Trans Britain – Our journey from the shadows (Book Review)

Cover of book 'Trans Britain'

Trans Britain is an important and timely book

It stands out especially at the moment when the mainstream media is unfortunately promoting harmful and inaccurate information about trans and non-binary people.

Revision of the Gender Recognition Act

One of the reasons for the explosion in media coverage of trans lives and issues in the past year or so is the revision of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which was originally created in 2004. If you would like to see improvements to the GRA – especially in terms of allowing people to self-define their gender without having to go through overlong and at times humiliating processes, and including the rights and recognition of non-binary people – please fill in the consultation here. (Closing date 19th October 2018.)

This excellent podcast by Meg-John and Justin provides useful pointers about the Act and the current situation for trans and non-binary people overall.

The City of London is also doing a public consultation on their Gender Identity Policy. (Closing date 14th September 2018.)

The ‘debate’ around trans identity

If you don’t know much about it, there is nothing wrong with feeling confusion when reading about gender variance/non-conformity. What you may well be responding to is a media filter, and fear-mongering headlines which have the power to lodge themselves in the mind and remain there. (And if you think you don’t know, or have never known, any trans or non-binary people personally, you very likely do.) None of this is helped when someone’s right to exist is framed as a ‘debate’.

I am somewhat suspicious of the concept of ‘debate’. What it often means is ‘a contest between a privileged person and a less privileged person to see if the less privileged person gets upset first’. (It’s a sibling to the ‘false opposition’ trope that has taken over so much media output.) Pushing someone to explain themselves over and over has less to do with information-gathering than tiring the person to the point where they have no energy to carry on, so that they will make mistakes that can be used against them.

But the good news is that there is plenty of information out there, and an increasing number of accounts of contemporary trans lives. For example, see Trans, A Memoir by Juliet Jacques, and Trans Like Me, by CN Lester.

A much-needed history

Christine Burns, the editor of Trans Britain and a contributor to it, has been a stalwart campaigner for many years and it was exciting to see the crowdfunder on Unbound build up so quickly. [Disclosure: I contributed to it.] This book is much needed – partly as a history, partly as an illuminating account of activism before the internet and after, and partly as a counterbalance to some of the transphobic material that has been going around for too long.

We are living in a time of fascist resurgence, which is creating a heightened sense of permission to attack anyone who may be considered ‘other’. But, as Meg-John points out in the podcast, so many complaints and fears about trans people have a mirror in the cisgender population. If cis people don’t have to prove they are cis, why do trans people have to prove they are trans? Just as some trans people access medical services, such as surgeries and hormones, to feel more comfortable in their gender, so do some cis people.

A book in three parts

Trans Britain comprises early history, the birth of activism, and modern day trans and non-binary life. It offers very detailed accounts, through historical stories of pioneers from previous centuries and then to living memory and the rise of the newspaper exposé, starting with a reminder that binary gender is largely a western concept.

The 1960s were a time of increased media salaciousness, but they were also a time when people started to organise on a bigger scale. However, first of all they had to find each other, and for a long time the pressure to conform by ‘passing’, and living in stealth, was an obstacle to this. Ignorance and fear and lack of legal protections meant that if a person was known to be trans they could lose their job and their home. One contributor writes heartbreakingly about their isolation in the 60s and 70s as psychiatrist after psychiatrist offered terrible help and left them struggling alone. Some spent years playing along with the whims of autocratic and idiosyncratic clinicians. Some others got lucky with the medical profession. For example, in the 1940s, one doctor helped his trans patient by using the pretext of ‘a supposed intersex condition’ as a cover for their surgery.

Christine Burns: ‘Movements often start with campaigns for what can be legislated. […] Populations en masse somehow need to be persuaded that previous ideas for what was acceptable have to be revised. It is not legal sanctions that ultimately bring about lasting changes, but shifting cultural norms.’

With profound patience and tenacity, and endless meetings and reports, activists pushed for change. The Gender Recognition Act was created in 2004, around the same time as the explosion of social media, which enabled people to communicate with each other, and share and promote ideas to a previously unimaginable extent. In 2007 came the landmark study ‘Engendered Penalties’, the largest ever study into trans marginalisation, with nearly 900 participants.

Spectrums not binaries

But challenges alone don’t define people, and the ‘born in the wrong body’ narratives of the past have given way to a more powerful and wide-ranging set of voices and platforms. Gender non-conforming people have had a major influence on contemporary culture, (eg Transgender Tipping Point, Time 2014). With this increasing visibility have come a number of supportive and educational organisations such as Gendered Intelligence, All About Trans, and Trans Media Watch. And for the last three years, the UK has had an annual Trans, Non-Binary and Intersex conference.  

With this visibility has come a sense of permission for many more people to examine their gender identity and expression. It’s well worth reading this study by Joel et al from 2013: Queering gender: studying gender identity in ‘normative’ individuals. Over 35 percent of the 2000+ people studied felt their gender identity was other than that which they had been assigned at birth. As the researchers say: ‘We conclude that the current view of gender identity as binary and unitary does not reflect the experience of many individuals, and call for a new conceptualisation of gender, which relates to multiplicity and fluidity in the experience of gender.’ If you’d like to read further about this, How To Understand Your Gender by Alex Iantaffi and Meg-John Barker is a good place to start. Also Resources for Non-Binary Identities.

I highly recommend Trans Britain for a number of reasons, not least for recognising the sheer graft of everyone involved as they fought to live their best lives, and to ensure that others coming after them do too.

From Stephanie Hirst, who wrote the final chapter: ‘…’Generation Z’ […] are growing up with the normality of people of all genders, sexuality and ethnic backgrounds. This new generation will see fluidity in all people, and look back in total horror at how trans people were discriminated against during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.’

So what makes some people so angry about the existence of gender non-conforming people, and their right to self-determination being enshrined in law?

As a therapist working with gender, sexuality and relationship diverse clients, I reflect on this frequently. There seem to be a number of factors at work here.

  1. ‘Think of the children’

Much of the recent wave of anti-trans prejudice relates to the support and treatment of trans children. ‘Won’t someone think of the children’ is an often-used argument against the existence of anything that questions current sex, sexuality and gender norms. What is being said about trans people today was said about queer people 30 years ago. Remember Section 28 in 1988, that prevented the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools, and that awful phrase ‘pretended family relationships’? The thinking seems to be that where there is freedom for a person to be congruent and authentic in their gender identity and expression, the world has ‘gone mad’ and the brainwashing and abuse of children must follow.

There is a lot of anger from some quarters about medical interventions for trans children, and yet often total silence from those same quarters about the non-consensual and traumatic surgeries done to Intersex children to give them the ‘correct’ gender.

Further reading on this: Detransition, Desistance, and Disinformation: A Guide for Understanding Transgender Children Debates, and the follow-up post Reframing “Transgender Desistance” Debates (both by Julia Serano), and Why ‘Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria’ is Bad Science (Florence Ashley). This post by Rosie Swayne is also good: Unqualified, middle-aged lesbian swerves abruptly out of her lane to talk about trans issues.

  1. A binary view of gender

People are hugely invested in a natal gender binary. Unfortunately, much trouble comes from looking at a baby’s genitals when it is born, (particularly if the child is Intersex), and deciding which of two genders it is going to be and therefore what sexuality the child is likely to have. From this at-birth assignment of labels comes everything from earning power to personal safety, to how much this person’s opinions will be taken seriously, to medical treatment, to everything else.

It takes a lot of reflective work and uprooting of ancient beliefs to realise that neither genitals not perceived biological sex have to define gender. And some people do not define as either of the binary genders at all, as neither feels congruent for them.

It’s worth reading the work of Cordelia Fine on gender: particularly Testosterone Rex and Delusions of Gender, and Julia Serano: particularly Whipping Girl and Excluded, and a whole range of clear and well argued essays under the heading Debunking anti-transgender myths and tropes.

  1. A sense of entitlement to define others

I cannot say this is just something specifically about British culture, but as that is the one I grew up in, I will use it as a baseline. When I was growing up, it was much more normalised for parents and teachers to tell a child what they are, particularly when it was something negative. ‘You are bad. You are fundamentally inadequate. You are a disgrace.’ It wasn’t about the child’s actions in that moment, but something much deeper – about their entire being. So the opposing idea, that someone might respond, ‘No, you don’t get to define me – I do,’ feels positively revolutionary.  

Unfortunately this drive to normalise through criticism is sometimes still mirrored in the psychotherapy world; the idea that anything that deviates from the [eg cisgender heterosexual monogamous vanilla] norm is a pathology that must be uprooted. These attitudes have not gone away, and may be echoed in the interaction when a client says ‘But it’s not like that’ and the therapist insists that they know better. At worst this becomes conversion therapy, a practice which the profession is increasingly distancing itself from.

  1. Envy of someone who is living as their authentic self

Some (many) people grow up letting themselves be what other people define them as – this path of least resistance may be the safest path at the time. But when they realise that the norms they have conformed to do not reflect their true selves, it may feel as if it is too late. This may bring out deep envy of those who appear to be demanding and getting more from life, and this envy may manifest as a desire to attack. (And of course children can be harmed by unhappy parents who are not living as their true selves.)

  1. A fixation with the purity of womanhood

There is a lot of frightened and at times Victorian-sounding rhetoric around who is allowed to self-declare as a woman. Some of it veers dangerously close to white nationalism, implying that somehow the classification ‘woman’ will be forever dirtied by allowing trans women to enter it.

  1. A deflection of something much bigger, all-encompassing, and harder to challenge: how boys and men are raised

A widely expressed anti-trans fear (specifically in relation to trans women and the revision of the Gender Recognition Act) is that cis men are suddenly going to self-define as trans and start invading toilets and assaulting women. In fact, men can and do already invade toilets and harass people – which is already illegal. And of course, a woman entering a toilet and harassing people would also be committing a crime.

From what I observe, many objections to trans women’s existence involve things that men actually do (or might do), and I see a lot of fear expressed around this. It would therefore seem beneficial to campaign about better education for boys, better sex education in schools, and dismantling patriarchal structures in general. If campaigners put their considerable resources towards this instead of attacking a small minority of human beings, they might get a lot more support.

 

Trans Britain is available from Unbound, Amazon, and Hive.

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