Saturday, June 25, 2011

Thank you, but...


We can all do with a little recognition now and then, can't we?

But when recognition is awarded in a clumsy and cack-handed fashion the result can be the very opposite to what was intended.

I learned this week that I've been placed as number 96 in a 100-strong 'Power List' dreamed up by a London listings magazine - one behind singer George Michael, but one ahead of a "talented pantomime dame".

First I was cautiously bemused. Then I was annoyed. Finally I was embarrassed.

Let me tell you why...

A game everyone can play

Like I say, everyone likes recognition.

Do mothers protest against Mother's Day? Hardly. As children we are all raised to take part in the ritual. We buy into the symbolism so much that it's unlikely you'd find many new Mums to argue against being on the receiving end when their turn comes.

The same goes for the other half of the population. Last Sunday it was Father's Day. Even men whose sole contribution has been no more than a proverbial "cock-up" expect to be recognised by some little token of pampering when the day comes round each year.

If we are to discuss systems of recognition, therefore, we have to enter with our eyes open.


We ALL take part, with duties and expectations. If Sandra next door gets chocolates for being a mum, the chances are you may feel aggrieved if you don't get the same.

Recognition is hugely divisive that way.

Being awarded the prestige of an MBE a few years ago I know how destructive that divisiveness can be.

However much my colleagues and I may have deserved national recognition for the voluntary work we put in over decades, the fact remains that our awards left other colleagues, who had also worked hard, feeling overlooked.

It is one thing to all work hard for no return. It becomes something else when some are recognised and some are not.

In our own case national awards worked like ice forming in the cracks between paving stones. Fantastically effective partnerships that were key to our successes in the first place were put under strain and fractured.

In fact I have a theory. If a government really wants to screw up a political movement then all they have to do is lavish favours on some parts of a coalition and ignore the others. A strong overnight frost then does the rest.

So that's my declaration of interest in this matter. However, I digress.

Without warning

I learned about my new 'recognition' quite by accident earlier this week. The Pride Power List had apparently just been published by the London listings magazine Time Out.

An erstwhile colleague challenged one of the compilers, the gay author Paul Burston, on why there didn't seem to be any trans people on a list of the great and good in LGBT society. He tagged me in the facebook thread where Burston replied.

And that is how I was informed that I had been put on this list, tucked away near the end where my friend hadn't first noticed.

Not another list

Time Out's compilation of LGBT glitterati is not the first attempt to list and rank queer people for some kind of recognition.

The Independent on Sunday's annual Pink List is perhaps the most established compilation in the UK.

Each year's selection is bound to attract controversy. In fact I suspect they are designed to. It's both a publicist's and a blogger's wet dream.

(Hey, and what am I doing? Aw shucks, sorry  ... I know)

Objective? Well...

It's hard to know where to start picking fault with lists like these. The flaws are so obvious.

Quite apart from the divisiveness which I've already mentioned, what's the basis for picking names for a list of 100 'top' LGBT people?

A list of the top 100 ranked by personal wealth or Body Mass Index I could perhaps understand. These are measures which could be indisputably objective. Maybe even health-promoting.

I could even understand a list based on public votes .. although those are susceptible to distortion. I could ask my 1500 Twitter followers to vote for me and my associates, for instance. (Actually, that would be one measure of "power and influence" of sorts).

But how are these lists compiled?

Well, in the case of the Time Out list, Pride London publisher Linda Riley explains,

'We have tried to make it more public-oriented [than the IoS Pink List] by asking the advice of a wider selection of people and organisations. The original top 300 were sourced by various people, who were given the chance to submit their favourites. This means there are entries who aren’t necessarily known to the wider public and not necessarily famous, such as business professionals. The list celebrates those who have contributed through their work to the LGBT community and/or have influence on the LGBT community by being inspirational role models.’

The magazine continues,

The final list of 100 was decided by judges Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall; Angela Eagle, MP for Wallasey and one of only two out lesbian MPs; and Linda Riley, managing director of Square Peg Media (publisher of Pride London).

So, you could say that the compilers have tried to cover both bases. They've tried to acknowledge public opinion, and then narrowed that down by committee.


But this is where all the usual issues of subjectivity arise.

Already this week I've seen some folks say how they feel that the committee's makeup automatically lends a kind of institutional bias to the process.

To quote some of the comments that you can see below the list,

What about the THREE openly-gay Government Ministers? What about the Deputy Mayor of London and the Prime Minister's Political Head of Media, just to mention a few?

And this...

...there are countless numbers of gay men and women across the country doing sterling work in their own community. An example is Paul Martin CEO of the LG Foundation in Manchester who was recently award an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours last week. His work in the north west has an impact in London to. Other people to be considered are Derek Bodell and Deborah Jack who steered and continue to steer policy and campaign on HIV and AIDS booth here in the UK and internationally. As does the work of Lance Corporal James Wharton, Household Division who visits schools to combat homophobia in an attempt to serve Queens and Country. Fantastic that Time Out is doing this and to see my old mates Paul Burston and Stella Duffy high up in the list!

And this...

...Lynette Nusbacher, former lecturer at Sandhurst and counter-terrorism advisor to the PM's department. Kate Craig-Wood, Entrepreneur and founder of one of the UK's largest IT groups... But that would be 3 Transsexual women on the list, well above quota.

The names you leave off a list like this assume much more importance than the names you include.

What counts?

Then, of course, there is a well exercised debate about the relative merits of sportspeople and celebrities versus activists, politicians and entrepreneurs.

There are many ways of wielding influence. They're not all obvious. Indeed, some of my own most influential work happens in ways that are not public. You only tease out that kind of influence by engaging genuine peers who understand that in the shortlisting process.

What kind of influence are we counting? People who are role models to the public? Role models for other (especially young) LGBT people? Or people who open doors in business and the corridors of power by leaving an indelible memory that LGBT people can be exceptional contributors, managers and leaders?

Time served?

A vast proportion of the celebrities and politicians on both the Time Out and the Independent on Sunday's lists are people who acquired their power and influence whilst in the closet.

Much of the controversy about last summer's Pink List was about awarding top ten ranking to people who had only recently revealed their sexuality. Last year's Number One was the Rugby Player Gareth Thomas, who had only come out eight months previously.

The IoS explained:

The revelation of Thomas's homosexuality in an interview with the Daily Mail last December confirmed what had been an open secret in rugby union for years after his separation from his wife, but it highlighted the taboo over gay people in professional sport. [..] From living a lie, he has taken on the role of campaigner, working with Childline to reach out to young people facing the dilemma with which he struggled from the age of 17.

Significantly, Thomas tops the Time Out list too.

Unfair advantage?

Trading off the benefits of building a career in the closet is bound to be controversial for some.

For instance, whereas it may be a choice for lesbian, gay and bisexual people it is less of an option for trans people. Given the paucity of trans people on lists like this (I'm the only one so far) this ability to judge when to come out without harming your career is bound to be a bone of contention.

Journalist and Blogger Patrick Strudwick (No. 87 on the Time Out list) has argued in Gay Times that closeted gay people in the media are shirking their responsibilities when they fail to come out. He says,

While pampered public figures indulge their closeted concerns about the effect that being open and honest might have on their career – and, to be fair, on their personal life – thousands of gay kids, every day, face taunts, abuse and violence.

With sentiments and views like this it is inevitable that people might even think it's rather unsportsmanlike to gain advantage from letting others take the public flak and then be whisked to the front of lists like these when they finally deign to announce what people were probably speculating already.

This week, for instance, I've read speculation about the sexuality of a well known TV personality. If they are ultimately forced into coming out would it be right to pour recognition their way for being a powerful or influential gay figure? Should power and influence only be counted when it has been wielded for a few years whilst out? Or is the example set by coping with coming out something to recognise in itself?

Balancing the diversity

Then there are all the issues about balance among the selection. I've already touched on the issue of choosing people for different kinds of influence. But there are other factors too.

Thirty of the top 50 in the Time Out selection are gay or bisexual men. Only twenty are lesbian or bisexual women. Whilst power differences pervade men's and women's lives, you'd expect that the compilers of lists like these could do better, given an overwhelming amount of talented and influential lesbian and trans women to choose from.

I've not done a detailed analysis but my guess is that most of the list would turn out to be white British.

Black african and asian men and women have more obstacles than their sexual orientation or gender identity on the route to power and influence. Yet their presence on lists like this has an immense influence on Black and Minority Ethnic youngsters.

Similar questions need to be asked about the representation of gay and lesbian disabled people. Over 20% of the wider population has some form of disability. Surveys on the LGBT population seem to suggest that this community is no different. Again, depending on what the criterion is for judging power and influence, you might expect a very much more diverse list.

None of this is about being tokenistic. It goes to the heart of questionning the legitimate purpose of such lists.

Who are they for? What is the intended benefit? If Gareth Thomas is a number one on both the Time Out and Pink List because of the inspiration he is supposed to offer, why is it not equally important to ensure that such lists offer inspirational role models to black, ethnic and disabled readers?

Which brings us to the elephant in the room

It is ironic that I only found out about the Time Out list because a gay friend spotted immediately the dearth of trans people. And then he discovered that my name at number 96 had increased the representation by 100 percent.

What does that say? Is there an implication that, among all the gays and lesbians, I am the only trans person with enough power or influence to count?

Flattering that may be, but remember what I said at the outset about divisiveness.

And, frankly, it's a ridiculous assertion. Quite apart from the fact that people can obviously get onto such a list for very different kinds of talents, I'm vividly aware of how many phenomenally talented peers of mine are already in the public eye.

Thrilled and flattered

I'll be clear, of course. Yes, I do deserve to be on such a list as well as some of my peers.

So, thank you Time Out. In critiquing your approach I have no desire to appear churlish.

Trans people haven't generally been popular awards fodder until now. This could be a first. And, apart from the MBE, the Burns trophy cabinet is a bit empty.

But looking at the reasons apparently cited for my being on the list wouldn't really tell a reader why I deserve to be there for something other than pure tokenism.

It says,

Christine Burns - trans activist - MBE and former Tory branch secretary and who helped pass the 2004 Gender Recognition Act

Faint praise

There's no mention of truly influential and groundbreaking work of mine chairing committees that have commissioned and developed work with important impacts for LGBT people in health and elsewhere (I am a true pioneer in that field for trans people).

There's no mention of my major leadership role in Press for Change, creating a new model for online activism that nobody had tried before, handling thousands of contacts, guiding hundreds of people to be effective activists through my prolific writing.

There's not even a mention of being a patron of LGBT History Month, a form of LGBT community recognition that I am very proud about. I could go on...

And then ... I left the Tory party famously over 14 years ago, so that's hardly a reason to be listed. And to say I helped pass the 2004 Gender Recognition Act is to reduce almost two decades of activism to a bit part. It's rather like the distinction that a hen may be involved in making breakfast but the pig is committed.

Indeed, if I only helped pass an Act of Parliament in the teeth of 35 years of establishment opposition, why are my colleagues who played crucial roles not also mentioned? How many such acts of parliament has George Michael (No. 95) forced through?

Reasons to be cynical

This is why I say that initial bemusement gave way to annoyance. An ill-researched biography like this, seen by strangers, would strongly suggest that I didn't really belong on the list for legitimate achievements, but was there purely out of someone's desperation to tick a box.

I am sure this wasn't the intention of the compilers. However a clumsy and cack-handed approach leaves the door open to such speculation. A failure to convince people that the selection committee has really thought objectively about its' selection and rankings reduces what should be an honour to something far more dubious.

I want to be on such list for sure. But I only want to be there with serious and accurately researched reasons for why I deserve to be.

Only then might any of us start to figure out why I'm supposedly more 'powerful' than "talented pantomime dame" Christopher Biggins and only marginally less influential than George Michael. (C'mon now, you're having a larf)

I suppose, in short, that like many people with a string of serious professional qualifications and genuine marks of recognition, I'd like to think that I'm on a list for some kind of objective reason. Otherwise others might construe it as insulting.

And what about the rest?

As I said in my introduction, however, annoyance ultimately gave way to embarrassment.

There are a great many talented trans people. For me to be the only person to make it onto a list like this when I am in such awe of some of those other people leaves me feeling the need to apologise to them all.

I've described the selection process for this list as appearing clumsy and cack-handed because that is the only way to read such poor research.

You don't have to look far to find long lists of influential trans people who would be candidates to give many of the Time Out list a run for their money.

Wikipedia (where I suspect the compilers got my own details) has a long and useful list of notable trans people. A further page even helpfully breaks down lists of transsexual and transgender people in areas such as law, science, entertainment, sports and the armed forces.

It's also not hard to ask around.

Spoiled for Choice

I conducted a short and unscientific survey for just half an hour on Twitter and I was amazed by the number of times the same names kept being mentioned as people whom trans people rated as having power and influence.

Often mentioned were the new breed of trans writers and mainstream journalists. People like Jane Fae (Pink Paper and various), Roz Kaveney (Guardian and others), Juliet Jacques (Guardian and New Statesman and an Orwell Prize nominee) and Jennie Kermode.

These are people who already have a significant reach in terms of mainstream readers, and they are talents that will hopefully be allowed to flourish. Looking further back for influence and inspiration there is the famous writer Jan Morris CBE.

Also mentioned were the leading lights in a new generation of activists who have increasingly come to the fore since I and my generation of campaigners moved aside for them.

These are names like Christina Alley, Louis Bailey, Jason Barker, Sarah Brown (who is also a Lib Dem councillor), veteran activist Roz Kaveney (again), writer / academic Natacha Kennedy, James Morton, and Jay Stewart.

In entertainment there are well-known figures like reality star Nadia Almada and genius singer/songwriter Adele Anderson of Fascinating Aida. There's also comedienne Bethany Black plus (very popular with the Royal Family) the brilliant magician Fay Presto .. not to mention singer and musician CN Lester.

In business there is the computer entrepreneur Kate Craig-Wood, who has been featured many times in the broadsheets as an inspiring example. Then, in public service there are people such as Lynette Nusbacher, a prime ministerial advisor on counter terrorism.

Summing up

Having already written about the dangers of divisiveness it's difficult to edit a list like this. Overall, more than 30 names were suggested to me and I've tried to be fair by picking the ones who came up most often and putting them in alphabetical order of family name.

Any of the others should certainly be on a list of people to watch out for though. That would include people such as a the founders of the influential Trans Media Watch group, including young talent Paris Lees, who I will stake money on being well known and successful before too long.

OK, so a list of 100 LGBT people that includes major media stars, politicians, sportspeople and entrepreneurs might not have room for all the people I've mentioned. Not yet, at least. And some will have to thrash it out competitively, just as the unlisted LGB hopefuls must do too. But if I qualify for a list like this then I'm damned sure there are at least half a dozen in the list above who qualify as well ... in some cases more so.

The fact that we are talking about one trans woman being alone on such a list points to problem in the LGBT community which isn't new. It just highlights it.

I know some wonderful gay, lesbian and bisexual people who would have had no problem correctly describing my own achievements or of naming most of the names above. However, maybe this experience and knowledge doesn't extend to the people who appoint each other to make lists.

Until they remedy that lack of knowledge and experience, however, they are going to continue producing lists which I, for one, feel embarrassed to be seen on.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The freedom to be equally odious


It's a sad fact. Life's downtrodden aren't perfect.

Whilst they're on the wrong side of society we present the victims of discrimination as universally noble creatures who want for nothing more than to live their lives free of hassle.

If we just got off all their backs then the world would be perfect.

Yet time and again history records that some people's first act, given a sniff of acceptance and equality, is to validate that freedom by putting the boot into someone who they now perceive to be a little further down the heap.

A sign of progress?

My eye was caught today by a cutting from the Halifax Courier, picked up by the eagle eyed staff at Trans Media Watch. "Ban the Drag Acts" screamed the headline.

Oh dear. Not transphobia or homophobia in the heart of Yorkshire, surely?

According to the report Rose White, a Halifax woman, has written to councillors and organisers asking them to either ban Drag performers appearing in Calderdale's Pride celebrations or publish a disclaimer about them. She is quoted as saying:

“Drag queens – homosexuals dressed as women – and drag kings, women dressed as men, performing as stereotypical crossdressers promote, foster and reinforce the belief among the audience that any bloke in a frock must be a homosexual.”

But then there's the rub. Rose, 64, turns out to be a transsexual woman. And how long is it since trans people of any stripe felt accepted enough to be voluntarily quoted with a posed photo of themselves in a newspaper?

Much of my activist career involved helping frightened trans people avoid the press.

When there's someone lower than you

In a peculiar way there's perhaps something to celebrate here. A local newspaper is giving a voice to a transsexual woman doing something other than the usual stereotype reported for generations.

Rose's gender history has no more prominence and discussion than her age or any of the other identifying details which reporters feel obliged to print.

They've got the pronouns right. They're not lingering on salacious personal details. The story is her complaint to officials. These are all marks of mainstream acceptance, right?

Well, yes. Unfortunately, as for every other minority that has clawed its' way from the bottom of life's hierarchy of despair, it's a sad reminder of what people will do the moment they have the chance to take normal freedoms for granted.

Not alone

People like Rose are not unique.

Black and minority people may still have a long way to achieve true equality and freedom from discrimination in Britain. Yet, race and ethnicity are already sufficiently unremarkable to allow parts of minority communities to sometimes voice and practice sexism, racism and homophobia.

Christians and other religious groups teach the history of their own oppression to their children as they grow up. Yet some cannot resist attacking others.

I've met a few deeply racist and homophobic disabled people. And, of course there are some sexist and transphobic lesbian and gay people.

It's a game anyone can play. Unless you are on the very bottom of the pile. And that's where trans people were until recently ... which is why that community's potential for unpleasantness has not been a public commodity until now.

When will they ever learn?

Is this, sadly, the level of equality to which many members of minorities aspire?

Being accepted sufficiently yourself that you have a platform to advocate excluding others? Just like those with the privilege you aspire to?

It seems such a shame that so many people never learn a lasting lesson from the experience of being discriminated themselves.

However, in printing Rose White's views, the Halifax Courier is doing nothing different from when readers from other backgrounds are allowed to express sexist, racist, disablist, homophobic or transphobic views. She is just being accepted into the club.

Welcome to the mainstream, where trans people are free to be as odious as their neighbours.

It's an equality of sorts, but not quite the one that folks like me had in mind.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Launching the new guide to Sexual Orientation monitoring

SOM Guide

About three weeks ago I pre-announced how our team at NHS North West and our partners at the Lesbian and Gay Foundation were working to publish an innovative new 'how to' guide on how to carry out monitoring for sexual orientation among staff and service users in organisations like the NHS.

As I explained on the blog back then, monitoring is an essential way of getting information about who is using a provider's services and the demographics of who they employ. Sensible organisations can use this information to improve and fine tune services to better meet peoples' needs. They can also ensure that their staff profile reflects the diversity of the population, and that particular kinds of staff (eg LGBT people) are not getting a disproportionately bad deal.

Today we launched the completed 48 page colour booklet at a lunchtime event at the Lesbian and Gay Foundation's community resource centre in the heart of Manchester's Gay Village.

Read LGF's release here and NHS North West's release here.

Produced by experts

The new guide has been designed by LGF with the aid of a steering group made up of equality experts. The panel included representatives from

  • Cheshire Constabulary
  • Manchester City Council
  • Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust
  • 5 Boroughs Partnership NHS Foundation Trust
  • NHS Trafford
  • NHS North West and
  • LGF

Designed to be practical

The guide recognises that many people need help both to build a case for monitoring sexual orientation, and to decide how they are going to go about it. So, the text includes plenty of real life examples of how other organisations like theirs have successfully achieved each of the steps. The guide covers:

  • An introduction to the terminology
  • Background on the policy context
  • A discussion of why we need to monitor
  • What we are monitoring
  • Who we are asking
  • How to prepare the ground in advance
  • How to actually collect the information
  • How to analyse it and
  • How to use it


Attendees at today's launch were able to take away copies of the full guide from a proof run of 100. This is so that we can continue obtaining feedback from a wider audience before we go ahead and do a full print run in early July.

We also demonstrated how an online version of the content will appear when it is added to NHS North West's Health Equality Library Portal (HELP). Again, the online version will be released in early July once we've had pilot feedback. I'll blog again, and both NHS North West and LGF will announce when the resource is fully available for everyone.


The feedback today was extremely encouraging though, so we can't wait to be able to get the guide out for the whole world to access.

New resource makes LGBT History interactive


A few months ago, back in February, I reported on how our team at NHS North West had launched a new travelling exhibition charting the history of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans people, especially in England's North West region.

The exhibition, which is well over thirty feet long and occupies 20 display panels, was launched in time to celebrate the beginning of LGBT History Month (of which I'm a patron).

It is now heavily booked to tour NHS and other institutions around the North West.

I promised at the time that we would be following up with an interactive resource that everyone could access. Today it went live.

History you can interact with

Like the touring exhibition, the online version of the timeline has been funded and produced by NHS North West in partnership with the Lesbian and Gay Foundation (LGF) and the Trans Resource and Empowerment Centre (TREC) -- who together carried out most of the research.

The timeline celebrates the history and achievements of LGB&T people, particularly those that have contributed to healthcare over the years, and the development of a vibrant and active community in the North West.

The timeline also documents the way in which the medical view of sexual orientation and gender identity have altered through the ages, showing the landmark decision points where changes occurred.

The interactive resource can be accessed here at

Several ways to use it

There are several ways in which you can use the resource:

  • You can just scroll through the whole timeline from left to right, covering three millennia. This is designed to mimic the experience of walking round the physical exhibition
  • You can open up a so-called flash book and just turn the pages. This mimics the 34 page booklet which visitors to the exhibition can take away. The booklet contains a lot more material than we could possible get onto the exhibition panels and is therefore a richer experience
  • You can also download the full booklet in PDF form. This means you can print your own copies to give to people.
  • Finally, you can also watch the accompanying film, which features many LGBT NHS staff talking about their careers and the experience of working in the health service.

We hope that with the input from specialists at LGF and TREC we have produced the most comprehensive history to date. It's certainly one of the most interactive.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A conflict of loyalties

Devil and Blue Sea

Have you ever felt compromised between something that would benefit your community but is bad for everyone else?

Have you struggled with loyalties towards someone who has helped your cause but is now on the 'other side'?

These are moral questions which advocates for equality can find themselves having to ask.

I'm not sure I know the answers. Are you?

Black, white and all the shades between

Politics always used to seem so much easier than this.

In the good old days (before May 2010), we who aim for greater equality and fairness knew where we stood.

Whichever party was in power, Labour or Conservative, our friends might seem to have been mostly on the right side of the fence with us.

Policies were normally, quite obligingly, black or white. Even if the subject was outside of our speciality, we had sufficient confidence in what we thought we knew of the party putting a policy forward to care or not care without too much introspection.

More to the point, in the tribal politics that we have all been reared on in the UK, friends were supposed to be all on one side, and the baddies were on the other.

Sleeping with the enemy

Of course, everyone knows that I have a compromising personal history where tribalism is concerned. I've never made any secret that I was brought up by shopkeeper parents as a Tory. It's only in the last year that I've become a paying (if inactive) member of the Labour Party.

I grew up without really challenging the messages around me. The way that the left branch of UK politics behaved and was portrayed in the 1970's, when I was a young adult, didn't encourage me to ever think of changing my stripes.

In 1992 I formally joined my local Conservative Party in the Cheshire village where I lived. Admittedly, the motive was partly to piss off my vocally socialist boyfriend at the time. Still, being the only young woman's face in the branch for years, I was instantly taken to their bosom.

Within a week of timidly volunteering to go canvassing in my village the branch secretary died from a heart attack. To my disbelief they asked me to step into his shoes. Cautiously, I agreed.


The warm embrace of the local establishment went on.

Soon, the formidable ladies of the Cheshire lunching set asked me to chair the constituency's "Younger Women's Supper Group" (ages 40-60). I went on to become both the treasurer and vice chair of the branch, and one of the organisers of a new candidate's election team. I even set up the constituency's first computer.

My popularity within what everyone considered to be the "nasty party" was counterintuitive, given that I now realise how left-of-centre my views had tended to be when we debated policy. That popularity even survived my well-documented coming out to them in the summer of 1995.

I only left the Conservatives in 1997. By that time, as I've famously joked to audiences, I realised it had become more embarrassing to tell people I was a Conservative than to say I was a trans woman. (Cue guaranteed belly laugh from the crowd).

Leaving was easy politically. By that time the discipline of debating policies, and the excruciating sight of the party's public stance on so many matters, made me realise that I was genuinely in the wrong place for my values and beliefs.

I voted Labour in the landslide election. All my campaigner friends let out a collective sigh of relief.

But leaving took a bigger toll on a personal level. Being a party figure wasn't just about beliefs (whose differences could be accepted) but about friendships. I realised that those two were inseparable once you get past the crude advertising of party lines.

Friends where you may not expect them

Those experiences taught me that simplistic political labels are often not helpful, and that the character of a party's grass roots can be much more of an open church than the official dogmatic lines expressed by parties on either side of the House in Westminster.

I began to see how politicians could be intellectually opposed in terms of methods, and yet share the desire to solve a particular problem.

That understanding prepared me to be able to relate to individual Conservative MPs as surprisingly constructive allies when we were building cross party support for the Gender Recognition Bill in 2003/4.

The Conservative opposition leader at the time was Michael Howard. He already knew me well. He sometimes even crossed the road specially to say hello. He quickly signalled that his party supported the legislation in principle, and that MPs could follow their consciences on the matter.

Though he never discussed it with me I suspect that, in spite of his political reputation, his own family background and experience as a barrister informed his understanding of people seeking to establish their identity and be accepted in society.

All this means that you can't always predict from the colour of the rosette who your allies may be.

Like they say of relationships on Facebook, "it's complicated".

Crossing to the dark side

The formation of a coalition government has meant that perhaps more people are now finding themselves dealing with people in a different tribe.

Until now most people would probably have thought of Liberal Democrats in the same mental compartment as Labour.

Indeed, the Social Democrats, who first formed an electoral pact with the Liberal Party between 1981-88, were disaffected former members of the Labour Party anyway. As a merged 'Liberal Democrat' party after 1988, the only difference in many minds seemed to be that LibDem policy was less likely to have to be tested by the realities of government.

It was entirely natural, therefore, the people campaigning for social change would find Liberal Democrat parliamentarians to be useful allies, and acquire debts of gratitude for services rendered.

Discussing one of my recent articles about the Coalition's 'Red Tape Challenge' on the Equality Act, a trans campaigner expressed it thus:

I don't want to implicate Lynne Featherstone in my criticisms ... She has been so supportive of trans equality over the years.

And this is what suddenly struck me about the conflict of loyalties that is now opened up by finding former allies supporting or implicated with the policies of what has generally thought of as "the enemy".

My own reply on this was clear.

There is a danger that if people [Lynne Featherstone] has supported fail to honestly critique her in other areas where she is performing less well then their own integrity starts coming into question. People could point and say that maybe they've been bought off. ... I feel that if I made the defence of everyone's equality a second priority to (say) trans peoples' concerns then that would make us no better than those who turn a blind eye to wrong in exchange for other kinds of favours.

Bluntly, is there a point where maintaining historical loyalties as a result of past favours could be no different to someone who takes a bribe?

Not just loyalties but interests

The more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that it wasn't just conflicts of loyalties we should worry about but conflicts of interest too.

Many people are concerned about the current proposed changes to the NHS. One area of concern is that the concept of competition embodied in the idea of "any willing provider" can seriously destabilise the whole system by allowing private sector providers to "cherry pick" the low hanging fruit in the system. It is feared this could leave NHS hospitals with complex cases that cannot be profitable on their own.

Yet, if we take another example from the trans community, campaigners have begged for years to be able to access popular private-run gender identity clinics with NHS funding.

Choice, for that community, is very welcome. I suspect it is for many other single issue campaigners too.

The previous government's limited foray into allowing private sector provision in the NHS was sold to the public precisely because it enabled long waiting lists for specific surgeries like hip replacements and hernia repairs to be cleared.

So, if you're a campaigner for a particular group like trans people how are you to resolve the tempting conflict of interest?

Twixt the devil and the deep blue sea

If you're true to your political principles and are concerned about the long term impacts of significant strategic change in the finances of the health economy then the wider good is served by opposing such changes. Besides, people in your community will be hurt just as badly when they or their families want to use NHS services for other needs in the future.

Yet, the opportunist in you might also be tempted by the solution sitting on the plate to fix a problem which your community has been fighting to solve for years.

Which is it to be? Principles or interests?

We live in times that pose devilish questions.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Russell Howard - The signs of a flawed character


When a TV star fouls up then it is usually other people who carry the can ... their producer, the production company, the commissioning editor.

It is also other people who end up with the mess to investigate and explain ... the regulators and the broadcaster.

And, where expensive productions are concerned, nobody wants to admit fault. That would mean a show they can't repeat or sell on elsewhere.

Whatever happened to personal responsibility though?

For there is a way of saying sorry even when the system demands you can't admit doing wrong.

The Russell Howard Affair

For those who don't know, the story goes like this....

Russell Howard is a young, baby-faced, new generation entertainer, supposedly appealing to a certain kind of young viewer demographic.

He has a show that's screened on BBC TV. It's called "Russell Howard's Good News".

The format is based on taking items from recent news and making jokes about the subjects involved. In that sense it is a one man stand up derivative of established shows such as 'Have I Got News for You' ... except that the latter is designed for more mature mainstream audiences.

On April 1st, Howard's show picked up on news that a Thai charter airline, PC Air,  was recruiting Kathoey flight attendants in a novel employment initiative.


This was never going to be a story that was intelligently examined. Far too much titillation value. Reuters, for instance, misspelled 'Kathoey' and employed the demeaning term 'ladyboy' in their syndicated headline.

Some versions of the story, repeated widely around the world, at least acknowledged that in any western country's language kathoey would be described as transsexual or transgender, and that the initiative was addressing a serious employment need.

In Thailand, the job roles open to kathoey are severely restricted. Many are often ejected from public spaces such as bars. For some there are limited openings as beauticians. For the rest, street work becomes a necessity for survival. Western eyes see the street work without questioning the social back story.

However, Russell Howard and his writers had no interest in that. They spotted a cheap visual gag, playing on the received idea that ... well, you can guess.


Their treatment of the story can be seen here on You Tube. It portrays large men with stubble in stewardess costumes; women passengers being sick at the sight of them; the men exposing their bras; and finally grotesque scrotal sacs viewed between their legs from behind.

I'm linking direct to the video page rather than embedding the video, as the comments under the video form part of understanding the horror of many parts of the trans community.

A complaint

Trans Media Watch were among the first to be on the case. Their press release about the programme was picked up and reported by Pink News.

Again, the 300+ comments under the story form part of judging peoples' reaction.

I'm sure Russell Howard would have no difficulty finding feedback like this. He would also be able to pick up on how people were reacting to the video on You Tube as well. The concern was widely discussed.

Initially there was confusion over who would handle the complaint. First, complainants to the media regulator OFCOM were told that they should contact the BBC. Then that line was reversed and OFCOM decided that would adjudicate the complaint themselves.

In a nutshell, the BBC defence was that the video sketch was not about trans women but about what a British budget airline would do if they tried to implement the same thing. The joke, we are supposed to believe, would be that they would employ these grotesques.

On Friday 10th June, OFCOM sent copies of its' judgement to those who had complained directly. A copy is available here, along with more background.

Accepting the BBC's claim that the sketch was about budget airlines and not intended to denigrate trans people, OFCOM said:

"It is Ofcom's view that the sketch was not likely to encourage transphobia as there was no intention to denigrate or demonstrate hostility towards the transgender community"


Although it is early days, and most reaction has been confined to the Trans Media Watch group and a few blogs, the reaction of trans people has been predictable dismay and disbelief at the OFCOM decision. "Whose side are they on?" said one correspondent.

Journalist and Trans Media Watch activist Paris Lees, approached the news by blogging a photo of Russell Howard and, beneath it, telling the very sad story of how programmes like this create the climate in which vulnerable trans people can be literally terrified to death.

And the OFCOM decision certainly seems strange.

If this was a sketch that was supposed to be picking fun at shoddy budget airlines, then there was a conspicuous absence of easy laughter cues about the well known shortcomings of the business approach. The 'stewardesses' were pictured serving meals and giving other at-seat services ... definitely not the hallmark of any modern budget airline in Britain. All the gags were about the grotesques, around which the laughs were milked.

But lots of people are doubtless going to write about that. Personally I just want to focus back in on the performer whose name is on the programme.

The days when gags didn't need victims

I'm old enough to have watched many generations of comedians. I admit the ones that stay in the mind are the real entertainers. The ones who learned their craft the hard way, and who got their well deserved laughs from the care with which they crafted their scripts. They created comedy that stands the test of time. It's as funny today as 40 years ago, in spite of massive changes in society.

What I noted about those entertainers was that they were aware of the relationship with their audience, and the responsibilities that came with that.

There is no avoiding the fact that a complaint to a regulator or the broadcaster becomes something that is out of the original performer's hands. Money is at stake.

The consequences of an adverse adjudication could mean scrapping a show, or at least having to remove the 90 second segment occupied by the offending sketch. For a topical show recorded in front of an audience it may not even be feasible to shoot a replacement to fill the gap.

Ultimately the prospects of repeating the series, marketing a DVD or selling the show abroad are affected by whether the offending part is judged acceptable or not.

Yet that doesn't wholly constrain an entertainer from acknowledging concerns.

The signs of a flawed character

If Russell Howard wanted to show he was a principled man then there would be no problem for him in acknowledging that a section of his audience were concerned enough to complain about something he created.

He could say that the decision on whether it was right or wrong was now out of his hands. But that would not stop him from saying in public that he is sorry to hear that people were upset, and assure them it wasn't his personal intention to cause offence.

A man of integrity would find that kind of way to acknowledge hurt without necessarily admitting liability. If he's done that and I missed it then I'll come back and make a note of that.

However, I'm not sure whether a man who could dream up that kind of 'point and laugh' humour would have that kind of integrity.

Regardless of OFCOM's disappointing (and frankly astonishing) decision, we are left wondering about the flaws in Russell Howard's character.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The perils of a transneologism


I confess I've never felt altogether comfortable with some usage of the word transphobia.

That's not to say I don't understand the rationale behind its' construction, or what it technically stands for.

There are plenty of times when such a word is genuinely needed to describe a whole range of aggressively negative behaviours.

However, I worry that indiscriminate use of the word can not only dilute the meaning but can also diminish support for campaigners on the occasions when such a term is genuinely valid.

Behaviour that stems from fear

As a young adult in the late 1960's and early 70's I witnessed the emergence of modern LGB activism. This was the period when transphobia's antecedent "homophobia" was first coined.

Homophobia seemed then, and now, a usefully descriptive term. It not only works as a shorthand for a set of aggressively negative behaviours which most people recognise, but (in its etymology) it postulates a psychological motivation for why people behave that way.

The etymology is, of course, easily understood:

  • Homo- (besides the linguistic origins of the stem) is an obvious reference to "homosexual". "Homo" has even been used itself as a term of abuse, in the same way that racists in the 1950's and 60's reduced "Pakistani" to "Paki"
  • -phobia (which also has detailed linguistic origins) alludes to a string of popularly understood clinical terms for what are perceived to be excessive and irrational fear reactions. There is a wealth of cultural understanding bound up in terms like arachnophobia, triskaidekaphobia, and (perhaps most relevant) xenophobia. The latter is defined as the "hatred or fear of foreigners or strangers or of their politics or culture".

Putting hostility in a box

Creating a word like homophobia, which has a pseudo-clinical association, has a political as well as a purely descriptive function.

There is no clinical diagnosis of homophobia. At least, not in the way that scientists have sought to study (and sometimes treat) traditionally described phobias.

I have yet to hear of any homophobe seeking treatment for the negative effects of their behaviours. Neither do their friends gather round and recommend they get help.

Whereas someone with a fear of spiders might recognise that this is problem for them, homophobes are unlikely to think their behaviours are at all problematic, unless they end up on the wrong side of the law or public opinion.

Even then they may think their behaviour completely rational and blame the world for being out of step with them.

However the implication is clear. When you label someone's behaviour as homophobic you are transferring attention back onto them. You are attributing their actions to an out-of-control pathology that they should take responsibility for curbing.

Drawing political parallels

The term also makes a political connection with other forms of discrimination which have been studied for irrational behavioural drivers.

The attacks, abuse and discrimination in racism can be understood in terms associated with xenophobia. Negative beliefs and behaviours towards women can be linked to the concept of misogyny.

When the term homophobia was coined it was therefore readily understood. It tapped into a wealth of cultural history and analysis.

This simple association saved a wealth of explanation. People could figure it out for themselves.

Furthermore, because the term "-phobia" is associated with a mental health diagnosis, it carries the stigma that all such conditions unfortunately attract.

So, the act of describing anyone's behaviour as in some way phobic is not just a passive act of labelling. It aims to throw a little harm the aggressor's way. It casts them in a negative light which they have to defend or refute.

That's why people called out as homophobic can't just ignore the epithet. They have to actively deny it.

In a war of words calling someone a homophobe is a return salvo.

A homologue is born

The usage of the word homophobia had already been established for over twenty years when modern trans activism began to coalesce into an organised movement in the 1990's.

Unlike homophobia (which is attributed to an article by psychologist George Weinberg in 1969), I'm not sure it's easy to pin down exactly when the word transphobia was first coined.

The etymology hardly needs explaining. If homophobia drew on allusions to clinical phobias then transphobia simply took the family name of its' obvious political parent. It came out of trans people working alongside LGB allies or studying their methods.

Not a term we needed

Personally I can't remember it being part of any important discussions which we held as UK trans activists in the early years of the Press for Change campaign.

As one of the campaign's principal writers I thought hard about using any neologisms if I came across them. We realised how important language was.

I have a clear recollection of how we formulated a line on using terms like 'transsexual' as an adjective, and how 'trans' was consciously discussed and introduced to our informal style guide. However, I have no recall of us talking about transphobia.

Looking back, I think we tended not to resort to such a word because, as campaigners, we were focussed on describing outcomes.

A word like transphobia has always seemed to me about apportioning blame and explaining the irrational behaviour that trans people describe seeing in others.

As a campaign heavily invested in using judicial means to bring about legislative and social change, we preferred to describe events technically. We saw cases in terms of legal expressions like discrimination, bullying, harassment, and victimisation.

The cases that came to us could also sometimes be described as extreme examples of bad manners or people behaving badly. A term like 'transphobia' would only have served to provide a spurious justification for the inexcusable. "I couldn't help myself m'lud. It was the transphobia. It's incurable".

Nevertheless at some point the word entered our language. I suspect it came in through the increasing levels of online communications which we had with US activists towards the back end of the 1990's. And, as more trans people came out and started becoming politically active in the noughties, the word seems to have become just a convenient shorthand which people assumed could be understood.

A definition?

I could be wrong of course, but I think that this is a case where the word came first and then people attempted, retrospectively, to define it.

My impression is that the word gained currency because it felt right as a shorthand for a whole bundle of experiences. It would be interesting if anyone could investigate the editorial history of how Wikipedia contributors managed to come up with the current stab at a definition:

Transphobia (or less commonly cissexismtransprejudice, and trans-misogyny, referring to transphobia directed toward trans women, or trans-misandry, referring to transphobia directed toward trans men) is a range of negative attitudes and feelings towards transsexualism and transsexual or transgender people, based on the expression of their internal gender identity (see Phobia – terms indicating prejudice or class discrimination). Whether intentional or not, transphobia can have severe consequences for the target of the negative attitude.

One thing that has caught my eye in that definition is the expression "whether intentional or not". This would seem to me to be one of the problems in its' use.

What kind of "unintentional" are we meaning here? Do we mean an innocent gaffe which the perpetrator would be happy to correct with a friendly explanation? Or do we mean an action arising from that person's unconscious, like an irrational fear of feathers, which they are not even aware of?

The other problem that I perceive is that the word seems to have to engage a number of other pseudo-pathological neologisms to define itself ... opening up a potential gulf in understanding between those who choose to use it and those who find themselves having it applied to them.

All this, it seems to me, moves away from the simplicity of understanding the word homophobia in 1969.

Use with care and restraint

If I have ever used the shorthand of transphobia (and I admit I do so only with extreme caution) then I tend to be careful to restrict it to cases where it seems to me that all rational explanations for someone's behaviour have been exhausted and pathology is the only likely explanation left.

Before I get there, however, I run through all the other possibilities.

  • Was the person just unaware that certain behaviour offends or harms trans people?
  • If so, will they respond to polite explanation?
  • Was their behaviour simply accidental?
  • If that's pointed out politely are they motivated to apologise?
  • Are they an actual or potential ally who thought they were doing right but failed to understand the complexity of trans experiences, language or politics?
  • Are they just socially inept or bad mannered in general?

Part of my rationale is that, as a diversity specialist, I'm painfully aware of the potential for unintended offence which I may give to other communities, regardless of how well-intentioned I may be. And if people react straight away to my innocent blundering with a term that suggests I may have an unmoderated mental illness or a seriously unpleasant motive, then I know I would feel hurt and defensive.

I may be able to understand their impatience and annoyance when my blunder is explained to me. I'm likely to apologise as well. However, I also know that it is a perfectly human reaction to attempt to defend oneself if the initial response is unduly harsh and doesn't leave open the possibility for explanation.

And this is where I feel the problem can lie in trigger happy use of such a potentially powerful, accusatory and stigmatising term as transphobia.

Do we need a new word?

So, if transphobia can be problematic should we ditch it and find another one?

No. Personally I don't think so. Not if we don't address the underlying problem of people rushing to diagnose a malicious or fear-driven motive when simpler explanations would do. Besides we already seem to have too many words that serve as potential barriers to outsiders.

Overuse of a word in inappropriate circumstances simply dilutes the meaning. It also harms the cause, as others see over reaction in the trans community and can assume that every time someone cries Transphobia! another innocent commentator is being hauled over the coals by a community that takes no prisoners.

Or do we need a new attitude?

Interestingly, when I discussed writing this article, I realised that I myself wasn't alone in the fear of incurring the wrath of a powerfully vocal trans community if I accidentally said a word out of place.

I haven't yet experienced the ultimate irony of being labelled transphobic, though I figure it could only be a matter of time.

When it gets to that stage then a community has a problem. It's time to draw back and wonder seriously whether too much use of the linguistic nuclear option can deter otherwise useful allies.

Yesterday, for instance, I witnessed a young and politically aware rising star journalist, Laurie Penny, coming close to this experience on her own Facebook page. A commenter said that she "stopped just short of then (sic) line of transphobia".

Laurie's crime? She's a colourful and emotive writer. She draws word pictures. And, in an article for the Independent she had used both the word 'drag' and a reference to pantomine dames as a way of describing the approach of a certain reality TV show and its' star.

Laurie strikes me as a very conscientious writer -- a woman who is well aware of the strongly polarised responses her words can invoke.

She knew about trans sensitivities, so she tried to contact not one but three separate trans activists, prior to publication, to discuss the way she had borrowed and repurposed some well established words that far pre-date modern trans identity and language.

Pantomime Dames are a long established part of our culture and (in my view) a fair concept to use for a critical simile. Drag also has a long history. Neither concept is owned by trans people, nor is there any evidence of harm to trans people by discussing these things.

All three of us told her that we weren't personally troubled given the context, but to be aware that there was always the probability that someone, somewhere out there, could take her to task. And they did.

Giving the abuser an excuse

The complainant's case was that using these terms encouraged commenters on her article in the Independent to use genuinely offensive language ("tranny") in remarks below the line.

This is rather like suggesting we accept a rapist or domestic abuser's argument that their victim was in some way responsible for provoking what happened to them by wearing particular clothes or just being in the way.

That doesn't wash. Journalists can't be held accountable for what their readers do, unless they are directly inciting action. By all means tackle the commenter, but don't lump blame on someone just for using words which they've been careful to check beforehand.

The commenter themselves may have been transphobic. Again, they may not. One wisecrack comment is not necessarily enough to diagnose and accuse someone of a serious pattern of behaviour.

How to lose friends

Laurie is actually a trans ally. So it pained me to see someone come close to labelling her with a term which (as I've explained) denotes deliberate actions of hatred and possibly an out of control mental health problem.

She might understand that these things come out of a community with a lot of pent up anger for the abuse of decades. But what does it look like to the bystander?

Do trans people look like folks you would want to get involved in supporting if, when you put an innocent foot out of place, you could be instantly denounced on the internet as a hater?

In summary

As I said at the outset, I believe in using the term transphobia with care and restraint.

I'm not against the term altogether. When all other explanations for someone's bad behaviour have been discounted then it has its place.

And, when usage is constrained to those clear circumstances, everyone can be clear what it means. The word stands to grow in power by association with clear cases of egregious hatred which look as though the perpetrator can't rationally control themselves.

Used indiscriminately, however, the word loses both power and meaning. It becomes just a cheap shot, poorly aimed. It can also lose friends.

So there you have it. I'm aware that this viewpoint may itself provoke strong reactions. It won't be the first time I've experienced being on the wrong side of trans opinion if so.

But mark my words. If we cheapen the language then everyone loses.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Lynne Featherstone clarifies the government's intent

Lynne Featherstone

Yesterday I blogged about the coalition government's plan to invite further discussion about the Equality Act on their 'Red Tape' web site. That will be happening from today, 9th June and the spotlight on this area of legislation will continue till the end of the month.

My advice would be for people to continue posting their views on the site (click here). However, rather than simply indicating support for the principle of the legislation, it would be constructive if people indicated specifically

  • What aspects of the legislation they think are best
  • What aspects of the legislation could still be improved
  • The reasons why they support or disagree with any particular proposals made by other contributors

The site now has the facility for people to indicate support for particular comments by tweeting or posting them to Facebook. It would be helpful if especially relevant comments were promoted in this way.

The Minister for Equalities has now issued the following statement to stakeholders, clarifying the government's intent.

A message from Lynne Featherstone, Minister for Equalities

The Red Tape Challenge aims to tackle the burden of excessive red tape, both to free businesses to compete and create jobs and to give people greater freedom and personal responsibility.

However, the presence of the Equality Act 2010 on the Red Tape Challenge Website has raised some concern amongst some stakeholders. I’m therefore writing to clarify the Government’s position.

Firstly, I would like to assure you of this Government’s strong commitment to equality.  We are not changing direction on this.   We set out our commitment in the Coalition Programme and Theresa May, the Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities,  set out the Government’s approach in more detail in the Equality Strategy published last December.

Secondly, as the website now makes clear, a particular regulation being featured on the Red Tape Challenge website should not be read as implying any intention on the part of the Government to remove that regulation.

Indeed, the Home Secretary stated in Parliament on 5 May, in reference to the Equality Act’s inclusion on the Red Tape Challenge website, that "it is not the Government’s intention to abolish the Equality Act.’

Instead, the Government wants to hear from members of the public, businesses and voluntary and community organisations about how the Act is working in practice. We want to know whether the Act could be simplified, better implemented, or if certain provisions should be dropped or amended, or whether it should be kept exactly as it is.

From June 9 until June 30, the Red Tape Challenge will have a spotlight on the Equalities theme, which will be facilitated by Caroline Waters, Head of HR, at BT. During this period, I would like to invite you to visit and participate in an informed debate on how we can deliver better regulation.

Any proposals for change would receive careful consideration as to whether they were proportionate, practical, beneficial and in keeping with our wider commitments and EU or domestic legal obligations.  Any proposals that passed that test would need to go through the appropriate consultation and Parliamentary process.

I hope this helps to reassure you and clarifies what we are aiming to do.  We welcome your input to the Red Tape Challenge website and all relevant consultations.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The price of equality under a Tory-led government is eternal vigilance

The coalition government are rumoured to be at it again

Red Tape Challenge

I'm getting indications from several quarters that, in spite of receiving over 5,300 responses to their 'Red Tape Challenge' consultation site a couple of months ago regarding the Equality Act, the coalition still wants to keep up the pressure for any excuse to emasculate the legislation that protects our rights.

This is a government that is never put off by getting a message they don't like. They just keep coming back and asking the question again until the answer suits their ideological agenda.

I've blogged about the insidious threats to our hard won and precious equality protections before.

During April 2011, a massive social network campaign by organisations and individuals who care about equality led to the thousands of responses to the web site that I mentioned above ... hundreds of times more responses than the average for other 'Red Tape' questions on the web site, and almost unequivocally supportive of either keeping the legislation intact, or even strengthening it.

These are some typical calls to action back then:

The Guardian described the 'Red Tape Challenge' as "Hardly a paragon of e-Democracy"

For more, just Google for "red tape challenge equality act".


To use the jargon of US Military Defence, it is time to go to DEFCON 3 again.

I believe we can expect, from tomorrow evening (Thursday 9th June), a renewed focus on the question which the site poses. And I believe that right-leaning businesses are being prepped behind the scenes to post negative comments on what a costly nuisance such regulation is.

I'm not alone in sounding this warning. It looks as though the Equality and Diversity Forum has been hearing the same rumours, as has the Scottish Rural Equality Network.

Spin, spin, spin till the message is right

In the manner of how these things are spun, all that effort that people previously made to post pro legislation messages could be buried under a few pages of fresh negativity on the site. This would then give the Government a license to say that it wants to act in response to 'demand' to cull such red tape.

I'm posting this advance warning to say that we must all be on standby with our networks to fight back on this.

You have been warned

Rumour has it that the spotlight will be turned on this topic from tomorrow evening and could go on for the rest of June. During that time we must use all the tools at our disposal to persuade people we know, and who care about equalities, to ensure the coalition don't get away with this.

First we need to be on the lookout for evidence that it is occurring. Then we need to get communicating, using email, blogs and social media as before to stoke up awareness and drive defensive action.

We've been warned. The price of equality under a Tory-led government is eternal vigilance.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

One of our finest hours


In the last few months I've dusted off some of my first person accounts of a selection of trans campaigning milestones.

There was the reading of a Private Members Bill in Parliament in February 1996, delivering a petition to 10 Downing Street in October 1997 and, long before those events, a significant conference in Amsterdam in April 1993.

To continue that series of retrospectives I now want to move to an event that took place in early 1998, and which put us on the map as a campaign to be reckoned with by Government.

More to the point, I think it was one of the whole British trans community's finest hours

Remembering the trans community's successes

To put the events that I'm writing about into context, it's important to recall that although people mostly now remember the Gender Recognition Act in 2004, the campaign for transsexual peoples' rights in the UK had achieved a number of milestones long before reaching that point.

This was mostly down to some truly heroic individuals prepared to use their personal experiences of discrimination to win big changes through the courts.

  • In the Spring of 1996, not long after Alex Carlile's Private Members' Bill had been talked out in Parliament, a trans woman known only as "P" won a significant employment discrimination judgement in the European Court of Justice. P's success (besides the milestone of securing her anonymity in the proceedings) confirmed that the European Community's Equal Treatment Directive applied to people who were planning to change, were in the process of changing, or had changed, their gender. This was significant not only to "P", but also meant that the UK's Sex Discrimination Act had to be interpreted in the same light for everyone in Europe. Indeed, for the UK, that interpretation could be applied historically, all the way back to the date that Britain had joined (what was then) the European Economic Community in 1972. More on this in a moment.
  • In the Summer of 1998 three Lancashire trans women (known only as A, D and G) won a case in the High Court against (what was then) North West Lancashire Health Authority, contesting administrative decisions not to fund referrals for their treatment under the NHS. The Health Authority insisted on appealing the decision and were defeated again the following year at the Court of Appeal, establishing a firm legal precedent in the process. The case established that it was unlawful for NHS commissioners to operate anything amounting to a blanket ban on funding for gender reassignment treatment. Ironically, it is estimated that the full cost of those actions, which fell on the Health Authority, would have easily funded around 50 full gender reassignment treatments.
  • Then, of course, on 11th July 2002, two transsexual women won the very aptly named "Goodwin & I vs UK" case at the European Court of Human Rights. They were the fourth in a succession of British applicants to the human rights court in Strasbourg, claiming abuses of the right to private and family life, and to marriage. Their success laid the foundations for the Gender Recognition Act.

For those with a more technical interest, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has a very useful list of transgender case decisions on their website.

No plain sailing

Success didn't come without some temporary setbacks on the way.

In terms of employment rights, the Police proved to be a particularly hard nut to crack. A transsexual woman "M" lost an Industrial tribunal against West Midlands Police in 1996, in spite of the European Court of Justice ruling. Then a similar case against West Yorkshire Police took over six years to reach a successful conclusion, and went through the entire UK legal system before being resolved successfully at the House of Lords in 2004.

The transsexual woman behind "A vs West Yorkshire Police" had incredible stamina to pursue a case that far. One of my colleagues at the time deserves particular praise for the moral support she offered to help her through.

However, "A" 's case superbly illustrates the trench war nature of changing a system that doesn't want to change. As in the NHS case I mentioned above, the costs to the public purse in losing the case were horrendous. It has been estimated that the Police could have bought two new helicopters with the money spent trying to prevent one young transsexual woman from training to be a police officer. Ironically, the case also emphasised what an excellent officer she was capable of being.

Strength in numbers

Whilst these cases were about heroic individuals stepping up to the plate and being supported by a community of equally remarkable lawyers, the Press for Change campaign was based on the vision that everyone should have the opportunity to contribute as much as they felt comfortable. It was our job to equip them.

We had first put this philosophy to the test in the autumn of 1995, as we laid the ground for Parliament to hear Alex Carlile's personal attempt at a gender recognition bill. Over the course of that autumn (and before all that many trans people were accessible online via email) we used the old fashioned medium of a printed newsletter to encourage individuals to visit and write to their own MPs, and for them to ask for support for the measure.

One thing we resolved never to do was to produce standard letters. Politicians can spot those a mile away. They get them all the time, and know how to deal with them.

Instead, we explained the arguments to people, and then we asked them to put the case into their own words ... to tell it personally.

The result was significant, although it didn't affect the Parliamentary outcome at the time. The politicians supporting us told us it was one of the most impressive lobbies they had seen in recent time. MPs everywhere were telling colleagues how that had met a transsexual woman or man in their constituency surgeries ... and then discovering that their associates had had similar experiences.

It was obvious all these visits had been coordinated in some way, but less obvious how. A campaign that can mobilise hundreds of people all over the country is automatically assumed to be larger than it really is. The fact it was coordinated by a handful of people in their bedrooms was far from obvious.

Forcing open Westminster's doors

In May 1997 the Labour Government swept to power by a landslide majority. It was time to collect on promises made in opposition. And there were new ways of working too ... this Government was keen on consultation, even though the civil servants had no idea yet how to implement it.

Sure enough, in the Autumn of that year (when Press for Change had received a surprise invitation to buy a stand at the Labour Party Conference exhibition) we received a promise from Ministers that they would look at how to implement the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decision in P vs S and Cornwall County Council.

A consultation was organised for February 1998, but it was a mess.

Although the ECJ's decision had been straightforward and unequivocal, the questions posed by the Department of Education and Employment in its' discussion of the legislative options were terrifyingly prescriptive. Should there be restrictions on transsexual people having a right to work with children and vulnerable adults, for instance?

Very little time was allowed for responses either. If the success of P's ECJ win was not to turn into a car crash we were all going to have to move very fast.

Mercifully we were ready for this challenge. We knew already how to ask for people to do specific things. And we now had the means to distribute information very quickly.  (Mind you, in 1998 we were still a hybrid of old (postal) and new (email/web) communications.)

The story is told in the article below, which I wrote to thank people once the panic was over. I've always believed that if you ask people to do things then you should also tell them what they've achieved, and then ask for more.

And our professional relations with civil servants began in the fallout from this event, in a climate set by the respect that PFC and the entire community had earned by bringing them to the table.

Nothing was ever the same again. We'd established that though we were tiny, we were capable of mobilising hundreds of articulate people.

Looking back on how I documented it at the time, I truly believe it was one of the whole community's finest hours...


Consultation Deluge brings Employment Minister to the discussion table
(Written for GEMS News, 29th April 1998)

Hansard, 30th March 1998: Written answer to a question tabled by Paul Keetch MP, Hereford (Lib Dem).

Mr. Keetch: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment how many responses were received to the Department for Education and Employment consultation paper, Legislation Regarding Discrimination on Grounds of Transsexualism in Employment; how many responses were (a) in favour and (b) opposed to the proposals; and if he will make a statement. [36865]

Mr. Alan Howarth: Nearly three hundred responses have been received by the Department. The responses are from a range of individuals and groups, and contain a large number of views, not all of which concern matters within the responsibility of the Department. Analysis of the responses is now underway, and I shall make a further statement in the light of that analysis.

Anyone with the remotest of connections with the UK’s transsexual community can’t have failed to be aware of the number one topic for concern and debate for most of February and March this year.

Readers of a hurriedly published Gems News 31 will have read about it there. Members of the FtM Network, Change and other support groups will have received copies through their newsletters at the same time. Press for Change volunteers spent a night stuffing and licking two thousand envelopes to notify our own supporter list. And the world at large downloaded over four hundred and fifty copies of it from the Press for Change website in the busiest six week campaign we’ve ever organised.

The Department for Education and Employment’s “consultation” paper, “Legislation Regarding Discrimination On Grounds Of Transsexualism In Employment” could not have been more ironically titled of course.

It slid through the Press for Change letterbox on the morning of Monday 2nd February, and produced the same astonished reaction from everyone who read it.

Instead of suggesting useful ways in which people could sensibly avoid discriminating against trans people in employment, and solve problems harmoniously, the government ministry responsible for outlawing discrimination at work appeared to have produced a manual which practically encouraged it. They even proposed changes in the law to make it easier !

It’s not surprising that many trans people were deeply upset by what they read, and by how they saw themselves described between the lines.

When you read people seriously suggesting that perhaps it’s not appropriate for you to work with children and getting in a tizzy over which toilets you should be allowed to use, there’s no mistaking the message.

Several people who wrote to us at Press for Change expressed feelings of despair and described episodes of depression, brought on by the challenge to their self esteem. There was a very real fear that the party which many hoped would liberate them was going to legislate them into some form of legally prescribed ghetto.

Understandably, the lack of information following the end of the consultation period will have frightened many people too. Many of those who subscribe to PFC’s online campaigners forum, where people are at least in touch with what’s going on day by day, were frightened enough. I can only try and imagine what it’s been like if you’ve not had that lifeline.

In a moment, I’ll explain what’s happened since the DfEE’s consultation deadline passed. It’s actually good news, and I cannot stress enough that important lessons have been learned on the government side as a result of the exceptional response you helped us to organise.

Doors have been opened. Press for Change, through the Parliamentary Forum we help to organise, has been invited by the equal opportunities minister himself, Alan Howarth MP, to draft alternative, constructive and fair proposals to really tackle workplace issues involving trans people. We are working on that even as I write, and contributing in parallel to other relevant consultation processes too.

Before I explain what happened though, it’s worth reflecting on this latest example of how powerful we become by communicating well, organising ourselves to act as one, and by developing the self regard to stand up and complain when the behaviour of others threatens our right to be treated with as much respect and regard as anyone else.

The UK trans community’s response to this latest threat was undoubtedly the biggest and most tangible that we’ve yet organised. And we had barely six weeks in which to do it too.

We only received the document to read ourselves on February 2nd. Groups like the Gender Trust received their copies at the same time as well. The ministry evidently wanted to keep this very low key though .. ironically (I suspect) because they were afraid of press reaction interfering with what I think they honestly thought to be legislation we’d welcome !

Our first response was to contact our associates in all the main support organisations, like the Gender Trust, to organise a joint operation to make sure that as many people as possible could see the document for themselves and have a chance to reply before the March 13th deadline.

Within 24 hours, the Press for Change web site had copies of the DfEE’s paper, and our commentary alongside it. Within just 48 hours, we’d added the Gender Trust’s own response, and page upon page of supporting information too.

We circulated the paper to our online email distribution list too, reaching almost 200 people in one go .. and called for volunteers to help us do a mass mailing to our own postal contact list of about 1200 supporters and activists, and the FtM Network’s members too.

As the news we circulated worked its way around the internet, accesses to the Press for Change web site doubled and then doubled again.

We printed 2000 copies of the ministry’s document, along with instructions on what to do about it, and meanwhile liased to ensure that everyone else contacted their own distribution lists without delay. Delays in the ministry sending the consultation out, meant that we had less than six weeks for people to respond.

By the end of the first week, less than seven days after we’d begun, the operation was well underway, and when we gathered early the following week to fill envelopes, the first responses from the online community were already being copied to us. Many activists were reporting on the efforts they’d been making to encourage other people to respond too.

And we weren’t just looking for trans people to voice their opinion.

Employers and Trade Unionists expressed concerns at the damage the proposed legislation would do, and how it would hinder rather than help.

One teacher’s union was furious that they’d only received a copy of the paper through a trans teacher, concerned for their job. The ineptitude of the ministry responsible for education seemed to know no bounds!

Partners, parents, co-workers and friends added their contributions as well. We asked people to copy their responses to us, by post or electronically, so that we had an idea of the scale and flavour of what was being sent.

As we entered the last week for posting, the number of copies we received crept up to around 150, encouraging us to cautiously speculate that perhaps 200 responses had been sent overall.

In our wildest flights of wishful thinking none of us would have dreamed that the eventual total would come closer to 300 though. Thank you everyone who made a contribution to the pile.

We tried not to tell people what to write in their responses, or how to frame them .. although online activists had the benefit of being able to discuss this a lot.

What we hoped people would stress, in their own words, was that special legislation was unnecessary, and could only diminish the protection conveyed already by the European Court of Justice ruling, P vs S and Cornwall County Council. The examples the ministry themselves had provided underlined this, in fact.

Indeed, the only case in which a trans person had failed to press their case in court using “P” merely demonstrated that if any legislation is needed at all, then it is should be to facilitate legal recognition of the actuality of a trans person’s socially recognised gender. (In the case of M v West Midlands Police the plaintiff, a trans woman, was not employable as a police officer because her legal gender created barriers to her ability to perform intimate searches on suspects).

Some people wrote letters addressing the generality of the proposals, and citing a few specific areas of concern. Others submitted a full scale critique of each proposal, often brilliantly exposing the false assumptions the document contained, and showing the absurdities it would lead to. Many examples were provided to show how unworkable the proposed legislation would be to either define or apply.

One aspect struck us more than any other though. Almost every submission we read was immaculately produced and argued its’ case intelligently and consistently.

The impression, overall, was of a well educated and informed community of people expressing genuine dismay at proposals which would turn them into third class citizens. When non trans people wrote, the message was universally supportive too. Everyone seemed to understand the issues very well, in fact .. except the civil servants we pay to know better !

The one positive thing about the UK Government’s first attempt to draft trans-related legislation, as many journalists and observers agreed with us over the weeks that followed, was that you didn’t have to understand or even sympathise with trans issues to be able to see straight away how crudely discriminatory the proposals would be.

All you had to do was substitute some other adjective in place of “transsexual”; then the truly exceptional nature of the Government’s proposals was obvious.

It was as though someone had switched on a very bright light, because suddenly the ignorance of the government’s civil servants could be seen as clear as day. Indeed, from now on, if you get another of those ministerial replies, which civil servants write and politicians have been trustingly signing for a quarter of a century, remember to look at it in a wholly new light.

When they prattle that, “transsexuality raises complex issues”, you now know what that means. It means, “We haven’t really got a clue what we’re talking about, so we’ll pretend there’s something we know and you don’t understand”.

Make sure your MP knows this. Explain the crass, elementary errors of fact and the lack of research in a paper produced by those entrusted to govern. And then demand better.

Returning to the plot though ...

Once we’d got the paper successfully circulated, we didn’t sit still. Long before the consultation deadline arrived, Press for Change was liasing through several MP’s, led by Dr Lynne Jones, to bring about a meeting with the minister responsible, whom we quickly identified to be Alan Howarth, a Labour minister with the interesting qualification of having worked, till very recently, as a Conservative minister, in the same ministry!

Indeed, we speculated a great deal on whether the entire paper wasn’t something that had been drafted by the previous administration.

The sheer torrent of consistent criticism from all quarters certainly took the ministry by surprise. Less than ten days after the closing date for responses a meeting took place at Westminster, involving the minister himself, Dr Lynne Jones MP, Dr Russell Reid, one of PFC’s Parliamentary Forum representatives and the civil servants who drafted the consultation paper. The meeting was also attended by Frank Cook MP and one of his constituents.

The meeting was very constructive. The civil servants had learned a lot from your educative responses, although the “civil service mind” takes a lot of persuading that the Sex Discrimination Act (which courts can now interpret in the light of P vs S) doesn’t need to be “helped” by adding extra regulations.

Faced with the obligation to fulfil the ruling of the European Court, the government’s advisors still need to understand more about the diversity of trans people’s lives before we will have finally convinced them that legislation is not just bad, but unworkable too. “We know best”, is an article of faith for public servants. Our job, paradoxically, is to make sure that they really do.

Nobody should be in any doubt, however, that the willingness is there to get it right, which is why you really can rest assured that the government is not about to suddenly turn round and enact legislation which would be widely condemned as agressively repressive.

The thing to remember, too, is that the present proposals, if implemented would directly contravene European Law. As published they would, for instance, take away the very protection that “P” herself earned in her landmark case.

Recognising the need to come at the entire issue from another angle the minister therefore very wisely took up our suggestion that the Parliamentary Forum should draft an alternative paper, drawing upon the knowledge and expertise of Press for Change, and the lawyers and medical specialists which the forum has assembled. Press for Change is coordinating this exercise with Dr Lynne Jones.

Our objective is to highlight the real issues which trans people face in employment, and to amplify the argument that if there are any gaps at all in the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) for trans people, then they arise because of the anomalous legal and social status of trans people in the UK.

We were very encouraged to see that the minister understood this point, and the greatest benefit of this entire episode has been to really highlight that fact.

It is a lesson which is now being digested in other ministries as a result, and the minister undertook to have discussions with his cabinet colleagues about the problems their policies create.

One thing we must stress, however, is that negotiation like this takes time and patience.

Personal relationships of trust are being formed. People are having to learn things they never appreciated about the complexity of trans existence, and the real problems people face. Government will take a long time, too, to come up with everything we’re seeking.

Some of it will at first seem ambitious, but that isn’t a reason to back off and ask for less than a better educated mind can appreciate to be reasonable.

You only have to think about the immense shift in public and media perceptions and sympathy for trans people in the last two years to see that if something is right, then you just have to keep putting the message across patiently till others have acquired the sophistication to see what you mean.

And the world is certainly changing whilst the civil servants and politicians run to catch up.

Before the end of June, for instance, the Coronation Street character Hayley Patterson will have returned to our screens as a permanent cast member (whose development we are now actively helping to shape behind the scenes).

Hayley’s return, and “promotion” comes as a result of audience survey work which showed, to many people’s surprise, that she is a very popular character, whom viewers want to get to know some more. Try reconciling that with a government proposal which would, for instance, stop her working as a beautician in the Street’s hair salon.

We do need you to help keep up the pressure in Parliament though.

The effect of several dozen people using their MP’s to object to the DfEE paper has elevated the profile of the campaign immeasurably among MPs, and means that legislators are not just talking about the issues, but understanding that we have a valid and serious case.

By acting en masse you have made people aware that we are an organised body of people, with a well organised and effective campaign behind them.

The fact that almost three hundred people (out of an estimated 5,000 UK transsexual people) answered our call so effectively in a matter of days means that no-one is in any doubt of the Press for Change mandate. When we negotiate with government ministers that is important. Respect for Press for Change translates into respect for your case.

We’d like you to continue to lobby your Member of Parliament, although now it is becoming more important for us to co-ordinate the opportunities created by each contact.

If you plan to visit your MP soon for instance, or if you’ve already been once and feel able to build a constructive relationship further, we’d like you to get in touch with us beforehand.

The reason for doing this is to see if there’s a parliamentary question (PQ) you could get them to table on your behalf. We have a carefully planned stock of PQ’s we’d like answered (like the one which began this report) and getting your MP to commit to this is a very useful way of measuring the real nature of their support. The other advantage of contacting us first is that we can also tell you what other contacts people in your area have made.

As I said before, it is a very long road we are treading, which demands patience and all the professionalism we can muster to reach our target.

Along the way there will be challenges and scares, like the one we’ve just met. At times like that we’ll doubtless turn to the community again, knowing that together we can transform a challenge into an opportunity.

And with each challenge we grow bigger, stronger. We become more self-aware as a community, and more respected and better understood by the people we deal with.

This is a campaign which used to be characterised by a succession of firsts. We’ve won our first case and gone on to win many more. We’ve had our first parliamentary debate. We’ve had our first press conference in the palace of Westminster. We’ve even got our first regular soap character.

Now we look forward to the last’s .. such as the last time we need to repeat very basic education for a civil servant.

We’re not there yet. But with each opportunity to raise our case we move one step closer. And with your help we’ll get there even faster.