How it feels to be a trans feminist academic in 2018

Trans feminist symbol, designed by Helen GThis piece is based on an email I wrote, in response to a message about “smear campaigns against gender critical academics” on a feminist academic mailing list.

I have updated and posted it here in the final day of the Gender Recognition Act consultation in order to give my cis readers some idea of how the past few months – and especially the last few weeks – have felt.

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I would like to say something about how it feels to be a trans feminist academic right now, with the emergence of a growing number of “gender critical” voices in academia.

In the wake of Brexit and Trump, and with the renewed growth of far-right movements across the world, it seems that everyone feels empowered to speak out about their own personal prejudice. Trans issues are no exception.

When I first came out and transitioned as a teenager, almost two decades ago, one of the scariest things for me was using public toilets. Let that sink in for a moment. I was scared simply to use the toilet – for fear that people might shout at me, drag me out, maybe even beat me up. While that fear has dissipated for me, I have not been to a public swimming pool since my mid-teens, and have not even been swimming in the sea since my early 20s. This is because I am scared. I am scared of violent men, but I am also scared of violent women. Cis violence against trans people is a reality. I have an enormous amount of admiration and respect for trans people who are able to overcome this fear.

It was hard to come out in the early 2000s. There was an enormous amount of casual transphobia in the media. Guardian columnists wrote pieces such as “Gender Benders Beware”, TV programmes such as Little Britain and the League of Gentlemen were immensely popular, and 90s films such as Silence of the Lambs and Ace Ventura remained popular with my friends. Trans women were variously represented as a pathetic joke, a burly men in self-denial, deceptive liars or outright sexual predators.

Legislation such as the Gender Recognition Act 2004, Sex Discrimination Act Regulations 2008 and Equality Act 2010 were yet to see the right of day. It was therefore legal for employers and service providers to know all about my gender history; it was also legal to refuse to hire me because I was trans, fire me from a job because I was trans, deny me services and kick me out of shops, pubs, post offices, leisure centres (etc etc) because I was trans.

It was not easy to come out in this environment. There were exceptionally few openly trans people involved in public life – and none of them looked, sounded or acted much like me. I certainly hadn’t knowingly met any other trans people. I delayed coming out for years because I wasn’t sure if I was “really trans” (a phenomenon common among participants in my research). I thought that I might ruin my life. It was only the knowledge that my life would likely be ruined regardless, and the sheer awfulness of the alternative – becoming a man – that persuaded me to take the enormous step of coming out.

Consequently, I was very isolated during the first few years of my transition. I find it very hard to express how intensely lonely that experience was. Fortunately, my friends (mostly cis girls my own age) were immensely supportive, but it was difficult not to have any people with similar experiences to me to talk with. People who had a very deep complex relationship with our gendered movement through the social world, and/or our sexed bodies, such that we knew the assignation we received at birth was not right for us. People who felt a deep, deep relief upon transitioning socially and/or changing our bodies as appropriate.

It wasn’t until my 20s that I began to slowly, gradually meet trans people my own age – and what a relief that was! We could relax completely around one another, talk about our issues and experiences, reflect on our differences as well as our similarities. It was at this time that I encountered the term “trans bladder” – used to refer to the pain and urinary infections that could follow from not being able to use toilets outside of the home. Let that sink in.

I also began to realise the wider extent of the damage caused to other trans people by both external and internalised transphobia.

Many of my trans friends have attempted suicide, sometimes on multiple occasions. The first trans person I knew to take their own life was a member of a trans youth Internet message board I frequented when I was 16. Others would follow, including a housemate, whose body I discovered shortly before I was due to head into work to teach a class. When I see “gender critical” people disputing well-established trans suicide statistics, it feels like gaslighting. I know what happens in our communities when people are not affirmed and don’t have access to adequate support.

Other trans friends have experienced severe sexual violence, often in their youth, often in very public spaces such as school playgrounds. Trans people are at particular risk of various forms of sexual assault, violence, coercion and control – for example, 28% of trans respondents to a large Stonewall survey had experienced domestic abuse within the past year alone. When I see “gender critical” people talking about the supposed violent threat that trans women pose, I think about how when trans friends of mine are raped, our first conversation about accessing support is usually about whether or not it is safe for them to go to the local rape crisis centre. This is not something we can necessarily take for granted.

When academics and journalists “come out” as “gender critical”, scaremongering about changes to the law we have been fighting for for decades, representing trans women and girls as sexual predators, debating our access to legal rights and public spaces and women’s services, I wonder if they know who we are, what our stories are, what our experiences are like. Is it simply that they don’t know any trans people, that they are ignorant? Or is there a deeper cause for their hatred? Do they realise they sound less like feminists, and more like the fundamentalist religious right? (for an example of how fundamentalist Christians and “gender critical” feminists basically employ the same language and discursive anti-trans tropes, I recommend a look at the responses from organisations to the Scottish government’s recent consultation on gender recognition).

As for the notion that anti-trans campaigners are “gender critical”, and my use of inverted commas in my use of this term – I spent an enormous amount of time thinking about gender, sex and sexism as a teenager. I read about the social construction of gender, and it made sense to me as a concept, but it took me a long time and a lot of theorising to figure out how to make sense of that with relation to my own body and experiences. I began to figure out that sex was a social construct too, reflecting the construction of gender, many years before I would encounter the work of Emi Koyama and Judith Butler. In my 20s, I was heavily involved in the NUS Women’s Campaign, and I am now (among other things) a gender theorist. In recent years I have been interested as a scholar and campaigner in the drawbacks and possible benefits of gender equality schemes such as Athena SWAN, and the fight to tackle staff-on-student sexual misconduct.

People who object to pro-trans legislation and oppose our access to public space do not have a monopoly on being “gender critical”, any more than those who oppose abortion rights have a monopoly on being “pro life”.

The growing number of academics who hold “gender critical” positions wield an enormous amount of power over their trans students, and have the potential to cause an enormous amount of harm. There are more and more of these trans students every year – of course there are. The exponential growth in the visible trans population is an outcome of the assertiveness of trans activists, our increasing visibility in public life, and a more positive legislative environment. It was predicted on multiple occasions many years ago – by Lynn Conway in 2001, by GIRES in 2009 and 2011. This is the outcome of an invisible population gradually becoming visible – just as the number of young people prepared to be out as lesbian, gay and bisexual also continues to rise. This growth will, eventually, flatten out – but it will be a fair while before this happens, especially if the current backlash continues.

I hope that cis people reading this post reflect on what it feels like for me to be involved in feminist and women’s groups at this time, especially as conversations such as this become more common. It feels terrifying. I am petrified about where the discourse is heading within feminism as well as within the wider social world, and I am very scared about what might happen next, what violence might be perpetuated or excused in the supposed name of women’s rights.

I am hardly alone in this: I see trans friends freaking out en-masse every time I sign into social media. We know our history. Some of us survived Section 28. Many are also black, or disabled, or gay, or bi, or Jews or Muslims, or migrants. We know what happens when minority communities are scapegoated, and we know that the rise in transphobia is not an isolated phenomenon. We know that the most vulnerable among us are the easiest targets for hatred.

I worry every time I see a post goes up or message is written on a feminist Facebook group or blog or academic mailing list, every time somebody organises a feminist seminar or conference. I fear that someone will start raising “reasonable” concerns about my existence or civil rights, or lying about the supposed threat that I and others like me pose. For all that I move through the world as a woman, for all that I am a woman and have lived my entire life as a woman, for all that I am subject to sexism by clueless male colleagues and internalise the need to constantly apologise for myself at work, for all that I am harassed in public by men and fear male violence every time I leave work after dark, I start wondering what place I have in these groups. I start to wonder how many cis women think that somehow I am more privileged than them in terms of sex and gender even though I am subject to both sexism and transphobia. I wonder how many feminists hate me.

When “gender critical” blog posts are written or emails are sent, I feel like I have a choice. Either I respond – and it may well take the form of an essay like this – an enormous outflow of nervous energy, fear and anger, energy that I will not get back repeating stories I am quite frankly bored of telling. Or I may attempt to remain cool and rational, encouraging calm and thoughtful debate even as I attempt to stem the rising panic inside. Or I try to ignore the message, even as it plays on my mind for the rest of the day, rest of the week, rest of the month, knowing that the environment has become a little less safe for other trans people – and especially other trans women – and especially other trans women less privileged than myself.

Or I just leave these feminist groups and mailing lists and academic collectives, which is of course what “gender critical” women would like me to do.

But not today. Today I stay. Today I fight. And I do not do this alone. For I know also that the majority of women support our cause.

As ever, I do this with my sisters.

Solidarity.

GRA consultation: A guide for feminist and LGBTQ+ academics and allies

The UK’s Government Equality Office is consulting on possible changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA). Anyone can respond. The consultation link is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/reform-of-the-gender-recognition-act-2004.

The consultation ends at 11pm on 19 October 2018.

There has been a large backlash from people hostile to trans rights. It is important that academics who support trans rights respond to the consultation, ideally with reference to relevant evidence from scholarly research. This guide provides advice on doing so.

(Note: post updated 15/10/18 to include additional links and my full consultation response)


Background

At present, the GRA enables adults to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) and change the gender on their birth certificate from female to male, or vice-versa.

  • This has consequences for the registration of sex/gender upon marriage or civil partnership and affects some insurance and pensions.
  • It is of symbolic importance for many trans people.
  • Non-binary genders and trans people under the age of 18 are not recognised.

The GRA is not relevant to legal changes of name or sex/gender marker in any other arena.

  • Trans people are already able to change their name and sex/gender marker with organisations such as banks, schools, universities, social services, the DVLA and NHS. No medical evidence is required for this process.
  • Trans people are already able to change the sex/gender marker on their passport with a letter from a doctor.

Trans people have criticised the GRA for being unnecessarily bureaucratic and intrusive.

  • Applicants submit evidence – including medical records, letters from mental health specialists, and proof that they have lived in their ‘acquired’ gender for at least two years – to the Gender Recognition Panel.
  • The process costs £140 (plus additional costs) and there is no right to appeal.
  • An official list of people who have changed their sex/gender in this way is kept on a ‘gender recognition register’.

Note: I use the term ‘sex/gender’ as current UK law does not distinguish between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’: the two are used interchangeably.

 

Backlash

Since the GRA consultation was announced, numerous single-issue anti-trans groups have emerged to oppose amendments to the GRA and argue for a wider push back against the social recognition of trans people’s genders and access to sexed/gendered spaces.

Anti-trans groups have spread misinformation about the GRA.

  • e.g. the purpose and function of the GRA has been conflated with the Equality Act 2010, which governs trans people’s access to sexed/gendered public spaces.

These groups have a powerful voice in the mainstream media.

These groups have access to significant funding that trans groups do not.

  • Tens of thousands of pounds have been spent on billboards and newspaper adverts opposing trans rights.
  • Anti-abortion American fundamentalist groups such as ‘Hands Across the Aisle’ and far-right publications such as Breitbart and The Federalist have extensively promoted the work of ‘feminist’ anti-trans groups and shared crowdfunding pages.

These groups claim to represent feminism.

  • They wrongly argue that gender recognition poses a threat to women’s rights.
  • Trans women are often represented as potential or actual sexual predators.
  • Trans men and non-binary people often are represented as tragic or deluded.
  • By contrast, numerous groups who work with vulnerable women (e.g. Scottish Women’s Aid) have supported trans affirming reforms to gender recognition.

These groups are encouraging their supporters to respond to the GRA consultation.

  • This happened in response to a similar consultation by the Scottish government. While in that instance most respondents supported extending trans rights, thousands of anti-trans responses were also submitted.


Responding to the consultation as academics

As academics, it is important that we support good governance grounded in empirical evidence and the principles of equality and equity for all. As feminists and/or LGBTQ+ people, it is important that we recognise that current attacks on trans rights echo and are linked to similar attacks on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.

In responding to the consultation:

Concisely reference scholarly evidence where possible.

  • Assert your own expertise where relevant.
  • In the linked PDF below, I have used in-text citations for brevity. However, Government bodies tend to prefer links or full-reference footnotes, so please bear this in mind.

Ensure your response to each question makes sense as a stand-alone comment.

  • Don’t build an argument across the entirety of your consultation response or cross-reference your previous answers.
  • Consultation responses will be analysed on a question-by-question basis.

Responses from organisations are given more weight by the government.

  • If it is possible to submit a response on behalf of your department, school, centre, professional organisation or academic special interest group, please do so in addition to your personal response.

If you have limited time and energy just responding to the tick-box questions will make a difference.

Please share this information with your colleagues to ensure a large, evidence-based trans-positive response to the consultation.


Resources

Here are two documents I have produced to help you and your colleagues in responding to the consultation.

GRA consultation – suggested starting points for responding to consultation questions
This document includes information on each consultation question, including relevant evidence and citations that you might want to use in your submission.

GRA consultation – a guide for feminist and LGBT+ academics
This document includes the full content of this blog post plus the suggested starting points for responding to consultation questions.

For guides to the consultation from non-academic organisations, see:
Amnesty International
LGBT Foundation
Mermaids
Stonewall
National Union of Students
GIRES and TELI (focuses on recognition for trans youth)

You can see my complete personal response to the consultation here: GRA response.

The GRA, LGBT Survey, Action Plan and conversion therapy ban – what just happened?

On Tuesday, the UK Government (finally!) launched a long-awaited consultation on reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA). This has been timed to coincide with several other events, including the publication of initial data from the Government Equality Office LGBT Survey, the launch of the Government’s new LGBT “Action Plan”, and the formal launch of the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy.

While it makes sense – politically speaking – for all of these things to happen at once, it can be pretty confusing. The sheer amount of information to process alone is monumental. Part of my job is to engage with these events, and since yesterday morning my head has been spinning! So in this post I aim to briefly summarise what has happened, why it happened, and what this might mean for the future – especially with regards to trans rights.


GRA Consultation

Planned reforms to the GRA was announced in the wake of the 2017. The Government promised a consultation, which has taken a year to materialise.

Nevertheless, it’s now open and anyone can respond to it. The consultation outlines a number of issues that civil servants have identified with the GRA as it stands, and asks for your views on these.

You can read about and respond to the GRA consultation here.

There are a couple of issues with the GRA which trans rights advocates have highlighted as notably absent from the consulation, which you may wish to invite the Government to also address. These are:

  • The lack of provision for gender recognition for trans people under the age of 18.
  • No mention of the Gender Recognition Register, which currently lists all people who have successfully applied for gender recognition. This may prove a danger to trans people if a more authoritarian government were to come to power, as in the US.

In the past year there has been a moral panic in the UK media in response to proposals for GRA reform. You can find out more about this (and my thoughts on why the consultation is happening now) in my earlier post on the topic.


LGBT Survey

In 2017 the Government Equality Office launched the National LGBT Survey. This was the largest survey of LGBT (in)equalities ever conducted – not just in the UK, but the world. A total of 108,100 valid responses were recieved, of whom approximately 14,000 were trans (which also makes it the largest ever survey of trans people in the UK by an astonishing margin). Credit for this is due to the civil servants who quietly pushed through its implementation at a time of political turmoil and reshuffles in the wake of the general election, as well as the LGBTQIA+ organisations who promoted it extensively.

An initial research summary report was published on Tuesday. This provides a basic account of the research findings. The full research report was released late on Wednesday. This huge document provides a far deeper and more extensive look at the survey results. However, there is such an enormous amount of data available that researchers will probably be analysing the findings for years to come.

The timing of these publications is not a coincidence. The research included questions about gender recognition; the findings demonstrated a strong demand for reform from the trans population, with negligible opposition to proposals from cis respondents. The Government will therefore use this to back their attempt to reform the GRA.

You can read the reports of the LGBT Survey here (along with various data annexes).

You can read my initial reflections on the summary report in this Twitter thread.


LGBT Action Plan

In response to the findings of the LGBT Survey, the UK Government has produced a 75-point Action Plan. This describes the actions they propose to take to promote LGBT equality, which include drafting new laws, producing new policy and guidance, and ringfencing money from the Government Equality Office budget for carrying out equalities work.

It’s very easy to be cynical about “action plans” such as these, but they can actually have a real impact. For example, the Coalition Government’s 2011 Transgender Action Plan was widely regarded as useless by trans activists in following years, but (as I show in my research) its requirement for the implementation of new gender identity service protocols by April 2013 helped bring about important improvements in NHS England gender clinics. This included an end to the requirement for a local mental health assessment prior to a gender clinic referral, which reduced the number of waiting lists that transitioning patients have to endure.

The legislative centrepieces of the Action Plan are the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act, and a proposed ban on conversion therapy. Both potentially represent important steps forward for the law, but would also require relatively minimal action from the Government to tackle pressing issues highlighted elsewhere in the survey data (such as the enormous economic inequality experienced by LGBTQIA+ people). There are, of course, matters which weren’t asked about in the survey either, such as the UK’s treatment of LGBTQIA+ migrants and asylum seekers.

Therefore, in addition to holding the Government to account for implementing the LGBT Action Plan, we need to continue campaigning on matters such as austerity, immigration rights and the provision of public services.

You can read the LGBT Action Plan here.


Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy

On Wednesday afternoon I attended the formal launch of an effective ban on conversion or reparative therapy that has been agreed upon by the UK’s major professional bodies for therapists, counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists. This is a really big deal because it represents an attempt to stamp out practices that aim to “cure” or “convert” a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation.

The Memorandum of Understanding was originally agreed upon in 2016. This document only addressed LGB conversion therapy. but (following a series of careful meetings and difficult negotiations) an updated version was published in 2017, which explicitly addressed conversion therapy targeting people on the grounds of gender identity. This was effectively a “soft launch”, ensuring that the document was made available to those who needed it.

Today “officially” launched the document in the House of Commons, with numerous MPs and representatives of religious and therapeutic organisations present. The idea was to promote the Memorandum of Understanding more actively, and draw attention to the issue of conversion therapy among all of these groups.

I was not very much involved in the drafting of the Memorandum of Understanding, but did attend one of the early meetings that discussed how it might be extended to ensure asexual and trans inclusion. At this meeting we struggled with the lack of formal evidence that trans people in particular were undergoing conversion therapy, although I supported others in arguing that the prevalence of deeply concerning anecdotal accounts alone necessitated action.

By coincidence(?) today’s formal launch event coincided with yesterday’s publication of the first ever statistics on LGBTQIA+ conversion therapy in the UK, as part of the LGBT Survey summary report. These figures are stark: 5% of respondents reported being offered conversion therapy, and 2% underwent it. That might sound like a small figure, but given the enormous response to the survey, what it means is that thousands of vulnerable LGBTQIA+ people have experienced these damaging practices in the UK. Worryingly, the survey also shows that young people continue to experience conversion therapy, and that the situation is more severe for trans people. Around 10% of trans respondents reported having been offered conversion therapy, and 4% stated that the had been subject to it.

Dr Igi/Lyndsey Moon from the Coalition Against Conversion Therapy, who played a key role in ensuring that the document was updated to include trans people, spoke passionately at the event. In addition to talking through some of the above figures, they also argued that simply attempting to “ban” conversion therapy may not result in the change we need to see. What needs to happen now is the long, hard work of cultural change – both within religious organisations, and within healthcare services.

You can read the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy here.
Edit: I updated this post on the morning of Thursday 5th July to include a link to the full research report, which is now also available.

Video: Transgender Moral Panic – A Brief Social History

In February 2018, I was invited to deliver a guest lecture at the University of Warwick as part of the “Hidden Histories” series.

In the last year there has been an enormous upsurge in media commentary that expresses concern about the role of trans people in public life. Gendered changing rooms, non-binary people, trans children and notions of self-definition have all come under intense scrutiny.

In the talk, I explored the background to the recent wave of media coverage. I argued that the transgender moral panic has been shaped by deep-seated cultural anxieties around sex and gender, taking in trans-exclusionary radical feminism, homophobic discourse, scientific racism, Brexit, and proposed changes to gender recognition laws.


Recommended further reading

Meg-John Barker (2017)
2017 Review: The Transgender Moral Panic

Combahee River Collective (1977)
The Combahee River Collective Statement

Emi Koyama (2000)
Whose Feminism Is It Anyway? The Unspoken Racism of the Trans Inclusion Debate

Emi Koyama (2001)
The Transfeminist Manifesto

C. Riley Snorton (2017)
Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity

Christan Williams and Gillian Frank (2016)
The Politics of Transphobia: Bathroom Bills and the Dialectic of Oppression


Corrections

I made two minor errors in unprepared asides during the talk, which I correct here for the sake of transparency.

  • Lily Madigan was elected to the position of Women’s Office in her constitutency Labour party at the age of 19, not 17.
  • David Davis was a co-founder of Radio Warwick (RaW), not David Davies.