How it feels to be a trans feminist academic in 2018

Trans feminist symbol, designed by Helen GThis piece is based on an email I wrote, in response to a message about “smear campaigns against gender critical academics” on a feminist academic mailing list.

I have updated and posted it here in the final day of the Gender Recognition Act consultation in order to give my cis readers some idea of how the past few months – and especially the last few weeks – have felt.

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I would like to say something about how it feels to be a trans feminist academic right now, with the emergence of a growing number of “gender critical” voices in academia.

In the wake of Brexit and Trump, and with the renewed growth of far-right movements across the world, it seems that everyone feels empowered to speak out about their own personal prejudice. Trans issues are no exception.

When I first came out and transitioned as a teenager, almost two decades ago, one of the scariest things for me was using public toilets. Let that sink in for a moment. I was scared simply to use the toilet – for fear that people might shout at me, drag me out, maybe even beat me up. While that fear has dissipated for me, I have not been to a public swimming pool since my mid-teens, and have not even been swimming in the sea since my early 20s. This is because I am scared. I am scared of violent men, but I am also scared of violent women. Cis violence against trans people is a reality. I have an enormous amount of admiration and respect for trans people who are able to overcome this fear.

It was hard to come out in the early 2000s. There was an enormous amount of casual transphobia in the media. Guardian columnists wrote pieces such as “Gender Benders Beware”, TV programmes such as Little Britain and the League of Gentlemen were immensely popular, and 90s films such as Silence of the Lambs and Ace Ventura remained popular with my friends. Trans women were variously represented as a pathetic joke, a burly men in self-denial, deceptive liars or outright sexual predators.

Legislation such as the Gender Recognition Act 2004, Sex Discrimination Act Regulations 2008 and Equality Act 2010 were yet to see the right of day. It was therefore legal for employers and service providers to know all about my gender history; it was also legal to refuse to hire me because I was trans, fire me from a job because I was trans, deny me services and kick me out of shops, pubs, post offices, leisure centres (etc etc) because I was trans.

It was not easy to come out in this environment. There were exceptionally few openly trans people involved in public life – and none of them looked, sounded or acted much like me. I certainly hadn’t knowingly met any other trans people. I delayed coming out for years because I wasn’t sure if I was “really trans” (a phenomenon common among participants in my research). I thought that I might ruin my life. It was only the knowledge that my life would likely be ruined regardless, and the sheer awfulness of the alternative – becoming a man – that persuaded me to take the enormous step of coming out.

Consequently, I was very isolated during the first few years of my transition. I find it very hard to express how intensely lonely that experience was. Fortunately, my friends (mostly cis girls my own age) were immensely supportive, but it was difficult not to have any people with similar experiences to me to talk with. People who had a very deep complex relationship with our gendered movement through the social world, and/or our sexed bodies, such that we knew the assignation we received at birth was not right for us. People who felt a deep, deep relief upon transitioning socially and/or changing our bodies as appropriate.

It wasn’t until my 20s that I began to slowly, gradually meet trans people my own age – and what a relief that was! We could relax completely around one another, talk about our issues and experiences, reflect on our differences as well as our similarities. It was at this time that I encountered the term “trans bladder” – used to refer to the pain and urinary infections that could follow from not being able to use toilets outside of the home. Let that sink in.

I also began to realise the wider extent of the damage caused to other trans people by both external and internalised transphobia.

Many of my trans friends have attempted suicide, sometimes on multiple occasions. The first trans person I knew to take their own life was a member of a trans youth Internet message board I frequented when I was 16. Others would follow, including a housemate, whose body I discovered shortly before I was due to head into work to teach a class. When I see “gender critical” people disputing well-established trans suicide statistics, it feels like gaslighting. I know what happens in our communities when people are not affirmed and don’t have access to adequate support.

Other trans friends have experienced severe sexual violence, often in their youth, often in very public spaces such as school playgrounds. Trans people are at particular risk of various forms of sexual assault, violence, coercion and control – for example, 28% of trans respondents to a large Stonewall survey had experienced domestic abuse within the past year alone. When I see “gender critical” people talking about the supposed violent threat that trans women pose, I think about how when trans friends of mine are raped, our first conversation about accessing support is usually about whether or not it is safe for them to go to the local rape crisis centre. This is not something we can necessarily take for granted.

When academics and journalists “come out” as “gender critical”, scaremongering about changes to the law we have been fighting for for decades, representing trans women and girls as sexual predators, debating our access to legal rights and public spaces and women’s services, I wonder if they know who we are, what our stories are, what our experiences are like. Is it simply that they don’t know any trans people, that they are ignorant? Or is there a deeper cause for their hatred? Do they realise they sound less like feminists, and more like the fundamentalist religious right? (for an example of how fundamentalist Christians and “gender critical” feminists basically employ the same language and discursive anti-trans tropes, I recommend a look at the responses from organisations to the Scottish government’s recent consultation on gender recognition).

As for the notion that anti-trans campaigners are “gender critical”, and my use of inverted commas in my use of this term – I spent an enormous amount of time thinking about gender, sex and sexism as a teenager. I read about the social construction of gender, and it made sense to me as a concept, but it took me a long time and a lot of theorising to figure out how to make sense of that with relation to my own body and experiences. I began to figure out that sex was a social construct too, reflecting the construction of gender, many years before I would encounter the work of Emi Koyama and Judith Butler. In my 20s, I was heavily involved in the NUS Women’s Campaign, and I am now (among other things) a gender theorist. In recent years I have been interested as a scholar and campaigner in the drawbacks and possible benefits of gender equality schemes such as Athena SWAN, and the fight to tackle staff-on-student sexual misconduct.

People who object to pro-trans legislation and oppose our access to public space do not have a monopoly on being “gender critical”, any more than those who oppose abortion rights have a monopoly on being “pro life”.

The growing number of academics who hold “gender critical” positions wield an enormous amount of power over their trans students, and have the potential to cause an enormous amount of harm. There are more and more of these trans students every year – of course there are. The exponential growth in the visible trans population is an outcome of the assertiveness of trans activists, our increasing visibility in public life, and a more positive legislative environment. It was predicted on multiple occasions many years ago – by Lynn Conway in 2001, by GIRES in 2009 and 2011. This is the outcome of an invisible population gradually becoming visible – just as the number of young people prepared to be out as lesbian, gay and bisexual also continues to rise. This growth will, eventually, flatten out – but it will be a fair while before this happens, especially if the current backlash continues.

I hope that cis people reading this post reflect on what it feels like for me to be involved in feminist and women’s groups at this time, especially as conversations such as this become more common. It feels terrifying. I am petrified about where the discourse is heading within feminism as well as within the wider social world, and I am very scared about what might happen next, what violence might be perpetuated or excused in the supposed name of women’s rights.

I am hardly alone in this: I see trans friends freaking out en-masse every time I sign into social media. We know our history. Some of us survived Section 28. Many are also black, or disabled, or gay, or bi, or Jews or Muslims, or migrants. We know what happens when minority communities are scapegoated, and we know that the rise in transphobia is not an isolated phenomenon. We know that the most vulnerable among us are the easiest targets for hatred.

I worry every time I see a post goes up or message is written on a feminist Facebook group or blog or academic mailing list, every time somebody organises a feminist seminar or conference. I fear that someone will start raising “reasonable” concerns about my existence or civil rights, or lying about the supposed threat that I and others like me pose. For all that I move through the world as a woman, for all that I am a woman and have lived my entire life as a woman, for all that I am subject to sexism by clueless male colleagues and internalise the need to constantly apologise for myself at work, for all that I am harassed in public by men and fear male violence every time I leave work after dark, I start wondering what place I have in these groups. I start to wonder how many cis women think that somehow I am more privileged than them in terms of sex and gender even though I am subject to both sexism and transphobia. I wonder how many feminists hate me.

When “gender critical” blog posts are written or emails are sent, I feel like I have a choice. Either I respond – and it may well take the form of an essay like this – an enormous outflow of nervous energy, fear and anger, energy that I will not get back repeating stories I am quite frankly bored of telling. Or I may attempt to remain cool and rational, encouraging calm and thoughtful debate even as I attempt to stem the rising panic inside. Or I try to ignore the message, even as it plays on my mind for the rest of the day, rest of the week, rest of the month, knowing that the environment has become a little less safe for other trans people – and especially other trans women – and especially other trans women less privileged than myself.

Or I just leave these feminist groups and mailing lists and academic collectives, which is of course what “gender critical” women would like me to do.

But not today. Today I stay. Today I fight. And I do not do this alone. For I know also that the majority of women support our cause.

As ever, I do this with my sisters.

Solidarity.

GRA consultation: A guide for feminist and LGBTQ+ academics and allies

The UK’s Government Equality Office is consulting on possible changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA). Anyone can respond. The consultation link is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/reform-of-the-gender-recognition-act-2004.

The consultation ends at 11pm on 19 October 2018.

There has been a large backlash from people hostile to trans rights. It is important that academics who support trans rights respond to the consultation, ideally with reference to relevant evidence from scholarly research. This guide provides advice on doing so.

(Note: post updated 15/10/18 to include additional links and my full consultation response)


Background

At present, the GRA enables adults to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) and change the gender on their birth certificate from female to male, or vice-versa.

  • This has consequences for the registration of sex/gender upon marriage or civil partnership and affects some insurance and pensions.
  • It is of symbolic importance for many trans people.
  • Non-binary genders and trans people under the age of 18 are not recognised.

The GRA is not relevant to legal changes of name or sex/gender marker in any other arena.

  • Trans people are already able to change their name and sex/gender marker with organisations such as banks, schools, universities, social services, the DVLA and NHS. No medical evidence is required for this process.
  • Trans people are already able to change the sex/gender marker on their passport with a letter from a doctor.

Trans people have criticised the GRA for being unnecessarily bureaucratic and intrusive.

  • Applicants submit evidence – including medical records, letters from mental health specialists, and proof that they have lived in their ‘acquired’ gender for at least two years – to the Gender Recognition Panel.
  • The process costs £140 (plus additional costs) and there is no right to appeal.
  • An official list of people who have changed their sex/gender in this way is kept on a ‘gender recognition register’.

Note: I use the term ‘sex/gender’ as current UK law does not distinguish between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’: the two are used interchangeably.

 

Backlash

Since the GRA consultation was announced, numerous single-issue anti-trans groups have emerged to oppose amendments to the GRA and argue for a wider push back against the social recognition of trans people’s genders and access to sexed/gendered spaces.

Anti-trans groups have spread misinformation about the GRA.

  • e.g. the purpose and function of the GRA has been conflated with the Equality Act 2010, which governs trans people’s access to sexed/gendered public spaces.

These groups have a powerful voice in the mainstream media.

These groups have access to significant funding that trans groups do not.

  • Tens of thousands of pounds have been spent on billboards and newspaper adverts opposing trans rights.
  • Anti-abortion American fundamentalist groups such as ‘Hands Across the Aisle’ and far-right publications such as Breitbart and The Federalist have extensively promoted the work of ‘feminist’ anti-trans groups and shared crowdfunding pages.

These groups claim to represent feminism.

  • They wrongly argue that gender recognition poses a threat to women’s rights.
  • Trans women are often represented as potential or actual sexual predators.
  • Trans men and non-binary people often are represented as tragic or deluded.
  • By contrast, numerous groups who work with vulnerable women (e.g. Scottish Women’s Aid) have supported trans affirming reforms to gender recognition.

These groups are encouraging their supporters to respond to the GRA consultation.

  • This happened in response to a similar consultation by the Scottish government. While in that instance most respondents supported extending trans rights, thousands of anti-trans responses were also submitted.


Responding to the consultation as academics

As academics, it is important that we support good governance grounded in empirical evidence and the principles of equality and equity for all. As feminists and/or LGBTQ+ people, it is important that we recognise that current attacks on trans rights echo and are linked to similar attacks on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.

In responding to the consultation:

Concisely reference scholarly evidence where possible.

  • Assert your own expertise where relevant.
  • In the linked PDF below, I have used in-text citations for brevity. However, Government bodies tend to prefer links or full-reference footnotes, so please bear this in mind.

Ensure your response to each question makes sense as a stand-alone comment.

  • Don’t build an argument across the entirety of your consultation response or cross-reference your previous answers.
  • Consultation responses will be analysed on a question-by-question basis.

Responses from organisations are given more weight by the government.

  • If it is possible to submit a response on behalf of your department, school, centre, professional organisation or academic special interest group, please do so in addition to your personal response.

If you have limited time and energy just responding to the tick-box questions will make a difference.

Please share this information with your colleagues to ensure a large, evidence-based trans-positive response to the consultation.


Resources

Here are two documents I have produced to help you and your colleagues in responding to the consultation.

GRA consultation – suggested starting points for responding to consultation questions
This document includes information on each consultation question, including relevant evidence and citations that you might want to use in your submission.

GRA consultation – a guide for feminist and LGBT+ academics
This document includes the full content of this blog post plus the suggested starting points for responding to consultation questions.

For guides to the consultation from non-academic organisations, see:
Amnesty International
LGBT Foundation
Mermaids
Stonewall
National Union of Students
GIRES and TELI (focuses on recognition for trans youth)

You can see my complete personal response to the consultation here: GRA response.

Family Planning workshop at Trans Health Matters (23 October)

In a couple of weeks I will be attending the Trans Health Matters conference, which is held at Resource for London on Tuesday 23 October.

You can read about and book tickets for Trans Health Matters 2018 here.

Co-hosted by holistic sexual health centres cliniQ (London) and Clinic T (Brighton), this event offers an insight into cutting edge practice and research, particularly with regards to sexual and mental health.

I will be speaking at a workshop entitled Trans Family Planning: Contraception, Fertility, Pregnancy and Childbirth, alongside Kate Nambiar, Michael Toze and Francis Ray White.

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Resource for London, Holloway Road

Trans people often find there is a lack of information available on their own fertility, or that they have been misinformed about the reproductive capacity of their own bodies. Similarly, trans people wishing to form families continue to face social, legal and medical barriers to parenthood. The workshop will comprise three short interventions, reflecting on current challenges and opportunities for trans reproductive autonomy, and an opportunity for attendees to reflect on how this might relate to their own work.

Kate Nambiar is a medical doctor and researcher who works at Clinic T. She will be discussing issues around contraception for trans people.

Michael Toze is a Research Fellow in the School of Health and Social Care at the University of Lincoln. He will talk about UK medical practice and law with regards to trans fertility, parenthood, and sterilisation procedures.

Francis Ray White is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Westminster, and I am a Research Fellow in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. We will be discussing intial findings from the Trans Pregnancy Project.

 

Book publication and launch

Today sees the publication of my book Understanding Trans Health. I’m really happy to be finally sharing it with the world.

Yesterday I hosted a launch event at the University of Leeds. I felt really strongly that this was an opportunity not only to celebrate the book, but also to explore some of the other fantastic work happening in the field of trans health. One of the things I write about in the penultimate chapter of Understanding Trans Health is the importance of collaboration and building one another up – I wanted to help start a conversation that encompassed more than my own work, and give something back to others from whom I have learned so much.

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Photo by Rob Noon.

Zowie Davy and Michael Toze opened the event with a discussion of the term “gender dysphoria”. They have conducted a systematic review of literature on the topic, and found that there are huge conceptual differences in how the term is deployed and understood. This can lead to diagnostic confusion and issues with empirical claims, especially given the continued contemporaneous influence of alternative and older diagnostic languages. Davy and Toze have written an academic article based on this work which is currently under peer review; I very much recommend watching out for its publication. [Twitter thread]

Chris Dietz offered a fascinating insight into gender recognition reform in Denmark. He noted that the positive international press afforded to the country’s new gender recognition law contrasted with the views of many actual trans people in Denmark. Concerns were raised in particular about the contrast between the liberal provisions of the law, which enables a form of self-declaration, and the strict requirements of the Sexological Clinic, which has a monopoly on gender identity services. [Twitter thread]

Kate Nambiar argued for the importance of trans-led healthcare services. She touched upon the inspiring history of pioneering women doctors in the 19th century, before offering a nuanced analysis of what we do and don’t know about trans sexual health and why trans-led services offer an opportunity to address endemic issues. I was particularly inspired by the description of her work as part of the Clinic T team. While my own work has primarily explored the problems that exist within the provision of healthcare services for trans people, I feel it is deeply important to explore possible options for a better future. [Twitter thread]

My own talk offered a broad overview of my book’s central ideas and themes, as well as some illustrative examples from research participants, healthcare literatures and resources. I also touched upon what it means to become an “expert” from my own experience as a trans academic, and the sometimes severe challenges that come with this. Several attendees tweeted summaries of my talk, which I have linked below.One attendee also very kindly filmed sections of my talk, so these may be uploaded to the Internet at a later date.

Summary from @K_A_Longhurst

Summary from @Chican3ry

Summary from @LilithBrouwers

You can read more about the event on the Twitter hashtag #transhealthleeds. But ultimately, to learn more about my work, I encourage you to buy the book!

The success of Understanding Trans Health will depend in part on word of mouth, so if you find the book interesting or useful, please do write a review to share your thoughts! Similarly, if you work or study at a university, please do talk to your subject librarian to see if they can order in a copy.

As for the event, I would like to offer a huge amount of thanks to everyone who came, as well as to the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds for supporting the event, and to Sally Hines for her warm contributions as a fantastic chair.

Video: Transgender Moral Panic – A Brief Social History

In February 2018, I was invited to deliver a guest lecture at the University of Warwick as part of the “Hidden Histories” series.

In the last year there has been an enormous upsurge in media commentary that expresses concern about the role of trans people in public life. Gendered changing rooms, non-binary people, trans children and notions of self-definition have all come under intense scrutiny.

In the talk, I explored the background to the recent wave of media coverage. I argued that the transgender moral panic has been shaped by deep-seated cultural anxieties around sex and gender, taking in trans-exclusionary radical feminism, homophobic discourse, scientific racism, Brexit, and proposed changes to gender recognition laws.


Recommended further reading

Meg-John Barker (2017)
2017 Review: The Transgender Moral Panic

Combahee River Collective (1977)
The Combahee River Collective Statement

Emi Koyama (2000)
Whose Feminism Is It Anyway? The Unspoken Racism of the Trans Inclusion Debate

Emi Koyama (2001)
The Transfeminist Manifesto

C. Riley Snorton (2017)
Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity

Christan Williams and Gillian Frank (2016)
The Politics of Transphobia: Bathroom Bills and the Dialectic of Oppression


Corrections

I made two minor errors in unprepared asides during the talk, which I correct here for the sake of transparency.

  • Lily Madigan was elected to the position of Women’s Office in her constitutency Labour party at the age of 19, not 17.
  • David Davis was a co-founder of Radio Warwick (RaW), not David Davies.

 

Understanding Trans Health – book launch and mini conference

Understanding trans healthMy research monograph Understanding Trans Health will be published in just over a month! To celebrate, I will be holding an event on Tuesday 5th June at the University of Leeds, where I will be discussing the book and the findings it reports. I have also invited a number of people I admire enormously to talk about what they’re working on at the moment.

The event is FREE but places are limited, so please do register if you want to come!

Register a place here.

 
Talks will include:

‘The Gender Experts’: Clinical Discourse and Becoming Trans
Dr Ruth Pearce (University of Leeds)
https://ruthpearce.net/about/

What is Gender Dysphoria? – at least, in the Literature
Dr Zowie Davy (De Montfort University) and Dr Michael Toze (University of Lincoln)
https://zowiedavy.wordpress.com/about/

Body Parts in Trans Erotica
Dr Kat Gupta (University of Sussex)
http://mixosaurus.co.uk/about-me/

Accessing trans healthcare: what role for medical law?
Dr Chris Dietz (University of Leeds)
http://www.law.leeds.ac.uk/people/staff/dietz

Trans healthcare at Clinic T
Dr Kate Nambiar (Clinic T, Brighton)
https://www.stonewall.org.uk/people/dr-kate-nambiar

The event will be chaired by my colleague Professor Sally Hines.

There will also be plenty of time for questions and discussion. The event will be followed by a reception with free drinks and nibbles.

I hope to see you there!

WE ARE REVOLTING: my first Trans Pride

There are a couple of looks I am very familiar with as a trans person.

One is primarily a look of confusion. It is the kind of look you might expect to receive if you were wearing a boot on your head. You have disrupted the everyday order of things, and people don’t know how to respond.

One is primarily a look of disapproval, communicating a barely-contained sense of disgust or revulsion. It is the kind of look you might expect to receive if you have smeared shit all over your face and are walking down the street as if nothing is wrong. You have disrupted the everyday order of things, and people are very unimpressed, but perhaps aren’t quite yet ready to shout or spit at you. But you imagine that they would quite like to.

I’m very used to these looks because I have received them a lot over the course of my life. More often when I was younger, my face and body as yet unchanged by oestrogen. But I still receive such looks now and again to this day, particularly when I put less effort into conforming to stereotypical expectations about how a woman should look or carry herself. Perhaps I have put on less makeup, or I am wearing baggy clothes, or I haven’t brushed my hair for a couple of hours.

Other trans people – particularly other trans women, and especially trans women of colour – are less fortunate than me. People don’t just look at them. The looks are merely where it starts. Then people shout at them, or spit, or throw stones. People pinch their arses or grope their breasts. I hear these stories from my trans friends pretty regularly. It’s like everyday sexism with the volume turned up.

Other trans people – particularly other trans women, and especially trans women of colour – are less fortunate still. People stalk them. People assault them. People rape them. People kill them.

They do this because we are revolting.

It starts with a look. Call it the cis gaze.

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Today I saw so many looks of confusion and disapproval. I felt the revulsion. It was visceral. It was contained. It could not harm me. I was amongst hundreds like me.

Today I took part in a Trans Pride march for the first time.

placard

Waiting for a bus before the march. Photo by Sophie Wilson.

Trans people have, of course, taken part in LGBT Pride marches for as long as they have existed. Trans Pride marches, however, are a relatively new phenomenon. The first Trans Pride in the UK took place in Brighton in 2013.  I attended Trans Pride Leeds, which is in its first ever year.

I have previously marched in LGBT Pride parades in Birmingham and London, and attended Pride parties in Coventry and Leamington Spa. On these occasions, people throng the streets. There is a sense of celebration. There is a giant street party. People come out to see the happy gays. They mostly look on with enjoyment. It is a family affair.

At Birmingham Pride one year, I was stopped by a “community safety officer”, who objected to my placard. It was not family friendly, he said. If I didn’t destroy or cover it up, he would call a police officer and I would be arrested. At London Pride one year, some people sought to control entry to a women’s toilet, ejecting at least one trans woman in the process.

Trans people are not necessarily welcome at LGBT Pride events. Or, if we are, we are not as welcome as many of our cis gay, lesbian, bi and queer siblings. Or, if we are, we are not seen or celebrated in the same way. We are not as safely contained.

But: there are a lot more cis gay, lesbian bi and queer people at LGBT Pride than there are trans people. We disappear into the crowd. We cause less confusion. We bring less disapproval. We do not so easily revolt.

This is why Trans Pride is important. This is why Trans Pride is necessary.

 

 

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Today is Trans Day of Visibility, apparently. In the UK, trans people are more visible than ever.

Visibility has brought new dangers. We are currently subject to an unprecedented hate campaign in the media, spearheaded by “respectable” publications such as The Times and The New Statesman. On the Internet, we have attracted the dangerous attentions of a resurgent neo-nazi movement, their anti-trans campaigns bolstered by useful idiots who claim to oppose trans rights in the name of feminism.

Visibility has brought new opportunities. We see more of one another. We are more organised than ever. We have grassroots organisations in every city. We are producing art, music, plays, and films that speak to our own interests and concerns. We are marching in protest, we are marching in Pride. We seek gender liberation.

It will be a very long, very hard fight, but we are going to change the world.

We are revolting.

~

Today I saw so many looks of confusion and disapproval. I returned the gaze. I held my placard high. I shouted, joyously. They could not harm me. I was amongst hundreds like me.

I could not, would not be shamed, for I felt the power of Pride.

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Trans Pride placards. Photo by Natasha Handley.