Thursday, January 29, 2009

Hotel California Syndrome

It's a lonely life being a long distance campaigner.

The need to stop and rest by the roadside can be overwhelming at times. The visceral desire to give up altogether and hang up the running shoes becomes a constant nag after a few years at the game.

Campaigning for a minority cause in the face of almost insurmountable social obstacles requires stamina. In my own case, for many of the last twenty years or so, it has involved giving up a normal kind of social life to work long hours on a second, unpaid job.

Friends go out for drinks; throw dinner parties; meet people; fall in love; start lives together. But if you're serious about a cause then you severely limit these pursuits; live alone; socialise only by Internet with people whose voices you've probably never heard; whose flesh you've never felt.

Then there's the ever-nagging voice inside. The one that tries to stop you putting your head above the parapet...

This is the bit I'm most personally ashamed of.

It's part of my job to stand up in front of hundreds or thousands of strangers at a time and to introduce myself as something out of the ordinary. I'm a transsexual woman and the job of speaking about transsexual people's lives involves being clear about where I'm coming from.

It's also about demonstrating that it's OK to be "out" like that. Unfortunately the shameful bit is that I don't always feel that way inside.

Deep down I cannot entirely escape the unease which comes from 55 years' experience of being a trans woman in a world that's deeply threatening to my kind. Nobody has ever been unpleasant. It's part of my survival technique to conduct myself in a way that ensures they won't be.

Yet the natural human instinct is to avoid the threat of hassle if you can. I'm not 'out' to everyone and, if it were possible to do the job honestly and well without the self-exposure, then (as I say) I would surely do so. It's what I've worked for others to have in peace. It's ironic that I end up denying it to myself.

The trouble is that having a transsexual history (and having my name and face all over the Internet on that score for all these years) is only a part of who I am.

I have a family, including an 87 year old Father who is now bereaved and needs my support; I do a damned good job as a consultant – whatever varied assignments people throw my way; I do my best to be a good advocate for other communities.

All these things involve relationships with other people. And when I bring my life journey into those relationships I know they change in a myriad of qualitative ways.

I become self conscious supporting women's or lesbian issues, for instance. Nobody has to say anything. I just have to know that they know my unusual journey to adult womanhood to be conscious of all the unpleasant language thrown at transsexual people by some feminists; some lesbians. You don't have to say anything, but I find myself choosing my words defensively – just in case you do.

I recall explaining this a few months ago to the formidable black lesbian politician and rights campaigner, Linda Bellos, whom I greatly admire. We were sprucing ourselves at the mirror in the Ladies toilet at the venue where we had both just spoken on LGBT rights. I admitted that every time I had made such a speech I then felt self-conscious about going to the loo afterwards. Those looks. Again it was the intuitive feeling of needing to prepare for a confrontation. I could have hugged Linda when she said, "Christine; when you speak you make it safer for me to use the Ladies Toilet too". I hadn't thought of it in that way. Still, the instinct for issue avoidance is invariably there.

In 2001 I tried to retire from campaigning. I wanted a life and, in truth, I was dispirited and felt broken by the seeming impossibility of the challenge.

It was great. I started dating again; I renewed friendships; went on girly shopping trips. I watched ordinary TV. I stopped work when I left the office.

Yet the knowledge that there are wrongs to be righted never really goes away.

Then, on a memorable day in July 2002 I got a phone call whilst on the train to a meeting. It was an advance tip off of an announcement that two transsexual women were about to win their case against the British Government in the European Court of Human Rights. Suddenly all bets were back on. There was an enormous job to be done. I was back in action again.

But the older you get, the less stamina you have. By the summer of 2007 – after another exhausting five years – I was running out of steam again. This time I also intended to end it for good.

So it was that in November 2007 I quietly parted company with the campaign I'd worked on for over 14 years. (So quietly, in fact, that people still think I work there).

Don't get me wrong. I still carried on some activities. My specialist interest had become healthcare for trans people. I had chaired the Department of Health's committee which commissioned a whole range of literature that had never existed before. We specified and commissioned key research projects. I was patently aware of the enormous level of discrimination towards trans people in Britain's National Health Service. I couldn't just drop that work – and I didn't want to.

I found a compromise in developing a business for myself as a professional speaker and equality and diversity consultant. The work involves addressing the issues that surround the lives of every group in our society, rather than just one. It's endlessly fascinating and challenging. Yet inevitably, as part of that work, I'm still often asked to do work on my specialist subject.

One of those tasks involved the contract to write the definitive NHS managers' guide to workplace and service issues for transsexual people.

So, try as I might, it's impossible to give up working on trans issues altogether – in spite of those shameful instincts that make me want to stop and be 'ordinary'

I call it Hotel California syndrome – after the lyrics of the eponymous Eagles' classic: "You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave"


Cheryl said...

It isn't shameful, it is entirely understandable. And the rest of the world is lucky that you have the courage to do what you do.

celticchickadee said...

Christine, I've nver met you, 'in the flesh' but I have great respect and admiration from what I have seen you do, even at a distance and in cyberspace. You're right, you need and deserve a life beyond campaigning, and I suspect that where there is a campaigners heart, it's well nigh impossible to stop it beating all together ( that's the bad news.... However, I think you are being very hard on yourself ( here comes the good news...) and that people both appreciate the work you choose to do, and can do, whilst wanting you to have as much of a life beyond that as you need and want. Balance is one of the trickiest things to achieve isn't it, but no-one is going to think badly of you for wanting to find it.

Liz Church said...

I get to do what I do because you have kept doing what you have done all these years. I know what you mean about the loneliness and the anonymity.

Planet Trans has a strong gravitational attraction and it's difficult to achieve escape velocity. There's always that nagging doubt that something will come to haunt me later if I don't keep tabs on what is going on.

Unknown said...

To have the courage of our convictions, to challenge the injustice, to hold faith to the cause: to have a vision, it takes a lot of energy - the internal reassurance, the self nurturing that it takes to comfort the frightened inner child. Peter Theil co-founder of ebay was handing out £100,000 to people who would forego higher education if they could answer the question: "What is it about the world that you know is true that everyone else doesn't understand" -well d'uh: we coulda had a hundred grand a piece girl - its transgender!!