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.


Anonymous said...

You definitely deserved to be on that list for legitimate reasons, but it sucks that it was done in such a 'tokenising' fashion. Either Jan Morris or Roz Kaveney should've been on the list with you.

Zoe O'Connell said...

I'm waiting for the rush of "How could you possibly not include so-and-so!" comments!

(Oh, and Juliet Jacques was long-listed for the Orwell Prize. Being merely "nominated" isn't much of an accolade given it's self-nomination!)

Harri Weeks said...

Hi Christine,
I think this a really great post, I hope the compilers of these lists see it and it makes them think.
However, I'm sure I'm not the only one who's a little disappointed that almost 85% of your list is transwomen.
Of course you can't please everyone, and all those listed do very much deserve it, but there are many other trans people doing both public and behind-the-scenes work which is worth highlighting. The lack of visability or recognition afforded to trans men (and to an even greater extent, trans people who do not fit the binary) has, in the opinion of many people I know, the effect of making active involvement in the work of the community harder, as it seems focussed on a different set of issues, and because like attracts like.
I wouldn't presume to think I could create an exhaustive list of influential transmen, and would have to defer to outhers as to whether I should be included, but I was very surprised by the ommission of Jason Barker, Serge Nicholson, Jay Stewart, Fionn Greig, Ben Gooch, Lee Gale and Jay McNeil, for a start.

Harri C Weeks said...

I'll reply properly to explain why people are awesome soon or tomorrow, but just a quick heads-up:
My name's Harri Weeks, Cole is my middle name, which I tend to include most of the time, but harri_cole is just my handle on twitter etc...

Christine Burns MBE said...

(Reposted to remove a name from the list by request)

I couldn't agree with you more about the trans men Harri, and I'm sorry if (in subbing down a longer list) I carelessly lost the gender balance that I was originally aiming for.

I've pasted the whole list of names that people suggested below. The reason why I didn't refer to them all in the article was because I realised that I couldn't do justice to describing them all. There was therefore a risk of me doing exactly the same as I am 'chastising' Time Out for.

What would be really interesting would be if people could use the comments below to expand on the reasons why these people are notable (or up and coming talents to watch). Any other omissions are down to my own inability to keep up in a rapidly burgeoning field of more and more fabulous people.

Anyway, here's the full list of the names people put forward:

Christina Alley
Louis Bailey
Jason Elvis Barker
Bethany Black
Sarah Brown
Harri Cole
Zoe O'Connell
Kate Craig-Wood
Random Dent
Paula Dooley
Alex Drummond
Christie Elan-Kane
Jane Fae
Lee Gale
Ben Gooch
Linda Harper
Tessa Hawke
Juliet Jacques
Roz Kaveney
Natacha Kennedy
Jennie Kermode
Sarah Lake
Paris Lees
CN Lester
Jay McNeil
Cheryl Morgan
James Morton
Serge Nicholson
Ruth Pearce
Emma Roebuck
Jay Stewart
Ash Surrey
Melissa Symes
MA Tovey

Martha said...

from Martha Dunkley,

this is such a brilliant list and well done Christine for compiling it (and adding Harri Cole Weeks).

May I suggest some more lovely people who work so hard almost all voluntary and with no thought of public notice:

Michelle Ross (Terence Higgins Trust)
Joe Swift (FtM London and UKLGIG)
Michelle Bridgeman (Gender Trust AKA Trans standup Shelley Cooper)
Valentino ~lastName~ (FtM London)
Persia West (A Place at the Table)
Sue Louise (FtM London SOFFAs)

(will send Valentino's last name when he replied to my msg)

Nat Titman said...

Thanks for compiling this list, the names I'd suggest are already included.

I'm very glad to see the names of visible non-binary/genderqueer people on the full list. I hope that in a year from now the work that Practical Androgyny and Think Outside The Box have planned will have added a few more.

Paul Head, Out2Train said...

I'm happy that I played my role in all this and reflect on the way that many who are alert to the lack of balance are often also overlooked. The individuals who place information in the hands of people like yourself, Christine, do so to help the recognition of the invisibility of many by calling attention to the few. You have, as ever, written so well and so cogently in a way that makes me feel pleased to have been of help.

It also makes me wonder if there is a need or use for the kind of list you have generated being given some prestige and notoriety? An 'Oscar' or 'Bafta' or '?' I can hear the roar of complaints already!

While I might be accused of making mischief, I am trying to suggest that having one's own list would work to benefit the overall community, providing a resource full of inspiration and encouragement. As to what to call it...well my suggestion would be...


Christine Burns MBE said...

Thanks Paul. I didn't consider for a moment that you were "making mischief" in drawing my attention to the Time Out list. And, to give them credit, I have discovered subsequently the the creators did try to tweet those featured with a link to the list, although for some reason the tweet to me didn't appear in my feed (I've no idea why).

You raise an interesting question. A list just for trans people? That wasn't something I was trying to do in listing people above ... and I suspect people might look on that as an approach which would divert from the main problem...

Time Out's list purports to be an LGBT list. Therefore the issue at hand is whether T (and B) are adequately represented in that field. If it was suggested, for instance, that there should be a separate Lesbian list then I suspect there would be uproar.

So, I think it is important that a discussion should not distract people away from that issue.

Whether or not someone would want to produce a separarate (complementary) list of notable trans people every year should remain a separate question, which the trans community might want to consider once the fundamental question of wider community inclusion and balance has been addressed.

Martha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martha said...

three more

Pietà Schofield (Transtay)
Denise Anderson (Spectrum London etc)
Nic Douglas

Anonymous said...

Paige Reeves
Martha TGO

Martha said...

Valentino Vecchietti (chair FtM London, technical advisor for Hollyoaks FtM character and much else)

Anonymous said...

...just to clarify why these people should be included - a description to accompany their name (apologies if incorrect). More information about these people can be found by "Google-ing" their names (probably)

Paige Reeves (Trans Suicide Watch)
Ash Surrey (Singer)
Martha TGO (Trans London)
M A Tovey (Musician)
Linda Harper (Chair N.T.P.A.)
Random Dent (Musician)

Cheryl said...

Hi Christine,

Many thanks for the mention, and my sympathy regarding the unfortunate side-effects of winning awards. I've seen that in a very small way. I can see that it must be so much worse if you get an MBE.

As regards such lists, it occurs to me that the primary reason that newspapers publish them is to generate controversy over who is/isn't included. If they can manage to ignore a vociferous minority, so much the better. We shouldn't be surprised this happens.

Also we live in a class- and celebrity-obsessed society. Who is "in" and who isn't appears to grip the public imagination like nothing else. So yes, people with an axe to grid will seek to "disappear" groups they don't approve of.

The question I'm asking myself is, can these lists actually benefit us, and if not what might do better?

It seems to me that the primary advantage of such a list for the trans community is to provide role models, to reassure people contemplating transition that it won't destroy their lives. It is great for people to be able to follow Juliet's journey through the process in The Guardian, and to see young people like Paris and CN getting famous, but equally I think they need to hear from those of us who are many years post-transition and who still have jobs, friends, family and fulfilling lives. Appearance in a celebrity list gives a hint of that, but only a hint.

The podcast interviews that you have done are a great example of the sort of thing I think we need. Ethan St.Pierre does a great job over in the US as well. I'd like to see more of that sort of thing, and ideally it getting wider publicity so that the general public can also see trans people having successful lives. That might help dispel the "tragic trans person" myth.

Christine Burns MBE said...

Hi @Cheryl,

I agree with you on the point about showcasing role models to a degree, although arguably that is better done in a non-hierarchic fashion via other kinds of site .. a bit like Lynn Conway's Trans Successes pages, but without her tendency to have privileged looks and passing.

As for the Podcasts, my intention when I began the Press for Change Podcasts back in 2005 was to enable real trans people to be heard discussing real trans subjects, in a way that we were never at that time hearing in the mainstream media. It mirrored my motivations in beginning to write about issues so extensively more than a decade before.

Now we have several very visible trans people writing in the mainstream media, so that is beginning to change, as discussed here by Juliet Jacques. However, film, radio and TV have more catching up to do, so I agree on the desirability of more podcast audio and video material presenting trans people talking and doing things just as anyone else would be featured.

Having said that we have to be realistic about the role model value though. Bearing in mind that blogs and podcasts are global media, the audience figures are disappointing.

The most popular of my Just Plain Sense Podcasts, with well known names, tend to have topped out at around 1100-1200 downloads, which suggests there are barriers, or maybe newcomers aren't making the connection.

Some of that is because only a handful of people help to publicise that they're there. However, I also suspect that the 'role model' value only really kicks in when young trans people are seeing those people on the mainstream media. Being featured by me on a small niche platform doesn't cut it in terms of the message you're looking for.

However, if any people want to help ensure those kinds of interviews are getting heard more then I can certainly facilitate making that easy to do by consolidating all the trans podcasts in a single blog.

Cheryl said...

Hi Christine:

Absolutely with you on the non-hierarchical, and absolutely with you on the need for wider publicity as well.

There was some talk on Twitter of a plan for a trans lifestyle magazine along similar lines to Diva. That would be a great place to do interviews, and advertise podcasts. But of course such things need someone to invest, and lots of hard work to make the commercially viable, which as I am finding out is very hard right now.

I'd like to think someone could create a national, or even international, media resource for trans people. Then I read the latest round of posts about terminology wars and weep in despair.

Christine Burns MBE said...

Although not bidding for the national / international resource spot I thought you'd like to know that your suggestions @Cheryl have prompted me to assemble all the podcast shows on trans topics in one place.

I give you .... The Trans Tapes

Cheryl said...

Great job, thanks!

Val Smith said...

Your totally on point..Good job!

~Me and Adam are so proud of you ;)

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