Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Review of the Year - 1996


This is the time of year when the media turn out their drawers and rehash their notes to produce reviews of the year just passed.

Rather than recycle 2011, however, I thought it would be much more interesting to dig deep into the archives and see how I viewed things 15 years ago when, as a campaigner for the organisation Press for Change, my colleagues and I were still a full eight years from achieving our primary goal.

The review below appeared on the Press for Change campaign's groundbreaking campaign web site on the evening of December 30th, 1996.

Review of the year

On Friday 27th December 1996 the BBC did something quite extraordinary. Mind you, you'd be forgiven if you missed it ... for it was the very low key nature of the event which made it the more remarkable.

Never an avid television watcher, I must admit that the event wasn't something I'd anticipated either … It was pure chance that I decided to turn on the television in my kitchen to accompany some rather overdue seasonal washing up at 7.30. It was pure coincidence that the set was tuned to BBC2 ... and it was sheer serendipity that meant I caught the name of the presenter of the programme that was just about to begin. Otherwise I suspect I'd have missed the significance of what I was about to see too.

Along with names like April Ashley and Caroline Cossey, Jan Morris is probably one of the best known transsexual names in the world. Her book, Conundrum, first published in 1974, gave the world an intelligently written, even if annoyingly stereotyped, account of what it was like, for her, to be a transsexual woman in the 1960's. An accomplished travel writer and historian, famous first for bringing an on-the-spot account of Edmund Hilary's historic Mount Everest expedition back to the world in 1953, Ms Morris's chintz style of writing isn't everyone's cup of tea. I suspect that it was Jan who gave the world that annoying expression “trapped in the wrong body” too. Mind you, like many who followed in her footsteps, I owe a great deal to her for that book ... the first I read on the subject, and the first opportunity I had, back in 1974, to really begin to understand my own life.

To give credit where it's due though, Jan Morris's most important contribution to transgendered history will be that she has simply got on with her life and treated her condition with a matter-of-factness which invites others to do likewise. As with so many other successful transsexual people, indeed in common with other successfulwomen, the key to her survival has been her very great skill at what she does. And if it's true that a woman has to be far better than a man to get on in this world then it does not take a great deal of imagination to appreciate what it takes for your skills to eclipse the notoriety of being a transsexual woman.

So the remarkable aspect of BBC2's two part personal travelogue, Escaping from Liberty, was not that a transsexual woman was on television ... we've had rather a lot of that this year ... but that it marked, as far as I'm aware, the very first occasion when a transsexual woman was on television to talk about something other than transsexuality.

For Jan Morris's early evening two-part television programme was very firmly in the mainstream. In it she traced the well worn road of so many other travelled writers before her. She was visiting the places that were important and interesting to her ... ticking off the list of places with important associations. And that list did not includeCasablanca!

It was, for me, the cherry on the cake. The summit of a remarkable year. A reflection that transsexuality is coming to rest in the nation's psyche as something that can now be dismissed in a single sentence explaining, out of necessity, how the programme's presenter came to visit Trieste as a 19 year old “Tommy” during the Second World War. It represents the subtle recognition that maybe, at long last, a change of gender is no more of a liability on one's CV than a tonsillectomy.

.. And it set me thinking how far we've come as a campaign in one astonishing year.

A year to remember

When the history comes to be written then I'm sure that 1969 will undoubtedly be recognised as the year when it all started to go horribly wrong for transsexual people in the United Kingdom. Maybe, however, 1996 will go down as the year when, at last, the tide began to turn the other way too.

Many of the foundations were laid before that, of course. Indeed, Press for Change and its' associates had been preparing the ground actively for four years before 1996 even began, and that was on the foundations laid by brave individuals like Mark Rees and Caroline Cossey who had gone before. The flavour for the campaign in 1996 was set, however, by the European Court of Justice hearing of the P vs S and Cornwall County Council case in the autumn of 1995, the proactive appearance of many activists in public at the Conservative and Labour Party conferences that year, and then ... the jewel in the crown ... the opportunity, just before Christmas, for Alex Carlile MP to present a private members bill to parliament in the new year.

It was like a double Christmas present. In the space of one heady week we heard the preliminary recommendation by Advocate Tesauro ... that `P' had been illegally discriminated against under the Treaty of Rome and then the next day, on December 15th, came the announcement that the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman, Alex Carlile QC MP, was to use his (ninth) place in the ballot for private members' bills to present a piece of legislation to eliminate the problems endured by British transsexuals.

It certainly was an exciting time. In the space of a few months we'd gone from nowhere as a campaign, talking furtively to journalists we barely trusted, to ringing them up and demanding coverage. Chasing ... Cajoling ... Educating. And, less publicly for some of us, sitting down in a corner now and then to cry in sheer relief at the sense that a lifelong burden was at last being shifted ... if only slightly. On December 31st of that year, in fact, I wrote to my colleague, Stephen Whittle :

…But the tide is turning, Stephen, don't you think? Maybe we're in that moment of stillness when the waters have stopped flowing one way, and have not yet begun to rush in the other .. but the boats are ready, and maybe this is our tide. May 1996 bring health, wealth and happiness to you and your family. And may it be OUR year too.

It's hard though, even just twelve months on, to fully take in the sense of excitement that gripped us in January as we started the year. Suddenly we had an enormous task on our hands ... to get our message across to sufficient MPs, in all parties, to put some support behind Alex's bill.

Encouraging people who are accustomed to keeping their heads down to actually go out and see their own MP, or even just write to them, is not an easy task ... and yet in the end hundreds did so. Some even went further… One partner of a transsexual woman personally mailed the entire parliamentary Labour party herself ... signing each letter, and addressing every one of the 300-or-so envelopes by hand. Many others spent late nights on smaller, but no less impressive, personal mailshots too.

It was, in the words of one MP, “the most impressive lobby of its' kind that I've seen in 25 years”. Looking back though, I'm less surprised ... more inclined to visualise the scene when word goes round the prison that there's a crack in the outer wall…

Meanwhile the combined effect of a favourable court recommendation and the kudos of a parliamentary bill (even a bill doomed to failure from the start) was having a long awaited effect on the minds of folk in the media.

Dec 14th 1995 Advocate General Tesauro of the European Court of Justice recommends a favourable outcome in the case of P vs S and Cornwall County Council
Dec 15th 1995 Alex Carlile QC., MP wins ninth place in the ballot for Private Members' Bills and announces that he'll use the opportunity to promote a bill giving full legal rights back to transsexual people.
Jan 1st 1996 A new web site begins, dedicated to supporting the objectives of Press for Change by charting news of the campaign and distributing educational resources to campaigners and journalists alike.
Late Jan Sonia Carmichael, a pre-operative transsexual woman from Manchester, takes her employers to court on her own for wrongful dismissal ... first evidence that transsexual people across the country are suddenly prepared to stand up and be counted.
Late Jan The European Commission on Human Rights decides that there is a case to be heard concerning the claim by a transsexual man to be recognised as father to the children of his partner (conceived by donor insemination). A hearing is promised for the autumn. Broader human rights cases by two transsexual women are admitted too.
Late Jan The Parliamentary Forum on Transsexualism updates and reprints “Transsexualism : The Medical Viewpoint”, incorporating significant new research published in Nature.

With the best will in the world it was hard to get many mainstream journalists to think very far beyond the agenda set by the headline writers little more than a year ago. Brought up on a diet that cast transsexual people as perverts, attention seekers, outlaws of gender discourse (or just plain misguided) it was an uphill struggle to get some writers to think beyond their first stereotyped paragraph, which you could usually write for them in advance…

Strapping worker David stunned colleagues when he sashayed into the office on stilettos and announced: "Don't call me David - call me Jane." The gender bender who deals with [his employer's] most sensitive cases has caused a storm with his sex swop. Six-footer David, who dresses in sharp career woman suits, is already growing breasts, has softened his voice and learned to flutter his eyelashes….

(Sunday People feature, July 1996. Names changed out of respect for the victim)

The idea that there were real people driven to slit real wrists behind this appalling facade was lost on even the more intelligent and thoughtful writers though. And those who did sit still long enough to listen to the catalogue of real issues which we wanted to bring to public attention were just as likely to come back later with their unpublished pride and joy, having been told by their editor or producer that “we did something on transsexuals six months ago ... it's too soon to do another”. Could you imagine that form of self censorship with any other minority issue?

So if the courts and parliamentary legitimisation didn't necessarily achieve direct successes at the start of the year, the one thing they did do was to make transsexual issues a debatable topic all of a sudden.

Jan 31st A PFC activist appears on Channel 4's “The Slot” in a five minute film explaining the true extent to which she is marginalised and discriminated against.
Early Feb Regional television covers the run up to the Carlile bill. A first opportunity for PFC activists to say their piece to an early evening audience. Television journalists admit to being stunned by how wrong their own preconceptions had been. PFC activists appear in print too.
Feb 1st Woman's Hour presents a piece about a teenage transsexual girl and her family.
Feb 2nd The Alex Carlile bill has its' second reading in the House of Commons. It is pointed out that the bill is being read 26 years to the day after the Ormrod summing-up in the April Ashley case. The bill runs out of time, as expected, but it has served its' purpose well.
Feb 6th Channel Four shows the first of a two part documentary about young transsexual boys. (The Decision, by Oliver Morse, has been two years in research and production and is widely acclaimed. The media “discover” transsexual men for the first time and gender dysphoria is seen in a non erotic light because the films are about the feelings of children).
Feb 19th The Kilroy programme revisits transsexual issues.

As the activity began to die down in late February, however, our sights turned once more to applying legal pressure on the establishment and making appointments to speak to groups who had suddenly discovered our existence after all this time.

Mar 6th A Judicial review examines the cases of two transsexual women (P and G) against the registrar general, for the refusal by the (then) Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys to alter their birth certificates. The case is the first of its kind to be awarded legal aid.
March 31st A distinguished surgeon, senior enough to have worked on the Queen Mother's hip replacement, goes public when faced with blackmail threats about his treatment for gender dysphoria. William (now Sarah) Muirhead-Allwood gets a relatively good press in some broadsheets and attention is focused on the behaviour of the Sunday tabloid involved in the story.
Early April Press for Change encourages all transsexual people to apply at once for their birth certificates to be altered in the light of new scientific findings, and reflecting a possible opportunity created by the judgement in the unsuccessful Judicial review. The OPCS ends up dedicating an official, full time, to systematically reject the applications.
April 30th The event of the year. The European Court of Justice confirms the Advocate General's December recommendation, that `P' was discriminated on the grounds of sex when dismissed by her manager `S' and employers Cornwall County Council. Another brief media flutter ensues, although there is little to report ... for `P' remains `P', an anonymous icon immune from caricature.
Early May Even less well publicised, another English employment tribunal considers whether the P vs S ruling applies beyond so-called emanations of the state, to private employers too. The court decides in the case of `N' that the ruling does apply, but the employers vow to appeal.

If P vs S had one lasting effect, apart from the obvious, then it was to further reinforce the message to thousands of hidden transsexuals in the community that it was now possible to go for it. To seek compensation for the crude and extraordinary treatment they'd endured at the hands of employers and the people whom you might have expected to know better ... their doctors and health authorities.

We'd always known that the majority of health authorities had a poor record of care in terms of transsexuals. Research conducted for the Parliamentary Forum on Transsexualism confirmed that impression. What was more astonishing, however, was the lengths that authorities were prepared to go to in order to circumvent actions threatened by people who were denied basic therapeutic assessment, let alone hormonal and surgical treatment. Once informed of their legal obligation to treat transsexual people within the NHS, the trusts then seemingly went out of their way to concoct regimes that could only be designed to inflict as much delay and anguish as possible upon the patients ... and this remains an area to be tackled. New rules have thrown out previous treatment and assessment records and put patients in some authorities to the back of the queue at the one grossly overloaded centre which is entrusted with the work ... at Charing Cross Hospital in London. Those actually reaching the end of the assessment process, too, then find an unwillingness to fund their surgery ... or that surgery is scheduled and then, for no reason, cancelled days beforehand.

As one observer commented..

These are people who, through hormone treatment, have long since stopped looking like a member of their natal sex ... and who have taken work leave and endured the effects of coming off that hormone regime in preparation for surgery. They are, literally, in a state of limbo. Neither able to function as one sex or the other. To cancel their surgery just hours beforehand, when the surgeon is free and beds are free, is hard to credit.

Some of the attitudes which inform this type of behaviour became apparent to us, however, as May and June became the time for leaks and reports…

Early May Press for Change obtains and publishes a health authority report recommending a regime of assessment and treatment. Few transsexuals recognise the creatures which the report describes, but it is progress at least.
- A fitter in the RAF takes the government to court for wrongful dismissal after being diagnosed as transsexual.
- The Gender and Sexuality Alliance (G&SA) submits a report to HM Prison Service for a review on the treatment of transsexual prisoners. The report highlights cruel and exceptional treatment, and a system biased against any attempts to rehabilitate transsexual inmates. Tales of sexual abuse emerge ... and a blackmail case involving Harrods illustrates very clearly that transsexual offenders can expect disproportionately punitive treatment in court.
- The press gets concerned about alleged levels of oestrogen-like chemicals in baby milk formula. The talk is about fertility effects. Nobody wants to discuss the far more serious possibilities on brain development from pre and post natal environmental oestrogens and anti-androgens ... and the world that awaits those we may be poisoning.
- The Daily Mail reports on a leaked document from the Cabinet Office concerning transsexual rights issues, and passes it to press for Change for comment. The Home Secretary angrily refutes any suggestion that a review should be led by his department.
May 22nd Rights of another kind hit the press, and the Gay rights movement in the United States shifts into a new gear ... this time with long overdue recognition of the benefits to be had from uniting with transgendered groups out of common interest. The Romer vs Evans ruling is the first shot of many, striking down Colorado state attempts to reverse anti-discrimination laws. People are talking about same sex marriages so loudly that they fail to realise that transgendered Americans have been enjoying them for years.
June The G & SA reports depressing research that the majority of Rape Crisis Centres have policies excluding transsexual women ... and the attitude of women's groups in general towards transsexuals of both sexes becomes an issue for debate as PFC activists take up invitations to speak at Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay events. The good news is that people prove ready to listen, to learn, and to revise their opinions.
- Press for Change publishes research into the case of Ewan Forbes-Semphill, a story almost completely erased from the public records in 1967, and which was mysteriously passed-over in the Corbett vs Corbett case that followed two years later. Conspiracy theories abound.

The depressing aspect to July was that even as we finally started to think that we'd actually made headway in eliminating ignorant attitudes from other minorities towards the transgendered, some transsexual people were standing up to prove the depressing fact that small mindedness and fear are universal human traits. In Press for Change we started to get angry and condemnatory letters demanding to know why we were taking part in the Pride 96 march .. and why, indeed, it was now known as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered pride! Some, it seems, thought they'd achieved integration and acceptance in their communities by showing that they were just as capable as them at being bigoted. Mercifully, however, the letters pages in journals on all sides were to show that the bigots are well outnumbered ... and London's Pridewas judged a great success all round.

As summer took us nearer and nearer to the silly season though, and as we anticipated another flurry of legal activity, the more important question was whether we were now building on solid journalistic and legal foundations, or not.

July Radio Four's Today programme displays a sudden penchant for transgendered stories ... first with a feature (completely out of the blue) about Chinese Lesbians and Gays having sex reassignment surgery in desperate attempts to legalise their lifestyles and relationships ... and then with the news that the Japanese government was at last debating whether to legalise surgery. The subtext in the Chinese report is that homosexuality and transsexuality are two very different things and there is some irony in the observation that China regards the latter as a quite legitimate medical necessity and the former as an abhorrence. The conditions aren't exclusively western phenomena ... merely our peculiar regard for them.
July 6th Press for Change leads a contingent of twenty-or-so rather ordinary looking transgendered people near the head of the Pride 96 procession in London.
July 17th A transsexual man appeals against the nullification of his marriage after 17 years, in a case which demonstrates that the judges are now treading far more carefully. There appears to be a desire to embrace what is happening elsewhere in the world (New Zealand in particular), and to reflect the implications of the work published in Nature. Lord Justice Ward, announcing a deferral on the decision, says "We are aware of the growing body of medical and international opinion that this court will ignore at its peril".
August Channel Four screens a series entitled Dark Secrets. Entire half hour programs explore the taboo topics of incomplete or hermaphroditic genital formation and the condition known as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome ... the condition that produces women who are chromosomally male. The last program in the series, dealing with transsexual men, is a huge disappointment though.
- Channel Four also screens the film Thanks a Bunch Mr Ormerod by Pamela Jane Hunt, one of a few television producers who happens to be a transsexual woman. The programme, with its' unusual imagery, has mixed reviews from both the press and the transsexual community.
Aug 27th The XYZ case finally opens in the European Court of Human Rights and provides a new excuse for a round of news pieces and media appearances. The Daily Mail names PFC's Dr Stephen Whittle as the plaintiff, and Stephen shows a lot of style as a personality-in-the-making, with an appearance on Radio Four's Midweek establishing him, above all, as a likeable and essentially rather ordinary Father concerned for the welfare of his children.
Sep 3rd And, not to be outdone, a new producer in the Kilroy camp, decides that it's time for a third look at transsexuality ... in what turns out to be a far-from-civilised debate.

In a far less glamorous vein, September was a busy time for some PFC activists, preparing to take stall space at University Freshers' week events up and down the country. For, all of a sudden, both the academic world and student lesbian and gay groups had noticed a whole new topic for discussion. Over in the United States things seemed to be hotting up too ... and we hoped to follow through on the XYZ case with a compensation hearing for `P'.

Early Sep The United States panics when faced with the back-door legalisation of same sex marriages and rushes in the Defence of Marriage Act (DoMA). It is a long awaited opportunity for US transgender activists to claw their way to the centre of the fight back ... pointing out that the new law threatens, uniquely, to unmarry countless Americans who've had legal gender changes but whose partners stuck faithfully to their marriage vows. It's an opportunity, too, to argue for transgender inclusion in the anti-discrimination legislation, ENDA ... for, whilst UK transsexuals have won employment protection and struggle for legal recognition, Americans face the opposite problem.
- The final chapter of P vs S and Cornwall County Council should have been her return to the Truro employment tribunal, where she had begun, to seek damages for the unlawful termination of her employment. A five figure sum is expected eventually. In the event, the day came and went, as her former manager and employers sought a deferral of the hearing, “to give them more time.” And it now seems that we'll have to wait till later in 1997 for an outcome.

In some ways we can look back now and see that the Conservative and Labour Party conference fringe events, organised by PFC for the first time in October 1995, were something of a watershed. The previous year, at the Liberal Democrat conference, a similar event had been feasted upon greedily by the press. It was treated as a great laugh. In October 1995 the press turned up at the Labour party event expecting something similar ... and left somewhat disappointed. They didn't get what they wanted, and they weren't ready to print what we wanted. By the next week, at the Conservative Party Conference we were relying on favours from broadcasters we knew to even get a presence. The success of those events lay, in fact, not in the coverage ... and certainly not in the paltry turnout of an audience ... but in the message conveyed by the disinterest. Transsexuals were becoming safe for politicians to associate with. We were therefore rather unsure what to expect out of going back to the conference fringe this year and, in the event, decided at the last moment to give the Conservatives up as a lost cause for the moment, and concentrate our efforts on the Labour fringe instead. It was also a month for broadening the range of issues we are fighting. October, in fact, became a month for consolidation.

Oct 3rd Press for Change holds a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference. The press stay away this year, but their places are taken by a much bigger audience of politicians and activists, deeply moved as one of the transsexual speakers dissolves into tears. People confess astonishment : they still weren't aware of the petty and not-so-petty realities endured by transsexual people. Several new speaking invitations are issued ... and delegates go away to tell their colleagues what they missed.
Oct 7th A transsexual woman takes West Midlands Police to court for wrongful dismissal after they had changed their minds about employing her in the middle of her training. They were worried about conflicts between her legal status and the rules governing the sex of officers carrying out body searches on suspects ... and solved the problem by dismissing her.
- Back on the less glamorous side of campaign work, another PFC activist has been taking on a life insurance company ... using the weight of medical and legal opinion built up over the year to make the case that there is no reason why they should not treat her as a woman, and so eliminate the breaches of privacy she would otherwise have to endure when dealing with them in the future. That just leaves health insurance, motor cover and pensions to fight over.
- Other activists reported successes too in getting unions and employers to formulate transgender-inclusive equal opportunities policies ... in an area where it has often been wrongly assumed that a policy covering sexuality is sufficient. (It isn't).
Oct 28th And just to round off the month we are treated to the rather overdue decision that a transsexual woman can at last, in the eyes of the law, be a rape victim. The ruling by Mr Justice Hooper in Reading Crown court is the more remarkable as it has taken over two years since male rape was recognised, for the law to be extended in this way to transsexual women too. The decision was barely reported, and almost twenty seven years of sexual violence and intimidation mandated by another consequence of the Corbett v Corbett decision are now, presumably, to be swept under the carpet and forgotten. In some respects, at least, rapists have always displayed far better manners than lawyers ... ready to treat transsexual women as women regardless.

It wasn't all positive news as the year drew towards a close. In November, the man appealing against the annulment of his marriage lost ... although as his solicitor said afterwards :

“We lost [the case] but on the facts, rather than on the laws. There was clear indication from the judges that they believe that Corbett needs revisiting, and perhaps an analysis of the law should take into account the concept of gender rather than sex. They said that the New Zealand case and the jurisprudence from the US could not lightly be dismissed and in those cases it was said that once a transsexual has undergone treatment, and the other party is aware of their condition, then there is no legal impediment to marriage.”

We started November with a very tangible piece of recognition though ... as Press for Change found itself shortlisted in the nominations for Campaign of the Year in the British Social Services Media Awards, run by Jewish Care. We didn't win, but the breakfast reception in London's Berkeley Square were an opportunity for networking, and for reflecting that a few years ago we wouldn't have even been considered.

In December too we learned that Channel Four Television are now planning an entire season of programmes about transsexuality for the Spring of 1997 ... an opportunity to rerun programmes made in the past and, perhaps, add something new to gradually developing public sophistication and awareness too.

So, as I witnessed last week, maybe we'll see more transsexual people taking a part in television programmes about something other than their transsexuality. Or ... perhaps more accurately ... those of us in the know will see them and it won't be the tabloids' public duty to warn the rest. A well known Liberal Democrat councillor from Tonbridge may be able to advance his political career further. A talented magician may advance her broadcasting career. A surgeon may go on doing what she has been trained to do ... and airline pilots, solicitors, lawyers and the rest may just get on and do the jobs they're good at. It would be nice to think that 1997 might be the year, too, when 5,000 Britons recover the right to marry and participate in family life like anyone else ... but then perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. After all, it's taken 27 years to reach this point. It would be a major advance just to enable transsexual people to die with dignity .. with a death certificate which records their death, rather than the death of a person who never was. The idea that we might officially recognise the birth ritual of the real person might take a bit longer.

What cannot be denied, however, is that we approach 1997 in a very different position to the one we were in just one year ago ... and light years from the status we endured just five years before that.

It's not time yet to congratulate ourselves. Being transsexual is still a serious issue. The fear and ignorance cultivated by almost seventy years of institutional misrepresentation cannot be erased from society's programming overnight. That will take decades, although official recognition can accelerate the process. By gradually taking the fear and stigma out of transsexuality, however, we pave the way towards that future and ensure that the eventual establishment of a mechanism to recognise the correction of an individual's status is a courtesy, rather than a concession.

And a world that's capable of respecting an individual's right to accept and accommodate such a fundamental aspect of the way in which they relate to others, might just be a better world for everyone else too.

Happy new year. May it be a liberating one for you too.

Christine Burns
December 30th, 1996