An observation on the growing importance of social media

I’m currently working on a document that explores the methodological approach I am planning for my research into trans experiences of (primary) health provision.

In the paragraph I’m currently working on, I note the increased importance of social media to activism within trans communities. I cite Trans Media Watch as an example, noting the popularity of their Facebook page and Twitter feed. I compare the number of people they can reach directly through social media (approximately 1000 “like” on Facebook, approximately 3500 “followers” on Twitter, acquired since the group was established in 2009) to the number of people on the mailing list Press For Change spent around a decade building (approximately 2000 members as of 2007, according to Engendered Penalties).

The point isn’t to praise Trans Media Watch for reaching a lot of people very quickly (although their impact in this respect has been very impressive!) and nor do I intend to critique Press For Change. Instead I note these figures to highlight how social media has helped transform the nature (and level of participation in) trans activism.

But then pace of change appears to be accelerating still. The figures I cite above for participation in Trans Media Watch were accurate a couple of weeks ago or so, when I last worked on this particular document (what can I say, it’s been a busy fortnight!) However, they’re now inaccurate: the group has gained around 100 Facebook “likes” and around 300 Facebook followers during this time.

No doubt the exposure Trans Media Watch have gained as a result of their participation in the Leveson Enquiry has contributed to this situation, but my first set of figures was taken some time after the group provided evidence. For all kinds of reasons Trans Media Watch is of increasing interest to an increasing number of people, and it’s social media that’s facilitating this.

I don’t really have any kind of real analysis to offer right now. I’d love to take a good look at what’s happening, but it’s sadly tangential to the general thrust of my own work. But gosh, isn’t this interesting?

Gender recognition under threat in UK universities

I read a very disturbing internal email this afternoon. I’m not going to quote the majority of it in order to preserve anonymity, but the central content is of concern to any current or future trans student in Higher Education.

Earlier this year, HESA [Higher Education Statistics Agency] confirmed a series of changes that they would be making to the HESA Student Record for the 2012/13 academic year, which would have an impact on some of the questions that students are asked during the application and enrolment process. A number of these changes relate to equality issues and the 2010 Equality Act and I thought it would be prudent for us to consult […]

The key changes of relevance are as follows:

(1) There is an existing field Student.GENDER which will from 2012/13 be replaced with Student.SEX. The new Student.SEX field will reflect ‘legal’ biological sex at birth and we have been advised that there will be only two valid entries for this field, either Male or Female.

(2) To complement the new Student.SEX field there will also be an additional field, Student.GENDERID, which is intended to reflect the student’s gender identity based on their own self-assessment. A response to this question, should we choose to ask it, would be optional for students. The ‘suggested question’ from the Equality Challenge Unit for eliciting this information is “Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were originally assigned at birth?” and it would be possible for students to respond with ‘Yes’, ‘No’, or ‘Information Refused’.

At my university, the current student.GENDER field allows students to identify as “female”, “male”, “other” or “prefer not to say” following intervention from trans activists and past Students’ Union welfare officers. This system, and any similarly progressive approach from other institutions, will be overturned by the new HESA guidelines.

My concerns are as follows:

1) What is “legal” sex? Is it:
(a) my birth sex? (in which case I’m male)
(b) what’s on my passport? (in which case I’m female)
(c) whether or not I have a gender recognition certificate? (in
which case I’m male)

[edit: a skim of the HESA guidelines shows that (a) is not the case, with the university apparently using the phrase “sex at birth” in error]

2) If (a) or (c), then the University is going to revert my “sex” on its forms. This will disclose I am trans to anyone using their records.

3) If (b), then anyone wishing to update their gender will have to out themselves by walking into the university administrative building and presenting their passport.
I had to do this in 2005 and it caused all kinds of weird issues with the Students’ Union and my records. We changed the system in two stages (the last one is referred to in the letter) in order to prevent this from happening to anyone else.

4) The new system erases intersex people.

5) The new system erases people with a non-binary identity.

6) This whole approach has an extremely flawed methodology that will only invalidate the desired data!

I suspect my university doesn’t have much of a choice about how this is carried about, and neither will others. We urgently need to lobby HESA to reverse their policy on this.

I’ll aim to write a more coherent analysis of the situation (inc. the complex role of the Gender Recognition Act) when I’m feeling more coherent.

EDIT: HESA notes changes to the student.GENDER field here. Information on the new (binary) gender identity code can be found here.

Natacha Kennedy at TRED 2011

Natacha’s talk at TRED 2011. The bulk of this presentation is a witty response to Az Hakeem’s 2010 paper Deconstructing Gender in Trans-Gender Identities. Natacha herself deconstructs three central arguments present within the paper:

1) Trans people can be prevented from having genital reassignment surgery through group therapy.

2) Gender is becoming less rigid for cis people but more rigid for trans people.

3) Sex is “real” and scientifically verifiable, whereas gender is not.

The talk concludes with a brief reflection upon the work of Kenneth Zucker and the “normality” of trans and intersex phenomena.


Lyndsey Moon at TRED 2011

Lyndsey’s talk at TRED 2011, which formed the introduction to an open discussion of numerous topics including psychology, pathologisation, and the place of gender variant voices in academia.

In the talk Lyndsey explores a number of issues centring around counselling and therapy, including:

  • the (lack of) training practitioners receive on gender issues.
  • the attitudes that many trainee and practising counsellors and therapists hold regarding trans people
  • experiences of teaching PhD candidates about gender and sexuality
  • the impact of the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)

Ruth Pearce at TRED 2011

My talk at the Trans* Education and Determination teach-in.

Part 1:
– Introduction to the teach-in
– My decision to undertake social research
– A brief history of trans academia
– Gender pluralism

Part 2:
– Introduction to my research on experiences of primary health
– Existing research on trans health in the UK
– The role of the internet in trans community
– Methodology and research ethics

Transcription available below.

Continue reading

Trans* Education and Determination: footage available from the event

A number of videos from the Trans* Education and Determination teach-in, kindly filmed by Natacha Kennedy, are now available on Vimeo.

There isn’t yet footage available for every speaker, but more videos are due to follow soon. I hope these will fulfil a key promise of the event: to reach beyond those able to attend on the day, and stimulate wider discussion.

It is in this spirit that I hope others might consider filming or writing responses and/or their own thoughts on the consequences of psychology, psychiatry, academia and feminism for trans people and trans rights.

Perhaps you could organise your own teach-in? TRED organisers and participants are already discussing possibilities for future events, but there’s no reason why any given group of people can’t put one together. Some notes for the future are available on the TRED blog.

On a slightly different note, I’m considering an event based upon the TRED videos at my own university. It shouldn’t be too hard to screen some of the footage from the even as a starting point for discussion.

Finally, I’ll be posting each presentation from the first TRED on this blog, along with a transcription. I hope you enjoy them as much as we did on the day!

Trans* Education and Determination: a review

The Trans*Trans feminist symbol, designed by Helen G Education and Determination teach-in took place on Friday 20th May: the date on which a cancelled psychiatric event was intended to take place. It featured a number of talks, presentations and workshops exploring issues such as trans academia, counselling, psychiatric practice, and feminism.

The teach-in was a great success, and will hopefully lay the groundwork for future such events. This community effort – organised on the internet by a loose team of volunteers – was a powerful rebuke to the medical and psychiatric institutions that claim to speak for trans people whilst denying us a voice.

Trans* Education and Determination was originally envisaged as a response to the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ event Transgender: Time to Change, which was due to feature two transphobic speakers: Dr Az Hakeem and Julie Bindel. This event was cancelled following the announcement of a trans community protest and the withdrawal of support from Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic. However, the decision was taken to go ahead with the teach-in.

Almost thirty people arrived at King’s College London for the launch of the teach-in on the Friday morning. This number gradually grew throughout the day as attendees freely came and went from the open event. Cheryl Morgan, Roz Kaveney and Juliet Jacques volunteered to act as chairs, taking turns to introduce speakers and facilitate questions and discussions.

PhD student Ruth Pearce informally opened the event during the introduction to her talk. She explored the theme of articulation, arguing that the teach-in offered a valuable opportunity to give voice to trans experiences and perspectives.

Ruth’s presentation offered some background on the evolution of trans academia and suggested that the internet has played a particularly powerful role in shaping the recent history of trans identity and community. She then provided some details of her planned research project, which will explore trans experiences of primary healthcare in the United Kingdom.

Attendees asked about Ruth’s research methods, which involve acquiring data from online communities. This led to a valuable discussion that explored the potential advantages, pitfalls and ethical implications of internet research.

Lunch was followed by a talk given by psychologist and sociologist Dr Lyndsey Moon. Lyndsey drew upon her experiences as a queer child, a practising counsellor and a teacher to critique the rigidity and contingency of psychiatric categorisation, particularly that found in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). This talk illustrated the DSM’s failure to account for fluidity and complexity, and the danger this poses for professional understandings of gender and sexuality.

Lyndsey also explained how her own research had demonstrated that psychologists and psychiatrists receive practically no training on the impact of social phenomena such as gender, sexual orientation, disability, race and religion. She argued that psychology and psychiatry remain broadly white, middle-class and abled professions in the UK.

Attendees expressed their broad agreement with Lyndsey’s points and joked about artificiality of psychiatric classification. A number of individuals explained how they’d been treated poorly within academia because of the transphobic assumptions made about them.

Academic Natacha Kennedy provided an extended examination of Dr Az Hakeem’s 2010 paper “Deconstructing Gender in Trans-Gender Identities”. In this article, Hakeem argued that trans people reinforce gender norms, and advocated group therapy as an alternative to transition and stated.

Natacha questioned the logic of Hakeem’s claims, and demonstrated how he failed to provide evidence about many of his statements. Her frequently amusing deconstruction demonstrated how the paper relied greatly upon ideological statements rather than evidence-based study.

The presentation concluded with some background on the approach of Kenneth Zucker, a practitioner with somewhat more extreme views than Hakeem who is contributing to the next edition of the DSM. Natacha explained how her own research findings contradict some of Zucker’s claims during an anecdotal account of a previous trans protest.

NUS LGBT representative Kai Weston shared his perspective on the intersection of trans experiences and feminism. He provided a refutation of the radical feminist position held by Julie Bindel, drawing upon examples of gender variance from non-western societies and within trans communities to counter her argument that trans people reinforce binary gender norms.

Kai’s thoughts provided the introduction to an extended group discussion of intersectionality and the impact of feminist theory on trans lives. Attendees asserted the importance of countering sexism and misogyny whilst exploring the relative benefits and disadvantages of different feminist positions. Issues such as the invisibilisation of transmasculinity and the tensions between trans and intersex activism were also touched upon.

Journalist Jane Fae provided the final talk of the day, a deeply personal critique of psychiatry. She explained how Freud in particular relied upon deeply unrepresentative samples in order to justify his theory, suggesting that Freudian psychiatry therefore owes considerably more to abstract theorising than to empirical evidence. She provocatively claimed that the psychiatric profession and its accompanying academic literature is a psuedo-scientific scam.

Jane finished her talk with an emotional attack upon the psychiatric gatekeeping that requires trans patients to spend a considerable amount of time and/or money in order to pursue a physical transition.

The audience broadly welcomed the uncompromising central thrust of Jane’s argument, although there were some counter-examples illustrating benefits that psychiatry can bring. There was some confusion over the boundaries between psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy, with a number of suggested solutions proposed.

Attendees broke away for individual discussions before the day finished with group feedback on the day, in which everyone present was offered the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings. Positive criticism of the teach-in was shared with an eye towards similar events for the future.

Some felt that a less academic or “studenty” feel might help appeal to a wider audience. A number of individuals argued that any future events should remain free, although the possibility of a sliding scale entry fee was also suggested. Many agreed upon the idea of holding future trans teach-ins outside of London, hopefully within a somewhat more accessible, non-university building. It was also felt that more could be done to reach out to groups under-represented at the event, such as minority ethnic trans people.

Everyone welcomed the positive, productive atmosphere of the event, and thanks were offered to the many volunteers who worked hard to make the day a success.
Trans feminist symbol designed by Helen G.