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.

 

There’s something oddly reassuring about Radfem Hub

A (cis, feminist) friend of mine posted in horror on Facebook this afternoon. Said friend had just visited Radfem Hub for the first time. “UNBELIEVABLE,” she exclaimed.

I’m fairly certain I had a similar reaction when I first went to the site. It’s always unpleasant to stumble across a series of staggeringly unpleasant attacks upon your being and personhood; as such, I recommend that any readers approach Radfem Hub with extreme caution.

At the same time, I don’t find it particularly threatening any more.

I mean, let’s take a look at what Radfem Hub actually stands for. It’s described as “a radical feminist collective blog”, and as such you might expect to find articles on all kinds of different subjects related to patriarchy and the oppression of women. Instead, the current front page of the site displays article after article dedicated to the evils of trans people, trans activists, trans allies, and the insidious influence of trans ideology upon the wider feminist world. You have to scroll way down the page before there’s even mention of a pro-choice agenda and a now-obligatory potshot at  50 Shades of Grey*. And then the transphobic posts start up again.

Radfem Hub isn’t really a radical feminist site. It’s an anti-trans hate site.

I don’t say this because I’m interested in redefining radical feminism. I say this because, surely, a radical feminist site – even a radical feminist site populated by transphobes – would have something else to talk about beyond hating on trans people. There are so many other things to worry about in the world! I mean, take for example the London Feminist Network yahoo group: it’s pretty clear that trans people aren’t welcome there unless they toe a particular line, but the group’s members at least have far more to discuss than whatever it is we’ve done to annoy them lately. In contrast, the population of Radfem Hub seem to have little to do other than hate on trans people.

Ultimately, it’s not that threatening. Sure, the actions of those such as bugbrennan (who has a nasty habit of publicly outing trans people) are pretty disturbing, but the site itself is bound to only ever appeal to a small group of bigots. There’s no way it’s going to appeal to the radical feminist mainstream, who are way too busy tackling stuff like the gender pay gap, capitalist exploitation of women’s bodies, nasty propaganda from “pro-life” groups and the like.

In a way, I’m reminded of The Christian Institute. This lot are a non-denominational group who state that they exist for “the furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom”.  Their actual activities seem to consist largely of posting homophobic witterings on the Internet and shouting in vain at the government to do something about that awful homosexual agenda.

The Christian Institute cast their net a little wider than Radfem Hub (going for Muslims and pro-choice activists almost as much as they go for LGBT people) but it’s pretty obvious what they are. They’re a hate group. And as such, they’re never going to gain too much sway within the world of mainstream Christianity, even as the Catholic and Anglican churches desperately try to block the government’s plans for the legalisation of gay marriage.

So here’s the thing. As long as groups like Radfem Hub and the Christian Institute remain dedicated to hate, they’re only going to gain so much traction. I’d be much, much more worried if they had much to say on issues that might actually interest anyone beyond their core audience.

* For the record, I agree with Radfem Hub that 50 Shades of Grey is deeply dodgy, although I dislike their predictable “kink is necessarily bad!” approach to the issue.

What’s in a consultation?

The media is currently getting itself into a massive tizzy over government proposals to allow gay couples to have civil partnerships in religious buildings. The predictable right-wing wonks are being wheeled out to moan about it being a slippery slope that will end up with any given Christian priest (no-one cares about what Jews, Muslims or (God forbid) Pagans might think, it seems) being forced to marry a couple of scary gay men with Nazi tattoos.

Meanwhile, left-leaning and right-leaning papers are falling over themselves to predict that full gay marriage (and, weirdly, heterosexual civil partnership) will be next, despite the fact that there has been no confirmation of this from anyone in government. I mean, let’s take a look at the actual statement from the equalities minister, Lynne Featherstone:

“Over the past few months I’ve spoken to a lot of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and campaign groups, and it quickly became clear that there is a real desire to address the differences between civil marriage and civil partnerships. I’m delighted to announce that we are going to be the first British government to formally look at what steps can be taken to address this.”

Yep, there’s certainly a lot in there confirming that gay marriage is around the corner. I’m hoping that it will be (hell, we could immediately take the next logical step and start pushing for legal recognition of polyamory or something!) but have my doubts. After all, the Tories aren’t really that keen on gay marriage. The Liberal Democrats have policy on it and Nick Clegg says that he’s in support, but if you can’t trust the Lib Dems on student fees, trident, detention policies, supporting the poor, the disabled, women or just about anyone else really, then I’m not convinced that you can trust them on equal marriage either.

Moreover, there’s that little issue of the consultation. Government consultations can take forever! I first started campaigning on amendments to the proposed Single Equality Bill (as it was then) back in 2007, and the first consultation was held well before then. The Equality Act eventually emerged in 2010 after being rushed through at the last minute by a desperate Labour party. Ben Summerskill of Stonewall has (for a change) made a pertinent point relating to this:

“If there’s a genuine commitment to making progress in this area, it is painfully slow. Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone has explicitly said she would consult on proposals the government intends to implement in the lifetime of this parliament. If that is to happen by 2015, then consultation should begin now.”

I’d take his word for it: Summerskill knows a thing or two about just how “painfully slow” progress on equal marriage can be.

So this will probably take some time. But it’s interesting that whilst this particular consultation is likely to take ages as civil servants painstakingly gather the views of any given bigot at hand, another important consultation is little more than a formality.

The government is still planning to radically reinvent the NHS despite massive opposition from those who actually understand our health service and care about the welfare state. The “consultation” on this has been minimal to say the least, and health services have already had to start preparing for changes that may have a huge negative impact upon service provision for some of the most vulnerable people.

Funny that the government is so keen to hold a consultation on religious civil partnerships when the relevant law is already there (as part of the Equality Act), but is happy to push ahead with its NHS clusterfuck with as little input from others as possible. Draw your own conclusions.

“Fit” comes under further criticism

Events have moved pretty rapidly since I wrote my previous entry about an inappropriate scene within a DVD produced and distributed by Stonewall.

Natacha Kennedy wrote an article on the Guardian website for Comment is Free, in which she addresses many of the recent missteps from Stonewall.

Interestingly, a user under the name of “Stonewall UK” responded to her article in the comment section, stating the following:

Just to clear up a few inaccuracies in this article:

1) Stonewall categorically does not oppose same-sex marriage. We’re currently analysing the results of a consultation with thousands of our supporters on our priorities, which we’ll be reporting back on. These include tackling homophobic bullying in schools, ensuring gay asylum seekers get fair case hearings, and whether the term ‘civil partnership’ should be changed to the word ‘marriage.’ Civil partnerships offer exactly the same rights and responsibilities as marriage – including the right to have a ceremony in a place of worship (Stonewall lobbied for this in the Equality Act 2010). We recognise there are a range of issues on this subject and we’ll be reporting back on our supporter survey soon.

2) It is untrue to say Stonewall does not allow trans people to join. JessicaReed is right to ask – trans people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual are – of course – represented by Stonewall. Anyone can join Stonewall. As a charity it is our objective to represent lesbian, gay and bisexual people. When we were set up in 1989, there were discussions around whether Stonewall should also represent trans people, and it was decided that, for lobbying purposes, the two issues were separate. In England and Wales, there are very effective trans lobbying and campaigning organisations – including Press for Change and The Gender Trust to name but two – who represent trans people and who Stonewall keeps dialogue open with.
In Scotland, Stonewall represents LGBT people because historically there were gaps in provision for trans people when it was set up. There are of course now several organisations campaigning on these issues in Scotland, which we feel is important in progress towards full equality.

3) FIT, Stonewall’s anti-homophobia film for schools, has in fact already been sent to every school in Britain (in February this year). This is public knowledge. It’s also public knowledge that this is an anti-homophobic bullying resource, fitting in with Stonewall’s charitable objectives to tackle homophobia and campaign towards equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. We, of course, support equality for trans people and we beleive the trans campaigning organisations are doing very effective work on this, which we fully endorse.

A pretty damn good response to this can be found here on the Why The Silence blog.

I find it pretty telling that in point three, Stonewall don’t even really address the criticisms made by Natacha.  Yes, the DVD has been out for some time (given the issues with it, that’s not necessarily a good thing), and yes, it’s focused on homophobia.  So why have a trans bit at all?  Why “support” our equality and undermine it by being stupid and Othering when talking about our issues?  Why state that trans organisations are doing very good work in the area when – if you had a clue – you’d realise that they have barely any funding at all?  We’re weakened, not strengthened by being divided in this way.

To be perfectly honest, I feel the inappropriate part of the DVD speaks for itself:


 

Perspective

As a trans woman, I’ve always been very aware of gendered spaces such as public toilets. Until recently I always had an underlying concern (if not plain fear) associated with entering such a space, an understanding of how such spaces are policed and how easy it is to be found wanting, and the consequences of such. I’m (very) lucky to pass as a cis woman well enough these days for that not to be so much of a problem.

However, the experiences of androgyne and genderqueer people I know have made me hyper-aware of the power of such spaces, and the symbols associated with them. Every time I want to go to the loo in public these days, I think, “woah, what an intense binary divide”. I’m faced with two doors, two categories which split humanity right down the middle and determine so many expectations and social controls. Woe betide those who don’t fit in well enough to go through either door without worrying about what will happen when they do so.

Similarly, when I went to the cinema earlier this week, I noticed that in every advert which featured a car, there was always a man and a woman. The man was always the active one: the driver. The woman always took the passive role in the passenger seat. One of these adverts wasn’t even for a car! This isn’t a coincidence.

Any advert where a team of people go out to do impressive physical feats in order to produce or promote a product usually has an all-male team. When there’s a woman, she’s usually “sexy” in a somewhat hardcore manner (power-dressing, sensible hairstyle) but inevitably remains in a nice, clean, safe office/base/aircraft carrier, appreciating the male action from afar.

These roles are everywhere, all the time, arising from and in turn subconsciously altering our behaviour and expectations. Sexism and transphobia don’t just pop up out of nowhere.

Hell, I’m even getting annoyed by those Sky Sports adverts up everywhere where some very macho looking famous sporty fellow wears a determined expression consistent with hegemonic masculine values. “Accept No Compromise” it blares. You’d never get a woman on one of these posters. Or, y’know, a gay man. Genderqueer people don’t even come into the equation, obviously.

Of course, if you really accepted no compromise, you’d be pretty unimpressed with the terrible service Sky can sometimes offer. Maybe I’d rather that non-(white, straight, cis etc) men weren’t on those stupid posters after all.

The Well of Loneliness

I finished reading The Well of Loneliness last night.

As a novel it’s not fantastic. The plot plods along in a relatively predictable fashion, following Stephen – the protagonist – as they grow up, get a job, and meet people. The writing is mediocre and occasionally quite dull.

As a giant “fuck you” to the world, it’s very powerful and still disturbingly relevant. The story follows Stephen, a female-assigned “invert”. Invert is a late nineteenth century/early twentieth century term that’s often said to refer to homosexuality, but there’s a whole body of literature out there discussing whether or not it’s more to do with gender identity than sexuality. It’s now considered somewhat backward to associate lesbianism with necessary masculinity, which has led to a great deal of criticism by latter-day activists. However, if Stephen – and other female-assigned inverts such as Jamie – are seen as trans men, everything begins to make a whole lot more sense Certainly Stephen’s story often reads more like that of a trans man than a lesbian.

I’ve come across several pieces that describe The Well of Loneliness as a plea for tolerance. It strikes me more as a demand for tolerance, and one that’s still disturbingly relevant. . The condemnation of those “good people” who oppress others for differing from society’s norms still holds true. The demand to accept the very existence of those who transcend sexual and gender stereotypes still holds true.

I got pretty depressed earlier today reading the mindblowingly ignorant comments following a Guardian article about trans rights. It made me think about how there’s still a lot of people out there who happily move through their “normal” lives whilst handing out casual bigotry whenever it suits them. We’ve come so far, yet we still have so far to go.

On a brighter note, a guy I know from Queer Youth Network was in a positive documentary on Channel 4 last night, which you can still watch on 4od. The fact that we’ve got to the point where we can tell a positive story like this on national television shows that progress.

Transphobia, seen from the outside

I just had an odd experience.

My boyfriend and I had gone down to Crown Way to post a couple of letters and buy some peppers and a card. There were a bunch of boys who must of been in their early teens at the very most hanging around outside, and we were treated to a somewhat confused barrage of abuse that shifted rapidly from homophobia to transphobia.

“Lesbian!”

“Lemon, lemon, lemon!”

“Dyke!”

“Are you a shemale?”

“Have you got a dildo?”

I haven’t experienced this kind of harassment for a long time, but at the same time I’m quite used to it. I’d kind of resigned myself to it when we left the shop again…only to realise when we ran the gauntlet again that they were exclusively addressing my boyfriend, who is a trans man.

“Are you a boy or a girl?”

“Have you got a dick?”

Transphobia is always uncomfortable and somewhat distressing, but this is the first time I’ve experienced it happening to someone else first-hand whilst knowing I’m not being targeted myself. It shows the powerful nature of “passing privilege”: if you’re assumed to be cis rather than trans, your gender identity is taken entirely for granted and upheld by people around you. Whereas the moment you’re percieved as trans, you’re instantly a potential victim.

I still don’t really know what to do in these situations either. I feel strongly that anyone who harasses someone else in the street for how they look or who they are should be confronted, but there’s so many dangerous ways in which situations like that can deteriorate. We didn’t feel particularly threatened by the children since they were so small and stupid, but what’s it going to be like for any gay couple or trans person they come across when they’re older?

Anyways, quote of the day goes to the woman behind the counter in the newsagents. She was complaining about the kids and then commented that she didn’t know what half of the things they were saying meant.

“What’s a dildo anyway?”