It has been wonderful to see seven trans people appearing in the Independent On Sunday’s Pinklist of top LGBT people in the country. Firstly, it needs to be said that this increase has largely been due to the efforts of one young lady; Paris Lees, one of the leading lights in Trans Media Watch and editor of the imminent Meta Magazine. So the first thing is to give Paris a big mention. Although I do not know all of these people, I am acquainted to various extents with 5 of them; Sarah Brown, Christine Burns, Jay Stewart, Roz Kaveney and Bethany Black, so I thought I would write a little about them in hopefully not merely a dry factual account (if you want that Wikipedia is the place) but from the perspective of having known these people.
Sarah is only the second trans person in the UK to be openly elected as a trans person. She was elected Cambridge City Councilor in May 2010. She has survived and prospered despite initially coming in for a lot of criticism by many other trans people on the left (myself included) for her support for the coalition government. It is important not to underestimate Sarah’s achievement, although there have been other trans people elected to office, including the mayor of Cambridge, Sarah is the second openly trans person in the UK to be elected anywhere. This may not sound much of an achievement compared with other trans politicians that have been elected in other countries; New Zealand, Italy and most recently Poland have elected trans MPs in their national parliaments, and in Tokyo (more populous than many countries) Aya Kamikawa has been a city councilor since 2003.
The difference for Sarah, and to underline her achievement, is that all these people have been elected on list systems, not under systems where individual candidates represent individual wards or constituencies as in the UK. The UK system is dramatically harder for minorities like trans people to break into, since trans people can represent a significantly higher risk, from a party point of view, as people vote for individuals rather than parties. If trans people were truly represented in proportion to our numbers in the population there would be 200 councilors and 6 MPs who are trans.
Sarah’s emotional speech at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in 2010 about how she was forced to divorce her wife and remarry in a civil partnership after her gender reassignment may have been one of the contributory factors to current proposals to extend the right to marry to same-sex couples.
Christine Burns MBE
Christine is a grandmother, a diversity expert in matters relating to the NHS and now mentors younger trans human rights campaigners. She was instrumental in the successful campaign by Press For Change, to achieve legal recognition for transsexual people in 2004 and has contributed immeasurably to helping trans people in the UK and around the world in their struggles for the human rights which most other people take for granted. Although she is no longer engaged in frontline activism, she still does a great deal of work behind the scenes and her advice has helped younger trans activists achieve some of the subsequent gains for trans people. She was one of the prime movers behind Press For Change’s successful campaign to introduce the Gender Recognition Act in 2004, a landmark piece of legislation which has resulted in huge improvements in the lives of all trans people.
For me she was the main motivation to become a trans activist after I saw her speak in the summer of 2007, at the Trans With Pride conference in Bethnal Green. In her speech she noted how, despite the gains made for transsexuals in the Gender Recognition Act, those trans people who did not have gender reassignment surgery could still be lawfully discriminated against. Since then she has helped me and countless others with advice and contacts as we campaign to improve things for trans people. An example of this has been the recent decision by Charing Cross gender identity clinic, to allow referrals for young trans people 6 months before their 18th birthday to ensure that there are no unnecessary delays in treatment for them and no interruption in support for them as they transfer from child to adult support services.
Christine’s blog, Just Plain Sense is one of the most popular and respected blogs about trans and diversity issues.
Jay is co-founder of Gendered Intelligence, a pioneering organization which has worked very successfully to improve the lives of young trans people and others. Recently he has become a father, which has added a great deal of pressure to his already very busy schedule. He organizes events through Gendered Intelligence, which often involve using creativity as a means of helping trans people express themselves and become more confident. Gendered Intelligence also provides diversity training in the area of gender variance with schools, colleges and universities and has collaborated with a number of other trans organisations.
Jay, currently completing a PhD in the department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths College, has campaigned for trans people’s rights and was a past chair of FTM London. As organizer of the annual Trans Community Conference Jay has contributed to a bringing together of the trans community in a way which has been inclusive of younger trans people and their parents, something which is particularly important given their virtual erasure from public view as they conceal their gender identities out of fear of bullying or victimization. Gendered Intelligence has also pioneered a trans youth group in London which, until recently was run by a full-time fully trained youth worker, who also provided outreach training to others running trans youth groups around the country. This is a huge, and particularly positive step and has doubtless improved the lives of many trans people, helping them at a particularly difficult point in their lives. It has been particularly heartening to see how Jay has kept this valuable resource going despite numerous challenges and setbacks, and at a time when he is also doing a PhD and has a young family. An example to many of us in the trans community for his dedication, tenacity and organizational skills, the only thing I do not understand is why he was not in the PinkList list earlier.
A feminist and a graduate of Oxford Roz transitioned from male to female in 1979, at a time when the prevailing received feminist wisdom was that being transsexual represented a false consciousness. This was the year that the famously hateful and misleading book by Janice Raymond, “The Transsexual Empire” was published which Roz reviewed in Gay News, a publication for which she was already working. Despite receiving for this what has now come to be a predictable volley of abuse from sections of the feminist community, Roz has always considered feminist scholarship an important part of her career. She was an advisory reader for Virago womens’ press and worked on numerous reference works such as the Cambridge Guide to Women Writing in English.
She is still a thorn in the side of those feminists who despite describing themselves as “radical” harbour quite vicious hatred of trans people. Indeed her critiques of radical feminist transphobia have contributed to the marginalization of such views and raised the confidence of the trans community in the face of what has seems to have become an irrational and misguided hatred.
In a career which has also spanned journalism, as a reviewer for the Independent and the Times Literary Supplement and a commentator on Culture and Religion for the Guardian, she has also written for the New Statesman. Roz has also been very active in politics, becoming Deputy Chair of Liberty as a result of her work with Feminists Against Censorship, an organization she co-founded.
Roz has contributed to a great deal to the campaigns for trans human rights over the years. As a representative of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance she sat on the committee, with Christine Burns and Stephen Whittle, which negotiated the 2004 Gender Recognition Act.
Her belief in solidarity and respect in gender and sexuality reflected this in her scholarship in the area of pop culture in her insistence that the same levels of seriousness be applied to pop culture as “high” culture. It is most notable that throughout her diverse career her work has led to the normalization of the presence trans people in areas such as feminist scholarship, literary criticism and politics.
Like many trans people Bethany struggled with life when she was young, and her attempts to commit suicide, her struggle with drug and alcohol addiction and having to come out to her family twice; as trans and as a lesbian, are sadly, things which many trans people will feel all too familiar. It seems however that these experiences gave her the strength and tenacity to make a career in the tough world of stand-up comedy where she is now the country’s only “Goth, lesbian, transsexual, stand-up comedian.” Despite the inevitable knock-backs and struggles to gain recognition and work on the stand-up circuit Bethany has thrived and forged a career in this challenging line of work since leaving university and undergoing gender reassignment surgery, describing her life as getting “better and better” since then. Her biggest influence in comedy was Josie Long, who demonstrated to her that not all comedians have to be older people. She started as a compere for a music club in Preston but the hostile reaction there did not prevent her from moving onto actual comedy clubs. She was eventually a finalist in the Funny Bones New Comedian of the Year Competition 2006 and the Chortle Student Comedy Awards 2007, and was nominated for “best debut” award in the Leicester Comedy Festival 2008.
Bethany is however also planning and looking forward to the future with a possible adaptation of her “Beth Becomes Her” show for TV and has co-founded Funny’s Funny, a group which plans to provide a free-entry comedy competition for female comedians.
It is good to see her active in promoting opportunities for women comedians since stand-up comedy, like most areas of the media and show-biz, is very male dominated. The only time I ever met Bethany was as a fellow panelist for a discussion organized by the first Bristol Pride committee. Her story about how she came out to her mother being particularly vivid. She described how her mother reacted, and how, despite having never been parted from her husband for more than a couple of days since they were married, she would have been prepared to leave him if necessary in order to support Bethany. Why other parents of trans people cannot give that level of unconditional love to their children is a mystery to me. An example of Bethany’s stand-up routine is available here. (look out for the joke about .pdf files, that had me rolling on the floor)
Finishing with Bethany Black represents the clearest example of why I believe these five people have made the 2011 Pinklist. Talent and quality. These people are good at what they do regardless of their gender identities. The right-wing media may describe the Pinklist as just “PCGM” (Political Correctness Gone Mad), but the PCGM brigade ignore the fact that these people are genuinely talented people who have made successful careers in their fields despite, not because, of their gender identities, unlike right-wing journalists who tend to have obtained employment because of their politics rather than their journalistic skill. This is why they are in the Pinklist and why they deserve to be there and deserve to be recognized as having made significant contributions to the life of the country as well as to raising awareness of trans people. Trans people are not just trans people, they are writers, diversity experts, politicians, scholars, parents, comedians, teachers, lawyers journalists, etc. Trans people are people and their inclusion on the Pinklist is a recognition of that and by proxy, a recognition of the entire trans coimmunity.
Tuesday, 25 October 2011
Friday, 14 October 2011
The UK is supposed to have one of the most trans-friendly legal systems in the world these days, yet we seem to be a long way behind the rest of the world in terms of having trans people elected. We represent 1% of the population and so there should therefore be at least 6 trans MPs in the House of Commons, one trans MEP some of the time in the UK section of the European Parliament, and a massive 200 trans local councillors across the country.The current total representation of trans people in elected positions is however, way below that; we have just one local councillor; the wonderful Sarah Brown, who sits as a Lib Dem on Cambridge City Council. Sarah’s achievement is particularly good when the treatment of trans people generally is considered, however as a country we are doing much less well than many other countries. The news that Poland elected its first trans MP was particularly pleasing since there appears to have been trouble with homophobia and transphobia in the recent past in Poland. However there have also been trans people elected to national governments in Italy and New Zealand, there has been a senior trans politician elected in Hawaii, and there is a long-serving Tokyo City councillor for Setagaya ward in Tokyo; a city with a population greater than that of Holland. Indeed Aya Kamikawa, is currently the longest serving elected trans official, having been first elected in 2003, and subsequently re-elected, something which no trans politician has ever achieved to date. So how why is our representation on elected bodies so low in the UK when trans people in other countries are being elected to more senior political positions? The answer lies, I believe, in the electoral systems. The UK mostly relies on First-Past-The-Post for elections, which means that people vote for individuals rather than parties. With the exception of Hawaii (where trans people are accepted to a much greater extent than most countries) Poland, Italy and Japan all use party list systems. This means that people vote for parties rather than individuals. The problem with voting for individuals is that, especially in closely-fought electoral contests, where the result really matters parties are reluctant to put forward candidates who might alienate enough voters to give the seat to a competitor. Parties are therefore likely to be much less willing to have a trans candidate where a cisgender candidate is available. Where a contest is likely to be personalised, where people are voting for a candidate as much as a party, the personal becomes more important, and even if only a relatively small number of people change their votes as a result of transphobia, that would be enough to make a difference in a large number of cases. The personalisation of politics also results in the media taking a greater interest in individual candidates rather then their policies and party lines, which could mean that electoral contests attract unwelcome attention from the Daily Mail, the Express, the Sun and other sensationalist right-wing media, which could have implications for the party across the country. The solution then, to getting more trans people into elected positions in the UK, is to concentrate them in the small number of elections where party lists, or top-up lists are in operation; the London Assembly and the European elections, here total party votes count and the direct link between a candidate and a particular seat extends through their party rather than a particular geographical area. The First-Past-The-Post system has not only saddled the country with a corrupt, incompetent, dishonest and destructive government, but also has the effect of reducing diversity in elected positions; this is particularly the case for minorities, like LGBT people, who tend not to be concentrated in particular geographical areas in the same way that ethnic minority populations are. The result is a government drawn mostly from wealthy male privately-educated Oxbridge graduates, and the disastrous policies which have flowed from such an out-of-touch group of people.