Trans? Disabled? In need of surgery? Best to avoid Warwick Medical School

A mature student* enrolled in Warwick Medical School (WMS) has just lost a formal appeal after being denied the opportunity to resit an exam.

The events that led to this outcome indicate that WMS provides poorly for trans students undergoing a physical transition, and suggest that other students with access needs are likely to face similar problems. The student in question argued that these oversights amount to indirect discrimination: a claim rejected by a committee of senior academics from the wider University.

This message this sends is that discrimination against trans people and others is acceptable at the University of Warwick.

An inappropriate request

The first sign of trouble came in September 2011 (at the start of the WMS course) when the student (who I shall henceforth refer to as “B”) was asked to attend an Occupational Health doctor at the University Hospital of Coventry and Warwickshire.

This is not a standard procedure for all students on the course, and instead related to information B had provided to WMS upon enrolment. She was informed by a secretary in WMS that: “You are not being asked to attend on the grounds of being transgender […] I can only assume that you have ticked one of the health issues boxes and the Occupational Health team are required to assess your fitness to cope with the course.

B sought an explanation, writing: “I’m concerned that I am actually being asked to attended simply because I am TG. Under the strictest definition, transexualism is still classified as a ‘severe mental illness’ and consequently it was necessary for me to tick the corresponding box (9? – mental health).” B had commented on the form that was was trans, believing this action to be private disclosure.

Upon further enquiry, Occupational Health confirmed B’s suspicion, explaining that she was asked to attend the meeting because she had ticked the “mental health” box. The meeting was compulsory, with B being told that: “Failure to attend will result in us not being able to clear you health wise for the course“.

Conflicting messages

Ahead of the meeting, B attempted to clarify the situation in an email to an Occupational Health Nurse based in the hospital: “Just so that I’m completely clear, am I being asked to attend due to declaring that I have dysphoria of gender identity?

The nurse’s response was:  “No – it is connected with the health question you replyed yes to on the form.  It has nothing to do with your gender.  We work in accordance with the equality act 2010.

B describes the eventual meeting as follows:

When the OH appointment occurred the doctor walked in, checked the notes, and then said, “Oh, you’re trans”.

At which point I said, “Oh, you’re breaching the Equality Act then,” and proceeded to lecture them on how they were breaking my rights. At which point they asserted the party like about OH being a positive thing. And I pointed out, “then in that case I could have the right to decline your invitation”.

And the appointment ended. Nothing else was discussed.

There was no good reason for Occupational Health to know that B was trans. Through the arrangement of this meeting, she was unnecessarily outed to considerable number of people, and it was implied that her trans status might upon her ability to eventually graduate as a “Warwick doctor”.

However, worse was to follow.

A limited window of opportunity

Medical degrees are typically very intense. Students on B’s course are expected to take no more than three week’s sick leave per year during their four year course and subsequent two years as a foundation doctor. The maximum holiday period available is four weeks. The only exception to this is the summer holiday period between students’ first and second years.

As of autumn 2011, B was undergoing a physical transition, funded by the NHS and overseen by Charing Cross gender identity clinic. She intended to take a brief break in order to undergo genital surgery during her time as a medical student. However, the long recovery time (patients are typically recommended to take off at least eight weeks post-op; B was recommended to take off twelve weeks because of the physical nature of her course) and short breaks permitted during the six years of medical training meant that it would be difficult for her to find time to do so.

B was informed by the Senior Tutor at WMS that the only time she could realistically take off for surgery was her first summer holiday period. As a consequence of this, she was likely to forgo any chance to resit exams failed during her first year.

Private surgery

B then approached Charing Cross about the possibility of scheduling genital surgery for the summer of 2012. At this point, she would have completed the year of “real life experience” required by the current World Professional Association of Transgender Health Standards of Care. However, her request was rejected by Charing Cross on the grounds that she would have been attending the gender clinic for less than two years at the time of surgery.

B then faced a difficult dilemma: to wait six years for surgery, or pay for a private operation in order to complete her physical transition within the timeframe effectively demanded by WMS. She eventually took the decision to spend her savings on private treatment in order to minimise disruption to her study.

The possibility of failure

Whilst considering her options, B approached a couple of tutors for advice. She was particularly concerned about the possibility of failing her exam and then missing the resit during her time in hospital. This was a valid concern: not because B is a poor student, but because resits are not exactly uncommon within medical schools. As one academic within WMS commented in email correspondence to B:

As I am sure that you are becoming aware, medical exams can be a bit of a lottery and do not necessary relate to the candidate’s ability.

B was, however, informed that she was unlikely to fail any of her modules, and decided to go ahead with the surgery.

The exam

As it turned out, B failed her exam – along with 35% of her cohort.

An investigation by WMS formally dismissed any possibility of responsibility for this on the part of course conveners and school policy. However, B’s failure is arguably down in part to the complexities of the system as much as her own work. The manner in which the exam was marked meant that B got a higher percentage of marks than some students who passed, but failed the exam after doing poorly on a couple of very particular sections.

The exam results were announced the day that B regained consciousness in hospital following her operation. She spent the next few days in email contact with WMS from her hospital bed in an attempt to safeguard her second year of university.

The response

B requested that she be allowed (like the rest of her cohort) the opportunity to resit her exam. Unfortunately, the resit was to take place whilst she was still in hospital. WMS refused to provide any means for B to take her exam remotely, and insisted that it would not be possible for her to re-take her exam individually.

It later emerged that WMS were not prepared for any student to resit an exam individually under exceptional circumstances. Their argument is that it takes 60 working hours over the course of six months to prepare an individual exam, and that it is therefore too much work to prepare more than one paper.

B was reminded that she had been made aware that she would have to re-take the year in the event of failing any exam. WMS was not prepared to make any accommodation for her exceptional circumstances.

This would seem to imply that any student at WMS who is forced to miss an exam because of transition, disability or emergency surgery would be placed in a similar position to B.

The appeal

After pursuing the case within WMS for several weeks, B eventually decided to make a formal appeal within the wider University. The appeal entailed the preparation of a case, to be scrutinised by a committee of senior academics (including several faculty heads) before a recommendation was made to the Vice-Chancellor.

B argued that the approach of WMS amounted to indirect discrimination. The Equality Act and Disability Discrimination Act (which is applicable to individuals recovering from major surgery) both insist that suitable provisions are made for individuals with a legitimate need. The inability of WMS to provide a resit for students who have a legitimate medical reason for missing the standard resit effectively makes it difficult for anyone requiring surgery to undertake particular courses.

She therefore requested the opportunity to resit her exam, or (failing that) financial support for her re-take of the first year.

After a lengthy process of assessment (including an hour-and-a-half meeting with B in which she was able to direct present her case and answer questions) the committee rejected B’s appeal.

Some particularly telling extracts from the appeal documents follow (emphasis mine).

From the minutes of the committee’s meeting with B:

(i)  It was noted that [B] believed she required surgery as a matter of medical need;

(ii)  [B] was aware that she intended to undergo surgery at the time she applied for, and subsequently enrolled on, her degree and would also have been aware of the structure of the academic year (through the School’s Code of Practice 2011) and the fact that this would limit her opportunities to undergo elective surgery

From a letter outlining the panel’s decision:

(ii) [B’s] decision to undergo private, rather than NHS, surgery was a result of her own rational choice and was not forced by the Medical School;

(iii) The Committee accepted that the structure of the academic year for the MB ChB, in which resit exams are scheduled during the long vacation, did not allow sufficient time for students requiring long-term elective medical treatment, including transgender students requiringtransition surgery;

(iv) The Committee considered that the imposition of a structured academic year applicable to students generally is proportionate to the legitimate aim of providing education and therefore does not constitute indirect discrimination against students requiring gender re-assignment under s.19 Equality Act 2010;

(v) It was noted that the University has a duty to make reasonable adjustments under s.92(6) Equality Act 2010 where a rule or practice impacts adversely on a student with a protected characteristic;

(vi) As such, the Committee deemed temporary withdrawal for an academic year a reasonable adjustment, as it is always available for students requiring long-term treatment, including students undergoing gender re-assignment;

(vii) In relation to the question whether the Medical School should prepare a special resit paper to be taken at a time convenient to [B], it was noted that it is not uncommon in other Faculties for special arrangements to be made to enable students with disabilities to take scheduled resit examinations;

(viii) Nevertheless, it was noted that in this instance, the process of setting, marking and moderating a special exam would take the equivalent of 60 staff hours and if it were required that special resit papers for individual students with particular characteristics (i.e. transgender students) should be set, to be taken outside the calendared exam periods, it would be necessary as a matter of fairness to offer this service to other students with disabilities, protected characteristics or general illness who were unable to take scheduled resits

[…]

In relation to the supplementary ground of complaint:

(i) That there would be no reason for any member of Warwick Medical School staff to anticipate this level of failure;

(ii) That advice given to [B] by the Senior Tutor made clear that early scheduling of treatment would incur a risk and that [B] should consider her degree of confidence in passing the exams, before scheduling her elective treatment;

(iii) The Committee was therefore satisfied that the advice given by the Senior Tutor was appropriate.

Particularly unimpressive is the assumption that students such as B can afford (in financial as well as emotional terms) an entire year out from study, and the implication that a decision in her favour would set an awful precedent in which the University would have to appropriately support disabled students.

Concluding thoughts

I find the handling of this whole affair by WMS and the wider University of Warwick to be quite disturbing.

Of course medical courses should be difficult, and of course exams should be stringent. But everyone should have an equal chance to pass (and fail!) them.

Of course University departments have limited time, resources and money, particularly at this time of financial crisis. But they’ve had to spend a whole lot of time and money on this appeal, and they’re going to have to spend more on dealing with the fallout from this case.

I’ve tried to keep this post relatively succinct. It’s inevitably ended up being pretty long, but there’s so much background to this, and so much I haven’t been able to cover. The general impression I get is that WMS (and the University of Warwick) were keen to bury this case underneath a mountain of bureaucracy. The fact that it even reached the appeal stage is a minor miracle.

My concern now is not just for B, but for future students at WMS. I’ve seen a lot of evidence that suggests they don’t take discrimination seriously enough. Let’s hope that in the wake of this we might see policy change to ensure otherwise.

If you wish to contact WMS about this affair, please do. But please do not send any hate mail or threats!

* The student in question wishes to remain anonymous at the time of writing.

Edit: for a more personal take on this story, see No More Lost. There is also now a discussion up at Trans Medic.

Trans Grrrl Riot, part 1: Was riot grrrl transphobic?

Bikini Kill

I love Bikini Kill. I love the uncompromising power of their music, the feminist rage in their lyrics, their wider political approach. Bikini Kill who inspired me to finally pick up the bass guitar that had sat forlorn in a corner of my room for several years, and Bikini Kill helped me believe that I could make music.

I realise it’s a bit of a cliché, but they’re the band responsible for getting me into riot grrrl, and from there  began to explore feminist punk music (including that from contemporary UK bands) more widely.

I wanted to be a riot grrrl too, and was sad that the original movement faded away back in in the mid-1990s, well before I was ever aware of its existence.

Trans invisibility

However, riot grrrl doesn’t necessarily have the best reputation amongst trans people familiar with its history. I haven’t come across an account of (or by) a single trans woman who was involved in riot grrrl during its early 90s heyday. We weren’t the only ones to be marginalised either. The original riot grrrls may not have all been as middle-class as the mainstream media would like to make out, but the scene appears to have been predominantly white.

I haven’t come across anything particularly transphobic  within those 1990s riot grrrl recordings and writings that remain in circulation on the Internet today. Still, various high-profile individuals made their views entirely clear through their involvement with the famously trans-exclusive Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (also known as “Michfest”).

Trans exclusion

In 1999, controversy erupted after queer punks The Butchies played Michfest. Butchies frontwoman Kaia Wilson had previously been a member of riot grrrl band Team Dresch, and at the time was also running Mr Lady Records jointly with Tammy Rae Carland (a zine editor, spoken word performer, and subject of the Bikini Kill song For Tammy Rae).

A number of trans activists approached Mr Lady Records, asking the label – and its bands – to boycott Michfest. Wilson released a statement claiming to support trans rights, but also backing Michfest’s “womyn-born-womyn” policy. A 2010 interview suggests that she has not changed her views on the matter.

In 2001 and 2005, feminist electro-pop act Le Tigre were similarly criticised for playing Michfest. The group were fronted by Kathleen Hanna, former lead singer in Bikini Kill. Like The Butchies, Le Tigre were a sort of post-riot grrrl act: they came into being after the original movement faded away, but have become associated with riot grrrl in the minds of many both because of their politics and because of the involvement of particular musicians. Le Tigre were at one point signed to Mr Lady Records, although the record label dissolved in 2004.

Le Tigre don’t seem to have been in the slightest bit apologetic about playing Michfest. The argument was once again that womyn have a right to organise autonomously, with the unspoken proviso that trans women are (obviously) not womyn. Of course, this perspective couldn’t possibly be transphobic, what with all the gender-bending the band indulged in.

There’s also lot of talk on the Internet about Hanna also supposedly writing transphobic essays during the 1990s, but I’ve yet to see any evidence of these (and it seems I’m not the only one).

It’s interesting that Le Tigre (and, through Hanna, Bikini Kill) remain implicated in all of this, whilst The Butchies, Mr Lady Records, Tammy Rae and Team Dresch do not. As of 2012, trans activists and allies are still quick to condemn Bikini Kill as “problematic” in Tumblr posts and blog comments. This is no doubt down to the wider media profile experienced (although not necessarily enjoyed!) by Hanna and the various bands she’s been involved in. Wider criticisms of transphobia and cissexism within riot grrrl seem confined largely confined to blogs written by somewhat disallusioned veterans of the original movement.

Meanwhile, whilst Hanna doesn’t seem particularly keen to explicitly distance herself from her past actions and/or comments, she does seem to have quietly moved on, at least somewhat. In more recent interviews she can be seen praising “trans activism”, and earlier this year one fan reported receiving an interesting letter about the matter.

…So?

What does this mean for Bikini Kill? Not a great deal, in my opinion. Kathleen Hanna – a woman whose relationship with the media has always been complex – is not a perfect human being, and has said and done some fairly awful things. Her implicit support of Michfest in particular was never acceptable. She appears to be increasingly aware of this, and has clearly made some moves to educate herself. Still, an explicit acknowledgement of her past cissexism would certainly be welcome.

However, Hanna is in no way the totality of  “Bikini Kill”, let alone “riot grrrl”. As her bandmate Tobi Vail pointed out:

We are not in anyway ‘leaders of’ or authorities on the ‘Riot Girl’ movement. In fact, as individuals we have each had different experiences with, feelings on, opinions of and varying degrees of involvement with ‘Riot Girl’ […] As individuals we respect and utilize and subscribe to a variety of different aesthetics, strategies, and beliefs, both political and punk-wise, some of which are probably considered ‘riot girl.’

The very rifts that fractured riot grrrl also gave it strength, for there was no one dogmatic, overriding ideology to bind it. Kaia Wilson, Tammy Rae Carland and Kathleen Hanna were not the movement. As a young woman looking back at a feminist movement I never had the opportunity to be involved with, I’m left with the impression that riot grrrl did not wholly welcome trans people, but did not intentionally reject us either (in spite of the backwards attitude of certain participating individuals). And of course, this situation wasn’t really good enough, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

The future

Fast-forward to 2012, and the idea of riot grrrl is once again gaining a certain cultural currency. The mainstream media are arguably rediscovering riot grrrl in the light of Pussy Riot’s magnificently brave actions of personal resistance, but new bands and collectives have been springing up around the world at an impressive rate for the last two or three years.

Doll Fight

Riot grrrl never really went away: whilst former members of the original movement founded started new bands, new record labels, and new approaches to opening up underground music to girls and women (such as Ladyfest and Girls Rock Camp), there were always individuals and bands who clung to the label. Recently, the idea of a “riot grrrl revival” has blossomed into something more vital on a local, national and international level.

In the UK alone there are now local groups such as Riot Grrrl Birmingham emerging; frequent local events such as Riot Grrill in Leeds, Pussy Whipped in Edinburgh and Riots Not Diets in Brighton; and a whole host of new bands, many of whom communicate with one another through means such as the Riot Grrrl UK group on Facebook.

And one of the many wonderful things about all of these groups is that they’re all explicitly trans-inclusive. They’re not only drawing upon trans language and symbolism: they also see trans struggle as feminist struggle. These are groups that seek to understand cissexism and binarism, groups that talk about supporting CeCe McDonald in the same way that they talk about Pussy Riot.

Similarly, the international music compilations released regularly by the Riot Grrrl Berlin collective explicitly welcome trans artists, and ban transphobic language. There are even (shock, horror) riot grrrl bands with trans members emerging.

We should learn from the past, but not be bound by it. Trans-inclusive riot grrrl is finally here. Let’s make the most of it!

To moderate, or not to moderate? (a ramble)

I’ve had some fairly unpleasant comments on my Radfem 2012 post. Until today, these messages have generally taken the form of polite disagreement: the difficulty comes in the content of that disagreement. I, like many other trans people, regard the refusal to recognise my gender (and other trans genders) as valid to be discriminatory and bigoted. Most of the radical feminist commentators who participate in this refusal draw their perspective from feminist theory, and argue that their position naturally follows from this. The conflicting truths explored in my original post were further drawn out, as both “sides” of the argument (and oh, how I wish there weren’t “sides”!) were inevitably hurt by the “other side”‘s refusal to let go and leave them alone.

My partner asks me why I’m spending so much time reading these comments and engaging in this kind of discussion. I’m just hurting myself and making myself angry, he says. It almost feels worth abandoning the whole affair, closing the thread and forgetting about it. There’s a lot of other things going on in my life, after all.

And yet we are essentially fighting it out for the heart of feminism. This matters because these arguments shape our approach to the equality battles of the present and future. When I turn up to a feminist meeting about the pay gap, or sexualisation, or the the gendered impact of austerity, will I be welcome? Can I fight alongside my sisters, and under what circumstances? Can I expect my cis* sisters to stand up for me when I fight for my trans friends who need access to rape crisis centres, women’s shelters, advice and counselling services? Can we all pull together to offer solidarity to intersex people when surgeons who would mutilitate intersex children hold a conference on our shores? How are we to understand sex and gender? What is this feminism, who is it for, and what do we want to achieve?

And so I leave the discussion open, and attempt to engage with individuals whose outlook is so similar and yet so different to mine, in the vague hope that this might contribute in some tiny way to some kind of reconciliation, years down the line. I’ve not yet blocked or deleted a single post.

I’m leaving unmoderated comments that I consider to be blantantly transphobic*, language that reeks of ignorance, if not hate. In a different space, perhaps one with a safe(r) space policy, these would have been deleted long ago. But this is my blog, and I suppose part of me wants to see this discussion happen.

I’m particularly disturbed by some of the more recent comments. DLT states: “I wish harm on every male on the planet. Plain and simple. No matter how you play dress up. If you are male, no thanks.” Take out the transphobia and that’s still horrifying. Surely the systematic empowerment of men at the expense of women (and non-binary individuals!) is the problem, not men. Like, all men. I find the concept of “misandry” somewhat concerning and so-called Men’s Rights Activists downright terrifying, but the moment you start “wishing harm” upon any group of people is the moment you’re straying into serious Godwin territory.

And yet. These comments tell a story, a truth, one that I would prefer to see aired than not. Part of the reason these arguments are so virulant is that so many women and so many trans people (women, men and non-binary alike) are very damaged. Some of us have had truly awful things happen to us, meaning we’re more likely to lash out at others in a storm of emotion. I don’t for a moment agree with the transphobic* perspectives of the many cis* women posting on my blog, and I don’t think unpleasant experiences are an excuse for this, but I’d rather listen than not before wholeheartedly rejecting these discourses.

Finally, I find myself agreeing entirely with smashmisscontest – a radical feminist with whom I disagree so much – on one key point:

The opinion of this Bev Jo noted Radfem, a person which I have never heard about by the way, do not voice the politics of radical feminists as a whole (and certainly not mine), as much as Valerie Solanas does not voice the politics of feminists as a whole by wanting all men exterminated, and as much as the “die cis scum” rhetoric do not represent the feelings of the trans community as a whole, and therefore should be placed in the category of unfortunate extremes I was talking about in my first post.

Obviously extremists, rad-fundamentalists or trans-fundamentalists, are not about politics at all but about hatred which maybe have originated by their personal experiences, and they will not participate in any type of building bridges anyway. But there is the rest of us who want to work on that, and do not identify with hate speech of any kind, so please don’t put me in the same bag. If you are trying to shock the people reading this comments, there are also plenty of examples of hate speech against feminists and women coming from trans individuals, but i do not see the point in getting into that loop type of distressed and non constructive conversation, if its not to create even more hatred and distress.

So let’s acknowledge and listen to the most hateful of comments, but remember that they do not represent the crux of the issue. The problem is a more nuanced one than DLT would have us believe. I still believe that smashmisscontest is, through her brand of radical feminism, promoting (in some senses) and tolerating (in others) a harmful transphobia*, but I believe this arises from a fundamental misunderstanding rather than from hatred. I get the impression she thinks similarly of me. And that gives us something to work with.

I will continue to openly and actively oppose Radfem 2012, because I continue to believe that it effectively promotes views that would harm trans people. But as part of that process, I hope dialogue remains open.

As for my original Radfem 2012 post, I think I’m going to just slap a trigger warning on the end of the post and leave it be – for now, at least.

 

* I will use these words because this is my blog and I, as part of an oppressed group, have a right to define the nature and actions of those who hold power over me

​My message to those who would attend Radfem 2012

In you, I see the girls who spat in my face as I walked home from school.

In me, you see every man who has ever treated you like a lesser being.

In you, I see the boys who always wanted to pick a fight.

In me, you see someone who just won’t listen.

In you, I see my father, a man I’ve always considered to be wise and thoughtful, telling me that I’ll be outed by the press and kicked out of university for using the women’s toilets if I transition after my A-levels.

In me, you see a forceful male penetration into women’s spaces.

In you, I see a hundred tabloid headlines screaming “tranny”.

In me, you see a blind adherence to the oppressive system of binary gender.

In you, I see the doctor who tells me what I can and can’t do with my body.

In me, you see the stooge of a patriarchal medical system.

In you, I see friends who have been beaten or raped before being told by authority figures that they brought it on themselves.

In me, you see a systematic desire to control and define womanhood.

In you, I see a systematic desire to control and define womanhood.

How do we bridge this impossible divide?

My truth and your truth are both derived from a fierce feminism, but somehow remain diametrically opposed.  How is it that we can disagree so much over the existence of a feminist conference for “women born women living as women”?

I would tell you that my subconscious sex, the mental matrix that somehow marks the flesh I expect to see and feel when I behold myself, maps snugly onto the body I have inhabited since undergoing hormone therapy and genital reconstruction. I would tell you that for the last three years I have been happy and at ease with myself in a way I could never have been before.

I would tell you that I am a woman because I identify as a woman, I move through the world as a woman, and in this sense I have been a woman my entire adult life. I would tell you that I don’t even know what it’s like to be a man because that’s something I’ve simply never experienced. I do know what it’s like to be a teenage trans girl faking it as a boy though, and I can tell you that isn’t a whole lot of fun. I would tell you that trans women who transition later in life tend to encounter more significant challenges than I did, and that they are no less a woman for this.

I would tell you that yes, I agree that gender is a social construct that ascribes hegemonic power to the masculine. I would tell you that I, like you, am forced to negotiate a society where we cannot simply reject gender because we are gendered constantly by others. The body I inhabit, the things I enjoy, the manner in which I communicate, the clothes I prefer to wear fit better into the artificial category of “woman” than the artificial category of “man”.

I would tell you that “trans” is an aspect of my womanhood: womanhood is not an aspect of my transness. I am a woman who happens to be trans.

I would tell you that when I was with a woman, she loved me as a woman. Now I am with a man, he loves me as a man. I am entirely at ease with my bisexuality.

I would tell you that I reject outdated ideals of “appropriate” female behaviour. I don’t see why I should take on a submissive role within society, although I do feel it is important to recognise the voices of others and listen in a sisterly fashion. I  do not see why I should dress in a particular feminine fashion, wear make-up or force myself into uncomfortable shoes, but reserve the right to occasionally dress “femme” when the mood takes me.

I would tell you that I rage against sexism and misogyny at every possible opportunity. I have dedicated a great deal of time fighting in solidarity alongside my feminist sisters for equality, for liberation, for choice.

I would tell you that I, too am subject to sexism and misogyny in many of their vile forms. My transness does not spare me. I would also tell you that I have experienced worse for being trans than I have for being a woman, although these unpleasant experiences have been limited by the privileges that come with my class status and the colour of my skin.

I would tell you that I believe in the importance of women’s spaces. I would argue that no group of women should be rejected from such a space.

I would tell you that this is my truth, and that there is no universal trans truth. That some trans people feel their gender is essential and innate, whilst others reject gender entirely, and so many occupy a myriad of positions between these poles. I would ask you to acknowledge the diversity and complexity of trans truths.

And you would tell me your truth. You would tell me of the pain that comes from growing up as a girl and then a woman in a patriarchal world. You would tell me that I can never know what this is like, that I will always be a man, that my chromosomes and life experience alike cannot be erased. You would tell me that you have a right to organise without me. That I should just leave you alone.

And the argument could roll on for a long time. For instance, I might draw upon the wisdom of black feminist thinkers to argue that there is no universal experience of womanhood. And you might argue that I, nevertheless, will always have with me the male privilege that comes with being raised as a boy. And I would say yes, I accept that, but I seek to acknowledge and check this in the same way I seek to acknowledge and check my other privileges, and moreover this intersects complexly with the oppression I experienced growing up as a young trans person, unable to access hegemonic forms of masculinity.

Where does this leave us?

At the end of the day, we have to draw a line in the sand. So you have your conference, and I am explicitly excluded. But I necessarily object to your conference, because you not only reject me on grounds that trouble me, but you invite a speaker who actively opposes my liberation.

So I am left with no choice but to actively oppose the public manifestation of opinions that will do harm to myself and my friends and my trans sisters and my trans brothers and my queer and/or non-gender-specific trans siblings.

I oppose you not because I hate you, and certainly not because I oppose feminism. I oppose you because you would cause me harm.

And in doing so, you believe that I cause you harm.

And so the dance goes on.

 

TRIGGER WARNING:comments contain upsetting language, erasure etc.

NUS Women’s Campaign recognises gender complexity

I have a special place in my heart for the National Union of Students Women’s Campaign. The Campaign is (broadly speaking) a truly inclusive, progressive body. I met some amazing women and learned a great deal about the contemporary feminist movement during three years as an elected volunteer on the Women’s Campaign national committee.

However, I was disheartened to hear about the Campaign’s poor record on trans issues in the past year; most notably, a female-assigned genderqueer committee member’s very place in the Campaign was called into question after they explained to other committee members that they do not exclusively identify as a woman. The poor manner in which this democratically elected representative was treated flew in the face of both the spirit and the letter of trans-inclusive policy passed in 2009.

I therefore find it heartening to hear that NUS Women’s Conference 2012 today passed new policy to ensure that this never happens again. Delegates voted unanimously for a motion that will change the Women’s Campaign standing orders in order to permanently clarify the membership of this autonomous liberation campaign.

The motion, entitled “Gender complexity and inclusiveness in the NUS Women’s Campaign“, notes that:

That not all those who are oppressed as women necessarily identify exclusively as women, or would choose the word ‘woman’ or ‘female’ to encapsulate their gender identity […]

Whilst the NUS Women’s Campaign does not have a large amount of explicit policy on issues specifically related to people with complex gender identities who self-define into the campaign, it has a duty to make its spaces safe and welcoming for them.

The following is therefore added to the Women’s Campaign standing orders:

The NUS Women’s Campaign is open to all who self-define as women, including (if they wish) those with complex gender identities which include ‘woman’, and those who experience oppression as women. The NUSWC affirms that self-definition is at the sole discretion of the individual in question.

This really should have come about without an individual being treated poorly, but it’s great to see Women’s Conference so ready to address the Campaign’s mistakes. Full credit to everyone who voted through the change!

Student medics push for trans on the curriculum

We seem to be quietly creeping towards a better situation for trans health.

There’s clearly a major problem. The Home Office’s informal e-surveys of trans experience indicated that the realm of “health” is a key concern for a great many of us, with almost half of respondents saying that they did not think their GP was doing a “good” or “excellent” job in addressing their health needs. Meanwhile the 2007 Engendered Penalties report (created by Press For Change for the Equalities Review) notes that 1 in 6 of respondents reported experiencing discrimination from medical professionals.

Issues of health access aren’t limited to those problems created by the referral and treatment process for medical transition. Many of us are still being treated inappropriately because we are trans, regardless of what treatment we’re seeking at any given time.

It’s heartening then to (finally!) see increasing willingness to do something on the part of medical professionals. Zoe O’ Connell describes the positive outcomes of a recent meeting between trans activists and the General Medical Council. And at the other end of the professional “scale”, last week saw the publication of an article in the Student Lancet calling for teaching on trans issues within the medical curriculum.

The Lancet article isn’t the intervention of one isolated student medic. Its author informs me that there is widespread anger (yes, anger!) about the lack of LGBT material on the curriculum amongst her peers at Warwick Medical School. They’re particularly unimpressed with how trans people are treated. The students in question feel they should be taught properly about all issues they might encounter as doctors, and are taking action to ensure this actually happens.

The staff-student liaison committee reps in my year have decided they want to push having teaching on LGB and especially T stuff added to the curriculum,” explains my informant. “I bashed out a quick petition over breakfast and floated it round my lecture theatre to collect signatures for them so they had a bit more clout – so they now have a petition signed by over half of my cohort telling them they should be teaching trans stuff.

Of course, this is just one small step towards the provision of appropriate health services for trans people. As the Student Lancet article concludes:

“I feel that this is a change which is urgently needed at an institutional level rather than at the level of individual medical schools. Only by taking a unilateral approach will we ever manage to change the perception of the NHS as a discriminatory institution. In order to effectively treat transgender individuals we need to prove to them that we are worthy of their trust.”

Psychiatrists plan transphobic conference

The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Gay and Lesbian Special Interest Group (an organisation clearly well-qualified to meddle in trans affairs) are planning a delightful meeting in London next month.

Described as an “extremely stimulating meeting exploring the most recent academic, clinical and contemporary thinking on transgender issues, for all people interested in this field, Transgender: Time to Change will include contributions from a number of disturbingly transphobic speakers.

Let’s have a look at the programme for the day, shall we?

A meeting organised by the
Royal College of Psychiatrists’
Gay and Lesbian Special Interest Group
Friday 20th May, 2011
15 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PG

9.30am Registration

10.00am Morning session: Chair: Professor Michael King

10.10am Dr Domenico Di Ceglie: From Disorder to Diversity: Current views and controversies in the management of Gender Identity Disorder in Young People

10.45am Ms Julie Bindel There is no such a thing as a real woman (or a real man, for what matters). A feminist perspective on Gender Identity Disorder

11.20am Ms Christina Richards: Trans: What the empirical literature tells us

11.55am Discussion

12.30pm Lunch

13.15pm Afternoon session: Chair: Shawn Mitchell

13.20pm Dr James Barrett: Disorders of Gender Identity – what works

14.00pm Dr Az Hakeem: Deconstructing Gender and Parallel Processes: Features specific to a Specialist Transgender Psychotherapy Service

14.40pm Panel discussion – all speakers

15.15pm Finish

15.30 – 16.15pm GLBSIG AGM – all welcome

My, what a line-up. Where to begin?

The most obviously questionable speaker is Julie Bindel, a woman with a long history of transphobia. Bindel makes it her mission to subject trans people in general – and trans women in particular – to the very same treatment that she (rightly) decries as sexism when it is aimed at cis women. She has consistently argued against the provision of medical treatment for transsexed individuals. She has threatened to sue trans individuals and feminist organisations that dare condemn her damaging actions. What the hell gives her the right to comment on the psychiatric treatment of trans people?

However, Natacha Kennedy rightly points out that Dr Az Hakeem is considerably more dangerous. He runs a “specialist psychotherapy service for patients with transgender and other gender identity disorders” (source) at the Portman Clinic, meaning that he has a great deal of power over trans patients. Let’s have a look at what he has to say about us:

“The experience of many psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and psychotherapists working with transsexual patients is that they are individuals who, for complex reasons, need to escape from an intolerable psychological reality into a more comfortable fantasy. By attempting to live as a member of the opposite sex, they try to avoid internal conflict, which may otherwise prove to be too distressing.”

Regarding Hakeem’s approach to trans research, Kennedy points out:

There is so much wrong with Hakeem’s 2010 paper in which he claims to be able to ‘cure’ trans people it is hard to know where to begin. These kind of claims have been repeated throughout the chequered history of psychiatric engagement with trans people. His kind of treatment “talking therapies” as Julie Bindel calls them, “reparative therapy” being one of the many euphemisms employed by the “treatment has also been tried on gays and lesbians and been shown to fail, causing only feelings of trauma, guilt and suicidal tendencies.

His paper makes assertions for which he provides no evidence and his methods, selection of research participants and the nature of their participation in the study appear to be opaque in extreme. In addition there is no mention of research ethics which are particularly important when one is publishing research about individuals with whom one has a professional-client relationship.

Gosh. I’m sure glad this man is going to be sharing a platform with Bindel.

Who else do we have? Ah yes, Dr Domenico Di Ceglie. The conference blurb points out that he works for the Tavistock Clinic, a service that offers approximately sod all a very limited “service” for trans children and adolescents. Contacts of mine who have attended this clinic explain that therapists have patronised them, steered the conversation away from any real discussion of gender, and refused to offer treatment. Realistically, hormones are banned until you’re 18 for the vast majority of trans teens in the UK. Looks like you’re doing a sterling job, doctor!

James Barrett is a controversial fellow, to say the least. He’s deeply unpopular with some of his patients at Charing Cross, whilst others like him. He’s provided a great deal of help to many, but is a bit obsessed with the idea that people need to be in employment or education in order to earn treatment. He has been known to block treatment for individuals who have disabilities that prevent them from working.

Finally, we have Christina Richards, another Charing Cross psych. Shockingly, Christina brings the number of trans people speaking at this conference up to a grand total of one.

As a community, we shouldn’t simply let this pass. Most of these speakers aren’t just dodgy, they’re downright dangerous. We need to be asking the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Gay and Lesbian Special Interest Group what the heck they think they’re doing, raising awareness of this travesty in the LGBT media, and if necessary picketing the meeting. If we let this go without a fuss then the vile propaganda of individuals such as Hakeem and Bindel will only spread unchecked.