Dolomites 2017, Day 1 – VF Brigata Tridentina/Pisciadu

We arrived in Corvara late last night. Well, it was late by South Tyrollean standards. The restaurants were all closing and everyone was getting ready for bed. It was 8pm. We’d planned earlier but our flight was delayed getting out of Gatwick by thunderstorms in France. We did manage to score a hybrid (Yaris) at Venice airport car rental though, and its torquey electric drivetrain works a treat on these alpine passes.

We were just in time to get food at the hotel and we ate a filling Tyrollean dinner of, well, meat basically. Meat and meat with a nod to the whole “technically this is Italy” thing by way of a spicy (German standard, i.e. not spicy) spaghetti and tomatoes.

But it was mostly meat.

The next task before bed was deciding what to do today. The two vertical kilometres we did in the Peak District in the last month have served us well and we are already quite hill-fit. We’ve neglected the climbing gym of late though and we aren’t used to altitude. That meant we needed a strenuous but technically unchallenging climb at moderate altitude.

There’s a via ferrata just up the pass from our hotel. It’s a 650 metre climb up the Sella Group’s north face to a mountain refuge where one can have lunch. Unfortunately it’s also just about the most popular VF in the Dolomites and to be avoided at weekends!

Big-ass mountain

The climb runs up the far left buttress you can see here, just behind it.

It being Thursday we thought we’d be OK. As it was, the car park was full when we rolled in at 9am and the VF did very much resemble a 500 metre long vertical queue. I’m getting ahead of myself though.

The ferrata in question is problematic to name. It’s officially called Birgata Tridentina. For reasons I’m not going into, that’s kinda an Italian nationalist name, and the Dolomites is sort of like Italy’s Wales. This bit of it is predominantly German speaking and so the climb often goes by the name VF Pisciadu, after the river it climbs beside.

We call it VF Bad Flowers, which is a family in-joke, which I’m also not explaining.

So we arrived at the car park and looked up to see part of the mighty Sella Group’s north face looking back at us. Fine, that’s what we’d come to climb. Time to gear-up and consult the map. Both of us have done this route before, but it’s worth being thorough.

Via Ferrata in yellow, possible descent routes in green and blue

Via Ferrata in yellow, possible descent routes in green and blue.

As can be seen, the route attacks the lower cliff almost immediately/ There’s then a flat-ish section where it follows Dolomite path 29 before branching off and doing the bulk of the climb. It finishes at the mountain refuge at just under 2600 metres, and then there are a choice of descent paths.

Sylvia on the lower section.

Sylvia on the lower section.

So off we go. It’s a lovely day and the hordes are already gearing up at the base of the climb. We tried to get on as quickly as possible, to avoid being caught up in too many queues. The first section is a very simple 100 metre climb on stemples (steel rungs concreted into the rock). It gets a bit vertical, but it’s basically a ladder hammered into the cliff face and nothing challenging except any nervousness around heights to deal with. I don’t entirely approve of this, as a lot of novices decide to try this route at the end of their holiday, as their first “big climb”. Lots of via ferratas have a “muppet filter” where it throws something really nasty at you at the start. This does not. It starts out easy and just gets harder and harder, ending up with a few sections that are going to be very challenging for anyone not used to moving on rock faces.

Woodland walk between the two sections.

Woodland walk between the two sections.

I took lots of photographs. This is because we were’t moving very fast. It I looked up all I saw were the bottoms of a dozen or more climbers ahead of me. Some of them were moving very slowly, and overtaking on a via ferrata is not always easy. As a result, we waited and admired the view. This section is short though, and you’re soon off cable and onto a nice walk through the tree line until you reach a signpost directing you left to the bulk of the ferrata.

Lower Pisciadu Falls. The route goes straight up the cliff to the right of them.

Lower Pisciadu Falls. The route goes straight up the cliff to the right of them.

As you round the corner you’re in for a treat. To the left of the point where the cable restarts is the river Pisciadu engaged in a bit of verticality, something it does a lot on its rapid descent from the Sella plateau. The waterfall is quite impressive and the first of three the climber will encounter.

A few people were standing around looking thoughtful (the thought presumably being “am I going to die here?”), so we bypassed them and got back on the cable. Now we found ourselves behind the second type of person you don’t want to get stuck behind on a ferrata. The first is a newbie who can’t climb well and may well freeze and lose their bowel contents at the exposure (it happens). The second is the sort of person who is confident at climbing, but thinks they’re above using proper gear.

I should explain. When you fall in a normal climb, the rope is stretchy, and the entire length of the rope expands to slow you down. This is actually pretty comfortable, even on the really huge climbing falls. The gear is designed to dissipate the forces. A via ferrata can’t do that because there’s no rope. Instead, if you fall, you will slide down the section of steel cable you’re connected to until you hit a supporting peg. You will then come to an abrupt halt and if the fall is more than a few metres, you will die.

Via ferrata was quite a dangerous sport well into the 90s, where the survival rate from falls was often described as “not as high as we’d like”. Various things were tried to make falls safer. Newer ferratas are built with fall zones clear of rocks and often with rubber shock absorbers on the pegs holding the cable. The gear has evolved as well. The early intrepid ferrataist would use two slings with a carabiner on the end of each. When they came to a peg, they’d detach, one carabiner at a time, from the old section and attach to the new. If they fell, the slings would snap with the shock load and they’d die.

If this man falls, he will die. Silly man. The correct gear is cheaper than his life is worth.

If this man falls, he will die. Silly man. The correct gear is cheaper than his life is worth.

Now we’ve basically solved this problem. We still use two slings, but they’re connected to your climbing harness by something we call a “screamer” (because of the noise you make if you ever need it, presumably). This is a flat loop of webbing with one end attached to the slings, and the other attached to the harness. The two halves of the loop are then sewn together using thread that is designed to break at loads of above about 1200 Newtons (if you’re heavier than that, don’t rest on them). The idea is that if you fall, and your carabiners come to an abrupt halt at the peg, the screamer will deploy and instead of dying you will experience a significant G-force for an instant as it slows you down over about a metre. This is a one-time thing. It you use it once, you throw the gear away.

The guy above me, one of a group of 3 Germans, had a single dyneema sling girth hitched to his harness at one end and a carabiner at the other. If he fell, his back would break, and then the sling would snap, and then his rapidly dying body would plummet onto me, deploying my screamer. I would bot be best pleased.

So I tried to keep out of his fall zone.

You find things to do to amuse yourself while queueing on a mountainside.

You find things to do to amuse yourself while queueing on a mountainside.

After about an hour of climbing queueing, you come to a point where you can leave the cable. You’re nearly at the tope here, and there’s a sign directing you to “easy climb to top”. Lots of people elect to take this. Some of the ones who really should take the hint do not.

Our Germans had vanished at this point. A lot of people detach from the cable for a bite to eat. Instead there was a middle aged couple, the woman in front, the man behind. They seemed to be finding the going, which had got very vertical at this point, quite tricky. The queue slowed to a crawl as people floundered above us on a properly vertical section, only without stemples. The poor lady in front of me started making whimpering noises. I don’t think she was having a happy time. Shortly after, her husband’s shoe fell apart!

This is one of the more substantial bridges over the void you get here. Some of them are far more entertaining.

This is one of the more substantial bridges over the void you get here. Some of them are far more entertaining.

Not ideal, but at this point you’re basically done, save for the crowd pleasing suspension bridge over the void. Cross that and then walk to the mountain refuge for a well earned lunch. I had a beer and we both had dumplings in broth (a local specialty), before deciding to head down.

Remember the maps with the routes? The standard descent is marked in green. You zigzag down a steep scree filled erosion gully until you’ve descended 650 metres, and then you’re done. The descent is a bit soul destroying though: endless switchbacks of scree, scree and more scree.

That’s the way we’ve descended previously. The blue one, advertised as a bit longer, but a picturesque amble down a lovely valley, sounded enticing and it was still only lunchtime. Why not?

Yes, reversing back down the via ferrata avoids the crowds, but there's a reason they all went the other way.

Yes, reversing back down the via ferrata avoids the crowds, but there’s a reason they all went the other way.

Basically, false advertising is a thing. It’s a walk to a steep chossy porto-scramble down into a scree-filled erosion gully, which you descend for a few hundred metres. This takes ages and leaves you on the broad flat section between the two bits of ferrata, only about a mile down the valley. You then reascend for a while until you cross your former path and are presented with the choice of ascending a bit more to reach the other descent path, or down climbing the (now thankfully deserted) lower section of the via ferrata.

We opted to down climb because it was the shortest route, but down climbing a ferrata is a nerve-wracking affair. Stuff that seemed trivial on the way up suddenly seems very hard and accident prone. Still, we made it back to the hotel by 5 and jumped straight in the hot tub. Bliss!

VF Sci Club 18 tomorrow. Now that one does not mess about.

Syliva enjoys an "airy" bit of VF Brigata Tridentina/Pisciadu, with the eponymous river far below.

Syliva enjoys an “airy” bit of VF Brigata Tridentina/Pisciadu, with the eponymous river far below.

Speech I gave at the Humanist UK panel on LGBT kids in faith schools

Hi. I should perhaps explain why I’m here. Those who were at the faith schools debate at the Liberal Democrat conference may recall that Chris Ward spoke eloquently on his experiences as a young LGBT person in a faith school. The things he said resonated with me and my own experiences, and I rushed to put an intervention card in. I only had a few seconds to make my point, but I did, and I was quite tearful when I made it. Between us I think we made a difference in how the vote went.

The film he referred to, which they showed to kids, and which I understand some schools still do, is called “The Silent Scream”. It’s on youTube and you can watch it. I should warn you that you may find it extremely disturbing. I was 14 when they made us watch it.

So my background: I grew up in a single parent family in the East Midlands coalfields in the 70s and 80s, living through the miners’ strike in an area where kids didn’t tend to expect big things for their lives. I did quite well in primary school and my mum worked during the day in a bookies. That didn’t bring in enough money to support me and my brother, so she had an evening job serving behind the bar in an old roadside coaching inn in the middle of nowhere. Its clientele fell into two groups: lorry drivers parking up for the night from the nearby M1 motorway, and teachers from the local independent boarding school who lived on site and liked to nip out in the evenings for some liquid entertainment.

And my mum, being quite gregarious, got friendly with these teachers, and would, on occasion, talk about her kid who was doing really well in primary school and was a bit of a wiz with computers.

And what a shame it was that the local secondary school didn’t tend to produce students who went on to university, or do much of anything really.

And then one day my mum came home and asked if I’d like to go to a really good school.

Mrs Thatcher was PM at the time and she was doing all that Tory stuff like favouring selective education. They had something called the Assisted Places scheme, where kids from a poor background who were “academically gifted”, could go to a fee paying school and the government would pay some or all of their school fees.

So I got an interview with the headmaster, and apparently I impressed him, and they offered me a place.

There are two further salient points to this. While I didn’t grow up in an overtly religious environment, the school in question was run by Jesuit priests, who are essentially the shock troops of the Catholic Church. The headmaster was a jesuit priest, various teachers were jesuit priests, the rest were members of what the church calls the laity.

The second salient point is that I’m a transgender woman and a lesbian. Specifically at the age of eleven, I was a closeted, terrified, and somewhat impressionable transgender girl who didn’t really understand there was a name for what I was feeling, but knew that if other people found out it would be very very bad for me.

I thought there was something wrong with me. This was not a good start for what followed.

I got the impression that the Jesuit school system saw its purpose as producing members of the establishment who would further the aims of the Catholic Church. They never seemed to have got over the whole Glorious Revolution thing. Indeed, the headmaster literally told me, as he was tutoring me to give the reading in mass, that he expected me to be a member of parliament one day. There’s plenty of overt religious indoctrination, and even to a kid it’s quite easy to recognise that and either run with it or shake it off.

The problem is the stuff they do that’s more subtle. The ways they teach you to think, and to see yourself and the world, which aren’t tagged with the overt “God” stuff, so if you later fall to atheism, as I did, some of it stays with you.

That includes the understanding that thoughts can be wrong. Not just actions, but certain thoughts. I don’t mean ideas of self harm or of other kinds of mental illness. No, there are some ways of looking at the world that are wrong. There are some ways of living you life that are wrong. There are some feelings that are wrong.

And if you think or feel these things you are a bad person.

if you feel attraction towards someone of your own sex, you are a bad person.

If you have these pervasive thoughts about how you desperately need to be a girl, you are a bad person.

You definitely shouldn’t act on these thoughts, and actually you should have the strength of character to be able to get rid of them. That would make you redeemed. That would show that you’d struggled against bad thoughts, and won.

Only, of course, I couldn’t make them go away. Indeed, as puberty wore on they got stronger and stronger. That meant that I was a bad person with weak character. That meant that I had failed. That made me loathsome and pathetic. A disappointment to the system that educated me to the point where I could go to Cambridge. A failure, a waste of money, and if there was some residual religious faith, probably someone who was going to be tortured for all eternity in hell.

This is how I, as a child, felt about myself.

In a school of a thousand kids, a hundred or so of them will be LBGT. Around ten of those will be transgender. A leading cause of death of transgender people is suicide. A large number of apparently unexplained suicides are probably transgender people who couldn’t find a way to square the circle in their own minds. I know a lot of transgender people and every single one of us has had to make our accommodation with death in one way or another.

Some faith schools manage to offer non judgemental or supportive environments, at least superficially. Some of the self hatred stuff, the idea that there are bad thoughts and feelings you need to struggle against is going to be there even in some notionally supportive environments, because it’s not tied to LGBT friendly SRE lessons: it’s mainstreamed in how these places teach you to relate to yourself and the world.

I wasn’t Catholic. My mum wasn’t Catholic. She just saw an opportunity for me to escape a life of no prospects ands took it, and I can’t ever blame her for that. Lots of parents send their kids to these places because they want their kids to have the best future. We can talk about how that’s a pretty dismal thing for social equality, but we really need to talk about what it’s doing to confused, scared, closeted LGBT kids who could be supported to become happy confident LGBT adolescents, comfortable with themselves and how they’re feeling, but who instead are being terrorised in the name of churches giving parents a way to produce moral upstanding citizens with good A-Levels.

What is Territorial Cissing?

There has been a recent spate of articles in the UK press, mostly at weekends. Pretty much all of them are written by cis women. They all attack trans women for, as far as I can tell, having the very nerve to exist as women. Perhaps the most notable recently was this piece by Woman’s Hour presenter, Jenni Murray (paywalled). Murray starts by proclaiming that she is definitely not transphobic in any way, and certainly not a TERF.

After this important disclaimer, she then trots out a few classic TERF tropes, which she seems to earnestly believe: trans women are fashion obsessed airheads; we were “socialised as men”; we need to stop pretending we’re “real” women; and by the way, a trans woman she knows agrees with her so don’t call her transphobic.

This is tedious. There’s nothing new here. These “arguments” are such cliches that one can number them ahead of time and provide handy links to their standard refutations if one desires. It’s well into “drinking game” territory.

I found myself wondering what the point of these “paint by numbers” weekly hit pieces is. The people writing them act like they’re imparting important new information, but pretty much the exact same piece appears every few days. Right on cue, a few days later author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came out with the same nonsense, and then a few days after that it was the turn of Hadley Freeman. Yesterday it was Ellie Mae O’Hagan’s turn.

Here’s my recipe for writing one of these pieces:

Start by declaring yourself “not transphobic” and say something about how you “deplore discrimination”. Like those things companies add to the bottom of emails, this is Very Important and Definitely Legally Binding.

Talk about how trans women have “male socialisation”, then pick a few of these and write a paragraph about each:

  • Political correctness means you can’t say “cervix” any more
  • Something about testosterone and sport
  • Trans activists are transing our children and forcing them to swallow bottles of deadly hormones
  • “autogynephillia” (caution – this will blow your “not a TERF” cover – use with care)
  • Trans women are airhead bimbos, definitely all of them, and no cis women behave like this, ever, amen

Now you’ve carefully constructed your devastatingly effective and completely original (or your money back) argument, close out by saying that trans women need to identify as trans women, and stop calling themselves women, and get off my territory!

Because that’s the rub, isn’t it? The thing these pieces are all asserting is territorial dominance. “I am woman, this is mine, you can’t have none, look at my expensively maintained by an Islington dentist middle class canine teeth! Grrrr!”

A dank pedestrian underpass

This seems safe

You know those dark, concrete pedestrian underpasses? Every city has them: even beautiful Cambridge with its medieval university. They’re just a bit grim, no matter how hard councils try to make them seem safe and welcoming.

And quite often, they smell of urine.

We all know who’s doing this. By and large, it’s young men. Whatever they think their reasons are, this whole “urinating in underpasses” thing has a very clear effect: it marks the area for women as being a place we shouldn’t linger. We’re probably not safe there. It’s not our territory.

The man pissing there probably did so with their mates present. They probably thought it was “top bantz”, or something. They were probably drunk and engaging in the sort of loud, territorial behaviour that women tend to instinctively fear. Yes, even trans women, despite what these thinkypieces would have us believe.

These constant hit pieces in the press are doing the same thing. Every time we see one, it reminds trans women that we can never take acceptance by feminists, or by any cis women we don’t already know well enough to trust, for granted; it’s not safe for us to do so. Feminism and women’s issues aren’t for us; if we speak up we will be punished and cast out because this is not our space, it belongs to the people who want us dead, or at least invisible. Like uppity women asking drunk men to just use the fucking toilet, we’re spoiling their gig.

And just to remind us, they’re going to ensure the media constantly bombards us with their territorial cissing, week in, week out.

An Ode to Brexit

Ode to Brexit

Tune: Ode to Joy, Ludwig van Beethoven, Words: Sarah Brown

Cameron watched the rise of UKIP
Feared he’d never end them
Came up with a cunning plan
And pledged a referendum

He just assumed Nick Clegg would veto
Blame the Lib Dems, so much fun!
He never stopped to wonder
What would happen if the Tories won

Boris Johnson saw his chance
To be the next Prime Minister
Switched sides; joined with Michael Gove
And hatched a plan most sinister

They both assumed Remain would win it
5 points clear and they’d be done
They never stopped to wonder
What would happen if the Leave vote won

They watched Donald make a fortune
Playing as to lose the game
With a campaign based on nonsense
Surely they would lose the same?

Bent bananas, hate the migrants
Pander to the worst excess
They never stopped to wonder
What would happen if they had success

On the day the country voted
Turnout it was very large
Stupid bastards went and won
And now it’s Springtime For Farage

My Lib Dem Spring Conference 2016 Speech on All Women Shortlists

This is the 3 minute speech I gave to the Lib Dem conference on all women shortlists. It was supporting an amendment which would remove them from a diversity motion we were considering. I took the view that the underlying problem is that the political environment is hostile towards women, and all women shortlists don’t address that, but paper over it.

We lost, but it was quite close, and some told me that my speech had changed their minds, which I suppose is the mark of a successful debate speech.


In days of yore, it’s said coal miners took caged canaries down mines, to test the air. Imagine, if you will, one mine that has a problem. Nine miners take down a canary, and the canary, after looking distressed for a bit, dies.

The miners realise they have a problem. “Better get another canary”, says one.

So they do, and that canary dies.

As does the third, and the fourth.

Well word gets round the local canary flock, and when they see the miners coming they make themselves scarce. Now the miners really have a problem.

“I know”, says one of them; “for every five of us who go down, we will reserve another five spaces for canaries.”

“We’ll fill them from all canary shortlists.”

Slowly the miners all get unpleasant health problems, because canary targets don’t clean up toxic air.

I served four years as a councillor. At the end of my term, I feel like I discovered a dirty little secret. I ended my term on antidepressants and so, it seems did a statistically implausible number of my colleagues, in all parties.

Some of us ended up comparing notes: Citalopram or Mirtazapine, which has worse side effects? That sort of thing. How messed up is that?

Maybe we need a spent canaries support group.

Studies show that men often overestimate or overstate their abilities and women underestimate and understate them, and this is reflected in how different genders tend to respond in toxic environments, be it investment banking or be it politics.

We ask a lot of our candidates: organise deliverers, run campaigns, spend x nights a week knocking on y hundred doors. Our local parties often ask for more time than is reasonable. Men will quite often sign up, and then just not do it all. Women, who tend to have less free time to start with, will look at the expected workload and become stressed.

I’m no expert in why the response here is gendered; but it is, and we in all parties have built an environment that unconsciously selects men by tailoring it towards male-typical responses to stress. That’s a bad thing for the men too, by the way, they just tend to respond differently to it.

The problem is not with the women. The problem is with the toxicity of the environment. If we learned anything from New Labour’s love of targets and quotas, it’s that they provide simple solutions to the wrong problem.

Don’t get more canaries. Fix the toxicity.

Government Trans Equality Report; Much to Cheer But Timid in Parts

This morning, the government’s Women and Equalities Committee released its first report on transgender equality, detailing its recommendations. They fall into a few broad areas:

  • Reform of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act
  • Reform of the 2010 Equality Act
  • Reform of healthcare services for trans people
  • “Tackling everyday transphobia”

I’ve had a short while to skim this document and these are my initial impressions. It’s a very long report of nearly 100 pages, but much of it is summarising submitted evidence and explaining the current situation. The committee has helpfully written their recommendations in bold, and those are the sections I’m going to focus on. Zoe O’Connell has also blogged on this and is worth reading.

Before doing that, I’ll note that this is very much a report of our time, and fits with the narrative of the current Conservative government. While noting that the government has work to do, it defends the deeply discriminatory Spousal Veto and only really takes the gloves off when it comes to talking about the NHS.

Taking the parts as they are presented in the document, I’ll start with the Summary:

The report recognises that “High levels of transphobia are experienced by individuals on a daily basis with serious results“, and references the appalling suicide statistics faced by transgender people.

It recognises that the 2004 Gender Recognition Act was “pioneering but is now dated“, and criticises the pathologisation of trans identities and the need for self-determination.

It recognises that the Equality Act is unclear in who it covers, and suggests that the fuzzy concept of “gender reassignment” be relaunched as “gender identity“. Hopefully this will clarify and enhance the position of non binary people.

It has some strong words for the NHS, pulling no punches with “ e NHS is letting down trans people: it is failing in its legal duty“. This seems to refer to both gender identity, and general healthcare services.

Now on to the detailed sections, starting with the Gender Recognition Act. The report:

  • Recognises that the Act has nothing to offer non binary people, stating that “The Government must look into the need to create a legal category“.
  • Urges the government, “within the current parliament” to “bring forward proposals to update the Gender Recognition Act, in line with the principles of gender self-declaration“.
  • Recognises that the Spousal Veto is open to abuse and that this is “deplorable and inexcusable“, but recommends that the veto remain in place.
  • Recommends that gender recognition be available to 16 year olds, but suggests this should be subject to parental consent or Gillick Competency.
  • Notes there have been no prosecutions under Section 22 of the Act (the protection from outing clause), and expresses concern that this may be effectively useless. It suggests the Ministry of Justice “take action to address this“.

There’s some good stuff here. I’m pleased the committee spotted the uselessness of Section 22 as a piece of criminal law that is routinely violated and never enforced, and welcome suggestions that this be tightened up. I welcome the recognition of the need to extend recognition to non-binary people but am disappointed that the committee presents no suggestion as to how this might be attempted. Similarly, while it recognises the need for self determination instead of the current practice of having bureaucrats literally put your gender identity on trial, it presents no suggestions for how this might be done.

In regards to the above, the committee’s report is essentially, “isn’t this terrible? The government ought to do something!”

The attitude towards the Spousal Veto is extremely disappointing. The report notes that Scotland effectively did away with it, but stubbornly insists it must stay, while noting that abuse of it is “deplorable”. Again, it offers no suggestions to how such abuse might be prevented, nor what can be done in the instances where spousal consent is not possible to obtain (e.g. the spouse is in a coma, or cannot be contacted).

This is, perhaps, the most disappointing aspect of the report for me, and the point at which it is at its most timid. The justification for retaining the veto is both paper thin and nothing we haven’t heard before. Stating, “in a marriage where one party transitions, the non-trans spouse does have a legal right to be consulted if it is proposed to change the terms of the marriage contract in consequence“.

Let’s note here what it is that’s being vetoed: it’s not transition itself, nor any of the hormonal or surgical changes that have potentially profound consequences for the nature of what is supposed to be a life-long monogamous sexual relationship.

What is being vetoed is access to equality before the law.

While I will never agree that the veto is anything other than a gross and disgusting infringement on the liberty and humanity of trans people, I would perhaps understand it more if those defending it were able to present an argument that actually made sense. How can you possibly give a spouse power of veto over access to employment nondiscrimination, but not access to genital reconstruction surgery?

On The Equality Act, the report:

  • Suggests that the protected characteristic of “gender reassignment” be replaced with “gender identity“.
  • Suggests clarification of the Act so it is obvious that its protections apply to children.
  • Recommends that the granting of a Gender Recognition Certificate prevents the exclusions on access to single sex services and jobs from applying to someone.
  • Recommends “the Government work with Sport England to produce guidance which help sporting groups realise that there are likely to be few occasions where exclusions are justified” from single sex sport competitions.

There’s some really good stuff here. The Equality Act was a rush-job at the end of the 2005-2010 parliament and many (myself included) think that its provisions for trans people are a mess as a result. The single most important change, perhaps, is changing the definition of what’s protected from discrimination from “gender reassignment” to “gender identity“. It is currently very unclear just “how trans” you have to be to be covered by the Act, and this should go a long way towards addressing that, especially for non-binary people.

At present, you can be fired from certain jobs (or prevented from applying for them), and refused access to single-sex services (such as domestic violence shelters and rape-crisis counselling) if you are trans, and this is explicitly legal under the Act. The report proposes removing these exceptions but only if you have a Gender Recognition Certificate. According to some legal experts I have spoken to in the past, this is very much the situation that existed prior to the Act passing in 2010.

This does risk widening the perceived gap between those who have a Gender Recognition Certificate and those who do not though. Given there are no actual proposals for how the Gender Recognition Act might be extended to non-binary people, if this proposal is implemented by itself then it very much maintains non-binary people as “second class” trans people, from a legal standpoint.

It also makes a retained Spousal Veto much nastier by creating the unpleasantly ironic situation where an embittered spouse of a trans person can subject them to domestic abuse while withholding their legal right to access a domestic violence shelter.

There are kinds of discrimination that the Equality Act allows which the report does not address. One such is marriage in church, where if the priest reasonably thinks you are trans, they can refuse to marry you. Another relates to military service. The report has no recommendations to make here.

On The NHS the report:

  • Says there is “too much evidence” of discrimination towards trans people in the NHS.
  • Notes that trans people encounter “significant problems” accessing general healthcare and sometimes encounter “out-and-out prejudice
  • Notes GPs often lack understanding of trans issues and referral pathways and this can lead to “appropriate care not being provided“.
  • Calls for a “root and branch review of failures in professional development, commissioning and incidences of transphobia in healthcare to be published within six months.
  • States that the General Medical Council must provide reassurance that it takes transphobia seriously.
  • Welcomes ongoing depathologisation of trans identities, in the same way that LGB people have been depathologised.
  • Suggests that gender identity services be separated from mental health services, and perhaps become a discipline in their own right.
  • Recognises that while gender recognition on request is something it would support, it would not support the informed consent model for “medical intervention as profound and permanent as genital … surgery
  • Notes the inappropriateness of prescribed gendered codes of dress and mannerisms to access treatment.
  • Demands that the “lack of capacity” which is causing long waiting lists be addressed urgently.
  • Recommends much easier access to puberty blockers for adolescent trans people and notes the urgency this represents.

I have less of a dog in this fight than many, as my own interactions with transition related health services largely finished nearly a decade ago. I do still experience problems accessing general healthcare, and I have campaigned continually on the difficulties trans people face accessing all forms of healthcare, because it’s really important.

I know the recommendation against an informed consent model will be disappointing to many. I’m not going to talk about that in depth here as it’s a complex topic and this is already getting really long.

Many clinicians will likely welcome the possibility of gender identity services becoming a fully fledged discipline in their own right, rather than the poor and neglected stepchild of mental health trusts. I would welcome this too: GIC’s currently live rather like a primary-school aged Harry Potter, shut away in the cupboard under the stairs by an adoptive family that would really rather they weren’t there at all, and if pushed, doesn’t really hold with “that sort of nonsense”. In order for GICs to properly reform and grow, they should be set free.

The last major section is called Tackling Everyday Transphobia. The report:

  • Notes that legal change will “only bite” if there is social change too.
  • Calls for the Ministry of Justice to work with trans people on hate crimes reporting.
  • Calls for the government to strengthen hate crime legislation.
  • States that the requirement for a doctor’s note to obtain an updated-gender passport “must be dropped“.
  • Calls for public bodies to justify those occasions where they record name and gender, and notes there is no such thing as a “legal name” in the UK.
  • States that the UK “must” introduce “an option to record gender as ‘X’ on a passport“.
  • Suggests the government move towards non-gendering of official records as a general principle.
  • Notes it is not appropriate for trans people in prison to be put in solitary confinement just because they are trans.
  • Asks the prison service to clarify its position on trans prisoners and requires prison staff training and that the implementation of policy be monitored.
  • Tasks the Independent Press Standards Organisation and OFCOM with working out how to get trans people to complain about poor representation.
  • Notes harassment of trans people online needs to be taken seriously.
  • Suggests schools need to cover trans issues in Personal, Social and Health Eductation.
  • Asks further education bodies to better promote trans equality.
  • Calls for trans-appropriate training of social workers “as a matter of urgency

This is the single largest section and there’s a lot here. The stuff on official documents is eminently sensible and the call for X markers on passports (with a move towards removing gender on them altogether) is very welcome indeed.

Treatment of trans people in prisons is a festering sore and urgently needs addressing. The committee seems, in its language, to be putting the prison service on notice, and I welcome that.

I think the committee have missed the point on press and media depictions of trans people. The problem isn’t that trans people aren’t complaining; it’s that nothing is done in response. This is symptomatic of a much larger problem with the press in our society, and I’m not optimistic much will happen any time soon.

I couldn’t help but smile at the suggestion trans issues be covered in PHSE. At my school, the only time they were mentioned was to note that people like me “should be locked up”. Things have improved, thank goodness.

Internet harassment really needs to be tackled. I had a nervous breakdown because of it 2 years ago. This report doesn’t suggest any kind of compulsion to do anything about it though. The government, apparently, doesn’t want to tell ISPs what to do (apart from when it comes to spying on us and making them censor LGBT news sites as “porn”).

I will close by apologising for the length, but there was a lot to get through and the committee have done a thorough job.

What they’ve produced is a curate’s egg. There’s some really good stuff in here, but some of it is really disappointing too, particularly the stuff about the Spousal Veto, especially since Scotland proved there is no need for it whatsoever. I can only wonder why the government is so attached to it, particularly since this report, if implemented, gives it more teeth.

And finally, a word of caution. This is not a bill before parliament. It’s a report from a committee, and while it contains a list of recommendations, it doesn’t have the power to implement any of them without ministerial support.

Still, it’s a step in the right direction, and quite a big one.

But the Spousal Veto guys – sort yourselves out, seriously.

Star Wars – the conspiracy edition

OK. If you haven’t seen The Force Awakens, you probably don’t want to read this, as it contains spoilers.

But I’ve been chatting with friends about the obvious question in Ep VII: Who is Supreme Leader Snoke, and it sort-of developed into a massive conspiracy theory for the whole of the Star Wars saga, which while huge in scale is disturbingly plausible.

Let’s start with Supreme Leader Snoke. At first I thought he was Palpatine, who somehow survived the Death Star or is back from the sea, Obi-Wan style. To try and find evidence for this I went digging in the soundtrack. Remember when John Williams inserted the Emperor’s theme into Episode I, when they’re parading past Palpatine?

Snoke’s theme is a dark monastic chanting affair. Interestingly it has a counterpoint that comes in towards the end, and that counterpoint sounds a lot like the main melody in the Emperor’s theme from Return of the Jedi.

But then there’s also this scene in Episode III, where Palpatine is telling Anakin about Darth Plagueis the Wise. Clearly Palpatine’s master, he was so powerful with the force he could use it to create and manipulate life itself. The guy is basically immortal, only his pupil killed him in his sleep. Oops.

So Plagueis is gone, or is he? The music playing in the background here is very, very, very similar to Snoke’s theme.

And there’s this bit where Kylo Ren (AKA Darth Emo – can you imagine this guy dealing with a printer paper jam? He’d lightsaber the printer to death while screaming that it wasn’t fair) talks of Snoke:

“The Supreme Leader is wise”.

Darth Plagueis the Wise, perhaps?

It seems plausible that Snoke is Plagueis, so what’s his game here?

Conspiracy time

You are Darth Plagueis the Wise, the most powerful Sith Lord, and probably most powerful Force user of all time. You want to rule the galaxy. You are immortal and can afford to play the long game.

You also have a power mad psychopath for an apprentice. He is clearly bent on galactic domination. Aw, bless.

Teach him just what he needs to know, point him at the galactic senate, planting the idea of bringing the Republic down, then let him think he’s killed you, and go into hiding.

Problem is, this guy is going to be a liability once he’s brought the Republic down, so you need an insurance policy: a force user of your own design who is almost programmed from birth to bring your snot-nosed ingrate of an apprentice down once he’s toppled the Republic.

So you use your ability to manipulate the force into creating life to conceive a force user of your own design; a warrior who will be drawn to Palpatine, help him in his initial task, then turn against him and kill him. Because you are basically designing this person from scratch, you can direct his personality so this is likely to go the way you want.

Enter Anakin Skywalker.

The rest is history. Your apprentice, with Anakin’s help, brings down the Republic and renders the Jedi all but extinct. Your apprentice then installs himself as galactic emperor, and your plan enters phase II.

You now need to bring the emperor down. So you pull some strings behind the scene, help create a resistance, or bolster an embryonic one that’s already formed: The Rebel Alliance. Arrange for your ticking time bomb’s son and daughter to get embedded within them, to flip him over into “kill Palpatine” mode. Make sure that things like plans for Palpatine’s super weapons get to them, and generally work behind the scenes to help them out.

And eventually Anakin and Palpatine take other out. Anakin had kids, but that’s OK. You’re immortal, remember? One of them is quite powerful, but he’s a Jedi knight, and they’re not supposed to have kids themselves. The other one gives birth to a new force user. That’s problematic. Better see if you can subvert him and bring him over to the Dark Side for you. Since he’s one quarter Anakin Skywalker, your creation, you kinda know how the guy ticks, so no worries.

Luke Skywalker probably knows he can’t beat you, so he will go off into hiding and you just need to wait for him to die of old age.

And there you are, Supreme Leader of the Galaxy.

The snag

You’ve pulled the strings, orchestrated the events, everything has gone according to your plan. Luke Skywalker is a worry, but not a huge one. You know how he ticks.

But you let the Force’s genie out of the bottle, and it went and did something you didn’t expect. There’s another player in town. A force user so powerful that without any training at all they can go toe to toe with Kylo Ren in battle, and force-dominate a stormtrooper into releasing them from prison.

So who is Rey? Is she Luke’s daughter? I’m not sure. I wonder if Palpatine worked out what his old master had done, and came up with an insurance policy of his own; arrange for someone to be born who would avenge his death.

This is all very far fetched, but at the same time somewhat plausible, and it does tie together lots of loose ends.

I think Supreme Leader Snoke is Darth Plagueis the Wise; I think he orchestrated pretty much everything that happened, including playing both sides in the Empire/Rebel Alliance war; and I think Rey is going to bring him down when Luke Skywalker fails to.

Every Day, I Mislead People About my Origins

Some people present themselves in ways which bely their history, and perhaps, it could be said, who they really are.

We we to be unkind, we might even say that some people present themselves in ways that are downright misleading. They present as something they are not. They are, if we’re being really unkind, frauds.

I am one of these people.

Because, you see, if you met me you would encounter someone presenting as a woman in her 40s, educated, middle class, speaking with a southern accent going on received pronunciation.

But sometimes there is a tell; a little something which, if you know what you’re looking for, will reveal that someone is not quite what they seem.

In my case, I just made a vinaigrette with Henderson’s Relish.

Yes. I was actually born “Up North”.

Deceptive Sarah is deceptive.

My Speech to Lib Dem Autumn Conference 2015, Trans and Intersex Health Charter

I was called to summate this motion. It passed with no votes against.

Good morning conference,

The state of transgender healthcare in this country is a complete pig’s ear. The state of healthcare for intersex people is far worse.

At the first session of the Women and Equalities Select Committee’s inquiry into transgender issues a couple of weeks ago, one MP asked, if she went to her GP and told them she had been struggling with her gender identity and needed help, how long it would take before she got any kind of treatment.

She didn’t get a clear answer, so I’ll give one now. The answer is years.


And that’s for a prescription of HRT drugs which are basically harmless and cost about as much as ibuprofen.

This happens because of systematic neglect by the NHS. It happens because of pig-headed commissioners who would rather squander their budgets on the worsening mental health of trans people desperate for treatment, while they wait years, and while their lives collapse around them. They’ll spend two, three times as much money as it would cost to cure people to keep them in a state of distress.

It happens because clinicians, working at the front line, have told me that they do not get the support they need from their trusts, that they are overworked and under-resourced. That other clinicians think they’re wasting their time working with a bunch of weirdoes.

A recent study revealed that the most dangerous time for a transgender person is immediately after they have requested treatment, because that’s the point at which the dam has burst, and the thing they’ve been suppressing for years has gushed through. If denied help at this point, the study found that around half of them will attempt suicide.

Medical neglect of transgender people is pushing them into suicide.

But however badly transgender people have it, intersex people have it worse in many ways. We have heard about how they are mutilated as babies, often based on whether the length of their sex organ passes an arbitrary threshold.

The scalpel ham-fistedly assigns them as boys if it’s beyond certain length, and girls if it’s not. This often sterilises them in the process. Their parents are told not to discuss it with them as they grow up.

They are then treated with further surgery and a cocktail of hormones to try and force them into the gender role medics chose for them at birth, and then at 18, when they are often suffering from a litany of health problems and traumatised by what is done to them, funding dries up.

Those who subsequently seek gender reassignment, to try and fix what was done to them, often have a harder time accessing it than trans people do. Trans people who, ironically, have almost no access to medical intervention before they are 18.

We have heard that trans people are treated poorly by equalities law. That it’s legal to fire us, that it’s legal to sack us from certain jobs, that it’s difficult to gain legal recognition, and even that process is subject to spousal veto.

Intersex people have no legal recognition at all. At the LGBT+ Lib Dems fringe yesterday, prior to this debate, we heard that intersex people are as common as redheads. The shocking way society treats them represents collective guilty secret shared by us all. The way the medical community treats both trans and intersex people betrays a medical community that has not learned from the decades it spent trying to “normalise” lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

Conference, it has to stop, and it has to stop now. Please vote for this motion. Thank you.