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How trans ac­tivist Christine Burns helped trans peo­ple find their voices

At the start of her mem­oir, les­bian trans­gen­der cam­paigner Christine Burns MBE notes that some might mis­tak­enly imag­ine that peo­ple like her are drawn into ac­tivism and chang­ing the world to ob­tain some­thing ex­cep­tional. “They couldn’t be more wrong,” she ex­plains. “The pur­suit of equal­ity isn’t about seek­ing spe­cial rights or con­ces­sions. It is about want­ing the same rights that oth­ers, by ac­ci­dent of birth and be­ing com­pli­ant, take for granted.”

She could be re­fer­ring to the strug­gle that les­bians, bi­sex­u­als and gay men have fought to en­sure that we now have the same so­cial rights as our het­ero­sex­ual friends and fam­ily mem­bers. But Burns is re­fer­ring to an­other strug­gle: to be ac­cepted as a woman in a world which still priv­i­leges those as­signed with a gen­der iden­tity that cor­re­sponds with the vis­i­ble bi­o­log­i­cal sex char­ac­ter­is­tics they were born with, over those whose gen­der iden­tity is at odds with their bi­o­log­i­cal sex.

The use of the word “priv­i­lege” is not an at­tempt to sug­gest a hi­er­ar­chy of op­pres­sion – far from it – it’s per­fectly pos­si­ble to rail against the re­lent­less in­dig­ni­ties and in­jus­tices vis­ited upon cis les­bians and bi­sex­u­als whilst recog­nis­ing that trans les­bians and bi women have ad­di­tional is­sues to ne­go­ti­ate in life, just as black and mi­nor­ity eth­nic les­bians and bi women have to con­tend with racism as well as lin­ger­ing so­cial prej­u­dice about their sex­ual pref­er­ences.

To many of us with trans friends, lovers and fam­ily mem­bers this strug­gle for equal treat­ment seems as rea­son­able a de­mand as those changes hard-won by gay rights ac­tivists over the decades. Th­ese changes now see us, on pa­per at least, recog­nised in law as cit­i­zens equal with our het­ero­sex­ual coun­ter­parts.

For les­bians, many decades of ac­tivism has seen our worlds and lives change al­most be­yond recog­ni­tion. Who now (apart per­haps from some of the lu­natic UKIP can­di­dates) can imag­ine a re­peat of the days some 30 or 40 years ago, when older mem­bers of our com­mu­nity saw their pri­vate and fam­ily lives ex­posed and de­scribed as sor­did and shame­ful in sen­sa­tional sto­ries in main­stream and tabloid news­pa­pers?

Burns’ Press­ing Mat­ters – a mem­oir born of courage and de­ter­mi­na­tion – il­lus­trates how over a pe­riod of some 12 years, a hand­ful of trans­gen­der ac­tivists, lawyers and so­cial re­formists con­fronted the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment’s out­moded laws on gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion and with the aid of some very for­ward-think­ing par­lia­men­tar­i­ans helped to cre­ate a new piece of leg­is­la­tion that en­shrined in law true gen­der recog­ni­tion for trans peo­ple. That law, the Gen­der Recog­ni­tion Act (GRA), was passed in 2004.

Says Burns: “The GRA and the leg­is­la­tion we had al­ready won to cre­ate trans em­ploy­ment pro­tec­tions and con­firm peo­ple’s rights to NHS treat­ment al­tered the land­scape. Fi­nally peo­ple would have the tools to as­sert their rights.”

This victory notwith­stand­ing, the so­cial set­ting in which trans peo­ple then lived was the same as ever. The main­stream press rou­tinely mis­rep­re­sented them, peo­ple were ha­rassed and bul­lied in the work­place, in public spa­ces and some­times in their own homes. Burns her­self was sub­jected to pruri­ent ques­tion­ing by TV host Richard Madeley, who, in the late 1990s, started his talk-show in­ter­view with her thus: “For the ben­e­fit of our view­ers, you used to have a pe­nis. Is that right?” In 2014 Or­ange Is The New Black’s Lav­erne Cox and au­thor Janet Mock chided talk show hosts Katie Couric and Piers Mor­gan for ask­ing sim­i­lar ques­tions about their gen­i­tals.

De­spite this, much has changed in the last 15 years; par­tic­u­larly so in terms of legal pro­tec­tions. The 2010 Equal­ity Act fi­nally con­sol­i­dated (for LGB and T peo­ple) pro­tec­tion against dis­crim­i­na­tion in the sup­ply of goods, ser­vices and hous­ing and, says Burns, “trans peo­ple joined ev­ery­one else in this one piece of leg­is­la­tion as hav­ing ‘pro­tected char­ac­ter­is­tics’ like all the rest. So­cial me­dia has played a big part in the change that now al­lows trans peo­ple a pres­ence and a con­nec­tion to a net­work as never be­fore”.

It sounds as if it was a breeze but the weight of prej­u­dice about trans peo­ple was and still is a bul­wark that re­quires some fierce re­but­ting. In 1998, a con­sul­ta­tion pa­per on trans em­ploy­ment rights was drafted in such a way as to sug­gest that so­ci­ety needed pro­tect­ing from trans peo­ple when, in fact, what was wanted by trans peo­ple was to cre­ate a law that would pro­tect them from so­cial prej­u­dice: “To recog­nise a cit­i­zen’s cor­rect sex by

CHIRISTINE BURNS’ MEM­OIR DOC­U­MENTS THE HIS­TORY OF THE SI­LENC­ING OF TRANS PEO­PLE WORDS JANE CZYZSEL­SKA The press mis­rep­re­sented trans peo­ple, who were also bul­lied in the work­place and public spa­ces

ac­cord­ing them a legal one.” Yet the whole tone of the pro­pos­als in the first con­sul­ta­tion doc­u­ment as­sumed non­trans peo­ple had some­thing to fear from trans peo­ple and this mind­set con­tin­ues to­day.

Twenty years ago there were sug­ges­tions that trans peo­ple were typ­i­cally pae­dophiles, a prej­u­dice which has long been held about gay men. Along with the gen­eral main­stream marginal­i­sa­tion and den­i­gra­tion of trans men and women over the last 50 years, rad­i­cal fem­i­nists like Jan­ice Ray­mond also sought to ex­clude and de­rail their strug­gle. In Ray­mond’s 1979 book, The Trans­sex­ual Em­pire, she claimed that trans­sex­u­al­ism re­in­forced tra­di­tional gen­der stereo­types. Ray­mond also sug­gested that those in the med­i­cal and psy­chi­atric pro­fes­sions were “med­i­cal­is­ing” gen­der iden­tity and por­tray­ing gen­der cor­rec­tive surgery as nor­mal and ther­a­peu­tic. The fi­nal nail in the trans cof­fin was her be­lief that, “All trans­sex­u­als rape women’s bod­ies by re­duc­ing the real fe­male form to an arte­fact, ap­pro­pri­at­ing this body for them­selves. Trans­sex­u­als merely cut off the most ob­vi­ous means of in­vad­ing women so that they seem non-in­va­sive”.

The women’s pages of the broad­sheets in the 1990s were also fortresses of anti-trans prej­u­dice, Burns notes. An edi­tor for the Guardian women’s page was as unyield­ing to Burns’ and oth­ers’ re­quests for pos­i­tive in­ter­views and fea­tures as the 1970s non-trans fem­i­nists had been 20 years ear­lier. “I sus­pected this at­ti­tude was more widely held among fe­male ed­i­to­rial ex­ecs and it pos­si­bly ex­plained why our re­peated re­quests for cov­er­age, let alone the op­por­tu­nity to sub­mit ar­ti­cles, were al­ways ig­nored,” Burns writes.

In­deed, the main­stream Bri­tish press had long been a prob­lem. Trans peo­ple were writ­ten about and quoted but gen­er­ally they were not treated se­ri­ously enough to get main­stream jour­nal­ists to ex­am­ine the script they were fol­low­ing. Each ad­vance was met with an­other colum­nist putting trans peo­ple down.

Burns notes that it is only in the last few years that Trans Me­dia Watch and All About Trans, led by younger ac­tivists, have made in­roads and that trans voices are start­ing to be heard on their own terms. In fact, the me­dia prob­lem prior to the Gen­der Recog­ni­tion Act was a very real ob­sta­cle for ac­tivism. At the time, the Labour gov­ern­ment was try­ing to wa­ter down work­place rights they had won which now threat­ened to de­bar trans peo­ple from work­ing in cer­tain pro­fes­sions. Surely that was a story? Surely the job of a free press was to hold power to ac­count?

The still per­va­sive view that trans peo­ple’s iden­ti­ties are il­le­git­i­mate was re­flected in news­pa­pers through­out the land un­til only very re­cently and par­tic­u­larly so in 1999. This was the year that trans peo­ple were granted the right to surgery on the NHS, when ev­ery piece of ed­i­to­rial com­ment, from the Daily Mail to the Guardian por­trayed trans peo­ple as un­de­serv­ing freaks. Burns and oth­ers tried to get their voices heard some­where, any­where, but the only place she and other trans peo­ple were per­mit­ted to ex­ist was in the let­ters’ pages and as a ra­dio in­ter­vie­wee ac­cused of be­ing a drain on the ail­ing NHS cof­fers.

“If you have a med­i­cal con­di­tion and there’s a treat­ment for it, then you are as en­ti­tled to that as ev­ery­one else, free and at the point of need. And if we’re go­ing to ask whose need is more de­serv­ing why not de­bate whether the NHS should be spend­ing to patch up the dam­age peo­ple do to them­selves with smok­ing and al­co­hol,” Burns asks. “As soon as you take that ap­proach, the whole premise of the NHS comes apart.”

As an ex­am­ple of trans ex­clu­sion, Burns doc­u­ments a case in the years prior to the 2004 Gen­der Recog­ni­tion Act, when Bris­tol Labour coun­cil­lor Ros­alind Mitchell con­tacted the trans ad­vo­cacy group Press For Change to sup­port her through her tran­si­tion whilst still hold­ing of­fice rather than resigning. But when she went to a Labour women’s cau­cus she, like many

Giv­ing voice: Christine Burns at an NHS equal­ity event in 2012

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