Thursday, March 31, 2011

Revisited: The end of the beginning

When I wrote recently about the invisibility of the historical record of the early Press for Change campaign, it set me thinking about some of the early contemporaneous reports that I wrote about those events. As far as I know, my articles (published exclusively on the original Press for Change web site) are the only formal records of those times -- and they've disappeared from the internet since that web site has gone down.

The Diary of a Conference Campaigner

Big Ben Fireworks

The first of those accounts was presented as a diary, which not only documented the beginning of a whole new phase of trans campaigning, by taking our message to the Labour and Conservative party autumn conferences, but also reflected my experience of having 'come out' to lead on it.

The Diary of a Conference Campaigner, at 11,000 words, was never going to get published in print (though I tried to pitch it). However, a few years ago LGBT History Month (of which I'm now a patron) very kindly provided a place for it on their web site.

Nowadays you can also listen to me read it in person here and here on the Just Plain Sense podcast. In the 'talking book' version on the podcast I've tried to recreate the feeling of those days in the telling.

Accounts like this were a popular staple of the early days of our web campaigning presence. We were writing the rules for this kind of online campaigning on the hoof, inventing and refining the techniques as we went along.

Homebrew journalism and commentary were essential ways of explaining to people what was going on, given that the mainstream media couldn't be relied upon most of the time.

I always felt that telling supporters what we were doing, and explaining our strategic reasoning, was an essential part of building and keeping the trust of the community we set out to campaign for.

In retrospect I also realise that I was blogging, many years before the term had been invented. And blogging with Web 1.0 technology at that.

The end of the beginning

Although "The Diary..." was eventually reproduced elsewhere with my permission, most of my other accounts only ever existed in the one place. Therefore I thought it would be interesting to revisit a couple of them. They may have gone from their original place on the web, but I have comprehensive archives.

The end of the beginning was written in the hours immediately after the first ever debate on trans issues in Parliament. In the timeline it came about four months after the events documented in "The Diary...". That was the pace at which we were constrained to move in those days.

We knew from the outset that Alex Carlile's Bill was doomed to be talked out. Nevertheless, we also understood the significance of the politics in allowing it time in the chamber at all.

And, in glorious retrospect, I still think I was right to dub it truly the 'End of the Beginning'. We were still a very long way from the 'Beginning of the End'.

February 2nd 1996

It was, from our elevated point of view, a bizarre match. Ten transsexuals, their supporters and a bemused public looked down from the public gallery on the eleven MP's below, enacting a form of democratic ritual which is uniquely British, and never what it seems. By now, everybody knows that we lost the battle of the day .. yet in its' peculiar way, Britain's transsexuals secured a vital win on that cold Friday afternoon. Parliament debated transsexual rights for the first time in history and the wheels of change began to move. Transsexuality has been redefined in millions of minds and the entire community has begun to demand and receive public respect. The end may still be frustratingly far away but, from this point on, the script we have lived with for more than a quarter of a century is being rewritten. It may be too early to dub this the beginning of the end, but the changes wrought in a few short weeks mean, at least, that we have passed the end of the beginning.

The second reading of Alex Carlile's Gender Identity (Registration and Civil Status) bill took place in the House of Commons on Friday February, 2nd after a fortnight of unprecedented media coverage of the human rights issues, and one of the most effective constituency lobby campaigns that MPs can remember in modern times. It was a magnificent team effort by everybody involved and, though the bill didn't reach a vote in the time available, the event has projected the transsexual rights campaign from obscurity into a significant contemporary political issue almost overnight. The support and understanding generated by this bill means we can now talk of when, instead of simply if .. to both MPs and journalists who have now started to comprehend the nature of transsexuality, and the legal absurdities we all face.

It was especially poignant that the bill should be read on February 2nd, for on that date 26 years previously Lord Justice Ormerod had delivered his judgement from a spot less than a mile away, defining April Ashley as legally male, and casting a shadow over the rest of our lives for more than a quarter of a century since.

For us, in Press for Change, it was a major milestone. We may not have won just yet, but that is in no way unusual for a Private Member's Bill. What we have done though, is to prove how effective you can all be when asked too do something. All the MPs say the same : You were marvellous. Your letters have been read and admired. Your visits have changed minds. Your pushing has turned something once confidently deemed impossible into something now achievable. Of course we'll need more of your co-ordinated help before we achieve our eventual goal but before explaining what you can do next, however, it's maybe a good time to explain properly what has happened to date.

The Press for Change campaign is now in its' sixth year and, if you think that's a long time to get this far then remember that just five years ago there was only ever one way in which the media routinely treated any transsexual they came across. We've had to be both patient and subtle, co-ordinating legal and medical expertise and building friendships and contacts in the media, parliament and religious bodies (as well as in legal and medical circles). Gradually, and with all your help too, we've sown the seeds of our message.

The contribution you've all made cannot be understated either. Eighteen months ago Dr Lynne Jones (the Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak) formed the all party Parliamentary Forum on Transsexualism because she'd received a personal visit from a transsexual constituent. At the Conservative Party Conference last October, we likewise gained a very significant government supporter (Roger Sims, the Conservative MP for Bromley Chislehurst) because a transsexual had been to see and explain their problems to him. The Alex Carlile bill also obtained the extent of parliamentary time that it got, because so many of you have been out to see your MPs or got people to write to them.

Steadily these activities have been coming together. At the beginning of 1995, the Parliamentary Forum published the first draft of a document entitled "Transsexualism - The Medical Viewpoint", a work that has been essential in underlining the medical legitimacy of our case. The forum also ensured that the legal group (including our own Dr Stephen Whittle) worked in a co-ordinated fashion on cases such as the now famous P vs S and Cornwall County Council, and to secure a judicial review of the birth certificate issue. On a parliamentary front, we took the campaign message to both the Labour and Conservative party conferences in October .. and made important friends in the media and among MPs who were personally lobbied inside those events.

Gradually, we've been altering our own profile too. With media contacts who've begun to really comprehend our message and support us, we've stopped being the nameless, faceless people in the shadows and we've shown the world that transsexual people have the pride of conviction. We've provided models of well-integrated and normal citizens, campaigning with justification for rights that have been taken away as the result of a medical treatment for a recognised condition. And we've watched and helped some of you do that too. In marketing-speak, we have relaunched transsexuality as a concept. We've begun to show the world that we aren't ashamed to be identified and named, and by doing that we've given the world a cause to think differently too. If you cower and act furtively it sends a negative message. If you stand tall and proud, then people see something different altogether. Proud people get listened to. Respectable citizens have rights. People whose rights are abused get coverage and sympathy.

The result is that media coverage in the last few weeks has been outstanding (with the occasional exception). Interest has obviously been propelled by the Private Members Bill, but the groundwork means journalists who've got to know and respect our cause have written fair and balanced pieces, to cover the event. Since newspapermen are notorious for getting their ideas from each other, the effect has been cumulative too .. with fact packs being faxed to new callers by Press for Change almost every day now. Channel Four gave one of our activists one of the best prime time platforms available, with a five minute film in The Slot, just before Brookside. In the same week they ran the much acclaimed film Second Serve, about the life of American Opthalmic Surgeon and Tennis star, Renée Richards (the first ever screening of this film in the UK) and that has been followed by the two part documentary made by Oliver Morse in his series The Decision. Regional BBC and Independent TV presenters have been catching up too, with cameras visiting some activists almost weekly. National and local radio has done its' share of informed programming too .. all repeating the messages we've been patiently teaching behind the scenes for so long. In short we have gone from being chased by the media to being the eager pursuers.

The spirit was summed up by one regional television reporter who said, "I'm sorry. We never realised that it [transsexuality] was a medical condition. We never knew there were these problems. We've been discussing it in the office and we all support what you're doing."

All in all the emergence of the Liberal Democrat MP Alex Carlile's name in the ballot for Private Members Bills before Christmas could not have been more timely therefore. Alex Carlile has been a supporter of the transsexual cause for over ten years, initially as a result of the failed legal challenge by Mark Rees in 1986. A QC himself, he is one of the best qualified MPs to champion such a complex legal issue. Alex had been waiting for years for the scarce opportunity to bring forward a bill and the chance finally came in the ballot just before Christmas, almost on the same day that the European Court Advocate General published his important recommendation about transsexual employment rights. Whichever angel looks over our campaign, however, you could be forgiven for thinking they have a cruel sense of humour though, for as the ninth to emerge in the draw for this session, the chances of the bill actually getting read were statistically poor. It was, literally, the luck of the draw.

The position in the ballot also meant that the bill's second reading was to be the third bill of the day on February 2nd. The time given to Private Members Bills is very strictly controlled. On Fridays they are debated in a session that starts late in the morning and ends on the dot of 2.30pm, when the house formally adjourns. Bills usually take up to ninety minutes to be chewed over by a handful of interested members, either fervently for or against an issue, or simply in love with the sound of their own voices. Consequently, whether by accident (or sometimes by design) a third bill may not even get debated if one or both of the previous two take up too much time. Once its' time has run out, the chances of a bill getting more precious time in the same session of parliament, are almost non-existent.

The first bill before ours on the order paper sought to outlaw so-called sex-tourism, a practice which Britain has been slow to clamp down on, compared to most other countries. For all its' importance, however, you might be surprised to learn that there were a mere half dozen MPs in the chamber to debate it. Nonetheless, those six were determined to explore the subject fully and so the bill only passed successfully just before 1pm .. leaving one entire bill to go before ours and the 2.30pm deadline.

The second bill concerned amendments to trading laws, intended to clamp down on the practice of pyramid selling, and here it was apparent that one MP and the junior minister opposing the motion were in no hurry to get to the end of their speeches. This is a well known practice in parliament, used to ensure that the bill that follows runs out of time, and they certainly succeeded, with the debate on dubious trading practices drawn out by dubious parliamentary practices till 1.55pm.

The only remedy for an attempt to talk out a bill, incidentally, is for an aggrieved MP to call for the proceedings to move straight to a vote on the motion. This, however, requires a majority of 100 MPs to be present in the chamber and, with just eleven seated by this time, that was not an option. This is why it was so important to mobilise as much parliamentary support as possible. In parliament, however, things are never quite what they appear. Had they wanted to do so, then the government could have ensured the bill had no time at all and this lapse, together with the "code" contained in things which the government's opposing spokesman did say, mean the event was far more of a parliamentary success than it might appear on paper.

With just thirty-five minutes left, Alex Carlile rose to his feet and explained the purpose of his bill, referring to the medical consensus about the nature and treatment of transsexuality, the world-wide legal consensus, the recent and soon-to-be-heard cases, and sketching the lives of typical transsexual people and the problems they endure at the hands of the present law. He stressed the problems inherent in simply reacting to the problems issue-by-issue, as the government looks set to lose one court case after another, and he was supported by Labour's Dr Lynne Jones, and then from the Conservative benches, by Roger Sims (who is a junior health minister). Next there was Kevin Barron, the Labour front bench spokesman whose contribution again signalled that the parliamentary Labour party supported the motion. Edwina Currie, who had altered her engagements to be present, also spoke from the Conservative back benches and Labour's Llin Golding appeared ready to speak, but forsook the opportunity as the hands of the clock passed 2.15.

The tension for those of us in the gallery was intense as the government's spokesman, John Horam (Orpington) rose to reply to the motion. The government had signalled its' opposition to the bill all along, citing particular clauses and the bill's overall approach to solving the birth certificate issue. Yet his reply was more positive than might have been expected, containing specific assurances that the government can now be pressed on by the growing band of parliamentary supporters. Furthermore, all of this dialogue is now a matter of public record, in Hansard, where it will be read and digested by many of the 640 MPs who weren't present.

At 2.30pm on the dot, however, the deputy speaker rose and called the house briskly to order .. bringing down the shutters on the debate, and snatching away the possibility of a vote. It was so near, and yet so far.

In the press conference afterwards, all three lead MPs stressed the significance of getting so far, and paid tribute again to the letter writing and personal lobbying carried out by transsexuals under the co-ordination of Press for Change. They stressed how understanding and perception of transsexuals had altered over the last few years, and reiterated the problems which transsexuals face.

And nobody intends to stand still. The politicians now have a basis on which to campaign among their colleagues, and we in Press for Change have many more contacts to pursue, and many more Television and press opportunities to take up. The medical viewpoint document, underwritten by six clinicians and researchers of world-wide repute, has just been updated to reflect the anatomical research published in the last few months and has to be circulated now as far and as wide as possible, where it matters, and that is just the start of this year's campaigning.


Monday, March 28, 2011

A little cut here, a little cut there

The present government's mantra for the management of public services is that local is best. Anything remotely resembling hierarchic decision making is reviled.

Whether it's allowing local interests to set up 'free schools' or devolving NHS commissioning decisions to groups of General Practitioners, the chant is the same. "Local people are the best judges".

Yet what are the unforeseen consequences of deliberately refusing to look at the bigger picture? The mouse gnawing his way through that cable under the office floor isn't going to know that his next bite may bring down an entire network. He doesn't even realise it's his last bite of anything.

A little cut here...

Take one card...

Picture a scenario that's about to play out across the land...

Sunnyville Primary Care Trust needs to make financial ends meet. They look around for what they can cut.

Let's say Sunnyville have a contract with a local charity, "The Jollygood Centre" to deliver specialised preventative health services in their neighbourhood.

The managers take a cursory look at the services concerned and decide that, because they're only intended for a minority group (and frankly they don't understand the issues), it's an easy 'risk free' contract to axe.

They don't spend long on their decision because they've got a lot of such cuts to make to balance the budget. They figure they'll cover any needs through general provision. Why, after all, should they be spending specially on one group anyway?

A little cut there... and there...

Meanwhile, in another town, another Primary Care Trust is having the same kind of thoughts. And, further down the street, the local authority is also thinking about whether it can continue to fund the housing project which the folks at "Jollygood" run for them.

Each organisation sees only the decision before them. They know that "Jollygood" has many contracts. Cutting just one oughtn't to be significant.

For the charity, however, the cuts ... coming all at once ... deal a death blow to the business plan. They have no choice but to lay off expert staff they've taken months or years to train. Other staff are stretched because there is less flexibility in rostering.

Jollygood suddenly have offices too big for their operation. Their major costslike that are fixed. They can't suddenly stop renting half their office space.

The income is plumetting. They still have other contracts, yet suddenly the numbers no longer balance. The service isn't viable anymore. They're in serious deficit. More staff leave because they see the writing on the wall and are working too hard to cover for former colleagues already laid off.

Before long the lights go out at Jollygood. The service for all the other PCTs collapses. There is nothing like it to commission in place. The unique proposition of Jollygood was that its staff really understood the special needs they were commissioned to address.

Then, because the prevention strategy has failed, people in all those boroughs start presenting with serious conditions for the NHS to treat ... needing really expensive care .. which was why prevention was such a good idea in the first place.

Suddenly, in glorious hindsight, those few little cuts, which didn't seem to amount to much on their own, have led to a hundred times as much expenditure, which could have been avoided.

Taking a strategic view of the big picture

Given this kind of scenario, wouldn't it be a good idea if someone were to take a more global view? Well, actually, that's one of the things that Strategic Health Authorities were put in place to do. The clue's in the title.

Decisions about reconfiguring services (or decommissioning them altogether) are looked at from all angles to consider what the wider implications may be.

The financial case is checked. The clinical reasoning is questioned. Teams look at the safety and quality angles. In the North West we insist on seeing that a thorough, cogent, evidence-based analysis of the possible equality impacts has been completed too -- not just a box ticking exercise but a serious consideration of the potential issues, involving consultation with people who may be affected.

As part of the exercise, the wider implications are considered. What might the effects be on the viability of the service for neighbouring areas if the volumes and funding are increased or decreased?

Unintended consequences

The only problem, of course, is that that layer of sense checking is about to be removed. Exactly 12 months from now England's ten regional SHA's will close their doors. Some of their functions will be transferred temporarily to subregional 'clusters' of PCTs to take over for themselves. Other functions will be transferred to the national NHS Commissioning Board. Other functions will probably be quietly dropped.

So, for the short term, the SHAs may be able to mitigate some of the most obvious effects of blinkered cost cutting.

However, that's assuming anyone has time to look up from the jobs pages.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Changing channels, turning down the volume, but not pressing 'Mute'

Yesterday on this Blog I used this week's series of transgender-themed shows to explore the difference between a purely numerical approach to editorial 'balance' and a more intelligent, genuinely proportionate one -- the kind for which you need to understand the subject matter.

But what happens when broadcasters and print journalists get it wrong and groups like LGB or trans people clamour to right the imbalance? It's not long before a free speech version of Godwin's Law rears its' head and the 'C' word -- Censorship -- gets hurled into the debate.

Even in an age of seemingly limitless media bandwidth, any move to genuinely change the balance of a debate involves limiting the freedom enjoyed by the previous beneficiaries of monopoly attention in order to make room for alternative views. So is that necessarily 'censorship' with a capital 'C'? Is anyone's freedom curtailed? Or is it ... well, er... balanced?

No stranger to censorship


Before we even start down this road I think it's important to declare an interest, as a former minority rights activist who has had a privileged front seat view of how real censorship -- the total blackout kind -- really works.

I really hate censorship because I've been affected so much by it. The idea of inflicting it on anyone else is a total anathema to me.

Between 1992 and 2007 I contributed towards the campaign for legal recognition for transsexual people in the UK as a vice president of the organisation Press for Change. LGBT History Month kindly preserve a record of that involvement here and miraculously I seem to have a WikiPedia entry too.

As campaigns go Press for Change was spectacularly successful. Our work led to the introduction of regulations outlawing discrimination in employment, vocational education and (eventually) the supply of goods and services. Our legal team won a crucial case confirming the entitlement for people to receive gender identity services on the NHS. My colleagues and I watched emotionally as the Gender Recognition Bill -- our original raison d'être -- was passed into law by Parliament in July 2004.

I moved on from the organisation almost four years ago and I notice now that unfortunately the main Press for Change web site ( has been down for weeks. When you Google for the name of this organisation which had such a massive legislative influence, you'll find nothing.

No press reports, no analyses ... nothing.

Similarly, if you Google the names of myself and colleagues you'll find very little from the mainstream too. All you'll find are the niche web sites and blogs in which we've gone on to promote ourselves. Go down to the British Library, or search Britain's online newspaper archives and see what you find.

Go on. Try it.

The trans invisibility cloak

In September 1995 I made my 'out' debut as a campaigner, speaking at a fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton. The room was full of journalists looking for a spectacle. What they got was a serious debating challenge. And, the next day, not one of them printed a word. Zilch.

In February 1996 Alex (now Lord) Carlile presented a Private Members Bill in the Commons, setting out something remarkably similar to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. It was the first time I was mentioned by name in Hansard. Eleven MPs debated the bill before it was talked out. The press looked on from the gallery. The next day... Oh, I must have blinked.

In October 1997 my colleagues and I delivered a 10,000 signature paper petition to 10 Downing Street, marched en-masse down Whitehall and then held a press conference in Westminster's Jubilee Room. The press were there. The cameras clicked. The next day ... nothing.

Granted, we obtained mentions by other means...

In 1996 we also won a landmark European Court of Justice case defining our right to protection against employment discrimination. That was bound to be mentioned by the press, as it was a judgement against the Government. Check it out though, and see how much trans commentary you can find.

In 1999 three trans women assisted by our formidable legal team and allies won the case defining the right to NHS treatment. Again the press could hardly avoid covering it. Yet check out the trans voices.

These are just a few examples and in fairness, by 2002, we were getting a little more traction and making some TV news and current affairs ... but only because we had the full weight of the Government's press officers forcing doors open for us to put a face to their policy announcement about planned legal recognition.

Defined by others

You could say, of course, that trans people are a tiny group of people and that maybe the news agenda was full with 'important' stuff on each of those occasions (and all the rest I've not documented). The trouble with that argument is that it's not borne out by the facts.

All that while other commentators enjoyed free rein to write in derogatory terms about trans people as objects of derision, or to set the terms for television and radio debate. I myself put in a couple of appearances on shows like 'Kilroy', before concluding that it contributed nothing to what I needed to get across.

I was once told by a BBC Radio 4 producer that her boss wouldn't allow her to do a half hour interview with me because 'we've done a transsexual show already this year'.

And, in print, hardly a week passed without the tabloids exposing the innocent lives of another poor trans person who had never sought publicity.

Media lawyer and journalist David Allen Green spoke eloquently about this phenomenon at the Channel 4 event launching Trans Media Watch's Memorandum of Understanding and wrote about the topic for the New Statesman.

Even in the supposedly intelligent and liberal broadsheets, radical lesbian and second wave feminist writers enjoyed the privilege of being able to run out another derogatory column about trans women whenever they were short of ideas. My calls to papers such as the Guardian in those days, requesting a right of reply, fell on deaf ears, though I was a bit more successful with the occasional campaign of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission.

What erasure means

As I hope I've made plain, I've got a pretty good appreciation of what real censorship means. The type I'm describing is no minor question about whether someone can have another slot on TV or in a paper to repeat a dominant viewpoint which they've had a chance to voice already.

For me and my colleagues it meant that our political campaign for the rights of a hugely discriminated minority was denied practically any visibility at all. The dominant discourse against us offered virtually no right of reply.

Thank God at least for the Internet. Through sheer necessity we framed our entire campaign by creating our own media: web sites and email lists. Blogs hadn't been invented. YouTube was a decade in the future.

It meant that, although we were all thoroughly briefed and could reduce our campaign points to a three minute interview or a sentence in a newspaper, we had practically no access to those mass means to communicate with society.

It was totally disempowering. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. It's a testament to our ingenuity that we succeeded regardless. In another age we probably couldn't have done so.

Hopefully that explains why I feel so passionately about the right of people to have equal access to powerful media.

Censorship isn't in my vocabulary. But fairness and balance are.

Move over, it's their turn

In the years since the Gender Recognition Act was passed (and since I've moved away from activism) things have changed very markedly. There is now a very active and vocal grassroots movement within the complex web of the trans communit(ies).

More 'out and proud' advocates have emerged. Whilst we always wanted Press for Change to be democratic (and didn't fully succeed) the modern campaign ground really is open to all. Anyone who can type into a Blog or lift a camcorder can have a voice. The result is an explosion in consciousness and creativity.

Better still, trans people are now at last beginning to have a voice in some parts of the mainstream media. Some even have regular columns. There is an expectation that people shoud have a voice and be heard, plus an impatience for change. The impatience is understandable after lifetimes of oppression.

All of that is brilliant. Yet it also means conflict with people who've been used to the old ways. People who've regularly written or broadcast material that is derogatory towards trans people for instance. The challenges have long since begun and are getting louder.

What it can lead to, of course, is the demand for people to stop doing what they've always done till now, or to make space for trans voices to be heard equally well.

Is that then censorship as such? After all, the incumbents have had plenty of chance to say their piece. Repeating it could be considered greedy, especially if their occupation of a mainstream platform stifles other voices, as the treatment of trans topics has often done.

The Peter Kay affair

An example of this surfaced last week, shortly after the gala launch of the Trans Media Watch initiative with Channel 4, when it emerged that comedian Peter Kay was basing his contribution to the Comic Relief Red Nose Day telethon on a comedy character he had created before -- the fictional transsexual singer Geraldine McQueen. Geraldine was the central figure in the spoof vehicle "Britain's Got the Pop Factor... and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice"

Kay's Red Nose Day contribution was a singing duet with the real life talent show success Susan Boyle. The two sang a version of "I know him so well".

However, even though it might have been argued that the original talent show concept derived its' comedy from an observational satire on the genre of TV talent shows, trans observers were more concerned that the singing duet seemed to rely on the proposition that it was just funny to see a transsexual woman portrayed as a competitor, especially in scenes where Kay was seen to remove his wig or talk in ways that real trans women simply don't.

One commentator made the observation (with which I sympathise) that the portrayal would actually make it harder for a real transsexual person to take part in such a competition in future, since they would be continually demeaned by references to the joke. It's all rather a far cry from this example of how the Taiwanese version of X-Factor deals with transgender contestants for real

Later there was more concern when ITV chose to feature Kay, in character as Geraldine, as the supposedly first ever transsexual panelist on the daytime show "Loose Women". Again the question posed was why it was considered funny as a proposition, and why no real trans women appeared to have the same privilege.

As Kay's wall to wall publicity coverage ramped up to present a seemingly non-stop repetition of the insult perceived by many trans people, it was then noticed that Channel 4 (who only the previous week had pledged to improve its' game) had scheduled a repeat of Kay's original show. The effect was predictable (and, let's face it, pretty understandable). This is just one of the views expressed.

Censorship or balance?

This is a textbook example of what happens when balance is lost, of course. And it's a complete cock-up. A license to broadcast a one-sided message in which the oppressed targets have no voice at all.

Whilst I might sympathise with the argument that these shows were commissioned and scheduled long before the Trans Media Watch Memorandum was a gleam in anyone's eye, and that the hope is that education will eventually prevent any more of them, the fact remains that there are still consequences to be dealt with.

Just because the same kind of misrepresentation and demeaning portrayals have been going on for decades doesn't make it OK to let another one slip by this week because the policies and education weren't ready.

You'd have thought that, when planning to sign the Memorandum, someone at Channel 4 might actually have checked their own schedules and asked the basic question, "Does my backside look exposed in this?"

Indeed, may this be an object lesson for the leaders at Channel 4 (and the other broadcasters that follow).

Decisions you make at commissioning or production level are easy to change -- you can adjust the balance in an educated way and nobody is going to debate it. I make such choices every time I make a podcast or write a blog like this.

Let such a creation get onto the schedule, however, and the fact it's there (and the decision about whether to allow it to remain) becomes rather more public and controversial.

Nobody is going to question, for instance, whether a commissioner decided in the privacy of their own office against a recreation of "Love thy Neighbour" or the "Black and White Minstrels". Such things have long since been considered unacceptable bad taste.

The same ought now to go for whether to reshow Peter Kay's transsexual travesties again.

We are all censors of sorts

But isn't that censorship I hear you cry?

No. The reality is that value based editorial decisions are made all the time. Thanks to social media even the public do this nowadays. Every time we choose who to follow or unfollow on Twitter, or which messages to retweet, we are making such decisions. When we pick which shows to watch on TV we are doing it. They're not censorious. We're not preventing anyone else's free speech.

The same goes for television broadcasting. The choice is simple. If broadcasters are really too afraid to stop making and repeating tasteless shows that hurt an oppressed minority then the least they can do is ensure there is that much treasured commodity BALANCE in that schedule. Broadcasters with a public service remit have a particular responsibility in that regard.

However, I don't personally think that the decision not to repeat a show you realise offends people is censorship. It's self restraint and responsibility.

People have seen it already. Millions more than will ever hear my side.

The owners of the rights are also free to market it on video, for as long as the public don't feel embarrassed to buy it. One day they will. And one day they will look amazed at the fact that it was ever mainstream, just as we cringe over YouTube clips of the Black and White Minstrels.

Change the channel, turn down the volume

Just to reiterate one more time, I come at this from the perspective of knowing personally what real censorship means .. of being totally denied access to the means for public debate through mainstream media. It's why I have a Podcast, a Blog and a YouTube account. At least these days I can share these thoughts to a few hundred people, even if the reality is that a greater opportunity to be heard is generally out of reach.

By contrast, the privilege I'm talking about is that of the dominant, monopoly, viewpoint. The people who have been able to behave as they do throughout the same period and are the first to cry "Censorship!" at the slightest suggestion that they cut back a bit to let other voices be heard.

In reality I don't want to stop any of the people who demean trans people from having any say at all (though one day they will probably want to edit out the record of this period in history through embarassment). All I ask, however, is that broadcasters and editors take the care to ensure those are not the only voices.

I don't want you to use the Mute button. But figuratively turning our abusers down a bit, and providing a few more channels to hop would prevent the effective censorship that has prevailed until now.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The naïve pursuit of balance

Following the prestigious launch of the Trans Media Watch Memorandum of Understanding a fortnight ago, Channel 4 has delivered the first tangible fruits of what says it wants to do, in the form of a nightly series of short films. The seven 90 second films in the evening prime time slot are designed to provoke public debate. That is the remit of the long-running show in which they feature. But, as the full series has unfolded night by night, I've been inclined to wonder whether some aspects have been as balanced as the makers doubtless intended.

Can poorly thought out 'balance' result in distortion, the antithesis of what was being sought? And do broadcasters and journalists need to learn about a subject in depth before they can lay claim to being able to judge what's proportionate and relevant?

The background

During the week commencing Monday 21st March, Channel 4 has been screening a series of transgender-themed short films in the mid evening slot

This tiny slot appears 365 days a year and is billed as "a space for sharing your thoughts on beliefs and ethics".

The show is no stranger to controversy. Last year some gay and lesbian commentators were angered when an early programme in the series featured Stephen Green, national director of Christian Voice, quoting from the Book of Revelations to support his view on that week's question, "Is Homosexuality a Sin?"

"There's something inherently destructive about the homosexual lifestyle", said Green, "because it's based on a lie – that homosexuality is equivalent to heterosexual love and marriage and it can't ever be."

This week's series of shows were framed in the same way, around the question "Is it wrong to change gender?".

This is the way the program pitches its' subjects. It's a style that invites potential comparison with the issues hotly debated when the BBC recently invited readers of their web site to debate "Should homosexuals face execution?".

I do suggest you pause for a moment to read the commentaries about Stephen Green's appearance and the BBC debate question as they raise concepts that you might wish to consider when reviewing this week's transgender-themed programmes. I particularly like this line from Patrick Strudwick on the former:

Balance is achieved when the proximity of two arguments to the centre ground are roughly equal but opposing. Having Green on Channel 4 is like putting a pound of flour on one side of the scales, and dropping a house on the other.

On the balance front, this week's series appeared on the face of it to do quite well...

The show's protagonists

The series began on Monday with the Rev. Christina Beardsley, one of several religious ministers I've come across who has themselves transitioned from man to woman. Christina cited the Bible in a novel way to argue that God is pretty relaxed about people making that journey to be themselves. Her argument was directed at the Archbishop of Canterbury, calling on him to make the Church a more welcoming place.

Tuesday saw the appearance of young journalist Paris Lees (another trans woman) who believes that prejudice against trans people is one of the last taboos to be addressed in our society. Paris is a leading light in Trans Media Watch, so could be said to have a bit of a stake in this series.

Wednesday was the turn of Keith Tiller, a Christian who claims to have struggled with his gender identity for 40 years, and who asserts that he has been able to resist that through the power of his faith.

What viewers wouldn't know, is how Mr Tiller campaigned hard alongside the Evangelical Alliance to oppose the passage of the Gender Recognition Act in the years leading up to its' passage in 2004; how he is associated with the publication of the EA's widely condemned booklet, "Transsexuality" in 2000, and how his Parakaleo Ministry has been criticised for being economical with the truth about the effectiveness of faith in countering gender identity issues.

Indeed, having met with Tiller's poster protegé Marissa Dainton in 2004, as she picked up the pieces of her life after a disastrous reversion of a her gender reassignment (which had been encouraged by her local church group), I can personally bear witness that this kind of "ex-trans" philosophy can have tragic consequences, which the advocates are perhaps understandably reluctant to discuss.

For all that, I couldn't find myself objecting all that strongly to the inclusion of Keith Tiller. Looking at him against the happy and positive trans people the rest of the week (who bear no resemblance) the audience might draw their own conclusions.

Thursday featured an engaging young trans man, Benson Bell, accompanied on screen by his girlfriend and looking forward to their life ahead.

Then Friday saw a really interesting contribution from Pav Akhtar, who works with the Muslim trans community. Pav argues that Western culture could learn something from the East, where countries like India and Pakistan have long acknowledged and had a place for a 'third gender'. Judged by commentary on Twitter, the audience found this show to be one of the most thought provoking.

I'm writing this on the Saturday, before Sunday's show featuring trans woman Delia Johnston, talking about lack of support and depression as she tried to suppress her transgender feelings for decades. However, it's the Saturday show that I particularly want to highlight.

Saturday's slot featured Charles Kane -- a familiar face in the media for his story of having transitioned once from male to female in 1997; decided he didn't like it; and then having sought surgery to revert back to the man he now presents as today. His position is that many trans people are unhappy about their transition but are afraid to speak out. He advocates that gender reassignment surgery should be a lot harder to obtain.

Keeping score

Before I discuss this last case, however, let's tot up the scores

Three trans women / One trans man

Two young trans people / Two mature ones

One cis-gender (non trans) advocate / Two ex-trans / Four trans people

On the face of it, if 'balance' were only about keeping score, that would appear to be pretty creditable. Even the ratio between trans women and men is in keeping with generally known demographic data.

However, as Patrick Strudwick suggested above, balance is a much more slippery beast than that. You don't achieve balance if you mislead an audience to believe that one argument has more significance than it really has. As a viewer you'd have to know something about Christian Voice, for instance, to be able to evaluate how representative Stephen Green's views about homosexuality are in the scheme of things.

So let's discuss the inclusion of a figure like Charles Kane in's sequence of shows.

The myth about widespread transsexual regret

The idea that lots of transsexual people regret their transition and are unhappy is one that has enjoyed an enormously long lease of life -- especially when you consider the evidence for how rare genuine cases of regret turn out to be.

I have a theory that the assumption that regret is common enjoys so much popularity because it seems intuitive to cis-gender (non trans) people.

Indeed, a transition for a cis-gender journalist would be a disastrous mistake. The difficulty those commentators seem to have is with understanding that a profound discomfort in the birth-assigned gender and happy embrace of transition defines what it is to be trans. That difference is what makes a genuine trans person's response to transition the reverse of anyone else's.

To be sure, post-transition life may be no bed of roses. At the recent Channel 4 event Equality Minister Lynne Featherstone MP herself acknowledged the degree of discrimination that many trans people face every day, and the morale-sapping effects that can have. Some may well be unhappy about the life they face. Some may be unhappy with the quality of surgery they received. However, that's not the same as saying that those people regret changing or would have been better off without.

The solution to unhappiness created by discrimination is to stop the discrimination. The solution to poor surgical outcomes is to train better surgeons.

What do we know about outcomes?

Although there are criticisms that can be levelled at follow-up research on post operative transsexual people in the past, all of the studies point in the same direction -- towards very low levels of regret for the change itself.

These studies are commonly cited in the evidence-based commissioning policies which NHS Primary Care Trusts have produced to justify funding such care. I've helped put them in there in a couple of cases. The NHS doesn't usually fund treatments without evidence of effectiveness.

One of the most interesting recent studies was undertaken in 2008 by the specialised commissioning group representing the whole of the Greater London region. Although this was ostensibly a study into patient satisfaction with treatment services themselves, the commissioners included some questions to find out how people felt about their transition, warts and all. The researchers said,

"In total 98% of those who had surgery felt it was a positive or mainly positive experience and were happy with their outcomes."

So, the reason why we probably see so much about Charles Kane is because journalists who've wanted to regurgitate the myth of widespread regret have had to recycle the same small number of cases which any of us know about. The good news is that it's genuinely hard to find more. You can see why Kane is the "go-to" man for anyone lazily seeking a case to feature.

A highly conservative process

Charles Kane's argument appears to be that gender reassignment treatment should be made harder for everyone because it didn't work out for him.

To decide whether that argument has any merit you need to know that gender reassignment treatment in the UK is already subject to extremely careful evaluation, designed to ensure that only appropriate candidates are recommended for surgery.

In the NHS the patient pathway typically takes at least 2 years to reach a possible referral for reconstructive surgery, during which time candidates all undertake what is called a 'real life experience'. This phase is there to ensure that the patient has full time experience of what they are committing to, and what that will mean for the whole spectrum of their life.

Although some trans people criticise the delay such a lengthy process involves for them, the result is the extremely low levels of regrets we've seen. Part of the reason these protocols are maintained is because of fear of cases like Mr Kane.

And the point is that in reality Charles Kane didn't go through this process. He used the fact that he had money to bypass it. He demanded rapid treatment, glossed over things that might have rung alarm bells for the psychiatrist evaluating him, and went abroad for many of the additional procedures he sought out, like facial feminisation surgery.

Charles Kane took full control of his situation. He spent his way around any of the checks that would have encouraged more lengthy investigation and consideration of his options. He can be argued to be the architect of his own demise. Yet he insists that the vast majority of people who aren't like him should be constrained disproportionately.

Numbers, numbers

But surely we still need to talk about this for 'balance' I hear you say...

Well, let's consider the numbers.

1500 patients a year enter the treatment pathway for gender identity issues in the UK and roughly 300 a year progress to the extent of qualifying for legal recognition of their acquired gender. That disparity alone points to the extent of filtering that occurs. Nevertheless, overall, there are at least 5-10,000 people who have completed such a permanent transition over the course of the last 50-60 years.

By contrast, we can find only a handful of people who have gone on record to express regrets, and even fewer who have sought reversal of surgeries. In six years since the gender recognition process came into effect, over 3,000 people have applied for legal recognition and none has ever applied for reversal of that.

To be fair, a caption in Charles Kane's short film did say that reversal surgery is "extremely rare". But, if so, how does the repetition of a rare case example that's been aired many times already contribute to balancing the week? Especially when trans people generally face so much ignorance already?

The documented regret cases (about a dozen) represent a fraction of one percent of all trans people who have undergone gender transition. Furthermore, the number appears to have been static for over a decade .. suggesting that even cases like Charles Kane wouldn't get through the system today (unless, like him, they bought their way past the checks and balances).

I've laboured the point, but for an obvious reason: Regret cases are rare. And, if we were to discuss them on television then Charles Kane would not be the person to present the case. You'd need more than a 90 second TV slot. And you'd need to objectively examine all the kinds of evidence and reasoning I've advanced above.

Distortion in the pursuit of cosmetic balance

Giving Charles Kane air time to present his position as though it were on a par with the other experiences shown is therefore not achieving balance in my view. On the contrary, it achieves precisely the opposite effect. It feeds the prevailing falsehood that regrets are a significant issue and that we should put even more obstacles in the way of patients than they already face.

There's a difference, as I've tried to show, between a naïve numerical concept of balance in broadcasting, and the genuine and intellectually sound variety. The latter requires more knowledge on the part of programme makers before making decisions about what to include and what to omit -- what's proportionate, and what's misleadingly disproportionate.

I have no objection to Channel 4 looking into regrets; however the responsible way to do that would be via a thorough documentary investigation considering the available evidence. Such a complex topic can't be explored in 90 seconds, and it is irresponsible to even try.

The long road ahead

At the end of the day, however, this maybe just emphasises the enormity of the hill that broadcasters have to climb.

One day we could hope that an independent producer of a show like would know enough about trans people's lives to be able to recognise what's valid to include for balance and what isn't. After all, we don't see the BNP routinely included into programmes about racial discrimination. Directors and commissioners both understand that that would be disproportionate and damaging.

On balance, therefore, it's seems clear to me that Channel 4's heart was in the right place and the makers of probably thought they were doing their very best.

However, on this occasion I think I'll have to withhold a point and have them settle for 9 out of 10.



Sunday, March 20, 2011

Will the Trans mission get through?

This week saw the launch of the Trans Media Watch Memorandum of Understanding at a glittering and upbeat event hosted by Channel 4. As I've commented previously, the achievement of that step was a significant milestone. But now the buzz of the crowd and the fuzz of the wine is wearing off, what are the prospects?

I solemnly promise never...


Dealing with the media can be rather like living with a recovering alcoholic.

They may understand their behaviour is destructive; in moments of sobriety they will promise solemnly to stick with the therapy; yet you just know that it's going to be a rocky road, and horrific relapses are going to be involved.

The good news

The good news is that the first big step in the mission to promote "Accuracy, Dignity and Respect" for trans media portrayal went really well -- and all credit to the folks at Trans Media Watch and Channel 4 for that.

The launch of the Memorandum took place at Channel 4's headquarters in London on Monday evening (14th March) and was attended by scores of commissioning editors, independent producers, politicians and trans people.

Comment on the event has been generally positive.

Pink News quoted Stuart Cosgrove, Channel 4's head of creative diversity:

“Channel 4 recognises and respects the ambitions of Trans Media Watch, and its core values of accuracy, dignity and respect. Our editorial independence always come first; but it is part of our remit to reflect the diversity of the UK, and in this context we have said we would be delighted to become signatories to Trans Media Watch’s aims to work towards great tolerance and improved representation of transgender people.”

You can also hear my short interview with him here and in the full Podcast coverage below:


Various Bloggers have also thought it was a positive step forwards. Feministing described it as "pretty freaking great", whilst TMW's own Paris Lees says "We’ve met some great folks at Channel 4, people who really care about getting this issue right.". Dru Marland said "This is a big step forward from, say, the Moving Wallpaper episode on ITV two years ago, which managed to be both stupid and thoroughly offensive in its portrayal of a transsexual character."

Mainstream media had virtually nothing to report though, other than this very supportive piece by the New Statesman's legal correspondent David Allen Green, who also spoke at the event (hear the recording here).

Industry paper The Stage also reported factually.

Fine words

Channel 4 has already signed up to the Memorandum and was previewing some new 4Thought TV shorts that it plans to show this coming week.

A representative from the BBC's diversity team also announced that the BBC supports the goals of the memorandum (though see below).

The politicians were out in force too. Equality Minister Lynne Featherstone MP was the star turn, with a long speech welcoming the actions by both Trans Media Watch and Channel 4. She has blogged about it here and you can hear her speech in my full Podcast coverage below.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas wasn't present in person but appeared on film (closely followed by a lovely message of support from Coronation Street's Julie Hesmondhalgh).

A representative of the Scottish Government, Hilary Third, was also on hand to express congratulations from North of the Border and announced a doubling of funding for transgender support up there. Former Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris (a long time supporter of trans rights) was present for a while, before rushing off for a meeting with Dame Shirley Williams about the crisis that's opening up in the Tory - Lib Dem coalition about NHS changes.

But the night belonged to Trans Media Watch. Chair Jennie Kermode set the scene as you can hear in the Podcast above and in the video coverage below. Journalist and young TMW stalwart Paris Lees showed her talents as a Master (Mistress?) of Ceremonies, and other members of the TMW team, such as Sarah Lake, were busy oiling the wheels and working the room.

Meanwhile back in the gutter

The problem as I said at the outset, however, is that change within the media is always going to be a rollercoaster affair. Channel 4's Stuart Cosgrove acknowledged as much when he said that he realised that in spite of his colleagues' most well-meaning efforts, TMW had to remain free to "shaft us now and then".

This was illustrated just four days later over on the BBC, where one of the "highlight's" of the Red Nose Day telethon was a segment in which Peter Kay played a trans woman for the laughs (just as he had played a disabled man for laughs in a previous year). During the week ITV thought it was 'funny' too to play with the (presumably preposterous) idea of having him as a spoof trans woman panellist on their daytime show Loose Women.

Sadder still, it subsequently emerged that Channel 4 had scheduled a repeat showing of Peter Kay's spoof documentary, "Britain's Got The Pop Factor And Possibly A New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly On Ice", featuring his transsexual 'Geraldine' character in a prime time Saturday night slot less than a fortnight after signing the memorandum. Trans commentators were predictably incensed.

Oh well, I never said it would be easy. Rome wasn't built in a day and all that.

In my Podcast above I asked Trans Media Watch Chair, Jennie Kermode, how she and her colleagues would know that their efforts had paid off. In reply she offered the opinion that it would be when she and her organisation were no longer necessary -- when they had literally put themselves out of a job and trans people were always being presented in the media with Accuracy, Dignity and Respect.

Best of luck to them all, as I don't think it's going to be anything other than a tortuous journey ahead..

Monday night's launch was undoubtedly a feel good affair but, tomorrow comes the hangover, and the tricky business of keeping a highly addicted media out of the gutter.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The great gender reassignment crash?

GraphDownwardTrend ashxOh dear.

I'm not wanting to start a run on stocks or anything ...

I also have to hastily issue a disclaimer that I'm not licensed to offer investment advice ...

But some folks could be forgiven for thinking there might soon be a big fall in business for Gender Identity Clinics.

The smart money could be moving to other sectors now that the European Court of Justice has ruled that it's discriminatory for insurers to offer different car insurance and annuity rates for women and men.

After all, why else would so many people have been rushing to have gender reassignment treatment?

Joking aside

Joking aside. (And, yes, that was some genuine authentic trans humour.) I do find today's judgement a bit perverse.

I should say that I've not read the actual ruling yet. And that could be quite important, as this is the kind of story which is at risk of being spun to serve an anti-Europe agenda.

The reason I find it strange is that we professionals spend a lot of our time explaining that you don't achieve equality by treating people identically. It's the outcome (not the input) that determines equality.

Price reflects cost

In a competitive world it makes sense for services to be priced differently when they are covering different things.

A size 8 dress ought to cost a little bit less than a size 18 for instance. Granted there's the same amount of cutting, stitching and inspection in the manufacture. But the smaller dress uses less fabric, and nobody would argue that it was 'sizeist' to charge more for a bigger product.

On insurance, I've always personally accepted that so long as rates are based on accurate data about risks, then it's fair that the price to insure something should reflect the cost basis. You live in an area of high crime, you expect to pay more. You belong to a group which is statistically more accident prone, the same should apply.

Of course, taking average values for the accident record or mortality rates of an entire gender is a bit of a blunt instrument.

I'd rather my car insurance were computed on my personal whole life accident record.

OK I admit, it's a bit harder calculating pension rates that same way, without knowing exactly when I'm going to die, but other factors are taken into account there anyway .. like where we live and the kind of work we do. Manual workers in northern towns don't live as long as middle class office staff in the south.

How can anyone arrive at a competitive price for anything without taking account of factors with a real influence on the cost?

One bad judgement doesn't make the system rotten

So, I think today's ruling of the European Court of Justice sounds monumentally bad ... if the reporting of what it actually says is accurate.

I can already picture right wing commentators getting overexcited about the judgement, and using it to justify a much bigger agenda, by suggesting it's a reason why Britain should pull out of European legal frameworks.

Note that the European Court of Justice is the arbiter of European Community Law, and quite separate from the European Court of Human Rights -- which has also been in the news lately. However, don't expect the people doing all the shouting to make such factual distinctions. They've both got 'Europe' in the name.

But the point is that courts sometimes do come out with daft judgements.

British courts have come to some really awful decisions...

They've made a criminal out of a man who tweeted a thoughtless wisecrack about blowing up an airport. That's bad law.

They've jailed a woman who was so terrified of her abuser that she withdrew her complaint against him. That's bad law.

It happens all the time. But we don't immediately run around suggesting that we get rid of the magistrates, county or high court systems.

The same goes for this too.


I do hope nobody really does think anyone would change gender for trivial reasons ... however few of them might be left.

If you're younger than 55 then there's no advantage in terms of state retirement age.

After today, there's no advantage when it comes to insuring yourself as driver .. though maybe your pension might be worth a bit more for the same investment.

And of course there are all those cosmetics .. clothes .. and the small fact that women (trans or not) earn substantially less over their lifetimes than men doing the same job.

Maybe today's justices should have applied themselves to that problem instead.

Meanwhile, I'm sure that people will carry on seeking gender reassignment for the reasons they always have. To be themselves. And sod the cost.