Never before have trans and non-binary people been in the spotlight so intently. A day almost never goes by without a news story.
The media in the last few years has shown both documentaries and drama featuring trans people. ‘Leo: Becoming a Trans Man (BBC, 2017), showed the personal journey of a young man in a way that was relatable and showed the everyday struggles of realising one’s true gender. ITV’s ‘Butterfly’ was described as a ‘game changer’ by campaigners, as the often-debated topic of childhood transition was broached in a three-part drama. Complex issues of childbirth and gender identity were explored in the BBC’s ‘The Pregnant Dad’ (2018). This is just a small sample of the myriad programmes, radio broadcasts and newspaper and magazine articles focusing on the trans and non-binary community.
Is all this media exposure and public debate a good thing? It certainly feels that trans visibility is now ‘coming of age’ after many decades. The late Julia Grant’s transition followed on the BBC2 documentary ‘A Change of Sex’ (1979) was one of the first programmes to attempt to explain gender change to a UK audience, when 9 million people tuned in. The public is now aware of trans and non-binary people in a way unparalleled in my lifetime.
So why, as a gay man and trans ally does this searing media exposure and discussion of private identity seems so familiar? Back in the 1980s, with the AIDS crisis in full, horrific effect, gay men and lesbians were the number one scapegoat for all society’s ills. Bisexuals were ignored, a problem both society and the LGBT+ community still need to address, but that’s another blog! We were the vectors of disease, we would unpick the fabric of decency and moral society. We were ‘…swirling around in the cesspit of their own making’ according to ‘God’s Copper’, Manchester’s Chief Constable James Anderton. There was a horrific torrent of abuse and discrimination aimed at a vulnerable community. There was no effective treatment for HIV prior to 1996 when combination therapy arrived, and so HIV/AIDS was effectively a death sentence, the epidemic ‘…became a means of reinforcing existing prejudices and discrimination towards gay men as a whole’ (Jones, 2015). With no legal recognition of partnerships, bereaved people could find they were suddenly homeless as they were not on a mortgage or rent contract and might be excluded from their partner’s funeral by a homophobic family. Lesbians were equally at risk, with no protection from being fired for being LGBT+ and victims of discrimination and violence. The tabloid press revelled in hate speech, with headlines about the ‘Gay Plague’ (Braidwood, 2018).
LGBT+ people in Manchester responded in huge numbers to this climate of hatred, starting in March 1988 ‘Not Going Shopping – Stop the Clause’ (Ward, 2019) with Liberation 1991 and other events characterised by protest and demands to see us as people with human rights first and foremost. This community action it could be argued, began to change public attitudes from an all-time low to the current acceptance of lesbian, gay and bisexual people. This recent history is all too easily forgotten in the party atmosphere of Manchester’s more recent pride events.
It seems to me that, just as LGB people were used as a convenient scapegoat for society’s ills, or as a way of garnering political points, trans and non-binary people are being demonised in exactly the same way. Donald Trump, arguably the most powerful leader on earth has launched an attack on transgender people’s health care, employment and more, with the very existence of trans and non-binary people denied by government (Green, Benner & Pear, 2018).
In the UK, toxic debate has seen women’s rights and trans rights set against one another. No one would argue that women’s rights are secured; almost fifty years since the Equal Pay Act (1970), women still face discrimination and casual misogyny, as well as significant gender pay gaps (Holder et al. 2018). However, trans and non-binary people face extreme levels of discrimination, abuse and casual transphobia. The trans community needs allies to challenge this and support trans and non-binary people’s wellbeing and mental health as they live their lives under often extreme stress. The process of initial transition is challenging enough, with long waiting times for gender identity clinics in excess of two years (Westcott, 2018).
Stonewall reported that trans and non-binary people are likely to experience abuse, with one in eight physically attacked by a colleague or customer at work, a third discriminated against when visiting a café, bar or restaurant and a quarter of trans people in a relationship experiencing domestic abuse. (Bachmann & Gooch, 2017).
With this extreme level of discrimination and violence, relentless press attention and political venom, I feel we have a moral responsibility to stand with our trans and non-binary siblings. After all, it has always been trans people of colour, those facing double discrimination, who have sparked profound change for the LGBT+ community. Icons such as Martha P. Johnson, present at the Stonewall riots, which gave the UK charity its name, rubbed shoulders with butch lesbians, male sex workers and homeless youth (Schlaffer, 2016). Martha was murdered in 1992, a crime ignored by the law enforcement agency (Lee, 2017). It is, of course true that cis-women are discriminated against, raped and murdered too. However, the risk to trans and non-binary people is extraordinarily high, and the sheer volume of crimes should shock us all.
Amidst the intellectual discussions of women’s rights versus trans rights, it is important to remember that this is notan intellectual discussion, it affects the everyday experiences of trans and non-binary people. Just as in the 1980s and 1990s LGB people were discussed as if they were a sexual oddity, ‘perverts’ dehumanised with no real right to a place in modern society, so trans and non-binary people are discussed today. This impacts on people’s self-respect, and therefore their mental health. Negative attitudes directly lead to an increase in discrimination, violence and murder; we must take responsibility for recognising this as a first step to changing society, just as we have done previously with LGB rights.
I strongly believe that trans and non-binary people have no choice in their gender identity, in the same way I have no choice about my sexuality. To deny one’s true self is crippling, and often fatal. We must made gender diversity as socially acceptable as the diversity in sexuality if everyone is to live lives that reach their full potential. We also have a debt to trans and non-binary people for their key role is helping us as LGB people to achieve legal equality and acceptance by society.
So, what have you done to support your trans and non-binary siblings lately?
*”Stand By Your Trans”
Following Kate O’Donnell’s inspiring performance and participation during Happy Valley Pride 2018, we embarked on a local poster campaign, across Hebden Bridge and our surrounding Calderdale towns, in support of Kate/Trans Creative’s stance to #StandByYourTrans