Saturday, February 05, 2011

LGBT History Month Launch Address

LGBT History Month logo

February each year is LGBT HIstory Month in Britain and I am one of the patrons of the event. The other patrons are:

Angela Eagle MP, Cyril Nri, Sir Ian McKellen, Labi Siffre, Gareth Thomas, John Amaechi, Professor Sheila Rowbotham, Professor Martin Hall, Professor Melanie Tebbutt, Professor Viv Gardner, Jeffrey Weeks, Dr Harry Cocks, and Professor Ian Rivers. You can find out more about all of us here.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to attend the formal pre-launch for LGBT History Month 2011 when it was held at Twickenham last November. Instead, I wrote and filmed this welcoming speech so as to send my good wishes from home.

You can watch my speech here or follow the script below.

Full speech (November 2010)

Hello everyone. I’m Christine Burns. For many years I was one of the leading campaigners for trans people’s rights in the UK.

Nowadays I’ve handed that baton to a new generation and, instead, I work promoting equality and diversity at a strategic level in the health service. So, already, I’m starting to feel a bit like a bit of history myself.

I want to say first how honoured I felt to be invited to become one of the patrons of LGBT History Month. And .. even more .. the campaign’s first trans patron.

I’ve always supported LGBT History Month since the very beginning. In the early days I contributed content for the new web site. Last year I had an event of my own, giving a personal guided tour of the Identity Exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.

Ironically I hated history as a subject when I was at school. All those lists of kings and queens, and studying events that seemed to have no relevance to the life I lived as a teenager in the 1960’s.

I’ve learned, the hard way, how important History is to us though.

Why history is important

As a campaigner I’m aware how uncovering and understanding the history of human rights  thinking (and campaigns for those rights) was vital to doing my job.

They say those who cannot learn from history are bound to repeat it.

We see that in the way that one group after another has learned to first articulate the nature of the oppression they face .. be that the African slaves and American Civil Rights campaigners .. or the women of the suffragette and feminist movements .. or disabled people .. gay men .. lesbian women .. trans people. We’ve all been through the same stages.

Total oppression .. tentative articulation .. shared experience and analysis .. advocacy .. vicious opposition by vested interests .. martyrs to the cause .. winning minds .. winning arguments .. leveraging small successes into bigger ones .. mainstreaming .. mending generations of harm.

Similar experiences, from which we can learn

Those causes aren’t identical of course.

It was Mark Twain who said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.

And the thing about rhymes is that, once you’ve heard a couple of lines then you can fill in the words for the next.

As a campaigner, history told me that what I was doing had precedents, and that there was a certain predictability about success.

History is also important for young people. Figures like Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton are drawing on the lessons of history when they make videos to assure the LGBT victims of homophobic and transphobic bullying that it will get better.

And the warnings

It’s also vital lest any of us forgets how easily the advances we may take for granted could be taken away.

Already this government’s spending cuts remind us how easily women’s advances in employment and social rights could be put back. And we must never forget how it was the Conservative Party who thought up and imposed Section 28.

And we must never let them forget that.

Teaching is vital

But history doesn’t pass from generation to generation without being taught. Already I meet young trans people who have little idea of the struggles we’ve been through.

If you don’t know about the documented lives of people like the Chevalier d’Eon in the 18th Century then you could easily buy the idea that transgender lives were a recent occurrence.

If you don’t know the stories of athletes like Stella Walsh or Erika Shinegger .. long before cases like Renee Richards and Caster Semenya then you’re simply not equipped to hold .. and win .. any debate about transsexual and intersex people in sport.

The theme of sport

And it’s on the subject of Sport that I’d like to finish.

When sporting bodies want to sell to us the importance of sport then they always invoke key themes:

Fairness - Inclusion - Opportunity - Health benefits

Sport is based in the idea of playing fair. Of not cheating.

So what is fair about any debate on the participation of trans or intersex people which starts from the presumption that we are out to cheat?

What is fair about making a poor African woman’s genitals and chromosomes a matter for international debate?

What is fair about exclusions based on presumed advantage, rather than taking the trouble to do the science and see what the evidence really says?

Sport is based on the idea of inclusion. That rich and poor, black and white, can all play together and enjoy the same opportunity to excel.

So what’s fair in operating sports facilities where transgender people fear to tread?

What’s fair or inclusive about saying it’s OK to compete .. but don’t you dare look like you may win. What’s fair about athletes starting a whispering campaign behind your back, based on white western values of what a woman should look like? Sport is cost justified on health benefits.

So what’s healthy about making rules that insist a fit athlete like Caster Semenya should be medically ‘fixed’ before she can compete? Fixed to run slower.

What’s healthy about public sports facilities where transsexual people can’t go to swim, or to play badminton .. or even use the toilets in safety?

To sum up. History is important. It’s vital to our understanding of where we came from and where we are heading.

And Sport’s important .. but fairness means playing fair with all of us.

And so I commend the focus of LGBT History Month on sport .. and let’s all look forward to February.

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