How it feels to be a trans feminist academic in 2018

Trans feminist symbol, designed by Helen GThis piece is based on an email I wrote, in response to a message about “smear campaigns against gender critical academics” on a feminist academic mailing list.

I have updated and posted it here in the final day of the Gender Recognition Act consultation in order to give my cis readers some idea of how the past few months – and especially the last few weeks – have felt.

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I would like to say something about how it feels to be a trans feminist academic right now, with the emergence of a growing number of “gender critical” voices in academia.

In the wake of Brexit and Trump, and with the renewed growth of far-right movements across the world, it seems that everyone feels empowered to speak out about their own personal prejudice. Trans issues are no exception.

When I first came out and transitioned as a teenager, almost two decades ago, one of the scariest things for me was using public toilets. Let that sink in for a moment. I was scared simply to use the toilet – for fear that people might shout at me, drag me out, maybe even beat me up. While that fear has dissipated for me, I have not been to a public swimming pool since my mid-teens, and have not even been swimming in the sea since my early 20s. This is because I am scared. I am scared of violent men, but I am also scared of violent women. Cis violence against trans people is a reality. I have an enormous amount of admiration and respect for trans people who are able to overcome this fear.

It was hard to come out in the early 2000s. There was an enormous amount of casual transphobia in the media. Guardian columnists wrote pieces such as “Gender Benders Beware”, TV programmes such as Little Britain and the League of Gentlemen were immensely popular, and 90s films such as Silence of the Lambs and Ace Ventura remained popular with my friends. Trans women were variously represented as a pathetic joke, a burly men in self-denial, deceptive liars or outright sexual predators.

Legislation such as the Gender Recognition Act 2004, Sex Discrimination Act Regulations 2008 and Equality Act 2010 were yet to see the right of day. It was therefore legal for employers and service providers to know all about my gender history; it was also legal to refuse to hire me because I was trans, fire me from a job because I was trans, deny me services and kick me out of shops, pubs, post offices, leisure centres (etc etc) because I was trans.

It was not easy to come out in this environment. There were exceptionally few openly trans people involved in public life – and none of them looked, sounded or acted much like me. I certainly hadn’t knowingly met any other trans people. I delayed coming out for years because I wasn’t sure if I was “really trans” (a phenomenon common among participants in my research). I thought that I might ruin my life. It was only the knowledge that my life would likely be ruined regardless, and the sheer awfulness of the alternative – becoming a man – that persuaded me to take the enormous step of coming out.

Consequently, I was very isolated during the first few years of my transition. I find it very hard to express how intensely lonely that experience was. Fortunately, my friends (mostly cis girls my own age) were immensely supportive, but it was difficult not to have any people with similar experiences to me to talk with. People who had a very deep complex relationship with our gendered movement through the social world, and/or our sexed bodies, such that we knew the assignation we received at birth was not right for us. People who felt a deep, deep relief upon transitioning socially and/or changing our bodies as appropriate.

It wasn’t until my 20s that I began to slowly, gradually meet trans people my own age – and what a relief that was! We could relax completely around one another, talk about our issues and experiences, reflect on our differences as well as our similarities. It was at this time that I encountered the term “trans bladder” – used to refer to the pain and urinary infections that could follow from not being able to use toilets outside of the home. Let that sink in.

I also began to realise the wider extent of the damage caused to other trans people by both external and internalised transphobia.

Many of my trans friends have attempted suicide, sometimes on multiple occasions. The first trans person I knew to take their own life was a member of a trans youth Internet message board I frequented when I was 16. Others would follow, including a housemate, whose body I discovered shortly before I was due to head into work to teach a class. When I see “gender critical” people disputing well-established trans suicide statistics, it feels like gaslighting. I know what happens in our communities when people are not affirmed and don’t have access to adequate support.

Other trans friends have experienced severe sexual violence, often in their youth, often in very public spaces such as school playgrounds. Trans people are at particular risk of various forms of sexual assault, violence, coercion and control – for example, 28% of trans respondents to a large Stonewall survey had experienced domestic abuse within the past year alone. When I see “gender critical” people talking about the supposed violent threat that trans women pose, I think about how when trans friends of mine are raped, our first conversation about accessing support is usually about whether or not it is safe for them to go to the local rape crisis centre. This is not something we can necessarily take for granted.

When academics and journalists “come out” as “gender critical”, scaremongering about changes to the law we have been fighting for for decades, representing trans women and girls as sexual predators, debating our access to legal rights and public spaces and women’s services, I wonder if they know who we are, what our stories are, what our experiences are like. Is it simply that they don’t know any trans people, that they are ignorant? Or is there a deeper cause for their hatred? Do they realise they sound less like feminists, and more like the fundamentalist religious right? (for an example of how fundamentalist Christians and “gender critical” feminists basically employ the same language and discursive anti-trans tropes, I recommend a look at the responses from organisations to the Scottish government’s recent consultation on gender recognition).

As for the notion that anti-trans campaigners are “gender critical”, and my use of inverted commas in my use of this term – I spent an enormous amount of time thinking about gender, sex and sexism as a teenager. I read about the social construction of gender, and it made sense to me as a concept, but it took me a long time and a lot of theorising to figure out how to make sense of that with relation to my own body and experiences. I began to figure out that sex was a social construct too, reflecting the construction of gender, many years before I would encounter the work of Emi Koyama and Judith Butler. In my 20s, I was heavily involved in the NUS Women’s Campaign, and I am now (among other things) a gender theorist. In recent years I have been interested as a scholar and campaigner in the drawbacks and possible benefits of gender equality schemes such as Athena SWAN, and the fight to tackle staff-on-student sexual misconduct.

People who object to pro-trans legislation and oppose our access to public space do not have a monopoly on being “gender critical”, any more than those who oppose abortion rights have a monopoly on being “pro life”.

The growing number of academics who hold “gender critical” positions wield an enormous amount of power over their trans students, and have the potential to cause an enormous amount of harm. There are more and more of these trans students every year – of course there are. The exponential growth in the visible trans population is an outcome of the assertiveness of trans activists, our increasing visibility in public life, and a more positive legislative environment. It was predicted on multiple occasions many years ago – by Lynn Conway in 2001, by GIRES in 2009 and 2011. This is the outcome of an invisible population gradually becoming visible – just as the number of young people prepared to be out as lesbian, gay and bisexual also continues to rise. This growth will, eventually, flatten out – but it will be a fair while before this happens, especially if the current backlash continues.

I hope that cis people reading this post reflect on what it feels like for me to be involved in feminist and women’s groups at this time, especially as conversations such as this become more common. It feels terrifying. I am petrified about where the discourse is heading within feminism as well as within the wider social world, and I am very scared about what might happen next, what violence might be perpetuated or excused in the supposed name of women’s rights.

I am hardly alone in this: I see trans friends freaking out en-masse every time I sign into social media. We know our history. Some of us survived Section 28. Many are also black, or disabled, or gay, or bi, or Jews or Muslims, or migrants. We know what happens when minority communities are scapegoated, and we know that the rise in transphobia is not an isolated phenomenon. We know that the most vulnerable among us are the easiest targets for hatred.

I worry every time I see a post goes up or message is written on a feminist Facebook group or blog or academic mailing list, every time somebody organises a feminist seminar or conference. I fear that someone will start raising “reasonable” concerns about my existence or civil rights, or lying about the supposed threat that I and others like me pose. For all that I move through the world as a woman, for all that I am a woman and have lived my entire life as a woman, for all that I am subject to sexism by clueless male colleagues and internalise the need to constantly apologise for myself at work, for all that I am harassed in public by men and fear male violence every time I leave work after dark, I start wondering what place I have in these groups. I start to wonder how many cis women think that somehow I am more privileged than them in terms of sex and gender even though I am subject to both sexism and transphobia. I wonder how many feminists hate me.

When “gender critical” blog posts are written or emails are sent, I feel like I have a choice. Either I respond – and it may well take the form of an essay like this – an enormous outflow of nervous energy, fear and anger, energy that I will not get back repeating stories I am quite frankly bored of telling. Or I may attempt to remain cool and rational, encouraging calm and thoughtful debate even as I attempt to stem the rising panic inside. Or I try to ignore the message, even as it plays on my mind for the rest of the day, rest of the week, rest of the month, knowing that the environment has become a little less safe for other trans people – and especially other trans women – and especially other trans women less privileged than myself.

Or I just leave these feminist groups and mailing lists and academic collectives, which is of course what “gender critical” women would like me to do.

But not today. Today I stay. Today I fight. And I do not do this alone. For I know also that the majority of women support our cause.

As ever, I do this with my sisters.

Solidarity.

WE ARE REVOLTING: my first Trans Pride

There are a couple of looks I am very familiar with as a trans person.

One is primarily a look of confusion. It is the kind of look you might expect to receive if you were wearing a boot on your head. You have disrupted the everyday order of things, and people don’t know how to respond.

One is primarily a look of disapproval, communicating a barely-contained sense of disgust or revulsion. It is the kind of look you might expect to receive if you have smeared shit all over your face and are walking down the street as if nothing is wrong. You have disrupted the everyday order of things, and people are very unimpressed, but perhaps aren’t quite yet ready to shout or spit at you. But you imagine that they would quite like to.

I’m very used to these looks because I have received them a lot over the course of my life. More often when I was younger, my face and body as yet unchanged by oestrogen. But I still receive such looks now and again to this day, particularly when I put less effort into conforming to stereotypical expectations about how a woman should look or carry herself. Perhaps I have put on less makeup, or I am wearing baggy clothes, or I haven’t brushed my hair for a couple of hours.

Other trans people – particularly other trans women, and especially trans women of colour – are less fortunate than me. People don’t just look at them. The looks are merely where it starts. Then people shout at them, or spit, or throw stones. People pinch their arses or grope their breasts. I hear these stories from my trans friends pretty regularly. It’s like everyday sexism with the volume turned up.

Other trans people – particularly other trans women, and especially trans women of colour – are less fortunate still. People stalk them. People assault them. People rape them. People kill them.

They do this because we are revolting.

It starts with a look. Call it the cis gaze.

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Today I saw so many looks of confusion and disapproval. I felt the revulsion. It was visceral. It was contained. It could not harm me. I was amongst hundreds like me.

Today I took part in a Trans Pride march for the first time.

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Waiting for a bus before the march. Photo by Sophie Wilson.

Trans people have, of course, taken part in LGBT Pride marches for as long as they have existed. Trans Pride marches, however, are a relatively new phenomenon. The first Trans Pride in the UK took place in Brighton in 2013.  I attended Trans Pride Leeds, which is in its first ever year.

I have previously marched in LGBT Pride parades in Birmingham and London, and attended Pride parties in Coventry and Leamington Spa. On these occasions, people throng the streets. There is a sense of celebration. There is a giant street party. People come out to see the happy gays. They mostly look on with enjoyment. It is a family affair.

At Birmingham Pride one year, I was stopped by a “community safety officer”, who objected to my placard. It was not family friendly, he said. If I didn’t destroy or cover it up, he would call a police officer and I would be arrested. At London Pride one year, some people sought to control entry to a women’s toilet, ejecting at least one trans woman in the process.

Trans people are not necessarily welcome at LGBT Pride events. Or, if we are, we are not as welcome as many of our cis gay, lesbian, bi and queer siblings. Or, if we are, we are not seen or celebrated in the same way. We are not as safely contained.

But: there are a lot more cis gay, lesbian bi and queer people at LGBT Pride than there are trans people. We disappear into the crowd. We cause less confusion. We bring less disapproval. We do not so easily revolt.

This is why Trans Pride is important. This is why Trans Pride is necessary.

 

 

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Today is Trans Day of Visibility, apparently. In the UK, trans people are more visible than ever.

Visibility has brought new dangers. We are currently subject to an unprecedented hate campaign in the media, spearheaded by “respectable” publications such as The Times and The New Statesman. On the Internet, we have attracted the dangerous attentions of a resurgent neo-nazi movement, their anti-trans campaigns bolstered by useful idiots who claim to oppose trans rights in the name of feminism.

Visibility has brought new opportunities. We see more of one another. We are more organised than ever. We have grassroots organisations in every city. We are producing art, music, plays, and films that speak to our own interests and concerns. We are marching in protest, we are marching in Pride. We seek gender liberation.

It will be a very long, very hard fight, but we are going to change the world.

We are revolting.

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Today I saw so many looks of confusion and disapproval. I returned the gaze. I held my placard high. I shouted, joyously. They could not harm me. I was amongst hundreds like me.

I could not, would not be shamed, for I felt the power of Pride.

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Trans Pride placards. Photo by Natasha Handley.

 

Of memory and mourning: the hidden origins of an academic editorial

Experiences of co-authorship often remain strangely silent, oddly invisible.

In academic publishing, co-authorship is common; and yet, how often do we think about whose voice we are reading, and how a collaborative narrative emerged? How often do we teach students to write together rather than apart? What visions do we have of co-authorship?

I don’t think we talk enough about these experiences and issues.

This week, an editorial I co-authored for the forthcoming Sexualities special issue ‘Trans Genealogies’ was published online. For me, this short piece carries a great deal of emotional weight. It was written under pretty unique circumstances, with my fellow author and former PhD supervisor Deborah Lynn Steinberg close to death. In this sense, it was hardly a standard experience of collaborative writing.

Screenshot of the editorial article "Introduction: The Emergence of Trans". The three authors' names are listed underneath the title.

However, in discussing my experiences of this article and others, I hope to offer some insight into an oft-hidden process of co-authorship, while encouraging readers to maybe reflect on their own experiences of collaboration.

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Some co-authored articles owe their existence primarily to one of their authors. We might hope that this is the lead author, although this is not always the case.

Last year, I contributed to an article on research ethics for the journal Transgender Health. This was an exciting collaboration and a very interesting experience, with an international team of authors working remotely through the Internet to pool our ideas and expertise. It was an honour and a privilege to work with Jaimie Veale, Asa Radix, Danielle Castro, Amrita Sarkar and Kai Cheng Thom, and I learned a great deal from their considerable expertise in doing so. However, at the core of the writing project was lead author Noah Adams. While myself and the other authors did put a great deal of work into the article, Noah initiated the collaboration, produced the original article draft, oversaw the integration of our respective contributions into the piece, and acted as the primary point of contact for our communications with the Transgender Health editorial team. It was only right that he was credited as lead author.

On other occasions, I have seen how this kind of collaboration might be an exploitative one. During my time as a PhD student, I witnessed other postgraduates put this kind of effort into supposedly joint projects with their supervisors, only for the said supervisors to be credited as lead authors (or, on a depressing number of occasions, as the sole author). This was particularly disappointing in the context of social science subjects, where the presumption tends to be that the lead author did the majority of the work.

I had a very different experience of collaboration with Kirsty Lohman. Our article on de/constructive trans DIY music scenes will also be included in the ‘Trans Genealogies’ special issue. We wrote together, in the same room; sometimes taking turns to tackle individual paragraphs, other times constructing sentences together with one of us sat at the keyboard and the two of us almost competing to find the next word. It was a real joint effort in which we both put an equal amount of energy into the work. I am named as lead author only because one of us had to be; at the time the article was accepted, we agreed that it was more beneficial to my career at that point in time than it was to Kirsty’s.

Deborah related a similar history of writing collaborations with a close colleague and friend. She vividly described how she would furiously lay ideas down onto a Word document while her colleague paced the room impatiently, bursting with ideas of her own, before the two would swap places. Whole afternoons, whole days could be spent in fruitful (if sometimes fiery) joint authorship.

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There was no such option for the ‘Trans Genealogies’ editorial. The special issue was originally Deborah’s idea, a follow-up to our 2012-14 seminar series Retheorising Gender and Sexuality: The Emergence of ‘Trans’. She pitched the series to the editors of Sexualities, wrote the Call For Papers, and provided extensive advice and support to authors who made contact prior to the January 2016 deadline. At the time I was happy for her to take the lead, as I had finished the majority of the data collection for my PhD and was focusing on writing up my thesis.

The deadline came and went, but myself and fellow co-editor Igi Moon didn’t hear from Deborah for weeks, then months. As her cancer advanced, she was increasingly ill and unable to continue leading the editorial work for the journal. Eventually, Igi and I took over the editorial process, overseeing peer review and seeking to ensure that Deborah’s vision could be fulfilled.

By January 2017 we had identified the seven research articles that would comprise the special issue, most of which were provisionally accepted or near completion. Unfortunately, it was also apparent that Deborah would not live to see the publication of the special issue. She was first house-bound, and then bed-bound. We visited her as often as we could, sharing stories from our lives and updating her on the progress of the issue.

I had originally envisaged that Deborah would take the lead on writing the editorial, just as she originally took the lead on editing the issue more generally. By the time we had a firm idea of the issue’s contents, however, it was painfully apparent that this would be impossible.

As it become increasingly clear that Deborah had just weeks (if not days) to live, I became obsessed with writing the editorial while she was still alive. I wanted it to be a true collective work, but how to do this when my collaborator could barely speak, let alone write – when this woman who had dedicated herself utterly to her work was finally unable to enjoy the intellectual pursuits that had been such a driving force in her life?

In the end, I decided to revisit Deborah’s previous writings and reflections, the ones that had inspired and galvanised the editorial project in the first place. I poured over her notes from the Emergence of Trans series, the agendas and essays she wrote for individual events, her introductory talk for the ‘Trans in Popular Culture’ seminar.

I met with Igi to discuss the contents of the special issue: the contributions of the individual articles, and their thematic place in the wider context of the issue and of the wider literatures to which they speak. We listed key ideas and phrases we want to incorporate into the editorial.

I re-immersed myself in the literatures of transgender studies, thinking about recent trends and emerging concerns as well as longstanding debates and histories. I also thought about Sara Ahmed’s comments on the politics of citation, and committed to a centring of insights from trans scholars and/or scholars of colour.

And then I sat down. And I wrote.

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After finishing the editorial, I visited Deborah one last time. I was excited to tell her that it was completed, and to explain how inspired I had been by working with her ideas, working with her words.

But by this point she was no longer with us. Her body fought on for just a few more days while she restlessly slept.

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In retrospect, it’s a somewhat flawed piece. The editorial offers a very brief, broad summary of the context in which specifically ‘trans’ discourses have emerged and been contested. It was, in a sense, constrained through the need to address a set of themes originally outlined by Deborah, now a simultaneously absent and ever-present co-author.

When I re-read the editorial, I do what perhaps every author does. I notice every awkward turn of phrase, every moment of repetition, every missing references (perhaps most prominent of these is Stryker, Currah and Moore’s piece ‘Trans-, Trans, or Transgender?‘, which I was unable to access through my institution at the time). Following Deborah’s death, neither Igi nor I had any appetite for further revisions. We sent it off to Sexualities, and thought little more about it.

Yet, perhaps the brief, intense process by which the editorial finally came into being is one of its greatest strengths. I wrote it in a fit of passion, pulling together our collective ideas with a sense of deep love and purpose. In this sense, my commitment to the field, and to the wider promise of trans liberation, was one with my commitment to my fellow authors, my collaborators.

And I feel it is a better piece of writing for that.

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You can read the special issue editorial ‘Introduction: The Emergence of “Trans”‘ in the following locations:

Sexualities [with institutional access]

My website [free pre-proof version]


I will be writing a follow-up piece about the broader contents of the special issue next week.

 

From blog to academic website

In February, I completely revamped this site, creating a new “look”, and adding information on my academic talks/publications etc.

I’d been about creating a “professional” website and blog for some time, particularly as I intend to move ahead with my academic career. I wanted to use this to the stuff academics are supposed to do, like painstakingly list The Things We’ve Done At, but also wanted a platform from which to share information, ideas, and the odd polemic.

At the same time, I already had a pretty well-established blog, with archives reaching back to 2009. I don’t necessarily still stand by everything I might have once said – both the world and my perspectives on it have changed quite substantially over the last few years – and with time I’d also been blogging less and less as my attentions turned to my PhD thesis. But I don’t want to lose that personal history or sense of continuity in my life and writing.

So rather than officially retire Trans Activist Takes On World (as this site was previously known), I’ve decided to incorporate the old into the new, keeping the blog’s archives as a part of my academic website. To be honest, I’m expecting to continue writing on trans health, trans activism, LGBT issues, feminism, UK politics and the odd bit of punk/metal music. I’m also going to incorporate updates on planned talks (and possibly gigs!), something I previously blogged about at Ruth’s Corner. And this isn’t the first time I’ve changed the title or my approach to the site – I originally wrote anonymously as Trans Youth Takes On World, and also briefly titled the site Writings of a Trans Activist.

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ye olde blog header

I’m still not expecting to write here anything like as often as I used to. The double irony of completing my PhD is that I’ve been writing pretty much constantly ever since, but have also had very little time to do any more creative or reflective pieces for this blog (or any other site). Instead, I’m focusing on two(!) books and a number of book chapters and academic articles, which should be realised gradually over the coming year-and-a-bit.

I’m planning to write some more about all of these as they reach completion. I’m also aiming to make as many of the journal articles as possible freely available, posting non-final versions on this site so people can read them.

So, I hope you’ll stick around for my new journey. As ever, I’m interested in changing the world for the better – academia happens to be my chosen medium at present.

Rest In Power: Deborah Lynn Steinberg

A week ago today I heard that Professor Deborah Lynn Steinberg had died. It was not unexpected – Deborah had been ill for a very long time. Nevertheless, the news hit me hard. Deborah was my PhD supervisor, and before that also supervised my MA dissertation. Together with our colleague Iggi Moon, we organised a seminar series between 2012 and 2014, and more recently have been collaborating on editing a special issue of Sexualities and an edited book.

Through these projects, Deborah has been a hugely important and inspirational figure in my life. I’ve written a piece about this for Discover Society, reflecting on her intellectual generosity and the complexity of her relationships with her students.

In the coming months I’ll be sharing details of the Sexualities special issue (entitled “Trans Genealogies”) and the book, for which we’ve been offered a contract by Routledge. I miss Deborah terribly and it feels very strange to be working on some of her posthumous publications, but I feel very honoured to be in this position. I hope we can do justice to the spirit of her insight and intellect.

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This space left unintentionally blank

It’s been quite a while since I last updated!

That’s not to say that it’s been quiet in the world of trans politics – quite the opposite, in fact. In the UK alone we’ve seen #transdocfail, the furore over cissexism/transphobia from Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill, the tragic death of Lucy Meadows, the publication of various interesting reports and the creation of various worthy campaigns…in the last few months we’ve seen pain, misery and hope.

I’d like to be writing about all of this. But, as always, the update schedule on this blog is less about what I necessarily think is interesting/important, and more about what I have the time and/or motivation to write about. In recent months I’ve been very busy, and I think I’m likely to remain busy for some time to come.

Much of my energy has been focussed on my PhD research, which looks at discourses of trans health. You can read about there here.

I’ve also been busy with playing music in bands (particularly Not Right) and organising academic events (including Spotlight on: Genderqueer and the Emergence of Trans seminar series).

I suspect there will be a time when I update this blog more regularly once again. Until then, feel free to keep checking back – I’ll be here occasionally!

Shameless self-promotion!

I found myself in a studio recently with my Not Right bandmates, recording a number of the songs we’ve written together in the last year. The resulting EP is pretty rough and ready, but we feel it sums up pretty well we are as a band right now.

If you like angry female-fronted punk and/or music with trans themes, you might enjoy it!