On 4th April 2023 the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) provided advice to the UK Government on “clarifying” the definition of sex in law. Specifically, they recommended the protected characteristic of sex in the Equality Act 2010 be re-defined as “biological sex”. The proposals have been welcomed by the Labourparty as well as the Conservatives.
If adopted, the EHRC’s proposals would strip trans people of numerous legal protections currently afforded by the Equality Act as well as the Gender Recognition Act.
This is made extremely clear by the EHRC. Their own examples include the argument that it is a problem that trans women may be protected from sexism under current law, and (as “legal lesbians”) from homophobia if we have female partners. Most worryingly of all, they have doubled down on previous attacks on our right to access gendered spaces. If implemented, the proposals may result in the trans women being barred by law from women’s toilets, changing rooms, hospital wards, domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centres, and book clubs (the latter is a genuine example provided by the EHRC).
I am not going to get into the weeds with these proposals. Others will no doubt provide deep legal analyses. I have already seen “gender critical” commentators claiming that this will have no real effect on our lives in practice. To which I say: fuck you.
I am done with being polite, and reasonable, and rational. These proposals represent a blatant attack not just on our civil rights but also on our rights to exist as human beings in public. In practice, banning trans women from women’s toilets means that many if not most of us simply cannot use public toilets.
Trans women use women’s facilities because we are women. And when I say “trans women are women” I am not merely making some kind of abstract metaphysical claim. I am saying that we are structurally disadvantaged under patriarchy, and experience sexist violence every day from men. That is the material reality. Insisting that trans men use women’s toilets is equally stupid, especially if your supposed aim as a “gender critical” campaigner is to produce a space free of beards and penises.
But here I am disappearing once again into details. None of this is about details. It’s about terrorising trans people, and we are terrified.
It’s about making our lives impossible. Ideally, we will disappear; our oppressors don’t really care if we suffer or we die. And we know, trans people know, that people around us are suffering and dying because we are actually a part of that community. I’ve spent the past 13 years producing research that formally documents the oppression we face, because when we simply say what we know is true because we are living that truth every day, nobody in power gives a shit.
In the meantime, people in suits believe there are votes and clicks and money to be won through fighting culture wars, through distracting people from rising poverty and slow-burning climate collapse.
If you are cis, it is up to you, the reader, to do something about this. Over the past five years trans people have been systematically harassed and silenced by a hostile media. We have been pushed out of political parties and campaign groups. Supposed human rights protectors such as the EHRC have been institutionally captured by the far right. Academics happily write abstract theory about what a terrible danger we pose. Fascistgroups are rallying against us in the streets, trans healthcare is under attack, and trans children are being told they must be outed to their parents, all with the support of Labour and Tory politicians as well as popular children’s authors.
Obviously we will fight for our own liberation. We have always fought. We are so beautiful and so powerful, especially here and especially now.
But we need you to fight with us.
Here are some things you can do. Write to your MP, and then do it again. Make sure they are sick of hearing from you and then keep going. Go to a protest. Engage in direct action. Maybe sign a petitionif you’re into that kind of thing. If you are in a political party, fight like hell to ensure that party is actually on our side. Join a union and fight for us there. Join a human rights group. Join a small trans organisation and offer whatever you can, whether that’s volunteer time, small donations, or signal-boosting.
Think about how you or your organisation might productively break the law to help people. If the EHRC’s proposals actually make it through Parliament, we must make them unworkable. Section 28was only successful because teachers, administrators, and local authorities collaborated with an openly homophobic government. That doesn’t have to be the case again.
Finally, it’s important to note this is just the tip of the iceberg. Attacking trans people and defining women by “biological sex” are a part of a wider attempt to remove women’s reproductive rights. Our government is shredding the refugee convention and putting asylum seekers in camps. Our legal rights to protest and strike have been massively curtailed.
If you’ve ever wondered “what would I have done in the face of rising fascism?” then wonder no longer.
I bounced up to an old friend to share this important insight. All around, queer bodies danced and swayed to furiously enthusiastic music. We have always sought refuge in one another, in our in our art, in utopic dancefloors and community care. But something felt different.
The collective energy of the crowd was wild, strong, cohesive. The entire room was dancing – and among us, so so many out, happy trans women and transfeminine people. On stage, a non-binary person sang explicitly about their experiences of gender to an assertive ska beat. It was a joyful moment – but the true wonder of it for me was that it was far from unique.
This was the last in a string of winter tour dates for my band wormboys, at the brilliant Queer As Punk event in Edinburgh. But I’d experienced similar in Dundee, in Glasgow, in Newcastle, in Hull, in Leeds. At every gig, trans women and non-binary people were scattered throughout the audience; at most, there were also several of us on stage through the night. It’s a world of difference from when I encountered just the occasional trans man playing gigs in the mid-2010s; let alone from when wrote a blog post titled Trans/queer rock musicback in 2010, in which I desperately sought validation in questionable gender-bending tunes written by (largely) cis musicians.
While trans women (and trans people more broadly) have always been involved in DIY music, there’s a clear change taking place. We have taken our inheritance and run with it. There are more of us making our own art, telling our own stories, and celebrating one another more than ever before. We are more visible, we are more assertive, we are more respected within our scenes, and – collectively – we are having more fun.
The very night we enacted a better future on that dancefloor in Edinburgh, 16 year-old trans girl Brianna Ghey was stabbed to death in Warrington. Two other teenagers, a girl and a boy, have been charged with her murder.
For trans people across the UK – especially trans women and girls – this lethal attack was not unexpected. It feels like the culmination of a vicious hate campaign that permeates our media and politics. It’s also the tip of a vast iceberg of intentional violence and untimely death.
Suicide is endemic among trans youth driven to despair by the socially-sanctioned antagonism directed at them every hour of every day. I am tired of citing statistics. I have lost so many of my friends and peers. Words and numbers are insufficient for the raw anguish of my grief.
This is only compounded by the failures of bystanders who refuse to intervene, schools and employers who try to make us disappear, a National Health Service that inflicts harm upon us. England’s only child and adolescent gender clinic is due to close in a matter of weeks, with nothing ready to replace it. In an extraordinary open letter, the majority of clinical, research, and administrative staff at the clinic note an “increase in deaths related to the service” since the suspension of endocrine treatments in 2020.
Many of my friends have been threated or assaulted in broad daylight. One, for instance, had rocks thrown at her. Another was assaulted in front of the school gates. Another was raped by boys in the school playground. I frequently struggle with feelings of survivor’s guilt, having merely been publicly assaulted, stalked, harassed, and subject to threats of legal action and murder. Relatively minor matters, in the scheme of things.
How to understand joy in the face of so much hate and despair?
This is a question I struggled with throughout our tour. The night before Brianna’s murder, 400 people rioted in Knowsley outside a hotel that houses asylum seekers, spurred on by the fascist group Patriotic Alternative. This horrific event, too, did not occur in a vacuum. Racist and anti-migrant sentiment has similarly been stirred up by cynical politicians and journalists, as asylum seekers, economic migrants, British Black and Asian people, Gypsies and Travellers are repeatedly failed or directly targeted by our authorities and institutions. Patriotic Alternative have also repeatedly targeted LGBTIQ+ communities, through their campaign against Drag Queen Story Hour.
I could say so much more: about assaults on disabled people’s rights and livelihoods, about the demonisation of the poor, about attacks on pay, pensions, and the unions that attempt to defend them (I am writing this post while on strike). About how fascist violence is excused by sexist men in the name of “defending women and girls”. About how oppressed groups are played off against one another, while the effects of all this hateful discourse and action are felt most keenly at the intersection of multiple forms of persecution, such as by migrant trans women of colour.
Ultimately though, my point is this: what we are seeing is both a consequence of historic prejudices in our society, and of rising fascism.
Minority groups, women, migrants, and working class people in the UK have always faced a shared struggle against systemic discrimination and violence. Following a period of mild reform in the 1990s and 2000s, we are now experiencing a significant upswing in bold, blatant hate speech and violence, effectively condoned by every major political party and the majority of mainstream media publications.
This is the context of trans joy in the 2020s – and the reason why that joy is so necessary and vital.
Our tour reminded me that art is resistance, and resistance is collective. In recent days I have felt myself marinading in my own fear, a recipe for passive inaction. If we cannot experience joy, we cannot dream; if we cannot dream, we cannot hope; if we cannot hope, we cannot fight back. In the face of a world that wants so many of us dead, it is vital that we create reasons to live, and to thrive.
In Leeds, wormboys played to a rammed room in Wharf Chambers, a triumphant hometown crowd. We invited the brilliant Punjabi-Celtic-indie fusion trio Kinaara and gorgeous queer folk duo Serinto support us, building new friendships and cementing old ones. In Hull we debuted at the New Adelphi, where now-legendary acts such as Lizzo, Manic Street Preachers, Pulp, Skunk Anansie, and PJ Harvey played before they were famous. We shared the stage with Sandbox Mode – a solo hip-hop artist making deeply honest and funny songs about mundanity and despair – and Baby Flowers, an exciting young grunge group playing their second ever gig. This was the least well-attended, most male-dominated, and least obviously queer gig on our tour. And yet: the mood was vibrant, I noted at least one other trans woman in the audience, and Baby Flowers’ bassist was showing off a well-placed trans rights sticker.
In Newcastle, we found ourselves in the Little Buildings, a venue which has miraculously survived Covid-19 despite being founded just the pandemic began. The event was hosted by new dance party Queer Love. We played alongside the incredible hardcore group Disciplinary with their two bass guitars, and also the feminist dance-punk phenomenon of Fashion Tips. The whole night was amazing, but Fashion Tips were particularly exciting for me. Frontwoman (and Queer Love organiser) Esmé Louise Newman has a long history of involvement in groundbreaking queer feminist punk, metal and no-wave groups, including Penance Stareand Etai Keshiki. The new band were just as brilliant, with aggressive guitars and vocals underpinned by a powerful rhythm section, heralding a new era of revolutionary dancefloor divination.
Next to Glasgow, where I organised a well-attended gig at The 13th Note in less than a week, after our original promoter pulled out at the last minute. We booked the astoundingly powerful riot grrrl group Brat Covento play with us, along with HAVR, purveyors of gorgeous post-punk soundscapes. The latter band are fronted by Carrie Marshall, author of Carrie Kills A Man, who noted to cheers that she was a different gender the last time she played the venue. This was an event with plenty of trans women present, beaten only by brilliant gig in the same venue the very next night, which I went to see my soulful dyke folk pal Pictureskew play inbetween our own shows. That event might well be the first of its kind I’ve been to where there were at least as many trans women in attendance as anyone else. It was beautiful.
Then to Dundee, where Rad Apples and Make That A Takeput anarchist theory into practice by actively working to provide a safer punk venue and events for women, queer people, and migrants, through simultaneously building a welcoming space and promoting a zero-tolerance attitude towards discrimination and abuse. There I had two totally new life experiences. First, I witnessed somebody crowdsurfing in a shopping trolley during a storming set from banjo punks Alldeepends. Then, we were subject to the well-organised chaos of the “crowd surfing machine” by jubilant anarcho-folk headliners Boom Boom Racoon (a variant on the sat-on-the-floor rowing boat dance associated with songs such as “Oops Upside Your Head” and “Rock The Boat”, but with audience members encouraged to take turns in crowdsurfing along the boat).
Through the tour, I’d been carrying a trans flag to drape over my bass amp, and have often said something about trans liberation from stage inbetween songs. wormboys are a political band, but not in the same way as more in-your-face punk groups I’ve previouslyfronted. I’ve reveled in the ability to just be a musician and make that – rather than my status as a trans woman – the focal point of my involvement, leaving most of the talking to dual vocalists duo Sop and Harry. In the current political environment, that has increasingly felt untenable. It seems important to speak out, make myself visible, be obviously a trans woman making music.
But at Rad Apples I didn’t need to. There was already a trans flag up. There were plenty of other trans people there. There were placards in the bar opposing Section 35. I could just be.
And so to Edinburgh, where I found myself living in the future during a joyous set from opening act Bufandas. A future in which we experience the true paradox of trans visibility, in that we are both uniquely vulnerable, and uniquely strong. No longer hiding in the shadows, we are easier targets for those who hate us, but also have so much more potential to build power together.
Brianna Ghey’s killers may be convicted and jailed, but that will do nothing to stop the violence we face across these islands, and across the wider world. We have learned that we cannot trust the police to save us, or the courts, or politicians, or journalists, or managers, or human resources departments. But we don’t need any of these people or organisations. We owe it to Brianna to continue the grassroots work she did to improve other people’s lives, because another world is possible.
The headliners at Queer as Punk in Edinburgh were the fiercely feminist disco punk group The Red Stains. Their set included several explicit statements of support for trans people and especially trans women and girls, reflecting the attitude of most women active within actual feminist movements. This was an important reminder that anti-trans movements do not speak for all women, and never will.
My experience of sharing a stage with so many amazing musicians, from so many backgrounds, featured many such reminders. I was reminded of the sheer depth and range of human creativity. I was reminded of how much we can be inspired by our differences as well as shared experience. I was reminded of how far we have come, as well as how far we have to go.
There are so many of us. Today, we mourn. Tomorrow, we fight. Soon, we will win.
A couple of days ago I joined Katy Montgomerie’s livestream to work through the current NHS England consultation on child and adolescent gender services. We discussed the background to the consultation, what the questions mean, and what some of the major issues are.
You can take part in the consultation here. It is open until 4th December 2022. Filling it in is a bit of an intense experience, but if you fancy some friendly company and catty cameos, I hope our video will help.
I discovered recently that my friend Elli had passed away. She was just a few years older than me. I believe she lived a difficult life, but was always true to herself, and was good and kind to others. And meeting her as a teenager changed my world.
I first encountered Elli during the long, messy process of coming out to myself. We were both members of a small online community, created by a young trans person for other young trans people. There were a few of us there in our mid-late teens and early 20s, most of us struggling to imagine what it would be like to live authentically. There were a small handful of “allies” (at least two of whom would later coming out as trans and/or genderqueer themselves). And there were a couple of people who had already transitioned, including Elli.
I don’t think there is a word for people like Elli in the straight world, which can make it hard to express how important she was, even to myself. She was my not-very-much-older Elder. She was my possibility model. She helped to crack my egg. She was a nexus of social contagion, a superspreader in the psychic epidemic, a key trigger for my rapid onset.
Elli was a friendly, patient, community-minded person who showed up for others. She showed us that it was possible to be true to ourselves, to build a life on another side of the sex divide. She was honest and realistic about how difficult things could be, and full of constant reminders that there was, is, and will always be more to life than being queer. She loved ferrets and cats and anime, especially Naruto, because she was a massive nerd.
Elli wasn’t famous or well known. She wasn’t involved in any significant moment of history. She had small friendship circles online and offline. This, though, is how we build queer and trans community: through countless acts of care and mutual aid, rather than grand gestures.
I found out Elli had died through a mutual friend from the same old community. She had found out through Facebook – she went to look at Elli’s profile, and realised Elli had died months before.
I was horrified. I had spoken with Elli regularly while she was severely ill with covid, reaching out to tell her how much I cared about her, and share numerous pictures of my cat. We hadn’t spoken that regularly for the last decade, but it felt like every now and then we would touch base and check in on one another. I don’t use Facebook very often these days, but it can be a good way to find where long-term, long-distance friends like Elli are doing. After a lot of hardship, I’d been really excited to find out she had a new job where she felt happy and fulfilled, and a new apartment which she made into a real home. And when got sick, I decided to message her until she recovered.
Except. After she started getting better, after she got home from the hospital, I stopped messaging. I was busy and distracted, getting ready to start my new job at Glasgow. I’m aware that I’m a possibility model myself, now, and there’s a lot that comes with that. I regularly receive messages from people who say I helped then to come out, to be themselves, through being a visibly trans woman, and visibly “successful” in my chosen fields of work and activism. I am perpetually busy, and tired, and distracted.
I saw the occasional Facebook update from Elli suggesting a gradual recovery. And so, like before, I dropped contact, assuming that we’d chat again in a few weeks or months.
And of course, the algorithm never told me that she was no longer with us.
I’m not sure if there is a clear moral to all of this. I am trying not to blame myself – how could I know? And Facebook was the very medium by which we remained in touch long after our original community was no longer active.
These days I feel pulled in all directions by friends from different times and places, people I once knew well, people I wish I was better at staying in touch with, people who assume some kind of parasocial relationship with me on the basis of my public profile. Social media feels like the only reasonable way to stay on top of it all. Yet I regret relying on social media – and especially the exceptionally unreliable medium of the feed – to keep up with Elli. I could have just…messaged her, or checked how she was doing.
It feels like there are two stories here. But perhaps they are the same story.
My experiences of trans community life are pierced through with chance and tragedy: life-changing encounters, terrible losses, and the all-encompassing importance of the Internet. Elli is far, far from the first trans friend of mine to die young. I also know she won’t be the last. When you live in a community where healthcare and socio-economic inequalities are endemic, you are always surrounded by people who are very ill. That’s an inevitable consequence of the forces stacked against us. The least we can do for one another is to collectively find joy and meaning in the life we have, using whatever tools we have at our disposal.
I want to live up to Elli’s memory, and to everything that she gave me. I hope I can be a better friend to others, but also forgive myself for being just one person, in one place, with a limited amount of time available to me. And while I’m at it, you’d better believe I’m going to keep cracking eggs.
There have been some really exciting developments in England over the last couple of months for trans birth parents (that is: men and non-binary people who conceive, carry, and give birth to their own children).
In April, a groundbreaking report on Trans and Non-Binary Experiences of Maternity Services was published by the LGBT Foundation. I am really proud to have co-authored parts of this report with colleagues in NHS England and the LGBT Foundation, and to have supported the research which informs it.
The report, which was funded by NHS England, offers a sobering account of healthcare inequalities for trans birth parents. However, it also includes important examples of good practice and recommendations for professionals.
Trans people’s experiences of perinatal care are consistently worse across the board compared with cis women.
30% of trans birth parents didn’t access perinatal healthcare at all during pregnancy – this compares to less than 2.1% of the general population.
Transphobia and racism in perinatal care intersect to produce particularly poor outcomes for trans parents of colour.
Recommendations include: supporting the delivery of personalised and trauma-informed perinatal care; proactively adopting inclusive language and targeting outreach to trans birth parents; and implementing IT and demographic monitoring systems to enable the sensitive collection of data about gender identity and trans status in perinatal services.
Excitingly, it appears that work is already underway on many of these points. For example, last year a fabulous series of resources for practitioners were published by Brighton and Sussex Gender Inclusion Midwives, and I have heard good things about progress on trans-inclusive data collection.
Best of all, NHS England now provide a range of tailored, accessible advice to trans parents as part of their new guide to having a baby if you’re LGBT+. This includes ways to become a parent, advice on testosterone and pregnancy, and chestfeeding/breastfeeding for men and transmasculine non-binary people.
These resources should really be seen as a starting point (for example, there is no advice for trans women who breastfeed). But equally, it is brilliant to see progress being made on the provision of practical advice that will help prospective and new parents. I am especially grateful to an NHS whistleblower who ensured their dissemination through revealing to The i that their publication had been blocked by some senior figures at NHS England for nearly a year.
This all serves as an important reminder that NHS England is not a monolith, and that concerted pressure from community groups and allies can have real long-term benefits.
It’s very easy to be cynical about our NHS given the poor overall state of trans healthcare, as well as opposition to equitable provision by some within the health service. However, all the positive moves I have reported in this post are also the result of hard work by numerous NHS midwives and members of the NHS digital team. Alongside community members who generously offered their time and knowledge, they have collectively fought to ensure that trans birth parents and the practitioners who work with them have access to resources and information.
All of this makes me feel hugely optimistic. These are difficult times, in which prejudice and disinformation are rife. Yet ordinary people are still fighting – successfully! – for positive change. This new research and guidance should be of great help to new parents and their children, and for that we can be grateful.
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:
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.
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 Studentsguide 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!
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.
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, especiallytrans youth.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This statement, which I helped to draft, is cross-posted from Spectra.
As providers of health and wellbeing services for vulnerable people, we are dismayed by Women and Equality Minister Liz Truss’ poorly-informed comments on transgender issues.
Nobody’s fundamental rights should be subject to ‘checks and balances’, as the Minister suggests. Single-sex spaces are already protected under the Equality Act; trans and non-binary people deserve the same access to relevant services and provisions as everyone else.
Trans and non-binary people face discrimination and exclusion in all areas of life. They are disproportionately likely to experience sexual violence and domestic abuse, plus encounter severe difficulties in accessing healthcare, housing, education, jobs, and benefits. This is especially the case for trans women and girls, plus trans and non-binary people of colour.
Trans and non-binary people of all ages require support in accessing services, and making informed decisions about their own lives and bodies. The Minister’s statement that young people need to be ‘protected’ from making ‘irreversible’ decisions appears to contradict existing legal precedents.
These include the principle of Gillick competence, and the Fraser guidelines, which together protect the rights of minors to make their own decisions around medical treatment, if they can demonstrate appropriate capacity to consent.
Any move to undermine these principles will have deeply concerning implications for all minors. In particular, young people’s confidential access to contraception, sexual health services, abortion services, counselling and therapy will be at risk. Rather than positioning trans and non-binary people as a problem, the Minister, along with the Women and Equalities Committee, should focus on ensuring that the Government delivers on the recommendations of the 2015 Transgender Equality Inquiry.
These include the expansion of healthcare provision, and reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 to ensure full legal recognition for trans and non-binary people of all genders, on the basis of self-determination.
A brief personal addition. Our communities and activist networks are stronger, louder, and more visible than ever. We will stand resolute against any attempt to roll back the legal rights of trans people and/or young people. If the Minister follows through on her threats, she will find she has severely underestimated us. We will fight and we will win.
This is a deeply strange time to have a new peer-reviewed article out. I’ve been on strike for weeks, and otherwise on annual leave, planning a move south (for my new job) which may well be indefinitely postponed. It’s hard to comprehend the enormity of the COVID-19 crisis, nor the fact that the most helpful thing I can do right now is stay put.
The article was originally drafted in 2018, and based on experiences I had during fieldwork and while disseminating my research between 2013 and 2017. With the pandemic upon us, this previous decade feels like deep, distant history. Here in the UK, the true, awful toll of the illness is yet to become apparent; yet cities are beginning to turn silent as we self-isolate, political axioms are turned on their head, and all conversation turns eventually to the virus.
In this context, it’s easy to wonder if any of the work we did a month or more prior could possibly still be relevant. And yet.
My new piece is titled A Methodology for the Marginalised: Surviving Oppression and Traumatic Fieldwork in the Neoliberal Academy, and it is published in Sociology, the journal of the British Sociological Association. I use my experiences as a trans academic as a case study to talk about the huge inequalities endemic within universities, and how these disproportionately impact those who already experience forms of social marginalisation. My aim is not simply to chronicle the harms of marketisation, transphobia, sexism, and racism, but to also propose a way forward. We need to start thinking and acting more collectively; in addition to workplace organisation and union activity, this is relevant to how we design and implement our studies.
My proposed “methodology” involves bringing questions of solidarity and mutual support to the procedure of research design. Universities have long been bastions of privilege, with mechanisms of exclusion are unthinkingly built into every aspect of academic life. The only way we can possibly open up higher education is through creating systems of support which acknowledge and account for pre-existing inequalities, and these must be embedded within the process of knowledge creation itself.
My article uses the example of suicide within trans communities to illustrate this principle. Suicide ideation and suicide attempts are especially common among trans people. As such, it is highly likely that any given trans academic will either be suicidal, or will have friends who are. Consequently, if trans people are to stand a reasonable chance of surviving within the university, this is something that should be accounted for in research design and funding proposals as well as in wider institutional support structures.
It’s impossible right now to know when and if the world will return to “normal”. I have seen some contend that this cannot be possible given the devastating number of predicted deaths, the shock to our economic and political systems. Others observe that the prevailing social order has survived before, and argue that any emergency measures to support workers who have lost their livelihood and/or increase police powers will inevitably be reversed in the long term.
However, what we do know is that universities have historically been remarkably resiliant – as have the inequalities in our society. Whatever happens next, we must continue to fight for a better world, and that includes within academia.
We can already see this beginning to play out in the UK as universities scramble to shift their activities online. Managers are relying on staff to carry on teaching, conducting research, and undertaking assessment and monitoring activities such as the REF. Meanwhile, most of us struggle to balance working from home with looking after partners, housemates, and/or families, wrestling with IT systems that have been heavily undermined by cuts as shiny new buildings stand empty on our campuses. We cannot possibly expect to carry on as normal.
It is in this context that I invite you to read my new article, as and when you find the time and mental energy. It is one of the most difficult and vulnerable things I have ever written. I am really proud of it. It helped me think through some small ways in which I might change my work patterns and practice of solidarity, as part of a far larger push for change. I hope that in turn, it might help you also.
I am very excited to announce that I will soon begin work on a new project. From the beginning of April I will be working full-time with Spectra as Research Coordinator for the Trans Learning Partnership.
The Trans Learning Partnership is a groundbreaking collaboration between trans and non-binary community representatives, academics, and four organisations who work to directly provide community services: Spectra, Gendered Intelligence, Mermaids, and the LGBT Foundation. The aim of the Partnership is to drive the development of a robust service and advocacy-oriented evidence base, enabling trans services and their service users to have needs-based, impactful services.
This also means that I will be leaving the Trans Pregnancy Projectat the University of Leeds, but rest assured that I plan to continue supporting my colleagues from that project in writing up and publishing our findings. We have a number of academic articles currently in the pipeline, along with a themed special issue of the International Journal of Transgender Health.
I will of course continue to update this website periodically with information and reflections on all of my ongoing research.
The Trans Learning Partnership feels like such an important opportunity to design and undertake research intended to directly improve people’s lives. I can’t wait to get started!