Trans health and rainbow futures: learning from Aotearoa New Zealand

This will be the first in a short series of posts on my recent trip to Aotearoa. See also: Part 2: Rainbow resources from Aotearoa.

20190510_171124

Poster in the RainbowYOUTH centre

I recently returned from a month-long journey to Aotearoa New Zealand. This trip was funded by a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship with the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds.

My aim was to learn more about trans health services and community advocacy, while also sharing findings from my own research in a European context. I feel deeply privileged to have had the opportunity to meet many amazing people, who are doing a great deal of incredible work.

In this post, I share a number of resources and reflections from the trip. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg – I have no doubt that will no doubt that the experiences from the Fellowship will inform my research and thinking for many years to come.

Before I begin, I should quickly acknowledge that many readers of this blog will be unfamiliar with the word “Aotearoa”. This is a term from te reo Māori (the Māori language): it’s the current name for the islands known as “New Zealand” in English. Both are official names for the country that governs this land. For simplicity (and out of respect Māori history and culture, which long predates the arrival of Pākehā, or white European settlers) I use mostly use Aotearoa alone for the remainder of this post.


Whanganui-a-Tara / Wellington: the Gender Centre and Aunty Dana’s Op Shop

20190426_141647After a brief visit to Auckland (where I recovered from the long flight) I began my trip in earnest with a visit to the capital city of Aotearoa New Zealand, on the south-west tip of the North Island. I was told that you can’t beat Wellington on a good day – certainly, the bay of Whanganui-a-Tara is one of the mostly stunningly beautiful places I’ve ever had the fortune to visit.

My first priority was a visit to the Gender Centre. This amazing new community resource, which was founded only last year and is currently based the front room of the 128 Radical Social Centre. It is run by members of Gender Minorities Aotearoa, a group who campaign and provide information for transgender, takatāpui, and intersex people. Takatāpui is a term in te reo which “embraces all Māori with diverse gender identities and sexualities“.

Photos of 128 Radical Social Centre and the Gender Centre, taken with permission.

The Gender Centre includes a small office space, where people working for Gender Minorities Aotearoa can work on current campaigns and meet with visitors. Anyone can drop by to ask for advice or support, or pick up information. For example, the organisation has recently started running a free binder scheme. Materials on display included forms for name and gender changes, advice on accessing healthcare services, and information on the BDMRR bill.

BDMRR stands for Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration. Groups such as Gender Minorities Aotearoa are campaigning for non-binary recognition, and to make it possible for people to legally change the gender marker on their birth certificate without going through an expensive process involving medical oversight. Unfortunately, proposed changes have been delayed by the actions of anti-trans hate groups. UK readers will recognise the similarities with the campaign of misinformation waged against proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. This is not a coincidence. Anti-trans groups in Aotearoa are directly influenced by the language, aesthetics and (in some cases) the direct interventions of UK anti-trans campaigners, in what can be understood as a form of neo-colonialism.

While I was at the 128 Radical Social Centre I also visited Aunty Dana’s Op Shop. This is a second-hand clothing and accessories store run by trans and non-binary volunteers and open to people of all genders, with proceeds donated to Gender Minorities Aotearoa. It’s such a great way to raise money for campaigning, while providing an important resource and social space. It can also serve as a less scary space than the Gender Centre for people who are just coming out and looking for support. I had a great time browsing the shelves and chatting with the volunteer who was working there that afternoon.

Photos of Aunty Dana’s Op Shop. Taken with permission.

You can watch a fantastic video about the Op Shop here:


While I was in Whanganui-a-Tara I also took the opportunity to visit a trans and non-binary artists showcase at the NZ Games Festival and meet with some brilliant academics and students working on LGBTIQ research at Victoria University of Wellington. I will be sure to share their work as it is published!


Ōtautahi / Christchurch: queer art and affirmative care

I next travelled to Ōtautahi / Christchurch, taking a train down the east coast of the South Island. During this trip I began to understand the extent of the damage caused by 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes. There was evidence of huge landslides and roads were still being rebuilt. Several metres of new coastline were visible for many miles, clearly identifiable through rocks bleached white by dead organisms that once lived under the waves. The city itself is still being rebuilt. Huge building projects and areas of empty land can be found throughout the central business district, a reminder of the unforgiving power of the Earth.

Photos: day and night – urban art and public protest.

It was apparent that the people of Ōtautahi were still recovering from tragedy even before the horror of the recent neo-Nazi mosque shootings. Nevertheless, the city struck me as a great centre of culture. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet some amazing queer and feminist artists and heard about both radical public interventions and commissioned works. If you want to learn more about this, the websites of Jennifer Shields and Audrey Baldwin are great places to start.

During this visit, I learned about a fantastic initiative to build and publicise new public health pathways for gender-affirming care in the Canterbury region. Until recently, services such as specialist counselling, hormone therapy and surgical referrals were only available on an ad-hoc basis, and information was not easy to find. Relevant information on what services are available and how they can be accessed is now easily available, thanks to the work of the Ko Awatea gender-affirming care co-design group.

These services are still not perfect – several interventions are not publicly funded, and they still involve a certain level of medical gatekeeping. However, they represent an important step forward. Notably, I was informed that these achievements can be credited to the willingness of particularly motivated medical providers, who were prepared to put energy into working directly with trans community representatives to work for reform.


Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland: RainbowYOUTH

20190511_140445

The next stage in my journey was a visit Kirikiriroa / Hamilton, back on the north island. I was here for the Aotearoa New Zealand Trans Health Symposium. This will be the subject of a future blog post, so I am going to finish this piece with a look at an organisation based in Aotearoa’s largest city.

In finish my journey with a return to Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland, meeting a number of community workers, activists and academics living and working in the city. I was especially honoured to visit the RainbowYOUTH offices and drop-in centre: a spacious explosion of colour located in an otherwise unobtrusive side street on the edge of the queer distract around K Road.

RainbowYOUTH are an organisation run by and for queer and gender diverse youth, with a remarkably long and successful history. They are currently celebrating their 30th anniversary, having been founded in 1989. The organisation’s members and executive board are all aged 27 or under. Executive advisors aged over 27 are invited to attend and speak at board meetings, but do not have voting rights. I was really impressed by this commitment to centring youth perspectives in support work and activism, something which has been missing from the UK since the dissolation of Queer Youth Network.

I was also interested in how common the language of “rainbow” community was in Aotearoa, as an addition and alternative to acronyms such as LGBTIQ. I like the way this word avoids the “alphabet soup” and potential exclusions tone of the acronym. I can also see how – like the term “gender minorities” – it can work to be inclusive both of intersex people and of takatāpui in a way that is more expansive than just attempting to rework the Western/anglophone framework of “LGBT”.

Photos of the RainbowYOUTH centre. Taken with permission.

The RainbowYOUTH centre was a wonderful building. For a long time, the organisation ran out of a very small office on Karangahape Road, but in recent years an increase in income and activity enabled a move to the new space. This features several offices, a therapy room, a large social space with a TV and gaming consoles, a library, a community wardrobe, free hygiene packs for people in difficult circumstances, and once again a whole range of resources and information. I can see how the very existence of this space is helping to create new possibilities for a generation of young people who I hope will achieve things that currently remain unthinkable.

I left Aotearoa incredibly inspired by the work and imagination of everyone I met, and am hugely grateful to everyone who helped with advice and organisation, made time to speak with me, and shared ideas and information. Ngā mihi nui!

59691782_1996458760649278_9127576502169239552_n

 

A slow, painful grind: WPATH 2018 conference report

IWPATH_BuenoAr_Logo_reverse.jpgn the first week of November I attended the 2018 WPATH Symposium in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This biennial event is one of the largest trans studies conferences in the world, with around 800 academics, activists, healthcare practitioners and researchers coming together to exchange knowledge.

Most of the conference consisted of parallel sessions: approximately eight or nine speaker panels occurring simultaneously in different parts of the conference venue. So it is impossible for anyone to take part in the majority of conference events. Nevertheless, I attended as many sessions as possible, and livetweeted from most of these. Links to Twitter summaries of the sessions I attended can be found at the end of this post.

In this post, I comment primarily on my observations of the conference as a sociologist and trans professional.


Opportunities and inclusion

As I anticipated, WPATH 2018 was full of contradictions.

On the one hand, it was exciting to join and learn from so many academics, healthcare practitioners and human rights experts working in the field of trans health. As I report in the Twitter summaries below, the conference provided a great opportunity to participate in debates over new ideas and standards of care, and hear about cutting-edge research findings and advances in clinical practice. It was an especial privilege to learn first-hand about the implementation and impact of Argentina’s pioneering Gender Identity Law, a topic I expand upon later in this post, but hope to write about in more detail in the near future.

I was also glad to have the opportunity to present a paper on research ethics and a poster with initial findings from the Trans Pregnancy project to an international audience.

It was excellent to see that the conference organisers acknowledged and responded to some of the feedback from trans delegates in previous years. Gender-neutral toilet blocks were present on every floor of the conference venue, and pronoun stickers were provided to accompany name badges. The provision of a “trans hospitality suite” enabled trans attendees to relax in a more comfortable environment, and also arrange our own ad-hoc meetings and events. This was inevitably re-branded by its users as an “intersex and trans” room in recognition of the importance of this space also to intersex delegates; I hope conference organisers will learn from this for future events.

This year’s Symposium also benefited from a clear code of conduct and language guide, previously introduced for the 2017 USPATH and EPATH conferences.


Microaggressions and objectification

On the other hand, the cis-centric atmosphere of the event felt like a slow, painful, constant grind. As with previous WPATH conferences, the event was punctuated by constant microaggressions (and, on occasion, outright “macro”aggression); these were damaging to intersex people, people of colour and delegates from the Global South as well as trans attendees. Examples include individuals advocating for intersex genital mutilation, off-colour jokes about trans suicide, the use of outdated language, and misgendering of research participants.

Some research seemed entirely voyeuristic: for example, one poster from the Netherlands purported to report on differing levels of jealousy towards sexual competitors among “mtof and ftom transgenders”. It was often unclear how consent was obtained (if at all) for the use of personal information about research participants and/or patients. This was particularly concerning when numerous posters and powerpoint slides included unnecessary photographs of intersex and/or trans genitalia (a “WPATH conference bingo” grid circulated among intersex and trans attendees of the event included a square for “unexpected genitals”).

As a trans attendee, I felt deeply objectified by the tone and content of this material. It felt dehumanising, and I felt like a thing, subject to the harsh gaze of an abstract, dehumanising curiosity. Yet I was disturbed not only by those engaging in such work, but also in the response of many of their peers. Numerous practitioners and researchers who seemed broadly sympathetic to trans rights and affirmative in their own work often said nothing to counter transphobia, cisgenderism and endosexism in the work of others. It is difficult for intersex and trans people to explain how painful this situation is when most of our colleagues and the senior figures in the field are not intersex or trans; we know that our projects and careers alike may suffer if we speak out too openly or too harshly. I encourage fellow members of WPATH to reflect on their potential complicity in this situation, and consider how we might collectively work to change it.


Tokenism and colonialism

The choice to locate the conference in Buenos Aires felt deeply tokenistic, with numerous attendees from the Global South arguing that this represented a colonial attitude. The vast majority of conference attendees were from the United States or Western Europe. The price of the conference was a significant barrier to many attendees, amounting to the equivalent of the average monthly income in Buenos Aires. The choice to host the event in an expensive Hilton hotel felt like it was taken primarily for the benefit of (the more wealthy) attendees from the West to the detriment of local intersex and trans people, some of whom reported that they risked being profiled by the police if they tried to enter the wealthy area of the city in which the hotel was located.

The sessions on clinical practice in Argentina and human rights in Latin American were some of the most interesting I sat in on, but also least well-attended. I later heard that on one occasion a high-profile lawyer invited to speak on the topic of Argentina’s Gender Identity Law addressed a near-empty room, due to clashes with sessions that focused on Western bioethics, research and medical practice. This sense of tokenism was compounded through the choice to hold the conference in English (the official language of WPATH), with funded translation into Spanish available in a maximum of two rooms at any one time. Some of the conference organisers later stated that they had been worried about the finances of the event, but this felt like a strange claim in the wake of a lavish gala dinner with dancers, DJs, and multiple buffets serving food from various regions of Argentina. As human rights expert and executive director of GATE Mauro Cabral declared in the closing plenary of the conference, “When WPATH decided to come to Argentina, with the most progressive gender identity law in the world, I was excited. But we could only talk among ourselves. You came to this country because of the weather, steak and wine, but not to learn from us”.

While these issues are primarily structural ones that need to be formally addressed by WPATH, the onus is also upon individuals from Western and/or Anglophone countries to take action and reflect upon our relative power and privilege in attending these events. In addition to vocally supporting my colleagues from the Global South, one aspect of my own practice I feel I can address is my use of language in planning talks. For example, I could have undertaken a little extra work to ensure that my slides were bilingual, listing bullet points in Spanish as well as in English. I hope to draw on this lesson in preparing for future international events.


TPATH, human rights monitors, and lessons from Argentina

My experience of WPATH 2018 was improved enormously by the presence of other trans people working in the field of trans health, as well as the intersex activists and human rights experts who came to monitor WPATH’s historic antipathy towards intersex rights. Many of us are members of TPATH (the Transgender Professional Association for Transgender Health), a new and as-yet loosely affiliated group of trans people working in trans health that I helped to co-found during the 2016 WPATH Symposium in Amsterdam. Numerous others were part of a 50-strong delegation of intersex and trans human rights monitors from all parts of the world, who attended in order to conduct a collective human rights audit of the conference.

It was with these individuals that I found myself having the deepest conversations, these individuals with whom I heard the most fascinating research findings and the most rigorous analyses. We also shared a strong sense of solidarity in the face of the many problems apparent at WPATH 2018.

That said, the most important event I attended took place outside of the WPATH event: in Casa Jáuregui, a historic queer cultural centre many blocks away from the Hilton. Here, Frente de Trans Masculinidades (the Transmasculine Front) and other activists based in Buenos Aires hosted a meeting with TPATH members from the Bahamas, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the UK and the USA. We shared information on our various areas of work, and the local activists talked at length about the history, implementation and practical impact of the Gender Recognition Law.

45312673_10156968672567287_3664316683624906752_n.jpg

Argentinian activists host TPATH members at Casa Jáuregui.

While it is important not to deny the significant challenges faced by trans people in Argentina, which include harassment by authorities, economic marginalisation and many forms of violence and discrimination, many of us were struck by how much has been achieved by activists in Argentina and (consequently) how advanced trans rights are in this country. The Gender Identity Law has been carefully written to enable flexibility; this has meant, for example, that it was interpreted to enable non-binary recognition by a judge as recently as last week. It also guarantees access to healthcare, which has meant that every possible medical intervention is available to trans people, either for free or through relatively inexpensive health insurance (in theory, that is: in practice, various legal battles have been necessary). This has been of benefit to cis women and queer people as well as trans people: for instance, through enabling easier access to hysterectomies or breast reductions.

During the meeting, the local activists described gender-affirming medical interventions that most of us had never even considered, such as beard hair implants for transmasculine individuals who cannot or would prefer not to use testosterone. Moreover, while long waiting lists exist for some procedures such as surgeries, those of us attending from European countries and (especially) Aotearoa/New Zealand were astonished by how much shorter they were than equivalent waiting times in our own countries, in part due to the absence of unnecessary gatekeeping procedures and treatment bottlenecks.

I was profoundly moved by the opportunity to attend this meeting, and regretted that so much of my time in Buenos Aires was spent in the sterile environment of the Hilton. However, I was also glad to have the opportunity to work with others to challenge the hierarchies and cisgenderist assumptions inherent in WPATH. We undertook many small interventions: asking questions about ethics, consent and power dynamics in the sessions we attended, raising concerns in private conversations, reporting blatant contraventions of the WPATH code of conduct. I was also pleased to hear many of my colleagues openly critiquing problematic issues identified during an update on the progress of the forthcoming Version 8 WPATH Standards of Care, and take part in attempts to hold our professional body to account during a member’s meeting on the final day.

Overall, I found WPATH 2018 to be a very tiring, draining and frequently unpleasant experience. However, I do not regret attending. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn so much from so many. I am also glad to have played a small role in supporting my intersex and trans colleagues and my colleagues from the Global South in attempting to help transform WPATH so it is more transparent, more accountable, and less colonial in attitude and in action.


Session summaries

The following links are to Twitter threads in which I summarise plenaries, talks and mini-symposia I attended at WPATH 2018.

Saturday 3rd November

Opening session and President’s Plenary

Keynote: Employment discrimination against trans people (Sam Winter)

Keynote: Trans legal history in Latin America (Tamara Adrian)


Sunday 4th November

Mini-Symposium: The Argentinian experience of public transgender health after the implantation of the Gender Identity Law

Oral presentations: Services in different parts of the world (Australia, Southern Africa, Scotland)

Mini-Symposium: Trans refugees: escape into invisibility

Mini-Symposium: Latin American perspectives on depathologization of trans and travesti identities

Plenary: Show hospitality to strangers: intersex issues in the time of gender identity laws (Mauro Cabral and respondents)
Note: this was listed as a plenary session in the programme, but actually took place alongside multiple parallel sessions. Consequently, this talk was under-attended by Western healthcare practitioners in much the same way as the Latin American sessions.


Monday 5th November

Oral presentations: Suicidal and non-suicidal behavior

Mini-Symposium: Ethical considerations in transgender health research

Oral presentations: Fertility

Oral presentations: Reproduction


Tuesday 6th November

Mini-Symposium: Child and adolescent medicine Mini-Symposium: Child and adolescent medicine

Plenary: SOC 8 update

Plenary: SOC 8 Q&A

WPATH 2018: learning on multiple levels

Today I arrived in Argentina for the WPATH Symposium in Buenos Aires. It will be my second WPATH Symposium, after I attended the previous event in Amsterdam in 2016.

I’m attending the conference in a number of capacities. Firstly, I will be representing the Trans Pregnancy project. I will be presenting a poster on some of our initial research findings, which I will share on this blog also in the next few days. I am also planning to attend a number of talks by other researchers working on trans people’s experiences of fertility, pregnancy and childbirth. Look out for tweets about two of these sessions from the Trans Pregnancy Twitter account on Monday 5th November.

Secondly, I will be presenting as part of a mini-symposium on research ethics alongside colleagues from Canada, New Zealand and the United States. This will also be on Monday 5th November, and I will be talking about how clinical research can have unintended and undesirable consequences for patients/participants if power dynamics are not taken into account.

Finally, I’m hoping to continue my long term project of learning more about how trans healthcare operates in different parts of the world, and sharing that knowledge with others in turn. In addition to attending sessions on research and clinical practice regarding trans-specific healthcare in various contexts, I also aim to learn more about activism, health advocacy and the law in various parts of the world, especially Argentina and other Latin American countries. I will be writing about this on my personal Twitter account, and hopefully also this blog.

I’m excited and honoured to be at this event, but also trepidatious, as I found the 2016 event pretty overwhelming. I learned an incredible amount in a very short period of time and was inspired by the world of many academics and practitioners from around the world. At the same time, as a trans studies scholar who happens to also be trans myself, I felt that a background hum of cisgenderism permeated the event, sometimes shifting into outright transphobia. Examples include pathologising language and misgendering within conference presentations, binary gendered toilets, and racist presentations that exoticised trans women of colour. A number of intersex conference attendees also protested against a number of surgical posters which graphically depicted infant genital operations.

WPATH itself has a very mixed history and reputation within trans communities. As I examine in my book, WPATH’s Standards of Care have worked to both open up and close down possibilities for people seeking medical interventions to facilitate a medical transition. In recent months, the organisation has issued welcome statements in opposition to both the Trump administration’s attempts to redefine gender and unfounded claims regarding “rapid onset gender dysphoria”. There is also now code of conduct for WPATH events which may help to address some of the worst examples of transphobia (and racism, sexism etc) at conferences. However, WPATH is also highly undemocratic and has recently appointed a treasurer who misgenders trans patients and promotes discredited psuedo-scientific concepts such as “autogynephilia”.

In this context of controversy and heated debate, it is important not simply to understand trans health, but also to understand the processes of knowledge production that inform trans health in theory and in practice. As a sociologist, this is something I will be very interested in at this year’s symposium, and I hope to share my thoughts and reflections in coming days.

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.

 

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.

DNF13PxV4AEw4K-.jpg large

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

 

 

WPATH 2016 poster: “A time of anticipation”

Here’s the poster I presented at this year’s WPATH Symposium:

Anticipation poster.png

You can also download a PDF version here.

The magnet is a metaphor for anticipation, which is both a product of and shapes feelings, emotions and experiences of time. This process is mediated by both trans community discourses and medical systems.

It’s very important to note that the majority of research participants had good things to say about the health professionals who helped with their transition. However, there is also a high prevelance of transphobia and cisgenderism within medical systems and clinical pathways. Anxiety and mistrust of practitioners within the trans patient population is endemic, and this is compounded by long waiting times.

My wider research looks critically at how discourses of trans health are differently understood within and between community/support spaces, activist groups and the professional sphere; however, the purpose of this particular poster was communicate some of the difficult experiences that current patients have with waiting. It sparked some productive conversations and I hope that further work will follow from this.

Sources:

Transitional Demands (Jess Bradley and Francis Myerscough)

Experiences of people from , and working with, transgender communities within the NHS – summary of findings, 2013/14 (NHS England)

Current Waiting Times & Patient Population for Gender Identity Services in the UK (UK Trans Info)

 

Video: (Mis)understanding Transgender Health

Regular readers (hi!) will have noticed that I’ve not been posting on this blog much at all over the past year or so. Between part-time jobs and my PhD thesis, I’ve been pretty busy – however, I’m nearing the end of thesis writing, so hopefully that might change in the near future. We’ll see!

One thing I’m hoping to do after I hand in the thesis is to talk about my findings in the public domain as much as possible. So, here’s an initial step towards that – a video from the re:publica TEN conference on Internet and society, where I was invited to talk about trans health.

The talk was aimed at a very general audience, many of whom weren’t familiar with trans issues, so there’s an extensive introduction to some of the basics as well as a discussion of one small area of findings and some related studies.

 

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

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

Cover of Rutter's Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

Abusing children – for science!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have seen the future of feminism, and it is beautiful

Yesterday’s social media furore over a dodgy letter to the Observer left me questioning my place within the women’s movement for the umpteenth time. However, within hours I was powerfully reminded that those who advocate an exclusive feminism are less influential and important than they might like to think.

Last night I joined a room of people committed to building a feminism that is compassionate, reflexive, inclusive of all women and sensitive to our different experiences.

Last night I found myself in a room of brown, black and white faces; gay, bi and straight; cis and trans; working class and middle class; disabled and abled. Last night I heard a teenage Muslim woman speak out about the importance of representing all faiths in activism after a question from a Jewish woman in the audience. Last night I heard from a white middle-class straight woman who has turned up to learn with an open mind. Last night I heard cis women talk about about trans rights, and felt that my identity and experience as a woman was simply not in question.

I had been invited to contribute to a panel discussion at the University of Bristol Students’ Union (UBU). Entitled How do we make the Women’s Movement intersectional?, the panel was was of UBU’s “Festival of Liberation“, which also includes events looking at the challenges faced by LGBT people, disabled people, and people of colour. I was honoured to share a panel with three truly awesome women: Susuana Antubam and Sammi Whitaker of the NUS Women’s Campaign, and Fahma Mohamed of Integrate Bristol.

Panellists at UBU's intersectional feminist event
Last night was promising and encouraging and heartwarming, and was not unusual in being so. I have seen similar scenes repeated across the country over the last few years at talks, workshops, protests and riot grrrl gigs.

This is the new feminism. A feminism that is discarding the model of monolithic female oppression and in its place building a movement around diversity and inclusion. A feminism that seeks to base both theory and action upon what different groups of women have to say about their lives and experiences, rather than imposing a top-down model of liberation drawn from academic theory. A feminism that sees cis and straight women take responsibility for supporting the work of their trans and queer sisters, white women take responsibility for supporting the work of their sisters of colour, abled women take responsibiity for supporting the work of their disabled sisters and so on.

Last night we talked about the importance of intersectionality as feminist praxis: of putting ideas into action. We talked about the importance of education: of sharing the knowledge and tools necessary for women’s liberation with people of all genders. We talked about the importance of representation: of working to ensure that women of all backgrounds feel welcome and able to attend feminist events through the use of accessible venues, ensuring diversity within organising teams and (where relevant) speakers/acts, and thinking about the language we use. We talked about the benefits of building groups around intersectional identities (such as black womanhood); groups that can then work alongside other bodies of people with a broader remit, feeding in ideas and holding them to account.

We talked about calling people out and challenging oppressive behaviour both within wider society and within the feminist movement. We also talked about being kind and prepared to forgive, and allowing people space to learn and grow. We talked about how everyone will make mistakes, because intersectional feminism is a constant experience of doing and being, rather than a closed process where you jump through a series of hoops and then become a Good Feminist who is capable of always passing judgement upon others.

We talked about our experiences of activism. Fahma talked about giving a piece of her mind to a nervous Michael Gove, resulting in a letter to every school in the country about FGM. Sammi talked about productive conversations with working class male friends, and building liberation into the very fabric of Anglia Ruskin’s fledgling Students’ Union. Susuana talked about her work on addressing lad culture as a gendered, racialised and classist phenomenon. I talked about my contributions to trans and non-binary inclusion within the NUS Women’s Campaign, and how we seek a diverse range of performers for Revolt, Coventry’s feminist punk night. We heard stories and ideas and questions from the audience, and I reflected on how we were not “experts” with a monopoly on solutions, but just one part of a wider movement.

These are just some of the things that we talked about.

So why have I been led to question my place within the women’s movement?

Because I see Julie Bindel referring to other feminists as “stupid little bellends” whilst misgendering trans women, arguing that bisexuals do not experience oppression, and stating that Muslim women who wear religious dress are necessarily oppressed. Because I see Rupert Read suggesting that trans women should not be allowed to use public toilets. Because I see Beatrix Campbell repeating and defending these ideas.

When I read things like this, I am repelled by a feminism that is harsh, bitter and exclusionary.

When feminists gaslight me by claiming repeatedly that the individuals who wrote these articles are not transphobic I am saddened and confused.

When I hear about feminists disrupting conversations at events such as AFem in order to promote an agenda that excludes trans people and sex workers, I am disappointed and worried.

When I see exclusionary events like Radfem 2013 and Femifest 2014 promoted within feminist spaces and supported by organisations like Women’s Aid and Reclaim The Night London I am alarmed and concerned.

When I see feminist women and men – including both public figures as well as personal friends and acquaintances – sign a misleading letter that condemns attempts to debate and contest the above, I wonder how voices of those who work for an inclusive and diverse feminism can possibly stand against a “letter mob” representing the discursive might of the liberal Establishment.

The stakes are high. Too many of my friends have considered suicide. Too many of my friends have died. When I talk to my trans friends and fellow activists, I hear about fragile mental health, doctors and shopkeepers refusing to provide services, threats of violence and attacks in the street. All of these things are fuelled by the dehumanisation of trans people, the idea that we require intervention to save us from the misguided path of transition, the implication that we do not deserve to exist within public spaces. These discourses are perpetuated by feminists and defended by liberals in the name of “free speech”.

I don’t believe in historical inevitability and don’t buy into progression narratives. I had a debate about trans-exclusive feminisms with Jack Halberstam recently. Jack echoed my PhD supervisor in arguing that trans-exclusive feminisms are outdated and irrelevant, long-dismissed within the academic world. But the academic world is often divorced from the reality of the feminist movement on the ground. In this reality, exclusive feminisms continue to fester.

In spite of all of this, last night reminded me of the power and appeal of the new, intersectional feminism. It is this feminism that is popular amongst young people who are more interested in working together than apart, and veteran activists with the humility to share their ideas and wisdom with newcomers on an equal footing.

This feminism requires work and nurture, but – as I argued last night – this does not need to be an entirely arduous task. Working together across our differences and ensuring that more people feel welcome and included makes us stronger. Learning new things from others can be interesting and exciting. Having the strength to learn from our mistakes solidifies friendships and alliances. Discovering a more diverse range of feminist histories, activisms and performances can be fun and empowering.

The new feminism is beautiful. Let’s keep building.

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.