Transsexual people and the public eye

What challenges would be faced by a famous person transitioning in public?

There are few openly transsexual people in British public life -- and virtually none who have come out when already famous. The most notable exception remains acclaimed travel writer Jan Morris, who kept her gender reassignment secret until announcing its conclusion in 1972 and then publishing her autobiography, Conundrum. Since then, nobody approaching Morris's level of celebrity has publicly transitioned, with almost all of Britain's known transsexual people realising their identity before stepping into the spotlight.

By contrast, the hard work of post-war activists and the courage of openly gay, lesbian or bisexual people have created a climate where, slowly, public figures can discuss their sexual preferences without press intrusion -- or pressure to act as advocates -- ruining their lives. Since Thatcher's Conservatives passed the deplorable Section 28 in 1988, banning the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools, progress has been remarkable: having apologised for this legislation, David Cameron's government now retains 13 openly gay Tory MPs, and there is now a diverse range of visible gay, lesbian or bisexual people in the arts, media and, gradually, sport.

The situation for noted people in any field who come out, or are outed as transsexual would almost certainly be less accommodating. (I focus on 'transsexual' rather than 'transgender' people, cross-dressers or transvestites, as the 'Real Life Experience' required to access medical treatment obliges full time living in the chosen gender, making its public expression and resultant attention unavoidable). As there have been so few test cases, I can only speculate on what may unfold, but the experiences of visible transsexual people in the USA offer some clues.

Recently, at least three Americans have publicly transitioned: Cher and Sonny and Cher's son Chaz Bono, actor Alexis Arquette and LA Times sports writer Mike Penner, briefly known as Christine Daniels. Chaz Bono transitioned from female to male, Arquette and Penner from male to female; their contrasting fortunes, including Penner's detransition and suicide, illustrate the challenges that a British counterpart might face.

The fundamental issues would be around privacy. The concerns for anyone whose transition is picked up by the print or broadcast media have been covered here by David Allen Green, but for our transsexual pioneer, these would be magnified by already being in the public eye.

Interest would be most intense at the point of disclosure, which could mean facing virtually every consequent social challenge simultaneously. If preparing to come out, a transsexual person would be best served telling family, friends and colleagues before the press -- if secured, their support would be vital in dealing with inevitable 'curiosity'. If not, that person might think again about going public, although doing so would eventually become essential according to the gender reassignment pathway -- and once made, the announcement may find its way into the public domain anyway, even if retracted.

If outed by someone else, around the start of the process, that person would not have the reassurance that loved ones could be relied upon for backing -- and may have no idea who to ask for help. (Anyone who did come out today might seek out Trans Media Watch as a first point of contact, as they provide support to people whose gender status is widely known.) Either way, the Real Life Experience would have to begin at some point -- and the scrutiny of his or her appearance, if not entire life, would start.

"Before and after pictures have long been a staple in media coverage of transsexual people, alongside undermining of the identity chosen. This is not to mention the possibility of speculation about personal and professional relationships or mental health, or intimate questions about sexuality, genitalia and surgery -- something that activist Christine Burns, for example, had to manage in television appearances -- all when this person would feel most vulnerable, striving on several fronts to assert his or her true self.

For those with little connection to other similar people or any grounding in trans politics or theory, some challenges may come as an unpleasant surprise. Chaz Bono and Alexis Arquette both spent plenty of time within LGBT circles before transition and probably knew what types of attack, and what support, could reasonably be anticipated not just from "straight" conservatives, but from certain lesbian or gay critics, and the 'transgender' community (an increasingly fractious alliance, which, like many groups struggling for social change, has sometimes been susceptible to attacking its own). One of the saddest parts of Penner/Daniels's sad story, chronicled here by Steve Freiss, was the breakdown in relations with trans support networks over how Daniels presented as a woman, and how unprepared she was for this kind of criticism. The crucial problems, however, involved her relationships with her family -- not the media.

Given the continued lack of individuals who are able -- or allowed -- to offer a transsexual perspective to a large audience as a counterpoint to negative coverage, a public figure might feel pressure to 'represent' people, but this role could be declined relatively easily if he or she did not feel comfortable in assuming it. Bono and Arquette both became more famous as a consequence of transition, and have often seemed more comfortable performing an advocacy function, and their patient, articulate explanations of their histories and the support they have received from family, friends and the wider public bodes well for anyone in Britain who takes similar steps. But how much has changed here since Jan Morris's day still remains to be seen.

Juliet Jacques is the author of the Orwell Prize longlisted Guardian blog A Transgender Journey

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide