Stonewall and its representatives have been taking increasingly bizarre decisions in recent months. I recently wrote about the furore caused by Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill’s surprising comments at the Liberal Democrat party conference, where he argued against campaigning for equal marriage. Since then, a number of heated exchanges have taken place between the organisation and its critics: a good summary of some of these can be found in the Why the silence Stonewall? blog. Meanwhile, the charity’s attitude towards trans issues has been questioned once again after the organisation nominated a transphobic journalist for its Journalist of the Year award (hmmm, this sounds familiar), whilst at the Labour Party conference Summerskill claimed that Stonewall has been in talks with ministers and officials about potential amendments to the Gender Recognition Act in relation to civil partnership.
This last point is particularly strange. Why are Stonewall – an organisation who are so very keen to exclude trans people and remain LGb only – involved in trans lobbying? Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of any move towards Stonewall becoming an LGBT organisation at the very least (more on that later), but surely if they’re engaging in this kind of deeply important, high-profile lobbying on our behalf then they should damn well let us be a part of their organisation and officially campaign on our behalf. Otherwise, who knows what the heck they’re saying? For that matter, what right do they have to speak for us? Shouldn’t we be able to speak for ourselves?
It may well be the case that the “large” trans organisations (which, in the broad scheme of the third sector, really are very small) don’t have the power to push a trans-positive agenda on the scale they’d like to and have somehow managed to rope Stonewall into helping us out. For me, this is a perfect argument in favour of a united LGBT alliance, rather than separate groups where the LGb inevitably gets the power and the T ends up left out in the cold, despite our ultimately similar interests.
This brings me nicely onto the main subject of this blog: another instance of Stonewall deciding that they’re going to speak out about trans issues. On this occasion, they demonstrate how attempting to speak for someone else can backfire magnificently.
Earlier this year, Stonewall sent out a copy of “Fit” to every school in Britain as part of a wider campaign to tackle homophobic bullying in schools. On the whole, the DVD – like the rest of the campaign – is admirable in its aims, scope, and general thoughtfulness. This is something which they’ve (almost!) done really well. However, for some incomprehensible reason the people who put together the DVD decided that it would be appropriate to include a brief discussion of trans issues.
The main content of the DVD consists of a story about sexuality, identity and bullying, involving a fairly large cast of teenagers who attend a 6th form college. This central narrative is split into a number of smaller stories, each focusing based around a particular character; the brief discussion of trans issues takes part within one such story. In this scene, Lee – a tomboy who has previously discovered that her best friend is gay after following her – attends a gay youth group for the first time. Whilst she is there, the following discussion takes place:
Male 1 [is talking about his mother]: “She keeps saying: ‘but you don’t look gay’. I think that she wishes I was a tranny, so then we could be girlfriends.”
Lee: “What’s a tranny?”
Female 1: “It’s short for transgender.”
Female 2: “I know this one! Transsexuals are people who want a sex change, tranvestites are people who dress up as the opposite sex. Drag kings and queens – well they dress up for a living!”
Lee: [looks confused] “I need to take some notes, has anyone got a pen like?”
[Lee is given a pen]
Lee: “So what’s a transsexual?”
Female 3: “Boys who feel more like girls and girls who feel more like boys.”
Female 3: “Well, they feel content with their born gender, but prefer to wear the clothes of the opposite sex.”
Lee: “So am I a transvestite?”
Female 2: “No. Lots of girls are tomboys when they’re young, then they grow out of it.”
Female 4: “I didn’t! I’m a total boy and I love it!”
Female 2: “…and I’m not a boy, I like being a girl.”
Female 4: “…and that’s fine too! Look, there’s as many way to be a girl as there are girls.”
[The conversation then turns to the issue of gay marriage. The group seems to be broadly in favour, and they think civil partnerships are an unfair compromise.]
[Edit: the inappropriate scene can now be seen here on Youtube]
In a different context – let’s say a random TV drama – this scene would make me cringe a bit but I wouldn’t think much more of it. After all, general cluelessness about trans stuff is pretty much par for course, and in the broad scheme of things this particular instance isn’t so bad. Within the context of a DVD that seeks to tackle homophobic bullying, however, this is completely out of order.
“Fit” handles homophobic insults and the common negative use of words such as “gay” in a pretty nuanced manner, putting all kinds of nasty language into its characters’ mouths and then carefully demonstrating how this impacts the beliefs and actions of others. At the same time, you learn how gay teenagers might think and feel through empathasising with gay characters.
By contrast, the tokenistic discussion of trans issues takes place in a setting where there are apparently no trans characters (Lee remains a tomboy of sorts throughout the narrative and her sexuality is somewhat ambiguous, but at no point is it seriously implied that she identifies as trans in any way because of this). We are portrayed as an alien “Other”, a topic of discussion which cis characters claim they know all about even though they get it wrong. And no-one addresses these mistakes at any point.
To the trans reader, said mistakes may be pretty obvious, but this might not necessarily be the case for cis readers. As such, here’s a brief low-down of some of the issues:
1) “Tranny” is very much a contested word. It’s commonly used as an insult by tabloid newspapers, idiotic bloggers and random arseholes on the street: as such it has a similar sting to words such as “faggot”. It’s a word with a lot of power to cause pain: something that simply isn’t acknowledged when a character in “Fit” blithely asserts that it’s “short for transgender”. Which it isn’t, anyway…it can be levelled at pretty much any given trans (or trans-looking) target, although transfeminine individuals tend to suffer from this most commonly. There are trans people who reclaim “tranny” as a positive identity. I personally support this, although I wouldn’t do so myself. However, I think it’s always important to be very aware of context when such words are used. Putting them randomly in the mouths of cis characters in this way is pretty damn inappropriate.
2) “Fit” demonstrates the complexity of sexual identity, showing how gay (and straight!) people all look different, act differently and have different interests. It even acknowledges (a little) that bisexuality exists, which has to be some kind of achievement for Stonewall. However, the brief descriptions of trans identities are incomplete, insufficient and somewhat inaccurate (try telling a trans guy that he’s a girl who feels like a boy and he’ll probably tell you to where to go). Moreover, these descriptions are binary-centric and fail to account for the further complexity of transness.
3) Where are the trans characters? As previously explained, this discussion pretty much consists of cis people talking about trans people…in complete contrast to the rest of the DVD, which is all about allowing the voices of gay people to be heard and their experiences to be seen.
I’m very much in favour of Stonewall becoming an LGBT organisation. LGBT people have many differences (and that doesn’t just refer to trans people being different to everyone else: gay men and gay women have some different issues, bi people have different issues again…) but there is a lot that brings us together. We have a shared history, and broadly shared experiences of discrimination and “coming out”. Looking at some of the other materials from Stonewall’s anti-bullying kit, I saw how easy it would have been to build in trans issues. Like gay children, trans children in schools are often bullied for appearing to subvert gender norms, are likely to feel isolated and alone and have difficulty explaining their identity to others when seeking help. Gay, bisexual and trans issues in school really are often quite similar, and we’d surely be better off pooling our knowledge and expertise to work on resources such as that produced by Stonewall rather than having separate LGB and T packs (on those very rare occasions where a trans organisation can afford to produce such a pack, that is).
What I’m certainly not in favour of is the kind of nonsense found in “Fit”. What gives Stonewall the right to exclude trans people from their organisation and then turn around and decide that they’re going to campaign ineffectively and inappropriate on our behalf, without our input?
As such, I’ll be demonstrating against Stonewall duplicity in London on 4th November. If you’re free and can make it to the protest, I hope you might be able to do so too.
(demo link for those who don’t use Facebook)