A brief history of all-gender toilets in UK universities

To celebrate this year’s umpteenth hit-piece on trans equality, I thought I might tell a little story about toilets.

On Friday, The Times reported that the University of Warwick has been “criticised for its ‘capture’ by Stonewall”, as evidenced by guidance asking people to challenge their biases, plus a proliferation of gender-neutral pronouns and toilets.

This coverage struck me as both unsurprising and bizarre. Unsurprising, as Stonewall have recently been subject to a barrage of homophobic and transphobic coverage from the likes of The Times, the BBC, The Guardian, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail etc etc. But also bizarre, as this is simply not news – all of the initiatives described have been underway for many years now, and they were hardly introduced by Stonewall.

As such, this feels like a good opportunity to explore the forgotten history of one of these initiatives: the introduction of all-gender toilets at Warwick, and in UK universities more widely.

I first became involved in campaigning for all-gender toilets in 2007. Using public toilets was a huge fear for me when I first transitioned. Fortunately, it turned out I was able to use women’s toilets without any trouble, but many of my queer siblings were not so lucky. I met and read about many trans people and other gender-nonconforming individuals, especially butch lesbians, who faced abuse and harassment in toilets due to their appearance. All-gender toilets offer a level of safety and access for people who don’t necessarily tick binary gendered boxes.

I was inspired therefore to learn about campaigns for all-gender bathrooms in US universities, through blogs, forums, and the 2004-05 TV documentary TransGeneration. I teamed up with some friends to write a motion for the 2007 National Union of Students (NUS) LGBT conference, calling on the NUS LGBT to campaign for equal toilet access. The motion passed with a near-unanimous vote, and you can see the text of the resulting policy below:

Conference believed:
1. Gender is self-defined according to an individual's gender identity.
2. That a large number of people who may be identified as trans have a gender identity or gender presentation that is
ambiguous or confusing to others.
3. That gender presentation and gender identity do not necessary fit within a simple male/female binary.
4. A lack of awareness regarding such issues means that trans people have difficulties in areas of life others would take for
granted.
5. That trans people are often inappropriately forced to use disabled toilets or (more often) gender-specific facilities in which
they may face serious discrimination.
Conference further believed:
1. That trans people should have the right to use facilities that they feel most comfortable with, free of discrimination and
harassment.
2. Many trans students would benefit from the availability of gender-neutral toilets, which may exist alongside the genderspecific
amenities currently available.
3. That educational institutions are environments in which trans students should be able to feel as comfortable in themselves
as anyone else.
4. That motions in favour of gender-neutral toilets in universities such as the University of Bradford provide a positive
precedent.
Conference resolved:
1. To mandate a national drive by the NUS LGBT liberation campaign for the establishment of gender-neutral toilet facilities
2. To encourage student LGBT groups and student unions to fight for gender-neutral toilet facilities in their educational
establishments and student union buildings by producing a briefing pack offering support, advice, and educational
literature to these organizations.
3. To mandate the LGBT Officers and committee to produce an online briefing for constituent members on the issue of
gender neutral toilets, including best practice policy, examples of constituent members who have successfully passed
policy in favour of gender neutral facilities and strategies for winning the arguments.
4. To encourage student LGBT groups and student unions to fight for gender-neutral toilet facilities in their educational
establishments and student union buildings, and to offer support, advice, and educational literature to these
organisations.
5. To offer support for trans students so that they can use the facilities that they feel most comfortable with - whether
gender-neutral or gender specific -free of discrimination and harassment.

Of course, we were hardly the first people to undertake such campaigns in the UK. In 2002, Benjamin Cohen wrote an (unsuccessful) motion in favour of gender-neutral toilets for the King’s College London Student Representative Council. In 2005, an NUS LGBT briefing stated that ‘ideally a unisex toilet would […] be provided for those who feel uncomfortable defining into male or female’. Plus, throughout the 2000s “unisex” toilets were introduced in many UK nightclubs, although their owners were generally not so interested in the welfare of clubbers.

Buoyed by the success of our NUS LGBT motion, I took a similar proposal to the Students’ Union (SU) Council at the University of Warwick later in 2007. The motion was passed, albeit with an amendment to say that we would “investigate the possibility” of providing accessible toilet facilities for trans people, instead of committing to actually providing them. I invited Riley Coles, a student campaigner from the University of Bradford, down to Coventry to speak in support of the motion as they had recently introduced all-gender toilets at Bradford SU (you can hear Riley’s side of the story here). In turn, I was invited to speak in support of all-gender toilet policies at various Student Unions, including at Manchester and Sheffield as well as Bradford.

Trans Access Needs

Proposer: Ruth Pearce
Seconder: [name redacted]

This Union Notes

1)	Its own equal opportunities policy.
2)	The Sex Discrimination Act 1976, that makes its unlawful to discriminate against gender, and the Sex Discrimination Regulations 1999, that make it unlawful to discriminate against people intending or undergoing gender reassignment.
3)	Sex, biologically, is not a straightforward issue as many are born with an ambiguous sex and gender is not binary.
4)	That gender is self-defined, as recognised by Union institutions.
5)	That trans people are widely discriminated against, facing ignorance, harassment and sometimes violence.
6)	Warwick has a hidden population of trans students, including those who are transsexed and those who identify as genderqueer, and there are no doubt also intersex students.
7)	Trans students at Warwick are currently forced to use gender specific facilities when some have an ambiguous appearance that invites discrimination, whilst others do not identify within the gender binary.
8)	That the NUS LGBT liberation campaign recently passed a motion to campaign for gender-neutral toilets in all educational institutions and student unions.

This Union Believes

1)	Trans people should have the right to use the facilities they are most comfortable with, free of discrimination and harassment.
2)	Confining gender to a binary distinction discriminates against students unable to define as only either male or female.
3)	The availability of gender-appropriate facilities is an access issue, as trans students may be reluctant to make use of the Student Union buildings due to a lack of facilities that they would feel safe and comfortable using.
4)	Both those trans students who identify as neither male nor female and those transsexed students who are transitioning in their social role from one apparent gender to another would benefit greatly from the existence of gender-neutral toilets.
5)	That gender-neutral toilets may also be made use of by cisgender (non-trans) students.
6)	That moves towards making gender-neutral toilets available by student bodies in USA institutions and UK universities such as Bradford and Sussex provide a positive precedent that deserves following.
7)	That the redevelopment of Union South provides an unapparelled opportunity for the provision of gender-neutral toilets in the Students’ Union, given the extortionate cost of creating them under normal circumstances.

This Union Resolves

1)	To provide accessible toilet facilities for trans people as well as exploring the possibility of gender-neutral toilet facilities.
2)	To publicise the existence of these provisions, their locations, and the reasons for them at the beginning of every year.
3)	To make feminine hygiene services available in these facilities in a similar manner to in the female toilets, for those trans students with particular needs associated with the female sex, and female students who choose to use  them.
4)	To mandate the Students’ Union to campaign for the provision of gender-neutral toilet facilities in the University.
5)	To support all trans students who wish to use the facilities appropriate to their gender, whether these facilities are gender-neutral or gender-specific.

What we rapidly realised was that having a policy isn’t the same as achieving an outcome. NUS LGBT introduced numerous policies at its conference every year, and student officers simply didn’t have time to campaign on all of them. Moreover, at the time the campaign was dominated primarily by cis gay men and lesbians. Consequently, all-gender toilets were not to become an NUS LGBT campaign priority until the 2010s.

Similarly, having a policy at Warwick SU did not translate into the immediate introduction of all-gender toilets in the SU building, let alone across the university campus. It took a concerted campaign across many years to make that happen, involving innumerable staff and students. All-gender toilets were first introduced in odd corners of the SU building, then occasionally elsewhere on campus, and then gradually in new buildings before being more widely rolled out. This process took well over a decade.

In opening up new conversations about toilets, we rapidly realised that all-gender toilets were not just beneficial to trans and gender non-conforming people. For example, single parents benefited from being able to accompany young children of a different gender into facilities, and carers could do the same with people they cared for.

Equally, we knew that all-gender toilets were not appropriate for all people. Some women and men do not share gendered spaces for religious reasons. Women and girls who have experienced male harassment and violence may also not wish to share spaces with men. We therefore campaigned for an “additive” approach, with all-gender toilets available alongside women’s and men’s facilities: the approach eventually adopted by the University of Warwick.

Additionally, some service providers sought to introduce all-gender toilets at the expense of disabled people, much to our frustration. If single-cubicle “accessible” toilets are the only all-gender toilets available, it can increase the number of people using these facilities, to the detriment of disabled people who require them. We therefore urged university bodies that this was not an adequate solution.

These issues were explored in detail in a briefing published by West Midlands Area NUS (WMANUS) in 2007. This document also included a series of sample arguments in favour of all-gender toilets, case study examples of their implementation, and model motions for Students’ Unions. I also included a section on toilets in the Under Construction: Trans Students guide I wrote for the NUS in 2008.

By 2009 I started my postgraduate studies and took a step back from toilet campaigns. However, there was no shortage of new activists to step into the breach. There are too many to name them all, but one of the key figures has been Sam Parr, who continues to push for more accessible toilets for all on the University of Warwick campus through endless meetings and consultation exercises.

By the mid-2010s, all-gender toilets could be found on many university campuses and other public buildings, including at Warwick. In 2017, when I organised a conference about the gender equality scheme Athena SWAN, I was delighted hear a conversation among a group of cis equality and diversity workers about how best to make the case for all-gender toilet provision at their institution.

Meanwhile, when I spoke to a new generation of student activists, I began to hear complaints around how some campaigners focused too much on toilets as an “easy” campaign priority, rather than tackling issues such as trans healthcare, employment, and housing. Certainly, an all-gender toilet will not put food on your plate or a roof above your head. They must be part of a wider struggle for liberation.

Still, that struggle continues. So I was delighted to hear from colleagues this week that sanitary bins will soon be available in all toilets across campus at the University of Warwick, especially for the benefit of trans and/or disabled men who might require them in men’s facilities. You can see a reference to this idea in our original 2007 policy, albeit with some pretty awkward phrasing!

Trans histories tend to be forgotten. They are frequently not written down, and are often lost due to a lack of intergenerational contact. The only way we can change that is through sharing our stories and building back our history. I hope this post can help with that a little.

I have not named numerous individuals involved in the campaigns I describe in this post as I am aware that doing so could result in harassment. However, if you see yourself in this story and would like to be named, please let me know and I will gladly edit this post to credit your work!

Trans inequalities in English perinatal care

About a month ago I participated in the TPATH conference. This groundbreaking online event centred trans healthcare practice, research, and activism by and for trans people.

I was very impressed with the measures taken by TPATH organisers to ensure the conference was accessible to as many people as possible from around the world. They organised live translation to and from English, French, and Spanish, provided live captioning, encouraged presenters to speak slowly and clearly to enable lipreading, and ensured that generous scholarships were available for those who would not otherwise afford to attend. Most of the event was recorded, and videos are gradually being uploaded to the TPATH Youtube channel.

At the conference I joined Tash Oakes-Monger from NHS England to present initial findings from the ITEMS project (Improving Trans Experiences of Maternity Services). The ITEMS team, led by Michael Petch from the LGBT Foundation, ran a survey in early 2021 to explore the experiences of trans people (including non-binary people) who give birth in England. I supported the design and dissemination of the survey through my former role with the Trans Learning Partnership.

Bar chart indicating that increasing numbers of trans and non-binary people are giving birth in England every year.
Bar chart indicating growth in number of trans people giving birth in England each year.


There is some really exciting information emerging from the ITEMS data. For example, it appears that more trans people are giving birth than ever before (see above). However, it was also apparent that trans people face substantial inequalities.

Many of the questions in the ITEMS survey used comparable wording to the CQC Maternity Survey – from this we can see that trans people appear more likely to have negative experiences in NHS maternity services than cis women across the board. Even more disturbing is that 30% of trans respondents gave birth without the support of an NHS or private midwife (rising to 46% among trans people of colour). This indicates a lack of trust in midwifery services among prospective trans birth parents, with potentially lethal consequences for both parent and baby.

To learn more, you can watch our presentation on the TPATH Youtube channel.

A formal report of ITEMS findings should be published in the coming months.

Come to our wormboys gig on Sat 19!

I’m more excited than I can possibly say to be playing an Actual Live Show this very weekend, with my bosum pals in wormboys. We will be tearing up the stage at the Boileroom in Guildford as part of their Pride month series.

The event will be livestreamed from 7pm UK time so you can come along and have a little dance from wherever you are! There are also a very small number of tickets available for a socially distanced in-person audience.

GET YER TICKETS HERE!
(pay what you can)

Photograph of four people playing rock music enthusiastically.

We will be supported by the fabulous electropop artist ZOZËY. Other events in the Boileroom’s Pride Month series include a full band show from Annabel Allum on Friday 18th June, and a creative showcase with Andriah Arrindell, Harley Mary, and Simone Catellitto on Sunday 20th June.

New roles: University of Glasgow and CATS

I am very excited to announce that I will be starting a new job at the University of Glasgow this summer!

I have been appointed Lecturer in Community Development at the School of Education. I will be teaching and conducting research on a range of topics relating to social justice theory and movements, community action, and collective empowerment. This will build on my previous work on topics including trans health, queer music scenes, and gender inequalities in Higher Education.

St Andrew’s Building, University of Glasgow

I am also delighted to have been appointed Senior Fellow at the Center for Applied Transgender Studies (CATS) in Chicago. As a Fellow at the Center I intend to collaborate with international colleagues in conducting and disseminating impactful research by and for trans people and communities.

All of this does however mean that sadly I will be leaving my current role as Research Coordinator at the Trans Learning Partnership. We have achieved an enormous amount with this new partnership over the last year, including co-production of community research priorities, design and pilot of shared data collection, participation in public consultations and advisory groups, and support work around groundbreaking research with trans birth parents in England. I wish my former colleagues all the best with their future work, and fully intend to continuing collaborating with them as a university-based researcher.

Open letter to Nuffield Council on Bioethics

Last month I recieved an email from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, inviting me to respond to their new open call for evidence on “the care and treatment of children and adolescents in relation to their gender identity“.

Below is my intial response to the call. I am sharing it publicly for transparency, and to address the unequal power dynamic in which trans people and our families have been asked to produce evidence (without remuneration) for a project which may have an enormous impact on our lives, which we have no control over.

I argue that the design of the project is fundamentally unethical due to this power imbalance, and in the way it positions trans knowledge as equivalent to the views of those who have called for our “elimination”. I therefore call on the Nuffield Council on Bioethics to reconsider their approach to this highly sensitive project.

Dear Professor Archard,

I am writing to you in your role as Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics working group on The care and treatment of children and adolescents in relation to their gender identity in the UK.

In this open letter, I explain my objections to the unethical design and implementation of this project, and request that you reconsider your approach. This letter is written in a personal capacity, drawing on my professional knowledge and personal experience of dysphoria and transition in my adolescence.

I am the author of numerous peer-reviewed publications on topics including trans health and ethical research methodologies, including the monograph Understanding Trans Health (Policy Press, 2018); I have also edited two books and special issues of Sexualities and the International Journal of Transgender Health. I have been asked to speak about my work at over 40 invited talks and keynotes across the world in the last 5 years alone, and have provided expert advice and consultancy to organisations such as the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the Equality Challenge Unit.

In the 2000s, I worked alongside other young trans people as an elected representative within the National Union of Students and as an activist in Trans Youth Network. I began my social transition at the age of 16 without any direct support from my family or medical practitioners: a lonely and difficult experience I believe no young person should have to go through.

I have chosen to publicly share this letter in light of the enormous power differential between your working group and the people who will be impacted by its findings; and the manner in which trans people’s needs and contributions to knowledge have been largely ignored by the working group to date.

1. Nothing About Us Without Us

The social justice principle of ‘nothing about us without us’, articulates the importance of directly involving people in debates and policymaking relevant to their lives, especially where their voices have historically been marginalized. It originated in the South African disability rights movement,[1] and parallels critiques of colonialist knowledge production.[2] It is highly relevant to trans experience,[3] especially to young trans people who are disabled, Black or people of colour, who are the most likely to encounter severe systemic barriers to support.[4]

Trans people are deeply impacted by policy, practice, and public discourse relating to matters such as gender dysphoria, incongruence and transition. However, our knowledge is often actively erased, or more simply absent from formal accounts produced by non-trans actors. This has historically resulted in significant harm being inflicted on vulnerable individuals, particularly young trans people. Established best practice for trans health research therefore requires work to be grounded, from inception to dissemination, in meaningful collaboration with community stakeholders.[5] This may entail, for example, significant trans representation on project steering groups, and co-production of research questions.

The working group for this project does not include a single openly trans person, let alone a diversity of trans experience. The very questions asked in the call for evidence demonstrate a basic lack of familiarity with trans lives and our history of exploitation by medical professionals. Trans people have been invited to give evidence for this project and to participate in your earlier exploratory meetings, but we have no actual power within your process. We are made into objects of study, not authors of our own experience.

The project is therefore missing vital expertise and context, both in the design of the call for evidence, and any subsequent analysis of responses. When the working group’s findings are reported, they will represent yet another influential intervention into public debate by non-trans individuals with no direct understanding of what it is actually like to be a young person with dysphoria and/or considering a social or medical transition.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics are reproducing, once again, the power imbalance that has dominated trans medicine for the past two centuries.[6] To paraphrase bell hooks, you are proposing to talk about us better than we can talk about ourselves, taking our pain and our stories and then telling them back to the world in a way that does not necessarily reflect our actual experiences.[7] 

I therefore urge the working group to reflect on the ethical implications of explicitly excluding trans people, and especially multiply-marginalised young trans people, from oversight of a project that may have profound consequences for our lives.


2. Moral panic, misinformation, and dangerous alliances

The project’s open call for evidence has been disseminated amidst a growing anti-trans moral panic. From 2017 we have seen the emergence of numerous new anti-trans campaign groups, bolstered by hostile commentary and misinformation in the media and on social media. This is just one part of a wider, international “anti-gender” movement, which is linked to white supremacist conspiracy theories, and threatens to undermine civil rights and access to medical services for women and LGBTIQ people.[8]

Without diverse trans leadership, I have no confidence that the working group has the necessary understanding of this context or the way in which it will inevitably shape the responses you receive.

There are important debates to be had around approaches to social support and/or medical intervention for young trans people and others exploring their gender. These cannot take place in a nuanced or fully informed manner when views informed by moral panic are given as much weight as evidence from young people themselves, their families, and the professionals who support them.

The dangerous ignorance of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in relation to these matters is exhibited in your response to an exploratory series of meetings held with numerous parties in 2019. Reported areas of agreement from participants consist of platitudes such as “the needs and well-being of young  people should always be the central focus”. [9] The Council’s press release on this topic quotes Heather Brunskell-Evans,[10] a co-founder of the Women’s Human Rights Campaign, which in 2020 called explicitly for the ‘elimination’ of ‘transgenderism’.[11] In her opposition to trans people, Brunskell-Evans has extensively promoted the work of conspiracy theorist Jennifer Bilek,[12] whose writing I believe is clearly antisemitic: she argues ‘transgender ideology’ is being institutionalised by a coalition of Jewish billionaires.[13] She co-signed an submission to the United Nations alongside groups such as the Heritage Foundation, a US thinktank whose members have openly supported conversion therapy and discrimination against LGBTIQ people.[14] 

There is no dispassionate, ethical middle ground to be found between those who wish to support young people to explore their identities and needs, and eliminationists who have openly aligned themselves with racist, homophobic, and transphobic rhetoric.

3. Coercive consultations

In written and oral evidence presented to the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee in December 2020, I observed that many trans people are exhausted from a bewildering array of consultations and calls for evidence which have taken place in the UK since 2015.

In addition to the 2020 Women and Equalities Committee inquiry on Reform of the Gender Recognition Act, these include (but are not limited to):

‘The Women and Equalities Committee Transgender Equality Inquiry (2015), an NHS England consultation on Specialist Gender Identity Services for Adults (2015), NHS England and NHS Scotland consultations on Specialised Gender Identity Services for Adults (2017), two consultations on Gender Recognition Reform in Scotland (2017-18 and 2019-20), a consultation on Reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 across the UK (2018), a Scottish Parliament inquiry into transgender healthcare provisions (2019), and an NHS England independent review of gender identity services for children and young people (2020). Additionally, over the summer of 2020 trans organisations scrambled to respond to a report in The Sunday Times that the Government intended to introduce new restrictions on trans people’s access to single-sex spaces.’[15]

Few tangible benefits have arisen from any of these. Participation is usually a highly stressful experience for individuals navigating the daily onslaught of the anti-trans moral panic, and depletes precious time and resources from poorly-funded, overstretched trans voluntary sector organisations.

Consequently, many young people and their families will feel unable or unwilling to participate in your call for evidence, especially at just two months’ notice. I have spoken personally with parents who describe the pain of explaining to their children that previous evidence they gave to authority figures has simply been ignored. You have done nothing to build trust with these families before inviting them to participate in another such process.

Simultaneously, other trans individuals and organisations feel we have little choice but to participate. Since 2017 especially, we know that if we do not, the material received in response to the consultation or call for evidence will primarily be submitted by people who hate us, including racists, misogynists, and homophobes adept at positioning their prejudices as ‘reasonable concerns’.

This was the context in which I participated in one of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ exploratory meetings in 2019. It is the context in which I will support colleagues in submitting a formal response to the current call for evidence on the care and treatment of children and adolescents in relation to their gender identity.

We respond not with hope or optimism, but in fear. This is the power you wield over us.


I therefore call on the working group to reconsider their approach to this project, and take into account the harm you have already caused. I recommend you halt the current call for evidence, and ensure the working group for the project includes individuals with relevant expertise from lived experience and knowledge of the wider political context in which you are operating.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Ruth Pearce


[1] Charlton JI (2000) Nothing about Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment, Berkeley: University of California Press.

[2] Yarbrough D (2020) “Nothing About Us Without Us”: Reading Protests against Oppressive Knowledge Production as Guidelines for Solidarity Research, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 49(1): 58-85.

[3] Scheim AI, Apprenroth MN, Beckham SW, Goldstein Z, Grinspan MC, Keatley JG, and Radix A (2019) 
Transgender HIV research: nothing about us without us, Lancet HIV, 6(9): e566-e567.

[4] Gill-Peterson J (2018) Histories of the Transgender Child, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press;
Murray E (2019) Trans Rights and Disability: The Wrong Decisions, Available at:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3c1cJPgFSnw

[5] Adams A, Pearce R, Veale J, Radix A, Castro D, Sarkar A, and Thom KC (2017) Guidance and Ethical Considerations for Undertaking Transgender Health Research and Institutional Review Boards Adjudicating this Research, Transgender Health, 2(1): 165-175; Bauer G, Devor A, heinz m, Marshall Z, Pullen-Sansfaçon A, and Pyne J (2019) CPATH Ethical Guidelines for Research Involving Transgender People & Communities, Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health, Available at: http://cpath.ca/en/resources/; Vincent BW (2017) Studying trans: recommendations for ethical recruitment and collaboration with transgender participants in academic research, Psychology & Sexuality, 9(2): 102-116.

[6] Pearce R (2018) Understanding trans health: Discourse, power and possibility, Bristol: Policy Press.

[7] hooks b (1990) Marginality as a Site of Resistance, in: R Ferguson, M Gever, TT Minh-ha (eds) Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[8] Darakchi S (2019) “The Western Feminists Want to Make Us Gay”: Nationalism, Heteronormativity, and Violence Against Women in Bulgaria in Times of “Anti-gender Campaigns”, Sexuality & Culture, 23: 1208-1229; Hemmings C (2021) Unnatural feelings: The affective life of ‘anti-gender’ mobilisations, Radical Philosophy, RP 2.09, Available at: https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/commentary/unnatural-feelings; Horbury E and Yao C (2020) Empire and Eugenics: Trans Studies in the United Kingdom, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 7(3): 445-454; Pearce R, Erikainen S, and Vincent B (2020) TERF Wars: An introduction, The Sociological Review, 68(4): 677-698.

[9] https://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/assets/pdfs/Summary-of-exploratory-meetings-gender-identity-FINAL.pdf

[10] https://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/news/the-care-and-treatment-of-young-people-in-relation-to-their-gender-identity

[11] WHRC (2020) Submission to Women and Equalities Committee on Reform of the Gender Recognition Act, Available at: https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/17510/pdf/.

[12] An example from Twitter:  https://web.archive.org/web/20200418185530if_/https://twitter.com/brunskellevans/status/1251582754678079491

[13] Trans Safety Network, Transphobic Feminism and Far Right Activism Rapidly Converging, Available at: https://transsafety.network/posts/gcs-and-the-right/

[14] WOLF (2021) Submission to the United Nations Independent Experton Sexual Orientation And Gender Identity, Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20210315233629/https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5f232ea74d8342386a7ebc52/t/604e7b4a6d35051754210ccb/1615756106628/UN+Gender+Consult+Submission+-+WoLF+-+March+14th+2021.pdf

[15] Trans Learning Partnership (2020) Submission to Women and Equalities Committee on Reform of the Gender Recognition Act, Available at: https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/17072/pdf/

Trans Visibility, Modelling Possibility

Lost for words

The first time I knowingly met someone who was almost certainly trans I didn’t have the language to understand what was happening. It was pretty awkward for us both.

I must have been 15 or 16 or so, circa 2002. I was at a house party where I didn’t know many people. I felt awkward and out of place. I’d turned up with a small group of friends who all seemed far cooler than I’d ever be, and they’d mostly wandered off to Do Gender and make out with each other heterosexually. I awkwardly wandered around, quietly observing people, far too shy to start a conversation. I have blurry memories of dark corridors, drunken teens, a small living room full of scary-looking hairy people listening to System of a Down.

And then I came across this…person.

I read her voice and appearance as male – but her friends used a female name and pronoun for her. Looking back, I’m pretty sure she was a trans girl early in transition, and all her cis mates had her back – as mine would a mere year or so later.

I saw something in her which I immediately recognised, but didn’t know what to call it. I desperately wanted to speak with her, but didn’t know what to say.

I think what I wanted to express was, “I am like you”. But dozens of awkward online searches for phrases like “boy who wants to be a girl” hadn’t quite yet led me to the magic word, transgender. So what I actually said was,

“So what’s with the boy-girl thing?”

Understandably, she didn’t really want to chat. If someone said the same to me after I came out to myself properly a few months later, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to speak with them either.

Portrait of the Artist as an Egg


Gerroff my lawn

The present moment is pretty awful for trans people. Here in the UK, we are now about four years into an extended moral panic over our very existence. It’s like a continual background noise we can never escape: constant misinformation from politicians and the press; attempts to ban us from sports, public toilets, women’s shelters, and rape crisis centres; unrelenting attacks on affirmative healthcare for trans people, especially trans youth.

I therefore often feel quite cynical about recent innovations such as Trans Day of Visibility (or TDOV, for those who enjoy a sexy acronym). As so many trans writers have observed, visibility is not always a positive thing for trans people, especially those such as Black trans women who face multiple marginalisation. The context of our visibility is shaped by neoliberal economics and the violent legacy of colonialism.

Visibility means danger. Visibility means we are seen by those who would cause us harm in the streets and in the halls of power. Visibility puts a target on our back.

Events such as TDOV can also serve as a site of tokenism and appropriation. Trans visibility all too easily becomes a commodity for those who wish to sell us ideas or products, or sell the idea of us to other people. For example, this morning Labour and the Women’s Equality Party released short, empty statements to “celebrate” TDOV, despite having allowed virulent transphobia to fester within their structures.

In the midst of all this, it can be easy to lose sight of just how far we have come – and how important visibility can be for our liberation.


Choosing visibility

When I first came out, I was lonely beyond words.

Part of the reason it took me so long was that there weren’t really any visible examples of trans lives available to me, let alone examples of trans art, culture, writing. It was so hard to find myself because it was so hard to find community. When I was at that party, and met that other trans girl, I knew I was something but it was hard to find what out what that thing was. We didn’t hear about people like us in school or on TV – unless I was somehow meant to be the pathetic sex-change taxi driver from The League of Gentlemen or the glamorous but deceptive villain from Ace Ventura.

Of course, vibrant trans communities long pre-dated the early 2000s, but there was no way for me to know that. They simply weren’t visible for me – until I finally stumbled onto transvestite and transsexual communities on the internet, and then eventually found other trans teens.

Online communities were a lifeline for me – but I still didn’t knowingly meet other trans people until several years into my transition (it did later turn out that one of my best friends was also trans, but that’s another story). I felt very held by the people around me, but also felt there was no-one to talk with in person who truly understood what was happening for me and why. When I turned to the NHS for help, I was refused a gender clinic referral until I was 18. It’s no wonder so many people from my generation who knew they were trans as kids didn’t come out until a lot later.

At 19, I went to university – and went stealth. I thought it was what we were supposed to do. I thought it was what I wanted. To be seen as a “real” girl, for no-one to know I was trans. In practice, it was…complicated. I certainly felt a lot safer, and experienced a lot less harassment. But I still didn’t get access to hormones until I was 20, and found it really scary hiding my body and my history when living in student halls. I disclosed my trans history to a few close friends, but was constantly worrying about who else “knew” and what that might mean for me.

One of the few places I disclosed my trans status was the student LGBTUA society. I joined as the only known trans member, and agreed to be a point of contact for other trans students on condition of anonymity. That, it turned out, was enough for me to finally find community.

I was barely visible – but visible enough. Other trans people made contact and started coming out on campus. We began to run our own events and put up posters with the trans symbol and an email address, emblazoned with the slogan “YOU ARE NOT ALONE”. I went to NUS conferences and met more trans people and we started campaigning for all-gender toilet provision and legal protections. The more visible we were, the more people came out, and the more people became involved in our communities and activism, which meant we became more visible again.

At 21, I decided to disclose my trans identity to everyone in my life. It was a personal decision – to move past the paranoia and shame of stealth and instead embrace trans pride. But it was also a political decision – to be more visible to other trans people.

Possibility models

Trans actress Laverne Cox has spoken extensively about “possibility models” – the idea that seeing other trans people shows you that trans life is possible. Not just in terms of being out, but in terms of doing things while trans. Unlike a “role model”, a possibility model gives people space to find their own path, their own possibilities, rather than base their ambitions directly on the achievements of another.

Leeds Pride 2019

For me, the real power of trans visibility lies in the potential we hold to build community, and to act as possibility models. To know we have value to one another. To know we have the potential to create and inspire: to write, to draw, to paint, to act, to speak, to love, to be loved, to simply be.

This isn’t about our potential value to cis culture, as scapegoats or inspiration porn. It’s about our actual value to one another.

This has to be a collective movement. If trans visibility is just about individual “success”, then inevitably many of the most visible trans people will be those who are more privileged. We have to lift one another up – and those of us who benefit from whiteness or citizenship or being middle-class or being abled need to think about how we can account for that, signal boost other people from our communities, or sometimes step aside from an opportunity. The whole point of trans visibility is for every trans person to see themselves as possible.

This is where the real potential lies with Trans Day of Visibility. I will never forget the overwhelming awkwardness of trying to speak yourself into existence when you simply don’t have the language available to you, when you don’t see anyone like you in the world to show that your future is possible. In spite of everything, the world has changed for the better for trans people over the last two decades. It’s no wonder that more of us are coming out than ever, at earlier ages too.

Let’s carry on changing the world together.

Trans Day of Visibility events

I am doing a couple of events for Trans Day of Visibility (Wednesday 31 March).


Katy Montgomerie’s TDOV livestream

I’ll be joining Katy Montgomerie‘s TDOV livestream, in which she will “talk to a load of cool trans people about whatever!” I’m dropping by for the start of the event at circa 19:00 BST (British Summer Time) – join us for chill times, and stick around for conversations with a load of great trans thinkers, writers, and Youtubers. You can watch through the link below:


Spectra Interview

I did an interview with Joanne Espada for Spectra’s Trans Programme. We spoke about the Trans Learning Partnership, the background to my research work, and my decision to become “visibly” trans in my mid-20s after several years living stealth. You can watch the full thing through the link below!

Womxn in Music: Friday 5 March

Promotional image for the Womxn in Music event hosted by the Boileroom. It features Lesley-Anne O'Brian playing guitar, Ruth Pearce singing and pointing, and Nuha Ruby Ra looking moody and intense.

I am speaking on a panel on Womxn in Music this coming Friday! The event is being streamed by Guildford venue The Boileroom as part of a super cool series in the runup to International Women’s Day. I expect to be speaking a bit about DIY culture, my research on queer and trans politics within punk scenes, and experiences of playing in bands and running events.

I’ll be in conversation with Nuha Ruby Ra, who will also be performing a live set, plus Lesley-Anne O’Brien of Lockjaw Records and Midwich Cuckoos.

You can book tickets for free here (or for a donation to the venue – which definitely helps in Covid times!)

Pre-order: Arts, Culture and Community Development

Cover of the book Arts, Culture, and Community Development.

I’m excited to announce that I have a new essay on prefiguration in queer and feminist punk coming out this summer. It’s co-authored with Kirsty Lohman, with whom I have previously conducted research on trans music scenes, and will be published in the book Arts, Culture, and Community Development, edited by Rosie R Meade and Mae Shaw.

Prefiguration is the act of modelling the changes you want to see in the world. Kirsty and I argue this can happen when marginalised people create their own cultural spaces, and facilitate access to these spaces for others who are often denied access to artistic and political expression.

Pre-order Arts, Culture and Community Development from Policy Press

Our essay is featured alongside chapters by a range of authors from around the world, reflecting on how art and cultural practice are meaningful to community groups in Lebanon, Latin America, China, Ireland, India, and Sri Lanka as well as the UK.

GRA reform: my evidence to Parliament

In December 2020 I was invited to present oral evidence to the Women and Equalities Commons Select Committee, as part of their Inquiry into proposed reforms of the Gender Recognition Act. This material is now available through the UK Parliament website.

Oral evidence: video

Oral evidence: transcript

I also submitted more extensive written evidence as part of the Trans Learning Partnership. This document was co-authored with colleagues at Gendered Intelligence, the LGBT Foundation, and Spectra, plus Goldsmiths researcher Dr Anna Carlile.

Reform of the Gender Recognition Act: Written evidence submitted by the Trans Learning Partnership

We argued that the Government’s proposed changes for those wishing to change the sex marker on their birth certificates – reducing the fee and moving the form online – are deeply insufficient, and will make the process neither “kinder” nor “more straightforward. An ideal approach would be a free and simple process based on the principle of self-declaration, rather than medical diagnosis and the provision of extensive documentary evidence. This should be available to non-binary people and under-18s as well as adult trans women and men. We also discussed the possibility of decertification (that is, the feminist principle of removing legal sex altogether) and the damage caused by Parliament’s poor handling of the “gender recognition” debate.