Trans Visibility, Modelling Possibility

Lost for words

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

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

And then I came across this…person.

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

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

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

“So what’s with the boy-girl thing?”

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

Portrait of the Artist as an Egg


Gerroff my lawn

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

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

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

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

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


Choosing visibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possibility models

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

Leeds Pride 2019

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

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

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

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

Let’s carry on changing the world together.

Trans Day of Visibility events

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


Katy Montgomerie’s TDOV livestream

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


Spectra Interview

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

Womxn in Music: Friday 5 March

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

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

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

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

Pre-order: Arts, Culture and Community Development

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

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

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

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

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

GRA reform: my evidence to Parliament

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

Oral evidence: video

Oral evidence: transcript

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

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

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

GRA reform oral session

I will be giving evidence to the House of Commons Women and Equalities select committee tomorrow (Wednesday 9th December). This will be the first of several oral evidence sessions as part of their new Inquiry on the Reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

You can watch the evidence session here from 2:30pm.

In 2015, the Women and Equalities Committee held a broader Transgender Equality Inquiry. One of the recommendations that came out of this was that the Gender Recognition Act be reformed, so that changing the process by which a person can change the sex marker on their birth certificate is more straightforward and less expensive.

These proposals were provisionally adopted by both the UK Government and Scottish Government in 2017, leading to three consultations. The UK government did not actually formally announce the changes it planned to make until September 2020, and these turned out to be very minor. The Women and Equalities Committee is therefore seeking to scrutinise this process, and ask whether the changes promised by the Government actually reflect what trans people have been asking for. I have been invited to comment on this by the Committee, alongside two other experts in the field: Professors Stephen Whittle and Alex Sharpe.

Trans Pregnancy: new articles on conception and pregnancy loss

Cross-posted from the Trans Pregnancy project blog.

We are delighted to announce that the first two peer-reviewed articles on findings from our research interviews are now available. Both draw on an analysis of 51 interviews with people who had concieved. One looks at experiences of pregnancy loss among a subset of research participants, and the other explores routes to conception.

More information on each of these articles can be found below, along with links to open-access versions which are free to read.

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Men, trans/masculine, and non-binary people’s experiences of pregnancy loss: an international qualitative study

Abstract text for the article. Follow the link to read it.

Published in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth (BioMed Central). The article is fully open-access and free to read.

This article examines male, trans/masculine and non-binary gestational parents’ experiences of pregnancy loss, an experience that more broadly affects millions of people every year. We found that, like cisgender parents, our research participants often faced grief following a pregnancy loss, and like heterosexual cisgender men in particular, they often faced barriers to support.

However, the research participants also reported experiences specific to pregnancy loss among male, trans/masculine and non-binary gestational parents, including difficulties in accessing inclusive healthcare, and resistance to “failed” or “wrong” body narratives. We therefore make recommendations for healthcare providers regarding the importance of appropriate language, and the need to sensitively attend to emotions attached both to the loss itself and to the possible desire to attempt another pregnancy.

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Men, trans/masculine, and non-binary people negotiating conception: Normative resistance and inventive pragmatism

Abstract text for the article. This can be read by following one of the links to the full article.

Published in the International Journal of Trangender Health (formerly the International Journal of Transgenderism). An open-access version of the article can be read for free here.

This article explores how men, trans/masculine and non-binary people navigated different social norms and/or practical obstacles to conception. It shows that individuals engage in diverse practices that normalise their experiences of conception, while also highlighting the unique needs and challenges they can face.

The article will also form part of a special issue of the International Journal of Transgender Health that we are editing which will be published in full in early 2021. This special issue will more broadly explore issues of fertility, reproduction, and sexual autonomy among trans and non-binary people. Two other great articles from the special issue have also already seen advance publication:

Administering gender: Trans men’s sexual and reproductive challenges in Argentina, by Andrés Mendieta & Salvador Vidal-Ortiz.

“Just because I don’t bleed, doesn’t mean I don’t go through it”: Expanding knowledge on trans and nonbinary menstruators, by A.J. Lowik.

There is of course a lot more to come – watch this space for more new research findings from both ourselves and our colleagues in the field.

Free talk: Making Trans Pregnancy Possible

This Friday (25th September) I will be presenting findings from the Trans Pregnancy Project at the LGBT Foundation’s Future of Trans Healthcare conference. Topics under discussion will include men, transmasculine and non-binary peoples’ experiences of conception, the impact of testosterone, and the language of reproductive health services.

The conference runs for two days through Thursday and Friday, and is free of charge. It’s possible to drop in and out or attend the whole thing. My session is scheduled for 1pm on the second day.

Read more and register to attend here.

Beyond the TERF Wars

For the past couple of years, I have been working quietly on a new edited collection with my colleagues Sonja Erikainen and Ben Vincent. It is titled TERF Wars: Feminism and the fight for transgender futures.

Cover of the Sociological Review Monograph: TERF Wars.

TERF Wars is being published as part of the Sociological Review monograph series. This means it is available digitally as a special issue of the century-old journal The Sociological Review, and will also be available to buy as a reasonably-priced paperback book.

Digital special issue
(available now with a subscription to The Sociological Review)

Paperback pre-order
(Europe only for now – more and better links coming soon!)

Read the Introduction for free

Our aim has been to provide a critical, scholarly response to the growing circulation of both “pro-trans” and “anti-trans” ideas within feminism, especially in the academic context in which we work. As the “trans debate” has grown ever more extensive and complex, newcomers often express confusion around why this has happened, what the fiercely contested language actually means, and how it has all become so polarising.

The collection therefore addresses a range of issues, including (but not limited to) definitions of sex and gender, trans/feminist histories, racism, autogynepilia, “rapid-onset” gender dysphoria, detransition, access to public toilets, and contestation over the “TERF” acronym (“Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism”) itself. We have been privileged to work with a range of amazing authors, including Jay Bernard, Lua da Mota Stabile, Jen Slater, Charlotte Jones, B Camminga, Rowan Hildebrand-Chupp, Florence Ashley, Julia Serano, María Victoria Carrera-Fernández, Renée DePalma, Emi Koyama, Cristan Williams, and Sally Hines.

I am proud of what we have achieved, and hope the collection will serve to move some of these debates forward. However, I also believe it is important to emphasise that trans people face far more significant issues than debates within feminism.

I have long felt that the “TERF wars” are a distraction from the endemic discrimination and gross inequalities faced by trans people in all areas of public and private life. There is a reason that my own research and activism has focused primarily on healthcare, both before and during the editing of this collection (which I have very much treated as a side project). Arguing with strangers about sex and gender on Twitter won’t reduce waiting lists or stop doctors from sexually assaulting patients. Equally, it becomes harder to concentrate on the task in hand when vicious anti-trans columns are constantly published in the mainstream media, and when your research plans are derailed by a malicious Freedom of Information requests from anti-trans campaigners hope to access your work emails.

There is no easy solution to this conundrum. However, I urge readers to consider how they, personally, might aim to move beyond the TERF wars. My main hope for this edited collection is that will be helpful for people to better understand this particular realm of transphobic discourse, and to counter harmful and inaccurate arguments. Having done so, I urge you to turn to the real tasks of trans liberation: fighting sexism, racism, and ableism, protecting personal autonomy, building collective solidarity and mutual aid networks, providing services to our communities, and imagining new worlds.

Black Lives Matter

I want to express my unconditional solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters in the US, UK, and beyond.

Over the last week I have watched the unfolding events in the United States with growing horror. I have been dismayed by the murder of George Floyd by police, the brutal, violent, but all-too predictable response to protesters from US authorities, and subsequent murders of further Black men including Tony McDade, James Scurlock and David McAttee.

I have so much respect for those who have taken to the streets again and again to call for a change to the corrupt, racist systems that made this violence possible. In this post, I want to take advantage of my platform to share pre-existing information and resources.

As a white woman living in the UK, I am aware that such deep systemic racism is hardly limited to the US. We know that Black and Asian people are more likely to die of coronavirus. This is due to pre-existing social and economic inequalities that result from racism, which mean that many racial minorities are more likely to have pre-existing health conditions, and work in low-income jobs which put them at risk. We know that 1,741 people in the UK have died in police custody or following contact with the police since 1990, and no police officers have been convicted; we know that Black people and other people of colour are disproportionately represented among these deaths. We also know that Black people are even more likely to be imprisoned in the UK than the US, and this disproportionate prison population is a consequence of overt discrimination in both the criminal justice system and wider society.

These problems do not result from the actions of “bad apples”. They are systemic, the consequence of a system of white supremacy on which the wealth of the UK was built, and from which those of us who are white continue to benefit, regardless of what other challenges we face in our lives. To bring about change, we – those of us who are racialised as white in a system of white supremacy – need to think seriously about what we can do in our everyday lives to address our own complicitly, support our Black neighbours, and bring this system down.

I am writing this post because I know this blog has a readership; however, I hope to primarily direct your attention elsewhere. I am not the person whose work you should be reading to learn more about this, nor to think through the actions you might take. I recommend turning to the existing work of Black writers to understand what is going on, and to support Black activists in the US, UK, and beyond. The remainder of this post includes a (non-exhaustive!) series of links that might help fellow non-Black readers especially with this, especially if you are not currently able to take to the streets. But please also do your own research.

Educate yourself. A list of readings, videos, and podcasts on a range of topics including racism, protest, allyship, and prison abolition.

Donate to bail funds. In the US, suspects who can afford bail may be released from custody prior to a trial. In practice, this disproportionately impacts low-income communities, and hence disproportionately impacts Black people. Protesters and innocent bystanders alike have been subject to mass arrests in the last week alone.

Donate to other causes in the US. These include funds for victims, Black-owned businesses impacted by the protests, and related organisations and initiatives.

Donate to Black Lives Matter UK.

Support QTIPOC and BAME LGBTIQ+ groups in the UK. Follow, listen, learn, and donate.

Support people subject to harassment on the streets. Take action when you witness racist acts.

Challenge racist systems in your workplace. Think about how you might work through a union and/or work collectively with your colleagues to address racist hierarchies, taking into account factors such as management structures, hiring practices, insecure contracts, and the operation of class.

Challenge everyday racism among your friends and family. Make time and space for difficult conversations. Create space for others to question and challenge your pre-existing prejudices in turn.

Finally, I encourage fellow white people to think critically about where they are putting their support. Is your local UK “Black Lives Matter” protest actually being organised by white people and centring white voices? Is it associated with a group like the SWP front Stand Up To Racism, who have been criticised by Black feminists for their deep complicity in rape culture? Are you putting more energy into discussing what does and does not constitute “violence”, or condemning people for taking the streets during a pandemic, than you are into condemning and acting against the racist sickness that is the cause of the protests? Are you spending more time thinking about your own white guilt than how you might make productive changes in your life and in the lives of people around you?

Again, I urge you to educate yourself, and read what Black writers and activists have to say about these issues. I will be striving to do the same.