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  

My Open Letter to Stonewall on the Departure of Ben Summerskill as CEO

This is a piece I wrote for Pink News, but I’m also publishing it here:

The relationship between Stonewall and the trans community has never been straightforward, to say the least.

Stonewall in England is, and has been, ostensibly an LGB group, campaigning for those involved in same sex relationships, and has taken the position that they are allied with trans campaign groups, but do not involve themselves in trans issues directly.

On paper you can draw nice neat lines separating “gender identity stuff” and “sexuality stuff”, and have everything work out. Sadly, reality is messier and doesn’t much care for attempts to confine things to neat boxes.

Perhaps this was most obviously seen in 2008, when what was reckoned at the time to be the UK’s largest public protest by transgender people and our allies took place; outside the swanky Stonewall Awards ceremony in London. Trans people were hurt and outraged that journalist Julie Bindel, who many trans people saw as openly transphobic, was nominated as a champion of diversity. I was there, waving a banner and shouting, and the crowd was angry over what it saw as Stonewall promoting its own interests by hurting our vulnerable community.

A similar problem arose more recently, over the same sex marriage bill. It’s fair to say Stonewall were caught napping a bit when, in autumn 2010, the Liberal Democrats announced our commitment to delivering marriage equality. As momentum built, Stonewall joined enthusiastically and published a draft “same sex marriage bill”. It was, as I recall, less than two pages long and didn’t mention trans people once.

Trans people were treated terribly unjustly by marriage law for a long time, and if ever there was an opportunity to right wrongs, it was with this bill. Since the 70s, our marriages were in legal limbo until 2004, when the then government, finally forced to act by the European Court of Human Rights, grudgingly agreed to recognise our true genders (and thus allow us to be protected at work from sex discrimination and a whole host of other stuff), but at a cost; the government wanted to take our existing marriages away, to erase them from history.

When the actual act came forth, not only did the government not want to right historical wrongs; they also wanted to make a new one, the Spousal Veto. If you wanted your employment non-discrimination rights, and other stuff that came with recognition, you (literally) need a letter from your husband, wife or civil partner saying they consent. If they don’t (and it doesn’t matter if they’re estranged and hate you, or in a coma after an accident and unable to consent), the only way you can end your legal non-personhood is to divorce them.

About a dozen-or-so trans lobbyists, of which I was one, met with civil servants, lobbied parliamentarians, and offered amendments and compromises to try and get our confiscated marriages back, to remove or at least time-limit the veto. Despite parliamentarians like Julian Huppert and Liz Barker passionately taking up our cause in the Commons and Lords respectively, the civil service and government didn’t budge.

The Marriage (same sex couples) Act passed into law with a spousal veto, and with no restitution of the marriages confiscated.

Things could have been so different if our little group of people who didn’t really know what we were doing had a big organisation like Stonewall behind us. In Scotland, after work by the excellent Scottish Transgender Alliance and the Equality Network, and where Stonewall does support trans people, the Scottish Parliament voted unanimously to remove the spousal veto. In England and Wales, we’re stuck with it. At a time when trans people really, really needed the help of a professional LGBT lobbying organisation, Stonewall decided it was nothing to do with them and looked away.

Every time I talked to formed CEO Ben Summerskill about this, he said it went back to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, when trans groups wanted to do things by ourselves. I can’t help wounding if there were personality politics involved at the time, if bridges were burned. Perhaps that’s why we’re left in the cold. Times change, a new generation of trans activists is around today and we feel like we’re being constrained by deals, and perhaps arguments, that happened behind closed doors ten years ago by people who haven’t been able to move on.

My plea to Stonewall, and to interim CEO Ruth Hunt, is to use this opportunity to sweep away old understandings and misunderstandings, and to see if we can’t build something more inclusive, where trans people can turn to the largest LGBT rights organisation in the country (because that’s what everybody else sees them as, regardless of whether they see themselves that way), ask for help, and get it.

We don’t promise to be uncritical, and not say anything when you get it wrong, but wouldn’t it be great if Stonewall at least tried to be on the same side as trans people, rather than leaving us to fight the same battles, against the same people who hate us for the same reasons, alone?

Editor’s note: This piece originally created the impression that Stonewall Scotland was responsible for the removal of the spousal veto and discounted the hard work of the Equality Network and the Scottish Transgender Alliance. This was a drafting mistake on my part, and I offer my unreserved apologies to both.

Why Are UK Trans People Going on About a “Spousal Veto?”

I have been given to understand that the issue of the spousal veto in the Same Sex Marriage Bill is confusing to those not immersed in trans issues. I appreciate that, because if you don’t understand the processes we have to go through, then it’s not clear what is being vetoed and under what circumstances. I’ll attempt to explain. It’s long, but if you scroll to the bottom there is an executive summary.

Part 1: Corbett v Corbett

In 1970, the divorce of trans woman model, April Ashley and Arthur Corbett, later the 3rd Baron Rowallan, came before the court. In order to avoid giving up part of his substantial estate, Corbett’s team advanced the argument that the marriage was never valid in the first place, because April Ashley was really a man.

The judge agreed and thus set a precedent that meant that trans people were, from that point on, treated by the government as their birth sex forever for all sorts of legal reasons. This didn’t just affect marriage: it also affected stuff like employment protections, what prison you would be sent to if you were found guilty of an offence, and so on.

Prior to this, trans people had been applying for corrected birth certificates and getting them, effectively being recognised in their new gender. This practice ceased completely, and trans rights in the UK entered a dark age.

Part 2: The Gender Recognition Act

Fast forward 3 decades. The European Court of Human Rights had ruled that the government had to legislate to fix the unfairness inflicted upon trans people by the Corbett v Corbett ruling. The government kept dragging its heels, but in 2004 eventually passed the Gender Recognition Act. In a nutshell, the act did the following:

  • It created a thing called a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC).

  • Upon issue of a GRC, you would be issued a new birth certificate, and gain the other protections in law that you lost by transitioning (e.g. employment nondiscrimination rights).
  • You could only apply for a GRC if you’d been transitioned 2 years and had a report from your GP and the doctor who originally diagnosed your gender dysphoria.
  • There was a time-limited “fast track” for people transitioned more than 6 years: you didn’t need the original diagnosis (because your doctor may have retired or lost your notes).
  • You didn’t need to have had surgery, but if you hadn’t you had to justify why not.

Never wanting anything to be simple, and demonstrating an enduring instinct for screwing trans people over, the civil service (via the government of the day) included a nasty little gotcha: you weren’t eligible for a GRC if you were married.

Of course, you didn’t have to apply for one, but if you didn’t, you didn’t get your rights back. To deal with this, the act created something called an “interim gender recognition certificate” (IGRC). The name is entirely misleading: it’s not a GRC, it doesn’t grant the same rights or anything. All it does is give you a cast-iron reason to initiate marriage annulment proceedings within the next 6 months, at which point the IGRC expires and you go back to stage 1.

If you complete annulment proceedings with an IGRC, you automatically get a GRC and new birth certificate. Anticipating the 2005 Civil Partnership Act, the Gender Recognition Act then allowed you to enter a civil partnership with your former spouse. 151 couples have since done this (I am part of one of them).

If you’ve seen trans people talking about the “confiscated marriages”, it’s those 151 marriages we are talking about, where we were essentially coerced into giving up our marriages to restore our rights.

Interlude: The Equality Act, 2010

In 2010, a year after my marriage was annulled, the Equality Act 2010 passed. This revoked the employment nondiscrimination protections granted by a Gender Recognition Certificate. Thanks guys, appreciate that.

Part 3: Same Sex Marriage Bill

The advent of same sex marriage brings an end to this coerced divorce, or rather it should, but the government and civil service have cocked it up.

Firstly, you still have to end your relationship if you are in a civil partnership, although you can convert it to a marriage first to avoid that.

Secondly, and more offensively, rather than just ending the requirement to be unmarried when you have a GRC awarded, the Same Sex Marriage Bill requires your spouse to consent to the granting of a GRC. This is significant because, despite being gutted somewhat by the 2010 Equality Act, GRCs still restore some rights (the ones we lost in 2010 we just stay without for good). If your spouse doesn’t consent, you get an IGRC instead, on the same terms as before: start to annul within 6 months of return to square one.

So basically, if your spouse can’t, or won’t sign the consent form, you have to divorce them to get your rights. This creates what is possibly the most passive-aggressive legally sanctioned way to initiate a divorce ever, i.e. “I don’t want to divorce you, but I’m going to veto your human rights until you divorce me”.

The government call this “both parties having a say in the future of their marriage”. What trans people call it isn’t actually printable, but in polite company we call it, “the Spousal Veto”.

Part 4: Lobbying

We don’t like the spousal veto. We really, really, don’t like it. Your spouse doesn’t get to veto your transition, your surgery, or anything else. They get to veto this though. In 2013, we are passing a law in the name of equality that makes the human rights of one party to a marriage the “gift” of the other.

So a bunch of us tried to get it changed. Much of the work around this has been done by a dozen-or-so people, including me. We wrote some amendments, which were submitted by my MP, Julian Huppert, aimed at restoring the stolen marriages and ending the spousal veto, amongst a couple of other things (one being that if your spouse discovers you’re trans and you can’t prove they knew before you married, they can have the marriage declared invalid. We aren’t all that keen on this either).

The amendments were rejected by the government at committee stage, so Julian put them again at Commons Report Stage, and gave what must rank amongst the best transgender-related speeches ever on the floor of the Commons.

And then an interesting thing happened: the minister in the Commons, Helen Grant, rejected the amendments using the exact same words that the civil servant responsible for drafting these bits of the bill had used when talking to our little bunch a few days earlier, when we met them in London.

It also became apparent to us that the veto had arisen on the basis of what sounded, when described, like the civil servants pretending they were married to trans people and writing into law what they would want for themselves.

The bill passed onto the Lords, with the veto intact. By now it had become apparent that the government would die in a ditch over not restoring the lost marriages, and I reluctantly gave up campaigning for their restoration to concentrate on the veto – the thing that we all agreed was the single most offensively transphobic provision in the Bill.

Part 5: Lords amendments

A number of us started talking to various Lib Dem and Labour peers, and it came to pass that while the government was adamant the veto needed to stay, they might be minded to give a bit of ground, and could we draft two amendments: what we wanted, and a compromise for if we couldn’t get it. This we did. The first amendment was no veto. The second was a veto, but if annulment proceedings hadn’t commenced (at the behest of either party) within 6 months, or a decree nisi hadn’t been issued within 12, the spouse lost the veto and gender recognition could go ahead.

Our compromise amendment was debated on the floor of the Lords, with brilliant speeches in support by Baroness Barker of the Lib Dems and Baroness Gould of Labour. The amendment was rejected.

This brings us close to the present day. There followed a flurry of desperate emails to try to salvage something. In the end, this week the government published an amendment. They were going to reintroduce the “Fast Track” for getting a GRC, but only for people who have been transitioned 6 years at the point the same sex marriage bill passes, and only if they’re married. The rationale is that some have waited, refusing to divorce, without their rights, and they might not be able to get the original diagnosis any more. These are couples who have put their commitment to their marriage over and above the human rights of one partner, in what must count as one of the strongest testaments to love that there is.

Oh, and by the way, there’s a spousal veto on this as well. Given what these marriages represent, the government could not have been more crassly offensive if they’d tried.

And that was the end of the battle, or so we believed, until out of the blue came the promise of another amendment, specifically to address the veto!

Part 6: The veto amendment

Here is what the government are proposing to do. Instead of saying you need signed spousal consent to get a GRC, otherwise you get an IGRC, they want to say that you need signed spousal consent for the marriage to continue.

As far as I can tell, this is a bit of legal manoeuvring. It seems that to address our objections that the consent is a veto over the issue of a GRC, the government are explicitly recasting it as permission to stay married.

Of course, if your spouse doesn’t grant that permission, you don’t get the GRC, just the same as before. It doesn’t actually change anything – the veto remains.

Summary

That was long, so I’ll summarise it in a TL;DR version.

  1. 1971 – Corbett v Corbett case removes ability for trans people to get rights associated with new gender, leaving them in limbo where they have neither the rights of the gender they started off with, nor the ones from where they ended up.
  2. 2004 – Gender Recognition Act restores those rights, but you have to have your marriage confiscated first.
  3. 2010 – Equality Act takes some of the rights back
  4. 2013 – Same Sex Marriage Bill proposes an end to confiscated marriages, but your spouse gets to veto your rights while you remain married.
  5. Bill passage – government gets increasingly transphobic while they defend the need to maintain the veto provision.

Text of my Marriage Restoration Amendment

Just a quick update to post the text of my trans marriage restoration amendment which I am now informed has been tabled by my MP, Julian Huppert (many thanks):

Page 10, line 3 (Section 9), after end insert:
(8) Where a civil partnership formed under part 1, section 96 of the Civil Partnership Act (Civil Partnership with former spouse) is converted into a marriage under this section —

(a) the civil partnership ends on the conversion, and
(b) if both partners so elect,
(c) the resulting marriage is to be treated as having subsisted since the marriage dissolved under schedule 2 of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 was formed.

If we get mixed sex civil partnership, an equivalent amendment will be needed to restore those as well, but we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.

Same Sex Marriage Bill – Transgender Implications

The government has published its long-awaited proposals for same sex marriage. This is a technical blog post, looking at what the implcations for trans people are:

I have a non-binary identity

The government’s equal marriage consultation set the tone by starting off talking about “marriage regardless of gender”. This was hopeful in that it suggested that trans issues were being given equal consideration to the comparatively more straightforward issue of same sex marriage in a cisnormative situation.

Note however that this bill is called the “Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill”. This seems like a retrograde step. We’re back to talking about “same sex” and “opposite sex” rather than “regardless of gender”. Indeed, it goes on, when talkming about how “marriage” is to be interpreted in existing legislation:

A reference to marriage is to be read as including a reference to marriage of a same sex couple

Same goes for cohabiting people who aren’t married – extension is to be granted to same sex couples.

Furthermore:

(a) “husband” includes a man who is married to another man;
(b) “wife” includes a woman who is married to another woman

This is pretty thin for non-binary people. If you’re neither a man nor a woman, or your marriage can’t be described as either “opposite sex” or “same sex”, then you’re not included in any of this. Where the consultation simply avoided this “opposite sex/same sex/man/woman” distinction entirely with “marriage regardless of gender”, what we now have in the bill is “marriage for the genders of male and female”.

If that’s not you and you want to get married, you’ll likely have to lie about who you are.

I want a civil partnership

Nothing has changed – you and your partner have to be the “same sex”, even if that’s a completely nonsensical way to describe your relationship. If the concept of “same sex” doesn’t mean anything in your relationship, you’ll likely have to lie if you want one of these.

I’m in a civil partnership and I’m transitioning

If you are in one of these and want a Gender Recognition Certificate, you have a few options:

  • Convert your civil partnership to a marriage before having anything to do with the Gender Recognition Panel.

  • Get an Interim Gender Recognition Certificate and annul your civil partnership. This is the same as at present and there are no proposals to end this barbaric practice.
  • Have your civil partner transition to the same binary gender as you (if one or both of you aren’t binary, lie) and apply for a GRC at the same time. The highly competent and efficient civil servants who administer all this stuff will make sure this works smoothly (warning: sarcasm may apply).
  • Don’t get a gender recognition certificate. This is what lots of people in this situation (both in civil partnerships and marriages) already do, because they regard their relationship as more important than legal recognition as their proper gender. I wish I hadn’t found out I was one of these people until too late.

If you want to transition into an “opposite sex relationship” in the eyes of the state and retain your civil partnership, you can’t. If you have lots of money you may want to consider speaking to a human rights lawyer at this point.

I’m already married and I want to stay married and I want a Gender Recognition Certificate

Congratulations. You fall into the category of “trans people for whom this is actually useful”. You can have one. Your existing relationship will continue to be recognised. It’s not clear if you can get your name fixed on a reissued marriage certificate the way you can on your birth certificate; the bill doesn’t say.

I was married, I had my marriage annulled, I’m now in a civil partnership, can I have my marriage back?

I’m in this situation. The answer is no, you can’t. It stinks, doesn’t it? The government screwed us over and it’s not really interested in sorting that out. It’s not that the bill prohibits restoration of our relationships per-se; it just completely ignores the issue. It’s almost as if they’re really embarrassed about what they did to us and hope that by not mentioning it, it’ll just go away.

Oh, right…

I’m married, my relationship has turned acrimonious. We have a house/kids/shared stamp collection [delete as applicable], it’s all really toxic, does this affect my rights under this bill?

I have some bad news for you. You might want to sit down.

The stuff about marriage being no impediment to getting a Gender Recognition Certificate any more … that’s not entirely true.

When you apply for a GRC, if you’re married, you need your spouse to consent in writing to you getting a GRC.

That’s right – this person who probably has a restraining order against you, and is threatening to never let you see your children again, and has told all your mutual friends that you’re dead, or have been kidnapped by penguins, or anything to escape the shame of being married to one of them, this person has a veto over your legal gender.

It’s only a temporary veto. If they don’t sign the form and you apply for a GRC, you get an Interim Gender Recognition Certificate. You then have to go through the annulment process as before. Your partner can stall this for a bit by not responding to court letters and hiring solicitors and stuff. Basically, you have to go through the pain of an acrimonious divorce before you can have a Gender Recognition Certificate, even if you’ve been separated for years, probably on account of the stress your poor ex partner will have to go through if they realise that you have a piece of paper in your desk drawer which makes them officially gay.

A note on consummation

It’s not clear what this means for trans people who don’t have the expected genital configuration. If the government don’t tighten this up, expect another hilarious court case along the lines of Corbett v Corbett real soon now.

Conclusion

If the government were to publish a bill that provided for marriage for same sex couples, and then noticed that they got the bare minimal bit of Gender Recognition Act reform thrown in for free, but didn’t decide to actually go out of their way to do a single damned thing for trans people, it would would look exactly like this one.

Shame really – it showed so much promise. We’ve been thrown under the bus again, but it’s what we’re used to, right?

I’d better stop, as I seem to be getting a bit cross.

What the Hell is Wrong With You People?

Last week thousands of transgender people, sick and tired of suffering systemic and chronic abuse at the hands of an institutionally transphobic medical profession, decided we were going to tell the world about it.

Or at least the bit of it that reads Twitter.

It was relatively successful. Lots of people looked at the stories of routine and pointless abuse, abuse for its own sake, and were shocked.

So what did our intrepid press do? Did they decide to run daring exposés of this systemic abuse? Bring justice to a minority denied it for decades? Campaign to stop further abuse from happening?

No, they didn’t do any of these things. Noticing that it looked like a bit of a laugh, and the the doctors were getting away with it, they apparently decided to join in themselves.

So far we have the Guardian, Observer, Telegraph and today the Independent joining in (apparently we should be able to take a joke as our “shoulders are broad enough”). Interesting to note that this is mostly the broadsheets too. I await the contributions of the Times and Financial Times with interest. What will it be? A hilarious witty take on how trans women have deep voices, and are ugly, and how we have hairy arms, and smell and are stupid?

A development I’ve also seen this morning is the Dawkins Brigade joining in. Not just the ones who think rape is funny, but some of the ones who are horrified at the ones who think rape is funny, because while rape is definitely Not Funny, apparently trans people are. They can agree on that: laugh at the trans people, they’re funny. Ha ha!

Apparently this is about “freedom of speech”. When a newspaper editor publishes something randomly abusing trans people and then thinks better of it, and withdraws the article, this is an attack on Freedom of Speech and it is Censorship, and because trans people had the nerve to complain about being abused in the national press, it is Our Fault and we are The Censors, and Julie Bindel was right all along about a trans cabal.

The irony of telling a minority to shut up in a forum where we’re mostly being ignored anyway so that the majority can call us bedwetters in a national newspaper without worrying if their editor is going to pull the piece is apparently lost on “freedom of speech” campaigners.

I think, reflecting on this, I have one point to make: Freedom of speech is many things, but what it is not is the right to a column in the national press, free from editorial constraint, where you get to abuse “the little people”, and have a baying mob telling those same “little people” to keep quiet while our betters tell us how rank we are. In caricaturing it thus, you cheapen it.

Meanwhile, trans people are increasingly wondering what the hell is happening us and curling up into balls and feeling like begging for the abuse to stop. I know I am.

Please stop it. Please just stop. Stop.

Please?

Sarah’s Arts and Media Review

A curious thing happened on Twitter, and in the papers over the course of the last week.

As far as I can tell, a small clique of journalists, apparently united by their love for lobster and champagne (yum!), and dislike for trans people (boo!), got upset over the discovery that Twitter isn’t like writing for a newspaper, where you can say something outrageous and any protest is filtered by a letters editor. Instead, if you say something outrageous, people tend to talk back.

One of them responded very badly to this discovery. A few people, most of whom probably weren’t trans, had engaged with her over an article she’d written. Initially this was apparently quite polite – certainly more polite than a lot of the stuff I get people tweeting at me.

In a display of “how not to do social media if you want a quiet life, free from throwing crockery at the wall”, she then tweeted a bunch of stuff about “getting your dick cut off” and suchlike.

This didn’t go down very well, and lots of people told her what they thought about this. Some of them were probably not polite, most of them were probably not trans. This led to what those audience members savvy in the ways of the Internet might term a “flounce” or a “rage quit”; she deleted her account and subsequently claimed to have been “hounded off Twitter”.

This was followed by one of her friends trotting out some line about how trans people are “bullies” and a “cabal”, and another of her friends publishing a letter detailing her resignation from humanity in the Observer (or was it the Guardian? It seems to depend whether you were reading it in dead-tree format, or online). The letter included snippets about how trans people are all bed wetters in bad wigs, how they use strange Latin words which she didn’t like the sound of, had twenty PhDs each, are “shemales”, and how we wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.

To be honest, she doesn’t sound terribly likeable when she’s not, especially when it seems she’s previously written stuff about how it would be a good thing to shoot sex workers. Some of my friends are sex workers, and they’re nice people, and I’m not keen on the idea of them being shot, so not liking her is probably not much of a loss.

This whole episode can be seen in different ways. On the one hand, it can be seen as a failed attempt for newspapers trying to embrace social media in the face of a business model brought into decline by the existence of the Internet.

It probably works better as some sort of grotesque piece of theatre, in which trans people are portrayed as a shadowy cult, manipulating world governments through the art of wig-wearing and lobster munching luvvie journos, are pining for the return of the 1990s glory days in a world they no-longer understand; a world which includes trans people and iPhones, and trans people using iPhones.

You should probably skip it and go and see Les Mis instead.

It’s Time for the Media to Change the Record on Trans Healthcare

Transgender healthcare is in the news again. It’s been widely known amongst trans people for some time, but on the 6th of January, Guardian journalist David Batty reported that the General Medical Council is investigating private trans healthcare specialist, Dr Richard Curtis. In his article, Batty paints a picture of misdiagnosis, patient regret, and inappropriate prescribing.

Those of us who follow this stuff might be forgiven for experiencing a sense of deja-vu. Dr Curtis took over the private practice of Russell Reid from 2005. In 2007, Dr Reid faced a General Medical council fitness to practice hearing which was reported on by no other than Guardian journalist, David Batty. In his reports, Batty spoke of misdiagnosis, patient regret, and inappropriate prescribing.

It’s entirely proper for the GMC to investigate allegations of misconduct, and for the press to report on it, but it’s difficult for trans people not to notice how terribly one-sided it all seems to be. The doctors who seem to end up in front of the GMC seem to be those ones who are generally well regarded by trans people, and who have a reputation for helping us when nobody else will. Press reports concentrate on regrets about procedures which have satisfaction levels beyond the dreams of most other fields of medicine, where much larger regret rates are regarded as par for the course. They rigidly stick to a narrative about a dangerous procedure which gullible people are tricked into by reckless doctors and end up bitterly regretting.

The reality experienced by trans people ourselves is not recognisable from the press reports. In reality large numbers of us are used to being ignored, abused and ridiculed by doctors when we seek treatment. We are denied referrals, denied funding, denied prescriptions and humiliated by a medical establishment which many experience as institutionally transphobic.

Batty’s recent article prompted me to take to Twitter to highlight the hypocrisy of the media in how they report trans healthcare. I wrote:

I had a misdiagnosis which led to surgery I regret, and which has caused long term problems.

Here press press press! I, a trans person, had surgery due to misdiagnosis and I regret it. Come and get it, you know you want to.

The scarring will never fade. My mutilated appendage will never be fully functional again. It’s all true. Nice and juicy! Come and get it!

I was offered surgery after only two appointments with the specialist.

Less than five minutes later, and despite my painfully obvious trolling, the phone rang. It was a newspaper noticing that I’d spoken about surgical regret and could I elaborate? They lost interest when I said it was all true, but I was talking about surgery I had on my right hand in 2011. I apologised for wasting their time.

The misdiagnosis which led to me having surgery on my hand when I shouldn’t have done, and which made the existing problem worse, won’t ever be the subject of a GMC fitness to practice hearing, nor would I want it to be. There’s nobody at fault for what happened; it’s just one of those things which falls within the limitations of modern medicine. I may ultimately lose one or more fingers because of it, but these things happen and I am simply unlucky.

But I could not have wished for a more perfect example of the double standards at work here. Prompted by this, a few trans people started sharing stories of how they had been mistreated by their doctors with me. The next morning, I made a Twitter hashtag, #TransDocFail, to share stories about mistreatment and prejudice at the hands of the medical community. I expected a few dozen. Later that day I stopped counting at 2,000 and several days later, it’s still receiving new reports. Lots of the descriptions are harrowing: people being called “abominations” by their doctors, people bleeding to death being refused treatment by A&E departments, vast numbers of GPs telling people to pull themselves together, or “sacking” them as patients, sexual assault by unnecessary and repeated genital examinations, and so on.

The reports went on and on. Trans people watched it with sadness and resignation. Non trans people stared, open mouthed, barely comprehending how the healthcare system can treat people like this with barely a whisper in the national media. If this was happening in any other area of medicine it would be a national scandal, comparable in magnitude to the Saville affair, staying in the headlines for months and prompting widespread investigations.

I’m thrilled because I managed to speak about it for 5 minutes on local radio.

The media needs to end its transphobic obsession with transition regretters, because this wilful tunnel vision is blinding it to routine and systemic abuse of transgender people when we try to access health services. The LGBT movement wouldn’t tolerate it if the bulk of LGB coverage in the press was about loud and proud ex-gays. We shouldn’t tolerate this either.

My Speech to the LGBT+ Lib Dems/Stonewall Fringe

This is the speech I gave as part of the panel in the LGBT+ Lib Dems/Stonewall Fringe at the Lib Dem autumn conference in Brighton.

I want to talk a little bit about the nature of homophobia. This is an area where one has to choose words carefully, but if you’ll bear with me for a minute, I’ll attempt a working definition of homophobia as the hatred of someone who experiences same sex attraction, or who is perceived to experience same sex attraction.

The point about perception is important, because not only do you not have to be homosexual to experience homophobia: bisexual people experience it too, for example. You don’t even need to experience same sex attraction. You can be entirely and conventionally heterosexual in your sexual behaviour and desires, and still be a victim of homophobia.

Indeed, plenty of people are on the receiving end of homophobia before they are sexually active at all – we all know that homophobic bullying happens to kids from a very young age.

Actual sexual behaviour isn’t really a causative factor in most homophobic abuse. I have experienced homophobic abuse in public, and I, like most people, don’t actually have sex in public. As an elected representative of the people, that sort of thing is frowned upon.

So when someone screams “faggot!” or “dkye!” at someone in the street, what are they actually keying off that triggers that homophobic reaction? What is it about certain people that homophobic bigots decide to home in on? Gay, lesbian and bisexual people are just like everyone else, apart from the sex thing, right? Right?

Well, no. Spend even a short amount of time in LGBT circles and it becomes pretty obvious that there is something different, not about everyone, but about a lot of people.

I’m going to suggest that what a lot of people are picking up on, and reacting with homophobia towards, is something they perceive as transgressive about the target of their abuse. It could be the way they look, or the way they talk, or the things they’re doing, or whatever. I’m going to further suggest that the apparent transgressions that are being picked up on are, in fact, perceived transgressions of gendered behaviour.

About gay men, homophobes use words like, “mincing”, “flamboyant”, “limp wristed”, “camp”, “ducky”, “effeminate”. Jokes about airline stewards and their handbags are often made. If you’re a lesbian woman, as I am, you might get homophobes telling you that you’re ugly, that you need to shave, that you should get back in the kitchen, that you “wear comfortable shoes” (I do actually wear comfortable shoes – life’s too short not to). If we have short hair or don’t wear any makeup, they pick up on that.

So I’m going to say something perhaps a little bit controversial here. Much, probably most, homophobia which gets directed at people is about what we might call non cisnormativity. Most homophobia is, in fact, rooted in and emergent out of, transphobia.

So what’s transphobia? I’ll attempt a working definition again. Transphobia is the hatred of people who identity, or who are perceived to identify, in a way that is commonly associated with a gender other than the one they are assigned at birth. You don’t need t be trans to experience transphobia. Someone just has to decide that you are not meeting their standards of what a real man, or a real woman should be.

A lot of the abuse that gets hurled is the same as for homophobia, because really transphobia and homophobia are two sides of the same coin. Trans women, for example, will often get called “ducky” and “sissy” and “faggot”, just as gay men will. Trans men will often have “dyke” hurled at them by an abuser. We’re all basically being abused for the same thing – that is we are transgressing what someone regards as acceptable gendered behaviour.

I’m not stopping here though, because I think transphobia itself is a manifestation of a deeper gendered neurosis in our society, and that is misogyny – hatred of women and the feminine.

Think about it: if someone comes out as gay at work and gets abused as a result, a lot of the abuse will centre around whether they are the one who takes on the so-called “female role” in sex. To be penetrated is to have sex like a woman, and that is degrading and not something a “proper man” would permit himself to be subjected to.

It’s similar with women who have sex with women, and indeed with trans men. Both groups are seen as trying to “better” themselves in ways that they aren’t really “entitled to”. Lesbians are derided as never being able to truly satisfy a woman. Only a proper man can do that. We just need to experience the real thing, so the story goes, and we will be straightened out into well adjusted heterosexual women, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

I’m reminded of a sketch on the Catherine Tate show. You know the one – she plays a passive aggressive woman who gets into a trivial situation and starts screaming, “Man! Man!”. In one episode there is a slight twist. Her car breaks down, and she starts her usual mantra. A woman comes along and offers to help and once again she starts yelling for a man. The other woman says, “it’s OK, I’m a lesbian”, and proceeds to fix the car.

Comedy like this reflects society’ attitudes towards LGBT people. We’re a bunch of men who taint ourselves with the effeminate, and a bunch of women who try to shed what’s seen as pathetic femininity to be proper people, i.e. men.

Homophobia is rooted in transphobia, and transphobia is rooted in misogyny, and if we are to challenge any of this we desperately need to engage in joined up thinking. There’s a school of thought that LGB people will gain acceptance if we can convince the homophobes that we’re just like the rest of them, apart from what we do in the bedroom. For some of us, that might be true, but for a lot of us it isn’t. I think this approach to try and address homophobic bullying and abuse is largely futile because it doesn’t deal with the core problem. Some people will always express behaviour which is seen as not gender normative. Our message needs to be that there is nothing wrong with that, and furthermore there is nothing wrong with femininity either.

We need to get our own houses in order. When we see transphobia in the LGB community, we need to challenge it. When we see misogyny an sexism in any part of our community, we need to challenge that. Every time a drag queen refers to women as “fish”, every time the LGB establishment turns a blind eye to transphobia in its own ranks, we serve to further the attitudes that underly homophobia bullying. We need to get this right ourselves, because if we don’t, who will?

Political Conference Background Checks – Putting Our Case to the Lib Dem Federal Conference Committee

Political conferences are amazing places – for a few days you’re mixing with like minded people from all over the country, getting to talk to MPs, peers and ministers in briefing, workshop and Q&A sessions, socialising at “fringe” events, and occasionally getting to have a word in the ear of someone who can effect real change in the UK.

Of course, they’re also a bit of a nightmare for security services, especially when they’re being held by a party of government. There have been attacks on them in the past – perhaps most notably the 1984 Brighton Bombing where the Provisional IRA tried to take out the then government.

In the conferences I’ve attended, there have often been airport-style x-ray machines and metal detectors on the way in, and while people grumble about the queues, this is generally accepted as probably necessary (although obviously it wouldn’t have protected against Brighton-style attack). For a long time, the two larger parties in the UK, Labour and the Conservatives, have had “vetting”, where anyone wanting to attend has to first submit to a background check by the police (who, presumably, bring in other agencies).

Liberal Democrats haven’t traditionally had this – we take the view that all party members should be allowed to attend our conference, which unlike the other two big parties, is sovereign in policy making – votes at conference set our party policy. Ordinary members get the choice to speak in conference debates and influence the votes that set our party policy. Most memorable for me was the debate in 2010 which made our commitment to marriage equality and gender recognition reform policy.

Now we’re in government, Federal Conference Committee, the party body responsible for organising conference, has come under pressure to bring in vetting for our autumn conference. This has caused quite a lot of upset in a party that prides itself on a strong pro-civil liberties stance, but I’m not writing about that aspect (although I have participated in that debate too) right now; I’m writing about the effect it has on people who have changed their identity. In particular, I’m writing about the effect it has on trans people.

Last week, myself and Zoe (who are executive members of the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats) had a chat with the chair of the FCC about the issues facing trans people and background checks. As a result, both of us and the chair of the LGBT+ Lib Dems were invited today to a meeting of the FCC in London, just over the road from the Houses of Westminster in LD HQ, to talk about the issues trans people face when dealing with background checks by the authorities and answer questions. I spent about ten minutes speaking from notes, which I’ll include here:

Basic problem – lots of trans people are “stealth”. Consequences of previous identity being revealed to their social group are potentially devastating.

Even those of us who are “out and proud” like to keep some control for things like security checkpoints, etc.. It’s a personal safety thing, as well as dignity. In casual public encounters, people can be extremely tactless,
leading to public humiliation. Quite apart from being outed, association with former identity can be extremely traumatic. I suffer PTSD symptoms around it, and I know I’m not alone – the thought of applying to last year’s autumn conference actually gave me acute physical stress symptoms.

Police forces have a track record of institutional incompetence with regard to our identities. What is a simple administrative error to them (leaking old name) can be devastating to us. People can and do suffer violence as a result, have to leave the communities they’re in, etc.

Police track record on this is dreadful. Even when they get LGBT liaison officers involved, they generally don’t get it because most LGBT liaison officers concentrate almost entirely on the issues around sexuality, not gender identity. The mishandling of the public toilets at Pride 2008 in London which led to a trans woman being sexually assaulted was caused, in part, by an LGBT liaison officer getting things disastrously wrong.

Bottom line – convincing trans people that the police can be trusted is an impossible task because we know they can’t.

We are being asked to trade a hypothetical danger of physical harm to someone else against a very immediate danger of physical harm towards ourselves, and it’s not fair to ask people to do that.

Anything that involves a possibility of outing will result in some simply staying away. Setting up a “special channel” for people to apply wont help – the CRB have such a special channel and I know from direct personal experience that it leaks – it’s done so with me.

Some trans people are not in a position to obtain consistent personal documentation, often because of institutional or personal transphobia.

Lib Dems attract trans people because we’re a group which is systematically abused by society, government and other institutions. The world is essentially a hostile environment and so civil liberties and equality issues are very important to us.

Obviously I fleshed these out a bit, and went into details of how the Met Police LGBT Liaison officer got things so very wrong at Pride London 2008, how the Criminal Records Bureau accidentally revealed my old name when I was applying to do healthcare voluntary work a few years ago (and then wrote to the organisation asking them not to open the letter and send it back – somewhat akin to asking someone not to think of an elephant), and talked about how I’ve had friends who have had to move when “outed”.

Zoe added some details too, and afterwards we answered a few questions. Having made our case, we left them to it.

An hour or so after we left, one FCC member tweeted, “FCC very keen to find way of #ldconf being able to go ahead without accreditation, so registration opening will be delayed pending solution

And another said, “Thanks for coming this evening. What you both said was very moving and shocking – such discrimination and abuse is unacceptable.

I guess that means what we said has been taken very seriously, and it’s a case of waiting to see what happens now.