My Chapter in “Trans Britain”

This is my chapter in Christine Burns’ excellent book, “Trans Britain, our journey from the shadows“, which is a collection of stories about out history in the UK, first published by Unbound.

I’m posting this for a variety of reasons, but the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were, was a Facebook post by an American friend of mine, of a similar age. She was instrumental in developing a lot of nuanced ideas about sex/gender around 10 years ago and recently had a young person start telling her that Generation X knew nothing of such nuance, or modern trans activism.

This is not a “get off my lawn” piece, but this speaks to why the book exists in the first place: each generation of trans people seems to grow up largely in ignorance of what those who came before did. Our history gets forgotten.

So here, for what it’s worth, is my chapter, free to read. I retain copyright.

My name is Sarah and I am a trans woman. I grew up in an east midlands mining community in the seventies and eighties, where I felt very isolated. I didn’t know there were other people like me, apart from portrayals on TV which were so dismally inaccurate that they threw me off the scent of who I truly was for years.

Things started to change when I went away to study at Cambridge. I was introduced to the Internet, albeit in a form that would be unrecognisable to the generation that was to follow. Still, I discovered embryonic resources for transgender people on ‘Usenet’, a series of discussion groups which were prominent before the rise of the web. I was terrified of being outed and didn’t participate, but I did watch, and learn.

By the time I started formal transition in 2005, at the age of 32, the world had changed. Nobody had quite started to talk about ‘social media’, but blogging had burst onto the scene and for the first time trans people could control how our own transitions were represented.

I found and read a number of transition blogs. One resonated in particular: the blog of American cardiologist, Dr Becky Allison. I had never written a blog or a diary myself, but I found Dr Allison’s writings extremely helpful and wanted to pay it forward. In November 2005 I started documenting my own transition on the ‘Livejournal’ blogging website. I even live-blogged by sex reassignment surgery, posting an update mere minutes after I had returned from the operating theatre.

Through blogging I found myself increasingly part of a community of trans people like myself. We all blogged and we all shared our triumphs, our pain, and our joy. Many of us became very good friends, not just online but in ‘real life’ as well.

Although estimates of prevalence vary considerably, everyone agrees that trans people are rare. We are a minority within a minority, and before the advent of the Internet we faced an uphill task to overcome our isolation. Trans people would often only encounter each other at the gender clinic, with scant time to compare notes. The Internet changed this. Like minded trans people would cluster into online communities. Online communities would start to develop parallel communities in the ‘real world’, particularly around large cities. Around 2007 something very significant started happening in London.

A few London based trans people started to hold monthly meetings on the evening of the third Tuesday of each month at ‘Gays the Word’ bookshop, near Russel Square. The meetings had regular speakers on topics of interest to trans people (clinicians, academics and so-on). The existence of a critical mass of trans people in and near London and the ability to easily spread the word via the Internet meant that meetings were well attended from the start. Trans people, at least in the capital, were staring to meet on our own terms and we had much to discuss, and indeed become angry about.

It was in the spring of 2007 that the General Medical Council commenced fitness to practice hearings against Dr Russell Reid, a private gender practitioner who was much loved by many of his patients. Throughout the two decades prior, many desperate trans people had found his clinic in Earls Court to be the only place left for them after being unable to obtain treatment on the NHS. Many trans people felt the complaints against him were politically motivated and the hearing was well attended with trans people, including myself, taking turns to spend the days sitting in the public gallery and then reporting back on each day’s proceedings to ‘the community’ through blogs.

Many defence witnesses spoke of how they’d found Dr Reid was the only person who would help them when, for whatever reason, they had been refused treatment by NHS clinics. Many spoke of treatment practices in the relatively recent past that they had felt were abusive. The press, not present to hear any of these stores, ignored them and only descended en-masse for the final day, to hear the verdict. Their stories presented Dr Reid as a dangerous maverick, acting recklessly with patients portrayed as not competent to know their own minds.

Lots of trans people were angry at both the circumstances under which the hearing had come about and what they saw as biased and one-sided reporting in the press. Dr Ried was criticised for poor communication with GPs, but not struck off. The result was largely moot as he had already retired from practice by that time.

The spring of 2007 turned into summer and another reason for trans people to feel aggrieved rolled round. In June of that year, the BBC recorded the first in a series of what it called ‘Hecklers Debates’, in which a person would present their position and panelists would be invited to interrupt at various points and ‘heckle’. The first such debate featured Guardian journalist, Julie Bindel. The position she was advocating in the debate was ‘Sex Change Surgery is Unnecessary Mutilation’ and she was opposed by veteran activist LGBT activist, Peter Tatchell, Professor Stephen Whittle of Press for Change, psychotherapist Michelle Bridgman and gender clinician, Dr Kevan Wylie.

The audience for the recording, at the Royal Society of Medicine, was packed with trans people. I was there and recognised many from the fledgling TransLondon, as well as lots of people I hadn’t met before. This was the event at which I met author and veteran trans activist, Roz Kaveney, with whom I would go on to cause significant mischief over the next months and years.

It is a perennial irritation to trans people that media coverage of us has seldom moved on from the dismal cliches and misrepresentations that I remembered from my youth. Many present felt Bindel’s argument was no exception. She concentrated on the (vanishingly small) phenomenon of ‘trans regret’; she said that she thought hormone treatment and surgery should not be available; she said she thought trans people should be offered what she thought were ‘talking cures’ instead.

Bindel had already drawn the ire of lots present through her previous writings, including a 2004 piece where she spoke of ‘Kwik Fit sex changes’ and claimed ‘a world inhabited just by transsexuals … would look like the set of “Grease”’. She later apologised for the tone of these remarks, but not their substance.

After the recording, drinks were served and the audience encouraged to mingle with the panel. I found myself in a group speaking to Bindel, along with other TransLondon regulars. Despite being charming and self-effacing, Bindel was unapologetic about the way she habitually portrayed trans people and trans issues in her articles. We told her that she was misrepresenting us. We were unhappy that she portrayed medical transition as an easy option rather than the reality of indifference, abuse and the need to turn to grey market drugs which many of us faced. We put it to her that her inaccurate portrayals were contributing to the stigma and discrimination trans people continued to face.

Bindel denied her writings had much influence, but pledged to do better in future. The reader may draw their own conclusion about whether this pledge has ever materialised in evidence. My view is that it has not.

Summer wore on and in September I found myself with a whole gaggle of trans people in Kensington Gardens at the ‘Picnic for Change’, held in order to raise funds for veteran trans activism group, Press for Change. I had attended the same event in 2006 and it was a small affair. 2007 was very different though: the event was much larger and while the 2006 picnic looked like a nondescript bunch of people having, well, a picnic, this was a bold affair advertised with bunting and a big rainbow flag.

Once again Roz Kaveny was there. We got talking about the rise of a new breed of trans women: largely lesbian trans women who were out and proud not just as lesbians, but also as trans. US trans activist, Julia Serano, had just published her book, ‘Whipping Girl’, which many of us as our call to arms. We were here, we were queer, and by gosh, we had grievances we wanted to air. The mood wasn’t ugly; we were going to build a better world.

A few weeks later, we succeeded in changing a BBC headline which referred to trans women as ‘male patients’. This was small beans, but before anyone had heard of a Twitter storm it showed us that a small number of people could, if we made a noise in the right way, effect change. 2008 would prove to demonstrate that in spades.

For years there had been a music festival in the US state of Michigan, the ‘Michigan Womyn’s (SIC) Music Festival’ (MWMF). It was a long standing open sore in the feminist movement that the organisers of the festival had an entry policy that excluded trans women. In reality, the situation was akin to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and lots of trans women attended anyway, but each year the festival was a flashpoint.

In May 2008, Manchester’s ‘Queer up North’ festival invited MWMF performer, ‘Bitch’, to play a gig. Bitch vocally supported MWMF’s transphobic exclusion policy. Her stated position on activism to end the discriminatory policy was that it was ‘making men comfortable and satisfying men’. Trans people in Manchester were angry that an ostensibly LGBT festival was seen to be endorsing transphobia and exclusion of trans people.

Attempts at dialogue with the organisers were met largely with indifference. Anger and frustration was expressed in our online communities, and a few of us resolved to hold a protest outside the event. I travelled to Manchester, with some friends and a hundred fliers run off on an ink jet printer. We met up with local activists and assembled outside the venue. By the time the festival goers started to arrive for the gig, there were a dozen of us with flyers and banners. We handed the flyers to the attendees, explaining that they contained ‘information about the artist’, and our message was generally well received, with some attendees even walking out in support of us.

Lots of people asked us if we wanted them to boycott the performance, but we encouraged them to go in and enjoy the music, having paid for tickets, but with awareness of the context of trans exclusion.

It became apparent that we had hit a raw nerve when the director of Queer up North came out to meet with us. It seemed that our presence there was causing him some embarrassment.

It seemed that we had hit upon a winning formula for protesting against transphobic discrimination. Event organisers would cosy up to transphobes, tacitly giving approval for their behaviour, as long as they weren’t publicly embarrassed by it.

We resolved to cause that embarrassment. In 2017, as I write this, those on the receiving end of these protests counter them by mischaracterising them as ‘attacks on free speech’, usually with the help of a large print or broadcast media organisation. However in 2008, when Twitter and Facebook were barely known, this method of protest proved difficult to counter.

The UK’s trans population was about to be given a lesson in just how powerless we actually were though. At the end of the LGBT Pride parade in London, in July, stewards had taken to policing the entrances of the public toilets in Trafalgar Square. Foreshadowing the ‘bathroom bans’ that have become prevalent in US politics, the stewards refused to allow anyone they suspected of being a trans woman, including one cis butch lesbian, into the female toilet. The result of this was an impromptu protest outside the loos and the intervention of an off-duty LGBT liaison officer with the Metropolitan Police. Anger escalated when the police officer sided with the stewards, falsely asserting that a gender recognition certificate was needed to use the correct toilet. By the end of the day, one trans woman, desperate to use the lavatory, went into the male facilities where a man sexually assaulted her. The perpetrator was never found.

As with Queer up North before, we felt badly let down by our cisgender ‘friends’ in the LGBT community. This time a woman had been hurt.

A few weeks later, our anger was further stoked by the Royal Society of Medicine, which was hosting a conference on the use of puberty blocking drugs in adolescent trans people, inviting American-Canadian psychologist ‘Kenneth Zucker’ to give the opening address. Zucker had gained some notoriety amongst trans people for the use of what we considered to be ‘conversion therapy’ in his Toronto clinic. Years later his clinic would be shut down, but at the time we were appalled by the possibility that clinics in the UK could embrace these practices.

As with Queer up North, I joined a number of other trans people and held a protest outside the event. We had pooled our resources, producing a flyer that we each ran off multiple copies of. Embracing the power of the Internet, the flyer contained an explanation of our grievances and URLs to more information online.

People took our flyers in such large numbers that with some time before the opening address was due, we had run out. Embracing guerrilla activism, I was dispatched to a nearby copy shop, clutching one of our last remaining leaflets to procure another hundred. We also arranged to have some members of our team infiltrate the conference and leave copies of the leaflet around inside for attendees to read. Years later the tide would turn against the sort of therapy practiced by Zucker, but this didn’t feel like a quick win in the way the Queer up North protest had.

It had been a year since my friends and I had picnicked under the shade of a tree in Kensington Gardens, excited by the prospect that we could change the world. Despite her promises to be more considered in future, Julie Bindel seemed increasingly to be making a career out of baiting trans people in the press; it felt like our own community had turned against us through embracing transphobia in the arts and enforcing the kind of toilet access for which the US Republican Party would later become infamous; medics seemed to be embracing some of the worst and most abusive practices in treating our youth. As time passed, optimism turned to disappointment and disappointment, in turn, to righteous anger.

And then, a week after the Zucker protest, LGB charity Stonewall announced that it was shortlisting the very same Julie Bindel for its ‘journalist of the year’ award.

Our righteous anger turned to pure rage.

Stonewall at the time regarded itself as an LGB organisation. It had been formed, originally, to combat the Section 28 legislation which forbade ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools. That battle had been won and Stonewall had morphed into a more general gay rights organisation. Alongside it was Press for Change, which had been formed to campaign for what became the Gender Recognition Act.

It was widely believed that there had been some sort of ‘back room’ agreement between Stonewall and Press for Change to divide the LGBT ‘turf’ between them. Leaders of both were cagey about what form the agreement took, or even if it existed, but that was the perception.

A lot, perhaps as many as half, of trans people are also lesbian, gay or bisexual. This division of responsibilities did not fit with the newly emergent queer-focused trans activism. Paradoxically, many who fell into both the LGB and T camps felt that neither organisation represented their interests. When myself and other activists tried to engage Stonewall, and Press for Change we were given what felt like a brush-off. Stonewall sent out form letters to dozens of trans protestors saying that Ms Bindel was nominated for ‘bringing a lesbian perspective to journalism’, seemingly oblivious to many of the recipients of the letters being lesbian trans women.

By late 2008, Facebook had started coming into its own. A number of trans activists had grouped together there to discuss taking things further. A desire to discuss these things in public led to various supporters of Ms Bindel joining in, followed ultimately by Ms Bindel herself. She complained that the protestors were ‘bullying’ her and suggested she was considering legal action.

In hindsight, the short period of Internet based activism prior to this point had been an age of innocence. Many trans women have an IT background and as such, we were early adopters. Things were starting to change with those we were protesting against increasingly working online too. More and more the two groups would clash, both online and off. This served only to pour petrol on the flames.

Into all this came some of the ‘trans elders’ who had been involved in Press for Change, with pleas for moderation and compromise. Perhaps this was ill-judged, as we certainly felt we had a genuine grievance and did not take kindly to what we saw as the old guard trying to assert their authority and maintain the status quo.

Stonewall stuck to its guns. Bindel and her followers stuck to their guns. We stuck to our guns, and on the evening of 7 November the largest trans rights demonstration the UK had yet seen, about 150 people, assembled outside the Victoria and Albert museum to protest Stonewall’s awards ceremony.

The protest was loud, colourful and good natured. It featured the, by now, customary leaflets which were handed out to the great and the good attending the event. For the first time we encountered a counter demonstration by way of the self-proclaimed ‘Julie Bindel Fan Club’. This was a handful of women facing us on the other side of the red carpet. After Ms Bindel herself arrived they upped and left as we sang after them, inviting them to come and join us at the pub after the demonstration.

The significance of this counter demonstration was missed, probably by everyone, and certainly by me at the time. This small band heralded what would grow to become the ‘TERF wars’ (TERF is an acronym for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist), where the feminist movement would increasingly be coopted by transphobes hoping to drive a wedge between trans women and the feminist movement.

2008 was a pivotal year in the struggle for trans acceptance and equality in the UK. It saw the rise of Internet based activism led by people who had the confidence to publicly identify as openly trans and queer. It saw the coming of age of a generation of trans people who refused to conform to the world bequeathed by those who had come before us, and led us into direct conflict with them. The consequences of what we did would not become apparent for some time, but eventually:

  • The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival would close its doors for good rather than openly accept trans women through its gates.
  • Dr Kenneth Zucker saw his clinic closed after an independent investigation raised questions over his clinical practice
  • Stonewall reinvented itself as a comprehensive LGBT charity, placing equality for trans people at the heart of its work

In 2014 I delivered one of the opening speeches at the London Dykemarch. Ironically I was subject to a protest by ‘TERFs’, who picketed the event, waved placards and tried to embarrass the organisers by handing out leaflets. They had organised their protest on Facebook. Several of the people who protested outside its awards in 2008, myself included, now work inside Stonewall to develop its trans workstream. Our work has been protested by fans of Julie Bindel, perhaps including some of the same people standing opposite us on that cold November evening years ago. There is still much work to do, but progress has been made on building that better world we envisaged while eating picnic food on a lazy summer day in Kensington Gardens ten years ago.

On Recent “TERF Protests”

Recently we saw a protest at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park where a group of transphobic self described “radical feminists” and a group of trans protesters came to blows. It seems that the trabsphobes were meeting up and then planning to walk to a venue to, well, share tips on transphobia and whatever else it is they do when they get together. A group of trans activists decided to protest them. The transphobes started shoving cameras in peoples’ faces. A camera was grabbed, a trans protester was put in a headlock, their friend hit the person holding them in the headlock and … well, it ended up all over the papers.

Sadly the papers printed a version of events which clearly identified trans people as the agitators, while ignoring the transphobe dragging someone around in a headlock while repeatedly kicking them. It seems likely that the transphobes were hoping something like this would happen, as their first response seems to have been to call not the police, but Fox News.

Zoe has more detail here

All in all, it’s a bit of a mess. This morning a similar protest occurred in Brighton. A group of transphobes had spent the last couple of days hanging around outside the Labour Party conference and were planning to meet up in a public park to swap transphobic anecdotes and stuff.

Once again they were met by trans protestors. This time nobody got punched.

I’m no stranger to protesting these people. In 2007 and 2008 I attended and even organised a number of protests against transphobic individuals and practices: outside a music event where a transphobic performer was playing; outside the Royal Society of Medicine when they were hosting Dr Kenneth Zucker, who many of us feel practiced reparative “therapy” on kids; outside Stonewall’s awards ceremony when journalist Julie Bindel, never one to shy away from provocative articles about trans people in the press, was shortlisted for an award (she didn’t win).

But I think what we’re currently seeing is different, and probably unhelpful. The events that used to get protested featured transphobic elements, but crucially, transphobia was not their primary focus. The canonical example of this is probably the now defunct Michigan Women’s Music Festival. Most of the attendees were not transphobes and so the presence of a protest outside embarrassed the organisers, who would have rather focused on the music and had the trans thing go away, and raised awareness amongst attendees, who would then bring pressure to bear on the organisers.

Similarly when I, and a few others, protested Dr Zucker. We wanted the other attendees to know about what he was doing to trans kids. Most of them didn’t.

These new protests aren’t like that. These events aren’t ones where the transphobic element is something that the organisers don’t want to be embarrassed by, and which the attendees would likely find distasteful. These events are gatherings of out and proud transphobes where the primary focus is their transphobic agitating. There are no organisers to embarrass, because they’re true believers in what they’re doing, and there is no chance of winning over attendees because people going to these things, by and large, are already committed to their transphobic worldview.

There’s always the chance that you could interest a few random passers by, who might be won over, but you don’t need transphobes to be there to accomplish that. You can just hand out leaflets on a busy city street, or set up a stall for the same effect, and that has the advantage that there is no nearby gathering of people who wish you harm.

The effect, and as far as I can see, pretty much the only effect of protesting gatherings of transphobes doing transphobe stuff is to bring two groups who hate each other into close proximity, thus massively raising the chances that things will turn physical.

Such a protest doesn’t really do anything else. It’s literally just two opposing groups who hate each other facing off in public.

I think it’s fair to say that when we protested back in the day, we never lost sight of why we were doing it and what we wanted to achieve. Protest wasn’t an end in itself, but a tool to try and advance our own equality and build support. I have spoken to numerous people involved in these recent protests. At times it has got rather heated, but none of them seem to be able to articulate what they are for, beyond “we must not let these people go unchallenged”.

Why not? If they’re confining themselves to their own echo chambers, this is a good thing. It means they aren’t normalising their message of hate in the wider population. Drawing attention to them serves only to give them the publicity they want to spread their hatred. If there had been no counter protest at Speakers’ Corner, and thus no physical altercation, the plethora of stories in the press about “violent” trans people “beating up” little old ladies would simply not have happened, and these saddos would have had their little circle jerk of hate in obscurity.

By all means, if there is tactical advantage to be gained, protest, but I implore anyone thinking of confronting these people to first ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will this help advance trans equality?
  • What’s the upside for us?
  • What’s the downside for us?
  • What’s the upside for the transphobes?
  • What’s the downside for the transphobes?

And if you can’t answer them satisfactorily, maybe consider staying in with a good book or Netflix instead.

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.

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.

Conference,

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.

Calling for an End to Trans Conversion Therapy

This is the speech I gave to the 2015 Liberal Democrat Spring Conference, introducing an amendment to the mental health motion to call for an end to transgender conversion therapy.

The amendment passed without opposition.

I’d like to read from a young girl’s Internet diary.

I really need help.

Hi, I’m Leelah, 16 and ever since I was around 4 or 5 I knew I was a girl. As soon as I found out what transgender meant, I came out to my mom. She reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl.

I wanted to see a gender therapist but they wouldn’t let me, they thought it would corrupt my mind. They would only let me see biased therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male. I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless.

Please help me, I don’t know what I should do and I can’t take much more of this. I don’t know if my problem is serious enough that I can contact authorities for help and even if it is I don’t know how much that’ll damage or help my current situation. I’m stuck.

Two months after writing this cry for help on the Internet, transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn took her own life. This was in the US, but it could easily have happened here.

Studies show that when transgender people express a need to undergo gender transition, if they are not able to then 50% will try to kill themselves.

Conversion therapy does not work. This is not opinion, this is established fact. If you try to talk a transgender person out of changing gender, there is a better than evens chance they will try to kill themselves. This is not opinion, this is established fact.

If you subject a transgender person to conversion therapy, you might as well drive them to Beachy Head and tell them to jump. Conversion therapy kills transgender people.

When the NHS, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and other bodies signed a memorandum of understanding against conversion therapy for lesbian, bisexual and gay people in January, they called it “unethical and potentially harmful”.

They also left transgender people out.

Well, conference, conversion therapy for transgender people does worse than potentially cause harm: it kills them.

All this amendment asks is that transgender people are given the same protection from dangerous quackery that lesbian, gay and bisexual people are given.

Coercing vulnerable transgender people into discredited conversion therapy is not a valid psychological practice. It is not helping people who are struggling with their gender identity to come to terms with themselves.

It is attempted murder.

Conference, I implore you to support this amendment and put a stop to this appalling practice. Thank you.

On “Male TERFs”

Many will have noticed the phenomenon of the “male TERF”, that is a man, typically regarded as a left wing progressive, declaring himself a feminist ally, or perhaps even a male feminist, where the feminism he signs up to is the transphobic, whorephobic, anti porn kind.

In response to a furore over comments made by Rupert Read, a Green Party member who seeks to be MP for Cambridge, on Twitter and on his blog, a friend commented to me that the existence of male TERFs made the world “a truly strange place”. I have to say that I disagree. I think it’s entirely a natural place to be.

Mr Read, reassuringly for the trans people, sex workers and avid pornography consumers of Cambridge will likely be fighting UKIP for 4th place come May, but that’s not really the point…

Despite declaring themselves “radical”, the feminists who sign up to the transphobic, whorephobic, anti porn kind of feminism are basically reactionaries. There are few things more conservative than the view that trans people are dirty perverts who shouldn’t be indulged in our supposed delusion, that sex workers are wanton harlots who are certainly to be discouraged, and that masturbation is some kind of social ill that needs eradicating.

These are non-threatening ideologies which do not trouble the patriarchy one iota. Any man holding these views would likely be entirely safe and uncontroversial in espousing them in the surroundings of a conservative 19th century gentlemen’s club.

“Male TERFism” thus gives the “male feminist” the best of both worlds: they get to have the ideological seal of approval which comes from knowing you’re an “ally to women”, even if the women in question also happen to be the worst kind of reactionary bigot hypocrites, while signing up for an ideology which requires them to do nothing that would even draw the ire of the Daily Mail on a bad day.

The only surprising thing about male TERFs is that lots more reactionary men who still want a bit of left wing approval haven’t cottoned onto the wheeze.

Fraudulent; Negligent; Incompetent. My speech to the Trafalgar Square Vigil for Leelah Alcorn

Our community spends a lot of time in mourning, but today I am angry. A lot of us are angry. Some of that anger is being focussed at Leelah’s parents for putting her into profoundly damaging conversion therapy.

However, before sending Leelah to one of these nasty pieces of work, Leelah’s parents presumably talked to them, and the conversion therapist assured them that their therapy could “fix” their child and turn Leelah into the dutiful straight cisgender son they wanted. That the trans feelings could be “cured”.

We know these are lies. We have known for a long time that conversion therapy, whether it be aimed at changing gender identity or sexuality does not work.

We also now know that if a trans person has stated the need to transition, and things are done to block them, there is a better than evens chance that they will try to kill themselves.

These are not opinions, these are established facts. They’re facts that any medical practitioner working with trans people has a professional duty to know. They need to know their patients are vulnerable. They need to know conversion therapy doesn’t work. They need to know their patients are suicide risks if not handled carefully.

And yet someone presumably told Leelah’s parents none of this.

Why would someone do that? I can think of only three reasons.

  • The first is that they know that what they are saying is a lie, but they don’t care. They are selling lies. They are a fraud.

  • The second is that they haven’t bothered to find out what the best practice for counselling trans people is, because they don’t care. They are negligent.

  • The third, and perhaps kindest interpretation, is that they are in over their heads, that it simply never occurs to them that they should learn about how to counsel trans people before doing it. They are incompetent.

Conversion therapists are either fraudulent, negligent or incompetent. There doesn’t seem to be any other explanation.

Now in other areas of medicine, say if I need surgery for a broken leg, there are laws and regulations to ensure that if my surgeon is fraudulent, if they have faked credentials, they can go to prison. If they are negligent, if they turn up to work drunk, they can go to prison. If they are incompetent, they can be struck off.

Fraudulent, negligent, incompetent; in most areas of medicine you would not be allowed to practice, and yet it seems any charlatan can walk in off the street and set themselves up as a conversion therapist. They’re not subject to legal consequences if they are fraudulent or negligent. There is no overseeing body to sanction them if they are incompetent. They operate in a regulatory vacuum.

This isn’t good enough. These people are killing our young people through their fraudulence, their negligence, their incompetence. The lawmakers and regulators who should be stopping them are not.

Leelah’s dying wish was that we work to make these things better. A good start would be to stop frauds and charlatans from pushing trans people into suicide through fraudulent, negligent and incompetent therapy that is worse than useless, and if they do, to ensure that they face justice for it. I, for one, intend to make our lawmakers try.

The Privilege Denier’s Diversity Monitoring Form

If you are one of those people who have scoffed at the idea of words and phrases like “cis”, “TAB” (Temporarily Able Bodied) and “Neurotypical” when really you just want to describe yourself as plain old normal, then I have created a diversity monitoring form just for you! Enjoy!

Sarah’s Diversity Monitoring Form for Normal people

Question 1: Eye colour
Blue
Green
Normal

Question 2: Age
0-9
10-19
Normal
50+

Question 3: Sex
Male
Normal

Question 4: Religion
Practising Christian
Normal

Question 5: Hair Colour
Blue Rinse
Normal

Question 6: Relationship Status
Married and Monogamous
Normal

Question 6: Ethnicity
White British
Normal

Question 7: Voting intention (optional)
UKIP
Conservative
Normal



Thanks for taking the time to fill this in!

My Speech to the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference, 2014, on Sex Work and the Nordic Model

The Liberal Democrat autumn conference debated a motion calling for further decriminalisation of sex work, and condemning the so-called Nordic Model, which criminalises the purchase of sexual services by making it a criminal offence to buy sex, but not to sell it. This has caused significant controversy amongst sex workers, with evidence that this “partial prohibition” model does nothing to help keep sex workers safe, and just further stigmatises the practice aqnd drives it underground.

Still, the Nordic Model is very popular amongst certain whorephobic radical feminists, who promote it as a way of “ending demand”, while pretending it doesn’t place women in harms way (it does).

A number of what I consider to be wrecking amendments were submitted, to remove the language condemning the Nordic Model included in the motion. I putt in a card tho speak against these wrecking amendments, and was lucky enough tone called to speak. Here is what I said:

Conference, we’ve heard a lot of people talking about sex workers today. I wonder how many of those seeking to weaken this motion actually talk to sex workers? I am proud to count sex workers amongst my friends. I am privileged to have some of my friends share their thoughts, their hopes, and their fears with me.

One thing, conference, they consistently fear is the Nordic Model.

The Nordic Model, supposedly criminalizing clients but not workers, is profoundly illiberal. It is profoundly damaging. Make no mistake, it is a model of prohibition. It criminalises an activity between consenting adults that is legal as long as no money changes hands. Since when are we about telling consenting adults what they can and can’t do with their own lives? Since when are we about telling consenting adults how thy manage their sex lives?

The Nordic Model is illiberal, and it also puts sex workers in danger. Supporters of the Nordic model claim sex work has decreased, but these claims are often based on sex workers coming forward voluntarily to speak to social workers and the police. My friends don’t trust the police. They don’t trust social workers. They say they’d trust them even less with the Nordic model. What they would do is be driven underground.

Don’t take my word for it. Research recently published in the BMJ concluded that, and I quote:

“These findings suggest that criminalisation and policing strategies that target clients reproduce the harms created by the criminalisation of sex work”, there is no difference between the Nordic Model and criminalisation. “In particular, vulnerability to violence and HIV/STIs.”

Conference. We need to stop talking at sex workers. We should stop telling them how to live their lives. We should stop passing laws that get them hurt and killed.

I want to finish with the words of one of my friends. She asked me to say the following about the Nordic Model.

“It doesn’t work. It was intended to make sex work so dangerous women wouldn’t do it. It is not about safety. It is ideological.”

Thank you.

In the event, the motion passed unamended, with overwhelming support. This marks a party of government taking a stand for sex worker safety, and for the rejection of the prohibitionist Nordic Model, and the injustice and violence against sex workers which accompany it.

The speech was also recorded on video, where you can observe me giving it on a bad hair day: