My Thoughts on the Block Bot, as a User and a Member of the Blocking Team

I was recently contacted by an American journalist, keen to speak with someone involved “at the coal face”, as it were, of Twitter’s block bot, both as a user of the tool and as a member of the blocking team, which I now am.

For those unfamiliar with it, the Block Bot is a crowd sourced tool that will, if you allow it to, block a list of people on twitter. These are divided into three categories – level 1 for people who should probably be banned if Twitter’s abuse process worked correctly, level 2 for people who are generally abusive but it’s not their raison d’être, and level 3 for people who show abusive behaviour through ignorance or refusal to acknowledge their own privilege in ways that cause distress to marginalised groups.

It won’t block anyone you already follow, and the list is crowd sourced, peer-reviewed and constantly being examined to ensure people are placed correctly. If adding someone to the list would prove controversial amongst the bot’s users for some reason, they are generally not added.

Anyway, here’s what I said to the journalist (fixed a couple of grammatical errors).

As a somewhat visible trans woman, being for a few years the only openly trans elected politician in the UK (Im not currently serving), and a somewhat outspoken one on issues of trans equality, I have attracted a lot of attention, and some of it has been quite negative.

In February to May of this year, I was subject to an offline harassment campaign where numerous people made vexatious complaints to my party, and to my council, all of which were dismissed, but which had a very negative toll on my mental health, requiring me to take antidepressants and tranquillisers for some time. The harassers were openly discussing their campaign on Twitter, and the people involved continue to try and attract my attention, and engage in the technique known as gaslighting and getting under my skin in other ways. Some of them even turned up to picket London DykeMarch in June because I was one of the podium speakers. It gets a bit much when social media bullies start turning up to events one is at to harass!

Unusually, compared to the harassment most women experience on social media, where the perpetrators are men, the perpetrators of the transphobic harassment I’ve been experiencing have been mostly (but not exclusively) women.

I blocked most of them manually, but a common technique of harassers is to create new accounts and try again from there, so it was difficult to keep up, and the ones that got through were often very distressing. I can sometimes look at what these people are saying, as long as it’s on my own terms, and when I’m able to walk away, but to have them impose themselves, when I may be having a bad day or whatever, is not good.

I signed up for the blockbot, after being sceptical of it for some time, but found that the blockers, most of whom are women, are generally sympathetic to the harassment transgender women face from the transphobic fringes of the feminist movement. As a result the bot was a good match, and I increasingly discovered, some time after the fact, that people had been trying to harass me and the bot had already blocked them for me.

My mental health is much better now. Some of that is because I’m no longer in office and face less stress generally, but undoubtedly some of it is not having to deal with constant harassment, or exposed to constant microaggressions associated with being a member of a minority community (people persisting in those tend to get blocked too, but at a lower severity level – you choose which severity level you sign up to). I have since joined the team of people who maintain the block list and decide when to add new blocks, and they’re a great bunch of people.

I know the idea of a block bot is proving very controversial in some quarters, but I don’t hesitate to recommend it now. It has played a significant part in keeping Twitter as a usable platform for me, and I can only see that as a good thing.

What I Said About Nick Clegg at my Local Party’s SGM

I’ve been in two minds about publishing this for a while, but friends in the party have expressed a desire for me to do so, and I’ve finally decided to go ahead. This is the speech I wrote, and delivered, at the special general meeting of the Cambridge Liberal Democrat party, called to determine if we wanted to vote for a leadership election. The vote was lost on the basis that now was decided not to be the right time to call for an election. You can imagine that wasn’t the way I voted.

Here’s the speech:

When someone votes, they vote with their head, but they also vote with their heart. People vote for aspirations, for dreams. They vote for an ideal.

Consider the ideals people have in mind when they vote:

UKIP I want my country back from some unspecified thing, so it can resemble some rose tinted past that never existed.
Labour Up the working classes, even if the reality is that Labour routinely screws them over.
Tories Land of hope and glory, good old blighty, steady hand at the tiller, captain of industry, never mind the poor because poor people bring it on themselves, right?
Green Save the planet! Social justice!

Regardless of how the reality differs from the perception, people at least feel they’re voting for something when they vote for these parties.

Liberals – What do people think we stand for?

Well, what image are we putting out? Is it an image of liberalism? Of staunch defenders of civil liberties? Of a party that wasn’t part of the stale old discourse? This was ostensibly who we were in 2010.

Have we been liberals in government? Really? I don’t think we have.

Liberal should mean something. It should mean something to the people who vote for us. It should mean that they can vote for us and expect us to govern with liberal values.

People do not have that confidence because we, our party, have betrayed them.

As a liberal I believe that the weak should be protected from the strong. That the preservation of freedom is paramount. That people should not be coerced or forced into living in ways they do not want to. That taking away a person’s freedom to live as they will, especially when it is done by the strong against the weak, is a most serious and egregious business.

As a liberal, the reason I want to participate in the process of government is because government is strong. Government possesses tremendous power to shape and affect and constrain the lives of the individual. Liberal government should be a facilitator; liberal government should help ensure that people are free to live their lives without undue restrictions on their conduct, the exercise of their beliefs, and that in a rich country such as ours, people should be free to live their lives, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, free from poverty.

Where the state, or any other strong entity, such as a large corporation, acts to constrain the freedom of the individual, or take it away, that is a very grave matter indeed. It must be subject to due process. It must be seen as a last resort. It must be done in a way that allows the individual in question every opportunity to defend themselves, and when that opportunity is inconvenient to the state, it is more important than ever to stand firm as liberals and ensure it is available.

We need a strong liberal voice in government precisely because, in the difficult cases, when the government finds it really hard to give those it would seek to deprive of their liberty due process, we need to stand up and tell the government, “tough, you can’t deprive this person of their rights just because you find it too hard to grant them”.

It is offensive and intolerable, as a liberal, to have a government rescind that right in my name. There are lines in the sand which we must defend to the last, and not having secret justice, where the accused is not afforded every opportunity to defend themselves, simply because the state finds it hard, is one of them.

I was at Spring Conference in 2013, when one of our MEPs spoke out against secret courts, as illiberal instruments of a state with a cavalier attitude towards exercising its own powers. I was sat only a few rows away when Nick Clegg verbally slapped her down.

It’s not just secret courts, egregious as they are. We have sat on our hands while the Tories waged an idealogical war against the poor, the disabled, the dispossessed, in the name of deficit reduction, when we know that benefit fraud and trying to help people who are otherwise deprived a decent life, through no fault of their own, to live with some self respect has nothing to do with why our economy is in the state it’s in. We, our party, have stayed silent while people have awoken to the disgusting spectacle of one of the richest countries in the world putting spikes outside buildings to deter the homeless, as if they’re vermin.

We should be screaming about these things, and we are not.

We, and by we, I mean our leadership, have sat on our hands while the Tories enslaved people through poverty. We, and by we, I mean our leadership, have sat on our hands while they have removed the opportunity for people to defend themselves through secret courts and legal aid cuts. We, and by we, I mean our leadership, have sat on our hands while the Tories took away one public safety net after another, in health, in education, in privacy, and subcontracted it to the lowest bidder. We, and by we, I mean our leadership, have sat on our hands while the Tories gleefully censored the Internet – the great library of the modern world.

Enough is enough. As a liberal, these things are intolerable. That they are done in my name is unbearable.

At the time of the secret courts debacle, some of us in this room, and plenty of people in other local parties, came to the brink of doing something similar to what we are doing now. However, we were persuaded not to at the last minute, with an assurance that our grievances would be listened to; that our leadership would grow a spine and start defending liberal values.

But nothing has changed. Nick Clegg has surrounded himself with people who, I now believe, do not share our values, or at least do not consider them important to draw lines in the sand over, or even advertise them as our values.

We desperately need a leadership who will show people what it means when they put an X next to a Liberal on the ballot paper.

I want to be a Liberal again. I want that word to stand for an assurance that we will not stand silently by and let the strong steamroll over the weak.

I no longer believe that Nick Clegg has any intention of being someone who will do that, and it is with a heavy heart that I say he has to go.

And if that doesn’t convince you, allow me to share a picture that loads of my friends are spreading around social media at the moment.

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg holding the Sun.

Facebook advert, current at the time this speech was given.

Enough said?

Open Letter to Academic and Media Feminists – Deal with the Transphobia in your Ranks

Anti-transgender protestors held a picket at London Dykemarch on Saturday 21st of June, chanting transphobic slogans in an attempt to drown out my keynote speech.

Some of the picketers at the Lesbian Pride march who handed out transphobic literature

Some of the picketers at the Lesbian Pride march who handed out transphobic literature

As I gave my speech, a group of 6 protestors started trying to shout me down, and distributed leaflets amongst the gathered crowd calling me a “lesbian hating man”, claiming that I was part of a “male” takeover of lesbian spaces, and accusing me of appropriating a lesbian identity.

Two of the protestors have since been identified as Dr Julia Long of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, and Dr Lynne Harne, of Bristol University. Both lecture in women’s studies and both are involved in developing equalities policy.

Both academics have previously been involved in the London “RadFem” conferences, which are notorious for their trans exclusionary policies and their lineup of transphobic speakers. The conference lost its venues in 2012 and 2013 due to its transphobic-hate focus, having to find alternate venues at the last minute.

This is the latest incident in a campaign of transphobic harassment of me, coordinated via social media, which has been going on for several months, ever since I declined to engage in a panel discussion with journalist Julie Bindel, also noted for transphobic writing in the past.

Since then, a series of coordinated complaints about me were sent to the Liberal Democrat Party and Cambridge City Council, each of which was investigated and found to be invalid. I have had my blog targeted for a denial of service attack and my email hacked, and have received anonymous hate mail accusing me of abusing my position as a councillor to obtain a “sex change operation” – a charge which would require me to invent a time machine for it to be true.

My family was targeted, with harassers claiming that my wife left me because I “could no longer satisfy her sexually” after “mutilating” myself (my wife and I are together and very happy). The abusers wrote blogs calling me a “privilege denying t****y”, and described my vagina as a “f**khole”.

The harassers make their goal clear

The harassers make their goal clear

More recently, one of the harassers made their intentions clear, saying that, “Sarah Brown should gracefully bow out of public life”. It seems that any trans person who has any kind of public profile is considered “fair game” by these people.

The stress of the constant harassment, coinciding with my reelection campaign caused me to seek medical help for acute anxiety and depression. I spent around 3 months on antidepressants and tranquillisers and much of that period is still a black hole in my memory. After losing my seat, and while coming off the antidepressants, I finally snapped back at one of the people who had claimed responsibility for involvement in the harassment campaign, in response to constant provocation, telling her to, “suck my formaldehyde pickled balls”.

I regret saying that, but it was done after months of provocation, the destruction of my mental health and the targeting of my family. This was used as “proof” that I am a “violent male”, and the justification for picketing the London Dyke March.

I am not the only transgender woman to suffer this kind of abuse. I am deeply concerned that any transgender woman who dares to have any kind of participation in public life is subject to this kind of relentless hounding, I am deeply concerned that prominent academics, involved in researching and developing equalities positions and in a position of responsibility over students, some of whom may be trans themselves, see fit to picket a Lesbian Pride march, chant transphobic slogans and hand out transphobic material.

This abuse is performed in the name of “feminism”, and many mainstream media feminists either turn a blind eye, or actively endorse these activities. Enough is enough – this persistent abuse of transgender women by a vocal minority of transphobic radical feminists, pushing discredited transphobic ideology from the 1970s should not, and must not be tolerated.

My DykeMarch London 2014 Keynote Speech

This is the speech I wrote for to address the marchers before London’s 2014 DykeMarch:

It’s amazing to be here, to be surrounded by so many inspirational women. Being invited to speak here is extremely humbling, and I’m a bit nervous, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

I’m nervous, because I have a confession to make. I have a confession about how I feel about my ability to participate in lesbian spaces, a confession about my ability to relate to the life experiences of other lesbian and queer women, a confession that, despite my best efforts to maintain a positive mental attitude, I still sometimes worry that I am a fraud.

Getting ready for the march

Getting ready for the march

There are those who hold the view that because of certain aspects of my biology, I do not, and can never, truly qualify as a lesbian. There are those who feel this very strongly. Some of them are active in lesbian and queer women’s spaces.

Now I want to stress that these people are, I am certain, a minority. Most lesbian and queer women I have the privilege to know are amazing people who have been nothing but understanding when I explain my situation to them. They have been wonderful, and accommodating, and told me that I am just as much a lesbian as they are.

But there is still a little voice inside my head that never quite shuts up – “they won’t accept you, not really, not properly, because they know, and they are disgusted.”

Make no mistake – this voice isn’t a reflection on any of you – it’s a realisation of my own insecurity, but I think I do have good reason to be insecure.

I like to socialise with other women. I like to socialise with other queer women. The vast majority of the time, my little problem is irrelevant to how I interact with other women, in mixed sex spaces and in single sex spaces, because there is no reason for it to be an issue.

But there are times when, and this very much depends on the nature of the space, it *is* an issue for me, and for the women who share my secret, and I know it can make other people in those spaces, other women in those spaces, feel a bit awkward. They want to be accepting, but … well, it’s maybe not seen as compatible with how lots of lesbian women live.

That’s just socialising though. I’m in my 40s now, and I mostly can’t be bothered with dating, and with what sometimes comes after – I’d rather have a nice cup of tea frankly, and how many of us can, hand on heart, say we haven’t felt like that on occasion?

But I wasn’t always in my 40s. Back in the day, I remember being with friends in venues which will be known to many of us, but which sadly no-longer exist. I look back with fondness on the Glass Bar, and its amazing location. I really miss First Out, which survived cross rail excavations only to be forced out by rent increases. I even look back with fondness on nights at the Candy Bar, as long as someone else was paying for the drinks, that is.

And these places always had lots of really interesting and cute women in, and sometimes we’d strike up a conversation, and then the dilemma came up.

“Is this going to go further? Might we meet again? Might we even spend the night together? At her place? Oh god, I have to tell her. When do I disclose? What if it’s a deal breaker for her? What if she reacts badly? What if I feel ashamed? I left my pills at home too, and I’ll feel awful by morning without them. What do I do?”

Disclosure of such things is, I think, a deeply personal issue, and I don’t presume to say there’s a right answer for everyone, but I tend to, and by and large, things have been OK.

But not everyone reacts well, not everyone can make the necessary accommodation, not everyone wants to make the necessary accommodation.

And so more often than not, when I’ve met someone really great, and when it could go somewhere, I find I’ve chickened out, and I hate that. I hate feeling frightened. I hate feeling like I can never properly belong.

And so, fellow marchers, here is my confession. My name is Sarah, and I, like many other self identified lesbians, through no fault of our own, feel excluded from living fully and openly as lesbians because we are … allergic to cats.

 

Retransience – Looking Back

“What are these transphobes suggesting? Nazi checkpoints outside public loos?”

“They kinda did that at Pride London 2008.”

That was part of a conversation between me and a very politically aware young trans woman this week.

Me at Pride London in 2008

Trafalgar Square, 2008: the scene of “Toiletgate”

Amongst my friends, and those who were involved at the time, the Tolietgate incident at Pride London, 2008, was a seriously big deal. It, and contemporaneous events shaped much of our activism and our relations with other bodies, such as Pride and Stonewall, in the years afterwards.

It was 2008; 6 years ago, and there are politically aware trans people in the UK now who do not know it happened.

It hit me: much of our fledgling community’s history is oral transition, or scattered in old blog entries visited rarely by anything other than search engine robots. It is fragile, and yet it needs to be known, lest our community end up perpetually fighting wars of attrition by keeping old grievances on life-support, when all memory of what those grievances even were has slipped away, and when those whose grievances they actually were have moved on, or even passed on.

I wrote a transition blog, starting in 2005, which was popular at the time (go look if you like, but be aware that language and ideas that we now regard as archaic and even transphobic were not so at the time – there’s been a lot of evolution since), but that was about me, and about how I was viewing events as they happened.

With nearly a decade (in some cases) of hindsight, I think it’s perhaps time to look back and, with the benefit of that hindsight, revisit some things that happened, things that shaped our community, and write it down again.

Only this time, it’ll be written as a witness looking back, rather than as someone reporting current events, the consequences of which had yet to play out.

So keep an eye on this blog. I hope to get the first part up in a few days, and I don’t know how long I’ll stick at it, but we’ll see.

Hope to see you soon.

A Difficult Five Months

Various people close to me know I’ve had a bit of a tough time this year. Few know the full story. I didn’t want to talk about it before the local elections, but now they’re out of the way, I want to be clear about it.

Why am I doing this? Well, I’ve been involved thoughout my 4 year term as a councillor in health, in one way or another. The first three years I sat on the county’s health scrutiny committee. The last year, I was a member of the health and wellbeing board itself, and also held portfolio responsibility for public health on Cambridge City Council.

I’ve always said we need to be more open about mental health. 1 in 3 of us will experience mental health problems, yet we so often feel unable to talk about it.

I want to talk about it.

I have experienced mental health problems. This is my story.

Towards the end of 2013, I started to realise I was struggling with my workload. I was juggling a lot of balls: On the council, I had public health, arts and leisure, community development, and was Cambridgeshire’s appointed board member to the UK Tour de France company.

Elsewhere, I’d been really active in the campaign for equal marriage; I knew I faced a difficult reelection campaign; LGBT history month (February) was coming up. I’d been invited to speak at a lot of stuff around the country.

I realised I had got myself in a position where I had taken on too much, and I knew if I tried to “soldier on”, it would get worse, and I’d crack. I was stressed, anxious and starting to get depressed. I needed help.

I talked to my colleagues about this, and then went to see my doctor. This helped: my colleagues they rallied round to take some of the workload off and my doctor, after talking through the options, prescribed an antidepressant called Mirtazapine.

Things started to look up. January rolled into February, and then I had a “paradoxical reaction” to the drug. It effectively sent me into a 3 day long panic attack.

I went to see my GP, who confirmed I was having an adverse reaction, and he stopped them immediately. He prescribed a low dose of another antidepressant, Citalopram, and also gave me some Diazepam (Valium) to help me through the switchover.

This seemed to do it. Everything was getting better. I was feeling OK, but tired (I wasn’t sleeping well on the Citalopram, but my doctor was willing to give me more Valium to help, having proven “I could be trusted with it”). People who knew I’d been struggling said I was looking better. I felt OK. As long as I didn’t try to take on too much again, and was aware that the drugs were making me tired, I felt I could get through to May and then things would ease off, whatever happened.

Then it all went horribly wrong. Enter transphobia, stage left.

Those LGBT history month events I’d been asked to speak at. One was at a conference called, “Feminism in the 21st century”, and I was to be part of a panel talking about the place of trans women in feminism.

The organisers hadn’t been great about keeping in touch, and I had to keep bugging them. Eventually, some weeks after it was promised, they sent me a speaker pack. It was then that I realised they’d arranged for me to be on a panel with Julie Bindel, a journalist known for some deeply unpleasant views about trans people, and who has a habit for using such occasions to try and advance them.

This wasn’t what I thought I’d signed up for, and I emailed the conference organisers to explain my reticence, and said that I reluctantly would withdraw from the panel. This worked for me; I didn’t want to get into a protracted fight with them about this, and I was trying to do less stuff anyway, given my mental health was already a bit fragile.

What happened next is kind of hazy, but as far as I can tell, Ms Bindel reacted very poorly. Apparently the NUS had been lobbying the conference organisers about Bindel’s participation, and the panel on which we had been due to speak was cancelled as a result. She apparently blamed me for this, and a few people with whom she seemed to be friends online started putting the story about that I had orchestrated the whole NUS campaign. The way they told it, I was some sort of evil genius.

I was in no position to orchestrate anything; I was already struggling with my workload, and I hadn’t even known about the existence of the student campaign. I just wanted to walk away, but there are a lot of people on the fringes who call themselves radical feminists, who really, really hate transgender women, and it seems a bunch of them took it upon themselves to “punish” me for this.

They started harassing me on Twitter. I blocked them, but when they’re constantly talking about you, and you’re already feeling anxious, it can be difficult not to look. They were talking amongst themselves in stage whispers about me (so-called “subtweeting”); about how they were going to try and get me in trouble by writing complaint letters to anyone they could.

And they did.

I got a phone call from the leader of the council. A complaint had been lodged with liberal democrat central office in London. Someone had trawled back through ancient history and found something I’d written about Ms Bindel in 2008, 5 years ago. They then took a single sentence from this (without context, which was that Ms Bindel was actively attacking the trans community at the time, and publicly advocating that our medical help should be taken away and we should be pushed into “ex-trans” therapy), and said it showed that I was someone who “harassed women online”.

I don’t harass women online. I was rude to one transphobic person 5 years ago, at a point when she was engaging in some pretty extreme provocation of my entire community.

But the fact that I was now under active investigation hit me very hard. I had to defend myself. A second complaint arrived, this time at my MP’s office (they knew the background and threw it away, thankfully). I needed to explain the back history and give a crash course in transphobic radical feminism to my colleague who had no background in any of this. These people were actively discussing how to try and hurt me next online. I could see it all. I didn’t know where the next punch would come from. I was terrified.

My already fragile mental health collapsed. I went into severe anxiety and depression. I locked my twitter down, and told a very select group of people what was happening. Some people noticed I started to miss some scheduled meetings: “Councillor Brown sends her apologies, she is unwell” was the line.

The reality: Councillor Brown was curled up under her bed sheet, tranquillised up to her eyeballs, terrified, crying and barely in a position to feed herself, let alone attend a committee meeting.

The complaint was dismissed. It was ancient history, it was out of context, it was “equally vitriolic on the other side”. I saw my doctor. I sat there a gibbering wreck in front of him. I explained what had happened. What was still happening. He increased my antidepressant dose, and gave me more tranquillisers.

But the harassment continued. A few weeks later, my blog, this blog, started suffering a denial of service attack. Then my email was hacked, and used to send spam messages. I thought it a coincidence until I heard that a friend online had also had her online details compromised. This time, they’d taken money from her bank account, signing her up for fake services. Someone else came forward – something similar had happened to her.

The timescale for all three was identical, and the only thing we had in common was that we’d all been targeted by the same small group of online bigots. In their case, it was over race. In my case, it was because I was trans. It all led back to the same group of people though.

I got an anonymous letter, accusing me of abusing my position to “demand a sex change”, allegedly from a constituent, but sent to me via an odd route.

I cut back as much as I could. The meetings I had to go to typically had me withdrawn and quiet, bags under my eyes. I said as little as possible. Everyone was really great. People came up to me and said that they were “so sorry for what these bastards are doing to you”, and not just from my own side either; Labour opposition councillors also rallied round. They wanted no part, they said, in an attack based on anti LGBT prejudice.

Then I became involved in a discussion about parallel imports of HRT for transgender women, and how it was getting more difficult for women to get hold of the drugs we need. A complaint was sent directly to Cambridge City Council, and to the local press: I was encouraging people to break the law, it said.

The complainant’s email was forwarded to me. It was one of the people in active discussion with the group who’d been harassing me, by now, for over 3 months. None of them were Cambridge residents, some of them didn’t even live in the UK, but they were determined, it seemed, to throw everything they could at me until – I don’t know what.

That complaint was dismissed. By now I’d reached a sort of equilibrium. I was tired, but the antidepressants made it hard for me to sleep without tranquillisers. Tranquillisers are addictive though, and lose their effectiveness if you keep taking them, so I rationed their use, saving them up for nights before days I needed to be awake, and never allowing myself to take them 3 days in a row, no matter how bad things got.

I sort of muddled through. My twitter was locked down again, I’d pretty much stopped tweeting at all. I planned my weeks around when I could manage to be awake for a few hours, to do the work I needed to do. I prioritised the portfolio work, public health, Muslim women’s swimming, Tour de France, grants review, and so-on.

The election came and went. We fought the best we could under the circumstances. I had the biggest swing to the Lib Dems in the city from last year’s elections, which I think shows I had a huge personal vote, but it wasn’t enough. I lost.

I’m sad I lost, and I want to be back, but in a way I think I need a bit of a break. I’ve been to a very dark place these last few months, and I don’t ever want to go there again.

I’m off the drugs now. I have considerably beefed up my approach to online security. I feel like I’m in convalescence. The attacks have largely stopped – I think they’ve run out of ways to attack me, and perhaps they see me losing my seat as some sort of victory. If them thinking that they won is what it takes to get them off my back, then fine, they won.

This hasn’t been easy to write, but I wanted to do it, and I think I needed to do it. I blanked a lot of what happened, and remembering the rest isn’t pleasant. I’m incredibly lucky to be surrounded by people who, when things got bad, helped me. I’m lucky to be financially secure, so I wasn’t in danger of falling into poverty while this was going on. I can see how it could have been very different, and if anything it has made me want to fight harder for mental heath problems to be taken more seriously by politicians, by the media, by all of us.

But not right now. I want a rest, ok?

A Nasty Thing Happened on The Way to The Election

This is something I have sat on for the last few weeks, but during my reelection campaign, I received an anonymous letter, via the Guildhall (Cambridge City Council HQ). The letter is reproduced below:

(please read the rest of the blogpost underneath after reading the letter)

SRS Election Letter

You can click on the letter to see the full size version.

I want to make something perfectly clear before I go on.

I do not believe that a Labour canvasser said this, not for one second.

I may disagree with Cambridge Labour on many things, but one thing we do not disagree on is the need to keep personal attacks about LGBT status out of our politics. There has been a long understanding between us that the trans thing is not up for use in a political campaign. Cambridge Labour have always honoured that, and have several LGBT local councillors themselves. Despite our political differences, I count some of them as friends.

I showed this letter to the leader of the City Council Labour Group at the election count, and he was mortified. I think the claim that a Labour canvasser said that I used my position to demand SRS on the NHS is a lie.

Note that the leaflet is anonymous. If people were actually going around saying this, other local residents would have heard it. Local Lib Dem activists would have heard something via the grapevine. It would have got back to me in other ways. It never did. Nobody heard anything. I checked.

Cambridge Labour activists did not do the thing this letter accuses them of doing.

Now I want to address the central claim in the letter: that I used my position as a councillor to demand sex reassignment surgery on the NHS.

Firstly, what would demanding sex reassignment surgery look like? SRS is something that the NHS provides. One no more demands it than one demands an appendectomy. It’s something doctors either decide to refer you for, or they don’t. I have my own thoughts on this, but that is a discussion for another time.

Secondly, if I, or any other (former) councillor, started using the, “do you know who I am?” line to demand preferential treatment on the NHS, we would be reported by the NHS for corruption and get in deep trouble.

Thirdly, I guess the only thing such a “demand” could do is to allow me to somehow jump the waiting list queue. It can be a bit lengthy.

So here are the facts:

  • I had sex reassignment surgery on January 4th, 2007.

  • I had this performed at the Sussex Nuffield Hospital in Brighton by Mr Philip Thomas, consultant urologist.

  • The Sussex Nuffield Hospital is a private medical facility. I was a private patient there.

  • I paid for the procedure out of my own pocket. It cost a round £10,000.

  • I was elected in May 2010. I joined the Liberal Democrats in January of the same year.

Therefore in order for the claim to be true, I would have needed a time machine and for the NHS to pay my medical bill. Disclosure: at the time, I applied to the then Cambridge City, and subsequently Cambridgeshire Primary Care Trust, to pay said medical bill. They said no. I appealed, they said no again. End of story.

All of this happened years before I became a councillor.

The letter is, to use the vernacular, total bollocks.

So why was it sent?

I think somebody sent it in the hope I would release it to the press during the election campaign in an attempt to smear both me, and by implication Cambridge Liberal Democrats, and also Cambridge Labour. Possibly it was sent by some right wing agitator wanting to stir up trouble, possibly it was sent as part of the campaign of harassment which a group of trans exclusive radical feminists had been waging on me since February this year.

I had letters of complaint about me written to the Lib Dem central office in London, my local MP’s office and the City Council that I know of. All were seen to be vexatious. All were dismissed. I had my blog subjected to a denial of service attack and my email hacked at exactly the same time as two other people I know on Twitter who also vocally opposed these people.

And I had this letter.

Maybe these things are unrelated, maybe they are not, but there’s a nasty smell around all of this.

Finally, I want to thank those of you in Cambridge Labour who helped me out when these people did try to smear me again recently. You know who you are, and I owe you all a beer.

TERFs and Privilege

As I write this, a group of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists are taking a moment from trying to intimidate trans people to have a discussion around privilege on Twitter. Specifically, straight privilege.

UPDATE: @Rayne_2 has written a blow by blow account of their stumbling here, and it’s worth reading.

This is difficult for them. The problem is that TERFs are horrible transphobic bigots, which becomes obvious if you have a basic understanding of privilege.

Privilege is not a hard concept to understand. There are a multitude of ways in which a person can have privilege, such as sex, skin colour, access to education, etc.. Many of these ways are entirely independent of each other, some are related, but they essentially define a multi dimensional space in which each person occupies a point defined by their various privileges (or lack thereof),

So I, for example, have white privilege, middle class privilege, educational privilege, financial privilege, and a whole bunch of others, but I lack cis privilege, male privilege and straight privilege.

That means that if we’re comparing me to, say, a white male working class heterosexual person who left school at 16 and has a minimum wage job, this person has various things going for them I do not: they’re a white man, they’re straight, they’re not trans all things society values, but I’m wealthier, have a Cambridge degree, and access to people with influence.

So which of us is more oppressed? You cam’t tell, because privilege isn’t a single variable; it’s a multi dimensional space. On one axis I have privilege this man does not, on another he has privilege I do not.

Who is more oppressed? It depends on the circumstances.

But what about the TERFs?

TERF analysis isn’t like this. Their analysis is based on class. There are two classes: the oppressor class (male) and the oppressed class (female), and that’s it, end of. All men have the power to oppress all women, and women can’t oppress anybody because they are the oppressed class.

So their discussion to try and understand straight privilege is a comical exercise in missing the point. At first they argue that it doesn’t exist, presumably because straight women and lesbians are both women, and straight men and gay men are both men. This “feels wrong” though, because they know homophobia is a thing, so how can they include that in their analysis?

The way they’re trying to square the circle is by reducing it to things that men do to lesbians that they don’t do to straight women. Straight privilege exists, apparently, because lesbians are exposed to corrective rape, and straight women are not.

That seems to be about as far as they’ve got. They can only understand the concept of relative privilege in terms of how their oppressor class (men) interact with their oppressed class (women). Any more complicated analysis appears to elude them because of cognitive dissonance.

“But this multi dimensional privilege space doesn’t seem that hard to understand, Sarah! Why can’t they grasp that, or at least think about it?”

TERFs can’t see privilege for what it is because TERFs are awful human beings who use their privilege as a weapon to terrorise trans women. If they were able to conceptualise privilege in a way independent of their oppressor male/victim female discourse, the full horror of what horrible people they are, and just how evil their behaviour is, would suddenly hit them in the face.

Presumably they wouldn’t enjoy this much.

That’s why their clumsy attempts to understand straight privilege are comical. They’re trying to find something in a room that the elephant they’re trying to ignore is sat on.

A Hymn for the Social Media Age

For some reason, this popped into my head.

She who would Valium take ‘gainst all disaster,
Let her, for sanity’s sake, get to sleep faster.
There’s no discouragement shall make her once relent
Her first avowed intent to take the benzos.

Who so beset her round with dismal stories
Do but themselves confound – repeat prescription’s sorted.
And with the SSRIs, though she with gaslighter vies,
She will make good her right to take the benzos.

Block button dost defend her, and raise her spirit.
We know she, at the end, will triumph o’er git.
Then worries flee away! She’ll fear not what TERFs say,
She smiles and at last says, “I’m off the benzos!”

A Member of the Gay Community Responds to my Open Letter to Stonewall

In the interests of transparency and airing a diversity of views, I publish the following email exchange, with permission. I have changed the name of the person who sent it, referring to them as “Mr W” throughout. His text is otherwise unchanged. This was sent to me shortly after yesterday’s post went live on Pink News, and here. For clarity, I present Mr W’s comments in mauve.

On 27 Jan 2014, at 15:30, Mr W wrote:

I don’t see why you want the support of stonewall for transsexual people.  I am a gay man and stonewall is for gay men, gay women and bisexuals in same sex relationships. I don’t feel that I have anything in anyway as an insight to offer to a transsexual . As far as I am aware from speaking to some of my trans friends, most believe that they are the sex that they wish to be transitioned to and they want usually to date people of the opposite sex. Its rare a man changes to woman and then dates a woman and the same goes for women wishing to do the same. Most trans people do not believe that they are gay and therefor I fail to see what the gay scene can offer them. It is about time some one with your influence created an established advice line for trans people run by trans people, so that the right information can be given and when problems need to be talked over there is an adviser who will understand more closely  what experiences the person have been through.
Stonewall and other gay charities raise most of the money through the gay, lesbian and bi volunteers collecting money and in this austere time it does not go far,  they need that money for its intended purpose i.e to counsel and advise people in same sex relationships and safer sex. Please stop having a go at the gay scene and try to create something  good for the trans community instead.

On Monday, 27 January 2014, 15:34, Sarah Brown wrote:

Dear Mr W,

You have written to me using my council email. Can I ask, are you one of my constituents seeking help on an issue?

Kindest regards,
Sarah

On 27 Jan 2014, at 16:13, Mr W wrote:

no i am just making a general point about your  attack on stonewall  …..

On Monday, 27 January 2014, 16:15, Sarah Brown wrote:

I wasn’t aware I had attacked them. In the interests of transparency and debate, may I publish your comment as a rebuttal of my piece? I won’t use your name.

Kindest regards,
Sarah

Sent from my iPhone

On Tuesday, 28 January 2014, 11:15, Mr W wrote:

you can use it if you wish yes

oh and by the way if you are using your political position to try to pressure gay charities to do more for the trans community  I think that is a form of attack.
Thank you