April 9, 2015 § 13 Comments
Evidently not BBC’s Woman’s Hour.
Trans (and potentially trans) children – already a hot button topic – have been pushed further into the spotlight this week with Louis Theroux’s latest, broadly supportive, documentary, aired by the BBC on April 5th. Other arms of the BBC were quick to weigh in, as were the rest of the mainstream press – it made sense that Woman’s Hour, the BBC’s flagship magazine radio show for feminist/gender-related content, would want to add to the discussion.
What I didn’t realise, until they contacted me this Thursday, was that it wasn’t so much a case of ‘adding to the discussion’ as it was promoting their own agenda under the guise of ‘debate’.
Before I say anything else, I should probably touch on my background. I’ve been a trans (and general QUILTBAG) activist since I myself came out at the age of 15. I co-founded the first British nationwide LGBT organisation for young people, started the UK’s first gay/straight alliance, have done outreach and consultation work with groups like the London Assembly, NASUWT, Channel 4, and work as an advocate, fundraiser and writer on trans issues. I’ve done a fair amount of work with young trans people – most recently as a spokesman for Gendered Intelligence – and would describe myself as both trans and genderqueer.
I got an email Thursday afternoon from an assistant producer for Woman’s Hour, saying that they were “doing a discussion on the news story about the rise of children being referred to counsellors for transgender feelings”, and asking whether I would “be able to talk through the subject on the side of having non-binary gender vs transgender”. Two immediate red flags: the majority of non-binary people would describe themselves as trans, and the language around trans/gender non-conforming children – but I was happy to talk to them.
Over the phone, two further facts became apparent. The producer had very little knowledge of the subject – not the language (children are not treated by doctors “for transgender”), not the research, not the organisations – and that I was specifically being invited onto the programme to argue against children receiving age-appropriate care. We talked about the actual issues facing trans people seeking medical care – the fact that non-transgender (cis) doctors often insist on stereotypical behaviour and appearance from patients before they’re allowed treatment, that trans people who feel themselves outside of a gender binary are often denied care altogether, that doctors often disbelieve trans people and deny them referrals. I was told that this wasn’t “the angle” they were “going for”. After a few more messages we spoke again – they specifically told me that they were rescinding their invitation because they already had a “pro” side, and they wanted someone to argue against that. For that role they had picked someone who is not trans, who is known for her anti-trans views, and who has no experience in the field. When I raised questions about the impact of such a framing on trans young people I was told that it was “good to have a debate”. The programme was aired today. (Transcription here by Cassian Lotte Lodge – I want to make it clear that the issue here is with the production team and presenter, not the guests.)
Maybe this seems like a fuss over nothing – but it worries me a great deal, and has worried a great many of my colleagues. Not simply because of the ramifications upon trans children and their families, although that would be enough (and I’ll come back to that later) – but because it is symptomatic of broader trends in the framing of discussion in the mainstream press, and in the use of vulnerable groups as bait.
The BBC stressed that they wanted a debate – as a national, publicly funded organization they have a mandate and a duty to present a wide range of opinions whilst simultaneously trying to present ‘the facts’. I absolutely agree that they must do their best to report from multiple angles, to illustrate complexities, to detail the diversity of opinions represented by the public who fund them and who rely on them for information.
But staging a fight along predetermined lines doesn’t do that. There is nothing in the format of a 6th form debating society (with a limited motion, one “pro” and one “anti” speaker) that is somehow sacred, or especially useful, to the promulgation of free and informed discussion.
We know from weary experience that this is the not the standard way of reporting issues considered neutral. Only something juicy, something scandalous, something with the potential for outrage and conflict, is approached in this way. The way an issue – trans children in this instance – is seen by a producer is already apparent in the way potential discussion is framed.
And then, even within that framing – how is it possible for a producer to construct a debate when they are ignorant of the subject at hand? The producer I spoke to was clearly out of her depth and uninterested in getting even the basic facts right. No one is expecting every journalist to be an instant expert in every subject they approach – but I do expect a modicum of research and engagement. When a journalist hasn’t done that, it makes it very clear that they are not seeking to illustrate the issue for the listening public – how can they be, when they haven’t even done that on a personal level?
You can’t address complex and differing opinions when you don’t even know what those complex and differing opinions are. Reframing an issue to suit your own ignorance and marketing spin is the opposite of a free and informed debate.
So much for broadcasting standards. But with this particular issue – there are many in a similar vein, but this is one that I know – I think there’s another question to be asked: at what point does a national/international organization, relied upon by millions as an information source, have a duty of care towards the people it reports on? At what point does it have to stop thinking of vulnerable people as just a titillating story, a chance for an argument, and start thinking of the ethical implications of programming?
This wasn’t a light-hearted debate about Great British Bake Off, or an argument about party politics – it was meant to be a programme about some of the most marginalised people in our society. Not a robust conflict between two equal parties. A discussion about children who, in study after study, are shown to be disproportionately at risk of self-harm, family rejection, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, homelessness and suicide.
This isn’t theoretical. There is research on the effects of bullying, on how trans children come to know themselves and deal with the terrible abuse they suffer, on how great the risk of suicide is. Conversion therapy – the ‘treatment’ offered as an alternative to supportive counselling and, in some cases, puberty blockers – has been so widely accepted as cruel (not to mention ineffective) that the Obama administration has come out against it. On the other hand, research done into long-term outcomes of supportive medical/psychological care for trans youth has shown tremendously beneficial results. Beyond all of that, there are the voices of young trans people themselves – more and more and more and more – waiting for us to listen to them, to believe them.
But the people listening to this debate on Woman’s Hour, and all the others like it? Parents of trans children, extended family, teachers, school support staff, youth workers, doctors, nurses, care workers, NHS policy makers, politicians – the very people who desperately need the actual evidence on what works best when dealing with trans youth. Who, instead, are served up a wilfully uninformed, choreographed fight that presents lay opinion as equivalent to fact.
Worse – it erases the chance to present facts in favour of courting contentious opinion.
Everyone has the right to their own opinion, but that doesn’t make all opinions equal – and neither does it remove the impact that those opinions have on the world, for good or ill. In making the decision to favour preconceived, ignorant opinion over an informed discussion, the BBC has done damage to a group of people already under attack from too many sides. And I believe that to be shameful.
For more information on the issues facing trans youth and their families, and practical support, please see these organizations:
March 17, 2015 § 3 Comments
…in which I talk to Psychology Today about gender beyond binary ‘male’ and ‘female’.
Leaving aside personal reasons, I’d urge everyone reading this to share the piece if they can – particularly if you’re a cis person, particularly if you know that the people you’re sharing it with won’t have come across people like me before. I think it’s a great, compassionate introduction – and the more people learn, the safer, and richer, our lives can be.
January 6, 2015 § 16 Comments
It’s far enough into January that most of us have had time to break the usual New Year’s resolutions, if we bother to make them at all. But for all the cis (non-trans) people reading this, I have a challenge for you – one that would actually make a real difference.
Do you genuinely believe that trans people are as authentic, as real, as you are?
Maybe that seems like an odd question to ask. I’m not the first trans person to say that 2014 felt like a transformative year for trans rights: greater public awareness, more mainstream support, a broader understanding of what it is to be trans, and of why it’s wrong to discriminate against us. Laverne Cox was all the rage, Janet Mock’s debut book achieved critical and commercial success, and here in the UK our most prominent children’s channel broadcast a programme made by trans kids, aimed at kids, explaining trans issues.
With that, I was going to write this as a somewhat academic essay – looking at the inroads we’ve made versus a lack of basic understanding – the assumptions that still hamper a full acceptance of trans people’s realities. But then the past week and a half happened.
Leelah Alcorn’s suicide. Eylül Cansın’s suicide. The brutal attack on Samantha Hulsey and her partner – and the subsequent refusal of the police to investigate that attack under hate crime legislation.
They are not the only trans people who’ve died, been attacked, been treated as less than fully human in this time frame – but these are the stories I’ve seen shared and shared and shared, in grief and in outrage, by trans people that I know. And what I wanted to say changed – into this:
Despite the progress that’s been made, there still feels like there’s a crucial lack of understanding, of support, when it comes to broader questions of trans acceptance – and that lack feels like gap between the unquestioned authenticity of a cis person, and the often-debated, often-disbelieved authenticity of a trans person.
Authenticity – the unwavering acceptance that someone’s life, someone’s self, is the real thing. That the basic facts and details of someone’s existence are true.
We have passive support from those who accept trans rights as part of a general liberal mindset – the ‘I may not agree or understand, but it’s their right to do as they see fit’. We might well have well-meaning support from those who care about human rights, who don’t want others to suffer – the ‘I can’t imagine how hard it must be, and it’s just not kind to discriminate’.
But both of those approaches lack the foundational, unswerving belief that trans people are truly the equal in veracity to cis people. Far, far too often, even with those who putatively support trans people, there is an acceptance that our lives are up for debate. These debates are not usually framed as being about our existence, naturally – but make no mistake: a debate about whether it’s valid to support trans people, about whether it’s valid to believe that we’re sinful, about whether trans people are really the genders/sexes we say that we are is a debate about our existence.
Don’t get me wrong – we need open, considered, diverse debates about gender and sex. What is gender? What is sex? How do they come about? How and why do beliefs about them change? How has society arrived at its various beliefs, and why? How can we change things to make for a more just future? All of this is vital.
What’s not needed are debates that delegitimize, insult and disbelieve trans people. We do not need cis people eager to play devil’s advocate and indulge in such harmful ‘debates’ when real trans people are suffering and dying.
It’s not up for debate that it was wrong for Leelah Alcorn’s parents to privilege their woefully ignorant theoretical beliefs about trans existence over the life of their actual trans daughter.
It’s not up for debate that the constant disbelief, hostility and undermining of trans legitimacy that runs rampant thoughout contemporary society created the world described thus by Eylül Cansın: “I couldn’t because people did not let me. I couldn’t work, I wanted to do stuff, I couldn’t… You get me? They impeded with me many times; they made me suffer a lot.”
It’s not up for debate that the idea that trans women are not really women (and trans men are not really men, other trans people are just making it up) led to Samantha Hulsey’s would-be-killer claiming that she had ‘defrauded’ him simply by existing.
Maybe a trans person’s truth is not your truth. Maybe their way of knowing who they are is not the same as yours (although it might well be). Maybe this one particular trans person over here is radically different from you – though this other trans person over here might prove remarkably similar. What, at the end of the day, does it matter?
Truth is not a finite resource. Neither is empathy.
We need concrete action, going forward: an end to ‘conversion therapy’, proper support for trans victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, proper care for homeless trans people, a joined-up activism that understands and acts on the many other oppressions trans people face.
But, to achieve that, we need a change in attitudes. Some people are already there. Some people are changing. But until full and total belief in trans people’s lived truth is a popular position, we need to keep asking:
Do you really believe that a trans person is as authentically human, as truthful about themselves, as deserving of belief, protection and respect as you are?
And if not – what are you going to do to get to that place of belief?
December 22, 2014 § 89 Comments
We need a better way to talk about trans children.
Christmas is the hardest time of the year for me. Not for the reasons why it’s so hard for so many trans people – their reasons first, and then mine.
This time of year brings it home – in mundane, everyday little ways – that trans people are so often people without families. Or, rather, without families of origin – by necessity, we’ve become adept at building our families of choice. A facebook status asking for a donation to help homeless trans teenagers, or a recommendation for a trans-friendly shelter for victims of domestic violence – overwhelming numbers of empathetic responses rooted in experience. Invitations to alternative festive events, on days when most people are expected to find themselves with parents, grandparents, the in-laws. Survival guide blog posts for those trying to face their family of origin – knowing that it will mean misgendering and confusion at best – confrontation and abuse at worst. All of that with the same message spouted by festive adverts and TV specials playing in the background, that Christmas is the time for family, for understanding and compassion – just not for certain types of people.
For me, it has nothing to do with being trans. Seven years ago, my brother Jonathan – my best and closest friend – died on Christmas night, after two and a half years of constant treatment for brain cancer. He was twenty years old.
I admit that, initially, there seems little point in bringing together these two tragedies: one so personal, yet affecting so many people across the world – and another born of systemic, cultural cruelty towards a misunderstood minority, not common enough to be regularly reported on. And yet the two come together in my mind because of a turn of phrase so often used by parents of trans children – in the mainstream media and reported back in conversations.
“It felt like my child had died.” And worse, words either hurled or spat out in anger – or delivered calmly with practical procedure: “you’re dead to me”.
My family is in the fairly unusual position of having had one child transition, and one child die – and with that, I can and must say that the two events are not comparable. More than that – we shouldn’t continue to treat them as though they were comparable – not personally, not socially.
The second, I’m sure, most people would agree is unacceptable – but I know, already, the reasons given for allowing the first. It might be hyperbole, yes, but surely that’s allowed for someone who’s had a shock? Who’s found out something new and different about their child? Who’s mourning the loss of their dreams and expectations? All change brings its own form of grief – and finding out that a child is trans can (in some cases – not all) be change on all kinds of fronts.
Of course it’s true that grief is a necessary part of change – but change is not bereavement. This isn’t a pedantic or semantic argument, but something at the core of our misunderstandings about what it is to be trans. Death is the end of possibility – transition is its opposite.
It matters that we continue to allow and expect those words. Not only because it’s an inaccurate and harmful way of talking about trans people in general, though it is that: normal up to a point and then BAM – announcement, transition, different person. But more – when using those phrases in the context of relationships, families, parents and children – it feeds into a culture where young trans lives are not only theoretically devalued, but are genuinely more at risk.
PACE and Scottish Transgender Alliance have the numbers, and they’re shocking. Young trans people are nearly twice as likely to attempt suicide as their cis (non-trans) peers. Suicide and self-harm are often complicated, and rarely have one cause – young people with loving and supportive families still die from suicide – but isolation, rejection and family abuse are powerful contributing factors in the deaths of many trans people.
Hopefully, most parents who use those words don’t mean them literally – although it’s important to remember that some do. Still, when trans people are told, openly and by implication, that they are less valid, less ‘real’, less valued, less loveable – then those words do not exist in a vacuum. They come from somewhere – they ripple out and cause change. It can feel like we’re worth more as a memorialized, idealized, supposedly ‘cis’ child than we are as living trans people of all ages. When a child telling the truth is comparable to a dead child, what does that say about the truth of who they are?
And so hearing those words – hearing them when you know the impact those words have had, knowing that so many trans people will die from suicide – knowing people in our community who’ve died from suicide – they matter. And it makes me want to grab the parents that say those words, in public and in private, and say to them:
A trans child is not trying to cram lifetime’s worth of ‘I love yous’ into the last few weeks you have left – or never having the chance to say ‘goodbye’ at all. Not keeping watch over the body of what used to be your loved one until the undertakers arrive, and not picking out a coffin, writing a funeral service, making sure the death certificate’s in order. Not – after all the ceremonies surrounding death have been completed – facing that constant, gnawing absence that can never be filled, and trying to make a life with half your heart gone.
The arms that hold you might be more or less muscular than they were, and the voice higher or lower – but they are there. The life your child is living might be different from how you imagined it – it might, in fact, be similar in all but outward appearance – but it is a life. Children confound and challenge their parents, and trans children are no different. But that’s the point – we’re no different. Being trans is not some category apart, some terrible thing that severs people from each other – it’s just another variety of being human. All children grow up to be their own people – that’s all. It’s not a death sentence, let alone a death.
I’m not so hopelessly optimistic that I think that a short think piece like this would change the minds of the kinds of people who abuse their trans children, emotionally blackmail them into pretending not to be themselves, turn them out of home, cut them off practically, financially and emotionally. But if you’re reading this and have a suspicion that your child might be trans – or are having difficulties accepting a trans child, the practicalities, even the idea – please reach out. Reach out to the amazing groups like Mermaids and Gendered Intelligence who help families with trans kids. Reach out and fill your brain with the writing, the art, being made by young trans people – the communities we’re creating for our families and friends. Most of all, reach for the possibility that the narrative you’ve been sold about trans lives is reductive, limiting bullshit – the actuality of who we are and can be is so much more than that.
Transition is not death – it is the embracing of life. So many trans people – even trans children – can only find the words to name themselves to another when they’ve reached the limit of what they can endure. To take that step, to trust someone enough to share that with, in the hope of building a better future – that’s the opposite of a dead child. It’s a child full of possibility. We owe it to them to repay that trust and help them to live.
This post was written after many long conversations with my mother, Rosemarie. I am so, so thankful to have her in my life.
December 10, 2014 § 10 Comments
The game is afoot.
Or, rather, it’s now officially afoot. If you’ve been following my music for a while, you’ll already know that I have a bit of a thing about how ideas around gender – and gender discrimination – work in the musical world. So, from January, I’m taking that thing and turning it into a performance doctorate at the Centre for the Study of Music, Gender and Identity (MuGI) at University of Huddersfield.
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I hope it’ll pique the interest of some of you reading now. Why does one type of person end up symbolising ‘the composer’ or ‘the artist’, to the exclusion of others? Why do some pieces of music enter the canon and not others? What do audiences hear, when what they see is interpreted along culturally conditioned gender lines? How does the gender (actual or perceived) of the performer enter into this? How are we going to make things better?
I’ll be charting my doctoral studies online – blogging, livestreaming, discussions, surveys, audio, new manuscript editions – so do please watch this space for new links and content.
And before that?
This Friday (December 12th) I’ll be hosting a talk/discussion on gender and music at the London Feminist Library. Entry is free, the wine will be plentiful, and I’ll do my best to bring cookies. 7:30pm start time – bring your opinions, come join a lovely informal debate.
I’m following the theoretical with the practical – Saturday (December 13th) is a performance of Baroque music written by the often neglected, often maligned Barbara Strozzi. A poet, vocalist, composer – as well as a single mother, illegitimate child, unmarried woman – it’s fascinating/depressing to realise how so many sexist tropes leveled against working women today were leveled against Strozzi then. Her music is witty, moving, catchy, inventive gold – if you haven’t heard her before, you’re in for something special. 7:30pm start at St Peter’s Vauxhall – tickets £10/7 on the door – and 2-for-1 entry for those who came to the Friday debate.
When I was at school, I was told there were no women composers. When I was at university, I was told that there were no women composers worth bothering about, and that trans people of all kinds didn’t have a place in music. I’m really excited to get to do something that challenges those lies.
December 4, 2014 § 7 Comments
Because I didn’t know that people like me existed.
I’ve been wanting to write this piece for a long time – and have been scared of writing it for just as long. And now The Toast have published it, and I’d love to know what you think.
December 1, 2014 § Leave a comment
Unless you’re one of the lucky people, like myself, who got a review copy- or one of the savvy ones who snapped up a hardback – you definitely won’t have read Poems for the Queer Revolution yet. But trust me on this – get in line for the paperback release. This international, intersectional collection of poems, essays and musical prose is a necessary and timely addition to the queer anthology catalogue.
The collaborative nature of this book goes back to its beginnings – main author and editor Jude Orlando Enjolras started the project after positive feedback on Twitter, and the production has been made possible by crowdfunding. For me, this is Queer Revolution‘s greatest strength – its constant reference to and reliance on solidarity, community and multiplicity. To steal one of the author’s phrases, this volume contains “dissent within dissent” – but there is companionship to be found within that. The multiple voices, multiple viewpoints presented here complicate and call out to each other, presenting a web of relationships built through acknowledgment of difference and the wonder of connection, rather than a supposed unity built upon imaginary/enforced sameness.
Grouped into themes, this is a long work, and I would advise a gradual reading, dipping in and out. Not all of pieces appealed to me in style, but that in itself is a valuable point in Queer Revolution‘s favour – the unique voice of each contributor is not smoothed over, but allowed to stand for itself.
By and large, the subject matter and themes are not easy or light – these are poems about struggle, survival and the costs of each. And, yet, as contributor Hel Gurney says: “I would turn a prison into a playground”. For me, that is one of the most vital elements contained within the word ‘queer’ – an irreverent yet sincere defiance rooted in love, mockery and a giddy awareness of the limitations of rule and order. Poems for the Queer Revolution has that feeling in abundance.
Jude Orlando Enjolras’ poetry, making up around half of this collection, reads (to me) very much as a dialogue with the audience. This is not poetry that ends at the page, but an elastic give and take with the person reading. Poetry here is not some separate thing but a foundational form of communication, parsing thought between thinkers. That slippage between a ‘high art’ form and ‘ordinary’ speech is just one set of dichotomies the poet works with: the stage vs. everyday life, the mundane vs. the extraordinary, dreams vs. waking – all are subject to confusion and cross-contamination. There is a sense of brimming over, a flooding of vitality, of richness, of passionate defiance – hard and tender at the same time.
I must admit my bias – I have worked with several of the writers presented here, and respect their poetry. But it isn’t because of that foreknowledge that I recommend this book – it’s because of the breadth and necessity of talent presented here. It’s not just the way in which these messages are conveyed – as beautifully as they are conveyed, in many cases – it’s because these are messages that must be heard. These are people who, so often told that they are nothing, relegated to a place of nothingness, have created entire worlds. It is a gift to be invited to share them.
Good for: queer libraries of all kinds, people looking to understand intersectional womanist, feminist, and/or trans and queer movements, a life raft.
Bad for: Reading all at once, people who don’t want to leave their comfort zone.
Goes with: Late nights high on coffee, working on your own revolution.
You can pre-order a copy of Poems for the Queer Revolution by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org – see http://judeorlandoenjolras.wordpress.com/ for updates and extracts.