Some reflections on Trans Health Matters 2017

Last week I joined over a hundred other attendees at the Trans Health Matters conference in London. The event (which takes place on a mostly annual basis) was organised by cliniQ, the city’s holistic trans sexual health clinic.

For impressions of the day, you can visit the Twitter hashtag for the event here.

When I attended the first cliniQ Trans Health Matters conference in 2013, I found it to be immensely valuable and informative, but left with a feeling of deep-seated distress that persisted pretty much ever since. For at that event, I gained a better understanding of the scale of the problems that plague trans healthcare provision.

These include widespread ignorance and often also active discrimination from practitioners, plus enormous (and growing) waiting lists for gender clinics. All things I already knew about, but swapping notes with other researchers and activists helped me realise just how common and severe the issues were. My impressions from the conference were also reflected in the initial findings from my PhD fieldwork, which I was undertaking at the time.

By contrast, I left this year’s event with a greater sense of optimism and hope.

That’s not to say that trans health isn’t still a disaster area. It really is. However, I feel that since 2013, there has been a real growth in community health initiatives, and also in cis practitioners’ active engagement in the issues. This was actively reflected in the conference programme, which focused largely on what is being done and what we can do to make things better.


What is “trans health”?

Interestingly, another positive aspect of the conference for me was that gender clinics and transition processes were barely discussed at Trans Health Matters 2017.

That isn’t to say that these aren’t important things to talk about – they absolutely are – but one of my observations over the last few years has been that discussions of “trans health” focus so overwhelmingly on gender identity services that an outside observer would be forgiven for thinking that transition is the only healthcare issue that really exists for trans people.

Which, of course, would be completely wrong. Trans people face extremely high rates of discrimination, harassment, internalised stigma, poverty, physical violence and domestic abuse. These challenges can be be linked to endemic mental health problems, suicidality, substance abuse, “risky” sexual practices and disability within trans populations. Moreover, there is the matter of everyday transphobia and cisgenderism in everyday encounters with healthcare practitioners.

So it was genuinely refreshing to attend a trans health conference that focused largely on sexual health (particularly HIV prevention, reflecting cliniQ’s role as a sexual health clinic), with some additional discussion of matters such as therapy, sex work, data collection, and intersectionality. These are all deeply important issues that really deserve the attention they received on the day.

Of course, the absence of discussion on gender identity services would be a real issue if these conversations weren’t already happening elsewhere. But they are. This year alone, I’ve attended two UK trans health conferences which centred issues of transition, and I know there have been plenty of other such events that I haven’t been able to go to. This is another cause for optimism: a great increase in activist, academic and professional events looking at trans health from a range of angles, reflecting the rapid growth and increasing visibility of our communities.


Towards inclusive care

While there are a growing number of trans-specific sexual health services available in UK cities, it was really good to see a lot of discussion around how trans people can be included in services (and the promotion of these services) more generally. A great example of this was a short film that’s been made about PrEP, from which extracts were shown at the conference.

I was also really heartened to see that Trans Health Matters was a somewhat more intersectional affair this year. Two of the four speakers on the keynote panel were trans women of colour. We got to hear a particularly inspiring speech from Mexican/US activist Alexandra Rodríguez, who explained how she created a pioneering HIV prevention service for trans Latinas in California after realising there were no existing services, and reflected on the importance of providing care and support for trans migrants.

I also attended an afternoon session on barriers to access and strategies for inclusion for some of the most vulnerable trans populations in the UK: black and minority ethnic trans people, non-British trans people, and economically marginalised trans people (these are, of course, groups that frequently intersect!)

Barriers to healthcare access for BAME and/or non-British trans people.
Photos taken with permission during breakout session.

One of the most important lessons from this session was the importance of reaching out for service providers, rather than expecting that the most marginalised people will feel that a service is necessarily for them. This is particularly the case if a service is normally primarily attended by and promoted to a relatively privileged demographic.

The work of reaching out may involve an element of discomfort for white and/or middle class providers; it can involve sensitively negotiating access to new spaces (e.g. club nights and community groups run by and for people of colour and/or working class people), learning from mistakes and being open to listen and learn with humility. But it is vital to ensure that community services are truly inclusive.


Reproductive health survey

The importance of the work of inclusion really came to the fore in a plenary session where we were shown initial findings from a trans reproductive health survey undertaken by Public Health England.

The survey is still open: you can take it here.

This is the first major stastical study looking at trans people’s reproductive health and experience of services in the UK. As the survey hasn’t yet closed and the data still requires some additional processing, we were asked not to report on specific figures. However, what I can say is that (unsurprisingly) there were generally high levels of dissatisfaction with existing service providers and sexual health education, reflecting an urgent need for improvement and trans inclusion.

The aspect of the survey that inspired the most discussion and debate amongst conference attendees, however, was the lack of diversity among existing survey respondents. A majority of respondents had received a university education, and an overwhelming number were white. This reflects a wider trend in trans community responses to online surveys: it is the most privileged individuals who are more likely have access to these.

I asked the speaker if there had been a paper version of the survey produced: these can help obtain a greater number of responses from individuals less likely to access an Internet survey, including trans people of colour, working class trans people, and older trans people. He noted that unfortunately the research team (which I believe consists just of himself and a single support worker) are underfunded and are trying to do their best with the resources they have. However, other audience members noted that there were still things that could have been done to increase the response rate from underrepresented groups. For instance, the research team could have reached out to UK Black Pride and asked for help with dissemination.

To me, this conversation really brings home the importance of active inclusion, which was the main thing I have been thinking about since attending Trans Health Matters. We can’t just assume that all members of our communities will be able to access services and research: rather, we need to make the effort to ensure that they are accessible. This can involve additional work, but the real challenge is overcoming the ignorance that can arise from our own privilege, even if we are ourselves marginalised in different ways.

Some tips on opposing Kenneth Zucker’s new article on trans children

This morning it came to my attention that notorious child psychologist Kenneth Zucker has co-written a chapter on trans issues for the new (6th) edition of Rutter’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The chapter, entitled “Gender dysphoria and paraphilic sexual disorders” effectively draws upon flawed and outdated research to promote reparative therapy for trans children. You can read most of it via Google Books here.

Cover of Rutter's Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

Abusing children – for science!

This is a big deal because Zucker draws upon harmful theories (including Ray Blanchard’s deeply reductive typology of transsexualism) to promote the idea that issues faced by gender variant children are due to a problem with the child, rather than societal gender norms. He therefore promotes a form of treatment that (to quote his new article) encourages parents to “set limits with regard to cross-gender behaviour, and encourage same-sex peer relations and gender-typical activities” in an attempt to cure them of difference. This is the kind of treatment that leads children to internalise the idea that non-normative gendered expression is shameful or wrong.

Rutter’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, meanwhile, is a widely-used textbook and can be found in university libraries and on reading lists in many countries.

I’m not sure what the best way is to stop this article from influencing practice. However, some ideas could include:

  • Write to professional organisations and ask them to explicitly oppose reparative therapy for trans youth
  • Write to University libraries and courses, asking them to consider sticking with the 5th edition of Rutter’s
  • Write to University departments and ask them to teach critical texts alongside the 6th edition of Rutter’s, and/or avoid putting the new edition on reading lists
  • Borrow the book from a local library if it becomes available, and write critical comments in the margins
  • Write to the book’s editors and/or publisher and question why Zucker has been given a platform for his outdated ideas
  • Comment on this post and/or join this new Facebook page to discuss possible ways forward.

The new edition isn’t yet widely available in libraries, so now is a good time to act.

If you’re writing letters or raising awareness of this as an issue, here is some useful information on opposing the article:

  • Zucker’s approach to treatment can seriously harm children
  • Zucker’s Gender Identity Service at the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health was recently suspended pending investigation in the wake of a large number of complaints – his approach to treatment is now also arguably illegal in the province of Ontario
  • Zucker’s new article represents poor academic practice. He cites himself 17 times, relies upon papers at least 20 years out-of-date to make many of his arguments, and also draws strong inferences from statistically insignificant quantitative findings
  • Zucker’s considerable academic position is based in part upon a small “invisible college” of academics who regularly peer-review and cite one another, thereby gaining many publications with a high profile whilst avoiding external criticism
  • There is a considerable evidence-based case to be made against Blanchard’s work. See for instance “The Case Against Autogynephilia“, a peer reviewed article by Julia Serano.

Thanks and respect to Peter Le C for raising awareness of this issue, and to oatc for suggested edits.

Natacha Kennedy at TRED 2011

Natacha’s talk at TRED 2011. The bulk of this presentation is a witty response to Az Hakeem’s 2010 paper Deconstructing Gender in Trans-Gender Identities. Natacha herself deconstructs three central arguments present within the paper:

1) Trans people can be prevented from having genital reassignment surgery through group therapy.

2) Gender is becoming less rigid for cis people but more rigid for trans people.

3) Sex is “real” and scientifically verifiable, whereas gender is not.

The talk concludes with a brief reflection upon the work of Kenneth Zucker and the “normality” of trans and intersex phenomena.

 

Lyndsey Moon at TRED 2011

Lyndsey’s talk at TRED 2011, which formed the introduction to an open discussion of numerous topics including psychology, pathologisation, and the place of gender variant voices in academia.

In the talk Lyndsey explores a number of issues centring around counselling and therapy, including:

  • the (lack of) training practitioners receive on gender issues.
  • the attitudes that many trainee and practising counsellors and therapists hold regarding trans people
  • experiences of teaching PhD candidates about gender and sexuality
  • the impact of the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)