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.

Reflecting on “​My message to those who would attend Radfem 2012”

Note: this is the second part of my response to transphobia during Feminist Times’ “Gender Week”. You can read the first part here.

It’s been almost two years now since I published the most widely-read piece I’ve yet written: “My message to those who would attend Radfem 2012“.

I actually wrote this piece quite quickly. I remember turning it over in my mind for a few hours, and then writing it up and posting it to my blog without any inkling of how it would be read by thousands of people. I was angry, but also upset, with part of my upset arising from a sense of empathy for those I disagreed with. You, like me, are damaged. You, like me, are hurt. Why is it that we must hurt one another so?

Ironically, it was also this piece that helped me come to the conclusion that I was right to engage in ideological struggles against transphobic forms of radical feminism. Engaging in this struggle is – in a sense – an attempt at self-preservation, as well as an act of solidarity with other trans people.

I don’t personally participate much in the never-ending arguments between trans people and trans-exclusive radical feminists (“TERFs”) across Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. I don’t have the energy, and I’m not sure that it’s always productive to argue with individuals who are never going to be persuaded to change their views.

But I do think it is important to intervene on many occasions – for instance, when transphobic views are aired by TERFs in the mainstream media, or when TERFs are afforded platforms at feminist or LGBT events. The point is not to deny people the freedom to express their awful views: instead, the idea is to always contest these views. To ensure that anti-trans perspectives don’t start gaining additional traction.

In light of this, I’ve strived to keep “My message…” alive, in one form or another. I’ve performed bits of it on a number of occasions with Not Right (ironically, this frequently does not go well as references to feminism have riled cis men in the audience on a number of occasions). I’m hoping to read the whole thing out during an upcoming feminist event at the University of Warwick. And I’ve recently been working on a number of revisions, as I hope to create a new version with the same sense of flow but a somewhat wider outlook.

It was in this spirit that I granted Feminist Times permission to republish the piece as part of their “Gender Week”.

I wondered initially if I perhaps should have thought this through better. There was some confusion as I was originally asked to write a companion piece to accompany an article by Finn Mackay, but (due to external circumstances) wasn’t able to meet the deadline.

In retrospect, I feel I should have ensured that my article was published as a stand-alone piece. I feel like both my article and Finn’s attempt to “talk to” the other “side” in the supposed trans/radical feminist debate, but the way in which both pieces were written independently means we’re kind of talking past one another. This is a pity. Finn and I have a lot of common ground, and I feel we could have a productive and interesting dialogue about our differences.

Whilst the comment sections on many of the Gender Week articles have seen some extremely unpleasant views aired, and the Twitter hashtag (#GenderWeek) has spun horribly out of control, I’m glad to see Feminist Times offer a platform for trans voices in an attempt to thoughtfully address transphobia in the feminist movement.

It’s important that we create safe spaces for trans people to discuss gender, identity and politics. It’s also important that we reach beyond these spaces, lest trans discourse becomes an echo chamber. I’ve experienced quite serious burnout recently, but fully intend to keep talking about the place of trans people in feminism. Keeping “My message…” alive is an important part of this.

Of course, the resulting attentions of both male misogynists and the TERFs are horrific. One lesson we can learn from this is that trans people who gain a platform benefit from content warnings, strong moderation and (during offline events) “no tolerance” door policies, lest we buckle under the pressure of hatred received.

“Gender critical feminism” is ideological war

Trigger warning for transphobia, suicide, violence, bigotry.

Today I was accused – in a comment, on a blog – of the “appropriation of women’s lived experiences”.

It’s a very small thing. Another mean comment from a mean person, in a vast Internet of bigots and bullies.

But it’s also a very big thing. It’s another microaggression in a larger struggle, a wider war. I don’t use the metaphor of “war” lightly: this is serious.

Some social historians might refer to this struggle as a front in the “sex wars”. Many radical feminists refer to this as a struggle against the language of “gender identity”. Medical practitioners regard us as one set of lobbies amongst many.

I call this struggle the war of trans liberation.

People are wounded, damaged.

I am damaged. My friends are damaged.

People die.

My friends have died.

There are many ways to die in this war.

This is an ideological war. It is fought in the media, where conservative commentators, radical feminists and uninspired columnists alike dehumanise us by lying about our lives, joking about our appearances, questioning the idea that we should have civil rights or even receive respect from others.

This is an ideological war. It is fought in the home, where many of us are not welcome. Where trans people are frequently rejected by parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who believe the lies in the media. Where trans people are cut off from family events, or otherwise told to deny themselves.

This is an ideological war, but sometimes it is fought with fists in the streets and in schools and in public spaces, by those who do not regard us as human because they believe the lies told in the media and by our families. A disproportionate number of trans people are verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, sexually assaulted and raped.

This is an ideological war, but it is also fought in our heads, by those of us who come to believe the lies told in the media and by our families and by those who wish to visit violence upon us in the streets and in schools and in public spaces. We grow up responding to those who would dehumanise us by dehumanising ourselves. We learn to hate ourselves. It is no coincidence that at least one in three trans people have attempted suicide.

I have received an incredible amount of support and warmth from my own family and my friends. I have learned to love myself, and love the things that I stand for. I have built a fulfilling life for myself, a life of joy and creativity.

But I will never be free of this struggle as long as it continues.

And I will always resist.

For my own self-preservation and sanity, I mostly stay out of scuffles between trans activists and radical feminists on social media. Sometimes I disagree with particular trans activists: with the language they use, with the way in which they understand gender, with their perspective on feminism. This is not a disagreement based on fear of real harm.

But when I am accused of the “appropriation of women’s lived experiences”? Ah, now this goes to the core of our struggle.

Quite frankly: how dare they? How dare they accuse me of appropriation for the way in which I move through the world?

My lived experience is my own. I live as a woman. I go to work as a woman. I enjoy my hobbies as a woman. And what I mean by this is that I am perceived by others as a woman. It takes many to  construct this social reality of “womanhood”, which is real to me because I interact with many others on an everyday basis.

I receive sexist comments from men in the street for existing as a woman. I am aware of how being a woman limits my opportunities, and places me at risk of gendered violence.

This is my life experience. The experience I have had my entire adult life.

By conflating trans struggles with “appropriation”, (or worse, “rape”) and trans agendas with the agendas of the medical profession, so called “gender critical feminists” visit a symbolic violence upon trans people that ignores and perpetuates real, everyday threats and experiences of violence.

This is why trans women find themselves being denied a space in feminism. This is why trans women are kicked out of women’s shelters and rape crisis centres. This is why trans people learn to hate themselves. This is why trans people kill themselves, or are killed violently by others, or die in the streets.

I can empathise with “gender critical” feminists, and I have written in the past from a place of attempted understanding. And I’m always happy to be critical of gender.

But I have no interest in a truce.

This is an ideological battle fought over my life and my body.

I intend to win.

DSM-II

On Monday we released the second Dispute Settlement Mechanism EP, DSM-II. You can listen to it below. I perform on lead vocals, and also play clean bass guitar on our cover of Seven Nation Army.

NHS Vulva may be of particular interest to readers of this blog. It deals with issues of medical malpractice, transphobia in the legal system, and cultures of transition.

Statement of trans-inclusive feminism and womanism

Several individuals have been working hard over the past couple of weeks to put together an international statement supporting trans inclusion in the struggle for women’s rights. The publication of this statement comes as the inclusion of trans people within feminist and womanist groups is once again under question, and as trans concerns gain an increasingly public profile.

I was honoured to be asked to sign this statement. I feel it provides a timely response to the aforementioned issues, as well as a recent radical feminist statement on trans exclusion, and the forthcoming publication of Sheila Jeffreys’ new book.

I stand fully behind the statement, and am also heartened by its international scope. As I write this post, the statement has been signed by 150 individuals and 8 organizations — from 13 countries.

However, I feel it is worth noting the anglo-centric nature of the statement. That is somewhat inevitable given that this is a debate happening largely within the English-speaking world. Still, it would have been good to see signatories from the United States and United Kingdom note their country of origin; at present, I feel that signatories from outside these countries are singled out as unusual through the highlighting of their national location. I hope that this disparity and US/UK-centrism might be addressed in future efforts.

I have reproduced the statement below, and encourage others to disseminate it further.

 

A Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism

We, the undersigned trans* and cis scholars, writers, artists, and educators, want to publicly and openly affirm our commitment to a trans*-inclusive feminism and womanism.

There has been a noticeable increase in transphobic feminist activity this summer: the forthcoming book by Sheila Jeffreys from Routledge; the hostile and threatening anonymous letter sent to Dallas Denny after she and Dr. Jamison Green wrote to Routledge regarding their concerns about that book; and the recent widely circulated statement entitled “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Critique of ‘Gender,’” signed by a number of prominent, and we regret to say, misguided, feminists have been particularly noticeable.  And all this is taking place in the climate of virulent mainstream transphobia that has emerged following the coverage of Chelsea Manning’s trial and subsequent statement regarding her gender identity, and the recent murders of young trans women of color, including Islan Nettles and Domonique Newburn, the latest targets in a long history of violence against trans women of color.  Given these events, it is important that we speak out in support of feminism and womanism that support trans* people.

We are committed to recognizing and respecting the complex construction of sexual/gender identity; to recognizing trans* women as women and including them in all women’s spaces; to recognizing trans* men as men and rejecting accounts of manhood that exclude them; to recognizing the existence of genderqueer, non-binary identifying people and accepting their humanity; to rigorous, thoughtful, nuanced research and analysis of gender, sex, and sexuality that accept trans* people as authorities on their own experiences and understands that the legitimacy of their lives is not up for debate; and to fighting the twin ideologies of transphobia and patriarchy in all their guises.

Transphobic feminism ignores the identification of many trans* and genderqueer people as feminists or womanists and many cis feminists/womanists with their trans* sisters, brothers, friends, and lovers; it is feminism that has too often rejected them, and not the reverse. It ignores the historical pressures placed by the medical profession on trans* people to conform to rigid gender stereotypes in order to be “gifted” the medical aid to which they as human beings are entitled.  By positing “woman” as a coherent, stable identity whose boundaries they are authorized to police, transphobic feminists reject the insights of intersectional analysis, subordinating all other identities to womanhood and all other oppressions to patriarchy.  They are refusing to acknowledge their own power and privilege.

We recognize that transphobic feminists have used violence and threats of violence against trans* people and their partners and we condemn such behavior.  We recognize that transphobic rhetoric has deeply harmful effects on trans* people’s real lives; witness CeCe MacDonald’s imprisonment in a facility for men.  We further recognize the particular harm transphobia causes to trans* people of color when it combines with racism, and the violence it encourages.

When feminists exclude trans* women from women’s shelters, trans* women are left vulnerable to the worst kinds of violent, abusive misogyny, whether in men’s shelters, on the streets, or in abusive homes.  When feminists demand that trans* women be excluded from women’s bathrooms and that genderqueer people choose a binary-marked bathroom, they make participation in the public sphere near-impossible, collaborate with a rigidity of gender identities that feminism has historically fought against, and erect yet another barrier to employment.  When feminists teach transphobia, they drive trans* students away from education and the opportunities it provides.

We also reject the notion that trans* activists’ critiques of transphobic bigotry “silence” anybody.  Criticism is not the same as silencing. We recognize that the recent emphasis on the so-called violent rhetoric and threats that transphobic feminists claim are coming from trans* women online ignores the 40+ – year history of violent and eliminationist rhetoric directed by prominent feminists against trans* women, trans* men, and genderqueer people.  It ignores the deliberate strategy of certain well-known anti-trans* feminists of engaging in gleeful and persistent harassment, baiting, and provocation of trans* people, particularly trans* women, in the hope of inciting angry responses, which are then utilized to paint a false portrayal of trans* women as oppressors and cis feminist women as victims. It ignores the public outing of trans* women that certain transphobic feminists have engaged in regardless of the damage it does to women’s lives and the danger in which it puts them.  And it relies upon the pernicious rhetoric of collective guilt, using any example of such violent rhetoric, no matter the source — and, just as much, the justified anger of any one trans* woman — to condemn all trans* women, and to justify their continued exclusion and the continued denial of their civil rights.

Whether we are cis, trans*, binary-identified, or genderqueer, we will not let feminist or womanist discourse regress or stagnate; we will push forward in our understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality across disciplines.  While we respect the great achievements and hard battles fought by activists in the 1960s and 1970s, we know that those activists are not infallible and that progress cannot stop with them if we hope to remain intellectually honest, moral, and politically effective.  Most importantly, we recognize that theories are not more important than real people’s real lives; we reject any theory of gender, sex, or sexuality that calls on us to sacrifice the needs of any subjugated or marginalized group.  People are more important than theory.

We are committed to making our classrooms, our writing, and our research inclusive of trans* people’s lives.

Signed by:

Individuals

Hailey K. Alves (blogger and transfeminist activist, Brazil)

Luma Andrade  (Federal University of Ceará, Brazil)

Leiliane Assunção (Federal University of the Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil)

Talia Bettcher (California State University, Los Angeles)

Lauren Beukes (novelist)

Lindsay Beyerstein (journalist)

Jamie “Skye” Bianco (New York University)

Hanne Blank (writer and historian)

Kate Bornstein (writer and activist)

danah boyd (Microsoft research and New York University)

Helen Boyd (author and activist)

Sarah Brown (LGBT+ Liberal Democrats)

Christine Burns (equalities consultant, blogger and campaigner)

Liliane Anderson Reis Caldeira (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil)

Gloria Careaga (UNAM/National Autonomous University of Mexico)

Avedon Carol (activist and writer; Feminists Against Censorship)

Wendy Chapkis (University of Southern Maine) – “I don’t love the punch line ‘people are more important than theory.’  More to the point, it seems to me, is that feminist theories that fail to recognize the lived experiences and revolutionary potential of gender diversity are willfully inadequate.”

Jan Clausen (writer, MFAW faculty, Goddard College)

Darrah Cloud (playwright and screenwriter; Goddard College)

Alyson Cole (Queens College – CUNY)

Arrianna Marie Coleman (writer and activist)

Suzan Cooke (writer and photographer)

Sonia Onufer Correa  (feminist research associate at ABIA, co-chair of Sexuality Policy Watch)

Molly Crabapple (artist and writer)

Elizabeth Dearnley (University College London)

Jaqueline Gomes de Jesus (University of Brasilia, Brazil)

Sady Doyle (writer and blogger)

L. Timmel Duchamp (publisher, Aqueduct Press)

Flavia Dzodan (writer and media maker)

Reni Eddo-Lodge (writer and activist)

Finn Enke (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

Hugh English (Queens College – CUNY)

Jane Fae (writer and activist)

Roderick Ferguson (University of Minnesota)

Jill Filipovic (writer and blogger)

Rose Fox (editor and activist)

Jaclyn Friedman (author, activist, and executive director of Women, Action, & the Media)

Sasha Garwood (University College, London)

Jen Jack Gieseking (Bowdoin College)

Dominique Grisard (CUNY Graduate Center/Columbia University/University of Basel)

Deborah Gussman (Richard Stockton College of New Jersey)

Dr Sally Hines (University of Leeds)

Claire House (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, Brazil)

Astrid Idlewild (editor, urban historian)

Sarah Hoem Iversen (Bergen University College, Norway)

Sarah Jaffe (columnist)

Roz Kaveney (author and critic)

Zahira Kelly (artist and writer)

Mikki Kendall (writer and occasional feminist)

Natacha Kennedy (Goldsmiths College, University of London)

Alison Kilkenny (journalist and activist)

Matthew Knip (Hunter College – CUNY)

Letícia Lanz (writer and psychoanalyst, Brazil)

April Lidinsky (Indiana University South Bend)

Erika Lin (George Mason University)

Marilee Lindemann (University of Maryland)

Heather Love (University of Pennsylvania)

Jessica W. Luther (writer and activist)

Jen Manion (Connecticut College)

Ruth McClelland-Nugent (Georgia Regents University Augusta)

Melissa McEwan (Editor-in-Chief, Shakesville)

Farah Mendlesohn (Anglia Ruskin University)

Mireille Miller-Young (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Lyndsey Moon (University of Roehampton and University of Warwick)

Surya Monro (University of Huddersfield)

Cheryl Morgan (publisher and blogger)

Kenne Mwikya (writer and activist, Nairobi)

Zenita Nicholson (Secretary on the Board of Trustees, Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, Guyana)

Anne Ogborn (frightening sex change)

Sally Outen (performer and activist)

Ruth Pearce (University of Warwick)

Laurie Penny (journalist and activist)

Rosalind Petchesky (Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Sexuality Policy Watch)

Rachel Pollack (writer, Goddard College)

Claire Bond Potter (The New School for Public Engagement)

Nina Power (University of Roehampton)

Marina Riedel (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil)

Mark Rifkin (University of North Carolina – Greensboro)

Monica Roberts (Transgriot)

Dr. Judy Rohrer (Western Kentucky University)

Diana Salles (independent scholar)

Veronica Schanoes (Queens College – CUNY)

Sarah Schulman, in principle (College of Staten Island – CUNY)

Donald M. Scott (Queens College – CUNY)

Lynne Segal (Birkbeck, University of London)

Julia Serano (author and activist)

Carrie D. Shanafelt (Grinnell College)

Rebekah Sheldon (Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis)

Barbara Simerka (Queens College – CUNY)

Gwendolyn Ann Smith (columnist and Transgender Day of Remembrance founder)

Kari Sperring (K L Maund) (writer and historian)

Zoe Stavri (writer and activist)

Tristan Taormino (Sex Out Loud Radio, New York, NY)

Jemma Tosh (University of Chester)

Viviane V. (Federal University of Bahia, Brazil)

Catherynne M. Valente (author)

Jessica Valenti (author and columnist)

Genevieve Valentine (writer)

Barbra Wangare (S.H.E and Transitioning Africa, Kenya)

Thijs Witty (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Groups:

Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ (Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia)

House of Najafgarh (Najafgarh, India)

House of Kola Bhagan (Kolkatta, India)

Transgender Nation San Francisco

This isn’t about us

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance.

This day isn’t about our pain

This day isn’t about our struggle

This is for the dead.

It’s very easy for Transgender Day of Remembrance to become about the challenges trans people face in everyday life: fears of violence, abuse, harassment.

But we are the living, and we have a voice – however quiet – every day of the year.

This is for the dead. They have no voice.

If we don’t acknowledge their passing, it may be that no-one will. If we don’t offer respect, it may be that no-one will.

And so today is for the dead. We acknowledge their passing and offer them respect. Their lives will have had a depth and meaning that their killers could not possibly comprehend. We mourn these lives, and do not forget.

Save Fernanda Milan

[Trigger warning: rape, transphobia]

A Guatemalan asylum-seeker is fighting to avoid deportation in Denmark.

Fernanda Milan was horrifically mistreated upon her arrival at the Danish refugee camp Centre Sandholm. Her hormone treatments were suspended and she was placed in the male wing of the camp. She ran away after being gang raped by several men who forced their way into her room, and was then trafficked to a brothel before finally being offered support by anti-trafficking organisation Reden International.

But Fernanda faces worse should she return to Guatemala. Trans people in the Central American country face violent murder at the hands of vigilantes and the police. Trans activist Johana Ramirez, of the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Transgender People, estimates that the average life expectancy of trans people in Guatemala is 25. Oppressive “Christian” moral values are reinforced by the powerful Roman Catholic Church.

Danish authorities don’t take transphobia seriously. Fernanda was told by police to accept personal responsibility for her rape because she “chose” to be trans. The Danish Red Cross –  who run Centre Sandholm – appear to deny all responsibility for the incident. “Basically a transgender woman is likely to be placed in a male dormitory but in a single room. But we would not place her in a women’s dormitory because that is definitely for women, where cannot permit ourselves to place a man.” says Red Cross head of asylum Anne La Coeur.

Denmark does not recognise gender identity as grounds for asylum, meaning that Fernanda now faces deportation on Monday 17 September. Denmark, along with the UK and Ireland, opted out of the new EU directive on asylum that includes gender identity.

“What I’m most afraid of when I go back, isn’t being killed. What really petrifies me is being attacked and tortured,” says Fernanda.

This shocking miscarriage must justice must not go ahead.

You can take action to support Fernanda by signing this petition.

(Petition is in Danish: Fornavn = 1st name, Efternavn = Surname, By = Town/city. For country select “Storbrittanien” if you are a UK citizen living in the UK)

There is also a protest taking place outside the Danish Embassy in London on Monday 10th September.

Trans Grrrl Riot, part 2: why sing “Rebel Girl”?

Shouting is fun

I’m in a band called Not Right. We’ve been “together” for a little over a year now. I often describe the music we play as “riot grrrl”, because I feel inspired by the ideals and music associated with the term. My bandmates have a somewhat different relationship with “riot grrrl” to me; we’re all pretty cool with this multiplicity of positions.

Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” was the very first song we learned together. At the time, this seemed like a pretty straightforward decision, as it’s a really “easy” piece. But the more I think about it, the more I feel that it’s very interesting that we play this song.

Why riot grrrl?

There’s a fair amount of talk about the idea of a riot grrrl revival floating around the Internet, with an apparent increase in interest from 2010 or so. At the same time, there are words of caution from those involved in the original riot grrrl movement: a recent example can be found in this interview with Kathleen Hanna, published just last week.

She says:

Everyone is always asking me, “How do we restart riot grrrl?” And I’m like, “Don’t.” Because something’s organically going to happen on its own; you can’t force it. Who wants to restart something that’s 20 years old? Start your own fucking thing.

A more nuanced analysis can be found in a blog post from 2010 at Side Ponytail:

I feel like there’s been a lot of talk about how “original” riot grrrls are protective of/territorial about the riot grrrl movement. That they are, perhaps, trying to keep all of the riot grrrl for themselves. I don’t think that is true AT ALL. In fact, I think that they are working to encourage parties who are interested in riot grrrl by telling them, “You are already valuable and should be doing your own thing,” and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that message. I think they’re also working to make people who weren’t a part of the original riot grrrl scene more cognizant of some of riot grrrl’s troubled history in the hopes of preventing a scene that blindly and unintentionally reproduces those same failings. While many people speaking out in the interests of having a riot grrrl revival have indicated that they are aware of these issues, there seems to be a general consensus that “we’re all more educated now and these things won’t be problems anymore,” which is an approach that really worries me.

[…]

I’m also a little bit troubled by the general attachment to the riot grrrl name. To me, at this point in time, such an attachment suggests more of a brand name identification than anything else. I can be a girl, play a guitar, make a zine, write letters to friends, engage in community building, etc. all without calling myself a riot grrrl. Naming something is a very loaded act and I wonder, if we’re all so aware of riot grrrl’s problematic history and the bad baggage that the riot grrrl name often carries for working class girls, pocs, and transfolk, why we want to carry that name over into a movement that is supposedly more inclusive and aware.

Okay, so here’s the deal. I’m a white, middle-class trans woman in my mid-20s, writing in 2012. I never had the opportunity to get involved with riot grrrl because I was way too young. But, in spite of its problematic elements (including cissexism and transphobia) I still find the history of riot grrrl, the music, the language, the very sense of challenge inherent in the term itself, deeply inspirational.

I look beyond riot grrrl. For years I’ve been inspired by contemporary female-fronted heavy metal bands such as The Gathering and Within Temptation. I’m also into acts who pre-date riot grrrl, like Joan Jett and Girlschool. But in riot grrrl I find that perfect meeting of punk spirit and feminist politic in the context of furious riffs and brilliantly ragged vocals.

Riot grrrl is fascinating because it was, in a sense, a small local scene that hit well above its weight in terms of international influence. Feminist musicians all around the world remain inspired by it. And in light of this, I do think that it’s possible, and positive, to “revive” riot grrrl: in fact, the revival is well underway, and we are doing it differently.

Riot grrrl in 2012 remains feminist, DIY, largely (but not entirely!) punk. But it’s now international, facilitating conversations between female musicians around the world: a great example of this can be found in the free compilations released by the Riot Grrrl Berlin collective. The political focus has shifted towards an intersectional feminism that takes account of diversity along axes such as race, dis/ability, gender identity and sexuality. We are doing our own thing, but we want to call it “riot grrrl” because of the inspiration we take from the music of a particular time and place.

I’d like to think that most of us are aware of the imperfections as well. We know that riot grrrl didn’t get it right. We know that we’re not going to get it right. Being aware of these limitations is the only way we stand a chance of gradually becoming more awesome over time.

Why Rebel Girl?

As a trans woman, I’m also very aware that both the original riot grrrl movement and many of the original riot grrrls weren’t particularly trans-friendly. Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna hasn’t exactly got the greatest record on this front either. So why do I want to sing her song?

For me, “Rebel Girl” is punk as fuck: it’s ridiculously catchy and very powerful (both musically and lyrically) because of its simplicity. It’s accessible for both listeners and musicians (including those musicians who are literally just starting out, as I was last year). If you play it with passion, it can sound fantastic even if you’re technically not particularly great as a singer or on your instrument.

That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighbourhood
She rides the hottest trike in town
That girl she holds her head up so high
I think I wanna be her best friend yeah

As a woman, I feel that I have the right to claim this song; I have always been inspired by the strength and achievements of my feminist sisters. As a trans woman, I feel that it’s productive to claim art with a problematic history and make it my own.

Rebel girl, rebel girl
Rebel girl you are the queen of my world

“Rebel Girl” becomes about my own relationship with riot grrrl: I celebrate how the song has inspired me. Even better, there’s some pretty blatant subtext acquired by the lyrics when sung by a trans person.

Rebel girl, rebel girl
I think I wanna take you home I wanna try on your clothes oh

I further identify with the song as a bisexual woman, and as an activist. When Not Right play “Rebel Girl”, I feel a connection between queer past and queer future.

When she talks, I hear the revolution
In her hips, there’s revolutions
When she walks, the revolution’s coming
In her kiss, I taste the revolution

The song is also a magnet for lesbionic dancing

There’s more than one studio version of “Rebel Girl”. The differences lie mostly in the recording quality and performance style, but there’s also variation within the lyrics of the third verse. One version labels the titular girl a “slut”, another calls her a “dyke”. At queer events, I’m more likely to sing the latter line. In the light of contemporary political commentary over slut-shaming, I also like to sing the former. This ambiguity fits well with the song’s popularity as a cover: there is no absolute, authoritative version. And that’s as it should be.

That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood
I got news for you, she is!
They say she’s a slut, but I know
She is my best friend, yeah

I believe that any girl can be a riot grrrl. When I sing “Rebel Girl”, I reclaim a version of riot grrrl for here and now, and for some of those who were marginalised the first time around. Maybe you can find a similar power in such songs?

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

Edit: 27/11/18.

This post remains remarkably popular! I want to leave it intact because it reflects my perspective as of 2012. However, as trans people and cis women alike face attacks from a resurgent fascism, I continue to believe in a politics that allows for people to learn and grow beyond the prejudices (inadvertant or otherwise) and mistakes of their earlier selves. I therefore feel it important to acknowledge that Kathleen Hanna has explicitly and consistently expressed support for trans rights in recent years, and for this I am grateful.

I also remain a massive Bikini Kill fan.

~

Original post:

Bikini Kill

Bikini Kill

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

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

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

Trans invisibility

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

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

Trans exclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…So?

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

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

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

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

The future

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

Doll Fight

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

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

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

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

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

Business as usual? A look at the draft English protocol for gender dysphoria

The main achievement of England’s new draft protocol for transition-related services is not to offer progress, but to codify certain elements of existing practice.

In this sense, it somewhat resembles Scotland’s new protocol, which was published a couple of weeks ago.

The Scottish protocol appears to have been based largely upon the services offered by Sandyford, the nation’s largest gender identity clinic. The English protocol seems rooted in current practice at Charing Cross, which plays a similar role within England and Wales. The differences between the documents hinge largely on the differences between the progressive policies instituted at Sandyford, and the more conservative attitude of Charing Cross.

In this article I’m going to examine some aspects of the draft English protocol that have really struck me, before discussing political elements of difference between the English and Scottish protocols. I also briefly talk about the survey that is being distributed alongside the draft guidance.

The Good

LanguageThe language used within the draft English protocol largely acknowledges the complexity and diversity of trans experience. It encourages a respect for patient identities in terms of correct name, pronoun usage etc. (regardless of legal status). There’s even an explicit acknowledgement of non-binary identities, although this is somewhat undermined by binary assumptions elsewhere in the document, and a focus upon transitions that follow the typical “female to male” or “male to female” routes.

Referrals – The document provides some important clarifications for referral to a gender clinic: that individuals do not have to have lived in their preferred gender role prior to referral, that neuro-diversity and mental/physical health issues should not be a barrier to referral, and that psychotherapy is not a necessary precursor to referral. However, these points are not made as strongly as they could be, leaving some room for (mis)interpretation.

Treatment process The document states that two appointments should be sufficient for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria (to be diagnosed according to the ICD-10 criteria, as opposed to DSM-IV). The prescription of hormones should (if appropriate and desired) follow this diagnosis, and surgery should follow within approximately two years. This might all sound very familiar to Charing Cross patients, but may work to reign in some of the more eccentric practices of smaller gender clinics such as Nottingham.

Overall – It will be beneficial to have this protocol at hand to bring local referral practices and the actions of smaller GICs in line with national standards.

The Bad

Referrals – Referrals must come from a GP or specialist (psychiatrist or psychologist), with clinics able to insist upon referral from a specialist. This means that long-winded battles for referral look set to continue as normal. In contrast, the new Scottish system appears allows individuals or GPs to refer to any clinic.

Treatment process – The protocol states that it is informed by the most recent edition of the WPATH Standards of Care. However, it seems (again, contrary to the Scottish protocol) to ignore large parts of the Standards of Care in favour of current Charing Cross practice.

For instance, FtM spectrum individuals must have been on hormones for at least six months and full-time for at least a year before top surgery is considered, and patients must wait at least two years before being offered genital surgery (although a referral appointment for surgery may take place after 18 months under some circumstances). This last point in particular is justified with reference to ICD-10. Interesting here that guidance for diagnosis from 1992 is given precedence over guidance for care from 2011.

Trans youth– There is an acknowledgement of the benefits of hormone blockers for under-18s, but (unlike the Scottish protocol) no real engagement with the possibility of hormones and surgery for trans people aged between 16 and 18. The protocol continues to relegate all young people to specialised – and limited! – youth services.

Overall – The document pays lip service to the WPATH Standards of Care but does not really live up to the spirit of those guidelines. This is particularly evident when the draft document is compared to the Scottish protocol. Patients are expected to put up with a long-winded, complex system in which treatment is spread out over many years.

The Ugly

Get a job – Patients are still expected to be in education or employment in order to gain a referral for genital surgery. If you don’t have a job or you’re not on a course, you’re expected to be involved in some volunteering role. It’s all about demonstrating your ability to move through the world in your “new” gender prior to irreversible surgery.

This requirement is patronising, stupid, and fetishises trans genitals. What other surgery requires that those who undergo it are in work? Why is it that genital reconstruction is seen such a massive step, but the permanent changes that come with long-term hormone therapy is not? Yes, surgery is a big deal, but it’s clear that clinicians regard this surgery as something else entirely.

I can’t understand how this can possibly be acceptable at the best of times, but at a time of recession and mass unemployment it strikes me as particularly cruel and unreasonable. How to account for individuals who cannot find a volunteering role in their local area? Individuals with anxiety issues? Individuals who are told by the Job Centre not to volunteer, with the threat of benefit withdrawal hanging over this order? And how can this possibly be acceptable when trans people face considerable inequalities in the job market (with trans unemployment estimated at 50% in some European countries).

Physical examination – GPs are apparently “expected” to perform a physical examination of trans patients. Why? No reason is given. The document simply states that: “The GP will be required to carry out a basic physical examination and investigations, as a precursor to those physical treatments which may later be recommended.

I simply cannot comprehend where this idea comes from. For many trans people – particularly those contemplating physical transition – the very idea of a physical examination is extremely unpleasant and can cause severe distress. There are times when pre-operative trans people might require a physical examination: such as immediately prior to surgery, or during a sexual health check-up. These experiences can be deeply unpleasant, but at least they’re necessary.

GPs are not trained to understand the complexities of trans people’s relationships with their bodies. In fact, most GPs don’t receive any training on trans issues whatsoever. What are they meant to be looking out for during such an examination, and how are they supposed to know? An invasive examination such as this should only be performed when necessary, by someone who knows exactly what they’re doing.

Discussion: England vs Scotland

The headlines from the Scottish protocol included a number of moves to bring treatment more in line with the most recent edition of the WPATH Standards of Care. These included provisions for self-referral and referral by GP, less waiting time for surgeries, access to a wider range of treatments (e.g. hair removal) and full access to treatment for individuals aged between 16 and 18.

Whilst representatives from groups such as the Scottish Transgender Network played a vital role in putting provisions such as these on the national agenda, it’s important to recognise that many of them had already been implemented by Sandyford GIC.

The message seems to be that the English clinics – who are almost entirely responsible for the development of this draft protocol – are not interested in developing new practice, let alone conforming with the seventh edition of the WPATH Standards of Care. Instead, they seem keen to maintain a tight control over the processing of patients, an approach that renders the draft protocol even more strict than a new national commissioning policy that is being simultaneously developed.

Survey

The survey that accompanies the draft protocol is extremely short. This makes it quick and easy to fill in, but the form also seems to have been designed to shut down unwanted criticism. The Department of Health appears interested only in how current experiences match up to the proposed protocol, and seems keen to avoid any kind of critical feedback on the document.

It is, however, possible to offer you opinion on the nature of the protocol itself. Here are some tips for doing so:

  • Where your experiences differ from the protocol in a positive manner (e.g. you didn’t receive a physical examination from your GP), emphasise how your experience was more positive than would be the case should the protocol be implemented as-is.
  • Where your experiences differ from the protocol in a negative way, emphasise any manner in which you think the protocol could go further to ensure better treatment.
  • If you have sought care outside of the NHS for necessary treatments (e.g. hair removal for trans women) explain why this treatment should be a necessary part of the protocol

Final thoughts

The introductory text to the survey suggests that current political and financial pressures on the NHS prohibit the introduction of any real changes within the draft protocol:

DH wants the final document to outline the current position for transgender people seeking gender reassignment services through the NHS. The document should outline what support and services a transgender person can expect to receive in the tight financial constraints currently placed on the NHS.

This doesn’t really make a huge amount of sense. Yes, if more trans people have access to services (e.g. laser hair removal), this will cost money. But surely there is a lot more money to be saved through progressive reform?

Insisting on longer real-life tests, longer waits for surgery and so on won’t save a lot of money in the long term. A similar amount of trans people will be accessing services: they’ll just have to wait longer as individuals in order to access the a services. The money will still be spent. So why have such long waiting times?

Insisting on referral through a specialist (i.e. psychiatrist or psychologist) won’t save money. How does the NHS possibly benefit financially from insisting that trans people see more specialists rather than having them directly referred to a gender clinic by their GP? This is particularly the case when specialists decide that they need to assess people over multiple appointments before referring them to a gender clinic. The individuals concerned experience a frustrating delay, and it costs more money because the NHS is paying for all these extra appointments.

This isn’t really about the money. It’s about gatekeepers maintaining a certain level of control over patients, and putting certain ideologies into practice. It’s about picking and choosing which parts of ICD-10 and WPATH SOC 7 fit best with their pre-existing ideas, and using those elements to justify existing practice. It’s about conservativism over progression: a wasted opportunity.