‘Overt and Unchallenged’ Part I – What Needs to Happen before Governments can Address Transphobic Prejudice

In January 2016, the report was published of the first ever enquiry into transgender discrimination by a UK parliamentary committee.  In an interview with The Independent newspaper about the report, the chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, Maria Miller (MP), said, “Transgender people are today suffering the kind of discrimination that was faced by gays and lesbians decades ago…  They are the last group of people in our society who endure overt and unchallenged prejudice and we need urgent root-and-branch reform of our public services to tackle it.”  Maria Miller’s report covers many aspects of British social and institutional life, including marriage, sport, prisons, schools, the health-service, and the way gender is construed and defined by equalities legislation and in the information the UK government collects about its citizens.  The report’s recommendations can be placed into sixteen general categories, and to implement them all will be a tall order.  The existence of the political will to make this happen (and to commit public funds to it) will depend, I believe, on three connected factors.  First: that the transgender community can convincingly portray itself as a significant minority (rather than as a crackpot clique of fetishists who aren’t quite sure which wardrobe to dress from in the morning).  Second: that people can be educated to care about the systemic biases in law, employment, education and healthcare that disadvantage transgender people, and about the freedom key gatekeepers in those institutions have to enact their personal prejudices. Third: that the belief can be promulgated that real and avoidable damage is done to the lives of transgender people by these biases, and that the perpetuation of transphobia is detrimental to the moral and spiritual condition of the society in which it occurs.

 

The most radical aspect of the report on transgender discrimination by the Women and Equalities Select Committee is its foregrounding of the role played by language in shaping social attitudes.  Too many eminent psychologists, sociologists and poets have described the link between language, thought and cultural practice as dialectic, interdependent and complementary for me to be able to claim that assertion as my own (Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu spring immediately to mind, along with Noam Chomsky, Émile Durkheim, Norman Fairclough, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Alexander Luria, Stephen Pinker and Lev Vygotsky):  the norms and values of a community are negotiated and crystallised through social interaction; these norms then influence the formation and application of the language used by members of that community; and continued use of that language embeds the community’s values and assumptions, and ensures they are passed on to subsequent generations.

To solve the problem of transgender discrimination, the Transgender Equality report does not offer gimmicky initiatives, or propose layers of bureaucratic monitoring and the establishment of focus-groups and think-tanks.  Instead, the committee insists that the language with which legal and medical edifices in our society conceptualise and delineate gender needs to change in order to alter public perceptions of transgender people.  This recognition that the pruriently physiological and diagnostic language used to define and describe transsexuals is responsible for the fear and confusion that underpins transphobia is hugely significant, and three of the report’s sixteen recommendations refer specifically to the transformative power of dragging the transgender lexicon into the twenty-first century:

  1. A more broadminded (and, therefore, non-binary) definition of ‘gender’ must be used in the collection of demographic information, and for the description of UK citizens on official documents (such as passports);
  2. The terminology used in the 2004 Gender Recognition Act must be up-dated, so that medicalised and anachronistic conceptions of transgenderism (which construe it as pathological, or related to mental-health) are replaced with language predicated on the assumption that transgender people have the right to autonomy of self-identification;
  3. Likewise, the terminology of the 2010 Equality Act must change to reduce the reliance for legal matters on labels derived from surgical procedures – like ‘gender reassignment’ and ‘transsexual’ – to determine gender nonconformity.

When the language we use to describe a phenomenon changes, it becomes possible for the way we think and behave in relation to that phenomenon to change as well.  There are influential people in society who attempt to describe transgender people using language that assumes deficiency of character and deviation from collective norms.  That language needs to change, and, when it does, and labels are abandoned that are rooted in surgical procedures (like ‘transsexual’), or redolent of sexual confusion (like ‘dysphoric’), three things can happen: people are able to discover that no two transgender individuals are alike; gender nonconformity can be understood as occurring on a rich and varied spectrum; and transgender people can be humanised and empowered to the extent necessary for society generally to care about – and empathise with – their plight.

Semantic and conceptual change, therefore, are necessary conditions for the implementation of the other recommendations contained in the report of the Women and Equalities Select Committee:

  1. Greater commitment from the UK government to delivering on the promises of its own 2011 action plan, ‘Advancing Transgender Equality’;
  2. Removal of the need for spousal consent for a legal change of gender when one person in a marriage seeks to undergo gender transition;
  3. Lowering of the legal age at which people can apply for gender recognition to 16;
  4. Protection for transgender people from having their gender history made public during court proceedings;
  5. Removal of unnecessary demands placed on transgender people to use separate facilities (such as toilets) in the workplace;
  6. The imposition of requirements on sporting organisations (such as university clubs) to reassess any gendered rules in their constitutions relating to participants’ access to non-competitive sporting activities;
  7. Strengthening of the existing hate-crime legislation to ensure it protects transgender people – and improved training for the people who enforce it;
  8. The provision of appropriate prison and probation for transgender offenders;
  9. Greater regulation of the way transgender people are portrayed in the media and on-line;
  10. The inclusion of transgender issues on the school curriculum; improved support for transgender pupils (and their parents) at school and by social workers; and improved gender-awareness training for further-education providers.
Lost Ark Frame
Always a high legislative priority for the UK government, their December 2011 publication, ‘Advancing Transgender Equality: A Plan for Action’ (which everyone has heard of), is kept immediately to hand so it can be enacted on a moment’s notice

Maria Miller’s review of transgender equality reserves its severest criticism for the provision of healthcare for transgender people in the United Kingdom.  Paragraph 25 of the committee’s conclusions states, “We have found that the NHS is letting down trans people, with too much evidence of an approach that can be said to be discriminatory and in breach of the Equality Act”.  Accordingly, the report calls for:

  1. Greater regulation of doctors to reduce the biased treatment of transgender people (and to prevent doctors refusing to support transgender patients at all);
  2. An end to the association of transgenderism with psychological disorder that is encouraged by the inclusion of transgender services under the mental-health umbrella;
  3. General expansion of the capacity of the NHS for supporting transgender people, and wholesale improvement in the quality of treatment it provides (including at the Tavistock Clinic for gender-variant children and adolescents).

Why should anyone care about transphobic prejudice?

Exact statistics regarding the size of the transgender population are not easy to come by.  A Home Office report in 2000 approximated that there were up to 2,000 male-to-female, and 400 female-to-male, transsexuals living in the UK.  An estimate published by the transgender pressure group, Press for Change, said in 2014 that the total number was more likely to be nearer 5,000.  In 2011, the Gender Identity Research and Education Society calculated that around 650,000 people in the UK (about 1% of the population) “experience some degree of gender nonconformity”.

In 2011, a paper published by the University of California’s Williams Institute estimated that 700,000 adults in the US identified as transgender (which constitutes around 0.3% of the population as a whole).  Between 1936 (when the Social Security Administration was founded) and June 2015, 135,367 Americans were recorded as having changed their name for one of the gender they were not assigned at birth.

It seems petty and ridiculous to expect people to care about the plight of a minority group when precise data about the size of that group is not available (nor when it is not being systematically collected).  In order to believe that the campaign for transgender equality is worthy of media attention, legislative time, and public funding, you have to agree that 1% of the UK population – or 700,000 people in the case of America – constitutes a significant minority.  Additionally, you have to subscribe to the view that society has a duty to protect all its members, and think that a society that knowingly allows any group within it to suffer – no matter how small that group may be – is a society that is failing.

Drag Race Frame
The cast of RuPaul’s ‘Drag Race’ do their bit to promote tolerance and respect for the transgender community by dispelling the myth that gender nonconformity is in some way fetishistic or sexualised

Perhaps the intellectual leap necessary for cisgender people to feel a measure of empathy with gender nonconformists can be made by considering the extent to which transgender people are statistically more likely than the general population to be the victims of unemployment, poverty and depression.  In 2011, the US National Centre for Transgender Equality published the findings of its National Transgender Discrimination Survey, in a sobering document entitled ‘Injustice at Every Turn’.  Researchers from the centre used questionnaires to survey over 7,500 transgender Americans, and were able to gather data from all fifty US states and its five permanently inhabited territories.  The key findings of the research were that transgender people were nearly four times more likely to live in extreme poverty (that is, on less than $10,000 a year) than the general population, and that a heart-breaking 41% of respondents had attempted suicide – compared with 1.6% of Americans generally.  The rate of attempted suicide, furthermore, was 51% for transgender people who reported having been bullied at school; 55% for those who had lost their jobs as a result of transitioning; and 61% and 64%, respectively, for those who had been the victims of violence or sexual assault.

Add to those statistics higher-than-average school-dropout rates for transgender people; double the rate of unemployment of cisgender Americans; a 90% affirmative response to questions about being mistreated or discriminated against at work; four times the rate of homelessness in comparison to the general population; and a one-in-five chance that a transgender person will be refused medical care on the grounds of their gender nonconforming status, and you will see that, when I use the word ‘plight’ to describe the consequences of transphobic prejudice on transgender people, I am not being flippant.   The conclusion is inescapable: society is biased against transgender people being able to live happy, healthy and rewarding lives; and this bias is deep-rooted, endemic, and profoundly damaging.

The relative sizes of the UK and America makes statistical comparison an inexact science, but if similar demographic patterns pertain between the two countries (and there is no reason why, given their economic and political similarities, this would not be the case), the English health system is poorly equipped to cope with the responsibility of caring for transgender patients.  Data about the number of gender reassignment operations being carried out by the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust is freely available on their website.  At the end of January, 2016, 301 people were on the waiting list for an appointment at the Gender Identity Clinic; a further 130 were awaiting surgery, or approval for surgery.  Since 2012, an average of 151 operations have been completed each year – meeting less than a third of demand.  The average waiting time for patients at the clinic was the best part of 74 weeks in 2015, despite the waiting-time threshold for all surgical procedures in the UK having been set by the government at 18 weeks.  It seems almost redundant to point out that, with suicide-rates amongst transgender people so disproportionately high, this punishing wait to take the last few all-important steps towards becoming the person you want to be, can literally mean the difference between life and death.

The primary reason for transphobic prejudice is, quite simply, that gender transition is assumed to be a choice.  Compassion for transgender people cannot be achieved until the prevailing social attitude towards us ceases to be informed by disdain for a lifestyle decision made on a whim, and by the notion that our woes are self-inflicted.  To anyone who is transgender, the belief that we elected to live this way – that we were anything other than compelled to take radical steps to cure ourselves of crippling depression and the inability to feel comfortable in our own skin – is baffling.  You think gender transition is a choice; that we choose to be isolated or homeless, to live in poverty, or to be estranged from our spouses and children?  You have got to be kidding.

 

Bibliography

The report by the UK parliamentary committee, ‘Transgender Equality’ (January 2016), can be viewed in full here…http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmwomeq/390/390.pdf

The comments of the committee chair, Maria Miller, to The Independent newspaper can be read here…                                                             http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/transgender-rights-mps-demand-end-to-institutional-transphobia-a6810881.html

You can blow the dust off the UK government’s 2011 document, ‘Advancing Transgender Equality: A Plan for Action’, here… https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/85498/transgender-action-plan.pdf

Estimates by The New York Ties about the number of transgender people living in the USA are collated here…                                                http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/09/upshot/the-search-for-the-best-estimate-of-the-transgender-population.html?_r=0

The report of the 2011 US National Transgender Discrimination Survey (‘Injustice at Every Turn’) can be studied here… http://endtransdiscrimination.org/PDFs/NTDS_Report.pdf#page=8

Up-to-date statistics regarding male-to-female gender reassignment surgery performed on the UK National Health Service are available here…    https://www.imperial.nhs.uk/our-services/surgery/gender-surgery

Must Try Harder – A Critique of American Teachers’ Attitudes to their Transgender Colleagues

On January 19th, a website for American teachers and school administrators called ‘Education Week’ published an abridged version of my blog posting ‘When Sir becomes Miss – How I Ruined my Teaching Career by Changing Gender’ on their forum ‘Finding Common Ground’.  My article describes how the affirming and empowering experience of informing pupils and their parents about my transition turned sour when my employers – and the heads of other schools to which I applied – subsequently treated me in a way I can only describe as discriminatory.  My professional experience post-transition led me to question the assumption that LGBT awareness-raising initiatives in schools need to be targeted at students, and my article argues that the narrowest minds and most entrenched prejudice against transgender teachers exist at the level of school management, not amongst children; it is the adults who lead schools who require the greatest support to bring reality into line with the rhetoric of inclusiveness, equality and the fulfilment of dreams that permeates their institutions’ promotional literature.  I go on to suggest that the appointment practices of school leaders are conservative to the point of prejudicial, and hypothesise that this is a symptom of the machismo culture of school management, and those managers’ unimaginative response to accountability pressures from parents and national government.  I wanted to embarrass school leaders to reflect on staffing decisions they make based on fear and confusion, and to observe that a diverse teaching force is necessary in order to promote tolerance and understanding amongst young people.  (The most resonant factor for shaping the attitudes of adolescents is the presence of role-models who are involved in their everyday lives; when children see that their teacher cares about them, teaches interesting lessons and helps them succeed, the fact that that teacher is transgender ceases to be a social barrier.) When my article was published for an audience of American educators, it provoked a reaction that surprised me, but it wasn’t the sentiments expressed by respondents that caught me off guard (which constituted an ill-informed but predictable cocktail of old-testament nonsense and attempted social engineering). What struck me most about the comments posted in reaction to my blog was that they existed at all – that people with no apparent reason to care about a colleague’s gender history had such strong views about me. I think that the compulsion for otherwise sane people to voice bigoted opinions on matters of sex and gender is something that demands further analysis…

 

My original article, ‘When Sir becomes Miss’, concerned itself with the knee-jerk prejudice of teachers – people about whom, I had learned, it is wrong to assume a natural predisposition to magnanimity and tolerance. My blog stirred up a miniature furore of hectoring didacticism and gloating I-told-you-so disapproval, but if the comments posted in the wake of my blog are indicative of the attitudes of society generally, then it would seem that the image of transgender people in popular consciousness has moved on very little from pantomime dames or Victorian musical-hall drag acts.  Accordingly, many subscribers to the ‘Education Week’ forum seemed unwilling to (or incapable of) conceptualising transgenderism as anything more complex than an elaborate form of dressing-up:

“If I held a series of assemblies to tell… students of my intentions to come to school dressed in a Wookiee costume (because it ‘felt right for me’) for the rest of my career, I would not have any expectations of anyone to support that.”

Wookiees were not the only under-represented group to be dragged into this game of comedic simile-making.  “Would it be okay if I start dressing like a Nazi SS trooper while I teach?” one respondent asked, whilst others likened being transgender to demanding the right to come to school in a clown costume, or to “declaring myself a nature lover” in order to “go about nude” at work.

The underlying assumption of these misleading and self-satisfied swipes is that gender transition is a choice; an enactment of a fantasy to dress-up and pretend to be someone else.  It is an assumption which invites two related speculations.  First: whilst no-one objects to the right of another individual to play-act and put on a costume (or change gender, as I prefer to call it) per se, there was a shared belief amongst my respondents that I needed to accept that the consequences of my ‘choice’ were likely to be social isolation, rejection, and unemployment.  “You make a choice, you have to live with it!” was the pithiest summation of this view, along with the pitiless admonition that I “should have known the probable consequences” of my actions, and so I “can’t complain now.”  Other respondents demanded to know why I was conceited enough to “expect society to approve of your personal decision”; why it was “incumbent on the rest of the world to support your personal decision”; and why I would presume “that the twenty-first century is a time of so much freedom that people have to accept all personal choices”.  I won’t cite every finger-wagging rebuke that rang with this ill-informed leitmotif, but it would be remiss of me not to share the following paragraph, which so steeped in the clichés of the Louisiana pulpit that it would be funny were it not the product of an actual human mind:

It is you, not the kids or adults that needs to grow up and not expect society to bend themselves into pretzels to accommodate your mental problems. Get help, man! You have a wife, you are equipped as a man, you need to stay in the role. Maybe your testosterone levels have prematurely declined? Maybe you were abused as a child, or someone dressed you as a girl for their amusement? Get help!”

The second aspect of these impassioned comments that requires unpacking is, of course, the question of how much being transgender is a personal choice.  When I was being lifted off the bathroom floor after collapsing in a nervous heap for the fifth Sunday in a row; when I was wiping away tears so I could read the label on a bottle of anti-depressants; when I was fighting the urge to run from my own wedding because I wanted to be the one in the dress, changing gender didn’t seem like much of choice.  When I was finally lucky enough to get the emotional support I needed, my options were either to stay suicidally miserable, or change my life.  Having lost so many days to depression and mania, I know how flippantly asinine it is to compare my ‘choice’ to dressing as a clown or wearing a Wookiee suit.  If an analogy is needed to describe my feelings before transition, then I would suggest comparing my sense of unfulfillable longing to compulsive disorders like self-harming and anorexia; as something I needed to do in order to feel as if I had some control over my life.  It was society, I felt, that had created the role occupied by women, and society, therefore, that was responsible for my drive to seek a similar role for myself.

I would not dispute that it is a choice to come out as transgender, and to start living full-time in one’s preferred gender role, but it is not one that is taken lightly.  The risks of alienation, rejection, friendlessness, stigma, penury and redundancy (not to mention physical harm) are enormous: societal attitudes and privilege are stacked very heavily in favour of binary distinctions of gender (and for men in particular), so no-one transitions without being mindful of the sacrifices they will need to make as a result.  What seems so casually cruel about the sentiments of my American readers, however, is that the loss of privilege I experienced was somehow deserved.

Deuteronomy Frame
Bohemian, bon vivant, and all-round biblical wild-child, Deuteronomy, issues yet another of his ironically hilarious edicts about personal freedom and the right to happiness

I was especially intrigued by the debate my respondents had over whether I was transsexual or transgender.  Until that point, I had taken it for granted that the differentiation between these labels was one of semantics rather than sociology, but a specific biological distinction between the two terms seemed important to the teachers commenting on my blog. “Transgender refers to a preference, an identification”, wrote one respondent, “whereas transsexual refers to a person who emotionally and psychologically feels that they belong to the opposite sex.” In another comment, to be transgender means to “act on your preferences” to dress and act like a woman, whilst transsexuality is “a birth condition”. An inability to distinguish between the two “clearly shows your ignorance”, because “you cannot substitute transsexual for transgender. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME!!”

It is difficult to subscribe to a definition of what I am imposed on me by someone else, and especially to one that is predicated on the degree to which I chose to be this way. Indeed, I would propose that the term ‘transsexual’ is too strongly associated with genital surgery to be palatably suitable for describing anybody. If medical precision is required, ‘transsexual’ may serve as a subcategory of the umbrella term ‘transgender’, which, in turn, more adequately captures the sense that gender is a phenomenon socially enacted on a broad and fluid continuum. The alternative to this definition would designate ‘transgender’ as a lesser form of transsexuality; the implication being that a transgender person is a more committed form of transvestite, but still someone who – because of fear, laziness, lack of funds, or a selfish wish to have their cake and eat it – has yet to have the operation that would allow them to graduate to full transsexualhood.

Studying the responses to my article, it is tempting to think that my readership would have been more sympathetic to my plight if I had clearly stated that I was gender dysphoric (a label which, for reasons I cannot figure, is written in capital letters by every ‘Education Week’ contributor who uses it):

“GENDER DYSPOHORIA [sic] refers to the mismatch between sex and gender identity, and it can lead to distressing and uncomfortable feelings. It is a recognised medical condition, for which treatment is sometimes appropriate, although some experts define it as the condition of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be opposite to one’s biological sex. Of course, recognizing gender dysphoria as a condition is controversial, because it implies that it can be cured, either as a medical condition or a psychological disorder. What do YOU suffer from, the medical condition or the psychological disorder?”

“There’s a fair degree of penetrance going on within the phenomena of transsexualism,” another comment asserts: a biological condition if there ever was one.” If there ever was one, indeed. Rather than choosing an empowering word like ‘transgender’ to describe myself, it looks uncomfortably as if I would have garnered greater social understanding (and approval for my ‘choices’) if I had allowed my gender to be medicalised by defining myself in relation to a surgical procedure, or by appealing to people’s pity by complaining of being ‘gender dysphoric’. (The trouble with that moniker is that I stopped being ‘dysphoric’ when I transitioned: I’m not confused about which gender I want to be, and I have left most of my distress, anxiety and depression behind.)

Kilts Frame
Only the finest legal and clinical minds are capable of discerning the subtle differences between patients who are transsexual, and those who are merely transgender

I do not venture to adumbrate what operations I may or may not have had in my ‘When Sir becomes Miss’ article, but that does not stop my respondents drawing their own clumsy conclusions about the contents of my pants:

“Semantics is not where it’s at. I have personally known individuals with GENDER DYSPHORIA. There’s one term for you. Get busy and stop screaming at the world, please.”

Without the legitimising stamp of proof that I have undergone full genital surgery, one commentator will not refer to me as anything other than ‘Mr Robinson’, and resolutely refuses to employ the feminine pronoun to talk about me.  With alarming presumption, another respondent demands, “If he wants to be a woman, let him change sex!”  Because I self-identify as transgender in my article (rather than transsexual), it is assumed that I have done nothing to adopt a female identity other than “make the choice to dress and look like the opposite sex”. Nowhere is there any indication that my readers have considered a legal, political or cultural definition of what it means to be female (such as a letter F in my passport, which bathroom I use, the quantity of oestrogen pumping around my bloodstream, or – quite simply – how people treat me). On ‘Education Week’, gender is reduced to a question of which set of naughty-parts one has (irrespective of whether or not one was born with them), which, fortuitously, leaves me with a surfeit of terms for describing respondents obsessed with telling me whether I am transsexual, transgender or (capital letters, please…) GENDER DYSPOHORIC [sic].

I can think of no other group for whom it would be considered acceptable (or even good manners) to compel to self-identify and self-define in a particular way – to say, “You are not that; you are this” – but that is precisely what many people who commented on my blog presumed to do. I choose to think of myself as transgender because it is a linguistically convenient term that grants people the conceptual comfort of being able to pigeonhole me without obsessing over what I may (or may not) have chosen to do with my genitals. Similarly, I use the term ‘cisgender’ solely as a linguistic convenience – a term with no meaningful application beyond its use as sociological shorthand for someone who identifies with the gender congruent with their biological sex as determined at birth.

Star of David Frame
There are, of course, no historical precedents to suggest that the imposition of labels on groups of people has any stigmatising or dehumanising effect

I shared my story on the ‘Education Week’ website because I thought it was interesting and had a straightforward – albeit important – moral. I didn’t expect any reaction beyond a half-hearted thank you for offering my penn’orth. So why did people bother commenting at all, let alone use the ‘Finding Common Ground’ chatroom to satisfy an impulse to categorise and judge me? What is it about matters of sexuality and gender identity that provokes such strong feelings; and what is it about transsexualism in particular that incites commentators to claim the moral right to issue proclamations about how much I deserved the workplace discrimination I encountered? And why are these social edicts delivered with such passion and outrage?

It could be the deep-rooted conservatism of the teaching profession (which is naturally biased towards preserving its own status quo through its unadventurous recruitment practices) that arouses such suspicion of transsexuals. As I show in my own masterful PhD thesis, teachers are predisposed to avoid change that unsettles them, and they prefer the splendid isolation of their classrooms to collaborative working models because autonomy allows them to minimise the risks of feeling overburdened and of having their pursuit of short-term job-satisfaction thwarted. To this summation of the culture of the teaching profession, I would now add teachers’ belief in their own undeviating moral rectitude. Teachers should not (they believe) form a rich tapestry of variegated personality types, political outlooks and social proclivities in order to model the heterogeneous nature of society: instead, they should be shibboleths of a fictional state of stable normality; paragons of a virtue that has never existed; hypocrites, in other words.

I could point out how alarming it is that my respondents are responsible for shaping the attitudes of a nation’s children, and that what they say and do can have a formative influence on the young hearts and minds they encounter every day in their classrooms. I should worry about what these teachers would do if a student approached them to confide their own discomfort about gender, but, happily, I can let two of my respondents do that for me:

“I have met students who are straight, gay, bi, and struggling with transgender issues… Do you think they should have appropriate and supportive guidance by their families, friends, and school communities? I wonder, should they have appropriate role-models that identify as they do?”

“[These are] kids who may be driven to suicide because they don’t fit in, they’re scared AND because their identity is being defined as a ‘choice’ and compared to a ‘clown’.”

It is easy to make fun of the hysterical comments of the handful of crackpots who read my blog on ‘Finding Common Ground’. American high-school teachers comprise an insular (and harmless) social group. Provided they have the common-sense not to espouse their transphobic views in front of their students, then they can do little harm: if their ranting about my blog serves a therapeutic function, then who I am to offer censure? When identical sentiments are expressed by public figures, however, they become more insidious because they gain the power to promulgate bigotry and provoke hatred. During an interview on the BBC’s Newsnight programme in October 2015, Germaine Greer maintained that, whilst she wouldn’t deny any transsexual the right to gender-reassignment surgery, “a very great many women don’t think that post-operative or even non post-operative transsexual – M-to-F transsexual – people look like, sound like, or behave like women”, and that social mores mean “they daren’t say so.”

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in January 2016, Barry Humphries – apropos of nothing – said that a male-to-female transsexual shouldn’t think of themselves as having transformed into a woman, but of having become “a mutilated man, that’s all.”  In an article for The Sunday Times (January 2016), Jeremy Clarkson wrote that “men who want to be women” were an insignificant minority “only really to be found on the internet or in the seedier bits of Bangkok”, and who were “nothing more than the punchline in a stag night anecdote.”

(Bafflingly, Jeremy Clarkson has a considerable cult following.  His brand of racist, sexist, homophobic bullying is considered by many to constitute a refreshing voice in a UK media obsessed with political correctness.  Whilst he has to peddle his moronic persona in order to stay famous, he is nothing other than odious and infantile.  His article is toxic and ridiculous, not a necessary envelope-pushing palliative to a mythical culture that has outlawed the singing of ‘Baa-baa Black Sheep’, the sale of curved bananas, and the freedom to refer openly to gollywogs, blackboards and Christmas.)

It is interesting to observe that Greer’s, Humphries’ and Clarkson’s pronouncements are concerned with exactly the same three themes as my respondents on ‘Finding Common Ground’, namely:

  1. A need to label transgender people, and to deny them the right to choose how they label themselves (most notably, by prohibiting male-to-female transsexuals from calling themselves women).
  2. The assertion that gender transition is a choice, the consequence of which should be self-imposed marginalisation and withdrawal (and perhaps a change of career from teacher to hostess in a Bangkok nightclub).
  3. Shock at the effrontery of the transgender community to dare to expect society to accept difference, safeguard the principle of equality, and accommodate the desire of all its members to live healthy and happy lives; to find paid employment and have aspirations commensurate with their skills and qualifications; and to walk down the street without being screamed at.
Exclusion Frame
Exclusion and social alienation: no laughing matter

The compulsion to issue proclamations about transgender people is evidently a powerful one.  It may appear perplexing and redundant – like someone who isn’t an old-testament patriarch objecting to gay marriage – but, evidently, my very presence as a transgender person excites an impulse to comment that borders on the pathological (or even sacerdotal).  Obviously, the very fact of my transition is perceived as having the potential to do social harm, and some groups go as far as to think that my alienation and isolation is necessary to protect schoolchildren from being afraid of – and confused by – their transgender teacher.  Transgenderism is, we must remember, an air-borne virus with the ability to infect anyone who comes into contact with it.  As more and more children are contaminated, the numbers succumbing to the desire to wear dresses and put on make-up will grow at an exponential rate.  Menswear shops will be forced to close.  The economic consequences will be ruinous.

I would never compare transphobia to the on-going struggle for equality between the sexes, sexualities, and different ethnic and religious groups.  Transgender people are not being sold into indentured servitude, nor rounded-up and penned into ghettoes, and it would be presumptuous and offensive to draw any parallels between my situation and historical struggles against hatred and discrimination.  However: the question remains regarding why people who are otherwise not in the least affected by us have such strong opinions about transgender people.  I suspect that it is because people do not like difference.  My presence (and that of others like me) is an in-your-face reminder of how stultified and inhibited many people’s identities are: transgender people are the butt of so much dislike, distrust, anger and fear because people are angry and resentful about the refusal to conform to social strictures that we represent.  Transgender people threaten established social norms, and excluding us from cultural, political and economic life is a convenient way for insiders to strengthen their own sense of conformity and acceptance, and to silence our demand to be different.

The resulting anger against transgender people isn’t always limited to the incoherent ranting of crackpots on internet forums: unchecked, it can lead to expressions of hatred and incitements to violence.  It is resentment about the ability of transgender people to rise above societal expectations of sex and gender that leads, I think, to the acts of violence and murder that have been committed against the gender non-conforming community.  To remember but a few…

  • Brandon Teena: raped and murdered in December 1993 by two male friends after they found out that Brandon had not been assigned male at birth;
  • Rita Hester: murdered in Massachusetts in November 1998, and commemorated on the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance;
  • Human-rights lawyer Sonia (née David) Burgess: pushed under a London Underground train in October 2010;
  • Transgender prostitute Dee Dee Pierson: killed by a client on Christmas Eve, 2011, when he discovered that Dee Dee was not a biological woman;
  • Mexican transgender activist Agnes Torres: murdered in 2012;
  • Trans-man and rapper Evon Young: tortured and murdered in January 2013 by a group of five Milwaukee men;
  • Keeta Bakhsh: beaten to death by police in Pakistan in October 2014;
  • Twenty-two year-old Bri Golec from Ohio: stabbed to death by her father in February 2015;
  • American expat Vanessa Santillan: beaten to death in London after responding to a neighbour’s phone call in March 2015;
  • Amber Monroe: died of gunshot wounds in Michigan in August 2015 – it was the third time she had been shot;
  • Aspiring fashion designer Keisha Jenkins: becomes the twenty-first transgender woman to be murdered in America in 2015 when she is beaten and shot by six men;
  • Twenty-one year-old Vicky Thompson: died in an all-male prison in West Yorkshire, England, in autumn 2015;
  • Yoshi Tsuchida: found mutilated and murdered in his Tokyo apartment in November 2015.

As I started this posting by examining the responses of American educators to my article about transgender teachers, it seems only fitting to leave the last word to one of them:

“This is really a sad conversation for many reasons. The original post is a cautionary tale. Abigail Robinson assumed the hits would come from one direction, but they came from another. Whatever the moral imperatives are, the real-world consequences of her actions are clear.”

 

‘When Sir Becomes Miss – How I Ruined my Teaching Career by Changing Gender’ (and the responses it provoked) can be read in its partially denuded state at…http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/finding_common_ground/2016/01/how_i_ruined_my_teaching_career_by_changing_gender.html

It has been edited almost to the point of misrepresentation, and additionally published – complete with its squeamishly sanitised title – on the website of the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (BELMAS).  This version can be compared to its predecessors here… https://www.belmas.org.uk/BELMAS-Blog/when-sir-becomes-miss-how-i-ruined-my-teaching-career-by-changing-gender