Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘non-binary’

I am your trans patient

I’m really delighted that a team (of which I was a member) comprised entirely of trans voices has been published in the BMJ (the British Medical Journal). Our article provides basic information for GPs providing healthcare to transgender people. Of course, we could’ve said a great deal more, and desperately wanted to. However, both the word count and editorial decisions created firm limitations around what this piece could do. Nonetheless, my colleagues and I are all proud of the piece, and would be hugely grateful if you’d take a look. Perhaps most importantly, if you know any medical practitioners, we’d be indebted if you’d send the link their way – the more practitioners who are comfortable and equipped to assist trans patients (with transitions and generally) the closer we come to best practice, and equal treatment.

The link is below. The language is non-technical, and there is no paywall (article is approx. 1000 words):


Book Review: trans like me – a journey for all of us, by CN Lester

I was honoured to be asked by CN to offer a round of feedback on the manuscript for this book prior to publication (with Virago Press). I inhaled the text in a single evening, despite generally dragging my feet when reading longer pieces on my computer screen. The research was incredibly thorough, but at no point did this become dry or stuffy. This book isn’t an academic text in the traditional sense, but it’s certainly a very educational one – I’ve already cited it in my own academic writing.

Once I got my hard copy of the book, I felt it had been a long enough time since that editing process that I should really read it again before reviewing – plus, it wouldn’t be fair to assess a pre-final version. Generally I struggle with re-reading books, as my attention often wanes as a result of half-remembering what I’m encountering and having to fight the urge to skim. I was surprised with trans like me, that I was touched more deeply second time around than the first. Divided into 15 chapters over 214 pages, Lester’s conversational style creates an intimate and effective sense of a meaningful conversation over coffee with a friend. Before the journey has really begun, they explain how “to learn how to learn about trans people, about the ways in which what we know about gender is shifting and growing, we must first unlearn” (p. 5); their experience as a teacher comes through (which we are explicitly told about later, through their careful threading of personal anecdote through the narrative), and an attentive, skilled one at that.

Lester effectively conjures compassion in their audience through beginning by engaging with the worst exploitation of the tabloid press. Their points are consistently reasonable, relatable, and simple. There is no sense of polemic, only kindness. They give of their personal experiences and history generously, but without allowing any reader to fall into voyeurism. Lester gets us thinking about who has the power to tell stories, helping the reader to understand the incredibly invasive expectations, demands, and groping hands trans people can by explicitly targeted with. While there is a partial element of autobiography, trans like me reads as a collection of interrogative, well-evidenced essays that are absolutely committed to an empathetic and intersectional appreciation of many of the central discussions and concerns that come up when trans is on the discussion table. How race and class are profoundly relevant and necessary in any understanding of trans people is also not lost or buried.

It wasn’t far into the book that I started marking ‘wow moments’ in my margins. Brilliant, succinct ripostes to some of the most dangerous and disingenuous (yet pervasive) myths about trans people and communities. These are not incinerated in a blaze of adjectives, but quietly and decisively collapsed. The book manages to do this in a way that is not only affirming to those already familiar with the subject matter, but accessible to those who are not. Lester’s anger is something that one would hope everyone can agree with – anger about bigotry, injustice, violence, callousness, unequal rights, access, and experience. Lester hits the nail on the head by centring empathy in their education and discussion.

I mentioned that I was touched more deeply second time around. For me, this was most profound on page 35: “a question I am often asked is why, as someone who wants to subvert gender norms, i would want or need an additional gendered label. Couldn’t I simply refuse all descriptors? Or, failing that, call myself a feminine man or a masculine woman?”. This made me think of a line from Alan Bennett’s History Boys: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours”. Now I knew this wasn’t unique to me, but I remembered being asked by an exceptionally well-informed and sensitive friend “but aren’t you just a feminist man?” in relation to my own non-binary experience. The discussion that Lester unfolds in response to the rhetorical questions they use is far more helpful (and humble) than a discrete, essential ‘answer’. It made me feel better equipped to have these conversations when (and it is when, not if) they come about.

There’s no such thing as a perfect book. However from my perspective, any critiques feel embarrassingly trivial or unnecessary. When discussing how trans women have been portrayed in popular culture (“the victim, the freak, the joke, the threat” – p. 29) I felt a mention of Julia Serano as quite a marked absence – albeit undoubtedly many of the readers of this book wouldn’t be familiar with Serano’s work. Further, as an academic, while I was glad to see extensive references in the endnotes, I found the system of links listed by page a bit imprecise. These things say much more about me than about the book, and most certainly don’t detract.

CN Lester is one of quite a small handful of people capable of introducing so many aspects of trans lives so well. Doing so to a heterogeneous popular audience is doubly difficult. I can only echo Shami Chakrabarti’s back-cover comment that “I challenge anyone not to have both heart and mind a little more open after reading this book”. This is a book for everyone, living up to the title’s implication of ‘a journey for all of us’. I believe this book can make its readers both wiser and kinder, and makes an incredibly important contribution as a result, that I enthusiastically recommend.

Why We Should Stand Up For Trans Rights and Recognition at the University of Toronto

My good friend and colleague S.W. Underwood and myself wrote a piece in response to Dr. Jordan Peterson’s recent comments at the University of Toronto, regarding his refusal to use the pronouns individuals identify with. Please see here for the article!


On being an ex-gay queer

Identities are tricky things. They can be used as a shorthand to tell people something about you (from the gender of your partner/s, to what sort of music you like), and they can be grappled with in coming to understand ourselves better as we grow and move through our lives. I’d like to try and use some of my own process and movement to talk about tensions and limitations of (sexual) identity, and how this can also be okay. This is a bit of a thought-dump, so I hope it’s navigable.

I came out to my friends and parents as gay when I was 18, and that was completely fine (a privilege that is informed by my position as middle class, white, and English). It was only later as I accrued more life experience (in both intimate relationships and intellectual ideas) that I was to turn attention to how I conceived of myself again.

Much of this experience relates to gender. Sexuality is both entwined with and separate from gender identity – who you go to bed with is not the same as who you go to bed as, yet if you’re attracted to say, exclusively girls, your gender is what is then used to position you as straight, or a lesbian. My experiences have forced me to confront often unspoken assumptions about what sexuality means for an individual. There’s an assumption that when we say ‘gay men’ we’re talking about cis gay men (because of cissexism), and thus whoever a gay man is interested in/sexual with is also cis. Far from it. By experiencing and acknowledging intimacy with trans gay people, gayness is decoupled from dominant assumptions that this means two people with the ‘same’ genitals.

Also, through deconstructing and questioning my own gender identity and attempting to negotiate feelings around the rejection of masculinity and manhood, identification with and as non-binary has become something I’ve increasingly positioned myself with. It’s important that we don’t assume that identification is as simple as putting oneself inside or outside of particular boxes – particularly when the labels on the boxes can have radically different meanings for different people. Therein lies something that attracts me to both non-binary and queer as identity categories – they position one within an umbrella LGBTQ+ discourse, without any rigid over-simplification of personal experience. They can tell people what you want them to know without having to have an existential crisis over the details of selfhood every time one outs oneself.


An important point though is how I found gay didn’t really work without erasing the complexities around my feelings of my gender. It also (for me) would potential disenfranchise the gender of my partner, who identified as male when we met, but does not now. Whilst there may (must?) be trans women out there with AMAB gay identified partners who don’t have a problem with the language their partner feels a resonance with to describe their sexuality, some will feel that this positions them as not ‘real’ women. As I don’t identify particularly as male, does that mean I would feel erased if I were to be involved with a guy who identified as gay? I don’t think so. Maybe this speaks to some internalised stuff about ‘not being non-binary enough’, but it would be far more important to me that they didn’t internalise essentialised notions of gender in articulating their sexuality (that ‘attraction to men’ makes assumptions about what a ‘male body’ is, or what gender expression ‘should’ be, etc.).

Further, if telling someone ‘I’m gay’ as someone read as male, this will result in people making an assumption about my partner’s gender, whether she’s there or not. Plus, we’re still together. I’m with a woman. So whether conceiving sexuality of who you’re sexual with, attracted to, in a relationship with, and then your own corresponding gender identity, I’ve royally muddied the waters on all of these fronts. In addition to all of that, over time I’ve felt a significant alienation from notions of a gay community – a social phenomenon that my experiences of have been very white (and racist), very male (and misogynistic), very cis (and transphobic), and very apolitical. Something I think is very important to acknowledge is that gay community is NOT homogeneous. In so far as my experiences have given me those associations, this is something that is obviously not inevitably symptomatic of all individual white cis gay men, or necessarily communities. If tensions with other individuals who share your identity label were all it took to result in disidentification, then identity would fragment apart into nothingness. Identity categories are inherently limited in grouping together people, when people comprise difference.

So if I was gay, but I no longer identify as such, that makes me an ‘ex-gay’ right? I say this very tongue in cheek, fully aware of the evangelical Christian undertones that the label ‘ex-gay’ is associated with, and how such a reading assumes both the possibility and success of conceptually repugnant and psychologically damaging ‘reparation therapy’. It’s slightly telling all on its own about how erasing society is in general that if not gay, we thus immediately leap to straight. Which I can at least confidently say I am not. I am queer – I cannot easily categorise the bodies, identities, appearances, or personalities of those I find attractive romantically or sexually. I can identify patterns, but such details don’t lend themselves well to identity labels. I’ve learnt not to worry about it any more.


What it means to ‘be gay’ is also undergoing social transmutation. Queer people (particularly in youth or internet subcultures) might use language such as ‘I’m hella gay’, in a way which resonates or communicates far more something queer than something rigidly, discretely homosexual. This echoes the historical phenomenon where before identities such as bisexual, pansexual, or even transgender were understood and demarcated, ‘gay’ itself was a catch-all term, but which erased people in a way that queer does not. The difference between this historical use of gay and of contemporary use of queer is how ideas of gender and sexuality have developed in the meantime and fed into community consciousnesses.

I do sometimes wish I had a simpler, easier experience of gender and sexuality, as it would make it easier to relate with certain parts of the world and to communicate. But I also think this is a trap. What I really wish is that I could tell anyone that I’m queer, and not worry about what they think that might mean, whether they’re okay with it, or whether I’m going to have to navigate various assumptions made about gender and orientation. Giving time to process the potential complexities of gender and sexuality can feel daunting, but it’s also incredibly important as it equips us all to be more respectful, and more understanding.


Review: The Transgender Equality Report, January 2016

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.


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.

Non-binary gender identity negotiation – My PhD explained!

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

Review: Louis Theroux Documentary – Transgender Kids

The Documentary Transgender Kids is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until 30th April 2015 – which can be found here. Apologies if you are outside of the UK and this link doesn’t work.


On the 5th April, Louis Theroux’s latest documentary aired on BBC 2. To quote the BBC’s description of the programme: “Louis travels to San Francisco where medical professionals are helping children with gender dysphoria transition from boy to girl or girl to boy”. Whilst even this is an oversimplification (structuring transgender narratives as always having a binary ‘end result’, and also trans narratives or realities being dependent on gender dysphoric feelings, non-intuitive though this might be for some), the content of the program has been well received.

I agree with Paris Lees when she says that Louis excels at asking questions designed to aid the average viewer’s train of thought in understanding the subject matter. Whilst maintaining his position as ‘guy who doesn’t know much but wants to learn’, he also avoided tired issues of etiquette such as referring to people by the names and pronouns they identify with – as this is easily Google-able, but they moved through this in such a way so that viewers who didn’t already know this kept with the program.

The start of the documentary is strategically important and intelligent. We meet the parents of the little girl Camille, who iterate that their chief concern is doing right by their child, and learning how to best ensure their welfare – a position anyone can get behind. We are also introduced to Diane Ehrensaft who for me, was a highlight of the programme in demonstrating exceptional warmth, sensitivity, and wisdom. One would hope to see Diane’s approach in any professional working to support transgender and gender variant people, but which the voices of the transgender community tell us is sadly not the case.

People with little to no knowledge of transgender often ask the question ‘but how do you know’, and more so in the case of children. The anxiety surrounding the notion of supporting a ‘mistaken’ transition, of the risk of ‘getting it wrong’ is at the front of many people’s minds. It’s a big problem that many people (including medical professionals) can assume that it is ‘safer’ to prevent any kind of gender expression or transition that runs contrary to assignation at birth, because of potential risk. Louis raises this question (at 14.17 in, to be exact). Diane Ehrensaft is worth quoting directly in her response:

Is it a risk? Let’s call it a possibility. So with that possibility then we think, the most important thing is the same exact idea – to find out who you are and make sure you get help, facilitating being that person *then*. We have one risk we know about. The risk to youth when we hold them back, and hold back those interventions – depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, even successes – and if we can facilitate a better life by offering those interventions, I weigh that against there might a possibility that they’ll change later, but they will be alive to change. So that’s how I weigh it on the scales.


It’s also worth mentioning that whilst stopping or reversing transitions does happen, it is comparably rare. These examples shouldn’t need to be ‘hushed up’ because of the fear that they will be used to de-legitimise transgender people’s access to gender affirming services. Indeed one can see that being able to access such things and then stop can also be highly beneficial for an individual, to help work out who they are, and what they want.

The program didn’t make the mistake of trying to make a fictional debate about whether kids should or shouldn’t be given access – it was clearly sympathetic. I felt the show helped lead its audience to accept the importance of this point. It skillfully managed to do this without reducing the transgender voices on the program to one ‘line’ – there were definite differences between the children appearing on the show.

This was perhaps illustrated most clearly by Crystal/Cole, who exhibited a non-binary gender (although the show didn’t name it as such), sometimes expressing herself as Crystal and sometimes as Cole. They broached the fact that for some children (and indeed, plenty of adults as well) gender expression and pronouns could depend upon environment (‘he at school but she at home’) or on time (‘some days I’m Crystal but some days I’m Cole). There are also some conflicts within this particular narrative – Crystal’s mother (at 24.56) says that:

She has said in private with her therapist that she is a girl. Almost 100%. When I’ve sat down and had private conversations with her and said would you ever be interested in [transitioning medically], how do *you* feel about it? And her answer is ‘I can’t do that mommy, I have to be a boy’, and I enquire further as to why and she says ‘because I’m poppy’s only son, and it would destroy poppy’.


This hints heavily at a father who isn’t supportive/understanding/accepting of his child’s gender expression, though we also hear Crystal herself say that she doesn’t prefer one name over the other, and later in the program says she wants to be male when she grows up (though for the very normative reasons of liking the thought of a wife and children, as if one must be male to have this). The show deals with this complexity well, and reflection upon Dr. Ehrensaft’s words are fitting. Crystal/Cole may be a transgender woman who, as a child, is navigating her father socially. They may be a non-binary person, with male and female identities, or some further understanding of themselves may manifest over time. I felt we were invited as an audience to recognise that ‘searching for truth’ is not the point of engaging with transgender people, but the most important factors are respect within the moment, and facilitation of what is needed for happiness and health. Which is not as complicated as critics might make it.

The mainstream media has responded positively to the documentary, although not all the conversations to have come out of it have been positive. For example, BBC Women’s Hour disappointingly attempted to create a very artificial ‘for vs. against’ debate’. Quite rightly, this inspired anger from transgender activist CN Lester, fed up of trans voices and narratives legitimacy being framed as a debate, as if each ‘position’ had equal evidence and importance.

Bottom line – this is a strong and sensitive documentary which I would recommend. Whilst obviously positioned within an American context (and the differences with the healthcare systems are important to consider), many people could learn from the compassion of some of the parents who recognise how important it is to become an advocate for their child. By challenging cisnormativity (the idea that identifying with the gender one is assigned at birth is ‘normal’ or ‘correct’), society is slowly dragged towards being safer and easier for those under the trans umbrella.


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