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.


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