Understanding Trans Health – available to pre-order!

Last month I finished writing my first book, Understanding Trans Health: Discourse, Power and Possibility.

This book reports on the wide-ranging research project I undertook from 2010 to 2017, looking at trans discourses and experiences of healthcare services in the UK. It will be of interest to academics, students, health practitioners and activists working and studying in the field of trans health, and will be published by Policy Press in June 2018.

Understanding Trans Health is available for pre-order it for £21.59 (paperback) or £60.00 (hardback) from the Policy Press website. E-book and Kindle versions will also be available soon. If you work or study at a university or college, it would be really great if you could encourage your library to order in a copy!

If you live in the Americas, you can buy it through University of Chicago Press.

I’ll be writing more about the book as the release date approaches. In the meantime, feast your eyes upon the stunning cover commissioned by Policy Press: an image that reflects continuing inequalities of access, the pain of waiting, and patient experiences of anticipation.

Understanding trans health

In other book news, myself and Igi Moon are still working hard on our co-edited volume, The Emergence of Trans: Essays on Politics, Culture and Everyday Life. We’ve had some really fantastic chapter submissions and I can’t wait to share more about this too in the coming months.

Ethical guidance on studying trans health, for researchers and ethics boards

I recently co-authored an article on research ethics for the journal Transgender Health. It’s based on an extensive review of literature on the topic, and written by an international team of scholars and health practitioners with extensive experience of conducting research in this field.

Transgender Health is an open access journal, so the article is freely available for anyone to read and share.

I’ve copied the abstract out below: please click on the title for full access.


Guidance and Ethical Considerations for Undertaking Transgender Health Research and Institutional Review Boards Adjudicating this Research

The purpose of this review is to create a set of provisional criteria for Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to refer to when assessing the ethical orientation of transgender health research proposals. We began by searching for literature on this topic using databases and the reference lists of key articles, resulting in a preliminary set of criteria. We then collaborated to develop the following nine guidelines:

(1) Whenever possible, research should be grounded, from inception to dissemination, in a meaningful collaboration with community stakeholders;

(2) language and framing of transgender health research should be non-stigmatizing;

(3) research should be disseminated back to the community;

(4) the diversity of the transgender and gender diverse (TGGD) community should be accurately reflected and sensitively reflected;

(5) informed consent must be meaningful, without coercion or undue influence;

(6) the protection of participant confidentiality should be paramount;

(7) alternative consent procedures should be considered for TGGD minors;

(8) research should align with current professional standards that refute conversion, reorientation, or reparative therapy; and

(9) IRBs should guard against the temptation to avoid, limit, or delay research on this subject.

Trans health in Canada: reflections and resources from CPATH

At the end of October I attended the CPATH 2017 (Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health) conference in Vancouver. It was a fascinating event from which I learned a great deal. I’m keen to share some of my thoughts and experiences with others, as I feel there is a great deal that trans health researchers, practitioners and activists can learn from the progress that’s been made in Canada, as well as the limitations of that progress.

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Poster: “In Our Dream B.C….”, by Drawing Change. Based on Trans Care BC consultation with gender creative, trans, and two-spirit youth and their families..

In this post, I reflect briefly on my impressions of the conference, and link to Twitter threads I wrote during various sessions. You can also read my initial thoughts on the conference here.


CPATH took a broadly holistic approach to trans health

Over 300 people took part in the three-day CPATH 2017 conference and two-day pre-conference. In attendance were GPs, nurses, endocrinologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and counsellors, social workers, healthcare administrators, peer and parent support group facilitators, academic researchers, lawyers, politicians, and various trans campaigners.

CPATH 2017 treated “health” as a social phenomenon as well as a purely embodied matter, and this made for some very productive conversations. For example, numerous sessions explored how trans healthcare might best be provided in the context of primary health. Gender identity services are frequently provided by GPs with support from external specialists, a model of care that is currently under consideration for England. In some Canadian Provinces, organisations such as Trans Care BC help to connect providers in primary care to relevant specialists, and support trans people in obtaining interventions such as hormone therapy and surgeries.

This approach enables continuity of care in a local context, with family doctors enabled to provide trans-specific care for their patients alongside everyday services. It reduces barriers to access such as waiting times and the necessity of long-distance travel. It also enables GPs to help their trans patients access a wider range of specialist services: for instance, trans people with mental health issues might benefit from a referral to a peer support group as well as or instead of formal therapy (depending on patient desire and need). Many practitioners provide services on the basis of informed consent, rather than using mental health assessments as gatekeeping measures. It was heartening to see generalist and specialist healthcare professionals, social workers, trans activists and others engaged in open discussions about how best to manage care through this kind of system.

I was also particularly struck (and moved) by a session entitled Trans and Two Spirit Youth Speak Back! The 40 or so adults in attendance – mostly healthcare professionals or researchers of one stripe or another – were asked not to speak at all during this workshop. We were instead invited to listen to the stories and experiences of trans and two-spirit young people, who sat dotted around the room and answered pre-prepared questions delivered by a youth group facilitator. This session structurally prioritised the voices of young trans people who are so often silenced, and also offered an opportunity for us to hear how the healthcare needs and challenges faced by these individuals were shaped by their cultural heritage, family life, schools and peer groups.


CPATH took intersectional trans voices seriously

Trans and Two Spirit Youth Speak Back! was just one example of how trans voices were frequently centred at CPATH 2017. As an attendee from the UK, I was very impressed by this! Our trans healthcare conferences, seminars and workshops tend to be organised by and for community groups, researchers or healthcare providers, with relatively little overlap between attendees at these events. Very few practitioners are (openly) trans, meaning that trans people tend to talk to one another at community and research events, but are heard less often at healthcare conferences for doctors, nurses and mental health specialists. Moreover, the speaker line-ups at all these events tend to overwhelmingly prioritise the most privileged individuals, such as white people and men. The only possible exception is cliniQ’s Trans Health Matters conference, and that event too feels like it’s taking the first steps towards something better.

During the opening plenary of the CPATH conference proper, we were informed that around one third of speakers at the event were trans, and around a tenth were Indigenous (i.e. of First Nations heritage). I’m not sure how many people of colour were represented at the event more generally, but the all-white panels which are a norm at UK events seemed few and far between.

Importantly, the trans women, trans men, non-binary and two-spirit platformed as speakers and workshop facilitators were usually also professionals. We weren’t simply present at CPATH to represent a “patient perspective”: rather, we were the experts. This reflects the hard work of individuals in pursuing a career, and the collective work of CPATH in supporting trans professionals; it also reflects the actions of local providers in various parts of Canada who have made an active effort to employ trans people, or secure funding for partnerships with trans-led organisations.

In my previous post I noted that the opening plenary of the conference proper centred Indigenous voices. This included a formal welcome from Musqueam Elder Jewel Thomas, and talks by trans and two-spirit Indigenous educators from different parts of North America. I was happy to see that the plenary session on the second day of the conference continued to centre the voices of individuals who tend to be marginalised within even trans spaces. Two-spirit physician Dr James Makokis and Latina trans activist Betty Iglesias – who discussed issues faced by trans sex workers and migrants – were platformed alongside an Member of Parliament from Canada’s ruling Liberal Party, resulting in a thoughtful and challenging debate.


CPATH (and the rest of us) still have a lot of work still to do

I left CPATH with a very positive impression, but Canada is by no means the promised land for trans health. Professionals and patient representatives alike frequently discussed the challenges they faced in providing gender-affirming services. Transphobia and cisgenderism are still very much prevalent within healthcare provision and legal frameworks, particularly outside of urban areas: there is therefore a great need for better education among trainees and further reform of laws and guidelines. Limited funding and different approaches across the country’s Provinces and Territories also mean that not everyone has the same access to treatment, and waiting lists persist for publicly-funded care. These are challenges that exist across the world, and may benefit from greater international collaboration and strategy-sharing.

At the end of the first day of the conference proper, there was a reception specifically for trans people attending the conference. I later reflected on the experience of attending this reception in conversation with a genderqueer colleague; both of us felt ourselves relaxing enormously upon entering the trans-only space. For all the positives of CPATH, it was a huge relief to step away from cisgenderist expectations and microaggressions that quietly persisted throughout the conference proper. These included a range of unspoken ideas about how we should dress, act, and talk “professionally”, limitations on our ability to name transphobia within healthcare settings without fearing repercussions, and the occasional terrible intervention from self-righteous cis professionals.

As ever, facing down these challenges is hardest for the most marginalised trans people, including (for instance) disabled individuals, sex workers, migrants, and people of colour. I was aware that while CPATH 2017 took a broadly intersectional approach, instances of ableism, racism, sexism and so on persisted: and this could take the form of unexamined prejudices on the part of more privileged trans people too. Moreover, white people were still heavily overrepresented among conference attendees; a phenomenon that was particularly noticeable at an event held in a city as diverse as Vancouver.

What I’m taking from this is a reminder that equality work is never “done”; rather, it is something that we should strive to always “do”. We should aim constant improvement in our relations to one another rather than assuming that solidarity and equality are things that we can simply achieve. It is in this spirit that I’ve attempted to use my own privilege as an academic to bring back lessons from Canada for the UK and beyond.

So, I’ll end this post with a serious of links to Twitter threads from the event. I livetweeted extensively from CPATH 2017, sharing summaries of the numerous talks and workshops I attended. This is by no means a comprehensive summary of any of the sessions I was at, let alone the wider conference (as numerous parallel sessions took place simultaneously). However, I hope the ideas and approaches will be as useful and interesting to you as they are to me.


Pre-conference (training) Twitter threads

Day 1:

Introduction to Gender-Affirming Practice

Pre-puberty/Puberty: Addressing On-coming Puberty

 

Day 2:

Adolescence: Moving Forward With Gender-affirming Care for Youth

Cross Country Health Clinic Practice Panel: Models of Care and Clinical Practices

 

Conference Twitter threads

Day 1:

Plenary: Centering Indigeneity and Decolonizing Gender

Interpersonal Communication Needs of Transgender People

Ethical Guidelines for Research Involving Trans People: Launch of a New Resource

Investigating the Medicalization of Trans Identity

Primary Care Approaches to Caring for Trans Youth

 

Day 2:

Plenary: Fostering Safety and Inclusion in Service Provision, Systems and Sectors

Non-binary Inclusion in Systems of Care

Trans Data Collection and Privacy

Legal, Ethical, Clinical Challenges: Youth Consent to Gender Affirming Medical Care

 

Day 3:

Pregnancy and Birth

Plenary: Supporting Older Trans People

 

 

CPATH: diversity, inclusion and decolonisation in trans health

I’m currently attending the CPATH (Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health) conference in Vancouver. It’s a fascinating event which I’m hoping to write about more in the coming days. I’ll also be livetweeting whenever possible.

The first two days of the event are a “pre-conference” training session aimed largely at healthcare professionals, followed by a more standard three-day conference over the weekend. I’m fortunate enough to be attending the whole thing, funded through the ESRC-sponsored Trans Pregnancy project. I’m here to learn about how gender-affirming care is being practiced in North America, and to connect with people working in reproductive health and in supporting transition.

What’s really struck me so far is how much more intersectional and inclusive of actual trans people this event is when compared to professional events in Western Europe, particularly last year’s WPATH conference.

I was struck at the how the first pre-conference session I attended – billed as an introduction to gender-affirming care – had questions of diversity, power, and consent absolutely embedded into the presentations. Attendees were encouraged to reflect critically on their own privilege and social position, and that of key writers and trend-setters in the field. We discussed how social determinants of health (such as wealth, education, citizenship etc) play a huge role in determining inequalities within trans populations as well as between trans people and the cis majority.

These are pretty standard topics within sociology, but even so I felt the session was very well-presented and I learned a lot from the informative but open and deeply self-aware approach taken by the two presenters, Gwen Haworth and Jenn Matsui De Roo. It was immensely refreshing to see this kind of conversation take place in an event attended largely by healthcare providers. Too often, I feel clinical providers and researchers in the UK find themselves at loggerheads with trans patients. Often this may be because they haven’t thought to take a step back and consider the cultural context of their patient’s life and the systemic issues that this person might have encountered, let alone the deeply unequal power dynamic of the clinical encounter.

It was also really important for me as a non-clinician to take the time to listen to the stories and experiences of healthcare professionals, and learn more about the energy and care they put into the vital work that they do. I fear too many sociologists looking into issues around healthcare don’t actually attend medical conferences, and as such miss out from directly hearing about professional views and experiences.

I was also delighted to see that the space is pretty trans-friendly. People are generally sensitive around language, there are gender-neutral toilet blocks, pronoun stickers, and there’s also a “safer space” quiet room. At the WPATH conference last year, a number of trans attendees were attempting to make all of these things happen through forms of quiet guerilla disruption, for instance through putting holographic stickers on the toilets that switched between “male” and “female” images. At CPATH, trans language, trans culture and trans needs feel like part of the fabric of the event.

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My CPATH 2017 Conference name badge.
Under my name is a sticker reading “preferred pronoun: she/her”.

Finally, it’s good to see that there’s a serious decolonial agenda at CPATH. The conference booklet acknowledges that Vancouver is built on unceded lands; there are numerous sessions led by indigenous practitioners, researchers and activists; indigenous perspectives and issues are regularly discussed by non-indigenous attendees; and the introductory plenary for the conference proper on Friday will feature an opening speech and talks from indigenous activists and healthcare providers.

Of course, while all of this looks good for CPATH, the progressive appearance of the conference can hide the struggles that make real inclusion and recognition possible. I’ve heard that the opening plenary was the outcome of a struggle over indigenous representation after a number of papers were rejected. So, however good CPATH looks to me as a (white, British) outsider, it’s important to acknowledge the ongoing, silent (silenced) work that so often takes place behind the scenes to make this happen.

Concerts in Coventry: 24th June, 29th July

I’m involved in organising two exciting events at Coventry’s Tin Music and Arts over the coming month.

This coming Saturday sees the return of feminist club night Revolt, complete with bands, DJs, spoken word, zines and our Feminist Library. I’ll be opening the night with my band Dispute Settlement Mechanism.

For tickets and more info, click here.

Revolt #10
On Saturday 29th July we’ll be treated to a performance by CN Lester, who will be performing songs from their new album Come Home and reading from their great new book Trans Like Me.

For tickets and more info, click here.

CN Lester.png
Entry will also be available on the door on a donations basis (suggested donation £5, but no-one will be turned away for lack of funds).

 

Forthcoming books!

I’m delighted to announce that I have recently signed not one, but two book contracts. Both books are scheduled for publication in 2018.

My first monograph, provisionally entitled Understanding Trans Health, will be published with Policy Press. This book will draw upon extensive qualitative fieldwork in the UK to examine how trans identities, experiences and healthcare needs are differently understood within community, activist and professional contexts. It shall explore how these different understandings can lead to conflict and mistrust within medical settings, and propose means by which more collaborative relationships might be fostered in the future.

An edited collection, provisionally entitled The Emergence of Trans: Essays on Healthcare, Culture and the Politics of Everyday Life will be published with Routledge. Assembled in collaboration with Dr Iggi Moon and the late Professor Deborah Lynn Steinberg, this book builds on the success of our 2012-2014 seminar series Retheorising Gender and Sexuality: The Emergence of Trans. It will feature international contributions from a range of authors based in different academic disciplines.

Academic books are often unaffordable to lay readers, and unavailable outside of academic libraries. I was therefore really keen that both books would be available in paperback and ebook format as well as the traditional hardback. I’m really pleased to say that both publishers have agreed to print paperback editions in the first run, in recognition of how the book topics are relevant to ordinary people within trans communities.

I’ll be sharing more details on these books as the publication dates approach.

No, I will not help Sundog make a documentary on trans “regret”

This afternoon I received an unsolicited email in my work account from an employee of Sundog Pictures. An excerpt follows:

I’m currently working on an idea alongside Channel 4 following transgender individuals who have come to regret their sex changes and are keen to undergo further treatment / operations to reverse the change. The doc will be insightful and sensitive and will look at the way in which transgender individuals are treated in society and whether the process before someone is permitted an operation is robust enough.

I’m currently looking for real life cases to include in my pitch document and was wondering whether you might be able to recommend people I could speak to, or places I could contact to find individuals who are currently thinking about a reverse sex change. Any help would be really appreciated.

Given the email account used, I feel that I can safely assume that I was contacted because of my academic work, which looks at discourses of trans healthcare provision. Sundog seem to hope that I will (without compensation) draw upon my community contacts and research findings to recommend participants for their television programme.

I couldn’t think of anything more inappropriate.

There’s a lot to be said about research ethics and a duty of care towards participants, but plenty has been written about that elsewhere (the BSA Statement of Ethical Practice offers a decent broad overview). So in this post I focus on the huge problems that come with the proposed topic of the documentary: that of trans “regret”.


The numbers

The mainstream media take an undue interest in trans “regret”. It’s very easy to come across such stories on daytime television and in both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers. The popularity and frequency of such stories suggests that it’s not too unusual for people who have undertaken a physical transition from male to female, or from female to male, to consider or undertake a “reverse sex change”.

In reality, research has shown time and time again that the actual rate of regret is extremely low. For instance, only 2% of respondents in the Trans Mental Health Study (the second-largest trans study undertaken in the UK) reported “major regrets” about the physical changes experienced during transition. Reported regrets from participants included:

“…not having the body that they wanted from birth, not transitioning sooner/earlier, surgery complications (especially loss of sensitivity), choice of surgeon (if surgery required revisions and repairs), losing friends and family, and the impact of transition on others.”

It’s clear therefore that “regret”, when it occurs, is likely to stem from societal and surgical issues rather than the process of physical transition in and of itself. The Trans Mental Health Study also demonstrates a clear link between physical transition and wellbeing in terms of mental health, body confidence and general life satisfaction.

With so few trans people regretting physical transition – and even less considering some kind of “de-transition” – it’s no surprise that sometimes the same individuals are trotted out time and time again to re-affirm a discourse of regret.


What’s missing from this story?

It’s pretty clear from the email I received that that the author has not done their research. Given the existence of organisations such as Trans Media Watch and All About Trans who are entirely keen to offer advice, this does not exactly inspire confidence.

For a start, transition is conflated with “sex change”, a term that is not only most frequently associated with transphobic tabloid headlines, but is also broadly meaningless. At what point can we talk about a “sex change”? When an individual undertakes hormone therapy? Chest surgery? Genital surgery? What about individuals who transition socially, but only undergo some (or even none!) of these processes? It’s not the kind of language that suggest an “insightful and sensitive” documentary can be made.

There’s a couple of more fundamental mistakes in the proposal, however. The first is the question of “whether the process before someone is permitted an operation is robust enough”. My own initial research findings suggest that if anything, the process in question is too robust – in that patients requiring surgery are typically required to wait many years before treatment is available.

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health Standards of Care require patients to undergo at least 12 months of hormone therapy prior to genital surgery. In reality, patients in England and Wales face a substantial waiting list (sometimes lasting years) before they are able to attend an NHS Gender Clinic, where two separate clinicians are required to approve a regime of hormone therapy before it can be undertaken. An additional two opinions are needed at a later date before a referral for genital surgery can take place. There are many, many opportunities and a great deal of time for patients to consider and re-consider their option – and that’s even before we take into account the horrific scale of the current crisis in surgery provision for trans women.

The current system is not constructed to facilitate transition so much as prevent the very possibility of regret. The result is increased suffering – in terms of the mental and physical health impact upon individuals who are forced to wait many years for hormones and surgery, whilst fearing (sometimes with good reason) that they will be denied treatment on spurious grounds. It’s no surprise that the Trans Mental Health Study found that “not transitioning sooner/earlier” is a major cause of “regret”, as individuals who have waited until breaking point to transition soon discover that there is still a long, long road ahead of them.

The second fundamental problem with Sundog’s proposal is their idea that trans people who aren’t too happy with their transition might be “keen to undergo further treatment / operations to reverse the change”. This is a very binaristic notion that both stems from and reinforces the notion that transition is a one-way process, from one (binary) gender to the other. In reality, there are many people for whom transition is a complex, ongoing process. For instance,  an individual who initially transitions from male to female might later feel that their identity is better understood as genderqueer, and may allow or pursue further physical changes to reflect this.


The wider political context

Given the tiny proportion of trans people who “regret” transition and the realities of service provision, the choice of a documentary about the subject appears at best to be somewhat misguided. However, the impact of insensitive coverage on this topic is such that I believe that I believe this documentary could be actively harmful, particularly as Sundog’s email asks “whether the process before someone is permitted an operation is robust enough”.

This is in part because the way in which discourses of regret are handled makes it harder for trans people to get treatment. Gender clinics in the UK require urgent intervention to make life easier for individuals who transition, not harder. Media hysteria over the possibility of regret reinforces the current system’s approach, which is to require people to demonstrate over and over again that they are trans before there is any hope of treatment.

But it’s also because discourses of regret are employed by those who campaign against trans liberation, including conservative commentators and anti-trans radical feminists who would deny funding for transition on the NHS altogether. Writers such as Julie Bindel are all too keen to use any example of individual regret to argue that transition is unnecessary mutilation, undertaken by sad, sick individuals who might have done otherwise if only they’d been given the option of, say, some form of reparative therapy.

The focus on the medical process is therefore politically loaded. Yes, some people do de-transition, and their stories are important and of worth. But these stories have yet to be told by the mainstream media in a non-sensationalised manner, in a way that doesn’t reinforce (intentionally or otherwise) a pernicious anti-trans agenda. Sundog’s proposal appears to feed right into this agenda.

This proposed documentary should not be regarded as a curiosity piece taking place in a cultural vacuum. It draws upon and will contribute to damaging and inaccurate tropes about transition. Ill-informed media accounts ultimately play a part in creating and maintaining a situation where “regret” frequently stems from the responses of friends and family, delays to transition and other negative experiences that come with transitioning in a transphobic society.

I hope therefore that any future attempts to examine trans health issues in this way will involve better research into the topic at the initial stages, and a greater sensitivity to both the personal and political consequences of exposing trans lives to media scrutiny.