Stonewall inappropriately address trans issues in anti-bullying DVD

Stonewall and its representatives have been taking increasingly bizarre decisions in recent months.  I recently wrote about the furore caused by Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill’s surprising comments at the Liberal Democrat party conference, where he argued against campaigning for equal marriage.  Since then, a number of heated exchanges have taken place between the organisation and its critics: a good summary of some of these can be found in the Why the silence Stonewall? blog.  Meanwhile, the charity’s attitude towards trans issues has been questioned once again after the organisation nominated a transphobic journalist for its Journalist of the Year award (hmmm, this sounds familiar), whilst at the Labour Party conference Summerskill claimed that Stonewall has been in talks with ministers and officials about potential amendments to the Gender Recognition Act in relation to civil partnership.

This last point is particularly strange.  Why are Stonewall – an organisation who are so very keen to exclude trans people and remain LGb only – involved in trans lobbying?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of any move towards Stonewall becoming an LGBT organisation at the very least (more on that later), but surely if they’re engaging in this kind of deeply important, high-profile lobbying on our behalf then they should damn well let us be a part of their organisation and officially campaign on our behalf.  Otherwise, who knows what the heck they’re saying?  For that matter, what right do they have to speak for us?  Shouldn’t we be able to speak for ourselves?

It may well be the case that the “large” trans organisations (which, in the broad scheme of the third sector, really are very small) don’t have the power to push a trans-positive agenda on the scale they’d like to and have somehow managed to rope Stonewall into helping us out.  For me, this is a perfect argument in favour of a united LGBT alliance, rather than separate groups where the LGb inevitably gets the power and the T ends up left out in the cold, despite our ultimately similar interests.

This brings me nicely onto the main subject of this blog: another instance of Stonewall deciding that they’re going to speak out about trans issues.  On this occasion, they demonstrate how attempting to speak for someone else can backfire magnificently.

Earlier this year, Stonewall sent out a copy of “Fit” to every school in Britain as part of a wider campaign to tackle homophobic bullying in schools.  On the whole, the DVD – like the rest of the campaign – is admirable in its aims, scope, and general thoughtfulness.  This is something which they’ve (almost!) done really well.  However, for some incomprehensible reason the people who put together the DVD decided that it would be appropriate to include a brief discussion of trans issues.

The main content of the DVD consists of a story about sexuality, identity and bullying, involving a fairly large cast of teenagers who attend a 6th form college.  This central narrative is split into a number of smaller stories, each focusing based around a particular character; the brief discussion of trans issues takes part within one such story.  In this scene, Lee – a tomboy who has previously discovered that her best friend is gay after following her – attends a gay youth group for the first time.  Whilst she is there, the following discussion takes place:

Male 1 [is talking about his mother]: “She keeps saying: ‘but you don’t look gay’. I think that she wishes I was a tranny, so then we could be girlfriends.”

[group laughs]

Lee:  “What’s a tranny?”

Female 1:  “It’s short for transgender.”

Female 2:  “I know this one! Transsexuals are people who want a sex change, tranvestites are people who dress up as the opposite sex.  Drag kings and queens – well they dress up for a living!”

[group applauds]

Lee:  [looks confused] “I need to take some notes, has anyone got a pen like?”

[Lee is given a pen]

Lee:  “So what’s a transsexual?”

Female 3:  “Boys who feel more like girls and girls who feel more like boys.”

Lee:  “Transvestite?”

Female 3:  “Well, they feel content with their born gender, but prefer to wear the clothes of the opposite sex.”

Lee:  “So am I a transvestite?”

Female 2:  “No. Lots of girls are tomboys when they’re young, then they grow out of it.”

Female 4:  “I didn’t! I’m a total boy and I love it!”

Female 2:  “…and I’m not a boy, I like being a girl.”

Female 4:  “…and that’s fine too! Look, there’s as many way to be a girl as there are girls.”

[The conversation then turns to the issue of gay marriage. The group seems to be broadly in favour, and they think civil partnerships are an unfair compromise.]

[Edit: the inappropriate scene can now be seen here on Youtube]

In a different context – let’s say a random TV drama – this scene would make me cringe a bit but I wouldn’t think much more of it.  After all, general cluelessness about trans stuff is pretty much par for course, and in the broad scheme of things this particular instance isn’t so bad.  Within the context of a DVD that seeks to tackle homophobic bullying, however, this is completely out of order.

“Fit” handles homophobic insults and the common negative use of words such as “gay” in a pretty nuanced manner, putting all kinds of nasty language into its characters’ mouths and then carefully demonstrating how this impacts the beliefs and actions of others.  At the same time, you learn how gay teenagers might think and feel through empathasising with gay characters.

By contrast, the tokenistic discussion of trans issues takes place in a setting where there are apparently no trans characters (Lee remains a tomboy of sorts throughout the narrative and her sexuality is somewhat ambiguous, but at no point is it seriously implied that she identifies as trans in any way because of this).  We are portrayed as an alien “Other”, a topic of discussion  which cis characters claim they know all about even though they get it wrong.  And no-one addresses these mistakes at any point.

To the trans reader, said mistakes may be pretty obvious, but this might not necessarily be the case for cis readers.  As such, here’s a brief low-down of some of the issues:

1) “Tranny” is very much a contested word.  It’s commonly used as an insult by tabloid newspapers, idiotic bloggers and random arseholes on the street: as such it has a similar sting to words such as “faggot”.  It’s a word with a lot of power to cause pain: something that simply isn’t acknowledged when a character in “Fit” blithely asserts that it’s “short for transgender”.  Which it isn’t, anyway…it can be levelled at pretty much any given trans (or trans-looking) target, although transfeminine individuals tend to suffer from this most commonly.  There are trans people who reclaim “tranny” as a positive identity.  I personally support this, although I wouldn’t do so myself. However, I think it’s always important to be very aware of context when such words are used.  Putting them randomly in the mouths of cis characters in this way is pretty damn inappropriate.

2) “Fit” demonstrates the complexity of sexual identity, showing how gay (and straight!) people all look different, act differently and have different interests.  It even acknowledges (a little) that bisexuality exists, which has to be some kind of achievement for Stonewall.  However, the brief descriptions of trans identities are incomplete, insufficient and somewhat inaccurate (try telling a trans guy that he’s a girl who feels like a boy and he’ll probably tell you to where to go).  Moreover, these descriptions are binary-centric and fail to account for the further complexity of transness.

3) Where are the trans characters?  As previously explained, this discussion pretty much consists of cis people talking about trans people…in complete contrast to the rest of the DVD, which is all about allowing the voices of gay people to be heard and their experiences to be seen.

I’m very much in favour of Stonewall becoming an LGBT organisation.  LGBT people have many differences (and that doesn’t just refer to trans people being different to everyone else: gay men and gay women have some different issues, bi people have different issues again…) but there is a lot that brings us together.  We have a shared history, and broadly shared experiences of discrimination and “coming out”.  Looking at some of the other materials from Stonewall’s anti-bullying kit, I saw how easy it would have been to build in trans issues.  Like gay children, trans children in schools are often bullied for appearing to subvert gender norms, are likely to feel isolated and alone and have difficulty explaining their identity to others when seeking help.  Gay, bisexual and trans issues in school really are often quite similar, and we’d surely be better off pooling our knowledge and expertise to work on resources such as that produced by Stonewall rather than having separate LGB and T packs (on those very rare occasions where a trans organisation can afford to produce such a pack, that is).

What I’m certainly not in favour of is the kind of nonsense found in “Fit”.  What gives Stonewall the right to exclude trans people from their organisation and then turn around and decide that they’re going to campaign ineffectively and inappropriate on our behalf, without our input?

As such, I’ll be demonstrating against Stonewall duplicity in London on 4th November.  If you’re free and can make it to the protest, I hope you might be able to do so too.

(demo link for those who don’t use Facebook)

What’s in a name? (the importance of free deed polls)

This post is part one of my response to misha the Duck of Doom, who commented on this post.

In the United Kingdom we’re pretty lucky: we’re able to change our names for free, as long as it’s not being done to commit fraud. I believe this is not merely a privilege that we’re fortunate enough to have though; it’s an important right.

This applies to anyone who wants to change their name, but is particularly important for many trans people because of the sheer importance a name can have. A name denotes identity, is usually tied to a particular gender role and accompanying gender expectations, and tends to carry a fair amount of personal history with it. No wonder then that a name change can be a key moment for those who transition. A free name change means that everyone has equal access to this right, regardless of age and financial status.

There are several means of changing your name under UK law, but the most simple is to simply announce to the world that you’ve changed your name. You don’t actually need to do anything other than this. It might help, however, to sign a piece of paper as evidence of your doing so. Maybe you could also get someone else to witness it, perhaps a solicitor. This tends to help with getting organisations such as banks, educational institutions and the Inland Revenue to recognise your name change: hence the existence of deed polls and statutory declarations.

Solicitors – and various websites – can charge a pretty penny for preparing your statutory declaration or deed poll. The amount they might ask you for varies, although as a general rule I note that the more fancy-looking the document is, the more it costs. What baffles me is that these individuals and organisations are getting away with this when you can easily make your own document for free. There are some organisations trying to make money from this through advertising, whilst other pages make them available simply out of a desire to help others. My own (free) deed poll was emailed to me by a particularly helpful individual working for the university I was applying for a few years back. I’ve used it to change my details with pretty much every organisation which will ever need to use my name, including the NHS, a Student Union and the Job Centre.

Of course, not everyone who charges for evidence of a name change charges a lot. misha the Duck of Doom suggests:

“Go to a solicitor who swears oaths.
They have the uk courts authority to swear in
a Stat Dec name change.
When doing this, they are recognised as an agent of the court.

It costs £5 IIRC
plus £2 per stamped copy. You need about 15 copies for tax, council, education certificates, utility companies
so they change your name & sex.”

This looks relatively reasonable and not too pricey. I have three major problems with this option though:

1) “Affordable” can be two very different things to different people. The above suggestion actually costs £35 (£5, plus £2 multiplied by 15 is £35). That’s a fair amount of money if you’re a teenager, a student, on minimum wage, unemployed or permanently on incapacity benefit. Of course, many solicitors would provide you with a number of copies for no additional charge, and I’d suggest you could save a lot of that money by creating photocopies and using a stamped, self-addressed envelope when you do need to provide the original, but you’re still spending money. £5 can go a long way towards other things when you’re a teenager, and has to go a long way if you’re on benefits or minimum wage. I can make several days worth of meals on £5. Sure, even the poorest can fork out for this, but would prefer spend money on better things if it’s possible to do so.

2) Trans people are more likely than the general population to have anxiety issues or problems interacting with other people. Transition has given nerves of steel to many of us (and huge amounts of confidence when things are going well), but this doesn’t apply to all. Dealing with this kind of thing via a solicitor or courts could waste a lot of spoons. In this instance, self-created evidence of a name change is clearly preferable.

3) There’s an issue of principle! Regardless of money and spoons, why should we have to spend money on evidence of a name change when, legally speaking, we don’t have to?

This is why it particularly gets my back up when a Gender Clinic decides that it’s above free deed polls, and demands that they’re witnessed by a solicitor. It’s also bizarre that they accepted a free deed poll from a trans woman and then decided to later reject the very same document. I’m glad that Charing Cross no longer seem to be doing this – and in fact have apparently written a new policy to ensure that it doesn’t happen again – but it’s quite telling that they don’t seem to have made this new policy public at all.

A Reflexive Post (or: What’s This Blog Even For?)

I’ve been writing here for a while, on and off, but it’s occurred to me that I haven’t really written anything about the purpose of the blog itself, let alone about myself and where I’m coming from.

This is partly deliberate. I’ve got a pretty busy life and don’t always feel like updating. As such, this isn’t a regular blog: it’s more like somewhere where I can occasionally let off steam, or write a political rant which I want to share with anyone who happens to stumble across it. Once in a blue moon I might link people here, and sometimes others want to link to me, which is cool.

The result of this situation is that I don’t always write about the stuff that I care about most, or the stuff I think is most important. Sometimes I do,  but often I’ll be actively trying to campaign on an issue or desperately trying to keep up with work rather than spend time getting angry in the general direction of the internet.  This is a political blog, but it’s also somewhat personal and self-indulgent.

Still, I hope you might find something of interest here. I’m a trans woman in my twenties, and this tends to shape my political interests. I’m interested in queer rights in general and trans rights in particular. I’m involved in a number of trans youth communities and aim to raise awareness of stuff that particularly impacts young trans people since it often tends to get sidelined or forgotten about. Since I’m UK-based, most of my entries are about UK stuff. I’m also in possession of various privileges (white, middle-class, abled, neurotypical etc.) and do my best to keep track of these and make sure they don’t blind my perspective.

Charing Cross gender identity clinic outlaws DIY deed polls

A friend of mine who changed her name a few months ago received a phone call from Charing Cross yesterday to inform her that her deed poll (which had been seen and approved of in her presence by both receptionists and medical staff working at the clinic) was “inappropriate”. As such, they will revert to using her male name in correspondence.

She says that: I have found out that my deed poll is ‘inappropriate’ because it has not been signed by, and I quote, the “Government Deed Poll Issuing Authority”.

They didn’t like her deed poll because she printed it herself, using a free template (similar to this one). A lot of young trans people do this because we often cannot afford to “buy” a deed poll. Others on low income or benefits are likely to use these deed polls too.

These documents are widely accepted. My friend whose deed poll was not good enough for Charing Cross has successfully changed the name on her driving license with hers, for example.

Apparently this wasn’t a one-off case. My friend pointed out that she knew others with similar deed polls which had been accepted by the gender clinic. She was informed: “then they are most certainly in our pile of deed polls to return and names to revert to the original name on the deed poll.”

I honestly don’t know what the hell they think they’re playing at. My own DIY deed poll was used to change my name with a university, the NHS, a couple of banks and on my passport. I fail to understand what makes Charing Cross gender clinic so special that they get to not-accept someone’s (perfectly legal) change of name, just because it hasn’t been witnessed by a solicitor.

This policy seems to demonstrate once again that Charing Cross do not have their patients’ best interests at heart. Rejecting deed polls like this will be a blow to many trans people who already have low confidence or self-esteem, and could be dangerous for those who have already changed their name and are living “stealth” if the clinic sends them correspondence addressed to their old name.

Edit: Following complaints, this policy was reversed.

The Well of Loneliness

I finished reading The Well of Loneliness last night.

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

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

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

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

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

Trans Community Conference report published

I just picked this up through Gendered Intelligence.

Download the report here.

I attended the conference last year, taking part in the “youth and families” strand. It was an event that clearly needed a bit more of a defined direction, but hopefully the substantial feedback will mean that’s the case for this year’s conference.  I didn’t learn as much as I hoped, but it was a great chance to meet others and have a better idea of what’s going on, as well as to help educate representatives from various charities and government bodies.

Something that struck me as particularly interesting in the report – as well as the expected feedback from the workshops – were some of the statistics gathered. It’s impressive to see such a wide range of people were involved, and there’s some tasty statistics revealing the variations in gender identity, sexuality and ethnic background. I feel the open field approach that allowed people to define themselves rather than refer to tickboxes gave some particularly revealing answers. I hope they stick to this approach next year, and maybe introduce some more fields as well, maybe relating to things such as disabilities (including mental health) and economic background. There’s a lot to learn from such information about diversity in trans spaces.

The asylum strand struck me as particularly powerful. I didn’t manage to attend it on the day, but have learned a lot of (pretty shocking) facts from the summary. I suppose it’s one of these “I knew it was bad, but not that bad” situations.

I was also interested to read that representatives of a sex-worker rights group were present, although it strikes me that we should be working with women’s groups as well as those who are there for “male and transgender sex workers”.

Anyways, the details on this year’s event are as follows:

This year’s

Trans Community Conference 2009

will be held at

Central School of Speech and Drama

Embassy Theatre

Eton Avenue, London NW3 3HY

on

Friday 11th September 2009

Call for papers, workshops and presentations, artworks and stalls
To find out more click here

The Guardian on the rights of trans children

“If the human rights of gay and lesbian children in our schools are routinely ignored, then the rights of transgendered children are not even recognised as existing”

I posted the following reply. Looking back on it, I probably should of said something about the plight of those children with non-binary identities, but (amazingly) the original article actually managed to refer to that.

Thank-you Phil Beadle for drawing attention to this issue.

I am a young trans person, and one of the lucky ones: I got good grades in school and recently graduated from university. My exams results were seriously beginning to slip by the time I did my AS levels due to trans anxiety. I only managed to rescue my A levels by changing to another sixth form, where I was less likely to be judged for being weird and wasn’t forced to conform to a male dress code.

The experiences of teenagers in Trans Youth Network (www.transyouth.org) demonstrates that others are having a far, far worse time than I ever did. Anxiety, depression, self-harm and anger are rife amongst young trans people. Their problems are ignored, dismissed or misunderstood.

The government avoids addressing these issues by pretending that only those trans people in the (frustratingly slow and inefficient) medical system “count”. The 2007 consultation document for the Single Equality Bill justifies the statement “that it is unnecessary to include school pupils and education in schools in any extension to protection on grounds of gender reassignment” on the grounds that “it will be very rare for a child to be planning to undergo or undergoing the process of gender reassignment as defined in the Sex Discrimination Act.” This is not particularly surprising given that it can be difficult for school children to find a free and confidential counselling service, and the NHS does not offer proper treatment for those who wish to transition until they are over the age of 18.

Moroever, the problem is not just one of bullying or of access to services, but is also one of compulsory gendering. Young trans men feel afraid to confront schools over uniform policies when they are forced to wear skirts, and young trans women at all-boys schools experience alienation and loneliness. This is a far more difficult issue to deal with, since putting little girls and little boys in dresses and trousers when we send them to primary school is such an ingrained part of our culture. I wonder if the government is so afraid to confront the discrimination that young trans people face on a daily basis because doing so will open a Pandora’s box whereby the sexism, homophobia and transphobia innate in our schooling system becomes horribly apparent.