This is a more fully referenced copy of a letter I sent to the BACP Journal Therapy Today
I read with dismay the two letters published in December’s Therapy Today in response to Kaete Robinson’s excellent piece Look beyond the binary. I have been reflecting to myself whether such prejudice would have been published were it related to another minority group, although it is of course impossible to draw comparisons between the struggles of different marginalised minorities.
Obviously, Therapy Today does not publish all letters, and as such it must believe the ones it does publish have some merit. I wish to contradict this assumption.
Bev Gold’s letter first: In it she compares gender dysphoria with anorexia, and with negative self beliefs that lead someone to be “uncomfortable in their own skin”. But we have recently heard conclusive evidence from a Lancet study that gender dysphoria is indeed not a form of mental illness, but a legitimate phenomenon that needs not to be pathologised. She talks about the mental distress of trans people but ignores the sizeable body of evidence that suggests any mental health issues are created by stigma, negative attitudes, and barriers to transition, with studies demonstrating that support in transition and acceptance alleviate this distress, while efforts at reparative therapy, what she is clearly suggesting, only do harm.
I am left wondering if someone was as clearly arguing for reparative therapy of gay people, would their letter have been published? As someone who is a member of both trans and LGB communities, I experience a disparity between a growing intolerance of anti-LGB ideologies and an abiding tolerance and dissemination of anti-trans ideas.
In addition, Ms Gold makes the frustrating conflation that accepting someone as transgender will necessitate them having surgical transformations. Many trans people do not have medical treatment. For those that do, it has been proven to be inordinately successful in alleviating dysphoria, with very low evidence of regret. Ms Gold infers the opposite, that this is somehow a dangerous and tragic path.
Ultimately, trans identities need to be accepted and validated whether or not someone has made medical changes. The underpinning message of Ms Gold’s letter is that if a client enters the room and states their name and pronouns and how they experience themselves, we should cast doubt on this, pathologise it and force them to explore it, whether or not that is what they are asking for in their therapy. This is profoundly unacceptable and contrary to the principle of Autonomy in the BACP Ethical Framework.
The second letter is referenced, which lends it a veneer of respectability, however it transpires that one of the references, although appearing to be a reputable journal, is actually a renowned anti-trans blog, another reference is from Tumblr, a social media site, and that the author herself is a prolific anti-trans campaigner. The letter trots out some well-worn anti-trans myths. That detransition is common (it is rare); that the fact detransition occasionally happens means that transition is overall harmful (strong evidence refutes this); and that 80 per cent of trans children “desist” – this is evidenced in many places as a conflation of trans and gender non-conforming children.
In fact, studies have shown that genuinely gender dysphoric children have gender identities that are as consistent as those of cisgender children. In other words, if we talk about not allowing trans children to express their gender through pronouns, clothes, and gendered names, then we should equally be concerned about gendering cisgender children in the same manner.
Most concerning of all is her characterisation of “the autistic spectrum disorder teenage daughter [sic]who suddenly declares herself [sic] to be a boy”. First, let’s be clear that while there is a known correlation between autism and gender dysphoria (birth differences come in clusters, no surprise there), there is no evidence that autistic people lack the self-knowledge to understand their own gender. In fact, my local gender clinic in Nottingham has an autism specialist on staff whose main role is to help gender doctors to take autistic trans people as seriously as they would any other trans person, and not engage in blatant discrimination or infantilisation of the autistic community.
Secondly, she talks about “sudden onset” of symptoms, apparently having no knowledge or understanding of the lengths of time involved in obtaining a diagnosis of, and treatment for, gender dysphoria, or that clinicians will be looking for a consistent pattern and enduring and stable gender identity. Evidence demonstrates most trans people identify their dysphoria from a young age, and any “sudden onset” symptoms would not lead to treatment in anything less than years. Meanwhile, this child will be subject to the relentless doubt, questioning, bullying and attack that you trans people are subject to. It is far more plausible that trans children are dissuaded from transitioning by this stigmatising and hostile world than that we live in a culture where being trans is over-enabled. Anyone making this assumption is fundamentally unaware of the reality of trans lives and likely to do considerable harm.
There are many other inaccuracies and prejudices, too numerous to comment on. I experience the disrespectful tone of Ms Davies-Arai as unprofessional, and not appropriate for a journal, again out of chime with the Ethical Framework’s principles. She talks about “Transgender Indoctrination” as if it is possible for our tiny community to outbalance the from-birth indoctrination of cissexism – that is, the assumption that we should attach entire legal and social structures, names, pronouns, toilet arrangements and much more to the shape of people’s genitals. Not forgetting that intersex children often endure normalising surgery in infancy and later sometimes hormonal treatment, to artificially fit this binary – an issue that somehow incites considerably less outrage than the treatment of trans children in adolescence with entirely reversible puberty blockers.
The treatment of transgender children and adults is, contrary to these letters, slow-paced, conservative, well studied over nearly a century, and very well clinically evidenced. While there are intersections between the gay and trans communities, to suggest that trans people are simply confused gay people or that being trans is somehow more accepted and supported than being gay is not only ludicrous, it is a deeply regressive attitude that does not merit sharing in the pages of a professional journal.
My own article referenced below contains links to many of the studies referenced in this letter, and further information is available in the resources section of my website.
Update 2018: 1. It transpires Ms Davies-Arai is behind Transgender Trend, a well funded anti-trans organisation that have been sending glossy booklets to schools, urging them not to support trans children. BACP have since published a second letter from her.
I was delighted this month to have two pieces published in Beyond the Binary, an online magazine for non-binary trans people. The first of these addresses the over-simplification of trans people’s experiences, and how when we are training in this subject this can actually be alienating for the audience. The article can be found here.
“people get a much better connection to trans issues in general if non-binary is properly included, and they are not sold a simplified version of trans realities”
Last Wednesday I gave a talk to a local ACAS Equality and Diversity Forum about the challenges of being trans, and particularly non-binary, in the workplace. Here are my top tips to help employers make their trans staff and customers feel safer, happier and more productive.
Too long to read? Download a quick 10 tips poster in printable format here:
When at most 1 in 200 people are trans, it’s understandable we are not well understood. Increased visibility is in some ways making this worse, as misinformation is being shared widely in the media. People tend to think they know more than they do. In fact, gender identity is such a complex subject even trans people like myself have to study hard to become competent to talk about the diversity of our community. A lot of listening is required, and a lot of challenging assumptions, complacency, and the unconscious biases we grow up with around gender.
Some people worry about “walking on eggshells” around trans people. One way to avoid this is for trans people to never correct mistakes and to just smile when people get things wrong. Another perhaps better way is for people, including trans people from different groups and communities, to educate themselves and learn to listen.
Recommendation 1: Trans people are different and have different needs, which require learning. Treating people all the same is not enough (see picture for what that looks like).
Go to credible trans sources for information – not the media, not just the trans person you happen to know, and not LGBT organisations (e.g. Stonewall) who may not have yet become culturally competent on trans issues themselves. see the resources section of this website for some ideas.
2. Language matters
Language tells a story about how the world is – the wrong language can be powerfully misleading. The most common misuse of language with trans people is the idea that we change from one thing to another – “sex change”, “used to be a man”, “born a girl”, and other common phrases used in the media tell a story of ordinary people “changing themselves”. Although we have not all known forever just exactly who we are, for most trans people the experience of being and feeling different is lifelong, and any process of transition we go through is more about becoming visible as ourselves than it is about changing from one thing to another. For non-binary people, transition can be complicated and not have a clear end “goal”, but our experiences and how we express ourselves are just as valid and authentic.
Recommendation 2: Treat a trans person as if they’ve just revealed their secret identity, and that’s who they always were. Even when you talk about them in the past, they were that person, you just didn’t know. Stick to the right names, gendered words and pronouns all the time.
3. Does everything really need to be gendered?
It’s worth checking in with the findings of the recent parliamentary Transgender Equality Inquiry to understand the challenges trans people face, particularly non-binary people. One recommendation of the enquiry is that we don’t actually need to enshrine gender in law the way we currently do. We don’t enshrine other differences, such as race or other physical features, into a legal identity, and we don’t have to put those differences endlessly onto forms. Yet we can still protect people on the grounds of those differences.
What if we just ditched the M or F, the Mr, Mrs, Miss, and treated people as people? This helps make for a less sexist workplace, too.
Recommendation 3: Review all the ways you record gender and all the gendered practices of your organisation. Ask yourself critical questions about why they are needed. Write the answers down. Do they bear scrutiny? Clothing rules and uniforms that are gendered can be difficult not just for trans people. Do we really use titles enough these days to need to include them on job application forms? Monitoring gender and gender identity are, of course, fully legal and highly recommended, see the Scottish Transgender Alliance guidelines.
4. Misgendering Matters
Misgendering happens in lots of ways. From telling a trans man he is a “mother” to asking a trans woman not to use women’s toilets, they are subtle and unsubtle ways of reminding a trans person they do not fit someone’s idea of what a man or woman should be. It’s even harder for non-binary people who don’t want to be gendered, but just as important to get right. Most misgendering is accidental rather than malicious, and comes in the form of slip-ups about names and pronouns. What’s important to understand is that even though no harm was meant, these incidents can be deeply hurtful and humiliating for a trans person. For a start, they happen a lot, so they have that drip, drip, drip effect, and for second, they remind the trans person constantly that the world really struggles to adjust to and accommodate the reality of trans identities.
Recommendation 4: Take misgendering seriously and realise the pain it causes. If you do it accidentally, apologise and move on. If it happens maliciously, treat it as the transphobia it is. And understand that trans people try to be easygoing about this stuff, but sometimes when it’s happened for the 1000th time, we snap. We don’t mean to. Please be kind and let it go if we do.
5. Don’t assume it’s going to be a problem
I was once asked in an interview how my clients deal with me being transgender. It has actually never been an issue, let alone a problem, with any of my clients, but clearly my interviewer was anticipating some difficult reaction – this in itself was a highly stigmatising experience for me.
Recommendation 5: Don’t anticipate problems, and set an accepting, congratulatory tone (rather than worried/shamed) to model a positive response. If a customer or colleague does have a problem, don’t centre their needs and prejudices.
6: Work Can be a sanctuary
Transition can sometimes throw families and relationships into turmoil. Trans people face higher levels of domestic abuse, estrangement, lack of acceptance and relationship break down. They also face problems with hate crime and abuse in their communities. Their workplace can be an oasis during this time. Or if not handled well, it can just be another place where they feel like a problem and not fully accepted.
Recommendation 6: Commit to being supportive, kind and understanding. Regular meet-ups to check in and an open door policy work wonders. Appreciate the mental health impact of being trans. Understand the employee may be openly trans at work but not at home, and allow them the facilities, such as space to get changed, to allow them to do this.
7: We are not all about surgery
Trans people, whether binary or non-binary, sometimes have surgeries, and sometimes don’t. Sometimes we take hormones, and sometimes not. There are lots of different surgeries and treatments. Sometimes we have them to feel more comfortable with our bodies, and sometimes we have them to be more socially accepted. Sometimes it’s a bit of both. What’s important to know is that surgery and hormonal treatment does not make us who we are.
If we are prescribed treatment on the NHS, it should also be understood that qualified doctors have decided that treatment is in our best interests and may well save our lives.
Recommendation 7: Treat all medical leave in the same way you would if an employee was being treated for cancer. Do not assume what treatment, if any, they will have. Do not wait until they’ve had treatment to consider them fully as who they say they are. And hopefully it goes without saying, never talk about a person’s genitals, they’re called private parts for a reason.
8: There are trans people already here, you just don’t know it
You can’t always tell someone is trans just by looking at them. Many trans people make a decision not to transition, or live lives where they are out as trans in some parts of life, but not at work. Many transitioned trans people live quietly as themselves without anyone knowing they have a trans history.
Recommendation 8: Make sure you have policy in place for trans people – they should be explicitly mentioned in E&D policies, and you should follow best practice guidelines such as these, released by the government. You also need a protocol ready for when a staff member comes out. Such a policy should take you through things like putting regular support in place, how and to whom any change will be communicated, name change, legal requirements, and eliminating their previous identity fully from documents and IT systems. Also have a best practice policy for trans customers/clients – for instance, not gendering people over the phone by voice alone, and not using sir/madam or other gendered greeting words unless you know how a person identifies themself. This makes for a trans-positive environment for customers and workers.
9: Understand the challenges trans people face in the workplace
Total Jobs recently did a survey that came up with some alarming findings about how things are for trans employees. It also highlighted particular difficulties for non-binary employees.
Recommendation 9: Digest and reflect on the survey findings, and ask how your organisation can learn from them. Be aware of the kinds of subtle micro-aggressions trans employees might face that can easily be dismissed as harmless or irrelevant, but may add up to a pattern of bullying and marginalising.
10. Celebrate Diversity
Stonewall says “We know that people perform better when they can be themselves”. What better way to signal that a workplace allows people to be themselves than one that is trans-positive? Happy, content trans employees are an asset. They signal: It’s ok to be ourselves here; We are a forward thinking organisation; We want to get the best out of people; We value difference and diversity; We are a kind employer and a comfortable workplace; We think outside the box.
Recommendation 10: Be celebratory of difference, let everyone know it as an asset that will make your organisation stronger.
The following is a transcript of my talk at the Five Leaves Bookshop event on LGBT Hate Crime. I would particularly like to thank Onni Gust for their assistance in my research and structuring of the talk, the US organisation Against Equality for their excellent resources on the subject, and Dee Fairchild for her proof-reading and encouragement.
This talk is going to be challenging, and I also want to give a content warning for discussions of various kinds of violence, including sexual violence. I spent a lot of time researching what I have to say today, and I hope to boost perspectives from parts of my community that have less of a voice.
I want to focus on the experiences of the trans community, but most of what I have to say is applicable to other minorities who experience hate crime.
When you are part of the trans community, hate crime becomes an everyday thing. Most of the trans women I know, and many of the trans men and non-binary people I know, have experienced hate-motivated violence – stabbing, beating, sexual assault, corrective rape, having their doors kicked in, vandalism and offensive graffiti on their homes, to name but a few. What is alarming is that most hate crime towards the trans community goes unreported. We know that reported hate crime against trans people is disproportionately high – government put it at 1% of crimes reported. That doesn’t sound much but when trans people represent more like only a quarter to a half percent of the population, that’s a lot. We also know from research by London LGBT charity Galop that as much as 80% of crimes against trans people go unreported.
My own personal experience of hate was of being driven close to suicide due to online harassment and defamation of character. This was from organised and socially powerful individuals who campaign tirelessly against the rights and recognition of transgender people. At one point things got so bad I did turn to the police out of desperation. They were kind but unhelpful and uneducated on trans issues. I learned that there is no such thing in law as hate speech against trans people, and no protection for us against incitement to hate crime.
“there are no incitement provisions around the stirring of hate towards trans people, but yet there are those provisions for other groups. Interestingly there aren’t provisions for disabled people either, so it’s very much the trans community and people with physical and learning disabilities who are left out of the equation when it comes to the incitement of hate.”
He goes on to say:
“It’s frustrating that on the one hand we tell the trans community that we’re there for you, come and report your incidents and somebody will listen to you and that we want to learn from your experiences, but on the other hand we don’t have equivalent hate crime provisions as we do for the other monitored strands.”
So one of the barriers, then, is a lack of parity in law. But it gets more complicated still, because all the laws in the world will never put any but the most extreme and marginal figures before the courts. Trans people are currently in a position where most people are ill-informed about us, disrespectful reporting is standard, and academics and media representatives can say the most outrageous things about us without any loss of reputation, let alone other sanctions. In fact, it is becoming quite popular to take verbal pot-shots at our community in order to boost a waning academic career or increase ratings.
Our community’s surge in visibility and initial gaining of rights and recognition is double edged in this respect, as this shift in power we have experienced can be seen as threatening to some. That we have gone from utterly powerless to only slightly less so is not the point, the point for some is that we have shifted out of our place in society, and those people seek to put us back in our place.
It is this general climate of disrespect that is the background to hate crime against us, which can leave us sometimes feeling as if the general society message is that it’s socially acceptable to make fun of us, disrespect us, delegitimize us, look down on us, just so long as nobody steps over any lines.
“Those people we’ve spoken to through our research who’ve experienced transphobic hate crime have talked about there being a direct relationship between media representation and their experiences of hostility, discrimination and even violence. I think that’s where real problems are when it comes to media reporting and can have some serious consequences for people. I do definitely believe that there’s a correlation between representations through the media, and even political representations, the language we use, the normalisation of stereotypes, I think there’s a direct link between that and experiences of hostility.”
Meanwhile, media representation of hate crime often also subtly manipulates our attention towards other vulnerable communities, pitting us against each other. Last year a friend of mine was in local news following a series of hate attacks. What’s wrong with the people of Mansfield? Was the question asked on local radio about her experiences. They problematised this poorer and more insular community. When in a related radio interview I tried to turn the tables on the media for their representation of trans people, they simply did not put my piece on air. But I feel the media hold structural power in this situation far more than the street-level folk of Mansfield, and it is their influence that perpetuates the problems we experience.
That great thinker and renaissance man Akala has something similar to say on the subject of race:
“all this nonsense about people being racist because they’re frustrated about their lives is totally classist, what we’re saying is only working class people are racist . . . racism was not invented by working class people, it was invented by elite academics . . . and perpetuated as part of political policy – from the top down, not the bottom up”
I think what he says is equally true of transphobia. It is academia, government and the media that support the structural inequalities that make hate crime possible.
Another concerning phenomenon to me is the way the media presents LGBT hate crime overseas. We often ignore the way our own culture has framed and intervened in the countries where homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are rife. We disregard the fact that war stirs up other kinds of violence, so that for instance we talk about oppressive crimes under ISIS or in Afghanistan in the context of Islam rather than the context of a war torn country. Meanwhile the media largely ignored the rounding up of trans people into camps in troubled but then right wing and Christian Greece in 2013. We talk about India and Uganda’s attitudes to LGBT people without mentioning it was the British Empire that exported those attitudes. In doing this, we reinforce our rights to intervene in these countries or judge them. Hate crime is exploited to reinforce Western dominance and superiority.
Is it possible that our focus on hate crime legislation also serves to pit the vulnerable against the vulnerable in a similar way?
I am reminded of my former work in domestic violence. I quickly learned that those brought before the court to answer for their attacks on women do not accurately reflect the structures of power that are in place against women. When I went to observe the domestic violence courts in action I was shocked to see a parade of vulnerable, generally young men, many with poor mental health, many of them black, almost all of them from deprived backgrounds. True power does not get itself caught up in the justice system. It knows what it can get away with and it also makes the laws and runs the structures that govern us.
We know that many marginalised minorities are over-represented in the prison population. For trans people this is no different, and the reasons are complex and multi-layered. Trans people suffer disproportionately from poor mental health which is directly related to lack of social support, discrimination, poor healthcare, poor housing, unemployment and psychological trauma. Trans people are less likely to be in employment, and more likely to be harassed or discriminated against at work. Trans people are even more likely than other LGBT people to become homeless or be poorly or vulnerably housed. Massive health inequality was recently flagged up in the Government’s Transgender Equality Inquiry as a major issue for the trans community. As with many oppressed communities, drug and alcohol abuse are issues within our community. Some of our medicines, if not prescribed to us, are considered class C drugs, and of course some of us in desperation turn to illegal markets for the drugs we need. Trans people are more likely to live in poverty. Trans people are more likely to find opportunities through sex work when there is a lack of other opportunity, and when we are sexualised and objectified. Trans people are more likely to experience sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. Trans people’s experience of domestic violence is disproportionately high. We are often, as with other LGBT people, considered the aggressors if we defend ourselves against attack, simply because people look on us with prejudice.
So, like most other minorities, we are thought to be over-represented in the prison system, and we might not always feel that prison is the answer in the way others who have never brushed with the law might feel. And we might not feel safe and trusting to approach the police. We might not expect a fair hearing. We don’t always act like the model minority and our sometimes messy lives may invite more judgement than sympathy.
If we are people of colour, if we are from deprived areas, if we are sex workers, if we have poor mental health, if we are asylum seekers or immigrants, then we may be even less likely to feel the police are there to protect us.
We might also feel that sending hate criminals to prisons when many of us are in those prisons is not going to reduce harm to our community, and so we might feel ambivalent about enhanced sentences for hate crime. Particularly when we know that 75% of prisoners reoffend when they come out. Particularly when we know that non-custodial sentences can be better at reducing offending. Particularly when we know that the legislation is not actually reducing crimes against us.
When it comes to the police, many of us in the trans community are sincerely grateful for how much things have changed for the better. But there’s still a long way to go. Some of us are white and able and middle class and have never felt ourselves to have a complicated relationship with law enforcement. Those people often have the biggest voices, too. But we need to really work at understanding how different the experience is for those of us from even more marginalised communities. Those of us who have mental health difficulties or are neurodivergent, those from communities of colour, those who are sex workers, those who are vulnerably housed and homeless or live in poverty, those who are addicted to substances, those who have uncertain immigration status or are seeking asylum. We need, as a community, to protect and include those vulnerable people and that means putting their needs first and foremost, including showing understanding that they may not view the police as a protective presence.
The hard work has to come from the police and not from us, and the police need to be big and strong enough not to be upset and offended when we are critical. Or when we ask for them to do better for those most vulnerable, or listen to us more, or not put themselves into the middle of our social organising until we’re sure everyone feels safe about that.
Some, such as academic Wendy Brown, have argued that hate crime legislation creates an illusion of equality whilst in fact reinforcing structural power. It increases the power of the state over its citizens. It justifies the need for greater law enforcement and increased incarceration. At the same time it devolves power away from the community and towards the state, asking the community to trust and look up to its protection, even as the state continues to perpetuate legislative inequalities.
This may be an extreme way of looking at things, but at a time when we seem to be questioning whether we can afford to look after our vulnerable citizens I find it somewhat puzzling that we still feel we can afford to incarcerate them.
Prison is expensive. The yearly cost of just one inmate could fund a full time school counsellor. The cost of incarcerating one person could fund two full-time workers raising awareness of trans issues in schools and colleges. As prisons become privatised, we start to suspect that our traumas are being exploited to create inventory for these businesses, while tackling the underlying issues that create our traumas is deemed unaffordable in these times of austerity.
At the same time, we do not seem to be able to provide adequate support to the victims of hate crime and their loved ones and communities. Many of my trans friends suffer from PTSD and access to therapy for this is extremely patchy.
“Against Equality”, an organisation in the US who gave me much to think about in my research, have this to say:
“Hate crimes don’t occur because there aren’t enough laws against them, and hate crimes won’t stop when those laws are in place. Hate crimes occur because, time and time again, our society demonstrates that certain people are worth less than others; that certain people are wrong, are perverse, are immoral in their very being.
“Creating more laws will not help our communities. Organizing for the passage of these kind of laws simply takes the time and energy out of communities that could instead spend the time creating alternative systems and building communities capable of starting transformative justice processes. Hate crimes bills are a distraction from the vital work necessary for community safety.”
So where does this leave us? On the one hand, of course, I want trans people to feel safe to report crimes against them and for those crimes to be taken seriously. Particularly as it is those most marginalised people I mentioned previously who are also most at risk of hate crime. I want to overcome the barriers – the fear of being outed, the fear of making it worse, the fear of not being taken seriously or not being understood or treated well. The lack of trans awareness within the police that reflects that of the general population and the media.
My own work has focussed on awareness raising and community building. I have found through experience that giving our community a voice and building relationships and understanding with the wider community is more powerful than any legislation.
“We are unconvinced that hate crime legislation is an appropriate tool for combating transphobia due to its poor record as a deterrent and low engagement from the trans community. We believe a focus on education, awareness and combating medical neglect is more appropriate a response to transphobia”
The work I and others have done in Nottinghamshire to create a set of Safer Space Guidelines is I believe at the core of how we go forward. Instead of people who aren’t trans telling us what we need, it’s time, respectfully, that people began listening to this community. The guidelines, which can be found on the Notts Trans Hub Website, set out ways in which people can consult us and consider how they interact with us.
One of the repeating themes the trans community face is that everyone has the freedom to speak how they like about us, but when we respond with criticism our own free speech is deemed “too much” for people. I agree, it’s a big adjustment to even begin to adapt to our needs and treat us fairly. But society won’t be equal when everyone who hates us is locked up. Society will be equal when people see no reason to hate us.
I was told when I was a counselling student that teaching is by far the best way to learn about anything. This month’s learning was gained by delivering Trans Awareness Training to Age UK Nottingham.
The Trans Awareness part comes easily, obviously. Not only am I a lifelong (non-binary) member of the trans community myself, but I have spent years advocating for trans women, particularly in spaces that have not historically been friendly and welcoming for trans women. I wasn’t always a knowledgeable ally, I made a lot of mistakes on the way, but I learnt.
I am also married to a trans man, and am an active participant in my local trans community, and a seasoned campaigner. I like to think, and I hope, that I’ve been good at absorbing and understanding the diversity of stories the trans community has to tell.
But it’s easy to stumble when it comes to listening to our elders. Elders often speak in an older language and we think we know better. Elder trans experiences were forged in an environment unimaginable today, and so sometimes their experiences feel less relevant. When an older person tells me that transgender was just “something she went through” on the way to being a woman, that she rejects the idea of trans as an identity to be proud and accepting of, I know her world is very different from mine, and that I must tune in hard in order to be sure I don’t dismiss what she is saying to me.
Because, particularly in the past, and particularly for women, transgender or transsexual has been a qualifier, a diminisher. When added to the word “woman” it was not a neutral descriptive adjective, but almost a negating one. Where “trans” should have simply stated what kind of woman you were, it instead undermined your woman-ness. No wonder so many people with a transgender history wanted to drop the adjective entirely, and simply be understood as men and women.
I remember, some time ago, speaking to a stealth trans man and telling him how different things are now – that my partner and I have had our struggles, but that we feel relatively safe to be out in our workplaces and in our social lives. Violence and harassment are not a thing of the past but things really are getting better.
My research teaches me how much things have changed, and changed because of pioneers like Christine Jorgensen and Lili Elbe, warriors and outlaws like Kate Bornstein and the late great Leslie Feinberg , campaigners like Press for Change’s Professor Stephen Whittle, and Stonewall veterans Marsha P Johnson and Silvia Rivera.
And it also teaches me how difficult things have been for so very long, and the reason why so many of us have hidden our trans nature until later than we might have liked. I think Richard O’Brien’s story brings this home to me more than anything. This is the person who wrote the words “don’t dream it, be it” at age 31, and yet was unable to come out as a non-binary transgender person until the age of 67.
My training brings in the words of two contrasting trans women. The wonderful Alice, whose beautiful poetry I had the chance to hear last year at Brighton Trans Pride, speaks eloquently of her relatively late transition in her My Genderation film. Joanne Keatley, in this recent Daily Beast article, tells the other side of the story, What it was like to transition 50 years ago.
Both tales are mirror images – neither Alice nor Joanne were afforded the opportunity to be out in the open, free of hate and stigma, in their early lives. Both took a long time to find a community and I appreciate the idea of a trans community is still probably an anathema to many trans people who were sold the importance of being assimilated into mainstream culture and becoming as invisible as they possibly could.
I often reflect on how much luckier trans guys (a group I sort-of fall into) are for being relatively invisible, but I don’t think that invisibility is necessarily a good thing, nor is it exactly a privilege. It affords you relative safety from direct violence and harassment, but it is a condition that is inherently psychologically oppressive. To keep your head down and not raise your voice about just how much things need to change is suffocating. Both the closet and a stealth life may afford relative safety but neither are anything close to freedom.
Anyone who knows me knows my passion for intersectionality, the idea put forward by Kimberlé Crenshaw that the feminist movement is nothing if it does not take other oppressions, particularly the oppression of black women, into account. This is equally true when the trans community ignores ageism and how we might neglect and ignore the needs and stories of older trans folks that do not tally with our own.
A realisation hit me as I thought about trans ageing – many trans folk don’t expect to grow old, and if they do, they fear it. The health inequalities, compounded by poverty, assault, HIV, mental health and suicide, and difficulty accessing generic healthcare with a trans history, mean we have a right to be worried, but the positive health outcomes for our treatment, both physical and psychological, are cause for optimism.
When we do think of ageing, we think of the disrespect and abuse sometimes afforded older, and particularly frail or sick, people. We think of how our trans status might compound this. We think of how our sometimes unusual bodies may be treated and responded to when we are given personal care. We wonder how we will fare – whether we will be treated, housed and clothed according to our gender when we lose the freedom to make our own decisions, and we wonder if anyone will understand the vital importance of this.
As more and more of us come out and live our true lives before it’s too late, the necessity of making the world safe and respectful for our trans elders and our future selves becomes increasingly clear to me.