2014 SAW THE tenth anniversary of the Gender Recognition Act. My two volume series of books, “Pressing Matters”, documents UK trans people's 35 year road from legal exclusion to legal recognition.
To celebrate the end of the year, and to mark the publication of the second volume, I am running a “two-for-one” special offer, meaning that you can buy both books for half price. The offer starts at 6am on Friday 19th December and will run up to and including Christmas Eve.
Prospective purchasers can sample both ebooks for free online, using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. Just go to the product page for each volume and click on the picture of the book cover.
To accompany the seasonal promotion I’ve decided to share a little more of Volume Two though.
Here, for your enjoyment, is a portion of Chapter One.
On The Telly
“FOR THE BENEFIT of our viewers, you used to have a penis. Is that right?”
It was the first week of March 1998 and I was sitting next to my colleague Mark Rees on the sofa in Granada Television’s “This Morning” studio in London. That afternoon I was scheduled to begin work on an immense year-long consultancy assignment with a major financial institution headquartered in the Midlands. That was my day job, as a senior level IT specialist working for a multinational consultancy business. Yet right now I was sitting uneasily on the couch at London’s Riverside Studios, with a live TV camera in my face, being asked the kind of intimate questions which the producers had specifically promised me they wouldn’t ask.
I was a prominent representative of a political campaign about people’s human rights and dignity. My colleagues and I had been busy for the last six weeks helping Granada Television to make better drama with the long running show “Coronation Street”, and to dig themselves out of a PR gaffe of their own making. My conditions for appearing in the media were that I was never there to answer personal questions. My purpose was to explain serious issues facing the people I cared about and whom they were now fictionalising in their prime time soap opera. This appallingly intimate interrogation about my genitals was about as personal as they could get. And it was the first question which the presenter, Richard Madeley, thought appropriate to ask me in front of an estimated 2.5 million people. I had a split second in which to decide how to handle the situation, and a great deal to weigh up about the consequences either way. This was a staple of life as a trans activist at that time.
Fast forward about 16 years to January 2014 and you may know about a similar situation which occurred in the United States, when the TV journalist and talk show presenter Katie Couric asked virtually the same question of two modern day trans activists — the author Janet Mock and TV actress Laverne Cox. The question was posed as it always has been — ostensibly for the purpose of educating the audience. Despite 50 years of the same kind of coverage in the media, viewers were deemed incapable of just accepting a trans person at face value, unless their genitals were metaphorically exposed as the central topic for discussion. Nothing else about that person would matter until this was thrashed out — their achievements, their ideas, or the long list of real life problems which a dive into their knickers would obscure.
The difference in the choices available to Janet and Laverne in that moment on camera speaks volumes about how circumstances have changed for trans people in those intervening years. A modern activist now has a huge weight of support behind them. Dozens of supporters around the world — hundreds maybe — are ready to leap on social media, write blogs, or pitch opinion pieces to mainstream outlets, drawing on an existing body of previously published commentary and evidence. Presenters like Kouric nowadays find within hours that they need to account for their line of questioning. The 2014 reprise of this kind of transgender media set piece led to talk of a “teachable moment” and unequivocal apologies. When another presenter, Piers Morgan, asked similarly invasive questions in what was supposed to be a CNN talk show interview about Janet Mock’s autobiography “Redefining Realness”, we saw perhaps the last death throes for this line of questioning in serious media. Morgan appeared unable to “get it” but the world has changed a great deal.
To return to the scene in 1998, none of those advances had yet occurred. We were still at a very early stage in the progress of trans people from a very dark, exposed, vulnerable place to becoming people with the kind of rights to demand a dignified hearing in public. Volume One in this historical memoir ended with a stock take of where our campaign, “Press for Change” stood at this point. It charts how trans people had ended up in the awful position which confronted us daily, and which is described in the “A to Z” that forms the introduction to this second book.
“We” were a tiny volunteer run lobby, founded in 1992, operating on a shoe string budget from our spare bedrooms. Most of the time there were just half a dozen of us actively driving the organisation’s work. We had aims and objectives and a code of conduct for our associates. We had an amazing variety of people committing to work on specific aspects of trans discrimination. We had a web site — one of the first specifically designed to support a political campaign. We sent out newsletters. Six months previously we had stepped up a gear by setting up email list servers to share news with our growing following and interact with them. Most importantly, we had won an important legal challenge 18 months earlier, establishing employment protection for every trans person in the European Community. That got us noticed. But we had also lost a case in the European Court of Human Rights which we all thought we would win. We had discovered that the previous Conservative government had been secretly examining how our demands for legal recognition could be met — though they then strenuously denied anything of the sort. We had also been quick to start establishing relations with the newly elected Labour government following their landslide victory in May 1997. We had hobnobbed with senior party figures on an exhibition stand which we had scratched up the cash to rent at Labour’s first annual conference in power. And we had a promise from Ministers to shortly formalise our employment law success in legislation.
And me? I’m a trans woman. As I’ve already established, I don’t fuss around with all the kind of confessional stuff which trans people are usually expected to share in memoirs. You won’t find me talking about how and when I went through the intensely personal experience of transition, which is normally supposed to form the staple of trans literature. The barest bones that you need to know are in the profile at the front of this book. I was always clear in my mind that transition was just a step to enable me to be me. What I’m here to share is aspects of the interesting and fulfilling life I had afterwards, which included two fabulous work careers and a part in changing the law for thousands of people. Especially that last bit. To want to know more about what came before is to adopt the position of Richard Madeley, Katie Couric or Piers Morgan in those television studios 16 years apart.
Volume One picked up my story when I had long since transitioned. I was working for myself as an IT consultant and had fallen, overnight and almost by accident, into becoming the secretary of the local Conservative Party branch in the Cheshire village where I lived. But by the end of the book I had also left the Conservatives behind. Five years of involvement with them had taught me that although they liked and wanted to promote me, I had matured politically into a realisation that I couldn’t continue the association with them. You can also have read in that book how I fell into my involvement with trans activism and how that became entwined with the rest of my life. And in late 1997 you’ll have read about how I ended up in my position as a consultant with the huge multinational IT firm “Cap Gemini”, living most nights in a hotel room somewhere and filling those hours with activist work on my company laptop.
At the beginning of 1998 “Press for Change” was about to celebrate its sixth birthday as a campaign. I had been involved for just over four of those years. We had gone from nothing to becoming a fairly well oiled machine, with an immense body of work already behind us, and a clear idea of our primary objectives. Those goals were set out on the front page of our web site and in our “Mission Statement” (which is also reproduced in full in the previous book)…
“Press for Change is a political lobbying and educational organisation, which campaigns to achieve equal civil rights and liberties for all trans people in the United Kingdom, through legislation and social change.”
There were many aspects of our campaigning which were thought out and planned beforehand. Our Mission Statement provided an instant means of determining whether any particular idea fitted with our goals. With limited resources we couldn’t afford to race off on tangents. Everything we did had to serve our long term objective about civil rights and liberties in some way. Nevertheless, there was room for many different kinds of contributions and sometimes events drove us, as we’ll see.
Press for Change co-founder Stephen Whittle and another recent recruit, Susan Marshall, were the experienced lawyers on our team. Stephen had been motivated to take up the study of law because he had seen how judicial rulings might help to change the plight of trans people where other kinds of activism might not have much effect. He was tired of being discriminated against personally. Having qualified at what was then the Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University — one of the largest law schools in the country) he undertook post graduate study on the legal status of trans people. By the time he was awarded his PhD, Stephen could already be considered one of the leading UK experts on the law affecting and failing us. Nowadays he is a Professor in the same Department, one of the longest serving members of the academic staff there.
Susan Marshall arrived on our team by a different route. She had been a naval officer, working for some time on the Royal Yacht Britannia. The navy had trained her in law and she had become a barrister before deciding to leave for a job in the civilian world. She had applied for a post with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and had been offered a job (in her former male identity) by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Dame Barbara Mills. Before taking up her post Susan had thought it polite to inform her new employers that she planned to change gender and commence work as a woman. This disclosure had triggered an immediate withdrawal of the job — Mills described a gender change as “inimical” to the service. At the time Susan had had no options for redress, taking up a very nice role as the Home Bursar of Exeter College Oxford instead. She had come to us once she knew of our existence, however, and was able to use the outcome of our 1997 legal victory on employment rights to argue for a late consideration of the discrimination she argued she had experienced. The CPS eventually settled on the steps of the court to save itself further embarrassment and Susan became one of several trans people to receive substantial financial settlements that year for the discrimination they had experienced.
Stephen also cultivated a number of other lawyers — some were his research students and some were practicing solicitors and barristers who were passionate about the injustices they saw trans people experience. Many would do so-called pro-bono work on behalf of trans litigants, charging no fee unless they won the case, in which case they would then be paid costs by the other side. Over the years I directed many trans people their way for help. The team included the barristers and solicitors who had worked on all the trans cases to have gone to the European Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Justice, and the Court of Appeal in the UK. They were a formidable group and they backed up Stephen and Susan’s work on one of the major planks in our strategy. This was the side of the campaign which governments couldn’t ignore when we won. Other campaigns often seek to provoke social and legal changes through direct action of some kind — so did we — but it was eventually the work of PFC’s lawyers which levered open the doors to our success.
Other colleagues on our team had specialised roles too. Alex Whinnom, a friend of Stephen’s who had shared a house with him for many years, had the lead on organising our mailing lists and the distribution of newsletters. He also organised our conferences and arranged printing of booklets, leaflets and posters. Stephen’s life partner Sarah Rutherford (they eventually married in 2005) ran the campaign’s accounts. Mark Rees (whose work had originally led to the foundation of Press for Change) had become a Liberal Democrat town councillor and concentrated his effort on liaison with the Churches and the Samaritans. Press for Change offered many other specialist roles — essentially for anyone who volunteered to lead on something — many of them are credited in the previous volume.
And then there were Claire McNab and myself. Claire had experience as a political lobbyist — a specialist skill which we were about to benefit from as 1998 got underway. She was also a very good web programmer. She had set up our email list servers the previous summer and was in the process of migrating PFC’s web site to a commercial server at the start of the year. We were moving from a site that I had developed two years previously on my own free web space. We would shortly become http://www.pfc.org.uk with a professional look and feel for anyone who wanted to know what we were about.
My own contribution often felt to me as though it was inadequate. I had become involved with Press for Change at the end of 1993 and the first project I undertook was something I was in the unique position to do. I used my connections in the Conservative Party at that time to doggedly harass Ministers for policy answers on the questions I threw at them. I also used my skills as an analyst and budding writer to set up the campaign’s initial web site. I had found a new passion in amassing information to build up the awareness of our followers and construct a narrative about the kinds of experiences which trans people faced. I could also put complex events such as our European employment law victory into plain English terms that our followers could understand. My day job as a consultant had trained me to be a communicator and I had previous media experience, so I had gradually become one of the campaign’s spokespeople. I was also the first point of contact for people emailing us via our web site presence, so I dispensed advice and referred people on to legal experts on the one hand and also fielded approaches from journalists on the other.
As the year 1997 drew to a close we were tired but elated as a team. It felt like the year in which we had really and truly found our stride as a campaign. So much was happening on so many fronts. Yet, as is often the case in these circumstances, it wasn’t entirely clear how some things might develop. In the autumn we had delivered a massive petition to 10 Downing Street; we had set up a charitable spinoff (GIRES) which we hoped would generate grant income for research; and we had made some vital new contacts through our successful presence on an exhibition stand at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton. Shortly after that conference we had also received a letter from one of the junior ministers at the Department for Education and Employment, Andrew Smith MP. He wrote to Stephen…
“Dear Mr Whittle, [..] I do share your concern that transsexuals should not be discriminated against in the workplace and I am alert to some of the problems they experience. The Government is committed to implementing the European Court of Justice’s ruling in the P vs S and Cornwall County Council case, which has established that the European Equal Treatment Directive covers not just sex discrimination in employment, but also discrimination on grounds of sex change. I am glad that so far Industrial Tribunals have successfully interpreted the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. However the ruling does raise a number of complex issues which require careful consideration and consultation with others. We expect to begin consultations shortly and to look to organisations such as Press for Change for advice on the employment and workplace problems experienced by transsexuals and those undergoing gender reassignment. I hope you will take part in the consultation.”
In anticipation of this consultation we busied ourselves, in the final weeks before Christmas 1997, with setting up an expert working group to engage with what we thought would be a detailed consultation process with the civil service. Up until this point we had no formal dealings with government and so could only guess how it might unfold. Waiting for that event meant that we weren’t planning to embark on anything new as we got back from the new year. This doesn’t mean we were entirely idle though.
One lead activist, Frank Hanna, was dealing with the answer to a question in the European Parliament. On 4th January he reported on work he had been doing through James Moorhouse, the Conservative MEP for the London South and Surrey East constituency. Mr Moorhouse had tabled the question…
“In the light of the Council of Europe Recommendation 1117 and the great disparity in the legal status and treatment of transsexual European citizens in the various Member States, are there any plans to introduce proposals to improve civil rights for this group of disadvantaged, and discriminated against, citizens? Is the Council /Commission aware of the extent of discrimination in employment, passport rights, rights in prison, rights concerning adoption and marriage and how differences in these are having a detrimental affect on the wellbeing, economic prosperity and happiness of many European Union citizens?” E-3542/97EN
This was the kind of bread and butter stuff which our army of activists were doing now all the time, maintaining a persistent awareness of our presence and requiring politicians and their officials to spend time responding. It also built relationships with MPs and MEPs and expanded their own awareness of the issues.
The answer in this case had been extracted from a Mr Flynn, responding on behalf of the European Commission…
“The Commission is aware of the whole range of serious problems that transsexuals encounter and of their feeling of helplessness in the face of the prejudices against them that still exist in our society. The Commission wishes to inform the Honourable Member that there are no specific provisions in Community law governing the situation of transsexuals. However, the Community Directives adopted on equal treatment for men and women are universally applicable and therefore apply also to transsexuals. This has been confirmed in the case-law of the Court of Justice, which in a recent judgement considering that Article 5(1) of Council Directive 76/20/EEC of 9 February 1976 on the implementation of the principal of equal treatment for men and women as regards access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions precludes dismissal of a transsexual for a reason related to a gender reassignment.”
Nothing new there, but sometimes an answer might provide an unintended gem which could open up new avenues. The main point is that both domestic and European governments acknowledged these problems existed and perhaps ought to be addressed.
On our email news channel Alex Whinnom advised our followers that Australian TV were screening a UK documentary involving Stephen Whittle, which he had recorded last year. At the same time I published a long review of that previous year’s work and also an essay of mine playing with the idea of what would happen if, instead of campaigning for trans people to be able to have corrected birth certificates, we did away with that column in the document altogether. This was the kind of original material which I tasked myself to write in order to make our communications more attractive, interesting and thought provoking.
In this case, the central idea in my essay “Fourth Column Revolutionary” wasn’t completely original. As I explained,
“I first heard it mentioned, almost as a throwaway line, by Dr Michael Will of the Faculty of Law at the University of Geneva. He was speaking at the Amsterdam Colloquy : Transsexualism, Medicine and Law in April 1993. And when he casually tossed the line into his presentation, he admitted that it wasn't his either. It had already been put forward by Judge F.A. van der Reijt, the Chairman of the Dutch Gender Foundation at the very start of the Colloquy.”
So, this was part of my long term goal of educating people that bit more about the philosophical arguments which were advanced elsewhere about the position of trans people…
“It's a really simple question, too ...
"Why not eliminate sex altogether — the UK birth certificate's FOURTH COLUMN — from public records for the whole of Europe?”
I was trying to show we could think laterally, or outside of the box…
“The fourth column of the British birth certificate is the root of the most enduring and entrenched system of discrimination in modern society. On the basis of that fourth column it is decided whether or not you inherit your deceased parents' estate in preference to your younger brother. On the basis of that fourth column you will either work until you are sixty or sixty five. It will decide who you can marry, what laws apply in favour and against you. It assumes the state's prerogative to define you, and from that perspective it can be viewed as fundamentally repressive. Put another way, ask how any of these things are possible without that column on the birth certificate to act as the root of all gender-connected reasoning on your behalf. So, annihilating that fourth column in society really is a revolutionary idea — which affects not a mere five thousand trans people, but fifty five million citizens — and especially those twenty six million for whom the entry ‘Girl’ denotes a lifetime's expectation of taking second place. Moreover, it asserts the right of the state to define every one of us. So, instead of meekly and apologetically asking if society is prepared to correct the column that discriminates against us, maybe it wouldn't hurt, now and then, to point out the fact that the road we're on leads logically to a conclusion that benefits the majority of society.”
Elsewhere in our news Stephen had a call out for volunteers to go on the television…
“We have been contacted by the Disability Programme Unit of the BBC who are looking for a disabled trans person to contribute to one of their programmes.”
Alex, meanwhile was looking for former prisoners…
“If there is anyone who has experienced prison as a TS/TG but who is no longer a prisoner, then the producers of the documentary on TGs/TSs in Prison are seeking you to take part. This programme is a serious documentary to highlight the problems TSs face in prison, but though several current prisoners are taking part they can only do so as voices recorded over the phone, or by their letters being read, as the Home Office is making access impossible.”
In those days a lot of people still used those abbreviations — “TS” standing for “transsexual” and “TG” for “transgender”. Personally I hated people reducing themselves to acronyms in that way. I wanted to talk about people in ways that presented them as dignified. The abbreviations said to me that people implicitly accepted the labels put on them, so I avoided them where possible. A few months previously we had quietly decided to start introducing the umbrella term “trans” into our communications. Old habits die hard though, and for a while we weren’t always consistent in applying the new style.
For the most part we were enthusiastic about helping programme makers and journalists so long as they were prepared to treat people in a fair and dignified way. Equally, we were also reluctantly reaching the decision to boycott some producers. I explained why through our email news service, UKPFC-News…
“This afternoon I had a call from the producer of the Central Television programme, ‘Central Weekend Live’, asking if I'd be prepared to take part in a programme this Friday night which, as he put it, they're ‘doing about transsexuals.’ [..] We know this sort of programme well, of course. Like its Granada TV counterpart, ‘Up Front’, the purpose of the programme is to derive ‘entertainment’ by setting up one group of people to be harangued by another. The louder and the more rabid the better. [..] The producers of programmes will justify their format to you by saying they think that a confrontational show brings out the arguments; lets people air their views; gets to the heart of the matter. [..] Going back to last year's programme, the producers at that time were evidently worried that they wouldn't get enough confrontation if they relied on an ordinary audience and merely oiled them a little in hospitality before airtime. Instead, just to be on the safe side, they bussed in a coach-load of youths, who were thoroughly tanked up and ready to go by the time the red lights lit up on the cameras. After the show, Stephen Whittle complained that the atmosphere created in the studio by the mob which the programme makers assembled left him feeling physically threatened, and he accused the production staff of wilfully endangering his safety.”
“Press for Change does have a blacklist — quite a short one, incredibly — a few journalists and broadcasters whom we will not do business with again. We are fair with our blacklist too. It’s possible to come off the list if we are convinced that the person or organisation has changed their approach and is willing to conduct themselves more professionally when dealing with trans issues and people. This afternoon CWL's new producer assured me that his was a different team than the one which produced last year's nasty piece of work. When I asked him if the format had changed, however, he agreed that it hadn’t, but then went on to ‘reassure’ me, by saying that they weren't intending to tackle ‘transsexuality’ in the main programme. Instead, he said, they have .. ‘ .. what we call a “confessional” spot.’ At this point I hit the roof! I have assured Adrian that nobody from Press for Change will cooperate with Central TV in this format of programme and that, furthermore, I would take active steps to urge other groups to follow likewise, and decline offers to take part. If you are approached by Central TV in connection with the programme ‘Central Weekend Live’, I would urge you therefore to decline invitations to appear. If you've already agreed, I would urge you to cancel too. Going further, I would ask every one of you receiving this message in the UK to contact your friends and pass this message on, to ensure that the entire community is firm and resolute in its intention not to be used as mob fodder for a late night TV audience. Please cooperate with us on this at a time when it is vitally important to project the message that trans people are not media playthings, happy to be used at whim.”
There were by now around 200 people receiving our UKPFC-News messages directly and requests like this were likely to be shared more widely. By providing a lead on who we were prepared to work with I hoped that we could begin to show our muscle and simply shut off the supply of cannon fodder to producers like this, although I knew full well that they would always find someone to sweettalk into the trap. You can only provide advice. Trans people are very independent thinkers and trying to lead a campaign in this way could sometimes feel like herding cats.
Matters such as this are a little bit of a digression. However I hope it sets the scene. At the start of 1998 we were just doing business as usual, mainly reacting to events in a routine way whilst we waited for the Government to contact us about consultation work. Other than boycotting the bad guys we had no specific strategic plans about the media as January got underway.
The first news to change all that was shared via Stephen Whittle. He was passing it on from a reader named Liz who had read it in the papers…
“Has anyone read the Express Jan 16th 98? It appears we are going to see a trans person. It is to be played by an actress. Not a trans person. She is going to wear a wig, a polo jumper to hide her neck, to hide her hands, and also it states keep her head down so she does not have to come into eye contact with people. To top it all, she is going to go out with the wimp Roy. What does this say about us?”
What indeed? Other readers filled in the background. It appeared that the makers of the long-running and hugely popular Granada TV soap opera “Coronation Street” had decided to introduce a transsexual character into the show. She would be named Hayley Patterson and was going to be the new love interest for the socially awkward character Roy Cropper. All the indications were that it would be played for the laughs….