Stonewall inappropriately address trans issues in anti-bullying DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[group laughs]

Lee:  “What’s a tranny?”

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

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

[group applauds]

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

[Lee is given a pen]

Lee:  “So what’s a transsexual?”

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

Lee:  “Transvestite?”

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

Lee:  “So am I a transvestite?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stonewall Chief Executive claims that marriage equality is too expensive

Ben Summerskill: Stonewall not fighting for gay marriage because ‘it could cost £5 billion’

This one leaves me utterly flabberghasted, even in spite of Stonewall’s long history of questionable positions and decisions.

The organisation has done some really good work in terms of raising awareness; opposing homophobia in schools, in the media, and in sport; and lobbying politicians.  However, they also have a nasty habit of gobbling up a vast proportion of the funding available to LGBT organisations, pushing aside or ignoring local groups who are already working on particular issues, and toadying up to government representatives and corporate interests.

This is the organisation that charges a huge amount of money for inclusion in their ‘Diversity Champions‘ programme for employers (which can’t do many small businesses and public sector bodies any favours), ignores input from those effected by many of their schemes (e.g. LGBT student societies were entirely sidelined in a recent guide to gay-friendly universities), and insists that it’s still entirely appropriate to campaign as an ‘LGB’ organisation (despite the fact that most of the issues they campaign upon impact trans people, and they’re getting all that ‘LGBT’ funding!)

The organisation’s name couldn’t be any less appropriate. Stonewall was a riot in which some of the most marginalised gay, lesbian, bi and trans people (e.g. drag queens, butches, prostitutes and homeless street kids) took a stand against institutional bigotry and discrimination.  To name an assimilationist, corporatist, trans-exclusive organisation after this event seems like some kind of sick joke.

Ben Summerskill – the current Chief Executive of Stonewall – seems to embody everything that is bad about the organisation.  I was able to attend a Parliamentary Committee briefing last year where representatives of LGB, trans and feminist organisations gave evidence in relation to the Equality Bill, and was deeply shocked to hear some of Summerskill’s arguments:

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): This is really to Stonewall. I wondered what concerns Stonewall might have, if any, about the new disparities that will be created by the Bill—for example, in terms of harassment, the exclusion of sexual orientation. I would like your views on that.

Ben Summerskill: I can certainly say on the issue of harassment we are not convinced that there is a need for protection in this area. Members of the Committee who have dealt with Stonewall in the past will know that we tend only to ask for things where we can provide hard evidence of need, and we tend then only to ask for prescriptions that might put things right.

Lynne Featherstone’s face was a picture; I think she hardly expected a representative of Stonewall to claim that that there was no need for protection against harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation when the proposed Bill saw fit to (rightly) include such protections on the grounds of other ‘diversity strands’, such as race.

Summerskill was also quick to defend Stonewall’s decision to nominate Julie Bindel for their ‘Journalist of the Year’ award. He ultimately admitted on a number of occasions that this nomination was pretty disrespectful towards trans people (others who have issues with Bindel, such as many intersex individuals and sex workers, didn’t get a look-in) but claimed that un-nominating her would ultimately be far too dramariffic. Yeah, right.

Given this noble history, I wasn’t too surprised to hear that Summerskill doesn’t believe in fighting for marriage equality.  After all, Stonewall were quite content to compromise on civil partnerships; they didn’t seem to think there was a chance of achieving full marriage equality…and so didn’t bother fighting for it.  It was, however, the sheer audacity of Summerskill’s arguments that shocked me.

I understand those who believe that marriage is an oppressive, patriarchal institution (an example of this position can be found here).  Moreover, the experiences of the LGBT lobby in the USA demonstrate that equal marriage campaigns can be a massive drain on resources that keep activists from addressing more urgent issues, such as everyday violence on the streets, queer poverty or homelessness.  Summerskill apparently drew upon both of these arguments, but in a somewhat confused and contradictory manner.  If Stonewall believes that marriage equality campaigns are a drain upon resources, why did they bother campaigning for civil partnerships?  Moreover, since when did Stonewall take a radical feminist or queer stance on anything?

I personally believe that the oppressive nature of marriage is a contingent and historical situation rather than a necessary one: it’s possible for there to be a tradition which celebrates a relationship in an open, non-prescriptive fashion.  Moreover, if married individuals are to be afforded certain benefits or privileges by the state, it’s important that all relationships are afforded equal recognition as long as this questionable system of privileging remains.  The current system in the UK, whereby separate institutions of marriage and civil partnership exist for ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ couples, merely enforces the idea that ‘gay relationships’ are that much different to ‘straight’ ones.  And that’s before we get on to the massive complexities caused by the Gender Recognition Act, which forces trans people to divorce or annul their partnership should they want to acquire a Gender Recognition Certificate (lest we end up with a gay marriage or a straight civil partnership!) Marriage equality will mean that trans people can just get married without having to worry about their own legal gender status and how it relates to the legal gender of their partner.

The really impressive bit, though, is where Summerskill argues that marriage equality will be ‘too expensive’.  Since when did equality come with a price tag?  Since when was it acceptable for a civil rights organisation to throw up its hands and say “sorry guys, we’re in recession right now, we’ll just have to wait until the economic climate is more appropriate for our liberation”?

I’ve heard a whole load of people argue that Stonewall does not represent them, particularly in recent months days hours.  I’d like the join them.  As a trans person, Stonewall officially doesn’t give a damn about representing me…however, as a bisexual individual, they’re meant to be acting in my interests.  I don’t see that happening any time soon, and therefore would like them to stop pretending that they’re campaigning for my rights when they seem so keen to do the exact opposite.

My response to a Nationwide customer survey

I’ve always enjoyed banking with Nationwide. The service has been good and the website easy to use. However, I’ve had it up to here with the transphobic bullshit used to advertise Nationwide services. The television advert based on the “bad transvestites” from Little Britain portrays an interaction between staff and customers which would be highly inappropriate if experiences by actual trans people – whether transvestites, transsexed women, or genderqueer individuals. We have quite enough of this crap in our everyday lives, thanks. Seeing two offensive characters toddling across the computer screen whilst I’m trying to check my account doesn’t help.

This, combined with Nationwide’s continued (and clearly unlawful) demand that trans people present them with a Gender Recognition Certificate when changing their name with the bank, means I will soon be closing my account and moving elsewhere.

Good riddance.

See this man?

This is Peter Robert Forster, the Lord Bishop of Chester.

He wants to deny my genderqueer friends and trans children protection from discrimination. (see Clause 7)

Some of my friends are regularly abused by their parents, beaten up in school, or regularly receive abuse at university. They have been shouted at, taunted and raped. They have been harassed on the streets, in the workplace (if they can get a job) and by the police.

Fuck you, sir. I bet Jesus is really fucking pleased with you.

Take your fancy pen and fucking well shove it up your arse.

Charing Cross gender identity clinic outlaws DIY deed polls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edit: Following complaints, this policy was reversed.

Press For Change does a HRC

Update: After this post was written, Press For Change began to campaign openly for a fully trans-inclusive Equality Bill. Fair play to them. I originally wrote the title of this post in anger, but now feel that PFC have demonstrated that – unlike groups such as Stonewall and the HRC – they are prepared to listen to others and revise their position.

Contrasting somewhat with the approach of the Scottish Transgender Alliance and Gender Spectrum (see previous post) is that taken by Press For Change, the UK’s most high-profile trans rights group. As an “insider” group, they’re in the privileged position of being able to prepare a briefing for the Equality Bill Select Committee.

That doesn’t guarantee that the briefing’s proposals will be taken forward by the government or even individual politicans who wish to take on the cause, but it’s one of the most influential things any part of the trans community can contribute at the moment. Unfortunately, there are a couple of serious issues with this document.

1) Press For Change speaks on the behalf of “ALL trans people”, but has not consulted widely on this issue. The text of the briefing implies that PFC has attempted to consult with “several organisations who work the transgender community” (sic) rather than the community on the whole. This is understandable given the rapid turnaround that has to be undertaken by individuals who are essentially volunteers in order to prepare this kind of document at very short notice. However, it was perfectly possible for the Scottish Transgender Alliance and Gender Spectrum to create a basic survey at short notice, which is being passed around by word of mouth. By their own admission, PFC have access to 1800 people through their mailing list: why didn’t they even ask for opinions on this vital issue? Given the circumstances, I may have considered this forgiveable, if it wasn’t for this:

2) Press For Change seem intent on pushing for the rights of transsexed people at the expense of all other trans people. This accusation is increasingly levelled at PFC by members of the trans community, and this document appears to confirm that. PFC describe themselves as “the leadership of Britain’s campaign for the social inclusion and non-discrimination of transsexual people”, and describe “trans” as shorthand for “transsexual”, making a mockery of their “ALL trans people” slogan. When criticising the government’s choice to protect individuals on the grounds of “gender reassignment” and suggest that a term such as “gender identity” be used instead (a position widely agreed upon by many trans organisations and individual activists) they then clarify this by stating:

“we feel that to ensure clarity of purpose the bill should refer to gender identity as the defining characteristic including transsexual and transgender people, with by way of the explanatory notes a clarification to refer to people intending to live, or living permanently, in their preferred gender role which is opposite to that of their natal sex”

This would mean that those trans people who are unable to transition or are discriminated against because of a non-binary identity would continue to recieve no recognition or protection: exactly the problem that providing protection on the grounds of “gender identity” is meant to overcome!

This is horribly reminiscent of the approach of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in the USA. That supposed LGBT rights group received heavy criticism from those trans people it was meant to be representing after supporting a trans-exclusive version of ENDA.