BREAKING THE SILENCE
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