It’s about time we listened to intersex people

An article posted yesterday on The Intersex Network highlights intersex erasure* at a recent House of Lords event.

Report on the intersex inclusive House of Lords LGBTI event ‘Human Rights for Sexual Minorities’ on 24th January 2012

Activist Anis Akhtar explains how this “LGBTI” event focused almost exclusively upon the “LGBT”, with LGBT groups speaking and topics of discussion including LGBT History Month, homophobic and transphobic hate crime in the EU, the forced sterilisation of trans people in countries such as Sweden and the complex intersection of LGBTI experiences and religion/faith.

Akhtar concludes:

“I was not surprised that the focus was LGBT but glad that a few people did say LGBTI on the day. What is paramount is that intersex people in the UK now have a voice – the use of the acronym “LGBT+” by the Liberal Democrats may be a good start.

It is extremely important to spread the word of what intersex is and what we experience due to society’s ignorance, negligence and outright discrimination towards any person who supposedly differs from the “norm.”

Intersex people stand up for LGBT and it is time that LGBTs include us as LGBTI, or intersex people stand alone and continue to fight for our own equality globally.”

Akhtar’s experience reminds me of a “trans youth” (25 and under) consultation at the Government Equalities Office during the autumn of last year; part of the process that eventually led to the creation of the trans action plan. A few of us asked why intersex issues were not also on the agenda. We were told that intersex people are “not on the [current government’s] agenda” and the Government Equalities Office did not intend to tackle intersex issues until (at least) 2015.

This is quite frankly unacceptable. Intersex people aren’t about to magically disappear, and people aren’t about to start magically respecting intersex rights.

So how can those of us who aren’t intersex provide solidarity? There’s a long history of the people within the trans rights movement co-opting intersex issues for their own ends or erasing intersex experience by claiming that trans and intersex issues are “basically the same”. This is totally unacceptable and has to stop.

What we can do is be there for intersex activists when they ask for help, just as trans people would like cis allies to stand by us without telling us how we identify or how to run our campaigns.

When UK LGBT organisations attended the House of Lords LGBTI event, why did they not join intersex activists in asking the Government Equalities Office to get its act together? When a conference that promoted infant genital mutilation was held in London during September, where were the trans people, the queers, the feminists who should have been standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the intersex activists who called a demonstration?

We need to get our act together and support others as we’d like to be supported ourselves.

*Edit 16/2/12: I today recieved the below message from a correspondent who prefers to remain anonymous, and have appended it to this post for the sake of balance. I should also clarify that whilst Anis Akhtar’s blog was not my sole source, I was not present at the event myself.

Having read your blog about the UNA House of Lords event, I must point out that intersex identities were not erased, far from it. Intersex was included in the event rationale/publicity, intersex activists were suggested and considered as potential speakers, Oii was included in the mailing list, Anis was in email correspondence with the UNA Chair (David Wardrop) and the speakers before the event, Anis spoke at the event after the Q&A and got a very appreciative thanks from the Chair and a big clap from the audience, and two of the three international speakers explicitly mentioned intersex issues in their addresses. Do you really think that amounts to erasure? I see how you might reach that conclusion if Anis’s report was the only source, so I understand why you might say that, but to be fair I do not think ‘intersex erasure at the House of Lords’ is accurate or helpful. Erasure implies an absence or at least an attempt to censor, which is the opposite of what really happened. It’s a pity you were not there to see for yourself.

I have discussed this with the UNA Vice Chair who assures me that he will support my suggestion of a follow up event where intersex issues are discussed more fully and we get an intersex activist to be a main speaker.

In the meantime, I wonder if you would be so kind as to insert a correction into your blog or remove the ‘intersex erasure’ claim? Anis’s speech was brave and important because of what it took personally for him to get there and speak despite social phobia and visual impairment, and it deserves attention on it’s own terms, not because of some spurious claim that Anis stood up to people who wanted to erase the existence of intersex people. They didn’t – Anis was welcomed and applauded wholeheartedly.

Support LGBT Asylum News

The quite fantastic LGBT Asylum News blog has recently posted to ask for a little financial support from its readers. This blog is an incredible resource, with well-written, well-researched daily news stories from all over the world dealing with a wealth of issues that might otherwise receive very little attention in the UK. Its writers are also wholeheartedly dedicated to a genuine “LGBT” approach: one that incorporates a wealth of perspectives and experiences relating to multiple sexualities and gender identities.

You can read more about why LGBT Aylum News is wonderful and why it deserves your support here.

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

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 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.