Between the 14th and 20th November, Transgender Awareness Week was marked in America and the United Kingdom with a series of bake-sales, beauty pageants, poetry readings, and posing for selfies holding banners with witless platitudes on them (“Live your dreams”, say, or “Trans lives matter”). In pursuit of increasing the ‘visibility of trans-people’ and ‘celebrating trans-culture’, there were seminars on pronoun use, workshops on how not to offend your transgender colleagues in the workplace by having an apoplectic fit if they try to use the same toilet as you, and forums for the sharing of ‘powerful stories’ of coming-out and finding acceptance. The US event culminated in service of remembrance for transgender people who have died as a result of bullying, harassment and physical assault, and everyone had a jolly spiffing time feeling strong and united in the company of like-minded people. The only real problem is that, as forces of political and social change, awareness weeks are only infinitesimally more effective than doing absolutely nothing at all. Not only are awareness weeks – in their current form – colossal wastes of time, I want to argue that their three principal flaws are the same failings that made it possible for Donald Trump to be elected president of the USA, and for voters in the United Kingdom to choose to exit the European Union: namely, a self-defeating tendency to preach only to the already-converted; an inability to engage (beyond the level of insults and name-calling) with anyone who does not share the tolerant, liberal ideology of the magnanimous left; and an insistence on celebrating the accomplishments of a limited cabal of stereotypical role-models who perpetuate a lazy and unnuanced view of transgender people, and of the concept of success generally.
Although the twin cultural pillars of Star Wars and the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan were central to the imaginative and cognitive life of my childhood and adolescence, the thought of being forced to spend time in the company of fellow Star Wars or Gilbert and Sullivan fans now I’m older and wiser brings me out in a cold sweat. In particular, it is difficult to exaggerate the centrality of Star Wars to my formative years: I spent all my pocket-money on Star Wars toys; I spent hours drawing Star Wars robots and monsters; I charged around my primary school playground pretending to be Star Wars characters; I slept beneath Star Wars sheets and ate sandwiches from a Star Was lunchbox; and the short solo ballet I choreographed to Geoff Love’s version of the Star Wars theme tune remains one of the defining undiscovered artistic moments of the late twentieth century. More than that, a mutual affection for Star Wars was the social glue with which I formed many childhood friendships, whilst I owe my more betterer vocabulary to the linguistic curiosity engendered by listening to Gilbert and Sullivan (because the English language has never been set more perfectly to music).
Age has not diminished my fondness for either institution, but, as I’ve grown up, I have become increasingly averse to the company of other aficionados. I should be gibbering with excitement at the thought of queueing with hundreds of other Princess Leia lookalikes to meet the man who operated the tail inside Jabba the Hutt, and the prospect of joining a hundred-strong chorus to sing ‘Climbing over Rocky Mountain’ should fill me with eager anticipation, but there are a million things I would rather do than share my enjoyment of either Star Wars or Gilbert and Sullivan with other people. For starters, I am deeply suspicious of love for a cultural artefact that is uncritical. There is much about both Star Wars and Gilbert and Sullivan to disparage (‘The Force Awakens’, for example, is so lazy and awful that it almost doesn’t qualify as a film), but to say so in the company of fanatics is to commit heresy. On a deeper level, I am troubled by how un-self-critical enthusiasts are. Most people who like Gilbert and Sullivan are crushing pedants who think an ironic attachment to Victoriana is a replacement for personality, while Star Wars groupies will stand around for hours competitively quoting dialogue while pretending that it isn’t heart-breaking that the Disney corporation now owns their childhood. And not one of them is capable of embracing how ridiculous they are.
An unsavoury air of smugness and self-satisfaction hangs around assemblies of people with common cultural interests, and, for the same reasons I avoid associating with Star Wars geeks and Gilbert and Sullivan twats, I do not seek the society of trannies. I am, therefore, precisely the sort of person who thinks Transgender Awareness Weeks are a really, really lame idea. Like Star Wars conventions, awareness weeks conflate the three worst things about shared experience: the forced bonhomie and assumed political homogeneity of faux-solidarity; wilful deafness to criticism and self-criticism (arising from the need to feel a sense of belonging); and an insidious social pressure for participants to present a mindlessly optimistic front to the outside world.
The principal fault of Transgender Awareness Week is that its participants claim (and appear to feel) a sense of activism that they are not actually entitled to. Posting a photo of yourself overlaid with a pastel flag of horizontal stripes on Facebook does not constitute political engagement, and re-Tweeting a quote from Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner is about as far as it is possible to get from orchestrating practical or attitudinal change within and regarding the transgender community. The conduct of proponents of Transgender Awareness Week may be well-meaning, but it is glib and childish, and, far from aiding the transgender cause, it only serves to damage it. There were three fundamental things the organisers of (and participants in) November’s awareness week got wrong, in my opinion, and they are, chillingly, the same three errors made by the liberal left in their attempts to stop Donald Trump getting elected to the American presidency, and, in England, to prevent the country’s exit from the European Union.
One: Reasoned opposition to Donald Trump and Brexit did not reach the people it needed to; Transgender Awareness initiatives fail to connect with people who aren’t already directly involved in (or sympathetic towards) the transgender community.
The stated aims of Transgender Awareness Week are to ‘educate about transgender and gender nonconforming people and the issues associated with their transformation or identity’, and to ‘address the issues the community faces’. These are noble (if vague and intangible) goals, but the activities planned to achieve them were doomed to fail. It is difficult to see how a round-up of film, theatre and television containing transgender characters addresses any issues relating to gender nonconformity; or how much the cause of transgender equality can be advanced via a presentation from an executive at Tinder about how their dating app is becoming more trans-friendly. Perhaps Shea Diamond’s trans-power anthem will curb violent crime against transgender people, or maybe appearances by members of the cast of Transparent will help remove religious bias from state legislation on people’s access to public toilets…
A lot of time was spent in the penultimate week of November on activities with little or no power to make any genuine difference to the way transgender people are regarded or treated. As watch a live screening of Taiwan’s LGBT Award ceremony, or upgrade your avatar on SimCity to a transgender character, you might as well do nothing: no-one who isn’t transgender could possibly give a toss about anything that happens at a jamboree as self-serving and vacuous as the one adumbrated on the website of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
(If you want to know what you missed, feel free to study the programme of events here: http://www.glaad.org/issues/transgender.)
What is especially frustrating is that good, well-intentioned people gave up their time to engage in this stuff: they wanted to contribute to some kind of change; they needed to feel as if they were doing something – anything – to forward the transgender cause. Those participants had their time well and truly wasted, which is why I would like to propose a radical new format for future transgender awareness weeks. My scheme ensures delegates can still enjoy participating in collective activity, feel positive about investing time and energy in a good cause, and be guaranteed to reach an audience beyond the immediate transgender community. Instead of spending the best part of a fortnight sucking up to famous faces and pretending beauty pageants aren’t always a bad thing (whether the contestants are transsexuals or not), I suggest you recall some exact moments when you were the victim of discrimination, rudeness or unjust treatment, simply because you are transgender. Then find out where the people work who caused you distress, find a group of likeminded people to accompany you, and go and pay your aggressor a visit. Once you arrive at their office, there is no need to be surly or confrontational: simply point at the employee in question and explain what they did to hurt or ill-treat you. Once you have named and shamed your antagonist in this way, tell them what the consequences of their actions were, and how you were made to feel; then invite them to justify or apologise for what they did. Alternatively, you and your awareness week chums should use the bureaucratic tools of their office to inconvenience the hell out of them. If they work in a bank, for example, all of you should clog up the lobby filling in applications for pointless loans and queueing to ask idiotic questions.
My list of awareness-raising activities would include a visit to the headquarters of Prospero Teaching Agency (of 6-8 Long Lane, London, EC1A 9HF), where I would ask to see Becky. I would tell Becky how her behaviour made me feel, and invite her to clarify why she told the schools I was being sent to that I was transgender (despite me never self-identifying as such to the staff at Prospero Teaching, of 6-8 Long Lane, London, EC1A 9HF), a month before I was invited to become a poster-girl for the agency’s belated (and, in light of their previous conduct, somewhat hollow) equal-opportunities campaign. You see: if I don’t give Becky the chance to help me understand why she did what she did, then I’ll never be able empathise with her. If I can’t empathise with her, then I’ll never be able to help her appreciate what she did wrong, and I will have failed to make sure she never does it again to anyone else.
To be able to educate Becky in the covert and unthinking ways employers and potential employers discriminate against transgender people, I need to create an opportunity for myself to be able to view what happened from her perspective. Furthermore, the people guilty of prejudice are the ones transgender awareness projects need to speak to most directly, because we need to understand why people hold transphobic attitudes before we can educate them out of ignorance. It is a mystery to me why anyone in a position of authority or with gatekeeping responsibility is ever permitted – unchallenged – to allow transphobia (or homophobia or sexism or racism or ageism or ableism, for that matter) to influence their behaviour. Then again, I don’t understand why a very large percentage of voting Americans hold the views they do on gay marriage, climate change, gun control and abortion. If I heard Donald Trump’s election promises correctly, it also appears that there are millions of Americans who are opposed to the idea of affordable universal health care, and that can’t be right, can it? To object to the aim of Obamacare to provide access for all Americans to medicines and a doctor – irrespective of their social class – is just mental, isn’t it? Yet the assurance the he would repeal this policy is one of the ways Trump secured his victory. If I can’t get my head around why US voters appear to hold preposterous attitudes to sexuality, the environment, and the right to buy military-grade assault weapons, then I can’t enter into meaningful dialogue with them. If I can’t communicate with them, then I can’t begin the process of persuading them that I’m not a borderline paedophile who will steal their souls or lower the value of their homes, and who only wears dresses because I want an excuse to sneak into women’s toilets.
Two: The discourse used by the political left with regard to the political right (and particularly towards members of the latter who are poor and uneducated) has degenerated into insults and name-calling; the insistence on a message dominated by proclamations of being ‘out and proud’, ‘in your face’ and ‘here to stay’ by the transgender community frightens and alienates people who have little or no direct contact with gender nonconforming people.
Anger, disbelief and frustration are perfectly comprehensible responses to the abuse and bigotry experienced by transgender people on a daily basis. Whilst rage may fuel the drive for political engagement, however, it can serve no constructive purpose if it is allowed to colour the nature of debate. If you shout at someone or insult them, then you cannot expect them to be responsive to your arguments, no matter how well-formed and persuasive those arguments are. Hillary Clinton made a terrible mistake when, during a fundraiser in New York on September 9th, she described Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables”, before going on to accuse half of anyone who would vote for Trump of being “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.”
(Ironically, Clinton began that same speech by thanking the speaker who had preceded her – Laverne Cox. “Her endorsement,” Clinton said as she thanked Cox, “her strong words, her passion, her example, her advocacy on behalf of the transgender community – particularly transgender women of colour – is just so extraordinary, and I love the way she wove in so many of the issues that are up for grabs in this election.” And so, with what should have been a moment of triumphant visibility for gender nonconforming people, Laverne Cox was rendered guilty by association. Appearing on the same platform as Hillary Clinton, and offering vocal support for the latter’s campaign, Cox further the alienated the transgender community from ordinary, working, cisgender Americans – that is, Americans whose lifestyle does not consist of collecting TV awards, sipping champagne on red carpets, and rubbing shoulders with billionaire presidential hopefuls.)
Hillary Clinton should have been able to beat Donald trump easily – how bad do you have to be to be incapable of persuading people not to vote for him? – but she muffed it. Instead of patiently deconstructing Trump’s bizarre election promises – one-by-one; step-by-step – Clinton set about insulting precisely the people she needed to vote for her, and then recruiting wholly inappropriate role-models to help her insult them some more. If you call someone names, they shut down. You don’t need a PhD in psychology to know that.
That is not to say that transgender people should turn the other cheek when random strangers are rude and abusive. On November 30th, 24 year old Jamie Penny was given a suspended sentence by Hammersmith Magistrates’ Court for using threatening behaviour and homophobic language in an exchange with Eddie Izzard in Pimlico, in April, 2016. Penny had, it seems, reacted somewhat negatively when Izzard had refused him a lift in his vintage Volkswagen Beetle, calling the marathon runner and professional Eddie Izzard tribute act a “f*cking pooftah”, and saying, “Izzard: we are going to do over your house when you are away.”
I want to applaud Izzard’s brave stand against homophobia; I want to salute his courage in facing up to Jamie Penny and making an example of him by pressing charges, but, again, I find myself thinking this should have been handled differently. Penny, it should be noted, is autistic, has a short and tragic history of petty abusive behaviour, is most likely suffering from depression, and has further addled his brain through marijuana addiction. Whilst none of these justify his behaviour towards Izzard, they do go some way towards explaining it, and allow Penny to be recast as the victim. Izzard’s on-the-spot reaction to Penny’s attack in Pimlico was to hurl abuse back at him, and now the millionaire performer can flounce off into the sunset in his designer heels, whilst Penny scrapes together the £715 in fines and costs he was ordered to pay.
The story would have a happier ending if Penny had been reformed; if Izzard and he were later seen staggering home from the pub together with their arms around one another’s shoulders, spiritually richer for the experience of having got to know each other better. Instead, Penny remains unrepentant, uneducated, and – much worse – even angrier with the artsy-fartsy transvestite set than he was when the whole sorry episode began. For proof that he has learned nothing, spend a moment reflecting on Penny’s parting bon mot, shouted from the dock as he was escorted from court after sentencing: “Eddie Izzard is going to burn in hell!”
(To read the version of events as published in The Guardian newspaper, have a gander at this: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/nov/25/eddie-izzard-reveals-years-of-transgender-abuse-to-court.)
Donald Trump’s election and Britain’s departure from the European Union are chilling instances of what can happen if we don’t engage with and persuade the individuals and institutions responsible for discrimination and oppression. Instead of political activism, however, celebratory and affirming events organised by and for transgender people inevitably degenerate into beauty pageants, and it is depressing to see how many transgender fashion models are offered as evidence that transgender people can succeed in a cisgender world. Confetti cannons and catwalks do not a political statement make. Culturally, we have moved on from thinking that becoming a fashion model or beauty queen means a cisgender female has made it as a woman: we should not be tricked into believing that a similar aspiration is any less sexist or body-fascist when the participants are transsexuals. Moreover, when transgender propaganda is dominated by fashion and glamour, and when social media are swamped with pouting selfies of drag queens in short skirts, the effect on outsiders is the further breeding of suspicion and the cultivation of distrust.
First, reducing transgender culture (and that of male-to-female transsexuals in particular) to lip-gloss, selfies and fashion parades is demeaning. It is precisely the sort of retrograde behaviour that compounds gender stereotypes, and which rationalises the concept of trans-exclusionary feminism. I would never begrudge anyone the right to party, but to try and glue a political label to – or to claim that something is being celebrated by – partying, is just silly. There is nothing ennobling, transformative or educational about a catwalk full of trannies.
Second, the sexualisation of any group of people is extremely damaging, both to the status of the group itself, and to the esteem with which it is regarded. When sexualised transvestism is permitted to dominate transgender discourse – and to define the face the transgender community presents to the world about itself – then neutral observers should be forgiven for questioning our motives. It is precisely the imitation of Hollywood glamour and red-carpet soft-porn that Donald Trump and Brexit voters find so creepy about transgender people. When they see trans-women acting out their fantasy of being snapped by paparazzi in backless dresses, outsiders quite rightly wonder why. Sexuality is always a bit weird when taken out of the context of the bedroom or the solitary internet search, and it is frankly silly to demand to be taken seriously in social, economic, cultural or political life if you’re dressed like Grayson Perry or an extra from The Rocky Horror Show. Sexualised transgenderism puts up barriers – it doesn’t break them down. Many transgender people are striving towards equality; of trying to strike a balance between our exceptionality and our freedom to operate on equal terms with cisgender people in everyday life. This work – this actual, political work of education and awareness-raising – is undone when it has to take place against the constant backdrop of a bunch of preening cretins who think they’re Marilyn Monroe.
Three: Being told to vote for the preservation of the status quo by someone who is a beneficiary of that status quo (such as Jay-Z and Beyoncé in the case of the American election, and Richard Branson and David Beckham in the case of Brexit) is offensive to people who do not benefit from it; the transgender community chooses spokespersons limited to a very narrow spectrum of glamour, celebrity and economic prosperity, who are not only meaningless to most people, but who compound the stereotype of transgender people as shallow, vain and self-absorbed.
Role-models need to be normal. They need to connect with people in a meaningful way. If a proffered role-model lives a life unattainable to people not born in the shadow of inherited, Hollywood wealth, then they ought to be – quite rightly – rejected by anyone over the age of six. Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, for instance, are useless as sources of inspiration for the working-class north-of-England boy who has just been beaten to a pulp by his father because he’d asked for a Barbie for Christmas. Vulnerable transgender people need reassuring that they can come out without needing to jump out of a cake to do so; they deserve exposure to ordinary, working transgender people who live relatively humdrum lives, in order to receive the gift of realising, “Oh – I can just come out: I don’t need to mince about like RuPaul in a Carman Miranda wig and have silicone buttock-implants.”
Hillary Clinton’s terrible choice of celebrity endorsements, and those attached to the remain campaign in the British referendum on EU membership, fell into exactly the same trap: they couldn’t connect with the elctorate. If you’re working eleven-hour shifts and wondering how on earth you’re going to feed your family this month, the last thing you need is a billionaire telling you how to vote. Laverne Cox makes much of her humble, single-parent, Alabama origins, but she is ambulant proof of how quickly exposure to the limelight can nudge someone out of touch. Take this ‘inspiring’ 2014 quote, in which Cox celebrates the progressiveness of the US film and television industry:
“I was on the cover of Time magazine in June and, that same month, four trans-women of colour were murdered in the United States. So, just because I got an Emmy nomination doesn’t mean the lives of trans-people aren’t in peril every day.”
Meanwhile, enjoy this platitude from Caitlyn Jenner (who, for the record, supported Donald Trump’s campaign for the American presidency), made during her acceptance speech for a ‘courage prize’ at the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award ceremony, in June 2015:
“If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions – go ahead. The reality is, I can take it. But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with being true to who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.”
Forgive me for not giving a shit about what anyone says about anything at a lavish awards dinner, and Jenner’s revealing use of the phrase ‘thousands of kids out there’ shows the true extent to which she can honestly claim to be ‘in touch’ with vulnerable transgender youth. They are ‘out there’; Cox and Jenner are very firmly ‘in here’. Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t dislike either Caitlyn Jenner or Laverne Cox, and I don’t resent them for being rich and famous (I thought the first series of Orange is the New Black was quite good), but if the privileged and the smug are the faces transgender people want to present to the world, then we are complicit in the perpetuation of a social and political order that breeds precisely the kind of selfish vanity, small-minded protectionism and thinly-veiled xenophobia that created President Trump and led to Britain’s retreat from the EU. Once you join the Los Angeles nouveau riche, you forego the right to act as spokesperson for anyone who doesn’t move in the same circles as you. Becoming out-of-touch is the price of success, I’m afraid, and I would prefer my advocates to be a little more sophisticated in their arguments; to live at less of a remove from my everyday experience; and to be, for want of a better word, a bit more ordinary.
Transgender Awareness Week is also fertile ground for the propagation of banal slogans and hollow clichés: “The biggest challenge of life is to be yourself in a world that is trying to make you like everyone else”, for example; “People will stare: make it worth their while”; “What is normal, anyway?”; “I am more than my gender”; and “Nature chooses who will be transgender” – trite inanities with all the inspirational power and educative bite of those terrible workplace motivational posters with photos of leaping orcas on them, or of free-climbers hanging from a precipice by their little finger. It doesn’t matter how loudly and proudly we shout our mottos of transgender self-affirmation if we haven’t first connected with our audience, and if our mottos of empowerment refer to nothing more complex than how gorgeous we think we are, then we only have ourselves to blame if the public perception of transgender people is of squealing, narcissistic attention-seekers.
Of course, no-one would ever publicly admit that they found the proselytising and self-aggrandising of the transgender community tedious and off-putting. The climate of insulting anyone who disagrees with us has made sure of that. But when a voter finds themselves in the privacy of a polling booth, they are suddenly blissfully free to express opinions that the liberal left has deemed unfashionable. Shove a microphone in someone’s face or a clipboard under their nose and ask them how they voted, and they are bound to give the answer they think is expected of them (“I voted Clinton!”; “I chose ‘remain’!”). Saying you are worried about immigration, feel uneasy about gay marriage, or feel awkward and embarrassed around transgender people, has been branded taboo, and invites social censure of the most disaffecting kind. Unfortunately, for prejudice to be challenged – and for the prejudiced to be helped – bias and ignorance need to be exposed and admitted to. If our shouting and shaming renders people fearful of confessing their discomfort with difference, then we cannot intervene. Little wonder, then, that pollsters and prognosticators were left discombobulated by Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory: respondents were afraid to admit they’d voted against the evangelising left. Transgender people, likewise, need to stop screaming their slogans if they are going to be able to listen to the reasons why gender nonconformity invites fear and disapproval, and provokes such irrational and prejudicial behaviour.
We live in a delicate time, when the rights of transgender people to social, political, economic and religious parity could be meteorically advanced or severely hobbled. There are influential political advocates on both sides of the debate. The toothless, pointless, navel-gazing template of Transgender Awareness Weeks has remained pretty much the same since the inception of Transgender Visibility Day in 2009, and if future awareness-raising events are not given a helping hand to evolve into a phenomenon that is genuinely empowering and transformative, a valuable opportunity to promote transgender rights and advocate for transgender equality will have slipped through our fingers.
Donald Trump’s transphobic agenda has already been mandated, and he will soon be able to implement his frightening policies limiting the freedoms of transgender people to serve openly in the military, condoning the arbitrary ghettoization of the South Dakota Bathroom Bill (and its clones in other states), repealing laws on same-sex marriage, and supporting programmes of conversion therapy for gay and transgender children. In the UK, meanwhile, withdrawal from the European Union means the British government is free to draft its own version of the European Convention on Human Rights, and abdicate from its legal obligation to safeguard the right of transgender people to recognition and protection from discrimination, as laid down in the treaty, and signed by all EU member countries, in 1953. My legal protections are now in the hands of the Lord Chancellor, who will be leading the process of drafting the English Bill of Rights. At the time of writing, that person is the Conservative MP, Liz Truss, whose ethical credentials include voting in favour of reducing legal aid – the financial support provided by the state that ensures people without the funds for expensive lawyers can at least be guaranteed some form of qualified legal representation, should they need it. If transgender people do not change the perception held by them of a large portion of the electorate, then we will never be able to convince them that these policies are wrong, and we will never persuade the majority to side with us. We get the government we deserve, and, if we continue to spend our precious awareness weeks baking cakes and worshipping celebrities, then we truly are our own worst enemy.