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.