Where are our elders?

[content warning: discussion of homo-, bi- and transphobia, racism, domestic abuse and suicide. I’ve tried to keep these fairly non-explicit; the reports I link to go into more detail]

This is a write up of a short talk I gave at the final conference of the ESRC seminar series ‘Minding the Knowledge Gaps: older lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans lives’. The organising team and I have been having an involved discussion since my first post and they were kind enough to invite me to speak as part of the summaries of previous events.

In this talk I discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) identities, Black and minority ethnic (BME) identities and ageing identities. I ask what it means to live at the centre of these overlapping identities and look at how we can extrapolate some issues from what we know about overlaps of age and LGBTQ identities, age and BME identities, and LGBTQ and BME identities. However, this is by no means a perfect solution because it misses that complex intersections bring their own unique issues – there is effectively a known unknown about the experiences of older LGBTQ people from BME backgrounds, and I want to highlight that.

Intersectionality

Very basically, intersectionality is the concept that we have multiple identities and that these identities overlap and inform each other.

age, BME and LGBTQ venn diagram

Here’s a diagram to show these intersections a bit more clearly.There are three coloured circles: a blue circle representing people’s LGBTQ identities, a red circle representing people’s identities as older people and elders, and a yellow circle representing people’s BME identities.

Overlaps of age, LGBTQ and BME identities

When these identities overlap, they create something new. The purple overlap shows the interaction of ageing and LGBTQ identities, the green overlap shows the interaction of LGBTQ and BME identities and the orange overlap shows the interaction of ageing and BME identities. At the very centre is a space where all three factors interact: age, LGBTQ and BME.

We don’t know much about the people who occupy this really complex space. Roshan das Nair talks about “levels and layers of invisibility” and of each factor – age, sexuality and race – all contributing to invisibility. However, intersections change the experience of “being” – of accessing care, of forming relationships with other people, of moving through and understanding (and being understood by) the world. As this seminar series has strikingly shown, being an older LGBTQ person is not the same as being an older heterosexual and cisgender person. And being an older LGBT person from a BME background is not the same as being an older LGBT person from a white background

LGBTQ and BME

While there is a paucity of information on the unique issues faced by older LGBTQ BME people, there is research on ageing LGBTQ people as showcased in this seminar series, on BME LGBTQ people, and on ageing BME people.

Two current projects highlight some of the issues for people who are both BME and from sexual and gender minorities. A Public Health England report on the health and wellbeing of BME men who have sex with men highlighted that:

  • Black men who have sex with men are 15 times more likely to have HIV than general population
  • a third of Asian men and mixed ethnicity men have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16 compared to one in five of white gay and bisexual men
  • significantly higher rates of suicide, self-harm and mental illness

A recent focus group held by the Race Equality Foundation on the experience of being black and minority ethnic and trans* highlighted that people experienced:

  • religious communities overlapped with ethnic communities, and losing one often meant losing the other
  • racism in LGBT communities and homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in ethnic communities
  • cultural assumptions and racism when accessing healthcare

The last point had particular repercussions for Black and minority ethnic trans people seeking to access hormonal and/or surgical interventions for gender dysphoria through Gender Identity Clinics (GICs). Respondents to the Trans Mental Health Survey often found it difficult to access treatment through GICs, with one respondent describing it as “a paternalistic gatekeeping exercise where psychiatrists exercise inappropriate levels of control over the lives and choices of patients”. Another described clinics as having “very rigid ideas of masculinity and femininity”. This affects Black and minority ethnic people if genders in their culture do not map onto gendered expectations in white UK culture. BME trans people also encountered assumptions about family (for example, what does “being out to your family” look like if you have a huge extended family or if “kinship” doesn’t neatly map onto “family”?), assumptions about transphobia in their families, and poor understanding of non-binary genders.

Age and BME

Research on older BME people tended to show that people were affected by health issues occurring at different times (e.g. diabetes and high blood pressure). Black and minority ethnic people may have complex issues around mental health and accessing services. Some communities may stigmatise mental health issues. African and Caribbean men are “under-represented as users of enabling services and over-represented in the population of patients who are admitted to, compulsorily detained in, and treated by mental health services”. As this report on older South Asian communities in Bradford discusses, how families live together is changing. However, there is still an expectation that the extended family will care for elders; this role often falls to younger women in the family. This study also reported that South Asian communities often found accessing care difficult for a huge range of reasons – cultural differences, a lack of cultural competency in service provision, language difficulties, attitudes of staff, differing expectations by both service users and service providers, location of services, gender roles within the family and the role of different children and siblings.

It is also important to recognise the diversity of BME experiences. There are some BME communities that have been settled in the UK for decades, if not centuries. There are South Asian people who migrated to the UK as young adults in the 1970s and who are now reaching retirement age. There are older people who accompanied their family members. There are more recent immigrants. There are people who live with the trauma of fleeing their home and seeking asylum. The term “Black and ethnic minority” itself covers a huge range of people from all over the world, all with different experiences.

Extrapolations

As I wrote earlier, there are going to be known unknowns – without talking to people, we cannot know about the unique, unexpected issues created when identities intersect. However, I think that the research on LGBTQ and BME communities, the research on older LGBTQ people, and the research on older BME people can hint at some issues.

Older LGBTQ people report different kinship structures, the existence of chosen families and possible lack of children. I wonder how this works for older BME LGBTQ people whose cultures may strongly support care of elders within the extended family (and who dislike the idea of care homes or care workers coming into their homes) but who may be estranged from their family and don’t have children.

I can imagine that there are really complex issues around mental health in communities that are more likely to experience mental health issues but who may also have negative experiences of accessing services or who may feel shame about doing so.

Older BME LGBTQ people may have complex histories of violence. As Public Health England reports, gay and bisexual men from BME backgrounds are more like to have experienced domestic abuse. Other BME LGBTQ people may have sought asylum due to violence in their home countries. What might their care needs be?

I wonder about older BME LGBTQ people continuing to face racism in LGBTQ spaces and homo-, bi- and transphobia in BME spaces as they age and these spaces change. This seminar series has discussed older LGBTQ people’s fears about prejudice in care homes; older BME LGBTQ people in care homes may fear a double whammy of prejudice.

Where are our elders?

I argue that there is an absence of older, LGBTQ BME voices in research about older LGBTQ people’s experiences. As researchers, we don’t know much about the issues faced by those in this intersection – as I’ve shown above, we can guess some of them. However, the nature of intersectionality means that there are some issues that will be unique to this group and that we cannot predict.

This is not to say that older BME LGBTQ people do not exist – rather, that we have to do better at reaching out to these communities. I suspect that research into the experiences of older BME LGBTQ people has to be carried out by people from BME LGBTQ backgrounds. My experience of younger BME LGBTQ spaces is that community members are fiercely protective of the tiny spaces they are able to carve out for themselves and they do not want to be observed as a “learning experience” for White straight cis people. It is crucial to recognise that, and crucial to be able to respect how rare and precious these spaces are.

This absence of visible older, LGBTQ BME voices also has implications for younger BME LGBTQ people. Out of the many trans people I know, I can only think of three who are BME and over the age of 40. 40 should not be considered old – and yet. A US study reveals that the attempted suicide rate for multiracial transgender people is 33 times higher than for the general population. Andre Lorde’s litany, “we were never meant to survive”, has a heartbreaking resonance.

As a younger Asian queer person, I want to meet my elders. I want to know that it’s possible to be an older BME LGBTQ person. I want to be able to see some of the possibilities, to see that there are people living lives that are true to their identities. I want to listen to their rich histories and hard-won wisdom. I want to know that we can survive.

Our elders are so important, and their lack of visibility is so sorely felt.

S_onewall and the missing T

So, let’s talk about Stonewall. Or, as many UK trans activists call them, S_onewall (the T is silent). It’s perhaps ironic that an organisation named after a riot kicked off by trans women and gender non-conforming people is so very bad at trans issues.

As a couple of examples, Stonewall is notorious for inappropriately addressing trans issues in anti-bullying material for schools and celebrating transphobic journalists like Julie Bindel and Bill Leckie. Natacha Kennedy has discussed whether Stonewall is holding back transgender equality and whether they are institutionally transphobic. Let us be clear: many trans people feel that Stonewall goes beyond lack of interest in trans issues to actively undermining our efforts. It’s been doubly galling because Stonewall have reach and influence that trans organisations can only dream of – they have the resources to campaign against homophobia in schools, influence government policy and to have a respected international presence.

As such, I cautiously welcome Ruth Hunt, Stonewall’s new Chief Executive, and her desire to open dialogue with the trans community and support us.

At Stonewall we’re determined to do more to support trans communities (including those who identify as LGB) to help eradicate prejudice and achieve equality. There are lots of different views about the role Stonewall should play in achieving that. We’re holding roundtable meetings and having lots of conversations. Throughout this process we will be guided by trans people.

We want to hear about what you think the next steps are to achieve equality for trans people and the role that Stonewall might be able to play. We’re determined to get this right and we promise to keep you updated as conversations progress.

I have been invited to one of these meetings at the end of August.

Ruth Pearce has written an excellent post, Putting the “T” into Stonewall? An important opportunity, in which she explores why this dialogue is important, outlines some of the proposed approaches to working with Stonewall (or not), and outlines her priorities in discussing this issue with both Stonewall and other trans activists. It’s a very comprehensive summary and I don’t want to reinstate it, so I will urge you to read her post first.

My own observations on this:

  1. Currently, there seem to be two strands of trans activism: local and national. National trans activism is focused on media representation, as seen most clearly in Trans Media Watch’s media monitoring and All About Trans’ interventions with media professionals. I am not objecting to this at all; one strand of my own research explores the media representation of trans people. Trans Media Watch offer compelling evidence in their submission to the Leveson Inquiry (.pdf) that negative media represention has a direct impact on trans people’s safety, welfare and mental health.

    However, I do think that there needs to be more to support non-media issues at a national level. In my experience, this tends to fall to local trans support groups. These groups tend to focus on issues that directly impact on individual members of the local community. These may include cases of discrimination in employment and education, access (or lack of) to medical interventions and appropriate healthcare, asylum and immigration issues, and housing issues. When such issues have occurred, the lack of a national organisation capable of advising – or even aware of similar issues around the country – has been sorely felt. As an example, trans people in my local area have had huge problems with the local NHS trust “red-listing” cross-sex hormones, meaning that GPs (with a budget for prescriptions) were unable to prescribe them. Instead, the local Gender Identity Clinic (that does not have a budget for prescriptions) had to assume responsibility. It would have immensely helpful to have a national organisation capable of advising on – or even aware of – the situation nationally. We were left wondering whether this was just affecting us or whether it was a national issue.

  2. In addition, many local groups are entirely volunteer-run. This means that volunteers may have the skills but not the funds, time or energy to provide a consistent service. Activist burn-out is a real problem in our community. It is exhausting holding down a job, dealing with an often unhelpful medical community, dealing with gender dysphoria – and, often, mental and physical health problems – and attempting to support other trans people, to provide training and education, to campaign about the latest transphobic or simply unintentionally trans exclusive awfulness. I know so many brilliant people who are simply exhausted, worn out, ground down by the fact that this never stops, is relentless.

    This also tends to mean that volunteers are more likely to be those who can take on an unpaid, time-consuming position and are less likely to be at the sharp end of homelessness, unemployment, medical abuse, disability. People who are, in other words, privileged and often without first-hand expertise in dealing with such complex, difficult situations. I believe that secure paid positions for trans activists is a priority and would free people to actually work on these issues in a systematic and consistent way instead of expecting them to give up their free time. It would be a very concrete demonstration that trans activism is valued.

  3. We must be focusing on issues like housing, healthcare, disability, violence, poverty, mental health, immigration and asylum, and access to education. We must have an intersectional approach and focus on areas that affect the most vulnerable members of the trans community. We must look at areas where a trans identity makes already dangerous situations life-threatening.
  4. Having looked at the list of attendees, I am concerned that the group Stonewall has invited is skewed towards white, highly educated, established activists who tend to be trans women with a binary identity. As non-white/people of colour we have concerns and experiences that aren’t shared by white people, and I want to raise as many as I can at this meeting.

    Some things I want to talk about are poor understanding from healthcare professionals (everything from their understanding of what family looks like to post-op scarring on non-white skin), racism from the LGBQ community, mental health and lack of representation of QTIPOC (Queer, Trans and Intersex People of Colour).

  5. Building on the last point, we have to be aware of intersectionality and privilege beyond the obvious of a trans history and/or identity e.g. aspects of class and education. We have to be aware of who is underrepresented, or not represented at all. Future meetings must be more diverse.
  6. I would welcome the development of a national trans organisation but feel that Stonewall is not trusted by the trans community; after years of active disinterest and undermining of trans activism (such as its use of “tranny” in the Fit campaign materials) I find such hesitation understandable. However, Stonewall does have lobbying power and has vast experience in bringing lesbian and gay issues to national attention.

    Ideally I would like to see the development of a national trans organisation that can collaborate with Stonewall on campaigns and the development for paid positions within it. However, trans liberation has to take priority rather than keeping Stonewall happy. I am for being challenging, radical, awkward, uncomfortable. I want to have these difficult conversations. I do not want any trans organisation emerging from this to be seen as “safe” or existing to appease cis people. It has to be for us, by us.

I welcome any comments, suggestions or feedback. Please either comment here or send an email to contact (at) mixosaurus (dot) co (dot) uk.

Why isn’t my professor black?

blackprofessor
A couple of weeks ago I attended a panel discussion at UCL called, simply, “Why Isn’t My Professor Black?”. Race in academia and the experience of being a BME academic is something I’m keenly interested in: I’ve written about UCU’s report on race, about intersectionality and some reflections on intersectional experiences in teaching and learning, and the effort one expends entering spaces where I am a research subject rather than a researcher and activist in my own right.

The statistics are shocking: of the 18,550 professors in the UK, only 85 of these are Black – and only 17 of the 85 are women. This panel brought together six Black academics to not only discuss why there are so few Black professors, but to imagine the conditions where Black academics could thrive.

The six academics brought together for the panel were:

Nathan Edward Richards
Deborah Gabriel
Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman
Dr Lisa Amanda Palmer
Dr William Ackah
Dr Shirley Tate

You can watch the full panel on youtube, read the Storify of tweets here and there’s a summary of the event and each speaker’s approach on this blog. Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman‘s talk, “Philosophy is dead white – and dead wrong” is online here.

I’ve found a couple of blog responses but would love to add more – if you’ve written something, please let me know in the comments. Yewande Okuleye has a series of posts focusing on contents of the panel discussion, responses from attendees and participants, and her reflections. Leona Nicole Black also has some really interesting reflections on the event.

Predictably, I’m interested in the context informing this. Currently open in my tabs is a Guardian article reporting that only three black applicants win places to train as history teachers, an Irish Times article on the everyday reality of gender imbalance at professor level at third level, a Salon article about why white guys don’t (have to) get it and that is why dominate TV, a NYT piece on racial microaggressions in university, a Guardian article on why many academics are on short-term contracts for years, Nadine Muller’s collection of posts on academia and mental health, research showing that Black and Minority Ethnic communities are faced with double the levels of discrimination and PhD(isabled). As intersectional analyses show us, these different issues interact and compound each other: to be BME with poor mental health is not to experience two separate issues but instead to experience intertwining, inextricable issues that mean that such an experience is different from that of a white person with mental health issues or a BME person without them.

If “straight white male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is, Black and minority ethnic academics – particularly women, particularly those with mental health or disability issues, particularly LGBQ people, particularly trans* people, and particularly those whose identities encompass all of these things – are playing the academic game on a much harder setting. And it shouldn’t be this way.

I could make an argument in terms of academic labour – if the academy loses us through neglect and hostility and lack of support, it loses our perspectives. It loses our critiques, it loses our intellectual gifts, it loses what we can bring to the university in terms of funding and prestige and league table rankings. It loses our abilities to engage with and mentor students, which will no doubt be reflected in the National Student Survey.

However, I am more interested in the damage it does to those in this system – the students and scholars who must struggle in ways not expected of anyone else, and who, when we raise the issue, are told that academia isn’t for everyone, and maybe we would be happier doing something else? What does it mean to work in such an environment, and what is it doing to us? What does our labour mean when it is produced in these conditions?

The high cost of researching

Recently I read Pat Thomson’s post about research participants finding the things written about them.

Today, I went to a seminar on Older LGBT people: intersections of ethnicity, culture and religion. As someone who lives in the intersections and who is queer, non-white, has a religious background and family, and who will (probably!) one day be old, I wanted to find people who had a similar set of identities, who might have had similar experiences, and who might be at different stages in their lives. I don’t know what my old age would look like. I wanted to find my elders.

I went to UK Black Pride this summer (here’s my friend Maryam’s post and photos) and it was an amazing, affirming space to be welcomed into with all my identities acknowledged. It was unforgettable to spend the night watching gay Asian men dance to bhangra and dance their own love stories – take the songs of childhood film-watching and make them theirs, fiercely claim that music and movement. It was equally unforgettable to spend the following day hanging out with a queer Bengali friend and allowing his identity as a queer man, as a brown man, as a Bengali man to become intelligible in this space. I felt like a part of me clicked into place when I was surrounded by the joy of my Brown and Black LGBTQ siblings.

However, I am familiar with both the mainstream LGBT community and LGBT research events, so wasn’t too hopeful about this event:

When I got there, I was unsurprised to find that the room was overwhelmingly white. It was a close run thing that I didn’t simply turn around and leave, or that I didn’t leave during lunch.

I enjoyed the presentations, particularly those by Dr Roshan das Nair and Professor Andrew Yip. The discussion was a mixed bag. I think our group did pretty well, and we discussed things like the interaction between non-white and LGBT gendered presentations, invisibility as erasure, the responsibility of making our spaces ready to welcome people before they are there, and the specific healthcare needs of LGB and especially trans people (particularly with dementia).

However, I was struck by the lack of non-white LGBTQ people in attendance, particularly older people. People researching the intersection of age, sexuality and race noted that they’d found it difficult to recruit participants, even when they went looking. There’s an argument that these communities don’t exist, but I argued that just because these communities can’t be seen by white people doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Minorities have always been good at hiding; why should older non-white LGBT people be any different?

The intersection of LGBTQ sexuality, gender, religion and age is a difficult one. As one white researcher told us, her Black mentor had rebuked her when she noted that she was having trouble finding Black women for her research: as her mentor said, why would these women trust her with their stories?

As someone for whom this intersection is a tangible reality, going into an overwhelmingly white room feels unsafe – that I cannot share these stories and experience the solidarity of my queer non-white spaces. Instead, I feel like I have become a display object, a teaching moment – that I am there to educate others while being denied the connections I want to make. People seem to expect me to share my experiences at their convenience, and often don’t acknowledge the psychological toll this takes. It’s as a form of self-care that I have become ruthless about which projects I am prepared to engage in; I will not let someone pick at scabs over wounds that are broken open again and again.

I think there’s a conversation to be had about research fatigue in people who are asked time and time again about their experiences. I am tired of half-baked requests and poorly designed surveys being sent to the LGBT groups I help with. I am tired of researchers expecting me to hold out difficult, painful experiences for their scrutiny without giving me a reason to trust them. I am tired of this being a one way exchange.

So while I had some good conversations and met some interesting people, I can’t help but feel a bit dispirited by the day.

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.

Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance when we remember the trans* and gender variant people who have lost their lives this year – 265 lives lost, often in savage, brutal ways. These are the dead we know about; we also mourn the nameless, faceless dead, those whose murders we’ll never know about. As I look through the the list of names and at the breakdown of these statistics, I see patterns to the violence.

Many of these people were trans women or somewhere on the transfeminine spectrum. Many lived in Central or South America. Many were people of colour. Many were sex workers. They lived and died at a particularly cruel set of intersections – racism, misogyny, transphobia, hatred of sex workers, classism.

It is important not to forget these intersections. It is not simply transphobia, but a toxic brew of multiple kinds of hatreds that mean that the existence of anyone living at that intersection cannot be tolerated and they cannot be allowed to live.

Many trans and gender variant people experience prejudice and violence; however, the violence experienced by someone with some privileges (being white, upper/middle class, able-bodied, highly educated) is different from that experienced by those who are insulated by none of these privileges. In remembering them, it is important to never appropriate their experiences and lives and deaths. They are our dead, but we are not all Thapelo Makutle or Laryssa Silveira just as we are not all CeCe McDonald. As Monica Maldonado writes,

We should gather to mourn the dead, not conscript them into a battle they never had the privilege to fight while living.
[…]

Remember trans people today…but remember us tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. And never forget that fighting for trans justice is fighting for social justice. And just the same, fighting for economic justice, disability justice, and racial justice are fighting for trans justice.

[…]

Reflecting on those whose lives were senselessly lost at the intersections of violence and injustice is one of the most important and sobering works we can do as a community.

[…]

But it can’t be all we do. And until we rise to the occasion; until each of us rises to action; until we meet the very real challenge of creating a more equal community and society; until we do better, we’ll keep meeting here each year, reading this ever-growing list of names of those who lost their lives at these intersections of violence and injustice.

Today we mourn. As Ruth Pearce writes, “today is for the dead. If we don’t acknowledge their passing, it may be that no-one will. If we don’t offer respect, it may be that no-one will”.

Tomorrow, we who still have breath in our bodies, can live and love and fight and hope.

But today is for the dead.

International Women’s Day: Suffrage

I found this brilliant video by Soomo Publishing about the US suffrage movement.

More information on their website.

While it is presented as a linear narrative and simplifies some of the movement’s complexities, there are some great things about it. I like how working women’s voices are included and the video format is very useful at demonstrating how strikingly visual the suffrage movement was – something that can get lost among the text and black-and-white photos.

I especially like how anti-suffrage views are presented: advocated by a woman who is supported by men, and that these views enter into the song as part of a dialogue. The lyrics – “Well, I think you’re psycho/I think that it’s sick/I’m queen of my home, raise my babies/That’s it/Don’t need to vote” are a neat summary of the separate spheres discourse and the elevation of the private, domestic sphere as a rhetorical strategy by anti-suffragists.

However, the problems of the video are similar to the problems of the suffrage movement, and indeed reflective of (some? many?) types of feminism. It’s presented as a narrative where by the end, white, able-bodied, young women step out in confidence and in doing so, present the attainment of suffrage as a triumphant endpoint. There were indeed suffrage campaigners who saw suffrage as a symbolic gesture of equality and who campaigned for women’s suffrage as an end unto itself; these women were often white, financially comfortable and upper and middle-class. However, there were also women, often working class and active in trade unions, who saw the suffrage as a means to gaining employment rights, improve their working conditions, gain healthcare for themselves and their families, and increase support for welfare. These women didn’t have the comfort of financial stability – they were vulnerable if they lost their jobs or couldn’t work, and to them the suffrage was not merely symbolic. Instead it was a step towards dignity and independence with endless practical implications. These women can be left out of the suffrage narratives. Some, like Annie Kenney, negotiated a role within organisations like the Women’s Social and Political Union; others, like the radical, trade unionist, Northern suffragists examined by Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, were “rediscovered” by feminist historians.

As Avory Faucette tweeted earlier today, “Big love for #IWD for all my trans women, queer women, Women Of Colo(u)r, Women With Disabilities, neuroatypical women, fat women, & all women left out of dominant picture”. There are still problems in feminism not addressing the needs of all women, clearly shown in this article about addressing white privilege in feminist organisations. As with the suffrage movement, feminism risks ignoring or dismissing the women with least power but to whom we should be listening to most carefully. The nature of intersectionality means that:

…racism, patriarchy, class oppression and other discriminatory systems create inequalities that structure the relative positions of women, races, ethnicities, classes, and the like. Moreover, intersectionality addresses the way that specific acts and policies operate together to create further disempowerment. For instance, race, ethnicity, gender, or class, are often seen as separate spheres of experience which determine social, economic and political dynamics of oppression. But, in fact, the systems often overlap and cross over each other, creating complex intersections at which two, or three or more of these axis may meet. Indeed, racially subordinated women are often positioned in the space where racism or xenophobia, class and gender meet.

The groups of women mentioned by Faucette are positioned at these intersections of cissexism, homophobia and heteronormativity, racism, ablism, health and beauty norms.

So for me, International Women’s Day isn’t just about celebrating women and the strides made in gender equality – although that’s exciting and important too; after all, it’s encouraging to be able to look back and see you have changed something. It’s also a day of reflecting on the many areas where work remains. I’ve been dipping into the Guardian’s coverage of IWD and liked these articles on the hurdles obstructing equality around the world and migrant and refugee women. It’s important that IWD isn’t just a day of celebration, but also one of anger, protest and, to use the noun so popular when reporting suffragist actions, some old-fashioned outrages.

References:
Liddington, J. and Norris, J. (1978) One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. London: Virago

Privilege in an occupation

"My protest will be intersectional or it will be nothing"

Photo and banner by K Gupta

So, there seem to be a few occupations going on, including my local Occupy Nottingham.

One of this things I’ve found interesting is the language that’s emerging. This post examines the language of the “we are the 99% tumblr. Meanwhile, Tiger Beatdown has some interesting analysis of who exactly is the 1% and an insightful, moving essay about the range of experiences of wealth, poverty and class found within the 99%.

I’ve also been thinking about who an occupation excludes. I’d define an occupation as a radical reclamation of space where alternatives to mainstream society can be explored – things like communal living, consensus decision making, and sharing the work needed to sustain a community. However, the fact remains that we are products of this mainstream society and have internalised some of its toxic elements – sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism to name a handful. In a social justice context, not having to encounter these things are often described as ‘privileges’. There’s lots of material out there on privilege but I particularly like this primer on privilege and what we can do about it. It’s important to note that, while these can be manifested in individual interactions, they’re also embedded and reinforced by social institutions.

As a non-white, queer, female-assigned-at-birth person who has taken part in occupations, I’ve found that occupations tend to be full of very earnest people who are trying their very hardest not to reproduce structures of oppression but who often don’t quite manage it. As a non-white person, I don’t want to be told that someone – almost certainly white – doesn’t see race. As this essay describes, claiming that you don’t see race both makes my experiences of living as a non-white person invisible, and means that

that person also can ignore systemic nature of racism. That person can pretend that racial issues can be solved by making people act nicer to each other; however, focusing on eliminating prejudice and racism between individuals can obscure the need for eliminating the racism that is so deeply ingrained in our social institutions.

This is particularly important when engaging in the anti-cuts movement – how are you going to protest cuts to EMA disproportionately affecting women and ethnic minorities if you don’t see race and gender, or believe that racism and sexism can be addressed by everyone just being a bit nicer to each other?

An occupation that claims to be leaderless is not exempt from privilege: this essay, on how the Occupy movement’s non power structure perpetuates sexism, observes that

Even in movements that are formally leaderless, those with privilege tend to bring pre-existing power to the table, and that power can be dangerous. This is part of any communal space, no matter how well-intended; I can testify that, even in my own best efforts, and even with trusted friends, I’ve brought my own privilege to the table, created invisible hierarchies, and hurt people. Addressing how power works — who is seen to be powerful, who is exercising power, which kinds, and why, and how that looks like the old world and old structures of oppression we are trying to break away from — has to be a central part of any radical movement.

[…]

It’s hard to focus on what marginalized people are saying, when they’re reduced to a collection of photos for the purpose of telling us that they’re “hot.” The act of finding those voices, actively seeking them out, and listening to them, is harder than taking a photo. It’s also the work that can and must be done.

Failing to address sexism leads to sexual assault, and attempts to intimidate and silence those trying to address it, as seen in Occupy Glasgow.

So what can be done about it?

All Of Us Deserve To Feel Safe has published response cards as “a way of communicating to someone that they’ve made a space unsafe without having to deal with potentially intimidating confrontation. It includes a list of different ways that spaces can be made unsafe, with checkboxes for the relevant concerns.” They also have flyers with suggestions on how to make a space safer.

In addition to their very helpful suggestions, I’d like to comment that how labour is divided in the occupation is important. It’s not okay for men to be sitting around with mugs of tea while the women wash up, sort out the recycling, collect water and so on. I’ve seen this in an occupation before and it was shocking that these so-called radical men were content to allow this gendered division of labour to happen. This is some of the most visible stuff in an occupation – if you can’t manage to make this equal in your own space, how are you in a position to call for a fairer and more equal society?

I also think it’s important to not to treat any member of a minority group as a spokesperson. Sometimes, when I’ve wandered along to an occupation, I’ve immediately been pounced on and asked how they can make the occupation more friendly to ethnic minorities or women. I’m very glad that they’re thinking about this, but aside from the assumptions this makes about my gender identity, it also makes me feel like I’ve become a token minority – that I’m happy to have these conversations at their convenience, that I’m happy to have these sometimes difficult and exhausting conversations on demand. Sometimes I just want a brew and a chat, not to give an immediate workshop on anti-racism.

Finally, it’s crucial to listen. Creating an anti-oppressive space means that people belonging to less privileged groups will critique your efforts, and it’s essential that you listen to these criticisms and respond to them in a constructive manner rather than becoming defensive or aggressive. As the open letter to Occupy Glasgow shows, if someone criticises an occupation for allowing or enabling systematic oppression, she can be insulted, bullied and accused of trying to shut the occupation down from within. This is unacceptable behaviour – it silences the activists who did complain, it allows sexists a free pass, and it stops people making other criticisms. It can be difficult to hear criticism, but ultimately criticism coming from activists who are sympathetic to the movement comes from a place of caring and wanting the movement to be as inclusive as possible.

An occupation has to practice what it preaches. You cannot call for an end of one kind of oppression while perpetuating, however unconsciously, other kinds of oppressions and, however accidentally, silencing the voices of (other) minorities.