My worst student

Today I’ve been grumpily following the Same-Sex Marriage Bill debate, contemplating my thesis corrections and pouring acetic acid into my sore ear so I have to admit, I’m not in the best of moods. And then I saw that the Times Higher Education decided to encourage academics to share their stories of their worst students on twitter. Aside from the obvious problems about professionalism and ethics, I don’t like the sneering.

You see, I was someone’s worst student.

Not in university – I’d mostly sorted myself out by then – but in sixth-form. I was doing an A-level in something I’d previously been good at and for which I was in the top set at GCSE, but at A-level my grades plummeted from As to Es. I couldn’t understand the material – I tried so hard and it constantly defeated me. I tried reading around the subject; I tried talking myself through it; I tried just knuckling down and memorising it. It slipped away from me, no matter what I tried or how hard I tried. It’s a horrible feeling to be so utterly powerless – to feel like your intellect has abandoned you, that whatever you try you’re going to fail, that you are stupid and worthless and wasting everyone’s time. It felt like being dropped into a world where the rules were opaque and all-powerful and I was constantly one crucial step behind. Every lesson was an ordeal, something to just survive for the next two hours and, eventually, to resent.

Naturally, the teacher and I loathed each other. He’d taught me when I was actually good at this stuff and in retrospect, probably couldn’t understand why I was suddenly so appallingly bad at it. If I was in his position and a student had suddenly gone from being one of the best in the class to the very worst, I would have sought help for this student. He didn’t. Instead he alternately ignored me – it was a very results-focused school and I was clearly not going contribute to his clutch of As – and bullied me. Because I was 17 and a bit of a twat, I made it quietly clear that I resented him every bit as he resented me. One day I snapped and told him that I wished I could drop this subject (I was very polite in my twattishness!). The next day, my Head of Year pulled me into her office and berated me for hurting his feelings.

I threw up every morning before school from the sheer anxiety of once more stepping into that classroom and once more, being utterly, helplessly adrift.

I have never, ever forgotten that feeling of being so totally lost. Not when I found a subject I loved, not when I got a First for my BA, not when I graduated from my masters, not when my examiners shook my hand after my viva, and especially not when teaching.

I’ve taught students who were uninterested, resentful and hungover – it’s one of the problems of teaching a compulsory Language module when most of the students would rather be doing Literature. I’ve occasionally got frustrated when marking. I know I don’t have much experience, but I hope I never get worn down by it. I hope I create an atmosphere in my seminars where students can make mistakes, test ideas that might not work or admit that they don’t understand something. I hope I can be sensitive to the students who struggle, and I hope I know when I’m out of my depth. I hope I never belittle or sneer at students – not when they frustrate me, not when they apparently don’t try, not when they appear to be hopelessly bad at something. I hope I am respectful and compassionate to the ones who resent me. I hope I am patient when it matters.

As an academic, we tend to be working in an area we love and that we’re good at. We’ve probably never been crushingly bad at something we now teach. Given the kind of grades we’re expected to get to enter a degree programme, then a Masters, then a PhD, we may never have been crushingly bad at any academic subject. I, with my E in that A-level, somehow sneaked in. I’m not proud of that grade, but the harsh lessons I learnt in that classroom have shaped my teaching forever.

Other posts:
Caroline Magennis: On Teaching
Kirsty Rolfe: Talking teaching on Twitter (and talking nicely to students)

Viva

I had my viva last week and passed with minor corrections. So I am now Dr Kat.

On the whole it was a really positive experience – I was only in there for about 1hr 45 minutes and both of my examiners said at the start how much they enjoyed reading my thesis and how creative it was. My internal examiner said at the start that it was going to be more of a chat and that’s pretty much how it felt.

Both of my examiners are experienced researchers and I think that was reflected in their examination style – they weren’t out to win their spurs but instead were really engaged with my work. They started off with a few general questions then we went through the thesis chapter by chapter. My chair was fantastic too – she was so calm and when I waited in her office after my viva while the examiners conferred she was reassuring about my performance.

I’d prepared a list of anticipated questions with bullet point responses – both viva classics and tricky things I was prepared to discuss – but interestingly, those didn’t really come up. I was most worried about Chapter 5 as that’s the most “original” (read: Kat discovers something original, goes off on a wild ride and drags the reader with them) and, I feel, my argument could have been more convincing – instead, they really liked it! There’s a section of close analysis in that chapter I wasn’t happy with and, indeed, debated taking out right until my submission date, but my external made a point of how much he liked it and would have liked to have seen more such analysis. Instead it was a section of Chapter 6 and what I’d called one of the named discourses in Chapter 7 that they paid most attention to. I’m not terribly attached to those things so explained why I made that decision, what I was trying to show and accepted their suggestions.

One of their criticisms was that I’m far too modest in my conclusion and can afford to make a much bigger deal about my research than I did. As my external pointed out, it’s a nice problem to have – rather than trying to inflate relatively minor findings, I apparently have this original, ambitious research that I can be proud of. They’re also both keen for me to publish findings and we talked a bit about publication strategies. I then left the room with the chair while they reviewed the viva, and after about ten minutes I was allowed back in to be told the result. They let me go off for a few minutes to make phonecalls, and when I got back my supervisor was there with a bottle of fizz.

I’d spent a few anxious nights googling things like “UK viva failure rates” and my friends had cheerfully shared viva horror stories (5 hour long vivas; examiners hated the thesis; examiners expounded on their theory rather than engage with the candidate’s work). While I wouldn’t say that I’d be thrilled to have another viva (at least not immediately – no offence to my examiners!), it wasn’t the traumatic experience I’d half anticipated. I’m not sure I’d go as far as my supervisor’s claim that she enjoyed hers, but I did find it rewarding to discuss my work with other people who were familiar with it and liked it.

Right, time to crack on with those corrections…

Purple, white and green

I recently read this post by Marilyn Roxie on the colour symbolism of the genderqueer and non-binary flag. The colours of the flag – lavender, white and dark green – are similar (but not exactly the same!) as those used by the Women’s Social and Political Union. Marilyn describes their decision to use those particular colours and their meanings as follows:

Lavender (#b57edc): The mixture of blue and pink (traditional colors associated with men and women, present on the transgender pride flag) as lavender is meant to represent androgynes and androgyny. Also represents the “queer” in genderqueer, as lavender is a color that has long been associated with “queerness” , including gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities.

White (#ffffff): Meant to represent agender identity, congruent with the gender neutral white on the transgender pride flag.

Dark chartreuse green (#4A8123): The inverse of lavender; meant to represent those whose identities which are defined outside of and without reference to the binary. Formerly (#498022), the color is now the true inverse of lavender (#b57edc).

The three colors are not meant to indicate that any of these identities are entirely separate or opposites of one another conceptually; they are all interrelated as well as key concepts in their own right, and there are more concepts and variation of gender and sexuality present that tie into genderqueer identities than can be listed here. The purpose of the flag is to help create visibility for the genderqueer community and related identities.

However, Marilyn was recently criticised for the genderqueer/non-binary flag’s perceived similarity to the colours used by the WSPU.

Needless to say when earlier I received the two messages “this is not a creation, but an appropriation ” and “Ya nicked it!” I just started shaking and trying to hold back tears

I’m not sure I’d agree the use of similar colours in the genderqueer/non-binary flag is appropriative; for me, “appropriation” involves a power dynamic that I’m not convinced is present here. However, I think there’s an interesting history of how colours were used by both suffrage organisations and in the LGBTQA movement to identify groups and voice identities.

 Front view of an admission ticket to the Hyde Park demonstration organised by the Women's Social and Political Union on Sunday 21st June 1908 (from the Museum of London)

Front view of an admission ticket to the Hyde Park demonstration organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union on Sunday 21st June 1908 (from the Museum of London)

The WSPU colours were originally red, white and green but had changed to the more familiar purple, white and green by May 1908. The colours are generally held to symbolise purity (white), hope (green) and dignity (purple) (Tickner 1987: 93; Crawford 1999: 137). However, as Lisa Tickner observes, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the WSPU leader who originally wrote about the significance of these colours for the WSPU, was “liable to sentimentalise them in later years” and so allow “a broader and sometimes contradictory symbolism” to become attached to them.

Colours were used extensively by suffrage societies and organisations. Elizabeth Crawford (1999: 137) lists colours for over twenty such groups, including the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (red, white & green), the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society (blue, white & gold), the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association (pale blue, white & gold), the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage (purple and celestial blue), the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage (black & gold), the Tax Resistance League (black, white & grey), the Votes for Women Fellowship (purple, white & red) and the Women Writers’ Suffrage League (black, white & gold). I think it’s interesting that some colours are used extensively – white and gold seem particularly prevalent.

Many suffrage organisations took part in marches and demonstrations; the use of colours, particularly in the form of brightly coloured, elaborated banners, created a visual spectacle. You can view some of these banners and designs at The Women’s Library’s collection. Lisa Tickner (1987: 60) discusses the significance of these banners as used in marches and demonstrations:

Banners served both as rallying points for the march and as commentary on it. Women formed up around them in predetermined sequence, so that a procession several miles long could be ordered according to its programme and move off smoothly. At the same time, for the onlookers (and for readers in the next day’s newspapers perusing their half-tone photographs), they acted as a gloss on the procession itself, developing its meanings, identifying and grouping its participants and clarifying its themes. Together with the programme of the march, the banners emphasised the broad base of suffrage support, the diversity of women’s achievements and the benefits the women’s vote would bring to society at large. In this sense they were an essential part not just of the spectacle of suffrage demonstrations but of their argument. They went some way to informing the casual onlooker as to the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of women’s presence on the streets.

Meanwhile, badges, scarves, ribbons and buckles in the appropriate colours were also available to buy from suffrage organisations, particularly the WSPU. Their sale was a useful source of income for the organisation and advertised its cause, but also served to declare the wearer’s political beliefs and affiliation.

I absolutely understand Marilyn’s desire to distance the genderqueer flag from a gendered history of specifically women’s political activism; that’s fine, and I’m not trying to force that on them or on this flag. However, this use of flags and colours to articulate identities, emphasise diversity, declare beliefs and provide a rallying point has a long and distinguished history, yet is entirely familiar. It’s something we can relate to and understand. We can still speak a language of symbolism and colours, are still able to fluently interpret it. I’d argue is why the genderqueer flag – and, indeed, many pride flags including transgender, leather, bear, asexual, pansexual etc – exist at all. In that sense, the existence of a genderqueer flag is entirely congruent with an older history of visibility articulated through brightly coloured flags.

References:
Crawford, E. (1999). The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A reference guide 1866-1928. London: Routledge.
Tickner, L. (1987). The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907-14. London: Chatto and Windus.

life after thesis submission

My PhD supervisor told me to have a break after submitting so I did. In the past couple of weeks I’ve been to Death: a self-portrait at the Wellcome Collection, London’s Diversity Choir’s performance of Duruflé’s Requiem, the Transpose: Cinematic Edition and, yesterday, June Purvis’ public lecture on “The Struggle For Women’s Suffrage In Britain, 1865-1928”. All of these events were fascinating in their different ways and it was nice to remind myself that I have interests outside my thesis.

I also came down with a bad cold because my Faustian pacts of “please body, just let me get through this term/chapter/thesis and then you can be as ill as you want” eventually caught up with me – although more prosaically, my terrible pre-submission diet of peanuts, pumpkin seeds and cheese sandwiches might have had something to do with it.

I have a viva date and will be hurling myself into viva preparation soon, but at the moment I’m writing a talk I’m going to give on Monday about trans* media representation. It’s my first 45ish minute presentation so I’m a little nervous, but luckily there’s a lot I can talk about and I’m having fun planning the structure and content. I’m planning to end up at a place where I can talk about trans* people representing themselves in film, music and journalism – there are some brilliant projects out there like My Genderation and META magazine – although there are still massive problems with the way trans* people are reported in the mainstream press.

It’s at 7pm on Monday 11th March in the Portland building, University of Nottingham – do come if you can make it.

Submission

thesis

And….breathe.

So, yesterday I submitted my thesis.

My supervisor told me to take a good break before we meet to start preparing for my viva, so genuinely not sure what to do with myself now that the ever-present feeling that I ought to be doing some work has lifted!

Annoyingly I had to submit the thesis using my legal name as that’s what’s on the university’s records. I never use that name and if you try calling me that, I probably won’t respond as I’ll assume you’re talking to someone else.

The white male professor is in

Perhaps presciently, in my penultimate post I noted that “[a]s a student, I have never been taught by someone with a non-European non-white background – and when I teach, I am incredibly aware that this may have been the case for my students”. This week, UCU released a report focusing on women and Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) professors:

UCU summary
Report: The position of women and BME staff in professorial roles in UK HEIs (pdf)
Guardian: The university professor is always white

Some of the figures they highlight include:

  • Just one in five professors are women, despite making up almost half the non-professorial academic workforce
  • Just one in 14 professors (7.3%) are from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background
  • White applicants are three times more likely to get a professorial post than BME applicants

Naturally, I find these figures troubling – and, if I’m honest, not a little dispiriting.

The UCU report notes that BME UK nationals are particularly underrepresented – unfortunately, their data isn’t presented in a particularly helpful way to interpret this. Universities are brilliant places for worldwide collaboration and I’ve been lucky enough to work with people from all over the world. However, I do think it’s worth focusing on UK nationals because it highlights failings in our own education system and university recruitment processes. Appointing more international BME academics would be great for diversity but I’m also concerned that it would lead to universities failing to take a very careful look at recruitment of UK BME academics and the barriers that stand in their way.

As a recent example, this article on discrepancies in attainment between BME and white students was published two months ago. I find that really troubling – to me, if this is happening across an entire cohort of students, it suggests that something is going wrong at an institutional level. And crucially, if BME students are leaving university without the Firsts and 2.1s necessary for postgraduate study, that suggests problems for a future generation of UK BME academics – namely, that they won’t be there.

There are a few points I’d like to make about the report.

  • Firstly, while the UCU breaks down figures into “Black”, “Asian”, “Chinese”, “Other Asian” and “Other” it’s not clear how these groups are defined – who, exactly, is included in the “Other” groups? The terminology itself is…less than sensitive (we’ve heard of post-colonialism and Othering yeah?). For that matter, it’s not clear who’s included in the “Asian” category – I’m assuming people of Indian origin, but what about people of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan origin? To me, there’s a lack of clarity about who was included in the report.
  • Secondly, this is the sort of area where an intersectional analysis would be really helpful; basically, what happens to applicants who are BME and women? Is their experience of institutional discrimination on two fronts reflected in their employment rates, or is something else happening?
  • Thirdly, a breakdown by subject area and discipline would be beneficial. My gut instinct is that STEM subjects might be a bit better than art and humanities at employing Asian and Chinese professors, but without data I’m wary of generalising in such a way.

I think this is a useful starting point but there are so many questions this report doesn’t answer. It’s clear that there is massive underrepresentation of women and BME academics at the highest level of academia – are universities going to do anything about that?

P.S. Thank you Nina Simone

Student life and pets

I’m currently wading through critical theory but I read this article by a student who was lonely so they bought a kitten and I’m pretty cross.

Rats sleeping in a chicken feeder

Photo by K Gupta

Firstly, I’ve grown up around animals. My parents both grew up with pets and our family got our first dog when I was three. Apart from one horrible week where none of us coped, we have always had at least one dog since. We’ve also had fish, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, gerbils and stick insects. I’ve worked at a vet’s boarding kennels and cattery, and have also worked a bit with horses.

At the moment I have five rats who live in what my mum has affectionately dubbed “the Rat Palace” and enjoy a life of luxury. I believe that animals are good for us – they provide companionship and entertainment and relaxation.

However, they’re also a commitment and I don’t think the article really addresses this.

Most degrees last between three and four years. Lots of animals live longer than this and in the case of cats, as much as 15-18 years. What’s going to happen to the cat after you graduate? Animal rescues are already full – are you going to contribute to the problem? Bear in mind that if you adopt an animal from a shelter, it may have already experienced upheaval and abandonment.

Pets can be expensive. You can get yourself into a nice routine of budgeting for food and bedding, shopping around for the best deal – but your pet can always get ill or get injured and vet fees are expensive. Somehow, animals always pick the worst possible moment to get sick. You probably won’t be eligible for PDSA vet care. You might choose to get pet insurance but read the terms and conditions carefully – alternatively, some people choose to put away some money every month into a vet fund. If you’re already struggling with money and living off beans and toast, please think very very hard about getting a pet.

Many students will move house at least once during the course of their degrees and finding a landlord who allows pets can be tricky, especially if you have a dog or cat. I’ve always checked if they’re alright with “small caged pets”. Some people just don’t tell their landlord but you’ve got to ask yourself whether it’s worth the stress, hassle and risk of losing your deposit. It can also be difficult if you want to spend the holidays with parents. If they have pets, your animals might have to be carefully introduced and you’ll have to hope that they all get on. Your parents’ house might not be suitable for a dog or cat (on a main road, allergic family members, no garden etc). If you have caged pets, you either have to work out how you’ll transport the cage or set up another, holiday cage at your parent’s home.

Please think very carefully about getting a “house pet”. It’s great if all your housemates are equally enthusiastic but who pays vet bills? who looks after the pet during the holidays? who does the not-very-fun stuff like cleaning out cages or litter trays? what happens to the animal when you stop living together? what happens if you disagree on an aspect of its care?

Student loneliness is a problem – at one point, I had three contact hours a week as an undergraduate – but there’s more to owning a pet than just wanting one. There was no way I could have had a pet when I was an undergraduate; my life was just too unsettled and I couldn’t have cared for it properly. If you’re desperate to have some contact with animals and you have some experience of caring for them, you could always offer dog walking or pet sitting services, volunteer in a shelter or even temporarily foster an animal. There are much better ways of dealing with student loneliness than going out and buying a kitten.

Cis: a brief introduction

This is probably going to be the first of at least two posts about the response to the Moore-Burchill article and fallout. In this one, I want to talk about the term “cis” and objections to it, and in a future post I want to talk about the media framing. There might be some other stuff if anything strikes me.

One of the fascinating (for me at least) things about the ongoing Moore-Burchill thing is the issues of language, identity and power. There’s a real tussle over words – hate speech, slurs, violence, identity. A lot of it is to do with who gets to use which words.

Firstly, objections to the word “cis”.

I have to admit that I’m hiding a dark and shameful secret here: I have an A-level in Chemistry. Not a good one, but it meant that I first came across cis and trans when talking about isomers. Basically, an isomer has a carbon double bond in the middle which means it can’t rotate on that axis. This means that the molecules attached to the carbon atoms can’t swing around. It’s actually a really nice illustration, so have a very quick diagram (and don’t laugh at my lack of artistic skill).

cis and trans isomers

Cis and trans isomers (image by K Gupta)

As you can see in the cis isomer in figure 1, the yellow molecules are on the same side and the green molecules are on the same side. And that’s all cis means: “on the same side”. In the trans isomer in figure 2, the yellow molecules are across from one another, as are the green molecules. And that’s all that trans means: “on the other side” or “across”.

When we talk about gender, we use cis to describe people whose assigned sex and gender identity are in alignment and trans to describe people whose assigned sex and gender identity aren’t in alignment. The diagram below shows this:

Cis and trans genders

Obviously this isn’t (and cannot be) a perfect representation of the complex relationship between assigned sex at birth and gender identity, but it will do as a starting point and hopefully makes things clearer.

Cis is simply trying to give a name to a certain set of experiences. Actually being able to put a name to this set of experiences is important. The term is not an insult or a term of derision.

One of the problems here is that there are words to describe minority experiences but not necessary words to describe majority experiences. If we don’t have words for majority experiences, it makes them even more pervasive and normalised. For example, if we don’t have words to describe white people or heterosexual people or able-bodied people, then people who are not these things exist as a marked experience – as something unusual or Other. Many feminists quite rightly object to terms like “lady doctor” or “female doctor” because it assumes that doctors are male, and any deviance has to be carefully noted and expressed. My mum, a doctor, once made a home visit accompanied by a nurse. When she got there, she was taken aback to find that the nurse was being addressed as the doctor – because he happened to be male. The assumption was that if there’s a doctor and a nurse and one of them happens to be a man and the other a woman, then the man is the doctor and the woman is the nurse. Prejudices like this are reinforced by gender marked terms like “lady doctor” or “woman police constable”.

Similarly, if a white person said “I don’t like being called white, I’m just a normal person” I’d be annoyed because that suggests that their white experience is the default – that normal people are white, and that non-white people are somehow not normal. There’s an additional dynamic at work with people who say “I don’t like being called cis, I’m just a normal woman” because it actively positions normal women as those who were assigned female at birth and in doing so, rejects that trans woman can also be “normal women”. While I’m sure some objectors genuinely do reject trans woman as women, I’m also confident that many more simply haven’t thought about their use of language and are unaware of the implications. There is nothing bad about being described as “cis” just as there’s nothing bad about being described as “white” or as “able-bodied”. It just means giving a name to the majority experience and in doing so, shifts it away from being the default experience.

As a linguist, I also find Julie Burchill’s objection to cis as “sounds like syph, cyst, cistern” kind of hilarious. As Tony McEnery notes, “the sounds in a word such as shit seem no more unusual, and combine together in ways no more interesting, than those in shot, ship or sit“; just because a word sounds a bit like other words doesn’t mean it has anything to do with them in terms of meaning.

As a pedant with access to the Oxford English Dictionary (a dangerous combination), I note that syph is an abbreviation of syphilis, itself apparently derived from “Syphilus, the name of a shepherd in the poem Syphilis, sive Morbvs Gallicvs (‘Syphilis, or the French disease’), supposedly the first sufferer from the disease. Cyst is derived from cystis from the Greek κύστις, meaning “bladder”. And cistern is derived, through the Old French cisterne, from the Latin cisterna, meaning “a subterraneous reservoir”. While these words sound similar, they have very different origins, histories and usages. It’s rather disingenuous to take offence at a word simply because it sounds like another word that means something unpleasant.

To reinforce my point, I note that the Guardian/Observer Comment is Free section is often referred to with an acronym: Cif. Which also happens to be a popular brand of bathroom cleaner. Isn’t the arbitrariness of language great?

References:
McEnery, T. (2006) Swearing in English: Bad language, purity and power from 1586 to the present. London: Routledge

So what is intersectionality?

I’ve been discussing intersectionality elsewhere, so thought I’d edit those comments into a post here. I came to this concept though my activist communities rather than academia, and as such, that’s the language I use here. At the end of the post I’ve put a couple of links to posts about intersectionality that I found particularly helpful.

Basically, “intersectionality” means acknowledging our various experiences, often in terms of privilege, and how these affect each other. It takes as a starting point that we have different experiences and that these experiences influence and intersect with each other. If we have a particular experience – for example, being white – we experience the world as a white person. This risks blinding us to the experiences and issues faced by people who aren’t white.

Think of it as getting dealt a hand of cards. You have cards for race, assigned sex at birth, sexuality, trans-cis identity, (dis)ability, class, education, immigrant status and so on. A few people get absolutely shitty hands and a few people have absolutely amazing hands. Most of us are in the middle – we have a good card or two and a shitty card or two and some others in the middle.

So, for example, someone might have cards for “white”, “cis”, “male” and “heterosexual” but a shitty card for “wealth”. What intersectionality means is that this hypothetical man experiences his whiteness, cis-ness, masculinity and heterosexuality differently than someone who has those cards but has a good card for wealth – his lack of wealth affects these things in different ways. However, he also has a different experience from someone who has the same shitty wealth card but who also has a woman/queer/non-white/disabled card. Intersectionality can account for complex situations, like poor white men and rich Black women, and help us understand that privilege doesn’t occur along simple axes. It can also help identify areas where people experience multiple oppressions.

As an example, say a company decides to sack all its non-white women workers. Technically, they aren’t being racist – after all, they’re still employing non-white men. And technically they aren’t being sexist – after all, they’re still employing white women. However, people who exist in the middle of those intersections are being discriminated against.

A fairly common experience for intersectional feminists is to encounter white, cis, middle-class, able-bodied feminists are telling them that they should be focusing on their particular interpretation of feminism and leaving race, class, disability, trans* experiences etc out of it. To draw a parallel, it’s a bit like being told by lefties that “you can have feminism after the revolution” or “how dare you accuse us of sexism, it distracts from class war”.

doing intersectionality
The issue for me is not putting aside difference, but how to react when faced with them – and especially how to react when you’re part of the system that unthinkingly perpetuates such hierarchies.

For example, I don’t identify as disabled. I am unaware of what it’s like to navigate society as a disabled person, and if I’m not careful I can unintentionally hurt people.

What I do try to do is be aware of access issues, never speak on behalf of people with disabilities if someone who actually experiences such issues is willing to speak, amplify their voices (whether this be through promoting their writing/events/activism or literally handing someone the mic and them speaking rather than me), listen and learn, and learn the etiquette. If I can help without talking over someone or denying them their voice I will do so – for example, in tutor training sessions I’ve pointed out access issues because no one else did. But basically, I take my lead from them.

I don’t get this right all the time. I make mistakes and I am called on them. However, when this happens, I apologise immediately and I try to always take the criticism on board and change my behaviour in light of it. When I am criticised it’s often not particularly personal; it’s because I’ve blundered into something or screwed up, and so embodied something that hurts people with disabilities. There’s a balance between being systematically unaware of issues because you don’t experience them and using that as an excuse to not learn and educate yourself.

Whether or not I am a disability ally is not my decision to make – I don’t get to decide whether I am or not. I’ve encountered too many people who call themselves white allies but behave in really problematic ways. Instead I try to behave in a way that supports that group of people without Making It All About Me.

why intersectionality matters
I am someone who lives in the intersections. In some ways I am enormously privileged – I am highly educated, when I was growing up my parents could afford books and they encouraged and valued my education. In other ways, I am far less so. Intersectionality is the only framework I’ve found that can make sense of these experiences.

Living in such intersections means you can have no heroes. People who are good on trans* issues can disappoint you when it comes to race; people good on race issues can disappoint you when it comes to sexuality; people good on LGBQIA issues can disappoint you when it comes to disability issues.

As an activist, there are are lefty groups that I won’t go near because of their racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. I feel unwelcome and unsafe in those spaces, and I’m not risking verbal (and potentially physical) abuse to engage with them. As a child, I never saw people in the news or on TV or in books who were like me. As a student, I have never been taught by someone with a non-European non-white background – and when I teach, I am incredibly aware that this may have been the case for my students. I am constantly aware of being the only minority in some way in almost any group I’m in. I am constantly aware that no space is completely safe for me. For me, interesctionality is a real, visceral thing.

As a thinker and an activist, I deeply appreciate the nuances intersectionality can offer. For example, when Burchill writes about trans* people and their “big swinging PhDs” – so arguing that only non-working class, highly educated people are trans* – did she stop to think that a working class, non-university educated trans* person would experience all the discriminations and challenges of being working-class and non-university educated trying to establish a journalistic or otherwise highly visible career AND the discriminations and challenges of being trans* and trying to establish such a career, plus a few more? If you didn’t have money – but if you did, you’d be forced to choose between funding internships or going private for the treatment the NHS denies you? That is an incredibly hard place to be.

further responses to Moore/Burchill
Quinnae Moongazer – Unguarded and Poorly Observed: A Response to Julie Burchill
Christine Burns – Mending Fences
Paris Lees – An open letter to Suzanne Moore
Roz Kaveney – Julie Burchill has ended up bullying the trans community
CN Lester – The Julie Burchill transphobia scandal
Ruth Pearce – Transphobia in The Guardian: no excuse for hate speech
Ariel Silvera – Targeting trans women, or the pathetic pastime of increasingly irrelevant wealthy people
Hel Gurney – More on Moore, Burchill, and hate speech
Grace Petrie – Comment Is Free, to attack trans people
Laurie Penny – On feminism, transphobia and free speech

further reading on media representation of trans people and issues
Juliet Jacques – A Transgender Journey: how it came about

further reading on intersectionality
Catherine Baker – On intersectionality, academic language, and where to put my big feet
Sophie Cansdale – The Pitfalls of Privilege: OWS, Social Justice, Intersectionality
Flavia Dzodan – My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!

The gap between experiences and (media) representation

On Sunday, the Guardian published an article reporting that “Dr Richard Curtis is under investigation following complaints over treatment of patients seeking gender reassignment”. Zoe O’Connell offers important context and I urge anyone who reads the Guardian article to also read her response.

Mainstream media pounces on anything with a whiff of malpractice or trans regret but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article in the mainstream media about the everyday struggles trans* people experience in trying to access care. Sarah Brown playfully demonstrated how eager the media is for stories about trans regret by referring to an operation she regretted – unfortunately for the newspaper that phoned her within minutes of her tweets, the operation in question was on her hand.

Stories framed as “trans regret” are not harmless, but are used to deny trans* people necessary treatment. Trans* people must undergo months and years of psychological assessment and “Real Life Experience” tests (without hormones or surgery, thus placing them at risk of transphobic abuse and attacks) to test if they really want to transition. It is apparently better to make thousands of trans* people suffer than to allow a consenting but mistaken cis person access to hormones and surgery.

On Tuesday, Sarah Brown highlighted this discrepency in media attention and urged trans* people to tweet about their experiences using the #TransDocFail hashtag. The response was incredible – thousands of tweets and hundreds of participants – but the stories were depressingly similar. Zoe has collected the lowlights, grouping them under the headings “The NHS doesn’t do that!” (GPs’ insistence that specifically trans* care is not offered by the NHS), “The long wait”, “At least delays are not outright refusal to give treatment or right letters”, “The Transsexual broken arm” (every medical condition will be related to your gender), “Pointless abuse”, “Doctor knows best”, “Administrative errors and misgendering”, “Jumping through hoops” and “Non-binary genders don’t exist”. There are clear patterns to this data – at best, medical professionals are ignorant of trans* issues, at a bit worse they directly and deliberately put obstacles in the way trans* people’s attempts to find health and happiness, and at their very worst they abuse people both physically and mentally.

The following comment pieces have been published:
New Statesmen: As the #transdocfail hashtag showed, many trans people are afraid of their doctors
Guardian: The real trans scandal is not the failings of one doctor but cruelty by many

On the same Tuesday, Suzanne Moore’s piece on female anger was published on the New Statesman. It included the observation that

We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.

This observation is all the more crass for the sheer number of Brazilian trans people who are murdered each year. As this articles notes,

On the last Transgender Day of Remembrance, out of the 265 reported cases of murdered trans people between 15th November 2011 and 14th November 2012, 126 of them were from Brazil.

Moore’s response on twitter was shameful: among other things, she declared that transphobia and Islamophobia simply did not exist, stated that she doesn’t “prioritise this fucking lopping bits of your body over all else that is happening to women” and that “People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me”. She then followed this twitter rant with a Guardian comment piece. Stavvers has an excellent response, as does leftytgirl.

Bear in mind that Moore’s twitter rant was concurrent with #TransDocFail. Had she wanted, she could have easily found tales of horrifying medical abuse perpetuated against women.

What I find so interesting about this is how difficult it is to publish things that don’t fit a desired media narrative of trans* experiences, but how apparently easy it is to publish problematic things if you’re a noted feminist. There’s a lot to say here about access to platforms – Suzanne Moore, as an established writer, has built up a network of contacts which many trans* people don’t have. She can pitch things to them, or is invited to comment on issues or write response pieces.

However, there is something else going on here. Trans* writers and journalists have pitched articles on the difficulties of accessing treatment. It is something that clearly affects a lot of people, perhaps everyone who has been under the care of a Gender Identity Clinic. If this was happening in another NHS department there’d be outrage – not just that treatment is inadequate, but that gatekeeping is built into the system and the patient is forced to prove that they want the treatment enough before it is offered to them. And yet this goes unreported. Instead, what are the media narratives of trans* people? This is something I hope to explore in my next research project, but a quick survey of the articles @TransMediaWatch links to, I’d suggest that as well as medical malpractice, there’s interest in personal, “unusual” transitions. I pulled the two most recent transition-related stories from @TransMediaWatch’s timeline and they’re pretty typical:

Dame of two halves: I was a 24-stone football hooligan but now I’m going to be a woman
‘Having Harry Styles as a role model has helped’: Transgender girl reveals on This Morning why she wants surgery on NHS to look like One Direction star

Note how, in the last article, the person is referred to as a “transgender girl” and the article consistently uses the wrong pronouns. Best is presented as being superficial and transitioning only to resemble a pop singer when his quoted speech suggests something different. In both, the individual is foregrounded and their current situation is emphasised. Focus on the individual, not the system. Focus on the surgery, not the hoops jumped to get it. Focus on surgery as the moment when you “become a woman” rather than the years spent worrying, thinking, shifting, unfurling yourself within a wrong, alien body. This difficult, lengthy process and a system that gatekeeps and denies is not a news story and the media does not, apparently, want to hear it.

As I write this on Friday afternoon, “the Left” is busily shutting down valid criticism of Moore’s transphobia – another reminder that there are some experiences that no one, apparently, wants to hear.