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!
By Ruth Pearce, Sally Hines, Carla Pfeffer, Damien W Riggs, Elisabetta Ruspini and Francis Ray White.Cross-posted from the Trans Pregnancy blog. An article based on this piece has been published in The Conversation.
On Wednesday 25th September the UK’s High Court ruled that Freddy McConnell, a man who gave birth to his child, does not have the right to be registered as a “father” on his child’s birth certificate. The court also ruled out the possibility of registering him simply as the “parent”. McConnell, who is trans, has indicated his intention to appeal.
We feel that this is a disappointing outcome, with concerning consequences for the dignity of trans parents and the safety of their children. The law will continue to require that people who give birth to a child in the UK are always registered as the “mother” – even if they are legally men. For example, McConnell’s legal team noted that, “Freddy is legally a man and his legal papers display the same.”
Most importantly, the verdict wrongs the human rights of the complainant and his child, through failing to provide them with consistent legal documentation and intruding on their privacy. More widely it is wrong in terms of its failure to legally recognise diverse family forms and contemporary practices of intimacy, which question traditional gendered reproductive certainties.
Yet, paradoxically, the ruling brings into being a new legal category of “mother”, which is based on reproductive experience, rather than the traditionally sex/gendered body. From today, a ‘mother’ is not defined through binary sexed characteristics. And so, a man may be a a mother as much as a woman.
Judge Sir Andrew McFarlane is explicit on this point in his ruling. For example, in his concluding comments, he states that, “the term ‘mother’ is free-standing and separate from consideration of legal gender, thus in law there can be male mothers and female fathers” (noteably, there is no distinction between “sex” and “gender” in UK law).
This is why legal cases around gender recognition are so important. Even when they seem to fail the individuals who bring them to court, they very often also radically chip away at normative understandings of gender in unforeseen and unintended ways. Such paradoxes and contradictions are subsequently brought to light, unpacked and, very often, readdressed at appeal stages.
McFarlane’s ruling, then, may be seen as the first step in the legal undoing of binary understandings of reproduction and gender, sex and the body, wherein all families of all genders and all bodies will be recognised.
This is particularly important for the trans and non-binary birth parents we have spoken with for this research project, who seek forms of legal recognition that are consistent with how they experience gender in their everyday life.
Promotional image from the film Seahorse. Photo by Mark Bushnell.
I recently returned from a month-long journey to Aotearoa New Zealand. This trip was funded by a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship with the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds.
My aim was to learn more about trans health services and community advocacy, while also sharing findings from my own research in a European context. I feel deeply privileged to have had the opportunity to meet many amazing people, who are doing a great deal of incredible work.
In this post, I share a number of resources and reflections from the trip. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg – I have no doubt that will no doubt that the experiences from the Fellowship will inform my research and thinking for many years to come.
Before I begin, I should quickly acknowledge that many readers of this blog will be unfamiliar with the word “Aotearoa”. This is a term from te reo Māori (the Māori language): it’s the current name for the islands known as “New Zealand” in English. Both are official names for the country that governs this land. For simplicity (and out of respect Māori history and culture, which long predates the arrival of Pākehā, or white European settlers) I use mostly use Aotearoa alone for the remainder of this post.
Whanganui-a-Tara / Wellington: the Gender Centre and Aunty Dana’s Op Shop
After a brief visit to Auckland (where I recovered from the long flight) I began my trip in earnest with a visit to the capital city of Aotearoa New Zealand, on the south-west tip of the North Island. I was told that you can’t beat Wellington on a good day – certainly, the bay of Whanganui-a-Tara is one of the mostly stunningly beautiful places I’ve ever had the fortune to visit.
Photos of 128 Radical Social Centre and the Gender Centre, taken with permission.
The Gender Centre includes a small office space, where people working for Gender Minorities Aotearoa can work on current campaigns and meet with visitors. Anyone can drop by to ask for advice or support, or pick up information. For example, the organisation has recently started running a free binder scheme. Materials on display included forms for name and gender changes, advice on accessing healthcare services, and information on the BDMRR bill.
BDMRR stands for Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration. Groups such as Gender Minorities Aotearoa are campaigning for non-binary recognition, and to make it possible for people to legally change the gender marker on their birth certificate without going through an expensive process involving medical oversight. Unfortunately, proposed changes have been delayed by the actions of anti-trans hate groups. UK readers will recognise the similarities with the campaign of misinformation waged against proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. This is not a coincidence. Anti-trans groups in Aotearoa are directly influenced by the language, aesthetics and (in some cases) the direct interventions of UK anti-trans campaigners, in what can be understood as a form of neo-colonialism.
While I was at the 128 Radical Social Centre I also visited Aunty Dana’s Op Shop. This is a second-hand clothing and accessories store run by trans and non-binary volunteers and open to people of all genders, with proceeds donated to Gender Minorities Aotearoa. It’s such a great way to raise money for campaigning, while providing an important resource and social space. It can also serve as a less scary space than the Gender Centre for people who are just coming out and looking for support. I had a great time browsing the shelves and chatting with the volunteer who was working there that afternoon.
Photos of Aunty Dana’s Op Shop. Taken with permission.
You can watch a fantastic video about the Op Shop here:
Ōtautahi / Christchurch: queer art and affirmative care
I next travelled to Ōtautahi / Christchurch, taking a train down the east coast of the South Island. During this trip I began to understand the extent of the damage caused by 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes. There was evidence of huge landslides and roads were still being rebuilt. Several metres of new coastline were visible for many miles, clearly identifiable through rocks bleached white by dead organisms that once lived under the waves. The city itself is still being rebuilt. Huge building projects and areas of empty land can be found throughout the central business district, a reminder of the unforgiving power of the Earth.
Photos: day and night – urban art and public protest.
It was apparent that the people of Ōtautahi were still recovering from tragedy even before the horror of the recent neo-Nazi mosque shootings. Nevertheless, the city struck me as a great centre of culture. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet some amazing queer and feminist artists and heard about both radical public interventions and commissioned works. If you want to learn more about this, the websites of Jennifer Shields and Audrey Baldwin are great places to start.
During this visit, I learned about a fantastic initiative to build and publicise new public health pathways for gender-affirming care in the Canterbury region. Until recently, services such as specialist counselling, hormone therapy and surgical referrals were only available on an ad-hoc basis, and information was not easy to find. Relevant information on what services are available and how they can be accessed is now easily available, thanks to the work of the Ko Awatea gender-affirming care co-design group.
These services are still not perfect – several interventions are not publicly funded, and they still involve a certain level of medical gatekeeping. However, they represent an important step forward. Notably, I was informed that these achievements can be credited to the willingness of particularly motivated medical providers, who were prepared to put energy into working directly with trans community representatives to work for reform.
Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland: RainbowYOUTH
The next stage in my journey was a visit Kirikiriroa / Hamilton, back on the north island. I was here for the Aotearoa New Zealand Trans Health Symposium. This will be the subject of a future blog post, so I am going to finish this piece with a look at an organisation based in Aotearoa’s largest city.
In finish my journey with a return to Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland, meeting a number of community workers, activists and academics living and working in the city. I was especially honoured to visit the RainbowYOUTHoffices and drop-in centre: a spacious explosion of colour located in an otherwise unobtrusive side street on the edge of the queer distract around K Road.
RainbowYOUTH are an organisation run by and for queer and gender diverse youth, with a remarkably long and successful history. They are currently celebrating their 30th anniversary, having been founded in 1989. The organisation’s members and executive board are all aged 27 or under. Executive advisors aged over 27 are invited to attend and speak at board meetings, but do not have voting rights. I was really impressed by this commitment to centring youth perspectives in support work and activism, something which has been missing from the UK since the dissolation of Queer Youth Network.
I was also interested in how common the language of “rainbow” community was in Aotearoa, as an addition and alternative to acronyms such as LGBTIQ. I like the way this word avoids the “alphabet soup” and potential exclusions tone of the acronym. I can also see how – like the term “gender minorities” – it can work to be inclusive both of intersex people and of takatāpui in a way that is more expansive than just attempting to rework the Western/anglophone framework of “LGBT”.
Photos of the RainbowYOUTH centre. Taken with permission.
The RainbowYOUTH centre was a wonderful building. For a long time, the organisation ran out of a very small office on Karangahape Road, but in recent years an increase in income and activity enabled a move to the new space. This features several offices, a therapy room, a large social space with a TV and gaming consoles, a library, a community wardrobe, free hygiene packs for people in difficult circumstances, and once again a whole range of resources and information. I can see how the very existence of this space is helping to create new possibilities for a generation of young people who I hope will achieve things that currently remain unthinkable.
I left Aotearoa incredibly inspired by the work and imagination of everyone I met, and am hugely grateful to everyone who helped with advice and organisation, made time to speak with me, and shared ideas and information. Ngā mihi nui!