NUS Women’s Campaign condemns transphobia in the Equality Act

Student representatives at the annual NUS Women’s Campaign Conference voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion that condemns transphobia in the Equality Act and within the women’s movement yesterday.

The motion in question – entitled “Transmisogyny in the Equality Act” – addressed the horrific exemption which ensures that:

“A counsellor working with victims of rape might have to be a woman and not a transsexual person, even if she has a gender recognition certificate, in order to avoid causing them further distress.”

The trans community has blogged about this exemption at length, exploring how it could result in trans people being denied access to numerous public services, and how it massively undermines the Gender Recognition Act. We’ve also discovered that the clause in question was pushed by certain individuals representing Rape Crisis Centres.

It’s really positive that a feminist organisation is keen to unite behind trans rights. It should, of course, be a given that this is the case since we fight the same fight against patriarchy and gender essentialism, but the attitude of those women’s groups who pushed the offensive clause in the Equality Act shows that we cannot take trans-positive feminism for granted. I was therefore really pleased that NUS Women’s Campaign policy now includes a commitment to lobby the government on changing this unfair law alongside the aforementioned condemnation.

For those who might be interested, the new policy is as follows:

1. To condemn the offensive clause within the Equality Act 2010 in the strongest possible terms.
2. To lobby the government for an amendment to the Equality Act 2010 that ensures that trans women have fair and equal access to women’s shelters and rape crisis centres.
3. To support campaigns which seek to persuade transphobic women’s shelters and rape crisis centres to revise their approach.
4. To oppose any campaigns that seek to shut down transphobic shelters and rape crisis centres.

Full details of the motion can be found here.

I take this commitment entirely seriously because the NUS Women’s Campaign has demonstrated many times that it is fully behind trans rights during the last two or three years. This is a feminist campaign that refuses to share a platform with Julie Bindel (and was prepared to face legal action from her after doing so), supported a trans block at Reclaim The Night London, and ensured that trans individuals were included in groundbreaking research on women students’ experiences of harassment and violence. It’s a women’s organisation that broadly “gets” non-binary gender identities, and has a permanent trans representative on its elected committee (two people are holding this position as a jobshare this year).

I also noticed at this year’s conference that a number of cis women were keen to mention trans issues in relevant speeches. Meanwhile, prominent trans activist Roz Kaveney was invited to participate in a panel on intersectionality.

This post has turned into a bit of a positive gush but I honestly only have good things to say about how this liberation campaign has dealt with trans issues, and that’s a rarity that deserves celebration. I can only hope that the campaign sustains this momentum in future years, and wish its members the absolute best for this future.

Woman remanded in men’s prison

The key to this one is in the title of the post.  Of course, the woman in question happens to be trans, so the whole female/male prison division comes into play differently, because transphobia is endemic within our criminal justice system in the same way that it’s endemic in every other part of public life.

It’s quite normal for trans women to be sent to men’s prisons, despite the massive risks they face when this happens.  Within the UK, this goes to show how little the Gender Recognition Act and Equality Act count for under particular circumstances.  Nina Kanagasingham is being punished heavily before her trial even begins.  Once you also factor in the obscene attitude of the media towards Kanagasingham and her alleged victim it’s easy to see “the ease with which our lives and identities can be stripped from us and used as a public plaything“.

This particular case is complicated by the fact that Kanagasingham has been accessed of the murder of Sonia Burgess, a greatly respected lawyer and human rights activist who also happens to be trans.  I’ve already seen the inevitable nasty comments written by trans people who argue that Kanagasingham deserves every horrible thing that might happen to her because of her alleged deed.  However, there’s an important principle of justice at stake here.  It’s never suddenly become okay to be transphobic, and it’s never suddenly okay to strip someone of their identity and their gender.  It’s also particularly sick that an individual is effectively being punished by the criminal justice and the media before she’s convicted of anything.  She’s not being punished for murder: she’s being punished for being trans.

Stonewall inappropriately address trans issues in anti-bullying DVD

Stonewall and its representatives have been taking increasingly bizarre decisions in recent months.  I recently wrote about the furore caused by Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill’s surprising comments at the Liberal Democrat party conference, where he argued against campaigning for equal marriage.  Since then, a number of heated exchanges have taken place between the organisation and its critics: a good summary of some of these can be found in the Why the silence Stonewall? blog.  Meanwhile, the charity’s attitude towards trans issues has been questioned once again after the organisation nominated a transphobic journalist for its Journalist of the Year award (hmmm, this sounds familiar), whilst at the Labour Party conference Summerskill claimed that Stonewall has been in talks with ministers and officials about potential amendments to the Gender Recognition Act in relation to civil partnership.

This last point is particularly strange.  Why are Stonewall – an organisation who are so very keen to exclude trans people and remain LGb only – involved in trans lobbying?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of any move towards Stonewall becoming an LGBT organisation at the very least (more on that later), but surely if they’re engaging in this kind of deeply important, high-profile lobbying on our behalf then they should damn well let us be a part of their organisation and officially campaign on our behalf.  Otherwise, who knows what the heck they’re saying?  For that matter, what right do they have to speak for us?  Shouldn’t we be able to speak for ourselves?

It may well be the case that the “large” trans organisations (which, in the broad scheme of the third sector, really are very small) don’t have the power to push a trans-positive agenda on the scale they’d like to and have somehow managed to rope Stonewall into helping us out.  For me, this is a perfect argument in favour of a united LGBT alliance, rather than separate groups where the LGb inevitably gets the power and the T ends up left out in the cold, despite our ultimately similar interests.

This brings me nicely onto the main subject of this blog: another instance of Stonewall deciding that they’re going to speak out about trans issues.  On this occasion, they demonstrate how attempting to speak for someone else can backfire magnificently.

Earlier this year, Stonewall sent out a copy of “Fit” to every school in Britain as part of a wider campaign to tackle homophobic bullying in schools.  On the whole, the DVD – like the rest of the campaign – is admirable in its aims, scope, and general thoughtfulness.  This is something which they’ve (almost!) done really well.  However, for some incomprehensible reason the people who put together the DVD decided that it would be appropriate to include a brief discussion of trans issues.

The main content of the DVD consists of a story about sexuality, identity and bullying, involving a fairly large cast of teenagers who attend a 6th form college.  This central narrative is split into a number of smaller stories, each focusing based around a particular character; the brief discussion of trans issues takes part within one such story.  In this scene, Lee – a tomboy who has previously discovered that her best friend is gay after following her – attends a gay youth group for the first time.  Whilst she is there, the following discussion takes place:

Male 1 [is talking about his mother]: “She keeps saying: ‘but you don’t look gay’. I think that she wishes I was a tranny, so then we could be girlfriends.”

[group laughs]

Lee:  “What’s a tranny?”

Female 1:  “It’s short for transgender.”

Female 2:  “I know this one! Transsexuals are people who want a sex change, tranvestites are people who dress up as the opposite sex.  Drag kings and queens – well they dress up for a living!”

[group applauds]

Lee:  [looks confused] “I need to take some notes, has anyone got a pen like?”

[Lee is given a pen]

Lee:  “So what’s a transsexual?”

Female 3:  “Boys who feel more like girls and girls who feel more like boys.”

Lee:  “Transvestite?”

Female 3:  “Well, they feel content with their born gender, but prefer to wear the clothes of the opposite sex.”

Lee:  “So am I a transvestite?”

Female 2:  “No. Lots of girls are tomboys when they’re young, then they grow out of it.”

Female 4:  “I didn’t! I’m a total boy and I love it!”

Female 2:  “…and I’m not a boy, I like being a girl.”

Female 4:  “…and that’s fine too! Look, there’s as many way to be a girl as there are girls.”

[The conversation then turns to the issue of gay marriage. The group seems to be broadly in favour, and they think civil partnerships are an unfair compromise.]

[Edit: the inappropriate scene can now be seen here on Youtube]

In a different context – let’s say a random TV drama – this scene would make me cringe a bit but I wouldn’t think much more of it.  After all, general cluelessness about trans stuff is pretty much par for course, and in the broad scheme of things this particular instance isn’t so bad.  Within the context of a DVD that seeks to tackle homophobic bullying, however, this is completely out of order.

“Fit” handles homophobic insults and the common negative use of words such as “gay” in a pretty nuanced manner, putting all kinds of nasty language into its characters’ mouths and then carefully demonstrating how this impacts the beliefs and actions of others.  At the same time, you learn how gay teenagers might think and feel through empathasising with gay characters.

By contrast, the tokenistic discussion of trans issues takes place in a setting where there are apparently no trans characters (Lee remains a tomboy of sorts throughout the narrative and her sexuality is somewhat ambiguous, but at no point is it seriously implied that she identifies as trans in any way because of this).  We are portrayed as an alien “Other”, a topic of discussion  which cis characters claim they know all about even though they get it wrong.  And no-one addresses these mistakes at any point.

To the trans reader, said mistakes may be pretty obvious, but this might not necessarily be the case for cis readers.  As such, here’s a brief low-down of some of the issues:

1) “Tranny” is very much a contested word.  It’s commonly used as an insult by tabloid newspapers, idiotic bloggers and random arseholes on the street: as such it has a similar sting to words such as “faggot”.  It’s a word with a lot of power to cause pain: something that simply isn’t acknowledged when a character in “Fit” blithely asserts that it’s “short for transgender”.  Which it isn’t, anyway…it can be levelled at pretty much any given trans (or trans-looking) target, although transfeminine individuals tend to suffer from this most commonly.  There are trans people who reclaim “tranny” as a positive identity.  I personally support this, although I wouldn’t do so myself. However, I think it’s always important to be very aware of context when such words are used.  Putting them randomly in the mouths of cis characters in this way is pretty damn inappropriate.

2) “Fit” demonstrates the complexity of sexual identity, showing how gay (and straight!) people all look different, act differently and have different interests.  It even acknowledges (a little) that bisexuality exists, which has to be some kind of achievement for Stonewall.  However, the brief descriptions of trans identities are incomplete, insufficient and somewhat inaccurate (try telling a trans guy that he’s a girl who feels like a boy and he’ll probably tell you to where to go).  Moreover, these descriptions are binary-centric and fail to account for the further complexity of transness.

3) Where are the trans characters?  As previously explained, this discussion pretty much consists of cis people talking about trans people…in complete contrast to the rest of the DVD, which is all about allowing the voices of gay people to be heard and their experiences to be seen.

I’m very much in favour of Stonewall becoming an LGBT organisation.  LGBT people have many differences (and that doesn’t just refer to trans people being different to everyone else: gay men and gay women have some different issues, bi people have different issues again…) but there is a lot that brings us together.  We have a shared history, and broadly shared experiences of discrimination and “coming out”.  Looking at some of the other materials from Stonewall’s anti-bullying kit, I saw how easy it would have been to build in trans issues.  Like gay children, trans children in schools are often bullied for appearing to subvert gender norms, are likely to feel isolated and alone and have difficulty explaining their identity to others when seeking help.  Gay, bisexual and trans issues in school really are often quite similar, and we’d surely be better off pooling our knowledge and expertise to work on resources such as that produced by Stonewall rather than having separate LGB and T packs (on those very rare occasions where a trans organisation can afford to produce such a pack, that is).

What I’m certainly not in favour of is the kind of nonsense found in “Fit”.  What gives Stonewall the right to exclude trans people from their organisation and then turn around and decide that they’re going to campaign ineffectively and inappropriate on our behalf, without our input?

As such, I’ll be demonstrating against Stonewall duplicity in London on 4th November.  If you’re free and can make it to the protest, I hope you might be able to do so too.

(demo link for those who don’t use Facebook)

Stonewall Chief Executive claims that marriage equality is too expensive

Ben Summerskill: Stonewall not fighting for gay marriage because ‘it could cost £5 billion’

This one leaves me utterly flabberghasted, even in spite of Stonewall’s long history of questionable positions and decisions.

The organisation has done some really good work in terms of raising awareness; opposing homophobia in schools, in the media, and in sport; and lobbying politicians.  However, they also have a nasty habit of gobbling up a vast proportion of the funding available to LGBT organisations, pushing aside or ignoring local groups who are already working on particular issues, and toadying up to government representatives and corporate interests.

This is the organisation that charges a huge amount of money for inclusion in their ‘Diversity Champions‘ programme for employers (which can’t do many small businesses and public sector bodies any favours), ignores input from those effected by many of their schemes (e.g. LGBT student societies were entirely sidelined in a recent guide to gay-friendly universities), and insists that it’s still entirely appropriate to campaign as an ‘LGB’ organisation (despite the fact that most of the issues they campaign upon impact trans people, and they’re getting all that ‘LGBT’ funding!)

The organisation’s name couldn’t be any less appropriate. Stonewall was a riot in which some of the most marginalised gay, lesbian, bi and trans people (e.g. drag queens, butches, prostitutes and homeless street kids) took a stand against institutional bigotry and discrimination.  To name an assimilationist, corporatist, trans-exclusive organisation after this event seems like some kind of sick joke.

Ben Summerskill – the current Chief Executive of Stonewall – seems to embody everything that is bad about the organisation.  I was able to attend a Parliamentary Committee briefing last year where representatives of LGB, trans and feminist organisations gave evidence in relation to the Equality Bill, and was deeply shocked to hear some of Summerskill’s arguments:

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): This is really to Stonewall. I wondered what concerns Stonewall might have, if any, about the new disparities that will be created by the Bill—for example, in terms of harassment, the exclusion of sexual orientation. I would like your views on that.

Ben Summerskill: I can certainly say on the issue of harassment we are not convinced that there is a need for protection in this area. Members of the Committee who have dealt with Stonewall in the past will know that we tend only to ask for things where we can provide hard evidence of need, and we tend then only to ask for prescriptions that might put things right.

Lynne Featherstone’s face was a picture; I think she hardly expected a representative of Stonewall to claim that that there was no need for protection against harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation when the proposed Bill saw fit to (rightly) include such protections on the grounds of other ‘diversity strands’, such as race.

Summerskill was also quick to defend Stonewall’s decision to nominate Julie Bindel for their ‘Journalist of the Year’ award. He ultimately admitted on a number of occasions that this nomination was pretty disrespectful towards trans people (others who have issues with Bindel, such as many intersex individuals and sex workers, didn’t get a look-in) but claimed that un-nominating her would ultimately be far too dramariffic. Yeah, right.

Given this noble history, I wasn’t too surprised to hear that Summerskill doesn’t believe in fighting for marriage equality.  After all, Stonewall were quite content to compromise on civil partnerships; they didn’t seem to think there was a chance of achieving full marriage equality…and so didn’t bother fighting for it.  It was, however, the sheer audacity of Summerskill’s arguments that shocked me.

I understand those who believe that marriage is an oppressive, patriarchal institution (an example of this position can be found here).  Moreover, the experiences of the LGBT lobby in the USA demonstrate that equal marriage campaigns can be a massive drain on resources that keep activists from addressing more urgent issues, such as everyday violence on the streets, queer poverty or homelessness.  Summerskill apparently drew upon both of these arguments, but in a somewhat confused and contradictory manner.  If Stonewall believes that marriage equality campaigns are a drain upon resources, why did they bother campaigning for civil partnerships?  Moreover, since when did Stonewall take a radical feminist or queer stance on anything?

I personally believe that the oppressive nature of marriage is a contingent and historical situation rather than a necessary one: it’s possible for there to be a tradition which celebrates a relationship in an open, non-prescriptive fashion.  Moreover, if married individuals are to be afforded certain benefits or privileges by the state, it’s important that all relationships are afforded equal recognition as long as this questionable system of privileging remains.  The current system in the UK, whereby separate institutions of marriage and civil partnership exist for ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ couples, merely enforces the idea that ‘gay relationships’ are that much different to ‘straight’ ones.  And that’s before we get on to the massive complexities caused by the Gender Recognition Act, which forces trans people to divorce or annul their partnership should they want to acquire a Gender Recognition Certificate (lest we end up with a gay marriage or a straight civil partnership!) Marriage equality will mean that trans people can just get married without having to worry about their own legal gender status and how it relates to the legal gender of their partner.

The really impressive bit, though, is where Summerskill argues that marriage equality will be ‘too expensive’.  Since when did equality come with a price tag?  Since when was it acceptable for a civil rights organisation to throw up its hands and say “sorry guys, we’re in recession right now, we’ll just have to wait until the economic climate is more appropriate for our liberation”?

I’ve heard a whole load of people argue that Stonewall does not represent them, particularly in recent months days hours.  I’d like the join them.  As a trans person, Stonewall officially doesn’t give a damn about representing me…however, as a bisexual individual, they’re meant to be acting in my interests.  I don’t see that happening any time soon, and therefore would like them to stop pretending that they’re campaigning for my rights when they seem so keen to do the exact opposite.

The human cost of wars within feminism

Australian blogger A. E. Brain has caused a stir by digging up a clause within the new UK Equality Act that effectively gives organisations which offer gendered services the opportunity to legally discriminate against trans people. The offending clause reads as follows:

Equality Act 2010 (c. 15)
Schedule 3 — Services and public functions: exceptions
Part 7 — Separate and single services

Gender reassignment
28
(1) A person does not contravene section 29, so far as relating to gender reassignment discrimination, only because of anything done in relation to a matter within sub-paragraph (2) if the conduct in question is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

(2) The matters are—
(a) the provision of separate services for persons of each sex;
(b) the provision of separate services differently for persons of each sex;
(c) the provision of a service only to persons of one sex.

Equality Act 2010 (c. 15)
Schedule 9 — Work: exceptions
Part 1 — Occupational requirements
(3) The references in sub-paragraph (1) to a requirement to have a protected
characteristic are to be read—
(a) in the case of gender reassignment, as references to a requirement not to be a transsexual person (and section 7(3) is accordingly to be ignored);

A helpful example is given in in the Act’s notes:

Gender reassignment: paragraph 28

749. This paragraph replaces a similar provision in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.
Example
A group counselling session is provided for female victims of sexual assault. The organisers do not allow transsexual people to attend as they judge that the clients who attend the group session are unlikely to do so if a male-to-female transsexual person was also there. This would be lawful.

Schedule 9: Work: exceptions
Part 1: Occupational requirements

A counsellor working with victims of rape might have to be a woman and not a transsexual person, even if she has a gender recognition certificate, in order to avoid causing them further distress.

I was aware some time ago that this clause might exist since I campaigned heavily on issues relating to the Equality Bill prior to it’s passage. Due to other demands on my time however I didn’t managed to keep track of this clause. I’m extremely disappointed but not surprised to see that its still present in the final text of the Act.

As the analysis from Questioning Transphobia makes clear, this is actually a backward step: it effectively overrides the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which previously allowed trans people who had a Gender Recognition Certificate to “count” as appropriately female or male for all legal purposes. Now we have a situation whereby an organisation with the right excuses (e.g. a rape crisis centre) can potentially get away with keeping out trans people (and kicking out anyone they discover to be trans).

Without another change in the law through legislative means (and I don’t imagine this is going to happen any time soon), any trans person who wishes to challenge this situation legally will probably have to bring a challenge through the European courts, which will be incredibly messy. It’ll cost huge amounts of time and money (for the individual concerned, any organisations supporting them, and the rape crisis centre itself) and it’ll be politically disasterous for pretty much everyone. It’ll probably be an even more fucked-up re-run of what happened in Canada a few years back.

This is particularly sad because much of the Equality Bill represents a step forwards. For example, trans childen have gained extra protections to deal with discrimination in schools, many individuals with non-binary identities are now legally protected from discrimination in the workplace and the provision of goods and services if they can demonstrate that they’re living in a “new” gender role (with no medical intervention necessary, huzzah!) and there’s now a positive duty for various bodies to work towards trans inclusion. Why, then, is there this gigantic screw-up?

It’s not the fault of any of the trans rights organisations (e.g. Press For Change, GIRES) who were campaigning on the Equality Bill. They were furious at the time, and I figure they still are now. They, along with other groups and individuals campaigning on the Bill, lobbied the Government Equality Office (GEO) to no avail, and also lobbied the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to lobby the GEO, but the EHRC didn’t have a lot of luck either.

It’s not the fault of the NHS or private medical organisations, who might conceivably take advantage of this loophole to deny trans women access to particular “women’s” services. They didn’t push for this clause, and apparently no other groups did either…apart from a number of rape crisis centres.

This is the most sickening aspect of the whole affair: I’m aware from my involvement in the Equality Bill campaign that  rape crisis centres, which exist to help some of the most vulnerable and damaged individuals in society, pushed for the inclusion of this clause: a clause which doesn’t merely allow them to deny access to trans people, but also sets a disturbing legal precedent by rolling back the GRA and offers the opportunity for others to legally deny services to trans people.

Now it’s important that I clarify at this point that not all rape crisis centres are transphobic. I know that some in particular work extremely hard towards ensuring they offer a trans-friendly environment. I also honestly have no idea which centres in particular were pushing for this clause, and it would be dangerous (and hence deeply inappropriate) to guess. I cannot stress how incredibly important and vital the services offered by rape crisis centres are.

The argument offered by certain women’s rights activists will be that trans women may threaten or disturb some survivors because they look like men. This argument is a variation on the idea of universal womanhood, and as black feminists demonstrated long ago, it simply doesn’t hold up. There will be those black or asian survivors who feel threatened by white people because they have been victims of racist violence, and others who feel threatened by some other women because they were sexually assaulted or raped by another woman. As far as I’m aware, no woman is rejected from rape crisis centres in the UK because of her sexuality or the colour of her skin, and for good reason. Kicking out trans people is transphobic, plain and simple. This situation has come about because of the vile dogma of a certain brand of radical feminism, and quite frankly I’m horrified.

Because of the doctrine that trans women aren’t real women, that trans women don’t suffer sexual violence (in the face of huge amounts of evidence to the contrary), a certain school of feminism has been responsible for pushing back our rights. As a trans woman, I’m pretty upset. As a feminist, I’m furious.

The idealogical “trans wars” within feminism deal with real lives and result in real hurt, real pain. With various services given legal recourse to deny services to all trans people, those women who have argued for this change in the law on supposedly feminist grounds will have blood on their hands. Shame on them.

My response to a Nationwide customer survey

I’ve always enjoyed banking with Nationwide. The service has been good and the website easy to use. However, I’ve had it up to here with the transphobic bullshit used to advertise Nationwide services. The television advert based on the “bad transvestites” from Little Britain portrays an interaction between staff and customers which would be highly inappropriate if experiences by actual trans people – whether transvestites, transsexed women, or genderqueer individuals. We have quite enough of this crap in our everyday lives, thanks. Seeing two offensive characters toddling across the computer screen whilst I’m trying to check my account doesn’t help.

This, combined with Nationwide’s continued (and clearly unlawful) demand that trans people present them with a Gender Recognition Certificate when changing their name with the bank, means I will soon be closing my account and moving elsewhere.

Good riddance.