage on this topic is such that I believe that I believe this documentary could be actively harmful, particularly as Sundog’s email asks “whether the process before someone is permitted an operation is robust enough”.

This is in part because the way in which discourses of regret are handled makes it harder for trans people to get treatment. Gender clinics in the UK require urgent intervention to make life easier for individuals who transition, not harder. Media hysteria over the possibility of regret reinforces the current system’s approach, which is to require people to demonstrate over and over again that they are trans before there is any hope of treatment.

But it’s also because discourses of regret are employed by those who campaign against trans liberation, including conservative commentators and anti-trans radical feminists who would deny funding for transition on the NHS altogether. Writers such as Julie Bindel are all too keen to use any example of individual regret to argue that transition is unnecessary mutilation, undertaken by sad, sick individuals who might have done otherwise if only they’d been given the option of, say, some form of reparative therapy.

The focus on the medical process is therefore politically loaded. Yes, some people do de-transition, and their stories are important and of worth. But these stories have yet to be told by the mainstream media in a non-sensationalised manner, in a way that doesn’t reinforce (intentionally or otherwise) a pernicious anti-trans agenda. Sundog’s proposal appears to feed right into this agenda.

This proposed documentary should not be regarded as a curiosity piece taking place in a cultural vacuum. It draws upon and will contribute to damaging and inaccurate tropes about transition. Ill-informed media accounts ultimately play a part in creating and maintaining a situation where “regret” frequently stems from the responses of friends and family, delays to transition and other negative experiences that come with transitioning in a transphobic society.

I hope therefore that any future attempts to examine trans health issues in this way will involve better research into the topic at the initial stages, and a greater sensitivity to both the personal and political consequences of exposing trans lives to media scrutiny.

Ohai Reddit

06/10/2014

Welcome to my blog.

(Guest Post) #TransStonewall: Uncovering White Trans Laziness

13/09/2014

This post was written by Jade Fernandez, who has given me permission to cross-post.


It’s true, I’m a defector. I’m turned in my Racial Badge for a slightly-less-radical badge that reads ‘Unapologetic Stonewall Sympathiser’, and I’ve torn up my Radical Trans ID that I specifically use to get into Radical Trans Events.

I took part in the #TransStonewall meeting, and I liked it. Sue me.

What was refreshing was, to put it lightly, the lack of trans wankery. What, I hear you ask, is trans wankery? It’s the inter-community shitstorm that bubbles up every time we try and organise something even a little bit outside of our comfort zones. Let’s face it, trans people trying to organise something of this magnitude with Stonewall would be like dumping cats into a bag and giving it a kick. With CEO Ruth Hunt’s guidance, oratory skills, and calm professional aura, the meeting was free from drama, ended on time, and we reached some clear, profound points for moving forward at the end. Had a bunch of trans people organised it solely, we would have been talking about the past 25 years of grievances for 25 hours and I would have burst into tears.

There were issues with diversity – of course, there will always be diversity issues within any group of people with one common experience. Intersectionality is a buzzword white trans people like to throw around to impress their equally white mates. Intersectionality, white trans people think, means complaining that no or limited amounts of trans people of colour are present at a meeting, while doing eff-all to improve the situation yourself.

I mean, thank God we’re going to get a separate meeting, because Lord knows that room was a 50-person mayonnaise-fest. It was like walking into a Hellmann’s conference.

But the thing is, the reason why it was particularly creamy as fuck is neither solely the responsibility of trans people, ‘The Trans Community’, or Stonewall. We can’t point fingers at Stonewall while ignoring the fact that white trans people dominate every conversation taking place around trans stuff.

White trans people – lend me your ears: you have a duty of care to make sure trans people of colour are included at all times, and you need to signal boost stuff specifically notifying trans people of colour. Tell your friends. Blitz it out to your social media connections and to your ‘real life’ connections. Make it a numero uno priority. If I see you complaining about trans meetings or events being white, and you didn’t lift a finger to even attempt and make trans people of colour feel welcome, then you can shut your mouth and remove your hands from your keyboard. If I see you pointing fingers at events organisers without first pointing the finger at yourself and asking “Hey, could I be any use apart from using my impressively long repertoire of SJ buzzwords to annoy people?”, then politely go far away from me.

I’ve been transitioning since I was 15. I’m now nearly 22. I’m young and there’s been so much white trans people drama in this small island that I already feel like a battle-scarred veteran of some ongoing bullshit.

You see, white trans people are in prime position to invite trans people of colour to events that are going to be organised and facilitated by people who need some extra help. I don’t think anyone at Stonewall knows about our hidden or closed Facebook groups. Who might know about the perfect people to invite who’d be well up for it, and who are also people of colour. But you – you, my dear white friend – know of these secret communities. Or at least know a friend of a bloody friend, come on.

The result of White Trans Laziness? And now, I’m not letting off Stonewall and the organisers, but this article is holding white trans people to account. But the result of this was that there were four out of fifty trans people who were people of colour. Two of them were afterthoughts. One of them experienced a pretty upsetting racial microaggression on the day. That’s your stat breakdown.

While the consensus from the people of colour who did attend was that it was positive, it was draining and exhausting to be in a space with a load of white trans activists. Though we didn’t talk a great deal about individual experiences and opinions, you just get dragged down a little bit in that kind of space. It was good that a lot of the discussions highlighted that any of Stonewall’s work has to include trans people of a lot of varying diversities and experiences – something that Ruth agreed on wholeheartedly. But you know, I felt like a token. Actually – I was a token. I was there to bring up the diversity quotient. And you know who made me feel tokenised most of all? That’s right: white trans people who did eff-all in the first place complaining that there weren’t more people of colour there, throwing out comments about ‘diversity’ in a smug way like it’s fashionable to point it out.

We’re not fucking elves. Magical people of colour don’t pop up when you say ‘Wow, we (of course, not meaning ME, because I’m a Good White Person) need to do better!’ If you want to magic us up for your conference or event: 1) Provide a spread. Food does wonders. 2) WORK ON IT. PROACTIVELY.

And actually, that’s what Stonewall is doing. Which is heartening. I hope it’s a good one. And free from inter-trans-people-of-colour-community drama, which is ten billion times more upsetting than the paltry Twitter shit white people could ever come up with (‘But that’s none of my business Kermit.jpg’).

I was going to write about how trans people of colour can work with Stonewall in the first instance, but this turned into a rant about white people – which, you know, is kind of relevant. Because if white trans people don’t start pulling their finger out, if we can’t fix the White Trans Laziness in our own little bubble of a world, then there’s really no point of any sort of unity with Stonewall.

Misogynists who know nothing about music shame Courtney Love for not being an entire band

10/09/2014

Some sound guy who was hired (by who, it’s not entirely certain) to record a Hole show a few years back has put isolated vocal and guitar parts from Courtney Love playing “Celebrity Skin” up on Youtube.

This video is now being gleefully shared around by mainstream music websites and blogs that invariably describe Courtney’s performance as “terrible” or rhetorically ask if it is “the worst thing ever”.

The answer, to anyone who has the slightest clue about how live music happens, is “no, this really isn’t the worst thing ever”.

Why? Well, firstly, because Courtney actually sounds pretty good here if you like raw vocal parts. But let’s set that aside for a moment.

Live vocal feeds usually sound pretty terrible. There is a lot of processing that happens in a studio, and a reason why slick-sounding albums tend to take days, weeks or even months to record. It’s a very rare singer who can pull off perfect vocals live – particularly if they’re playing rock or punk, which tend to rely on energy rather than technical perfection.

We don’t tend to notice this when we see live bands – because if they’re a decent band, they will have that energy, and the singing will be good enough. This is one reason why you can see a phenomenal live performance at a gig, then watch an imperfect live recording on TV a couple of days later and wonder why it doesn’t seem anywhere near as good.

Similarly, guitar parts tend to undergo a lot of processing even in a live setting. Many professional bands don’t have pedals on-stage, and will rely on a sound technician to process any distortion or tone effects for them. Moreover, amps will be adjusted for the acoustics of a venue. Unless you apply serious production to a live recording, it will tend to sound a lot more tinny and empty than a studio recording.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Courtney isn’t even really playing much guitar in this video in part because she doesn’t need to. “Celebrity Skin” relies largely on one guitar part and the rhythm section (bass and drums) to provide the bulk of the song, with the second guitar throwing in a bit of additional “oomph” now and again. Of course the guitar parts in this video are minimal and imperfect – quite aside from the sound issues, Courtney is pretty much smashing the strings for occasional effect. This would sound a lot better if you were doing this in your room because you’d have the volume, distortion and acoustics that were clearly present in the room at this gig. But it’d sound even better if you had an entire band filling out the rest of the song for you.

Surely, the guitar could have been played a lot better here, but it’s clear from the audience response that no-one actually in the venue cares. Why? Because there’s an entire band filling out the sound, which means that one punk musician’s performance doesn’t have to be perfect. Besides, she’s still pretty tight with the rest of the group.

So why is this even a big deal? I’m sure there are those who will claim that this video is just being shared because it sounds shit, but there are plenty of musicians who would sound shit if you shared isolated guitar + vocal parts around the Internet.

Courtney Love is no angel by any stretch of the imagination, but I feel it’s no coincidence that she is being targeted. She’s one of the very few women to ever maintain a relatively high profile as a rock star for the duration of her career, and that has made her the target for the kind of judgementalism, conspiracy theories and ill-informed criticism that just doesn’t stick with well-known male performers.

And that’s misogyny.

-

edit 15/11/14

This post wasn’t particularly well thought-through – I wrote it in a brief fit of annoyance and threw at at the Internet, not really expecting it to stick. I stand absolutely by what I said – it’s just that if I was expecting to deal with the snobby pedant parade in its full uptight glory I probably would have spent some time making the argument really watertight. Oh well.

Still, since I’m currently getting yet another spike of several thousand hits, I figured I’d address a couple of things that people seem to be massively missing the point on.

Firstly, the guitar. Of course it’s out of tune and sounds shite. I’m a musician, and I’m not deaf. The implicit question in this blog was intended to be – do you think this never happens to other musicians? Love, like anyone else at her level, will not be tuning her own guitar – it’ll be done by a guitar tech on tour with her. And mistakes will be made. If you’re in the middle of a song and attempt to play a nice, big power chord only to find out that it sounds awful, you’re gonna barely play it. Alternatively, if you’re in the middle of a song and can’t hear yourself properly through the monitors and suspect something might be wrong, you’re also barely gonna play it. Were these the reasons Love played in the way she did? Or was it something else? There are many ways this could have played out. Honestly, I don’t actually really care, and I’m baffled at why everyone else does. Which leads me on to…

Yes, of course the coverage of this is misogynistic. There’s some more discussion of the double-standard in rock music at play in this discussion here. This isn’t about whether or not the performance was objectively good or objectively awful – it’s about how this one incident fits into a wider pattern in which female musicians are, as standard, treated differently to male musicians and subject to different expectations. Incidentally, the men who comment on my blog calling me a “bitch” for writing this or declaring that I “HATE MEN” are not gonna convince me that they’re somehow sensitive to the nuances of sexism.

Anyways, I’m off to do some research and listen to Against Me! because I have a life outside the Internet. Toodles.

Comments on this post are now closed, as I have better things to do with my time than approve dozens of comments with exactly the same content.

New video from CN Lester is for “You”

03/09/2014

Speaks for itself, really!

…although, having said that, there is a powerful accompanying piece about bullying and suicidal feelings available on CN’s blog.

Imagining a trans-inclusive Stonewall

31/08/2014

“The meeting actually went pretty well, didn’t it?”

I heard a number of variations upon this statement echo around the pub we gathered in yesterday evening, as some 40-odd trans activists digested the day’s work. There was an undertone of incredulity: most of us had managed our expectations carefully in advance of the day. This was due in part to the fractious nature of trans communities, but also stemmed from our difficult history with Stonewall.

Back in 2008, many of us had been present at a loud, colourful demonstration outside the Victoria and Albert Museum as it hosted the annual Stonewall awards. We were there to express our displeasure at an organisation that didn’t simply exclude trans people, but seemed to keep making mistakes that caused harm to us.

A lot can happen in six years. Change has come from two directions: from continued external pressure from trans people, but also from a genuine willingness to reconsider matters from Stonewall following a shift in management in February.

In this post, I outline the themes and outcomes of a meeting held on Saturday to discuss potential options for trans inclusion in Stonewall. I will repeat some of the points made by CN Lester and Zoe O’Connell in their accounts of the day, but recommend you also have a look at what they have to say. For an idea of what is at stake, I recommend posts by Natacha Kennedy and Kat Gupta, as well as my previous writing on the topic.


A meeting with trans activists

The meeting – held in central London – was attended by a large number of trans activists who had been directly invited to the event, as well as three cis attendees: new Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt, Jan Gooding who is Chair of trustees for the group, and a facilitator (who, incidentally, did a very good job).

A number of us felt that a more open meeting or more transparent means of securing invitation would have been beneficial. I’ve made my own views about this clear (particularly on social media) but in this post I will focus upon what we actually achieved, and what will happen next.

The event was in some ways quite diverse, and in others ways very limited in terms of representation. There were a wide variety of experiences represented, and views from across the political spectrum. There were a great range of gender identities represented, although a particularly large part of the group were trans women. There were attendees from across England and Wales, with James Morton from the Scottish Transgender Alliance present to talk about the situation in Scotland (where Stonewall is an LGBT organisation). The group was overwhelmingly white. There were a number of disabled people present, but not many with experiences of physical impairment.

Several commentators have stated that Stonewall were responsible for the make-up of the meeting, and therefore could have made more effort in terms of inviting a diverse range of participants. This is true, but I feel that trans activists also need to step up and take some responsibility here. Most of our loudest voices are white trans women like myself. We need to keep our own house in order: by reaching out to communities of trans people from under-represented groups, by “boosting the signal” and talking about the work of trans people from under-represented groups, and by ensuring that it’s not just us with places at the table.

It’s worth noting that this event was framed by Ruth as one part of a far wider consultation on Stonewall’s future engagement with trans issues. If you’re trans please ensure that your voice is heard in this. You can do so by writing to Stonewall here, or by emailing: trans@stonewall.org.uk. There will be more about the next steps of consultation later in this post.

The meeting ultimately had two purposes: to move on from the problems of the past, and examine potential options for future collaboration between Stonewall and trans communities.


An apology from Ruth Hunt

The day began with a refreshingly honest admission of fault on the part of Stonewall from Ruth. She offered a point-by-point account of how Stonewall has let trans people down over the past few years, and offered both apology and explanation for these incidents, as well as an account of how these are now being addressed.

This was not the main focus of the day, instead clearing the air from the start to enable a productive discussion. However, I feel it is important to provide a public record of this session: if we are to collectively move on from the past, then we need to remember that Stonewall has demonstrated a commitment to change.

Some of the issues discussed by Ruth included:

  • Nominating transphobic individuals for awards. This was acknowledged as a mistake, and we were assured that nominees are now scrutinised more carefully (not just for transphobia).
  • Insensitive use of language in Fit, Stonewall’s video resource for schools. Ruth explained that the inappropriate section has been removed from the DVD.
  • Stonewall’s campaign with Paddy Power, who were severely rebuked by Advertising Standards Authority for a transphobic advert in 2012. Ruth noted that Stonewall is now using its relationship with Paddy Power feed back on advertising they consider to be offensive (interventions which are not just limited to addressing homophobia) which has resulted in a number of changes being made.
  • Stonewall representatives speaking out inappropriately and/or not speaking out on trans issues whilst lobbying Government and MPs. There’s a long and complex history here that I’m not going into in this post: suffice to say that one aim of Saturday’s meeting was to ensure that this is done better in the future.

There was also significant evidence that Stonewall is undergoing major institutional change in regards to trans issues. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Ruth had emphasised seeking a solution to the organisation’s difficult relationship with trans people when applying for the position of CEO, and that this was viewed favourably by trustees who considered her job application. Trans employees of Stonewall are reportedly more likely to be “out” and feel comfortable speaking about trans issues and concerns.


What’s on the table?

We then moved onto the main point of the event: to discuss proposals for a new relationship between Stonewall and trans people. There were four options for us to consider in group conversations, with attendees also encouraged to suggest any additional solutions that might not have been considered.

The options were:

  1. A fully inclusive LGBT Stonewall, which considers campaigning on trans issues to be a full part of its remit.
  2. Stonewall becomes nominally LGBT, but also funds and provides resources and guidance for the creation of a new, effectively autonomous trans organisation to work on trans campaigns. This organisation will eventually become independent, but can work closely with Stonewall.
  3. Stonewall remains LGB, and provides grants for a number of trans organisations so they can do their own campaigning work.
  4. Stonewall remains LGB, and works to be better ally.

Ruth explained that option (4) was not really favoured by Stonewall, particularly given the appetite for a closer relationship amongst many trans activists. The general feeling of the room reflected this, and we focussed our discussion upon the first three options.

Option (3) was largely rejected also. Criticisms raised included concerns about who would get the money, the impact of competition between smaller trans organisations, about what the conditions might be for such grants, and the amount of money and energy that would be spent by both Stonewall and trans groups on managing the system and applying for grants – money and energy that could be better spent on actual campaigning. Ruth further pointed out that Stonewall doesn’t actually have a lot of money to spare, outlining how money is currently spent on Stonewall’s employees and existing campaigns.  If the grant scheme was to go ahead, then there would likely be a knock-on effect on (for instance) campaigning in schools, and Stonewall might need to apply for extra money from funding pots that are already used by trans groups.

Options (1) and (2) both had great deal of support from within the room. Several groups suggested variations upon an “option 1.5″ that sat between the two – proposals included the creation of a “trans department” within Stonewall, and semi-autonomous “sibling” organisation linked permanently to Stonewall.


Outcomes

There was a pretty clear consensus on the following points at the end of the day:

  • Barring the unexpected (e.g. widespread opposition from trans people contributing to the public consultation) Stonewall will become an LGBT organisation, in one form or another.
  • Any eventual solution should provide for joint ‘LGBT’ campaigning on shared issues, such as homophobia and transphobia in schools.
  • Any eventual solution should provide for campaigning on trans-specific issues, such as on relevant legislation (e.g. the Gender Recognition Act and amendments to the recent Marriage Act) and on addressing issues with health care.
  • Future campaigning work must be intersectional, recognising the diversity of trans experience in areas such as gender identity, race, disability and age.

 

What happens next?

  • The public consultation will continue for several months. If you’re trans, please make sure your voice is heard!
  • There will be further meetings held with people from under-represented groups. This is a vital opportunity to address the problem of diversity at Saturday’s meeting. Stonewall are planning meetings with people from a number of groups, including intersex people as well as trans people of colour, disabled trans people and young trans people. If you want to attend one of these meetings, please contact Stonewall: trans@stonewall.org.uk
  • There will be a formal proposal for trans inclusion in Stonewall made in January 2015 in the shape of a report. This will then be consulted upon internally (i.e. within Stonewall) and externally (i.e. amongst trans people).
  • A final decision on the future of Stonewall should be made in April 2015. If this involves full trans inclusion and/or the creation of a new trans group, this will take several months to implement.

It’s important to note that this is not a process that can take place overnight! The process of consultation is lengthy in order to take on board the views of as many trans people as possible. We have such a range of perspectives that there is no chance that everyone will be happy, but the aim is for change to be trans-led, and to reflect the desires and interests of as many people as possible.

Once the consultation ends, its results cannot be implement immediately either. Stonewall may need to revise its priorities and work plans, and Ruth noted that a full-scale programme of training on trans issues and awareness will be necessary for the organisation’s staff.


Personal reflections

I feel positive about the future. There is so much unnecessary suffering amongst the trans population that allies are vital, and Stonewall could be a particularly large and powerful ally.

I believe in diversity of tactics to bring about change, and Stonewall takes a particularly centrist, “insider” approach to this. It is vitally important that Stonewall is never the only voice in LGBT activism, and that other groups continue to take more radical approaches to trans campaigning. It is also important that we remain capable of critiquing Stonewall, and holding it to account. Ultimately though, I’d rather be a critical friend than an entrenched foe.

Putting the “T” into Stonewall? An important opportunity

23/07/2014

LGB rights charity Stonewall has a difficult history of engagement with trans issues. For 25 years the charity has been a powerful voice in the struggle for LGB equality, but ‘trans’ is not included in its remit within England and Wales. Stonewall has been criticised on one hand for this omission at a time when a majority of ‘LGB’ organisations have become ‘LGBT’, and accused on the other of undue interference in trans matters.

After years of misunderstandings and disagreement, Stonewall announced in June that it would be addressing these problems:

“At Stonewall we’re determined to do more to support trans communities (including those who identify as LGB) to help eradicate prejudice and achieve equality. There are lots of different views about the role Stonewall should play in achieving that. We’re holding roundtable meetings and having lots of conversations. Throughout this process we will be guided by trans people.”

I have been invited to a closed meeting that will take place as part of this process at the end of August.

I really welcome the proposal from Stonewall. In this post I’m going to explore why this dialogue is important, outline some of the proposed approaches to working with Stonewall (or not), and outline my priorities in discussing this issue with both Stonewall and other trans activists.

I also encourage readers to leave their own thoughts and feedback in the comments.


The current situation for trans people in England and Wales

I don’t feel it is an exaggeration to describe the current social and political climate as an emergency. Whilst it is true that trans people in the UK currently benefit from unprecedented civil rights, and there is talk of a “transgender tipping point” in terms of public discourse in the English-speaking world, many trans people still face very serious challenges in everyday life.

For instance, trans people are still likely to face discrimination, harassment and abuse in accessing medical services, as demonstrated in horrific detail by #transdocfail. Trans people are particularly likely to suffer from mental health problems, and this is often made worse by members of the medical profession.

For many years now there has been an exponential rise in the number of trans people accessing transition-related services; with cuts and freezes to healthcare spending from 2010, this has meant that many individuals now have to wait years for an initial appointment at at gender clinic. This problem has been compounded for trans women seeking genital surgery by the additional backlogs accompanying the recent resignation of surgeon James Bellringer.

Meanwhile, the impact of the Coalition government’s austerity agenda is being felt particularly keenly by less privileged trans people. With many continuing to face aforementioned mental health problem and discrimination from employers, benefit cuts and the increasing precariousness of employment and public demonisation of the unemployed are hitting hard amongst my contacts (some discussion of this in a wider LGBT context can be found here). Cuts to public services are also felt strongly by groups such as the disproportionate number of trans people who face domestic abuse.

Then there’s what we don’t know. For instance, research in the United States shows that young trans people are particularly likely to be homeless, and that trans women are considerably more liable to contract HIV than the general population. Both anecdotal evidence and extrapolation from international statistics and small local studies pointing to similar problems existing in the UK, but this is not enough evidence to properly address these serious issues.


Activism

I believe that trans people need a campaigning organisation that is up to the task of tackling the above problems. A campaigning organisation with the funding, resources and knowledge to lobby government, conduct research and push for social change.

Currently we rely on the energies of unpaid activists and ad-hoc organisations that are lucky to attract any kind of funding. The importance and achievements of organisations such as Press For Change and Trans Media Watch should not be underestimated, but this is not enough. Whilst Stonewall attracts millions of pounds in funding and wields an impressive range of resources, trans groups staffed largely by enthusiastic volunteers are lucky to land a few hundred pounds in donations, or a temporary project grant. You can probably count the number of trans activists employed to push for change in this country on your fingers.

Under such circumstances, stress and burnout are common amongst trans activists, even expected. Personality clashes are capable of sinking an organisation. The individuals most able to work long hours for free are typically the most privileged, meaning that there is poor representation in terms of race, disability and class.

We have to do better. We need to do better.


Solution 1: a new trans organisation

There will be those who wish to pursue the creation of a new trans organisation entirely separate from Stonewall. From this perspective, a dialogue with Stonewall offers the opportunity to discuss instances where the charity might have overstepped the mark in speaking out in relation to trans issues without this being within their remit. Beyond that, there will probably be a desire to ‘go it alone’.

For some, this will be because of Stonewall’s non-democratic structure (it is not intended to be a membership organisation), corporate links, and past disappointments such as the organisation’s initial refusal to campaign for same-sex marriage.

For others, this will be because of the view that the ‘T’ should remain independent of ‘LGB’. This position can be based upon the argument that the interests and needs of trans people differ to those of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and/or a recognition that the trans liberation project is significantly less advanced than the LGB equivalent. From this also comes the idea that cis gay activists might not be able to properly campaign on trans issues.

There have been numerous attempts to create such an organisation over the last decade (one of which I was involved in, through Gender Spectrum UK) but none have been successful. I propose that one of the most serious barriers here is that of funding: there is so much work to be done and so many problems that individual activists are likely to face in their personal lives, that it has been extremely difficult for unpaid activists to put in the work necessary to launch such a body.

 

Solution 2: adding the ‘T’ to Stonewall

It has long been suggested that Stonewall should follow other LGBT organisations in becoming trans-inclusive. The arguments frequently centre upon an appeal to history, and the similarities of LGBT experiences.

The Pride movement emerged out of alliances forged between sexual minorities and gender variant people; this happened in part because homophobic and transphobic attitudes tend to stem from the same bigotry. Trans people have always been present in the struggle for gay and bisexual rights. Pretty much all LGBT people can talk about ‘coming out’, usually to family as well as friends, peers and/or colleagues. LGBT people often have to tackle internalised shame at some point in their lives, an inevitable outcome of growing up in a homophobic/transphobic world.

Moreover, with a great deal of organisations turning to Stonewall for LGBT equality advice and training, it has been argued that it only makes sense to explicitly incorporate trans issues, lest trans people get left behind. For instance, Stonewall does a lot of work on homophobic bullying in schools – surely it would make sense to also address transphobic bullying, particularly as the two tend to have a similar root cause?


Solution 3: a hybrid organisation

An idea I’ve heard bounced around a little ahead of August’s meeting is a kind of compromise between the two above positions. A trans charity that is linked to Stonewall in terms of sharing resources, information and funding, but remains semi-autonomous with its own leadership and trustees.

This is currently my favoured option. I feel that trans people would benefit greatly from effectively sharing some of Stonewall’s power. We’d certainly benefit from working more consistently together, instead of occasionally against one another. But we have different needs, different priorities. We might want to run our own organisation in a different way, and make somewhat different political decisions.


My priorities
in the dialogue with Stonewall

1) Representation

I was actually a little bit uncomfortable to be invited to the meeting in August. Sure, I’ve been involved in plenty of both high-profile, national campaigns, as well bits of activism in my local area and place of work. Plus, a lot of people read this blog. But ultimately, I received an invitation because I have the right connections. So many didn’t get that chance. I also strongly suspect that the majority of people present at the meeting will be white and middle-class, and that there will not be many genderqueer people present (I’m less sure about disability, because there are a lot of disabled trans people).

I’m hoping that any future meetings will be more open. If it turns out that my suspicions are correct regarding the overrepresentation of privileged groups, I hope that we can take steps to ensure that any future meetings are more representative. It’s the only way we’re going to find a way to create consensus and work on the behalf of all trans people in the long term.

If you’re not going to be at the meeting, I strongly encourage you to respond to Stonewall’s survey so your voice is heard. Also, since I’ll be there in person, I’d really like to know what you think.

2) The creation of a new trans organisation

I’ve pretty much made the argument for this already. We need national representation that can genuinely address the many problems faced by trans people today. A democratically accountable body that reflects diversity of trans lives and experiences.

I hope this is something we can work towards by working with Stonewall. Yes, there will be political differences – certainly I have ideological objections to some of the approaches taken by Stonewall – but I feel the situation is too severe and the opportunity too important to reject an offer of help.

That isn’t to say that a new organisation should overrule the work of existing organisations. I would hope that any new body works alongside existing campaign groups such as Trans Media Watch, Gendered Intelligence and Action For Trans Health without seeking to duplicate their work.

3) Starting with the essentials

I believe that the initial basis for any new trans organisation – or trans campaigns within Stonewall – should be addressing the absolute, basic needs that are not currently being met for many trans people. Housing. Health. Employment. We should be looking out for the most vulnerable, as well as addressing universal needs. This is pretty much a moral duty.

 

What do you think? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments!

 

Reflecting on “​My message to those who would attend Radfem 2012″

30/04/2014

Note: this is the second part of my response to transphobia during Feminist Times’ “Gender Week”. You can read the first part here.

It’s been almost two years now since I published the most widely-read piece I’ve yet written: “My message to those who would attend Radfem 2012“.

I actually wrote this piece quite quickly. I remember turning it over in my mind for a few hours, and then writing it up and posting it to my blog without any inkling of how it would be read by thousands of people. I was angry, but also upset, with part of my upset arising from a sense of empathy for those I disagreed with. You, like me, are damaged. You, like me, are hurt. Why is it that we must hurt one another so?

Ironically, it was also this piece that helped me come to the conclusion that I was right to engage in ideological struggles against transphobic forms of radical feminism. Engaging in this struggle is – in a sense – an attempt at self-preservation, as well as an act of solidarity with other trans people.

I don’t personally participate much in the never-ending arguments between trans people and trans-exclusive radical feminists (“TERFs”) across Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. I don’t have the energy, and I’m not sure that it’s always productive to argue with individuals who are never going to be persuaded to change their views.

But I do think it is important to intervene on many occasions – for instance, when transphobic views are aired by TERFs in the mainstream media, or when TERFs are afforded platforms at feminist or LGBT events. The point is not to deny people the freedom to express their awful views: instead, the idea is to always contest these views. To ensure that anti-trans perspectives don’t start gaining additional traction.

In light of this, I’ve strived to keep “My message…” alive, in one form or another. I’ve performed bits of it on a number of occasions with Not Right (ironically, this frequently does not go well as references to feminism have riled cis men in the audience on a number of occasions). I’m hoping to read the whole thing out during an upcoming feminist event at the University of Warwick. And I’ve recently been working on a number of revisions, as I hope to create a new version with the same sense of flow but a somewhat wider outlook.

It was in this spirit that I granted Feminist Times permission to republish the piece as part of their “Gender Week”.

I wondered initially if I perhaps should have thought this through better. There was some confusion as I was originally asked to write a companion piece to accompany an article by Finn Mackay, but (due to external circumstances) wasn’t able to meet the deadline.

In retrospect, I feel I should have ensured that my article was published as a stand-alone piece. I feel like both my article and Finn’s attempt to “talk to” the other “side” in the supposed trans/radical feminist debate, but the way in which both pieces were written independently means we’re kind of talking past one another. This is a pity. Finn and I have a lot of common ground, and I feel we could have a productive and interesting dialogue about our differences.

Whilst the comment sections on many of the Gender Week articles have seen some extremely unpleasant views aired, and the Twitter hashtag (#GenderWeek) has spun horribly out of control, I’m glad to see Feminist Times offer a platform for trans voices in an attempt to thoughtfully address transphobia in the feminist movement.

It’s important that we create safe spaces for trans people to discuss gender, identity and politics. It’s also important that we reach beyond these spaces, lest trans discourse becomes an echo chamber. I’ve experienced quite serious burnout recently, but fully intend to keep talking about the place of trans people in feminism. Keeping “My message…” alive is an important part of this.

Of course, the resulting attentions of both male misogynists and the TERFs are horrific. One lesson we can learn from this is that trans people who gain a platform benefit from content warnings, strong moderation and (during offline events) “no tolerance” door policies, lest we buckle under the pressure of hatred received.

“Gender critical feminism” is ideological war

30/04/2014

Trigger warning for transphobia, suicide, violence, bigotry.

Today I was accused – in a comment, on a blog – of the “appropriation of women’s lived experiences”.

It’s a very small thing. Another mean comment from a mean person, in a vast Internet of bigots and bullies.

But it’s also a very big thing. It’s another microaggression in a larger struggle, a wider war. I don’t use the metaphor of “war” lightly: this is serious.

Some social historians might refer to this struggle as a front in the “sex wars”. Many radical feminists refer to this as a struggle against the language of “gender identity”. Medical practitioners regard us as one set of lobbies amongst many.

I call this struggle the war of trans liberation.

People are wounded, damaged.

I am damaged. My friends are damaged.

People die.

My friends have died.

There are many ways to die in this war.

This is an ideological war. It is fought in the media, where conservative commentators, radical feminists and uninspired columnists alike dehumanise us by lying about our lives, joking about our appearances, questioning the idea that we should have civil rights or even receive respect from others.

This is an ideological war. It is fought in the home, where many of us are not welcome. Where trans people are frequently rejected by parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who believe the lies in the media. Where trans people are cut off from family events, or otherwise told to deny themselves.

This is an ideological war, but sometimes it is fought with fists in the streets and in schools and in public spaces, by those who do not regard us as human because they believe the lies told in the media and by our families. A disproportionate number of trans people are verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, sexually assaulted and raped.

This is an ideological war, but it is also fought in our heads, by those of us who come to believe the lies told in the media and by our families and by those who wish to visit violence upon us in the streets and in schools and in public spaces. We grow up responding to those who would dehumanise us by dehumanising ourselves. We learn to hate ourselves. It is no coincidence that at least one in three trans people have attempted suicide.

I have received an incredible amount of support and warmth from my own family and my friends. I have learned to love myself, and love the things that I stand for. I have built a fulfilling life for myself, a life of joy and creativity.

But I will never be free of this struggle as long as it continues.

And I will always resist.

For my own self-preservation and sanity, I mostly stay out of scuffles between trans activists and radical feminists on social media. Sometimes I disagree with particular trans activists: with the language they use, with the way in which they understand gender, with their perspective on feminism. This is not a disagreement based on fear of real harm.

But when I am accused of the “appropriation of women’s lived experiences”? Ah, now this goes to the core of our struggle.

Quite frankly: how dare they? How dare they accuse me of appropriation for the way in which I move through the world?

My lived experience is my own. I live as a woman. I go to work as a woman. I enjoy my hobbies as a woman. And what I mean by this is that I am perceived by others as a woman. It takes many to  construct this social reality of “womanhood”, which is real to me because I interact with many others on an everyday basis.

I receive sexist comments from men in the street for existing as a woman. I am aware of how being a woman limits my opportunities, and places me at risk of gendered violence.

This is my life experience. The experience I have had my entire adult life.

By conflating trans struggles with “appropriation”, (or worse, “rape”) and trans agendas with the agendas of the medical profession, so called “gender critical feminists” visit a symbolic violence upon trans people that ignores and perpetuates real, everyday threats and experiences of violence.

This is why trans women find themselves being denied a space in feminism. This is why trans women are kicked out of women’s shelters and rape crisis centres. This is why trans people learn to hate themselves. This is why trans people kill themselves, or are killed violently by others, or die in the streets.

I can empathise with “gender critical” feminists, and I have written in the past from a place of attempted understanding. And I’m always happy to be critical of gender.

But I have no interest in a truce.

This is an ideological battle fought over my life and my body.

I intend to win.

Discrimination from Stagecoach

07/02/2014

Tonight I witnessed a shockingly casual act of discrimination against a man in a wheelchair from an employee of Stagecoach Warwickshire.

I was heading home from the University of Warwick campus, where I’d been to watch some fantastic live music. I arrived at a bus stop absolutely crammed with students and the odd academic – many intending to head to Leamington Spa for an evening out, others heading home from the night.

busesThis crowd caught the (slightly delayed) 22:50 bus – the last one due for an hour. Students pushed and shoved in order to ensure they wouldn’t be left standing in the cold wind and rain. This isn’t an unusual situation; the bus service is frequently abysmal during university term times. Passengers boarding at the Arts Centre bus stop can often expect to miss several buses due to overcrowding. This isn’t such a problem in the early evening when services are more frequent, but is unacceptable at a time of night when only one bus is running every hour.

One of the people waiting at the bus stop was a wheelchair user. A large number of individuals pushed in front of him, but eventually he found his way to the front of the queue – only to be turned away by a Stagecoach employee who was managing the flow of people onto the bus.

I witnessed the argument that took place as the man was turned away. The Stagecoach employee informed him quite firmly that he was not allowed on the bus. When pressed for an explanation, he stated that there was only one wheelchair space on the bus, and that this was already occupied by another wheelchair user.

The man and his friends pointed out that there was actually space for more than one wheelchair on the bus. They put several options to the Stagecoach employee. These included placing the second wheelchair alongside the first (upon later alighting the bus, I observed that there was clearly space for this), putting the wheelchair in the space normally reserved for pushchairs, or otherwise temporarily storing the chair whilst its owner moved to sit in one of the chairs set aside for disabled users.

The stagecoach employee rejected all of these suggestions. He insisted that this type of bus could only carry one wheelchair at a time, for insurance purposes. This was because the law requires that certain things should be present: e.g. a specific amount of space, a handrail etc. There was only enough of this for one wheelchair. The crux of his argument was that by taking the wheelchair user onto the bus, Stagecoach would be breaking the law, invalidating their insurance and endangering lives through overcrowding.

Eventually the wheelchair user and his friends left, quite understandably frustrated.

The Stagecoach employee then proceeded to let abled people onto the bus until it was completely rammed. The official limit for individuals standing (according to a nice big sign on the bus) was 17, in the case of no wheelchair and minimal baggage being present. I noted plenty of baggage, a wheelchair, 28 people standing and three people sitting on the stairs. The bus was quite clearly over capacity, and dangerously so.

The hypocrisy and ableism of the Stagecoach employee was utterly blatant. It was clearly more than his job’s worth to break a rule by asking some people to move around a little to allow a wheelchair onto the bus, potentially leaving a small number of abled individuals at the back of the queue unable to board. Instead he turned away a disabled man and his friends, choosing to break a whole load more rules by allowing abled individuals to cram on board.

There are also a couple of wider issues here. The first is that Stagecoach services between the University of Warwick and Leamington Spa are not fit for service.

It is not good enough that people at the main bus stop on a university campus are regularly left standing as already (over)full buses drive past.

It is not good enough to run one service an hour late at night when existing services do not have enough room for existing passengers (many of whom have bus passes, meaning that they have already paid for the service that is not being provided).

It is not good enough that Stagecoach buses have room for only one wheelchair, particularly given the above issues. If two people using a wheelchair happen to turn up to catch the same bus, then one of those people won’t be getting a bus. This is absolutely unacceptable.

The second issue is that legislation supposedly written to ensure that disabled individuals have fair access to public services is being used to actively discriminate against people. It takes a very special kind of ignorance and privilege to officiously cite equality laws when refusing someone a service on the grounds of physical difference. Of course, disabled activists have been writing about this kind of thing for years. But it’s about time more of us paid attention.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 167 other followers