How do you Solve a Problem like Chelsea Manning? – A moral framework for interpreting the actions of WikiLeaks’ most notorious transgender snitch

It is rare for a transgender person to become the subject of media interest for something they have done rather than something they are.  Usually, when transsexuals attract the attention of TV, magazines or the internet, it is because they satisfy a prurient interest in what they are wearing, how much they have spent on plastic surgery, or how so-much-like sexy women they appear.  Caitlyn Jenner might make some trite and genteel comments to Donald Trump about the policy vacuum that characterises his presidency; or a sex-swap couple might carp about how ordinary they are by adopting a baby; or – if we’re really lucky – we might be invited to leer at what a film director, boxing promoter or ex-marine looks like now they’ve had the op…  The menu of transgender role-models offered by the media is woefully under-nourishing.  The case of Chelsea Manning stands out, therefore, because it concerns someone who has done something interesting as well as change their sex.  Manning’s gender history is a mere footnote to her story.  Your opinion regarding Manning’s leak of American military data to WikiLeaks in 2010 will depend entirely on your view of post-conventional ethics, but there is no denying that it is refreshing to read about someone who is in the news who has changed their sex, but for whom that change of sex is the least interesting thing about them.

 

Chelsea Manning was born Bradley Manning in Oklahoma in 1987.  Her parents separated in 2001, and she lived with her mother in Wales for a while, before moving back to the US in 2005.  Of the internet gossip that swills around concerning Manning’s biography at this time, there are titbits about her confiding to friends as an adolescent that she thought she was gay; about her mother attempting suicide in 1998; and about Manning contacting a gender counsellor to discuss the possibility of sex-change surgery.  By engaging in such lurid speculation about Manning’s formative experiences of gender-roles and sexuality, I have demonstrated how easy it is to fall into the trap of making the gender history of a gender nonconforming individual the foreground to any discussion of their later actions.  Any adumbration of Manning’s psycho-sexual proclivities should be – at the very most – of marginal relevance to consideration of her behaviour whilst serving in Baghdad for the United States navy.

Being transgender should be as secondary to someone’s reputation as anyone else’s biological gender ought to be.  That said, however, it is tempting to speculate that a heightened sensitivity to the morality of conflict and oppression, and a hyper-developed sense of empathy for the suffering of others (even those we have never met) could be symptomatic of growing-up transgender.  When your life is peppered with disappointment and thwarted expectations, it is easy to get angry when you see similarly unfair treatment being eked out on others – especially when that treatment originates from state institutions with vested interests in perpetuating the social, political and economic status quo.

Such musings aside, Manning showed considerable aptitude for computer programming at school, and joined the US navy as an intelligence analyst at the age of 19.  She was posted to Iraq in October 2009, where her job granted her access to sensitive and privileged military data.  Troubled by what she learned about the civilian casualties of American strategy during her first tour of duty in Iraq, Manning made her first contact with WikiLeaks in January 2010.  By April, WikiLeaks had posted a video of a 2007 airstrike on Baghdad by American helicopters, that Manning had smuggled out of Iraq on an SD card whilst on leave.  The video showed two helicopters firing on groups of Iraqi civilians, with the second helicopter targeting a van that had stopped to help a man who had been wounded in the previous airstrike.  Among the crowd were Reuters journalists: the helicopter crew had mistaken their cameras for weapons.  Two children were in the van: they were both wounded.  Their father was killed.  Perhaps the most shocking element of the recordings, however, are the audible comments of members of the helicopter crews.  Post-traumatic stress disorder had clearly taken its toll on them, with their speech suggesting they had become completely detached from what they doing; their psychological connection to the bombing raids had been reduced to the emotional neutrality of playing a video game.  When the crew are informed that a child has been injured in their attack, one soldier can be heard saying, “Ah, damn.  Oh, well: it’s their fault for bringing kids into a battle.”

Amongst Manning’s other submissions to WikiLeaks were the 2011 Guantánamo Files – a list of prisoners that had been held at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp since 2002.  The Files show that the American Government’s claim that Guantánamo was a facility for detaining dangerous militants was false, and that most prisoners were deemed as not posing any threat to national security.  Many of them had been held for periods of over five years, in the hope that information could be extracted from them by means of torture.  The Files also showed that nearly one hundred prisoners were suffering from depressive and psychotic illnesses, and that the list of inmates included an 89-year-old man with dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time as a result of being kidnapped from his home-village by the Taliban.

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Snitch! – Chelsea Manning poses for a selfie when she really should be focusing her attention on the road

Manning was arrested in May 2010, and charged with leaking classified information.  In July that year, she was moved the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia, where she was held for up to 23 hours a day in a solitary cell.  When Manning’s court-martial concluded at Forte Meade, Maryland, in August 2013, she was found guilty of twenty offences under the Espionage Act.  She was sentenced to a prison sentence of 35 years – chiefly for the crime of leaking US state secrets to the WikiLeaks website – but cleared of the more serious offence of ‘aiding the enemy’, which would have meant serving her punishment in solitary confinement.

During Manning’s trial and subsequent imprisonment, international newspapers published the Guantánamo Files, along with other material she had passed on to Julian Assange.  These included 250,000 US embassy communications, which exposed diplomats’ true feelings about their postings, and exposed widespread corruption in regimes across the Middle East; and the Iraq War Logs, which revealed that, of the 150,000 Iraqi deaths recorded during the American invasion of 2004-2009, as many 80 percent of casualties had been civilians.

The day after sentencing, Manning’s lawyer announced her wish to be known as Chelsea, but it took until April 2014 for her request to be recognised under Kansas state law.  Whilst United States legislation does provide help for gender dysphoric prisoners, in 2014, transgender individuals were prohibited from serving in the US military.  This policy meant that the hormone treatment and counselling accessible under certain circumstances to civilian prisoners was not available in military gaols.  It took two law-suits and another eleven months before Manning was permitted hormone therapy, although she was never allowed to grow her hair beyond the regulation length for a male prisoner, use cosmetics, or to have any female-specific pronouns used in her prison records.  She tried to take her own life twice in 2016 – once in July, and again in November, straight after being put in solitary confinement as punishment for her first suicide attempt.

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Does my shiv look big in this? – for transgender prisoners, there can be no guarantees of access to the feminising comfort blankets that biological women take for granted

In January 2017, President Barack Obama announced that Chelsea Manning’s sentence was being commuted, and, on May 17th, she was released from Fort Leavenworth penitentiary in Kansas.  Now: your opinion of whether Chelsea Manning is a hero or a traitor depends almost entirely on where you stand regarding post-conventional ethics.

The American psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) began developing his theory of moral development in his 1958 doctoral dissertation.  In this paper, Kohlberg outlined three levels of moral development (divided into two stages each), which describe the development of human moral reasoning.  The first level, Kohlberg maintained, was that of pre-conventional ethics.  At this level, human ethical decisions are made according to self-interest (What is in this for me?) and individuals’ orientations towards obedience and punishment (What course of action will help me avoid being punished? in other words).

At the second level – that of conventional ethics – individuals make decisions based on their desire to conform to social norms (such the accepted way in which boys and girls should dress and behave), adherence to contracts of employment, and their orientation towards authority, social order and the law.  An employee who chooses to turn a blind eye to a morally dubious practice in order to keep their job or protect the reputation of the company, for example, is practicing conventional ethics.

The third type, or post-conventional code, is the most highly developed level of ethical reasoning.  At this stage, the individual makes decisions according to universal ethical principles that transcend concern for personal security or the quiet life.  Whistle-blowers are the archetypal post-conventionalists: people like Chelsea Manning, who decide that they cannot keep quiet about something they see as a moral outrage, no matter what the personal costs for them might be.  This level of morality requires abstract reasoning, and an ability to see far beyond the immediate needs of the self.  When an individual acts according to a post-conventional ethical code, they do so categorically and deontologically, with the greater good and the moral advancement of society as a whole as their primary concern, rather than the protection of short-term interests and the avoidance of censure.

Chelsea Manning’s sacrifice must thus be judged according to Kohlberg’s framework.  I’m not going to tell anyone what to think, but it can be argued that the very nature of American involvement in the Middle East (including the closure of Guantánamo Bay detention camp) changed as a direct result of Manning’s preparedness to face court-martial and imprisonment for what she believed.  If, after chewing over that philosophical morsel, you still prefer your transgender role-models to sing at Eurovision, act in TV prison dramas, or be related to the Kardashians, then you really need to rethink your priorities.

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Drag Queen Story Hour – in which drag queens read stories… for an hour

All transgender people act according to post-conventional ethics when they take the step of refusing to conform not a minute longer to the social expectations of the traditional gender binary.  For transsexuals, there are always consequences to the choices they make, whether they be marginalisation or denial of advancement at work, estrangement from friends or family, and the occasional mouthful of vigorous abuse from a stranger on the street.  How galling it can be, then, to learn that public libraries in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco are choosing to promote tolerance and understanding of transgender people by hiring drag queens to read to groups children; to discover that the chosen representatives of my community include Honey Mahogany, Tempest DuJour and Alaska Thunderfuck.

Drag Queen Story Hour was launched in December 2015, and involves pretty much what it says on the tin: drag queens in Carmen Miranda wigs, taffeta gowns and platform heels descending on public libraries, schools and bookshops in Brooklyn and neighbourhoods of San Francisco and Los Angeles every weekend lunchtime to read stories to children.  The aim of the project, in the words of its website, is to create an environment which captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models.  In spaces like this, kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish; where dress-up is real.”

Whilst it would be churlish not to applaud any in-your-face showboating of alternative lifestyles and flaunting of gender diversity – especially in educational contexts – I remain unconvinced that drag queens are the best ambassadors for this.  Drag queens are performers, after all; entertainers who adopt personas in order to provide amusement.  In traditional drag (such as that embodied by the British institution of the pantomime dame), the entertainment (or artform, if you will) only really works if the performer communicates the idea that they aren’t really enjoying what they are doing; if their performance is constantly haunted by the suggestion that they were somehow coerced into this grotesque parody of femininity, and are humiliating themselves solely for the pleasure of the crowd.  Furthermore, drag does not blur the lines between the sexes; it does not generate curiosity about gender by offering ambiguity and challenging stereotypes.  Rather, drag is an exaggerated pastiche of female behaviour, sexuality and sartorial habits, and is, by definition, an attention-seeking performance-art that trades on bawdy jokes and sexual innuendo.  Drag is not, in short, an amusement designed for children.

What is most disappointing, however, is that the enthusiastic kiddies of Brooklyn and San Francisco are not being exposed to gender non-conforming people who live everyday lives – who go about the humdrum business of earning a living as a member of a gender to which they were not assigned at birth.  It is as if, in those American libraries, the organisers of Drag Queen Story Hour are nervous of allowing children to meet actual transsexuals and homosexuals; that the founder of Drag Queen Story Hour, Michelle Tea, is only brave enough to expose children to alternative lifestyles provided it is through the sanitised filters of performance, ostentation, camp and exaggeration.  Drag, like all pretence, distances the performer from their audience – it does not bring the two of them closer together.  When, one Saturday lunchtime at San Francisco Public Library, six-year old James Mendenhall asked how, if she had been born a boy, Honey Mahogany had acquired breasts, I just wish he’d been asking J (the British transwoman forced to leave her community of north Manchester Charedi Jews) why a judge had told her in 2017 that she couldn’t see her children anymore.  Now that would have been educational.

 

The Drag Queen Story Hour website can be found here… https://www.dragqueenstoryhour.org/

My analysis of the case of J and the Charedi Jewish community of north Manchester can be read here…                              https://abigailrobinsonblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/05/too-high-a-price-to-pay-the-personal-cost-of-changing-gender/

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Duck and Cover – Transgender Survival Strategies for 2017

It’s 2017!  Yay!  And what a thrilling year it promises to be!  Of all the apocalyptic excitements lined up for the next twelve months, I’m most excited about Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th President of the United States of America, because his first term promises to be absolutely peachy for transsexuals.  First, there’s all the brouhaha about which public toilets transgender students are permitted to use, with Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming all looking to control people’s lavatorial access because of what is written on their birth certificates; and refusing to provide alternative provision – even when this is in direct contradiction to national government policy.  And then there’s the thorny issue of allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military; the likelihood that transgender people will be denied the right to choose their own gender designation on identity documents; resistance to marriage equality for gay and transgender people; and proposed legislation to prohibit transgender Americans from owning a gun.  (I made that last one up, but it would be interesting to see what would happen, wouldn’t it?)

On top of all that are the billionaires Trump is choosing to fill key posts in his cabinet and the supreme court, with Vice President Mike Pence, by way of an example, making no secret of his belief in curative ‘conversion therapy’ for gay and transgender people – even arguing that funding for research into HIV/AIDS should be diverted for the purpose.

But the fun doesn’t stop there!  Britain’s departure from the European Union is surely now only three months, two years, two-and-a-half years, four years or six years away, which means I can look forward to a protracted period of uncertainty regarding which legal statutes are safeguarding my right to participate in social and economic life, and protecting me from discrimination on the grounds of my gender.  Fingers crossed that, by the time the British government begins drafting the English Bill of Rights that will replace the only specific strictures protecting transgender people from legal, financial, religious, educational or employment prejudice, England will have a Lord Chancellor who does not believe anyone who requires state aid – or who is a little bit different – is vermin.

The legitimisation of a politics that is self-serving, xenophobic, and which breeds suspicion, fear and hatred to serve its own grubby, venal ends, is by no means limited to America and the United Kingdom.  2017 promises to witness the election across the globe of a slew of right-wing extremists to positions of power by a disaffected working class, and a host of countries braced to abandon even the pretence of upholding the rights of minorities to work where they want, get paid what they deserve, marry who they choose, live where they like, and go about their daily life without fear of molestation.

 

It is not good time to be different: ignorance, nimbyism, selfishness, isolationism and hatred are in the ascendency.  The attributes of fitting in, following the herd, making the right connections, and playing the system are now not only prized above all others; they are essential for the successful navigation of twenty-first century life.  We are learning to revile anyone who isn’t capable of standing up for themselves, and being educated to make pariahs of any individuals or groups who depend for their wellbeing upon the beneficence of government and the generosity of public funds.  We all have the right to be different and be true to ourselves, the modern-day lie maintains, provided the ways in which we want to be different and true to ourselves are in accordance with socially sanctioned ways of thinking and behaving.  As the fourth-grade philosophers at South Park Elementary remind us:

’Cause you gotta do what you wanna do!

Don’t let nothin’ get in your way;

Chase your dream every day!

True, girl, you know it’s true,

That if you really wanna be you,

You’ve gotta do what you wanna do!

You gotta do what you wanna do!

Just make sure that what you’re doing

Is what’s cool and popular with everyone!

Do what you want, don’t have restraint;

Don’t stress about it or you just might faint.

(If you wanna get high and jack off, it’s cool.)

Try to do what you wanna do!

As long as what you wanna do

Is what everybody wants you to!

What, then, can you do to defend yourself from hatred and stupidity in the age of ignorance?  Not a lot, is the honest answer, but you can at least ensure that you are well-informed.  When someone is trying to tell you what you should do, how you should think, where you can go, who you can marry, what you can and cannot do to your own body, and what job you can have, be ready to mount the best intellectual defence that you can of your refusal to conform to convenient social stereotypes.  History might not repeat itself exactly, but it does rhyme, and there are a number of historical precedents transgender people can refer to when they must challenge bigotry, educate idiocy, and stand up for their prerogative to be different.

Forewarned is forearmed.  Here, therefore, are six common transphobic arguments that are rolled out to justify the unjust and prejudicial treatment of gender nonconforming people, along with a number of telling historical parallels of the use of similar discriminatory nonsense against racial and minority groups.  So: if someone tells you can’t take a wizz in a public convenience, or that god made Adam and Eve – not Adam and Steve, be ready to flummox them with a well-aimed political zinger about how their arguments have been tried (and found severely wanting) before, and about how, ultimately, the tide of history is on our side.

One: Transsexuality is just an excuse for being a pervert!

When the American chain of discount stores, Target, unveiled a bathroom and fitting-room policy in April, 2016, that would allow customers and staff to use the facility that felt right for them, nearly one-and-a-half million people signed an online petition calling for a boycott of Target outlets.

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A neat encapsulation of the sophisticated and reasoned arguments against allowing transgender people to use the public toilet that is right for them

The issue was covered by The Washington Post under the headline, “ ‘A Danger to wives and daughters’: Petition to boycott Target over transgender-inclusive bathrooms claims growing support”, which highlighted the belief that the policy of Target stores “could facilitate sexual abuse, particularly against minors.”  It is terrifying to belong to a group whose members can be so casually labelled as child abusers and sexual deviants, and it matters very little to the mob that there is no statistical evidence whatsoever to support the assertion that transgender people are more likely than any other citizen to commit sexual assault.  Apart from anything else, there are much easier ways to satisfy a fetish for toilet rape than alienating your friends, losing your job, and facing physical and verbal abuse on a daily basis, as a result of coming out as transgender.

Sound familiar?

The argument that violence or wanton depravity inevitably follows when different groups of people live and work together is a particular favourite of the cretinous racist.  During America’s much overdue period of desegregation in the 1950s, reactionary propaganda sought to persuade unwary liberals that forcing people to live in a multicultural society would lead to disorder and conflict.  The English politician, Enoch Powell, made a similar assertion in 1968, when he predicted urban neighbourhoods would flow with “rivers of blood” if immigration into the United Kingdom was permitted to go ahead unchecked.

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In these enlightened times, anti-desegregation propaganda would seem laughable if it weren’t so disturbing

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that an irrational fear of integration is a mere comedic anachronism.  There are some very powerful people who continue preach that, when people from different genders live and work side-by-side, the temptation to commit sexual assault is irrepressible, and that paedophilia and rape are only a heartbeat away.  The only thing scarier than the people spouting such garbage are the folk who are prepared to vote for them.

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President Elect, Donald J Trump, continues to show how tirelessly he is working to drag American moral and intellectual debate back out of the twenty-first century

Two: It is unfair to allow transgender people to participate in mainstream sport.

In January, 2016, the International Olympic Committee announced that it was relaxing its rules on the rights of transgender athletes to participate in international competitions.  Under the new regulations, gender reassignment surgery ceased to be a condition to take part in events, although aspiring male-to-female competitors must demonstrate that their testosterone levels are below a given threshold before they can participate (because that’s the only performance-enhancing chemical the IOC needs to be worried about right now…).

Given that caring who wins a sporting competition is absurd anyway, the outcry which followed this announcement was not difficult to predict.  Even an organ as sober as The Times newspaper responded with a column unequivocally headlined, “Transgender athletes are unfair to women”; the response on social media to the IOC’s announcement, meanwhile, was positively hysterical.

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A neat encapsulation of the sophisticated and reasoned arguments used to bar transgender people from participating in mainstream sport

Sound familiar?

Competitive sport is such an elitist (and, it seems, permanently and intrinsically corrupt) institution, that it is difficult for rational persons to get worked up about it, but historical parallels to the exclusion of transgender athletes tended be focused on a fear that the purity and ‘tradition’ of sporting activity would be eroded by policies of inclusivity.  Discrimination was justified with claims that the integrity of competitions could only be maintained via the preservation of the (white) status quo.

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Sporting competition has always been an arena for the healthy, good-natured letting off of steam, as witnessed in these early twentieth century newspaper cuttings

It took until 1946 for Jackie Robinson to ‘break the colour barrier’ in American sport, when he became the first black American to be signed by a professional baseball team. When he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was initially greeted with racial abuse from spectators, teammates refusing to play alongside him, and death threats from fans of both baseball and racism.  Sixty-seven years later, the mixed martial artist, Fallon Fox, became the first transgender woman to participate professionally in her sport.  In deference to over half a century of human stupidity, Fox was welcomed into the martial arts community with grammatically risible death threats.

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A proud and noble tradition – Anonymous death threats to the athletes Jackie Robinson and Fallon Fox, written in 1946 and 2013, respectively

Three: Why should precious time and resources be spent pandering to the whims of the tiny minority of transgender people living in this country?

Donald Trump’s position on the rights of transgender people is not easy to pin down precisely, but in May, 2016, he did tell a Fox News interviewer that national government should stay out of transgender politics, and that it should be left to state legislatures to decide how to serve their transgender constituents.  When Trump was asked for his opinion on the North Carolina Bathroom Bill, he responded with, “You know, Obama’s getting into very tricky territory.  The amazing thing is so many people are talking about this now, and we have to protect everybody even if it’s just one person, but this is such a tiny part of our population.”  Did Trump provide gender-neutral bathrooms in his properties?  “No, we don’t have that.  I hope not, because, frankly, it would be unbelievably expensive, nationwide.  It would be hundreds of billions of dollars.”

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A neat encapsulation of the sophisticated and reasoned arguments advanced for not caring about the civil rights of transgender Americans

Sound familiar?

The argument that the problems of a minority should not be disproportionately elevated above that particular group’s actual cultural significance is, of course, as paradoxical as it is poisonous.  Trivialising the needs of a section of the population on the grounds that the numbers affected are small is an effective way of subordinating that group’s rights and entitlements, and of justifying inaction when the groups requires protection.  It is precisely because a group is small that it needs powerful advocates to act on its behalf.

Both the Civil Rights movement and the campaign for women’s suffrage were marginalised and ignored because propaganda encouraged them to be seen as fringe groups whose needs would have to wait until more pressing societal problems were resolved; as spurious pseudo-movements dreamt up by lunatic extremists claiming to speak for a non-existent membership; and even as smokescreens for smuggling communist ideas into the United States.

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Who do you think you are? – Not everyone is fortunate enough to belong to a group deemed worthy of basic liberty and equality
nine
Some people are never satisfied – Not content with having men to run their businesses and keep their world safe, at the dawn of the twentieth century, a small, lunatic circle of western women started demanding the right to vote

Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter how many people identify as transgender, and how large (or small) a percentage of the population this constitutes.  A society which cannot protect the entitlements and freedoms of all its members to live ordinary, decent lives is a society that is failing.  There can never a quorum for how large a group needs to be before the safeguarding of its human rights should be enshrined in morality and law: that group simply needs to be human.

Four: Telling me I can’t abuse transgender people is a denial of my right to free speech!

The politicians, media moguls and millionaires who campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union in June, 2016, did so by appealing to voters’ base prejudices.  The tantalising (and fundamentally dishonest) promise of splendid isolation offered by the emetic triumvirate of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Rupert Murdoch exploited xenophobic anxieties that cut across social strata.  Small businessmen were persuaded that Brexit would stop Bogdan and Lukasz from undercutting their nascent painting and decorating businesses, while that the already-rich were encouraged to look forward to an era when they would be even less constrained by equal-opportunities legislation and the requirement to meet minimum standards of decency in the way they treat their workforce.  The Daily Mail reading classes, meanwhile, were told they would no longer have a faceless bureaucrat telling them from Brussels that they couldn’t sing ‘Baa-baa Black Sheep’ in schools, buy curved bananas, or refer openly to gollywogs, blackboards, Christmas, jigsaws, Um-Bongo, remedials, fairy-lights, pooftahs, ching-chong Chinamen and fuzzy-wuzzies.

Happily, the lexicon with which gender nonconformity is discussed and described is moving gradually away from conceptions anchored in the clinical and pathological disciplines.  The encouraging (but largely forgotten) report on Transgender Equality published by the UK government in January, 2016, argues that the reliance for legal matters on labels derived from surgical procedures – like ‘gender reassignment’ and ‘transsexual’ – to determine gender nonconformity should be replaced with language predicated on the assumption that transgender people have the right to autonomy of self-identification.

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A neat encapsulation of the sophisticated and reasoned arguments espoused by people who do not believe they should moderate their language to take account of modern sensibilities

Sound familiar?

Not everyone is equipped for readily adjusting the way they talk and think when the casual cruelty of the vocabulary they use to describe sexuality, race or gender identity becomes socially unacceptable.  Consigning certain terminology to the dustbin of history does not come easy to people who have not been helped to understand the damage certain words have the power to do.  Letting go is hard to do, and the bigoted have become adept at portraying themselves as the victim when social pressure tells them they need to mind their language.  Such thinking linked linguistic change with thought-policing by opponents of the Civil Rights movement (when jettisoning the word ‘negro’ from everyday speech proved challenging for some people), and again by enemies of the campaign for women’s suffrage.  As society has grown out of an outmoded vocabulary for talking about race and women’s rights, so too will people cease to feel comfortable insisting on medicalised labels for transgender people.  Hopefully, one day, people will even stop denying us the right to choose how we self-identify.

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Give them an inch and they take a mile – History is littered with groups whose sole aim was to unsettle established mores and impose prohibitions on their peers’ native language

Five: Marriage should be between a man and a woman, not between two women, two men, nor anything in between.

Under UK law, if one of the partners in an existing marriage declares their intention to change gender, the marriage must be dissolved to allow the partner (or partners) in question to obtain legal recognition of their new gender, before the couple can remarry.  In the United States, meanwhile, the right of transgender people to condemn themselves to a lifetime of connubial misery is covered by the same laws as same-sex marriage.

The legal precedent that enshrined the right of same-sex couples to marry in American law was established by the June, 2015, ruling of the Supreme Court in the case of Obergefell versus Hodges.  This move, of course, has been far from universally popular in the US, and incites particular apoplexy for adherents to America’s unique brand of excitable, evangelising, deep-south Christianity.  Nothing upsets the cast of Deliverance quite like gay marriage, with anything outside the absolute, predetermined, cisgender, heterosexual norm equated with devil-worship, paedophilia and bestiality.  There is, it is argued, a natural order of things, and if anyone who wasn’t unequivocally born a man or woman seeks to make a public declaration of their love for another human being, then they are committing an act of gross indecency in the eyes of god.  Transsexuality’s just not natural, Cletus!

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A neat encapsulation of the sophisticated and reasoned arguments made against the rights of transgender people and same-sex couples to enter into the beautiful and noble institution of marriage

Sound familiar?

One person’s establishment of legal precedent is another person’s slippery slope to Sodom and Gomorrah, and the argument that allowing one break with tradition will lead inexorably to anarchy, was a popular one to advance when members of the American establishment were just starting to get their old testament heads around the idea that people were capable of falling in love across long-held barriers of race and ethnicity.

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Part of the (unsuccessful) legal opposition to the 1967 Loving versus Virginia court battle, in which it was argued that permitting two consenting adults from different races to marry was as unthinkable as incest, paedophilia or the rape of the disabled

Six: Gender Nonconformity has nothing to do with biology or neurology – it’s just a silly lifestyle choice.

We don’t yet know exactly what is at the root of a person’s desire to change the gender they were assigned at birth.  On the one hand, the Dutch neuro-scientist Dick Swaab (in his 2014 book, ‘We Are Our Brains’) argues that transsexuality occurs when the gender mapping that takes place during prenatal brain development differs from the sex organs grown by the foetus, and is therefore just as much a product of development in the womb as the colour of our eyes or the shape of our feet.  At the opposite end of the nature versus nurture spectrum, meanwhile, proponents of the trans-exclusionary school of radical feminism (most notably, British academic, Julie Bindel, and Maryland lawyer, Cathy Brennan) argue that transgenderism is entirely socially constructed.  Specifically, TERF dogma maintains that female-to-male transsexuals are motivated by the desire to experience the power mandated to men by hegemonic processes in patriarchal societies; whilst, for transwomen, the appeal of transition is purely sexual – they just want to get their rocks off by pulling on fishnets and having a taste of being stared at.

Whether gender transition is a compulsion, a conviction, a compunction or a contrivance – or whether it is the result of over-indulgent mothering, childhood trauma, psychosis, psychology, psychiatry, psychopathy or psychometry – the label attached to its origins should never be an excuse for prejudice and discrimination.  In January, 2015, I had an article published on a website for American teachers and administrators called ‘Education Week’.  In it, I described the effect my transition had had on my teaching career, and how, ultimately, the barriers to employment and advancement I suddenly encountered had convinced me that I no longer wished to be part of such a toxic and reactionary profession.

The comments about my article that were appended to the ‘Education Week’ website proved to be startlingly and overwhelmingly negative.  That said, analysis of these responses proved quite interesting, and showed that – however colourfully they expressed their prejudices – American teachers had three interconnected preoccupations when it came to gender nonconformity:

  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 a change of career).
  3. Shock at the effrontery shown by transgender people when they expect society to accept difference, safeguard the principle of equality, and accommodate the desire of all its members to live healthy and happy lives, find paid employment, have aspirations commensurate with their skills and qualifications, and walk down the street without being screamed at.

These weren’t the views of cave-dwelling bigots, I forced myself to remember – these were teachers; professionals entrusted with the shaping of young minds.  Belonging to a caring, nurturing, selfless profession, however, does not preclude a person from being subject to the same societal forces that influence mainstream opinion.  That teachers hold conservative views should not be surprising, but it should remain disappointing: the reasons why people elect to live different lifestyles should not eclipse the defence of their right to live them.

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A neat encapsulation of the sophisticated and reasoned arguments put forward for taking transgender rights off the political and social agenda

Sound familiar?

History is littered with examples of pseudo-sciences that have been used to generate typologies that, in turn, have been used condone persecution, tyranny and repression: instances of pure bullshit, which enjoyed brief periods of popularity before being debunked and dismissed as the nonsense they clearly were.  Phrenology, and the less snappily named racial-anthropological physiognomy, are no longer used as excuses for racism and eugenics, and monarchs and prime ministers no longer consult astrologers before making strategic military decisions.  (Mind you, I would criticise astrology: cynical and suspicious, that’s me – a typical Taurus.)

Societies tend to grow out of mediaeval attachments to faulty scientific reasoning, but not all pseudo-science is easily dismissed, especially when it is used as an instrument of oppression.  Neither is specious scientific reasoning the sole recourse of the crackpot or mountebank, and we must all accept our individual and collective responsibility for questioning and rejecting justifications for prejudice and hatred based on false logic, dodgy reasoning, scientific ignorance, or (heaven forbid) the Bible.

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Not every pseudo-scientist is an oddball or an irrelevance – even Charles Darwin was not above trying to offer evolutionary ‘proof’ that women were inferior to men

Bibliography

A sobering tour of current, attempted and pending transphobic legislation in the United States can be taken here…                               http://www.transequality.org/action-center

The chilling insight into human nature provided by reactions to the policy of the American cut-price retailer, Target, to allow transgender customers to use all its fitting-rooms and toilet facilities, can be read on the website of The Washington Post, here…                                                         https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/04/26/a-danger-to-wives-and-daughters-petition-to-boycott-target-over-transgender-inclusive-bathrooms-claims-growing-support/?utm_term=.2bf316b3044b

More detail about the relaxation of entry requirements for wannabe transgender Olympians can be gleaned here…https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/jan/25/ioc-rules-transgender-athletes-can-take-part-in-olympics-without-surgery

Donald Trump’s opinions on efforts by legislators in a number of American states to stop transgender people going to the toilet can be studied here…http://www.advocate.com/politics/2016/5/24/donald-trump-claims-accommodating-transgender-people-too-expensive

The report into Transgender Equality by the UK Women and Equalities Select Committee (January 2016), can be viewed in full here… http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmwomeq/390/390.pdf

My witty and insightful deconstruction of said white paper can be enjoyed here…                                                https://abigailrobinsonblog.wordpress.com/2016/02/24/overt-and-unchallenged-part-i-what-needs-to-happen-before-governments-can-address-transphobic-prejudice/

For a glimpse at the tenets of trans-exclusionary radical feminism, Cathy Brennan’s 2011 letter to the UN challenging non-biological definitions of gender in law, and calling for the protection of female-only spaces, can be explored here…                                                                                                         https://sexnotgender.com/gender-identity-legislation-and-the-erosion-of-sex-based-legal-protections-for-females/

My article about my experiences of gender transition whilst working as a teacher (and the responses it provoked) can be read in its partially denuded state here… http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/finding_common_ground/2016/01/how_i_ruined_my_teaching_career_by_changing_gender.html

 

…And remember, kids: plagiarism is okay, provided the source you’re stealing from is rubbish.  The bare idea for this article (and the bulk of the archival material it contains) were cribbed from an October 2016 submission to the blogging website, ‘Cracked’.  However: when the grammar and syntax of the original article have all the grace of a six-year old’s homework, but the point being made is an interesting and a worthy one, it deserves a second draft by a better writer, right?  Accordingly, the links to the political landscape of 2017, the placing of the arguments in their wider perspective and broader cultural context, and the eloquent written style, are entirely mine.  Have a Very New Year!

Our Own Worst Enemy – How Transgender People were Complicit in the Election of Donald Trump

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.

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Geoff Love’s version of the Star Wars soundtrack – like the John Williams’ original, but with added ‘pew-pew’

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.

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“Trump: the pussy-grabbing, wall-building, climate-change-denying, healthcare-abolishing, tax-dodging, shit-spewing demagogue.”

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.

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The Flag of Transgender Pride – no doubt making some clever point about shades of masculinity and femininity through its use of pastel pinks and blues, but a stark example of what can happen if you allow a symbol to be designed by committee

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.

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Motivational posters – if this sort of nonsense inspires you, then you’re an idiot. And who on Earth is Jamie Paolinetti?

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.

‘Overt and Unchallenged’ Part III – The Media Must Make up its Mind about Transgender People

The media was one of the institutions identified in the UK government’s 2016 report, ‘Transgender Equality’, as having culpability for perpetuating transphobic prejudice – along with marriage, sport, schools, prisons and healthcare.  The Women and Equalities Select Committee called for greater regulation of the way transgender people are portrayed in the media and on-line; for it to made easier for people to complain when they feel this treatment is biased or distasteful; and for complainants to feel as if the issues they raise are taken seriously.  An overview of the media over the last half-decade, however, reveals a disparity in the way transgender people from different backgrounds are treated and portrayed: whilst ordinary transgender folk are demonised as outcasts and weirdos, transgender celebrities are steeped in adoration and awe.  In this posting, I subject this discrepancy to the further exploration I think it warrants.  Oh – and I also reveal what connects Caitlyn Jenner with the South Dakota Bathroom Bill.

 

The attention paid to transgender people by the media falls into two contradictory categories.  On the one hand, there is a lurid fascination with people’s habits and peccadilloes that manifests itself as a captivated revulsion from the lifestyles of members of the transgender community; an outspoken, taken-for-granted disapproval of the effect someone’s transition has had on the lives of their colleagues, families and friends.  Simultaneously, however, an hysterical, star-struck adoration of transgender celebrities exists side-by-side with this urge towards judgemental puritanism.  Whilst ordinary transgender people are censured and condemned, the popular press can barely satisfy its vicarious addiction to glamour and red-carpet walking sexuality.  At the same time as right-wing commentators are hounding transsexuals away from their families and out of their jobs, gossip columnists maintain a feverish, unsavoury obsession with what Caitlyn Jenner is wearing on the cover of Vanity Fair, or which designer made the frock that Laverne Cox had on at yesterday’s Emmy Awards dinner.  The two types of coverage are utterly incompatible, but both do their own unique brand of damage to media-consumers’ perceptions of – and attitudes towards – the transgender population.

Thirty-two year-old Nathan Upton stepped into the shoes of Lucy Meadows at the end of 2012, and, after the Christmas holidays, returned to the Lancashire primary school where she was a teacher with the approval of the principal and the support of the parents of the children in her class.  Meadows had sacrificed a great deal to become the woman she wanted to be; distancing herself from her parents, acquiring a sizeable financial debt, and estranging herself from her wife and daughter.  That December, Meadows had contacted the Press Complaints Commission over a column about her that had been printed in the Daily Mail newspaper.  The PCC upheld Meadows’ complaint, and the Daily Mail was found guilty of inaccuracy, harassment and breaches of privacy.

The column in question was penned by inane cultural tumour, Richard Littlejohn.  Beneath the headline, He’s Not Only in the Wrong Body; He’s in the Wrong Job, Littlejohn opens munificently by stating, “I don’t… have any problem with sex-change operations being carried out on the NHS”, before proceeding to print a litany of irrelevant and intrusive facts about Lucy Meadows’ family, place of work and gender history, along with a photograph of her sitting beside her wife at their wedding in 2009.  Littlejohn’s next discursive move is to infantilise Meadows – to make her appear ridiculous – by writing (with a crassly conspicuous lack of respect for Meadows’ choice of pronoun), “He started turning up for class wearing pink nail varnish and sparkly headbands.”

Littlejohn’s main beef about Lucy Meadows’ decision to come to work in female role is that the announcement of her transition was made with insufficient fuss and fanfare.  The head-teacher of Meadows’ school chose to break the news quietly in the Christmas newsletter that was sent home to parents; to squirrel it away discreetly amongst the notices of other staff changes at the school.  Evidently, this was not enough for Littlejohn, who buttonholes a hysterical parent in pursuit of proving how “worried and confused” children at the school were by Meadows’ decision:

“ ‘My middle boy thinks that he might wake up with a girl’s brain because he was told that Mr Upton, as he got older, got a girl’s brains.’ ”

For his money-shot, Littlejohn asserts that young children should not be forced to confront any non-typical lifestyle choices, and, accordingly, be shielded from anyone whose gender does not conform to old-fashioned, binary norms.  The climax he works himself up to is the insistence that a transgender teacher “is putting [their] own selfish needs ahead of the well-being of the children [they have] taught”.  According to Littlejohn, Meadows should have moved schools at the same time as making her professional transition – to “disappear quietly” to “the other side of town” where “No-one would have been any the wiser”.  A school, according to Littlejohn, should not “be allowed to elevate its ‘commitment to diversity and equality’ above its duty of care to its pupils”: instead, “It should be protecting pupils from some of the more, er, challenging realities of adult life, not forcing them down their throats.”

Whilst continuing to deny Lucy Meadows even the dignity of using her preferred name, Littlejohn asserts that, whilst Nathan Upton has every right to undergo gender reassignment surgery, “he isn’t entitled to project his personal problems on to impressionable young children.”  At the risk of sounding like a PhD sociologist, I feel obliged to observe that Littlejohn’s apparently innocuous use of the phrase ‘personal problems’ in this closing paragraph is a strategic act of discursive hegemony.  This semantic choice is an attempt to construe events at the small Lancashire school in a negative way in order to persuade his readership to accept Littlejohn’s parochial, narrow-minded version of reality.  In this case, Littlejohn hopes to convince his audience to take it for granted that transgenderism is, ipso facto, a problem, and that it is a common-sense assumption that gender nonconformity has no place in primary schools:

“These are primary school children, for heaven’s sake.  Most of them still believe in Father Christmas.  Let them enjoy their childhood.  They will lose their innocence soon enough.”

Lucy Meadows committed suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning in March, 2013.

The obsequious, almost masturbatory manner in which the press fawn over celebrity transsexuals like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, meanwhile, seems so utterly incongruent with the sneering (but at the same time salacious) moralising that contributed to the death of Lucy Meadows, that it would be difficult to believe they could happen in the same media universe, if the hypocrisy encapsulated in this duality wasn’t so tiresomely predictable.

Frame Caitlyn Jenner
Inspired by a media obsessed with glamorous transgender luminaries, anyone can emulate the celebrity struggles of the pampered millionaire, Caitlyn Jenner

Casual consumers of the fame-obsessed media are encouraged to view Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and a host less-familiar others, as role-models of stoicism and courage in the face of abuse and rejection; of “the way we tackle ignorance” (Huffington Post, June 2014); “raise awareness about the transgender community” (Daily Mail – somewhat disingenuously – July 2015); and of “all of us accepting one another”, especially “the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with being true to who they are” (Daily Mail – again – July 2015).  The trouble with offering up celebrities as role-models, however, is that their lifestyles are so far removed from most transgender people’s everyday experience that the lessons they teach us have no transferable value.  When I was being made redundant – shortly after transitioning – from the high school at which I had worked for five years, how much solace was I able to gain by reflecting on the nerves of republican and ex-Olympic athlete, Caitlyn Jenner, as she waited for her TV show, ‘I am Cait’, to air?  And, as I walked away from yet another unsuccessful job interview, what consolation could I glean by contemplating the successful career of the millionaire performer, Laverne Cox?

As I am not eight years old, I am immune to the charms of celebrity role-models.  Because I can discern no meaningful parallels between their lives and my own, the examples of Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox seem remote and irrelevant to me.  When their contribution to the profile of the transgender community amounts to little more than what colour gown they were wearing at a particular Hollywood ball last Friday night, I struggle to find anything we have in common.  Jenner, Cox, et al., may regale interviewers with tales of how they were bullied at school, or how they had to overcome familial disapproval as they were growing up, but if all they subsequently do with their notoriety is encourage glossy magazines to gush over how gorgeous they look, then solidarity and empathy is not what they are promoting.  On the contrary: their media profile fuels envy, vanity, and an unattainable ideal of body image, sexuality, and the obsession of male-to-female transsexuals with ‘passing’.  The effect isn’t an emboldening sense of strength in numbers: it’s a hollow melancholy amongst those who will never be rich or famous enough to be as elegant as a Hollywood superstar.

Anohni (formerly Anthony Hegarty) is an artist, composer, and lead singer of the band Anthony and the Johnsons.  She is only the second transgender person ever to be nominated for an Academy Award (the first was Angela Morley, who was shortlisted for best original score in 1974 and 1978), but, on her website in February, 2016, Anohni announced that she would not be travelling to Los Angeles to attend the ceremony because the Academy had not invited her to perform on the night.

This decision is not as vain as it initially appears.  At first glance, the very fact of Anohni’s nomination seems encouragingly symbolic of Hollywood’s readiness to accept difference and embrace diversity, but in subsequently denying Anohni the opportunity to perform, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is showing that its commitment to diversity is cosmetic, and that it doesn’t have the moral courage to sacrifice commercial considerations in favour of exemplifying social change.  Given that Anohni has earned critical recognition for her hard work and talent (rather than, say, for just wearing a dress and looking pretty), by appearing at the Oscars, she could have played a small but significant part in elevating transgender role-models.  Instead, the Academy sought to use her to make a superficial concession to diversity, before it gave centre stage to more bankable performers:

“The producers seemed to have decided to stage performances only by the singers who were deemed commercially viable. Composer David Lang’s song ‘Simple Song #3’ performed by South Korean soprano Sumi Jo was also omitted. It was degrading to watch the articles in Variety, The Daily Telegraph, Pitchfork, Stereogum, etc., start to appear. Eclipsing earlier notices of congratulations, now the papers were naming me as one of two artists to have been ‘cut’ by the Academy due to ‘time constraints’. In the next sentence it was announced that Dave Grohl, not nominated in any category, had been added to the list of performers.”

As mercenary as ever, the Academy sought to curry further approval by listing the fact that Anohni was transgender in the trivia section of its website. Then, satisfied it had wrung every last drop of exoticism from Anohni in order to enhance the appearance of its own magnanimity and inclusiveness, the Oscars cut her loose. Anohni had been used; “paid to do a little tap-dance” in service of the Academy’s attempt “to try to convince us that they have our best interests at heart by waving flags for identity politics and fake moral issues”.  According to her website, Anohni had got as far as the airport before she “slowly realised that the positive implication of [her] nomination was being retracted”, and turned around and went home, “feeling a sting of shame that reminded me of America’s earliest affirmations of my inadequacy as a transperson.”

Frame Oscars
The Oscars – Where else can a white heterosexual escape the multi-cultural, pan-sexual, gender-fluid vicissitudes of a raw and complex world?

The moral of the promotion of a particular brand of transgenderism by the culture of celebrity is as depressing as it is straightforward: it is okay to be transgender, provided you are rich, beautiful, glamorous, likely to make someone a lot of money, or a combination of all four.  If you’re ordinary, plain, or just trying to make an honest living, at best, the media will ignore you; at worst, they will hound you out of your job and drive you to the brink of suicide.  To declare yourself transgender is to proclaim yourself different.  This may not be terrifying for an actor, model or ex-decathlete whose family has an indefinable and perplexing media presence, but if you depend on everyday social and professional institutions to pay your bills or achieve self-efficacy, then exchanging depression for isolation and rejection can be very, very hard indeed.

Having said all that, however, there is one facet to Caitlyn Jenner’s celebrity status that has earned my grudging respect.  In February 2016, the senates in the US states of Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and, most famously, South Dakota, discussed legislation concerning access to school restrooms, locker-rooms and sports teams.  For reasons that are difficult to fathom, a clutch of regional assemblies has suddenly decided that transgender boys and girls need humiliating over where they get changed and go to the toilet.  The proposed South Dakota Bathroom Bill, to pick an especially baffling example, is accordingly drafted in a language so comically tortuous – so painstakingly convoluted – that, whilst it doesn’t say so explicitly, its only conceivable purpose must be to impose misery on transgender teenagers by compelling them feel even more isolated and alienated than they already do:

“Every restroom, locker room, and shower room located in a public elementary or secondary school that is designated for student use and is accessible by multiple students at the same time shall be designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex.  In addition, any public school student participating in a school sponsored activity off school premises which includes being in a state of undress in the presence of other students shall use those rooms designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex.”

The bill offers an elaborately byzantine definition of biological sex as “the physical condition of being male or female as determined by a person’s chromosomes and anatomy as identified at birth”.  For students for whom HB1008 would constitute a barrier to being able to get changed or go to the toilet at school, principals are required to make “reasonable accommodation” of bathroom facilities for transgender pupils (which “may include a single-occupancy restroom, a unisex restroom, or the controlled use of a restroom, locker room, or shower room that is designated for use by faculty”) on the proviso that this does not cause “undue hardship” to a school district (by which, I assume, is meant ‘does not cost any more money’).

If, in a country that has state legislatures obsessed with imposing binary distinctions on its citizens based on their infant chromosome count or the contents of their diapers – and has senators who call transgender students “twisted” and “unfortunate” – Caitlyn Jenner can seize the right to be called ‘female’, and have herself proclaimed a ‘2015 Woman of the Year’ by Glamour magazine, then, for that, she has my admiration.

 

Bibliography

The report by the UK parliamentary committee, ‘Transgender Equality’ (January 2016), awaits your attention like a jilted lover here…http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmwomeq/390/390.pdf

The news about the suicide of Lucy Meadows as it was published in her local newspaper can be read here… http://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/news/10448625.Tragic_suicide_note_left_by_Accrington_transgender_teacher_Lucy_Meadows/

Whilst the Daily Mail’s readiness to publish it leaves you unsure whether to be depressed or angry, Richard Littlejohn’s toe-curlingly unpleasant, intrusive, and wholly unwarranted column about Lucy Meadows can be studied here…http://web.archive.org/web/20121226073921/http:/www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2251347/Nathan-Uptons-wrong-body–hes-wrong-job.html

Anohni’s explanation of why she did not attend this year’s Academy Award ceremony can be read on her website (under the entry for February 25th, 2016) here…                                             http://www.antonyandthejohnsons.com/news/news.html

Anohni’s Oscar-nominated song, ‘Manta Wray’, can be heard here…                                                                                            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1JiJhWkM9M

You may laugh along with South Dakota’s darkly hilarious HB1008 (the ‘Bathroom Bill’ of 2016) here…                               https://legiscan.com/SD/text/HB1008/id/1340969/South_Dakota-2016-HB1008-Enrolled.pdf

‘Overt and Unchallenged’ Part II – The Simple Reason Transgender People Are Discriminated Against at Work

As the UK government considers its response to the report into transgender equality published by the Women and Equalities Select Committee in January, 2016, I would like to throw a handful of my own findings and recommendations into the mix.  This week, I would like to turn over the institutional stone of recruitment practices and the job market, in order to consider the causes and effects of the prejudice that lurks beneath it, and to offer a sincerely meant suggestion of my own for remedial action.  The process via which most people are interviewed and hired (or not) for paid employment mitigates against transgender people when their potential employer cannot see the person they are considering through the amount of prejudicial baggage lying in the way.  As a result, discrimination in this context cannot not be addressed through policies or awareness-raising campaigns, but by challenging the personal biases of employers themselves.

 

Companies, businesses and professional bodies are not abstract entities with norms, assumptions and values that have come about independent of human agency.  The way employees and potential hirelings are treated by organisations is the result of cultural patterns that are established and maintained by the founders and managers of those organisations.  The culture of a company is established by the people who run it – the people who work there may pursue common economic goals, but these goals were determined, originally, by the company’s founders.  The everyday rituals, rules and routines that determine the way a business operates, and how its employees conduct themselves, are sustained through a complex series of social interactions, but it is the CEO and their management hierarchy that co-ordinates the activities of employees (via division of labour and the allocation of authority and responsibility) in order to facilitate the achievement of common aims.  Neophytes are (often formally) inducted into the culture of the workplace, and if an employees’ conduct is considered irredeemably disruptive of a company’s working practices, and detrimental to the pursuit of its goals, then that employee is jettisoned.

It follows, therefore, that prejudice against transgender people in professional contexts is not the result of an unseen, ethereal force devoid of human agency; it is not ‘institutional’ in the sense that it is simply the way things are, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  Transphobia in the workplace and at the level of professional recruitment is the consequence of the personal biases of people in key positions of authority within the organisation.  I have seen for myself how the individual prejudice of school managers and head-teachers determines who they hire to work in their schools and who they don’t; and I have been fed the lie too often that attempts to abdicate personal responsibility for what is nothing more elaborate nor noble than personal bigotry: It’s not me, the lie begins, but our parents/children/governors/dinner-ladies who might be scared/confused/uncomfortable with having a transgender teacher in their classroom.  Sorry, but we’re just not ready to take such a bold step.

People who transition whilst in full-time employment may suddenly discover that a thick glass-ceiling has been erected over their heads.  They may find themselves marginalised or held-back, passed-over for promotion, or re-designated to minimise the contact they have with clients and customers.  Of the 7,500 people questioned by the team who compiled the US Transgender Discrimination Survey (2011), 26% reported being dismissed or made redundant after transitioning; 23% said they were denied promotion; and 44% said they felt ‘under-employed’ – that is, were working in positions or fields that were, frankly, beneath their qualifications and experience.  With eerie symmetry, the number of respondents who claimed to have been unsuccessful in their attempts to find work after transitioning was also 44%.

The prejudice that limits the employment prospects of gender nonconforming people has exactly the same roots as the discrimination that leads to iniquities in the medical care we can expect to receive.  Almost a fifth of transgender respondents in the aforementioned American survey of 2011 reported having had clinical care withheld; having had a diagnosis of depression forced upon them when a diagnosis of gender dysphoria would have been more appropriate; or having had treatment delayed, or made conditional upon their jumping through innumerable psychiatric and therapeutic hoops.  The determining factor in institutionalised discrimination, in short, is the peculiar chauvinism and wilful ignorance of powerful individuals: prejudice is only intrinsic to a system – medical or otherwise – when its practitioners allow it to be.

The reason I was so unnerved by the discrimination I encountered at work (and in my subsequent attempts to find another teaching post) was that I had been naïve enough to believe that the rhetoric of equality, social justice and the celebration of difference, which permeates schools’ promotional literature, is true, and that it applies to me.  It came as a genuine shock to learn that individual difference would only be tolerated within narrow, institutionally sanctioned parameters; and that the language of acceptance, family and community that peppers head-teacher’s speeches and litters school prospectuses and websites, is actually an obfuscation of school managers’ deeply ingrained conservatism and almost obsessive need for conformity.  (In private schools, I have subsequently discovered, this dogmatism runs even deeper, and leads to a level of discourteous illiberalism that would make a drug-dealer blush.)

I lost my job because teachers are considered interchangeable and immediately replaceable.  No matter how good a teacher I thought I was, someone equally capable (but much less complicated) was ready and willing to step into my shoes.  Teaching, it turns out, is not considered a highly-skilled occupation – like, say, cardiology or plumbing – so it really doesn’t matter if one teacher is sacked or not appointed: there is always someone else who can take their place.  Appointment to a teaching post doesn’t depend upon technical expertise because, in the teaching profession, competence can be acquired by pretty much anyone in a relatively short space of time.  When a university graduate and someone on the brink of superannuation can be considered for the same job, it is almost impossible to argue that experience counts for very much, either, so it is small wonder that a head-teacher’s personal bias has the room to be such a determining influence in the selection of staff.

The usual remedy for subjective prejudice in professional recruitment practices is to introduce layers of bureaucracy designed to act as checks and balances to employers’ innate partialities – the use of equal-opportunities monitoring forms, for example, or the observation of job interviews by disinterested third-parties.  These attempted solutions do not remove prejudice, however, but create more ways for it to enter the selection process: the more people who are involved in making appointments, the greater the number of individual partialities that can muddy the waters.  Affirmative action and mandatory employment quotas may force bigots to not to heed the calls of their small-minded consciences when they are interviewing for new staff, but I believe there is a more palatable, truly meritorious way removing prejudice from the process of job recruitment.  It is surprisingly simple; deals as effectively with nepotism and favouritism as it does with transphobia; and borrows its format from nineties’ Saturday-night TV staple, ‘Blind Date’.

Blind Date Frame
Ber-line-der Day-te! – a defunct Saturday evening game-show furnishes an unlikely but effective model for eliminating employer bias and ensuring full equality in professional recruitment practices

In blind interviewing, potential employers have all the information they need about a candidate’s skills, qualifications, experience and expertise, but they do not know the applicant’s age, gender, ethnicity or name.  Interviews take place from either side of a screen, which eliminates the possibility that anything about the candidate’s appearance is influencing the employer’s opinion about their suitability for the post.  The absence of any demographic information ensures the offer of employment – if one is made – is based entirely on the content of the applicant’s mind and the quality of their character, and not whether they like the colour of their tie or the shade of their lipstick.  Employers will thus be unable to recruit people based on how old they are, what gender they identify as, what colour their skin is, what they are wearing, and which country they were born in.  Only when an offer of employment is made (or not) is the screen withdrawn, and it is only then that the CEO of Morgan Stanley (or wherever) can discover that the owner of the fruity baritone they have heard waxing lyrical about asset management or revenue liabilities is not a dead-ringer for Brian Blessed, but a petite, peroxide-blonde who answers to the name of Fifi-Trixibelle.

 

Bibliography

The report by the UK parliamentary committee, Transgender Equality (January 2016), remains here…http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmwomeq/390/390.pdf

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

An object lesson in equal-opportunities recruitment practices can be watched here…                                                                                                  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dj_ewz53Frk

‘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