The Soul of Sexism

What The Commitments taught me about playing music

Like most women musicians, I’ve experienced a fair amount of sexism while playing in a band.

It can be insidious. Bands with women in often find they are more likely to put on stage earlier in the night, and paid less than other bands, regardless of skill, experience or size of following.

Other times, it’s entirely explicit. Like when men have shouted GET YOUR TITS OUT while I’m setting up on stage, or RAPE while we’re playing.

Sometimes, I downplay the impact of sexism in music, to focus on the positives. But it always gets to me – that sense that live music is for men and boys, that sense that it’s not for women and girls, that sense that we’re not really welcome – unless we are willing to be objectified and treated less seriously as performers.

I saw The Commitments musical with colleagues during its December 2022 run in Glasgow. After a difficult semester, I looked forward to being at the theatre with new friends from work, and enjoying a night of brilliant soul classics.

The Commitments is about a group of young (white) Irish people who form a soul covers band in the late 1980s. The musical depicts disparate personalities coming together, arguing a lot, playing a handful of gigs, and then going their separate ways. Most of the songs are performed by the cast on stage, although the production also used either off-stage musicians or a backing track.

The Commitments lived up to its billing as a jukebox musical. The band (on stage and off) were great. It was exciting to hear a series of well-known tunes re-arranged for the show, and performed with gusto. The architecture of the stage set was gorgeous, variously depicting a Dublin neighbourhood, small family houses, pubs, and bingo halls. The plot and characters were paper thin at best, but this didn’t detract from the overall experience – or wouldn’t have done, if it weren’t for the treatment of the handful of women on stage.

There were three women in the band. They were portrayed as backing singers, although often they actually performed lead vocals. They were collectively referred to as the “Commit-tits”.

Most of the male characters benefited from some basic level of characterisation: e.g. the drunk “prick” of a lead singer with a great voice, the older guy who claimed to have played in various famous bands, the manager with a grand vision. By contrast, only one woman had a character trait; she was the “hot one”. Literally every male character in the band made various objectifying comments about her. The other two women were implicitly pitted against her, and one another; the randy older guy had sex with all three, eventually resulting in a brief fight where they jealously pulled each another’s hair.

During the first half of the musical, the band members changed into stage wear, which they remained in for most of the rest of the play. The eight male performers wore smart white shirts, black suits and ties. The three women wore sexy black mini dresses.

Their characters were objectified in every sense, existing seemingly only as objects of desire and the butt of every misogynist joke. Meanwhile, I was surrounded in the theatre by the joy and laughter of an audience who enthusiastically clapped and sang along with the (genuinely excellent) music. The cognitive dissonance was wild.

Through the second half of the play, I felt increasingly physically sick.

Once the night was over, I reflect on why I experienced such a visceral reaction to the sexism of The Commitments. None of the musical’s misogyny was extraordinary or spectacular. On the contrary, it was low-key, continual, and passed off as normal: just like the everyday sexism women experience in our everyday lives. This makes it hard to identify as a problem, and hard to address in practice.

When I spoke about my feelings on social media, several people who had seen the 1991 movie told me that I misunderstood The Commitments. They told me this was a story of white working class experience in 1980s Dublin, that the characters’ behaviour was reflective of attitudes at the time, that the characters were represented honestly within a social realist narrative.

My issue is, however, is not with a film I haven’t watched. What I saw in the theatre was not social realism, but a jukebox musical where the story worked to loosely link one song to another. The setting was broad; the characters were one note at best.

The narrative of the play had nothing to say about the constant sexism to which women were subject. It was simply present in the actions and words of every male character. In this way, it was normalised, and legitimised.

The very structure of the play itself perpetuated sexist stereotypes about the roles of men and women within storytelling, within society, and within music. The male characters expressed desires and interests, organised events, played musical instruments, and provided commentary on one another’s decisions. The women sang nicely, looked pretty, and were a device for the characters development among the men who leered at them. That is what women are for. That is what women do.

The everyday sexism of The Commitments also reflected a wider failure of the musical to grapple with the political issues it hinted at. An apparently all-white cast performed music historically written and performed by Black women and men, for an overwhelmingly white audience. The musical’s only nod to this were some vague references to worker’s rights and the assertion by one character that “the Irish are the Blacks of Europe, and Dubliners are the Blacks of Ireland”. While I imagine the play was attempting to comment on class solidarity and the historical contingency of whiteness, the clumsy claim of comparative oppression treated the existence of actual Black Irish people as an impossibility (an assumption made all the more bizarre by a later brief reference to the Thin Lizzy version of “Whisky in the Jar”).

I felt sick watching The Commitments because I saw myself – the expectations placed on me as a woman, the possibilities available to me as a woman, the everyday impact of everyday sexism on me as a woman – in the experiences of those women on stage.

I felt sick watching The Commitments because I saw how my non-white friends are so often treated, especially women of colour – their creative endeavours diminished or appropriated, their experiences of racism ignored and erased.

As a bassist and singer, I saw the norms that have led to male musicians shouting stuff at me and my bandmates when we are playing, demanding to examine my fingers for calluses, and assuming that I am at a gig accompanying a man. I saw the hidden structures that made it hard for me and many of my friends to pick up an instrument in the first place. I saw how and why it is constantly so difficult for women and people of colour to simply turn up and play music in so many settings.

I felt sick watching The Commitments because I was witnessing the operation of power.

The stage musical version of The Commitments debuted in 2013: the same year myself and a couple of friends were organising Revolt, a feminist club night in Coventry which prioritised women and trans performers. We did this in reaction to male dominated line-ups, which perhaps had a token woman singing or (at a certain kind of indie rock show) playing bass guitar. We knew that having numerous women from a range of backgrounds on stage does something important. It undermines the assumption that women musicians can or should only play second fiddle to men, and builds a sense of possibility for women in the audience: that music is for us.

We can be more; we will be more; we are more. Creating space for many types of people on stage changes people’s worlds.

In doing so it threatens white male power, which can sometimes feel threatening for white men.

That is why certain promoters and musicians and audience members make life difficult for others in music, through intentional bigotry or unthinking bias. For women, it doesn’t matter how good we are, how we dress, or how we behave on stage. We are so often an alien presence in a space supposedly for men, not obeying the unspoken rules: shut up, don’t speak out, and don’t take up a male musician’s space on stage unless you’re prepared to be compliant and sexually available.

What does matter is context. I reflected on this, wondering why the clothing the women wore in The Commitments bothered me so much. I’ve worn very similar outfits on stage myself. Men have shouted RAPE at me when I’ve done so. But they’ve also shouted GET YOUR TITS OUT at me when I was wearing jeans, trainers, and a loose black band t-shirt. It’s not about what we’re wearing – it’s never about what we’re wearing. It’s about how male desire, male prejudice, and male power is projected onto us.

I realised my problem with The Commitments was that the women characters’ sexuality doesn’t belong to them. Within the context of the plot, they were only ever given the opportunity to be attractive for the men around them, not for themselves. Sex without power.

The Commitments musical wants women in the audience to enjoy the music while sucking up the sexism and ignoring the depth of anti-racist histories. By contrast, at Revolt we sought to build power for women – all women – on and off stage. We sought to bring into being a world in which we can dress how we want, and dance, and sing, and listen, and play, and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do to diminish us for having and creating a great time. It wasn’t perfect, but it was ours.

I love a good feminist space, but separatism won’t save us. If we want women musicians to prosper, we need an actual commitment to promoting respect in every context.

The biggest onus is on event organisers, writers, and musicians – especially those in a position of relative power. There is no excuse for endless all-male and all-white line-ups at events, for casual sexism or racism in lyrics, in event promotion, or in the lines of a jukebox musical. How many people involved in putting on The Commitments looked at the script or the choreography and thought, “hang on a moment”, but didn’t speak out? How many white men (or women) who put on gigs or tour in bands even bother to think about whether or not there are women or people of colour on stage?

Simply having women or people of colour in the room is also not enough. We deserve to be present without having to worry about discrimination or abuse. Campaigns such as Good Night Out and the Healthy Music Audiences project have loads of resources available oncreating safer spaces for musicians and audience members alike.

Ultimately, everyone can play a part in changing the world – that’s how cultural change happens. You can support minoritized musicians by taking us seriously and helping us to build power. Attend our shows, listen to our music, share it with other people, and have a great time. That, really, is what it’s all about. 

Resources for trans pregnancy a cause for optimism

Cover of the Trans and Non-Binary Experiences of Maternity Services report. Cover art depicts two Black transmasculine people - one standing and smiling with a visibly pregnant belly, and the other is kneeling next to them and has their face pressed against the belly, with their eyes closed and a peaceful expression on their face. The title text and clothing for the people on the cover uses the colours of the non-binary flag - yellow, black, white, and purple.

There have been some really exciting developments in England over the last couple of months for trans birth parents (that is: men and non-binary people who conceive, carry, and give birth to their own children).

In April, a groundbreaking report on Trans and Non-Binary Experiences of Maternity Services was published by the LGBT Foundation. I am really proud to have co-authored parts of this report with colleagues in NHS England and the LGBT Foundation, and to have supported the research which informs it.

The report, which was funded by NHS England, offers a sobering account of healthcare inequalities for trans birth parents. However, it also includes important examples of good practice and recommendations for professionals.

  • Trans people’s experiences of perinatal care are consistently worse across the board compared with cis women.
  • 30% of trans birth parents didn’t access perinatal healthcare at all during pregnancy – this compares to less than 2.1% of the general population.
  • Transphobia and racism in perinatal care intersect to produce particularly poor outcomes for trans parents of colour.
  • Recommendations include: supporting the delivery of personalised and trauma-informed perinatal care; proactively adopting inclusive language and targeting outreach to trans birth parents; and implementing IT and demographic monitoring systems to enable the sensitive collection of data about gender identity and trans status in perinatal services.

Excitingly, it appears that work is already underway on many of these points. For example, last year a fabulous series of resources for practitioners were published by Brighton and Sussex Gender Inclusion Midwives, and I have heard good things about progress on trans-inclusive data collection.

Best of all, NHS England now provide a range of tailored, accessible advice to trans parents as part of their new guide to having a baby if you’re LGBT+. This includes ways to become a parent, advice on testosterone and pregnancy, and chestfeeding/breastfeeding for men and transmasculine non-binary people.

These resources should really be seen as a starting point (for example, there is no advice for trans women who breastfeed). But equally, it is brilliant to see progress being made on the provision of practical advice that will help prospective and new parents. I am especially grateful to an NHS whistleblower who ensured their dissemination through revealing to The i that their publication had been blocked by some senior figures at NHS England for nearly a year.

This all serves as an important reminder that NHS England is not a monolith, and that concerted pressure from community groups and allies can have real long-term benefits.

It’s very easy to be cynical about our NHS given the poor overall state of trans healthcare, as well as opposition to equitable provision by some within the health service. However, all the positive moves I have reported in this post are also the result of hard work by numerous NHS midwives and members of the NHS digital team. Alongside community members who generously offered their time and knowledge, they have collectively fought to ensure that trans birth parents and the practitioners who work with them have access to resources and information.

All of this makes me feel hugely optimistic. These are difficult times, in which prejudice and disinformation are rife. Yet ordinary people are still fighting – successfully! – for positive change. This new research and guidance should be of great help to new parents and their children, and for that we can be grateful.

Trans inequalities in English perinatal care

About a month ago I participated in the TPATH conference. This groundbreaking online event centred trans healthcare practice, research, and activism by and for trans people.

I was very impressed with the measures taken by TPATH organisers to ensure the conference was accessible to as many people as possible from around the world. They organised live translation to and from English, French, and Spanish, provided live captioning, encouraged presenters to speak slowly and clearly to enable lipreading, and ensured that generous scholarships were available for those who would not otherwise afford to attend. Most of the event was recorded, and videos are gradually being uploaded to the TPATH Youtube channel.

At the conference I joined Tash Oakes-Monger from NHS England to present initial findings from the ITEMS project (Improving Trans Experiences of Maternity Services). The ITEMS team, led by Michael Petch from the LGBT Foundation, ran a survey in early 2021 to explore the experiences of trans people (including non-binary people) who give birth in England. I supported the design and dissemination of the survey through my former role with the Trans Learning Partnership.

Bar chart indicating that increasing numbers of trans and non-binary people are giving birth in England every year.
Bar chart indicating growth in number of trans people giving birth in England each year.


There is some really exciting information emerging from the ITEMS data. For example, it appears that more trans people are giving birth than ever before (see above). However, it was also apparent that trans people face substantial inequalities.

Many of the questions in the ITEMS survey used comparable wording to the CQC Maternity Survey – from this we can see that trans people appear more likely to have negative experiences in NHS maternity services than cis women across the board. Even more disturbing is that 30% of trans respondents gave birth without the support of an NHS or private midwife (rising to 46% among trans people of colour). This indicates a lack of trust in midwifery services among prospective trans birth parents, with potentially lethal consequences for both parent and baby.

To learn more, you can watch our presentation on the TPATH Youtube channel.

A formal report of ITEMS findings should be published in the coming months.

Black Lives Matter

I want to express my unconditional solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters in the US, UK, and beyond.

Over the last week I have watched the unfolding events in the United States with growing horror. I have been dismayed by the murder of George Floyd by police, the brutal, violent, but all-too predictable response to protesters from US authorities, and subsequent murders of further Black men including Tony McDade, James Scurlock and David McAttee.

I have so much respect for those who have taken to the streets again and again to call for a change to the corrupt, racist systems that made this violence possible. In this post, I want to take advantage of my platform to share pre-existing information and resources.

As a white woman living in the UK, I am aware that such deep systemic racism is hardly limited to the US. We know that Black and Asian people are more likely to die of coronavirus. This is due to pre-existing social and economic inequalities that result from racism, which mean that many racial minorities are more likely to have pre-existing health conditions, and work in low-income jobs which put them at risk. We know that 1,741 people in the UK have died in police custody or following contact with the police since 1990, and no police officers have been convicted; we know that Black people and other people of colour are disproportionately represented among these deaths. We also know that Black people are even more likely to be imprisoned in the UK than the US, and this disproportionate prison population is a consequence of overt discrimination in both the criminal justice system and wider society.

These problems do not result from the actions of “bad apples”. They are systemic, the consequence of a system of white supremacy on which the wealth of the UK was built, and from which those of us who are white continue to benefit, regardless of what other challenges we face in our lives. To bring about change, we – those of us who are racialised as white in a system of white supremacy – need to think seriously about what we can do in our everyday lives to address our own complicitly, support our Black neighbours, and bring this system down.

I am writing this post because I know this blog has a readership; however, I hope to primarily direct your attention elsewhere. I am not the person whose work you should be reading to learn more about this, nor to think through the actions you might take. I recommend turning to the existing work of Black writers to understand what is going on, and to support Black activists in the US, UK, and beyond. The remainder of this post includes a (non-exhaustive!) series of links that might help fellow non-Black readers especially with this, especially if you are not currently able to take to the streets. But please also do your own research.

Educate yourself. A list of readings, videos, and podcasts on a range of topics including racism, protest, allyship, and prison abolition.

Donate to bail funds. In the US, suspects who can afford bail may be released from custody prior to a trial. In practice, this disproportionately impacts low-income communities, and hence disproportionately impacts Black people. Protesters and innocent bystanders alike have been subject to mass arrests in the last week alone.

Donate to other causes in the US. These include funds for victims, Black-owned businesses impacted by the protests, and related organisations and initiatives.

Donate to Black Lives Matter UK.

Support QTIPOC and BAME LGBTIQ+ groups in the UK. Follow, listen, learn, and donate.

Support people subject to harassment on the streets. Take action when you witness racist acts.

Challenge racist systems in your workplace. Think about how you might work through a union and/or work collectively with your colleagues to address racist hierarchies, taking into account factors such as management structures, hiring practices, insecure contracts, and the operation of class.

Challenge everyday racism among your friends and family. Make time and space for difficult conversations. Create space for others to question and challenge your pre-existing prejudices in turn.

Finally, I encourage fellow white people to think critically about where they are putting their support. Is your local UK “Black Lives Matter” protest actually being organised by white people and centring white voices? Is it associated with a group like the SWP front Stand Up To Racism, who have been criticised by Black feminists for their deep complicity in rape culture? Are you putting more energy into discussing what does and does not constitute “violence”, or condemning people for taking the streets during a pandemic, than you are into condemning and acting against the racist sickness that is the cause of the protests? Are you spending more time thinking about your own white guilt than how you might make productive changes in your life and in the lives of people around you?

Again, I urge you to educate yourself, and read what Black writers and activists have to say about these issues. I will be striving to do the same.

A Methodology for the Marginalised

This is a deeply strange time to have a new peer-reviewed article out. I’ve been on strike for weeks, and otherwise on annual leave, planning a move south (for my new job) which may well be indefinitely postponed. It’s hard to comprehend the enormity of the COVID-19 crisis, nor the fact that the most helpful thing I can do right now is stay put.

The article was originally drafted in 2018, and based on experiences I had during fieldwork and while disseminating my research between 2013 and 2017. With the pandemic upon us, this previous decade feels like deep, distant history. Here in the UK, the true, awful toll of the illness is yet to become apparent; yet cities are beginning to turn silent as we self-isolate, political axioms are turned on their head, and all conversation turns eventually to the virus.

In this context, it’s easy to wonder if any of the work we did a month or more prior could possibly still be relevant. And yet.

~

Cover image of the journal Sociology.My new piece is titled A Methodology for the Marginalised: Surviving Oppression and Traumatic Fieldwork in the Neoliberal Academy, and it is published in Sociology, the journal of the British Sociological Association. I use my experiences as a trans academic as a case study to talk about the huge inequalities endemic within universities, and how these disproportionately impact those who already experience forms of social marginalisation. My aim is not simply to chronicle the harms of marketisation, transphobia, sexism, and racism, but to also propose a way forward. We need to start thinking and acting more collectively; in addition to workplace organisation and union activity, this is relevant to how we design and implement our studies.

My proposed “methodology” involves bringing questions of solidarity and mutual support to the procedure of research design. Universities have long been bastions of privilege, with mechanisms of exclusion are unthinkingly built into every aspect of academic life. The only way we can possibly open up higher education is through creating systems of support which acknowledge and account for pre-existing inequalities, and these must be embedded within the process of knowledge creation itself.

My article uses the example of suicide within trans communities to illustrate this principle. Suicide ideation and suicide attempts are especially common among trans people. As such, it is highly likely that any given trans academic will either be suicidal, or will have friends who are. Consequently, if trans people are to stand a reasonable chance of surviving within the university, this is something that should be accounted for in research design and funding proposals as well as in wider institutional support structures.

~

It’s impossible right now to know when and if the world will return to “normal”. I have seen some contend that this cannot be possible given the devastating number of predicted deaths, the shock to our economic and political systems. Others observe that the prevailing social order has survived before, and argue that any emergency measures to support workers who have lost their livelihood and/or increase police powers will inevitably be reversed in the long term.

However, what we do know is that universities have historically been remarkably resiliant – as have the inequalities in our society. Whatever happens next, we must continue to fight for a better world, and that includes within academia.

We can already see this beginning to play out in the UK as universities scramble to shift their activities online. Managers are relying on staff to carry on teaching, conducting research, and undertaking assessment and monitoring activities such as the REF. Meanwhile, most of us struggle to balance working from home with looking after partners, housemates, and/or families, wrestling with IT systems that have been heavily undermined by cuts as shiny new buildings stand empty on our campuses. We cannot possibly expect to carry on as normal.

It is in this context that I invite you to read my new article, as and when you find the time and mental energy. It is one of the most difficult and vulnerable things I have ever written. I am really proud of it. It helped me think through some small ways in which I might change my work patterns and practice of solidarity, as part of a far larger push for change. I hope that in turn, it might help you also.

A Methodology for the Marginalised:
Surviving Oppression and Traumatic Fieldwork in the Neoliberal Academy

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Update 17 July 2020: the article has now been published in Volume 54, Issue 4 of Sociology, and is also now available free to read on the journal’s website. I have updated the links to reflect this.

Fighting back in the precarious academy – FWSA address 2019

On 16 October I spoke at the 30th Anniversary event hosted by the Feminist and Women Studies Association UK and Northern Ireland (FWSA). This is the text of my short talk.

Thank you for having me, I am very honoured to be here today.

I was invited to speak about doing feminism in the academy through my research on trans experiences. I am a trans woman known for my research on trans health.

I am interested in how discourses of consent, autonomy, sex and gender circulate between patient communities, activists, and professionals, and how these are shaped by power relations. I also work on new approaches to healthcare that might centre patient knowledges, rather than patriarchal medical authority. At present, I am part of an international study of pregnancy and childbirth among trans men and non-binary people.

This research stems from my wider interest in gender, sexuality, and power relations within institutions. I have published empirical work on equality schemes in Higher Education, focusing specially on Athena SWAN. My research with Charoula Tzanakou shows how Athena SWAN places a burden on the very women it is supposed to help, through expecting them to participate in the extensive work of self-assessment.

I also have been involved in anti-casualisation campaigns, especially while working on hourly-paid contracts for six years at the University of Warwick. I feel it is important to recognise this as feminist academic work too, an argument I expand on shortly.

I am very often invited to speak about trans health. At least as often, I am invited to speak about being a trans woman.

I am very rarely been invited to speak about my wider feminist research or activism.

I know why this is. While our numbers are growing, there are very few trans people and especially trans women working in universities. I am used to being the only visible trans person in the room. I am painfully aware that I am frequently present as a token. I am also aware that if I am not present, often no trans voices are heard at all, let alone trans women’s voices.

I know it is important to talk about how a vast majority of trans staff and students face substantial barriers in Higher Education. These include rigid administrative procedures, plus high rates of verbal abuse, physical and sexual assault. I know it is important to talk about how transphobia is tied closely to misogyny, racialisation, ableism and class, and how the challenges we face are especially compounded for trans people who face intersecting forms of marginalisation, such as Black trans women and disabled trans people.

I know it is important to talk about how we currently face an unpreceded rise in open transphobia. Cis academics talk about stripping our legal rights in public lectures and newspaper columns. Trans studies scholars face constant abuse and harassment on social media, malicious freedom of information requests, and threats of legal action. I know it is important to talk about how anti-feminist talking points from the religious right, such as the supposed threat of ‘gender ideology’, are laundered through anti-trans groups.

Still, there are times I want to talk about other things.

There are times I want to talk about being a woman more than I want to talk about being trans. There are times when I want to talk about solutions as well as problems, about collectivity and solidarity rather than division.

New postgraduates frequently ask me for advice on surviving in departments where they are the only out trans person. My advice is always the same – build alliances across difference. You may be the only trans PhD student, but you will certainly not be the only student who faces marginalisation.

To quote Patricia Hill Collins: “Who has your back, and whose back do you have?

In 2015 the University of Warwick faced scrutiny over TeachHigher, a proposed wholly-owned subsidiary designed to facilitate the outsourcing of teaching at universities. These proposals were defeated by organised resistance within numerous academic departments, led primarily by casualised staff.

Our campaign relied on recognising how the economic precarity of casualization is also about the myriad ways in which many of us are additionally oppressed. As my comrade Christian Smith passionately argued, “TeachHigher is sexist, and TeachHigher is racist”. We knew that women and people of colour are disproportionately represented within the pool of casual labour on which our institutions rely. We knew that increased casualization only exacerbates conditions in which those who are already the most privileged are most likely to thrive. This was a feminist campaign, an anti-racist campaign, a campaign about class, a campaign against ableism, homophobia and transphobia.

In my department, where over 40% of teaching was undertaken by people on hourly-paid contracts, we organised a teaching boycott. None of us would sign up to teach the following year unless the department took an active stance against TeachHigher. This could only work if all of us agreed to openly sign a letter announcing the boycott – otherwise, we could be played off against one another. It took many careful meetings and discussions to organise. Many of us relied on this work to pay our bills, and in some cases, look after families.

In response to our letter, the Head of Department disparaged us in a departmental meeting, calling us “childish”. He proposed replacing our labour with PhD students from other universities. He said we would never win, that the university would never back down.

A week later, the university backed down.

So how do we claim space for feminism in the precarious academy?

By remaining aware of our differences, working with and across them to build alliances.

By campaigning through formal and informal unions as well as our research.

By speaking out and supporting our colleagues, especially if we are in a more secure position than them.

The university is not built for us. We know this in our hearts when we see the statues and paintings of worthy men around campus. We know this in our bones when we the climb steep steps to lecture theatres designed to centre a patriarchal pedagogy. We know this in the sharpness of our breath when men known for sexual abuse talk over us and claim responsibility for our work in departmental meetings.

It’s time for change on our campuses. Let’s make that change together.

EHAOIH6W4AAdiCi.jpg

A slow, painful grind: WPATH 2018 conference report

IWPATH_BuenoAr_Logo_reverse.jpgn the first week of November I attended the 2018 WPATH Symposium in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This biennial event is one of the largest trans studies conferences in the world, with around 800 academics, activists, healthcare practitioners and researchers coming together to exchange knowledge.

Most of the conference consisted of parallel sessions: approximately eight or nine speaker panels occurring simultaneously in different parts of the conference venue. So it is impossible for anyone to take part in the majority of conference events. Nevertheless, I attended as many sessions as possible, and livetweeted from most of these. Links to Twitter summaries of the sessions I attended can be found at the end of this post.

In this post, I comment primarily on my observations of the conference as a sociologist and trans professional.


Opportunities and inclusion

As I anticipated, WPATH 2018 was full of contradictions.

On the one hand, it was exciting to join and learn from so many academics, healthcare practitioners and human rights experts working in the field of trans health. As I report in the Twitter summaries below, the conference provided a great opportunity to participate in debates over new ideas and standards of care, and hear about cutting-edge research findings and advances in clinical practice. It was an especial privilege to learn first-hand about the implementation and impact of Argentina’s pioneering Gender Identity Law, a topic I expand upon later in this post, but hope to write about in more detail in the near future.

I was also glad to have the opportunity to present a paper on research ethics and a poster with initial findings from the Trans Pregnancy project to an international audience.

It was excellent to see that the conference organisers acknowledged and responded to some of the feedback from trans delegates in previous years. Gender-neutral toilet blocks were present on every floor of the conference venue, and pronoun stickers were provided to accompany name badges. The provision of a “trans hospitality suite” enabled trans attendees to relax in a more comfortable environment, and also arrange our own ad-hoc meetings and events. This was inevitably re-branded by its users as an “intersex and trans” room in recognition of the importance of this space also to intersex delegates; I hope conference organisers will learn from this for future events.

This year’s Symposium also benefited from a clear code of conduct and language guide, previously introduced for the 2017 USPATH and EPATH conferences.


Microaggressions and objectification

On the other hand, the cis-centric atmosphere of the event felt like a slow, painful, constant grind. As with previous WPATH conferences, the event was punctuated by constant microaggressions (and, on occasion, outright “macro”aggression); these were damaging to intersex people, people of colour and delegates from the Global South as well as trans attendees. Examples include individuals advocating for intersex genital mutilation, off-colour jokes about trans suicide, the use of outdated language, and misgendering of research participants.

Some research seemed entirely voyeuristic: for example, one poster from the Netherlands purported to report on differing levels of jealousy towards sexual competitors among “mtof and ftom transgenders”. It was often unclear how consent was obtained (if at all) for the use of personal information about research participants and/or patients. This was particularly concerning when numerous posters and powerpoint slides included unnecessary photographs of intersex and/or trans genitalia (a “WPATH conference bingo” grid circulated among intersex and trans attendees of the event included a square for “unexpected genitals”).

As a trans attendee, I felt deeply objectified by the tone and content of this material. It felt dehumanising, and I felt like a thing, subject to the harsh gaze of an abstract, dehumanising curiosity. Yet I was disturbed not only by those engaging in such work, but also in the response of many of their peers. Numerous practitioners and researchers who seemed broadly sympathetic to trans rights and affirmative in their own work often said nothing to counter transphobia, cisgenderism and endosexism in the work of others. It is difficult for intersex and trans people to explain how painful this situation is when most of our colleagues and the senior figures in the field are not intersex or trans; we know that our projects and careers alike may suffer if we speak out too openly or too harshly. I encourage fellow members of WPATH to reflect on their potential complicity in this situation, and consider how we might collectively work to change it.


Tokenism and colonialism

The choice to locate the conference in Buenos Aires felt deeply tokenistic, with numerous attendees from the Global South arguing that this represented a colonial attitude. The vast majority of conference attendees were from the United States or Western Europe. The price of the conference was a significant barrier to many attendees, amounting to the equivalent of the average monthly income in Buenos Aires. The choice to host the event in an expensive Hilton hotel felt like it was taken primarily for the benefit of (the more wealthy) attendees from the West to the detriment of local intersex and trans people, some of whom reported that they risked being profiled by the police if they tried to enter the wealthy area of the city in which the hotel was located.

The sessions on clinical practice in Argentina and human rights in Latin American were some of the most interesting I sat in on, but also least well-attended. I later heard that on one occasion a high-profile lawyer invited to speak on the topic of Argentina’s Gender Identity Law addressed a near-empty room, due to clashes with sessions that focused on Western bioethics, research and medical practice. This sense of tokenism was compounded through the choice to hold the conference in English (the official language of WPATH), with funded translation into Spanish available in a maximum of two rooms at any one time. Some of the conference organisers later stated that they had been worried about the finances of the event, but this felt like a strange claim in the wake of a lavish gala dinner with dancers, DJs, and multiple buffets serving food from various regions of Argentina. As human rights expert and executive director of GATE Mauro Cabral declared in the closing plenary of the conference, “When WPATH decided to come to Argentina, with the most progressive gender identity law in the world, I was excited. But we could only talk among ourselves. You came to this country because of the weather, steak and wine, but not to learn from us”.

While these issues are primarily structural ones that need to be formally addressed by WPATH, the onus is also upon individuals from Western and/or Anglophone countries to take action and reflect upon our relative power and privilege in attending these events. In addition to vocally supporting my colleagues from the Global South, one aspect of my own practice I feel I can address is my use of language in planning talks. For example, I could have undertaken a little extra work to ensure that my slides were bilingual, listing bullet points in Spanish as well as in English. I hope to draw on this lesson in preparing for future international events.


TPATH, human rights monitors, and lessons from Argentina

My experience of WPATH 2018 was improved enormously by the presence of other trans people working in the field of trans health, as well as the intersex activists and human rights experts who came to monitor WPATH’s historic antipathy towards intersex rights. Many of us are members of TPATH (the Transgender Professional Association for Transgender Health), a new and as-yet loosely affiliated group of trans people working in trans health that I helped to co-found during the 2016 WPATH Symposium in Amsterdam. Numerous others were part of a 50-strong delegation of intersex and trans human rights monitors from all parts of the world, who attended in order to conduct a collective human rights audit of the conference.

It was with these individuals that I found myself having the deepest conversations, these individuals with whom I heard the most fascinating research findings and the most rigorous analyses. We also shared a strong sense of solidarity in the face of the many problems apparent at WPATH 2018.

That said, the most important event I attended took place outside of the WPATH event: in Casa Jáuregui, a historic queer cultural centre many blocks away from the Hilton. Here, Frente de Trans Masculinidades (the Transmasculine Front) and other activists based in Buenos Aires hosted a meeting with TPATH members from the Bahamas, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the UK and the USA. We shared information on our various areas of work, and the local activists talked at length about the history, implementation and practical impact of the Gender Recognition Law.

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Argentinian activists host TPATH members at Casa Jáuregui.

While it is important not to deny the significant challenges faced by trans people in Argentina, which include harassment by authorities, economic marginalisation and many forms of violence and discrimination, many of us were struck by how much has been achieved by activists in Argentina and (consequently) how advanced trans rights are in this country. The Gender Identity Law has been carefully written to enable flexibility; this has meant, for example, that it was interpreted to enable non-binary recognition by a judge as recently as last week. It also guarantees access to healthcare, which has meant that every possible medical intervention is available to trans people, either for free or through relatively inexpensive health insurance (in theory, that is: in practice, various legal battles have been necessary). This has been of benefit to cis women and queer people as well as trans people: for instance, through enabling easier access to hysterectomies or breast reductions.

During the meeting, the local activists described gender-affirming medical interventions that most of us had never even considered, such as beard hair implants for transmasculine individuals who cannot or would prefer not to use testosterone. Moreover, while long waiting lists exist for some procedures such as surgeries, those of us attending from European countries and (especially) Aotearoa/New Zealand were astonished by how much shorter they were than equivalent waiting times in our own countries, in part due to the absence of unnecessary gatekeeping procedures and treatment bottlenecks.

I was profoundly moved by the opportunity to attend this meeting, and regretted that so much of my time in Buenos Aires was spent in the sterile environment of the Hilton. However, I was also glad to have the opportunity to work with others to challenge the hierarchies and cisgenderist assumptions inherent in WPATH. We undertook many small interventions: asking questions about ethics, consent and power dynamics in the sessions we attended, raising concerns in private conversations, reporting blatant contraventions of the WPATH code of conduct. I was also pleased to hear many of my colleagues openly critiquing problematic issues identified during an update on the progress of the forthcoming Version 8 WPATH Standards of Care, and take part in attempts to hold our professional body to account during a member’s meeting on the final day.

Overall, I found WPATH 2018 to be a very tiring, draining and frequently unpleasant experience. However, I do not regret attending. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn so much from so many. I am also glad to have played a small role in supporting my intersex and trans colleagues and my colleagues from the Global South in attempting to help transform WPATH so it is more transparent, more accountable, and less colonial in attitude and in action.


Session summaries

The following links are to Twitter threads in which I summarise plenaries, talks and mini-symposia I attended at WPATH 2018.

Saturday 3rd November

Opening session and President’s Plenary

Keynote: Employment discrimination against trans people (Sam Winter)

Keynote: Trans legal history in Latin America (Tamara Adrian)


Sunday 4th November

Mini-Symposium: The Argentinian experience of public transgender health after the implantation of the Gender Identity Law

Oral presentations: Services in different parts of the world (Australia, Southern Africa, Scotland)

Mini-Symposium: Trans refugees: escape into invisibility

Mini-Symposium: Latin American perspectives on depathologization of trans and travesti identities

Plenary: Show hospitality to strangers: intersex issues in the time of gender identity laws (Mauro Cabral and respondents)
Note: this was listed as a plenary session in the programme, but actually took place alongside multiple parallel sessions. Consequently, this talk was under-attended by Western healthcare practitioners in much the same way as the Latin American sessions.


Monday 5th November

Oral presentations: Suicidal and non-suicidal behavior

Mini-Symposium: Ethical considerations in transgender health research

Oral presentations: Fertility

Oral presentations: Reproduction


Tuesday 6th November

Mini-Symposium: Child and adolescent medicine Mini-Symposium: Child and adolescent medicine

Plenary: SOC 8 update

Plenary: SOC 8 Q&A

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.

 

Scholars pen open letter to the Equality Challenge Unit on USS and pension inequalities

In the UK, academic and professional support staff at over 60 universities are currently on strike over proposed changes to the USS pension scheme.

An open letter to the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) has been organised by a number of researchers. They note that the pension reforms are in direct conflict with the stated aims of the ECU’s two flagship equality schemes: the Athena SWAN Charter and Race Equality Charter.

Open letter to the Equality Challenge Unit and all UK university leaders.

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University staff and students demonstate against changes to USS in Leeds.

The letter’s authors argue that if these schemes are “to be more than a strategic brand enhancement, [they] must demonstrate its independence and commit to working towards the demonstration of that independence in the future. That includes a rigorous investigation of the equalities implications of pension changes.” As a scholar of Athena SWAN, I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment.

In my research (currently under review) I have observed that the charter has enormous drawbacks for many marginalised academics, particularly women and scholars of colour. For example, the labour of Athena SWAN is primarily undertaken by women, who frequently become exhausted, stressed and frustrated while preparing their department, faculty or institutional submission, and lose valuable time that would have been spent on research to further their own career. Moreover, some individuals are punished for submissions that ‘fail’ due to systemic issues within the department or institution, for instance through losing their job or being denied a promotion.

At the same time, Athena SWAN does have the potential for bringing about real change. With the charter increasingly recognised as important by funding bodies as well as potential students and staff, institutions are under growing pressure to take the requests of Athena SWAN self-assessment teams seriously. This has led to numerous universities and research centres introducing measures such as better support for new parents, more accessible toilets for trans and disabled staff and students, and for fairer pay structures for cleaning and janitorial staff.

If equality schemes such as Athena SWAN and the Race Equality Charter are to be meaningful and to have the long-term support of the very people they are meant to help, it is imperative that they continue to be used to push for real and positive change in this way. As such, I wholeheartedly support the open letter, and its call for the ECU and universtity leaders to recognise pensions as an equality issue.

**edit: you can now follow the “USS and Athena SWAN” campaign on Twitter: @USSAthenaSwan.

Forthcoming talk: The Transgender Moral Panic

I’ve been invited to give a guest lecture at the University of Warwick next week, on Thursday 8th February.

This will be part of the “Hidden Histories” alternative lecture series, organised by Warwick Students’ Union with support from a number of academic departments.

The talk will take place from 7pm in S0.21 (Social Science Building), and is open to all. I will speak for around an hour and there will be time for questions and discussions.

Here’s the blurb from the Facebook event page:

The Transgender Moral Panic: A Brief Social History

Over the last few months, 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, with psychologist Meg-John Barker describing 2017 as “the year of the transgender moral panic”.

For the 2nd lecture in our Hidden Histories series, Ruth Pearce will explore the background to the recent wave of media interest, taking in radical feminist theories, scientific racism and proposed changes to UK law. She will show how the transgender moral panic has been shaped by deep-seated cultural anxieties around sex and gender, brought to the fore by the precarious successes of the trans liberation movement.

Ruth Pearce is a trans feminist scholar. Her research primarily examines discourses, practices and experiences of trans health. Her PhD was awarded by the University of Warwick in 2016. Her thesis looked at how trans health is differently understood within trans communities, activist groups and professional literatures, with a range of meanings and practices contested within and between these spaces.

Come along for what is set to be a fascinating event exploring a topic which is generally erased from mainstream curricula. Refreshments will be provided!

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