Activist academia, academic activism

This is my contribution to a roundtable discussion on trans and non-binary activism at Sexual Cultures 2: Activism meets academia. My co-panellists were Ruth Pearce, Jade Fernandez and Dr Jay Stewart and the facilitator was Dr Meg John Barker.

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Today I’m basically going to argue that academia and activism inform and enrich each other. There are commonalities between the two: both engage with the world around us, both describe it and seek to understand it. Both ask – and respond – to difficult questions. However, there are also differences: activism explicitly seeks change whereas not all academic work does so. Activism can also take many different forms, and there are different barriers to enter it[1].

Both my academic research and activism are interested in people – how they form the identities they have, how they communicate these and make them legible, how they understand themselves, how they challenge the societies they live in.

My academic work has focused on the newspaper representation of the suffrage movement and, more recently, how trans people are represented in the media. Representation is crucial to changing perceptions of minority and/or disadvantaged groups – it is how people who may never meet us and interact with us learn about us. As my research on the suffrage movement shows, mainstream media representation can over simplify complex issues and debates, conflate identities, and focus on things like property damage to the exclusion of decades of non-violent direct action – all of these are pretty damaging to already disadvantaged groups. We can see this focus on accurate media representation in trans activism through projects like Trans Media Watch and All About Trans. I’ve also found myself contributing to discussions on Black and Minority Ethnic LGBTQ elders and have had difficult experiences at conferences when my intersectional identity means I am seen as the subject of someone else’s research rather than a researcher in my own right.

Academic work allows us to gather, interpret and analyse data. In my field of corpus linguistics, we talk a lot about rigour – can these results be replicated? are they statistically valid? how can I be sure that the things I find are actually there and not simply a case of overextrapolation? These things are necessary to talk about in activism too – how do I know there is a problem? is it systematic? who does it affect? how does it affect them? This is especially important in a context of funding cuts and pressure on services. I’m sure that I am not the only person to have been asked whether there is a demonstrated need for services that support trans, and especially nonbinary, people. There’s a vicious cycle at work where we don’t know exactly how many trans people or nonbinary people there are because surveys rarely ask the right questions to get decent answers, so it’s hard to get changes made that will help us and increase our visibility, so it’s harder for trans and nonbinary people to make their identities clear and be counted.

Nat Titman notes that “Reliable figures show that at least 0.4% of the UK population defines as nonbinary when given a 3-way choice in terms of female, male or another description” before going on to observe that “If gender is asked in terms of frequency of feeling like a man, a women, both or neither then there is evidence that more than a third of everyone may experience gender in a way that defies binary categories”. Nat argues that “If you wish to measure the numbers of people who don’t fit within binary classifications of female/male or man/woman then your choice of question will have a huge effect on the results […] Asking for ‘Other’ in the context of ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ is likely to reduce the number of people identifying outside of the binary to the lowest possible figure, those who feel strongly enough to reject classification with binary ‘sex’ as well as the man/woman binary”.

As Nat makes clear, there is a need for more research in this area – and designing the kind of surveys that can be sensitive to this kind of information is something that academics and activists can work on together.

On a more personal note, my undergraduate essays were possibly an extremely awkward and nerdy coming out process. My first introduction to gender as more complicated than a binary and ideas about gender as a repertoire of behaviours didn’t come from message boards, IRC channels or people I knew, but from an edited collection of linguistic articles. The first time I used gender neutral pronouns was in an essay analysing the linguistic interaction between my student radio co-presenter and me. These concepts blew my mind and started giving me words to describe myself and my experiences. Academia, perhaps weirdly, helped me find my way into activism.

I also believe that activism can enhance academic work. As I’ve alluded to previously, activism can help us ask questions – without the efforts of nonbinary activists like Nat, we wouldn’t have nearly as good an idea about how many nonbinary people there are in the UK and wouldn’t be so aware of the urgent need for more rigorous research in this area.

Some of the academic work I most respect has been from academics bringing their lived experiences and their own activism into their research. As an MA student, one of my formative books was Paul Baker’s Public Discourses of Gay Men. As corpus linguists, Paul and I examine large amounts of text to find patterns in them. These patterns don’t have to be grammatical, but can reflect cultural ideas – and to recognise that they’re present in the first place, let alone analyse them, you have to be familiar with the culture that produced the text. What so struck me about Paul’s work was the way he uses his experience as a gay man to research from within. He does not shed his identity as a gay man in order to pursue an impossible notion of objectivity – instead, it is his very subjectivity that makes it such an illuminating piece of work.

Finally, I believe that activism can help us become more compassionate academics – more open and aware of others’ experiences, more ready to accept others’ realities. Patricia O’Connor argues this when she says “Activist linguistics, as I see it, does not mean that the researcher skew her or his findings to support one group or one ideology or another. Nor does it mean that a famous linguist use her or his fame to support causes. Rather, an activist linguistics calls for researchers to remain connected to the communities in which they research, returning to those settings to apply the knowledge they have generated for the good of the community and to deepen the research through expansion or focus”

I wrote a chunk of my PhD in a university occupation. As an activist, I think I offer a much greater understanding of the frustration when peaceful direct action – petitions, meetings, lobbying – doesn’t get you anywhere. The women I studied for my PhD had campaigned peacefully for over 30 years before developing militant tactics! I got a better sense of the courage it took to take part in protests when it might lead to violence against you. I hope that this is reflected in my writing. It’s easy to judge people or campaigns for not making the same decisions as you would, but my activist experience highlighted what a difficult context suffrage campaigners worked in and the sometimes impossible decisions we have to make.

I’m still developing my new project on trans media representation, but I aim to be the kind of researcher Patricia talks about – connected to the community and using what I find for its good. I want my work to stand up to scrutiny from both activists and academic researchers. As I hope I’ve shown, I believe academia and activism can combine to create something better than their parts.

[1] I expanded on this in the discussion: there are huge barriers to activism in the form of finances, access to transport, access to childcare, education, dis/ability, having an already marginalised identity and more – I’d love to discuss this further in the comments.

References:

Baker, P. (2005). Public Discourses of Gay Men. London: Routledge.
O’Connor, P. E. (2003). “Activist Sociolinguistics in a Critical Discourse Analysis Perspective”. In G. Weiss and R. Wodak (Eds) Critical Discourse Analysis: Theory and Interdisciplinarity. Basingstoke: Paulsgrave Macmillan
Titman, N. (2014, 16 December). “How many people in the United Kingdom are nonbinary?”. Retrieved from http://practicalandrogyny.com/2014/12/16/how-many-people-in-the-uk-are-nonbinary/

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.

L, G, B – here’s your T

On 30 September 2014 I attended Stonewall’s first group meeting of trans activists. I wrote about my thoughts on Stonewall’s missing T before the meeting; here is my response to the meeting itself. Other people have also written about it and I will be updating the list as other things are posted; please let me know if you’re written something about that meeting and you want me to link to it.

Jane Fae: What happened at Stonewall’s first meeting with the trans community?
Natacha Kennedy: Alliances and Oppositions. Trans activism and Stonewall
Zoe Kirk-Robinson: Putting the T Back in Stonewall
CN Lester: #TransStonewall – the first meeting
Zoe O’Connell: #TransStonewall: The Meeting
Ruth Pearce: Imagining a trans-inclusive Stonewall

What happened on the day
To very briefly summarise, there are four options on the table for Stonewall’s future involvement in trans issues. One option was that Stonewall can remain as an LGB organisation but works to be a better ally for trans people and issues affecting us. The general feeling in the room was that this was to be taken as given. The other three options were that Stonewall could be a much more active partner. We discussed the following three options in small groups, looking at the pros and cons of each.

  1. That Stonewall become a full LGBT organisation.
  2. That Stonewall helps set up a sibling organisation to tackle trans issues – raising initial funds, sharing expensive resources such as IT and HR, and helping with training. This organisation would then become an autonomous, though linked, entity.
  3. That Stonewall remain an LGB organisation, but provide grants to existing trans organisations.

One of the things that Ruth Hunt wanted to explain was just how Stonewall functioned as a strategic lobbying organisation. Part of their role is to work with organisations that are homophobic and/or really unaware of LGB issues. For example, they work with Paddy Power, and will continue to advise on their campaigns. There are also campaigns they can’t get involved with (e.g. sex worker rights) because they’re under so much scrutiny from, for example, religious groups that would kick off about it. I wonder how comfortable trans people would be with that – especially when survival sex work is something that affects many trans women.

I think the current feeling is that we don’t want to completely assimilate into Stonewall and we want to keep a degree of flexibility that will allow for trans specific stuff to be tackled. From the trans perspective, there are issues that will affect us without affecting cis LGB people and we may decide that we wanted to operate in a way that Stonewall doesn’t (for example, by offering services or supporting individuals). Ruth Hunt stressed that she did not want the relationship between Stonewall LGB and Stonewall T to be unequal, junior or paternalistic.

The overwhelming feeling in the room was that we didn’t want Stonewall to issue grants to existing organisations. This felt paternalistic, felt as though it could introduce unnecessary competition between groups, and tied up limited resources into the process of applying for and administering grants. While both options 1 and 2 have flaws, the group generally felt that some kind of option 1.5 would be suitable – sharing resources with Stonewall but being a critical friend rather than subsumed into Stonewall.

Positives and negatives
On the whole, I am cautiously optimistic. The following points are things I liked and found reassuring about the day.

  • Ruth Hunt seems genuinely committed to changing Stonewall and has clearly been thinking about this for a long time.
  • Calm, thoughtful facilitation.
  • On the day itself, there was very little fighting. There had been problems on the facebook group about people’s political affiliation, but there seemed relatively little of that in the room itself.
  • They want to have further meetings with non-white people, people with disabilities, intersex people and children/teenagers.
  • Stonewall are exploring lots of options in how Stonewall should become trans inclusive and it’s not going to be a top-down decision.
  • Ruth Hunt is very, very aware of what Stonewall has done badly in the past and has apologised profusely. She’s very clear on how and why things went wrong in the past.
  • She’s also aware that just general understandings of gender and sexuality have changed and become more sophisticated, and Stonewall hasn’t really moved with that. While they run some very effective campaigns (and I think that some, like ‘Some people are gay – get over it’, have helped create an environment of acceptance and room for more nuanced understandings) but she’s aware they have to be able to engage on a number of levels from 101 to complex, nuanced stuff.
  • Non-binary identities are included and Stonewall is very aware of our existence. Any trans inclusion in Stonewall will not simply focus on binary trans identities and ignore the rest of us.

However, there were also things that I feel less confident about. Some of these are things that Stonewall could have done better – but others are things that the trans community has contributed to. We have to put our own house in order.

  • It was really, really not diverse in terms of race and age. When I pointed this out, Ruth Hunt said that they’d invited more people of colour who declined to attend. I think this is a problem in itself and worth thinking about in terms of why people wouldn’t have felt comfortable attending.
  • There was no information about how the day would be structured given to us before the meeting which worried me – I had no idea about how we’d be expected to work, what they actually wanted to discuss or when we were going to get breaks. This is a problem for people with both mental and physical health issues – for example, what if you have blood sugar issues?
  • Some people had already made their minds up. It’s annoying when you have to see pros and cons of an option for making Stonewall trans inclusive and someone has already decided that that particular option is A No Good Terrible Idea and refuses to see any positives at all.
  • Microagressions. I got mansplained at, and a friend was called “exotic” because she’s mixed race. This is unacceptable – how can we expect cis people to acknowledge the diversity of the trans communit(y/ies) if we can’t be respectful ourselves?

There are some big legal fights looming – I don’t believe the Gender Recognition Act is fit for purpose – and Stonewall have experience in political lobbying, bringing legal test cases and so on. I think it would be foolish to throw that away, but it’s really, really important to think about what trans inclusion in Stonewall looks like, how it works, how closely tied to Stonewall it is, who it’s accountable to and so on.

Three things we want from a trans-inclusive Stonewall
My group came up with three things we’d like to see from any kind of trans inclusion from Stonewall.

  1. Trans issues should be incorporated into existing and future campaigns where appropriate. The current ‘No Bystanders’ campaign is already trans inclusive, we’d like to see ‘Some people are gay’ extended to ‘Some people are trans’ (and, indeed, ‘Some people are they’).
  2. We want to see inclusive, accountable, effective, diverse trans-specific campaigns on a nationwide level.
  3. Any campaign must involve trans people and must be sustainable – both financially, and also in terms of the human cost.

Next steps
The next steps are to consult with a wider variety of people. This meeting was not decisive – only a starting point. Stonewall will be holding further meetings with trans people of colour, intersex people, people with disabilities and trans children and young people. In addition, they want as many people as possible to email and phone them.

They will release an interim report in January and ask for responses on that. They will issue the final report with their recommendations in April. They could be starting to campaign on trans issues by Autumn 2015.

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.

Trans seminars

I’m going to be speaking at ‘Trans’ in Popular Representation at the University of Warwick on Thursday. It promises to be a really interesting event and I’m excited to be presenting alongside such cool people! I’ll be talking about the media representation of Lucy Meadows, and focusing on pronouns in particular. It’s something new for me and very much a pilot study of the “is there something worth investigating here?” kind. Anyway, here’s a brief summary of what I’ll be talking about.

______________

Response and responsibility: mainstream media and Lucy Meadows

In March 2013, Lucy Meadows was found dead at her home. Meadows, a primary school teacher, was transitioning from male to female; the school announced her decision to return to work after the Christmas break as Miss Meadows. This was reported in the local press and quickly picked up by the national press. Her death prompted discussions of responsible media reporting, press freedom and the contributions of trans* people to society.

I collected two corpora of newspaper articles: one of articles mentioning Lucy Meadows and a larger one of general news articles. These corpora are used to identify keywords – words that occur more frequently in the Lucy Meadows texts than might be expected from examining the collection of general news texts. The female pronouns she and her emerged as key; in this paper I look at these more closely using approaches drawn from corpus linguistics and critical discourse analysis (Baker 2006; Baker et al 2008).

References
Baker, P. (2006). Using Corpora in Discourse Analysis. London: Continuum.
Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C., Khosravinik, M., Krzyzanowski, M., McEnery, T., & Wodak, R. (2008). “A useful methodological synergy? Combining critical discourse analysis and corpus linguistics to examine discourses of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK press”. Discourse and Society, 19(3), 273.
Scott, M. (2012). WordSmith Tools version 6. Liverpool: Lexical Analysis Software.

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013

Last week I wrote a post for InherentlyHuman, a blog based in the School of Law at the University of Durham.

I wrote about why the Marriage (Same Sex) Act 2013 does not bring marriage equality for trans* people and highlighted three major issues with it: the stolen marriages that the Act won’t restore, the spousal veto and the binary gender encoded into the Act.

I also need to write about my time at Corpus Linguistics 2013 and the Community Stage I helped to organise for Nottinghamshire Pride. Coming soon, I promise.

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.

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

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.