Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Released on the 14th January, this 98 page report has already been usefully digested and impressively considered by a range of groups within the trans community (including Action for Trans Health, the Non-Binary Inclusion Project, and Beyond the Binary). I’ll be going through it section by section, aiming to break down the content for those who haven’t read it, and provide some points of consideration for those who have. The report can be found here.

The report comes from the Women and Equalities Committee, chaired by Mrs. Maria Miller. The committee contains 6 Conservative MPs, 4 Labour MPs, and 1 MP from the Scottish National Party. The bolded subtitles are parallel with the sections of the report itself.

Over 250 written evidence submissions were received, and five oral evidence sessions were held. Each submission was however limited to 3000 words, which rather caps those expert trans organisations and individuals who may have a lot of useful information to say on a range of sub-topics.

1. Introduction

Here the report provides a breakdown of terminology – what is a trans woman, what is a trans man, what is cis, etc. etc. They do take a simplified approach to non-binary, simply saying it is “located at a (fixed or variable) point along a continuum between male and female; or “non gendered”, i.e. involving identification as neither male nor female” (p. 5). They also specify here that it wasn’t possible to undertake an ‘in-depth’ consideration of non-binary needs in the report, but highlight a need for this, likewise for intersex people, whom they recognise as having potentially overlapping but distinctive needs.

They mention that “before commencing the inquiry, we consulted informally with representatives of two key stakeholder organisations, Press for Change and Stonewall”. PfC is a long standing champion of transgender legal rights, and Stephen Whittle (who founded the organisation) acted as Specialist Advisor – quite appropriately as he is both trans himself and a professor of law! The fact that Stonewall only began considering trans issues less than three months ago makes me wonder if there weren’t more experienced groups that might’ve assisted, and whether Stonewall somewhat rode on the coattails of its recognisability due to its sexuality based work.

2. Cross-Government Strategy

In this small section, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) is introduced. They published ‘Advancing Transgender Equality: A plan for action’ in 2011, which was criticized as largely unimplemented. They highlight that within 6 months the government must agree a new strategy which it can deliver, with full cross-departmental support, and must make a clear commitment to abide by the Yogyakarta principles, and Resolution 2048 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Given that these pieces of legislature were created in 2007 and April 2015 respectively, I am disappointed but unsurprised that these have not been explicitly incorporated sooner.

3. Gender Recognition Act 2004

Topics considered under this section include:

  • Applying for Gender Recognition Certificates (GRCs)
  • Spousal consent for gender recognition
  • The age limit of 18+ for gender recognition
  • data protection and excessive requests for GRCs

It’s good to see the committee recognising here that despite the step forward it was at the time (albeit obviously imperfect), there are aspects that are particularly dated and lacking, and in need of updating. It is highlighted that the requirement to provide documentation of a diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria (then Gender Identity Disorder) is necessary for a Gender Recognition Certificate to be awarded, is pathologising and problematic. The arbitrary and uncritical requirement of two years living ‘in role’ (whatever that actually means) before surgical gender affirmation will be provided was also highlighted as a failing. The committee concludes that “in place of the present, medicalised, quasi-judicial application process, an administrative process must be developed, centred on the wishes of the individual applicant, rather than on intensive analysis by doctors and lawyers” (p. 14). This is a welcome change, but desperately needs more specific functionality to be formulated and disclosed. As gender is assigned at birth on the basis of genital appearance, it is ludicrously unfair for those individuals for whom this cursory assessments turns out to be inaccurate to have to pay £140 for a certificate to have this revised. Whilst it is pointed out that the fee can be waived, an effective replacement system would benefit from being transparent, costless to applicants, and respectful of the self-determination of gender. Zac at Transistence points out that the report makes some factual errors about the requirements for a GRC, which may make it a more difficult process than they imply.

The next section on spousal consent has been reviewed as one of the more disappointing aspects of the report (among the reviewers cited at the start of this article). As it stands, an individual in a marriage who wishes to undertake a legal change of how their gender is recognised requires the agreement of their spouse on the basis that marriage “takes the form of a contract between two people of different sexes or two people of the same sex”. Action for Trans Health quite astutely makes the point that the basis of consent required for the status of the marriage to change from ‘opposite to same’ sex (or vice versa) is a clumsy, inefficient, and ultimately unnecessary (unless one is still attempting to preserve the ‘separate but equal’ feel to marriage based on the genders of the couple). No discussion is present over the idea of marriage contracts being de-gendered specifically (although it’s a good thing that on page 63 it is suggested that the government “should be moving towards “non-gendering” official records as a general principle and only recording gender where it is a relevant piece of information” – though the question remains, what criteria would be used to define gender as relevant?). For the government to fail to recognise the need to modify any system that allows one individual the power to prevent the legal recognition of another person’s gender (even for a time) is deeply concerning. No action was advised, despite advisory recognition that an abusive spouse may take advantage of this policy. Also, Scotland’s solution to this avoids delay or restriction on the trans spouse:

Under the Marriage and Civil Partnership Act (Scotland) 2014, which came into force on 16th December 2014, a married trans person whose spouse does not consent to the granting of a full GRC is able to apply to a Sheriff Court for a full GRC, on the basis of an interim GRC, without divorce or annulment having taken place. The process of obtaining a full GRC is thus expedited. The spouse of a trans person is entitled to be notified of the issuing of a GRC and can initiate divorce proceedings on that basis. (p. 16)

If Scotland can do it, why can’t England? It is one of the most insufficient responses that the committee concludes that any abuse of the legislation would be “deplorable and inexcusable” (p.17) yet they simply “more ensure it is informed about the extent and ways of addressing the problem”. The implication is that the ‘right’ to not be married to your partner for one single second as a legally recognised trans person is equal to the right to have one’s gender recognised. Thus the argument that marriage is a legal contract and that the non-trans spouse has equal say is rooted in transphobia.

A point many may regard as a victory, the report recommends that “provision should be made to allow 16 and 17 year olds, with appropriate support, to apply for gender recognition, on the basis of self-declaration” (p.19).

That not a single person has been prosecuted under the bit of legislation (section 22) to protect trans people from being outed illustrates how it has failed to protect anyone from or hold anyone accountable for this particular manifestation of transphobia. The report indicates the Ministry of Justice must investigate why, and work with courts to deal with this. The report recognises that there are “very few” situations where asking for proof of legal gender is appropriate, and yet the fact that this occurs raises cause for concern at how an individual’s trans status may be responded to by an organisation. As it is not unlawful to ask a person to produce a GRC under the GRA, it seems sensible to me that a clause be inserted that this is with the proviso that the request is justified and substantiated, and that absolutely no negative consequences occur if the request is refused on the basis of not being necessary.

4. Equality Act 2010

  • ‘Gender reassignment’ as a protected characteristic
  • Exemptions – separate sex and single sex services
  • Separate gender sport

This section paid some important attention to language, recognising how scrutiny of the terms ‘gender reassignment’ and ‘transsexual’ can be problematic for many, not least because of the increasing number of trans people for whom these terms are not reflective for. Lack of clarity can prevent the act from being fully effective, as it is illustrated that many erroneously believe that a GRC is necessary for protection when it is not. However, with regards to whether non-binary people are protected, it was stated that:

When the Equality Bill was going through Parliament the then Solicitor General had clearly indicated that it was only the provision in respect of discrimination by perception which would protect those members of “the wider transgender community”who did not come under the protected characteristic of gender reassignment. That is, they would only be protected if they were discriminated against because they were perceived to be proposing to undergo, to be undergoing, or to have undergone gender reassignment. The difficulty with this provision is that there are likely to be cases where an individual from the wider trans community, is discriminated against because of who they are and not because they are perceived to be transsexual.

That the report wishes to amend the act to protect on the basis of ‘gender identity’ is a positive step, but as with all aspects of this report, actual results will speak louder than good intentions.

The next point considered by the report was ‘separate sex and single sex services’, referring particularly to women’s shelters (such as rape crisis, or domestic abuse shelters), and prisons. A group called ‘Women Analysing Policy on Women’ reported a position ringing of uncritical TERF based arguments, saying there is a ‘clash’ when women who would feel unsafe accessing a service that is open to trans women should have the right to access services that exclude trans women – which is permissible as an exemption under the Equality Act. It is obviously terrible if any woman feels unsafe because of others using a service for those who have experienced violence. However clunky the comparison however, the debate would not be being had if it was a question of white women feeling unsafe around a service allowing black women access. That there is zero examples of pre, post, or non-operative transgender women committing a sexual crime in a womens’ shelter, the argument rests upon an implicit delegitimisation of trans women, as ‘really’ men. Such legislation not only endangers and discriminates against vulnerable trans women (who are statistically more likely to be at risk of sexual violence, or engagement in underground economies which may lead to imprisonment), but also polices a trans woman’s ‘authenticity’ on the basis of how well she ‘passes’ – a trans woman who is not read as such may be able to access exclusionary services anyway, whilst others would not. Worryingly, the Minister for Women and Equalities thought that such exclusionary practices were being used “proportionately, appropriately, and fairly”, despite this including facilities as broad and vital as public changing rooms, bathing facilities, and toilets (p. 30). That they only recommend amendment of the Equality Act such that “the occupational requirements provision and/or the single-sex/separate services provision shall not apply in relation to discrimination against a person whose acquired gender has been recognised under the Gender Recognition Act 2004” (p.32) – that is, awarded a GRC – is insufficient, and lacking in critical consideration.

Finally for this section was the consideration of separate-gender sport. The report recognises that exclusion of trans people from sport in their acquired gender should be a much rarer than than it is. Sports have to demonstrate that they are ‘gender affected’, and that a trans person would have some kind of unfair advantage, or for there to be a ‘safety risk’ to competitors. They recommend that the government works with Sport England to produce some guidance to avoid exclusions, as they recognise the unlikeliness of an exclusion being justified.

5. NHS Services

Obviously there’s a lot to be said here. and it is divided by:

  • GPs attitudes
  • Education and training of doctors
  • Professional regulation of doctors
  • GICs (adults)
  • Treatment protocols
  • Capacity and quality of services
  • The Tavistock Clinic (children and adolescents)

There are some recognitions that are important here, most clearly at the start of this section the clear admission that “the NHS is letting down trans people, with too much evidence of an approach that can be said to be discriminatory” (p. 35). There is further explicit recognition that “GPs in particular too often lack an understanding of: trans identities; the diagnosis of gender dysphoria; referral pathways into Gender Identity Services; and their own role in prescribing hormone treatment. And it is asserted that in some cases this leads to appropriate care not being provided” (p. 42). Whilst the report asks the General Medical Council to “provide clear reassurance” that they take transphobia seriously as a form of professional misconduct, there isn’t any more specific discussion of the importance of implementing a holistic and integrated consideration of gender identity into medical training.

It is positive the the problematic association between transgender identity and mental health services is recognised. I particularly support the notion of Gender Identity Services being established as a specialty in its own right, as it is a profoundly intersectional discipline that cannot be readily reduced to or conflated with only endocrinology, or surgery, or gynecology, etc.

Disappointing however is the seeming misunderstanding of the informed consent model illustrated by point 212 (p. 47). They suggest that the model is unconvincing because it would allow anyone to access whatever service (hormones, surgeries) they want on demand with no further scrutiny. It is accepted that there is a significant difference between accessing different gender affirming treatments – the ramifications of hormones are fundamentally different to phalloplasty or vaginoplasty. Not only do these have different ramifications for the individual, but also restrictive NHS budgets (that very much could be expanded were it not for ideological Conservative decisions… though that’s not a discussion for here) mean that the clinical urgency for an individual needs justifying in terms of need. A difficult topic, when it comes to finite resources I can at least understand the wish to prioritise say, those experiencing dysphoria over those who do not, or not as badly, but creating that hierarchy of need is never going to be without ethical issues. However, I do think this committee has been too quick in dismissing the merits that an informed consent model would offer, at least in the provision of hormones. That many trans people seek access to hormones only, with either no need/desire or at least no firm commitment on surgical intervention would allow those who are on the enormous NHS waiting lists to rapidly have their needs met. That there is a double standard regarding when cis individuals access hormones for a wide range of medical reasons is evidence to suggest that the refusal to allow trans people to take responsibility for their choice to take hormones or not, is at the very least, cis-centric. Were informed consent utilised for hormones, I posit that the waiting lists for GICs would decrease dramatically, allowing greater speed, attention, and resources to be provided to those individuals negotiating surgical gender affirmation.

I am somewhat perplexed by the claim that “The requirement to undergo “Real Life Experience” prior to genital (reassignment/reconstructive) surgery must not entail conforming to externally imposed and arbitrary (binary) preconceptions about gender identity and presentation. It must be clear that this requirement is not about qualifying for surgery, but rather preparing the patient to cope with the profound consequences of surgery” (p. 47). Does it require two years to do that? Are there other examples where surgeries are delayed for that long on the basis of preparation? What is the period meant to be an experience of, if not to satisfy to clinicians that the trans person has shown they’re super-serious enough? How does living in a gender role relate to practical preparations on genital surgery (given that major genital surgery in cis people doesn’t involve this). Obviously it’s good that they’re saying this isn’t for the imposition of external, socially constructed binary values, but I fail to see how as it is currently enforced, it is actually justified – and indeed, it has been long criticised as arbitrary, cis-centric gatekeeping.

In point 230 (p. 50) the report discusses how lack of specialist clinicians is a major, underdiscussed barrier to the introduction of more services. Whilst I think that a revision of hormone access ease would go a long way, this point could have been related to an explicit making-visible of gendered medicine within medical training, but wasn’t. Again, it’s great that the committee recognise how appalling it is that waiting lists for GICs are so long when the legal obligation under the NHS constitution is for treatment provision within 18 weeks, at this stage they’re simply reiterating that things are bad – when a lot of people want to see something done. So – good, but I’ll celebrate when we get some change, thank you.

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s pleasing to see the committee recommend a reduction in time required for young service users to wait before puberty blockers can be accessed – due to their reversibility (primarily), and the sensitivity of time as a factor. Such a vague (albeit welcome) conclusion could benefit greatly from some practical recommendation of how the time scale might practically change – well within the capability of discussion given the high involvement of the GICs and NHS in the discussions underpinning this report.

6. Tackling Everyday Transphobia

Here the committee makes points about:

  • Hate crime
  • Recording names and gender identities
  • Prison services
  • Online services
  • Schools and post-school education
  • Social care

It is a breath of fresh air to see the report explicitly state that the Ministry of Justice must ensure it consults fully with the trans community (p. 57) – and indeed, this should be the case for every sub-topic of the report. Low conviction rates, practical issues of intersectionality (which box do you tick when a trans woman of colour is a victim?!), and a (shocking) lack of parity between trans hate crimes and other hate crimes were all specifically acknowledged.

The report highlights that the laws on names in the UK are commonly incorrectly assumed, in that there is no such thing as a ‘legal name’ (p. 59). It is very positive that the committee recognises the necessity of dropping the pathologising practice of requiring a doctor’s letter in order to change a name on a passport. Further, the fact that Australia allows for passports with the gender marker ‘X’ rather than M or F was received positively as evidence that the UK would be quite capable of following suit. The claim by Karen Bradley that “The gender identifiers are important in making sure that somebody can be identified” fails to recognise that 1. there’s a *picture* and 2. there’s a host of additional identifying information, and that the gender marker doesn’t actually tell you anything, in and of itself. I believe the report would’ve benefited from deconstructing this flimsy counter-point. Overall however, the recommendation to move to a de-gendering of official documents where unnecessary (that is, most of them) should be praised. It was a missed opportunity not to link this discussion to that of marriage licences.

The recognition of the report of the deaths of Vicky Thompson and Joanne Latham underlined the sobriety and importance of the topic of prisons. Whilst the report recognises the importance of protecting trans prisoners and that housing individuals in prisons which affirm their gender identities, a lack of statement calling upon the Ministry of Justice to guarantee the respect of gender among trans prisoners (GRC or not) does not in my view engage with this topic with enough dedication. Access for Trans Health illustrate how there is impetus for prison services to allow trans charities and researchers more transparent access in order to collect necessary data about trans prison experiences, and also highlights the conspicuous lack of discussion of immigration detention, or how non-binary prisoners are to be located (one of many important points relating to non-binary that could be made, given that the report specifically states that non-binary was not engaged with in depth).

The assertion that trans issues should be taught in schools under Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) is an overdue but welcome conclusion. As with many of the points in this report, that certain things should happen is a given, and the details of how they will be properly introduced so as to be effective is the real question. Inclusion of transgender issues as part of teacher training is another excellent point – although consistency across private schools, academies, and religious schools are all concerns that necessitate attention.

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As I have highlighted throughout, there are some very positive points and some letdowns. My overall sense at this point is one of caution – because fundamentally, nothing has actually changed yet. Whilst I do not wish to play down the hard work of many passionate and informed people for their part in this report, it’s undeniable that this publication marks the beginning of the execution of the next generation of change, not the end. Also it’s important to note that transgender equality does not exist in a vacuum from other social issues, and thus factors such as wages, income support/tax credits, the junior doctor’s contract (by proxy), NHS and prison privitisation and a wide range of other government policies will have very serious impacts on many transgender people.

Happy new year everyone!

I would like to draw attention to an upcoming event, being organised by myself and my colleague Sonja Erikainen. We are hosting an early career Postgraduate Forum, with the title ‘Moving Beyond the Binaries of Sex and Gender: Non-Binary Identities, Bodies, and Discourses’. I am excited to be able to say our keynote speaker for this event will be CN Lester!

This event is primarily aimed at academic researchers concerned with sex and gender(1) – particularly non-binary transgender and intersex(2) – and community member activists concerned with sex, gender, and the gender binary.

This will be at the University of Leeds on Tuesday 22nd March 2016, 09.00 – 17.00.

Currently, the event will take place in Room 12.25Department of Sociology and Social Policy. This is subject to change (if registration is high, we will arrange a larger space!).

Registration to attend the event is necessary and can be done here:

http://portal.britsoc.co.uk/public/event/eventBooking.aspx?id=EVT10491

Fees for attendance are:

BSA (British Sociological Association) Members – £10

Low/non-earners with no academic affiliation – £15

Non-member – £25

A vegetarian buffet lunch will be provided for all. Any specific dietary requirements can be indicated in the registration process.

Any questions can be directed to ssbwv@leeds.ac.uk and ssste@leeds.ac.uk

1 No implications about how sex and/or gender are defined are intended here, and it is recognised that the discussions on how these words are used can be detailed and complex. I use both the words gender and sex here due to lack of universal consensus over their definitions, and intertwined history.

2 Although not everyone will identify with these labels, I use these terms to attempt to capture the consideration of identities and bodies that can challenge or exist outside of the gender binary. Apologies to anyone for whom this language falls short for, in the interest of concision and clarity. An unpacking of these subjects is an aim of the event!

Yesterday, I came across an article written by Noah Michelson provocatively titled ‘If You Think ‘Straight Acting’ Is An Acceptable Term, You’re An A**hole’. I would say the article is well worth reading, as it evocatively considers some of the concerns with Roland Emmerich’s new film ‘Stonewall’ – namely the accusations of historical inaccuracy, whitewashing, and homonormativity¹ in order to try and bring the film to a wider audience.

Michelson makes the point that:

Being “straight-acting,” for a gay man at least, is directly related to how convincingly he is able to present traditionally masculine mannerisms. The term is so markedly offensive because its very existence insists that there is a particular, instantly identifiable manner of being gay (defined by effeminacy). And what’s more, those qualities are seen as patently unattractive, undesirable and wildly dangerous.

He discusses his own experiences of policing his forms of self expression to articulate a more normative masculinity, in order to protect himself from queer bashing. He remarks how he regrets this, but poignantly asks whether he’d even be here to regret it if he hadn’t – emphasising increasingly how ‘same-sex’ attraction in and of itself doesn’t render one a victim, but the expression of transgressive masculinities and femininities amongst women and men respectively (and those who cross over or identify as neither in particular) puts one at risk. Now, there are those queers who, in the interests of their own safety, or their own ability to socially navigate the world they’re in with the least possible hassle will engaging in ‘straight acting’ actively. Then there are those who simply find that their default state of being is to articulate themselves in an unremarkable, normative manner. There is of course nothing wrong with that. I would however encourage those who have identified or do identify with the term ‘straight acting’ to ask – why do you? How is this identification situated within a larger social narrative and context which shapes who each of us are and how we feel? If you are concerned with how others perceive your masculinity in relation to your sexuality, why is that? Given that masculinity and femininity have large, complex narratives, can you see that when you say you’re ‘straight acting’, what people take from this will never be as simple as pure, value-neutral description (whether they realise it or not)? This can be articulated by different people in different ways to serve very similar ends. A common example being dating app profiles with caveats such as ‘not as camp as I look’, pre-empting judgement from a gay audience which has a clear hierarchy of value.

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Emmerich inserts the fictional protagonist Danny into the narrative of the film in order to “provide a very easy in” for a straight audience. One can understand the desire to want your film about an incredibly important civil rights event to reach and educate as many people as possible. There’s two important problems with this however. 1 – It didn’t remotely happen that way, and 2 – It throws the non-normative queers who were there doing what they did under the bus in order to pander to those potential viewers whose acceptance comes with terms and conditions of palatability. It also raises the very important question – have queer people moved so far away from the scary, dangerous activism of the past that is now spoken of reverently, these brave heroes, that we daren’t tell the story how it was for fear of making less headway with creating queer acceptance than we could?

I would say that if LGBTQ support is *dependent* on whiteness, normative masculinity, middle-class status, conventionally attractive embodiment – all the checkboxes of Danny that make him the least marginalised of the marginalised – then it is worth very little. Further, it’s 2015. Shows and films with casts not centred on whiteness, cisness, etc. have demonstrated their ability to be both commercially and critically successful – one needs look no further than Orange is the New Black. I believe that the film would actually have had a better impact on queer rights and empathy for oppressions faced in terms of sexuality and gender if Emmerich had dared to be more accurate, rather than worrying about the most socially conservative end of the spectrum. The comparatively slow limp of transgender rights and protections demonstrates exactly what happens when we try to gain acceptance by sweeping the more difficult queers under the rug. The irony that the charity ‘Stonewall’ only added trans to its remit this year is ridiculously long overdue, but not surprising due to this homonormative precedent. The very fact that Emmerich has been so heavily criticised is evidence that a mainstream audience could handle the more complex intersections of marginality the real historical figures experienced.

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It’s a fair question to ask what the problem with Danny’s role in the narrative is. Stonewall is famous for being a turning point, the explosive tipping point for LGBT (but let’s be honest, mainly G) rights. Therefore it’s easy to assume that the ‘mainstream gays’ who are visible and in many Western contexts doing relatively okay were also there. Not so. Those men and women with same-sex attraction in the 1960s who could hide it, often did. The straight actors were only to peer out of their closets after the radical queers had fought for some space for them. Emmerich would’ve done well to realise this, and recognise that his film had a duty to the queers still most marginalised today who fought *because* they had no other choice. Stonewall is a story for all queers, for all people to be inspired by, but not at the expense of de-centring the real, brave people who fought.

It’s very important then, to recognise the difference between what being ‘straight acting’ can mean in the world, and what it means when it’s inserted into this film which will be taken by many people as a representation of what happened. This may explain then, why when a historian of Stonewall, the only surviving member of the Stonewall  Street Youth, and other queer writers and experts were asked what they thought of the premier – the results were overwhelmingly damning. Emmerich has also said “as a director you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay”. Maybe, just maybe, this film wasn’t about you, Roland. Maybe it also wasn’t about potential audience members who would deem The Stonewall Riots unacceptable if they saw them led by (as Michelson says) “non-white transgender people, genderqueer individuals, drag queens, butch dykes and sissy men”. Maybe that’s why Miss Major Griffen-Gracy, one of the few survivors of the Riot itself, said “How dare they do this again” of the film.

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Miss Major – Photograph credit to Annalese Ophelian.

It’s ironic that the historian David Carter explains that whilst he liked the characterisation of Ray, in reality Raymond Castro was “a very masculine guy, a generous guy – and very conservative-looking. He wasn’t effeminate – he never went in drag. He didn’t prostitute himself, either”. Emmerich had an opportunity to include a character who embodied a normative masculinity, whilst retaining historical accuracy – a bit of a godsend given that was important to him in this historical sea of queers that were more difficult to market. Why that wasn’t done is open to speculation. But if telling the story of Stonewall was important to Emmerich, as he says it was, but positioning the trans women of colour who were absolutely central to the events (Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Riviera, Stormé DeLarverie, and the aforementioned Miss Major) as the *main* characters, the central narrative, was too difficult… then maybe he shouldn’t have been the person to make this film.

1 – Whilst this term has been used in different ways in different contexts, the most common, and how I use it here, was popularised by Lisa Duggan in unpacking how heteronormativity can be assimilated into LGBT culture, practices, and identities. Heteronormativity is (often insidious or unconsciously manifested) practice that positions straightness, cisness, and normative gender and sexual roles as ‘normal’. That isn’t to say there is necessarily an explicit articulation of homophobia etc., but that in positioning particular qualities as normal (rather than common, or relatively frequent) one includes a moral dimension to the description – that positions particular others as ‘not normal’. Heteronormativity can manifest in such simple interactions many non-straight people will have experienced – an acquaintance say, asking a guy ‘do you have a girlfriend?’ or a girl ‘do you have a boyfriend?’ – the assumption of heterosexuality. In a sense then, homonormativity is exemplified by, for example, gay white men who have a distaste for campness, drag, gender-bending, and other aspects of queer culture that are distinctly un-normative. Plus of course, it’s never as simple as saying that a person *is* or *is not* hetero/homonormative – people articulate multiple and complex views, and may comfortably celebrate radical queerness in some contexts whilst wishing to distance themselves or tactically ‘tone it down’ in others. What this means for how queerness is considered by the wider population is an interesting point to consider.

On Thursday 10th September 2015, Katie Glover (who is transgender) wrote an article for the Independent titled ‘Why it’s Time to take the ‘T’ out of LGBT’. I think that this article is misguided and unhelpful for different aspects of queer communities, and I will spell out why.

The article starts with discussion of the idea that people can get confused by LGBT, due to confusion and conflation between sexuality and gender identity (one simple, but useful one liner I’ve heard to explain this is “sexuality is who you go to bed with, gender identity is who you go to bed as” – later in the article, Glover misquotes this idea). This is a point dealt with by education, as the association between gender identity and sexuality has been around a lot longer than any kind of LGBT movement has. That association is in part because of how labels like ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ are understood with reference to an individuals gender, so as to understand whether they’re attracted to ‘the same or the opposite sex’ (imperfect though such language is). The article claims “being transgender is at the very least heavily associated with sexual orientation, when in fact it stands completely in isolation” – which is patently untrue. For example, if you are assigned male at birth, and you’re attracted to men, and are read socially as male, then you are going to be considered a gay or bisexual or otherwise non-straight man if you give off any social cues of involvement with a man. Even if you identify as a woman. If you are read socially as a woman, then you become read as heterosexual. Indeed, how an individual defines their sexuality may change with a gender transition even if who they’re actually attracted to does not. Also, to consider things historically, sexuality and gender identity were originally conflated under the idea of ‘inversion’, or a ‘woman’s soul in a man’s body’ as an explanation for same gender attraction – yet this narrative is now far more associated with trans.

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Glover moves to discuss how Caitlyn Jenner used to believe that marriage was defined as between one man and one woman, and suggests that because ‘gay issues aren’t trans’ people’s turf’ they won’t necessarily be supportive. I would argue that the vast majority of transgender people are supportive of sexuality minority rights (Glover keeps saying ‘gay marriage’, and even says “gay people… make up three quarters of the LGBT title”, such bisexual erasure is astonishing). The reason why is because trans people often have a first hand understanding of what it feels like to not be accepted, and face stigma and discrimination in various ways. There is a sense of empathy there, together with powerful historical context where the progress of LGB acceptance has moved faster than for transgender. This is ironic given the huge support that LGB folk have had from trans people. The Stonewall Riots are the best example of this, and have been much discussed given the critical response the upcoming film has received for its erasure of transgender women of colour. Reactions like Ellen’s – surprise that Caitlyn wouldn’t have a stronger voice supporting other marginalised people, given her relative privilege and platform – are to be encouraged.

Glover demonstrates a lack of nuanced understanding of queer politics or history in suggesting that the fracturing of the LGBT moniker is progress. The term obviously covers a very wide range of people, with views that can often directly contradict, and with wildly different views about how things ‘should’ be. It’s worth noting that being something, such as gay, bisexual, or trans – certainly does make you the authority on your own experience. It doesn’t make you an authority on the community. That tends to come with many years of work, involvement, reading, and listening. The vast majority of the time that comes from someone directly within a given demographic, but not necessarily. I know there are certainly straight trans people, indeed, trans academics, who have far more nuanced understandings of gay rights than the majority of gay people. Further, Glover makes the unsubstantiated claim that “In fact, it’s been estimated that the number of trans people who are gay is only about the same as in the wider population.” As an academic of gender and sexuality, getting numbers on this stuff is very difficult, and estimates can vary widely. However from my own fieldwork as well as the discussions from dozens of articles on transgender, it seems to me that flexibility and fluidity with sexuality amongst trans people is considerably more common than in the wider population (I can’t be sure that all references are accessible to everyone, but some material can be found here, here, here, and here). The potential reasons for this are beyond this article, though also we have to ask – does this even matter? If there were few non-straight trans people, would trans ignorance or ambivalence on issues of sexuality (which in reality is far less common than ignorance or ambivalence on trans issues from LGB people) not be something we should aim to challenge and rectify? As for all?

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In articulating that LGB and T might be getting “too close for comfort”, Glover reveals one of the most problematic and damaging things within LGBTQ community – that is, ignorance and distaste from some for those different from themselves, when we might otherwise be brought together over a sense of solidarity in seeking respect and equality. Some of the greatest successes of LGBTQ liberation have been due to cooperation – for example, whilst not decimated in anything like the same way, lesbian activists of the 1980s shouldered an enormous amount of the struggle in fighting for the HIV/AIDS crisis experienced by non-straight men to be taken seriously. And of course, how trans activists at Stonewall put LGB rights on the map.

We do find people who exist within LGBT who exhibit a self-interested, tribalist approach. Those gay men with zero interest in misogyny, racism, ableism or transphobia spring to mind with a wince, because they’re not affected.  Small minded identity politics which try to scrape acceptance by distancing from any other marginalised groups, in effect trying to get a ticket to ‘mainstream’ society by propping up a status quo which tells everyone that being straight is ‘normal’. Being white is ‘normal’. Being cis is ‘normal’ – positioning everyone who isn’t, as not quite as good. None of this provides a compelling reason for distancing LGB from T, but gives good reason for there to be more dialogue within LGBTQ about our different issues in order to improve society for all.

*This review may contain plot spoilers for the first episode of Boy Meets Girl*

I just watched the first episode of the new romantic comedy show Boy Meets Girl which aired on BBC 2 on 3rd September 2015. The show had already been acclaimed for the first UK show to contain a major transgender character, played by a transgender actress (Rebecca Root).

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Now whilst those who know me might suspect I would rave about anything with a positive portrayal of trans people in the media, even well intentioned shows and films can easily receive scathing criticism for their ignorance (for example, the transgender writer Julia Serano makes important points about how transgender characters have historically been portrayed as ‘deceptive’ or ‘tragic’ in the book whipping girl, even in films otherwise praised for positive portrayal such as Priscilla Queen of the Desert). Thus I am actually quite cautious of watching trans focussed media, for the fear of disappointment and having to deal with cheap, stigmatising laughs. However, the first episode of this show was, in my opinion, nigh on perfect – let me explain.

We’re introduced to Leo (played by Harry Hepple) who lives with his mum, dad, and brother James, and has just lost his job. In order to get away from their mother’s exasperation, James drags Leo to the pub where over the evening he meets Judy, a ‘beguiling older woman’ as iPlayer’s summary tells. They hit it off, and arrange a date for the next day. The show manages to do something very difficult, in that it weaves a humorous but believable narrative, critically without relying on Judy’s transgender status for laughs. Nor was dramatic tension created through characters being positioned as transphobic – whilst there might be space for that aspect of reality to be explored later in the series, the way the main characters were introduced was not rushed, nor were individuals set up to represent particular tropes. This is hopefully a sign that even the side characters will be fleshed out in interesting, idiosyncratic ways.

However, the difficulties that transgender people can face were not erased. There was a clear and relatable anxiety portrayed by Root as she tried to come out to Leo (which involved humour, but in a witty and clever manner. No overblown clichéd reactions). Further we also receive hints over Judy’s painful past rejections from men, and see some realistic vulnerability. The show teased its audience by hinting at disappointing moments that many trans people will be all too familiar with – a date running out at the first chance after coming out, being outed to other people without consent – but curves away from these at the last minute which is both refreshing and often quite heart-warming.

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That this show made the effort to cast transgender talent (and even from this single episode I believe Root to be very talented indeed) really helped to support the writing. The language used was realistic – the families we see are working class, Newcastle locals – it would be stilted if terms like ‘assigned male at birth’ or ‘gender binary’ were used, as let’s be honest, a large number of people are not familiar with these terms. People still say transsexual, people still say ‘she used to be a bloke’, and it would also be overly simplistic to suggest that all trans people necessarily find such language offensive when that can be how gender is relatable with friends and family. Much as it has been criticised (and rightly so) in some activist circles, the ‘trapped in the wrong body’ trope can still have its uses for some trans people. The show does not tiptoe linguistically and thus become unrealistic, but also strikes an intelligent balance in not engaging with slurs. Again there might be space for addressing this intelligently in future episodes, but it didn’t get ahead of itself.

The BBC didn’t make a song and dance of advertising this show as ‘the trans show’. Indeed, the point of interest is as much how romance is negotiated between a younger man and an older woman, and the stigmatised nature of this is reflected particularly in the incredulity of Leo’s mother. There’s also something inherently feminist about a romance narrative that challenges the ‘older dominant man/younger naive woman’ industry base. There were other small aspects to the production that were also positive. Standing out to me in particular was the physical affection between James and his dad, with despite being men in their 20s and 50s were cuddled on the sofa – a simple family act that is so rarely seen because of how masculinity can be constructed within the media. Nothing was made of it, but it showed on another level ‘there is nothing strange about this’.

Positive trans representation is always something to be celebrated on some level. But this show goes a way further – providing visibility to trans talent aided in reassuring the audience that the script hadn’t been written in a bubble, and nor was this aspect relied upon as a novelty. One can watch, enjoy, and learn from this show without any knowledge or even interest in gender, which is so great in bringing awareness to a wider audience through quality entertainment.

See here for more information about the making of Boy Meets Girl.

I gave this talk at the 2015 ESSL (Education, Social Sciences, and Law) conference at the University of Leeds. Enjoy!

(Note – Jenner explicitly stated in the interview that he is still using male pronouns, and still wishes to use the name Bruce, for the time being. This is respected in this article).

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On 24th April, Bruce Jenner ended media speculation by giving an interview to Diane Sawyer with ABC, announcing to the world that he is a transgender woman. As of 6.00 am Saturday 25th April GMT the full interview is still elusive (in the UK), with this 15 minute poor quality excerpt the longest I could find. Some high quality, short clips are found here. However I’ll be commenting on and synthesising the various reports and clips on and from the interview available so far.

We still identify as female. And that’s very hard for Bruce Jenner to say. ‘Cause why? I don’t want to disappoint people.

 Bruce Jenner

There’s a range of different things we can learn from this interview. The first thing is that a lot of people don’t appreciate what a big deal medical transitions are for trans people – emotionally, physically, and in most of the world, financially. Jenner literally laughs off the fact that some ‘sceptics’ suggest that this coming out could be a bid for attention, related to his part in the reality TV series Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

Are you telling me I’m going to go through a complete gender change, okay, and go through everything you need to *do* that, for the show? Sorry Diane, it ain’t happening!

Bruce Jenner

In addition to this, Jenner revealed he accessed hormones and facial surgery in the 1980s – being trans is not something new to Jenner himself, putting such ignorant cynicism to rest immediately. His transition was ceased in 1990, after meeting his later wife of 23 years, Kris Kardashian. And in terms of ‘why now?’, he states unequivocally how he couldn’t hide this any longer. Jenner also made the points that fears over hurting his children meant he lost his nerve with his first attempts with medical and social transition, and that he and Kris might’ve still been together (they divorced in December 2014) if she had been ‘able to deal with it better’.

Which brings us to another important point that Jenner clarifies – how his sexuality has nothing to do with his gender identity. That identifying as a woman does not mean that he is attracted to men. Sawyer slowly walks through the logic of this – ‘if you are assigned male… and you become female… but you like women… are you a lesbian? are you a heterosexual… who…?’ Brenner cuts her off brilliantly, saying ‘you’re going back to the sex thing and it’s apples and oranges!’.

Whilst not discussed, it raised the question – how does a person’s gender identity relate to the sexuality of their partner? The answer is that it doesn’t, because whilst sexuality labels are most often used to signpost who a person sleeps with, these *labels* are also about identity. For instance, not all men who have sex with men identify as gay, and this is very important to recognise, in terms of both respect, and when conducting studies on sexual health. As a further example, if a person assigned male at birth comes out to her wife as a transgender woman, this doesn’t retroactively ‘turn’ the wife into a lesbian (assuming she was straight in the first place, and not bisexual for example…!). Also if the wife is still attracted to her transgender partner, still in love with her, that doesn’t mean she’s attracted to other women. It is an example of a straight-identified cisgender woman in what could be viewed as a lesbian, or same sex relationship… even if neither person, given their histories, identifies as a lesbian. But as long as one grasps the initial point that sexuality and gender identity are independent, and that labels aren’t gospel and depend on the person and situation rather than being a ‘neutral’ expression of ‘fact’, the rest can be negotiated from there.

For brevity’s sake, I don’t want to focus on the reactions of Jenner’s family, or the story of Jenner’s youth and athletic successes. The negotiation of significant personal issues is never easy, and the horrific marginalisation and ‘joke’ status that transgender people can still be relegated to isn’t up for debate. Jenner’s wealth and celebrity privileges don’t negate that coming out was a very brave thing to do, and he also makes it clear that he wants to do some good and help people by being open about his transition. He makes the point that his foothold in the reality television world gives him a powerful tool with which to raise awareness, even if not becoming an expert activist overnight.

The Twitter responses to the interview using the hashtag #BruceJennerABC have been overwhelmingly positive, though as S. Bear Bergman poignantly put it, “wondering who else should get 2 hrs on prime time TV?” whilst linking the list of unlawfully killed transgender people on Wikipedia, undoubtedly a list that under-represents. It was also pointed out by Kate Bornstein how the interview didn’t mention non-binary identities at all. Whilst not necessarily part of Jenner’s experience of gender, such a powerful opportunity for visibility and education could have benefited from greater breadth of reflection on the multi-facetedness of transgender lives. Jenner’s fame, wealth, and success position him as amongst the least vulnerable of transgender people, who collectively are still in dire need of protection, representation, access to services, and understanding. Let’s hope that Bruce Jenner inspires increased and better quality allyship.

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