In 1992, aged ten, two formative things happened to me. First, I passed the entrance examination and was sent to a fee-paying grammar school in Reigate. Unlike the state primary I’d been at, it was boys only until sixth form, and aimed to turn pupils into citizens who would participate in public life, rather than merely getting us through exams. I tried the Debating Society, thinking that I was doing the right thing by supporting the motion ‘This House believes that In Bed with Madonna is degrading to women.’ I didn’t have the tools to construct a cogent argument: my family consisted of my Conservative-voting parents and my older brother; of my few friends in my tiny home town, none were girls; and I knew nothing of feminism, except as a pejorative word to belittle humourless women who were unreasonably angry about the way they were treated in a male-dominated society (and wouldn’t even shave their legs).
The obvious problem as I nervously struggled to argue that Madonna’s film encouraged men to treat women as sexual objects was that I could not see any women. As the motion was defeated by more than a hundred votes to three and I was jeered out of the mini-Parliament, I wondered who set the question in the awareness of who would discuss it – and what sort of thundering bellend used phrases like ‘This House believes’ with a straight face anyway?
The second thing was that I realised that for whatever reason – why was not my main concern – I had an overbearing, visceral sense that I couldn’t survive in a ‘male’ body, nor handle the cultural expectations that came with it, and needed to change it. This wasn’t how I framed it then: I had no idea about the existence of, let alone access to the transgender theory emerging in the United States, and nothing to shape my views about what it meant to live with gender identity issues except my parents’ Daily Mail.
This frequently stereotyped transsexual women – other people under the trans umbrella got far less attention – as simultaneously ultra-masculine (burly characters in their cartoons with jutting chins, who wouldn’t even shave their legs) and ultra-feminine (floral dresses, big heels, badly applied red lipstick), making absurd demands for expensive treatment from publicly-funded medical services, and from that alone, I knew I was in for a rough ride. I knew no such people myself, and had no way of finding them, or of starting to answer my questions. Would my family disown me if they found out I wanted to change my body? Would the teachers at school ridicule me, or the boys beat me up? As it was an all-male school, wouldn’t I have to leave if I acted on my impulse? Might strangers attack me in the street? If they did, where would I go for support? Would I really have to go through that process of ‘changing sex’, as the media called it, and wouldn’t it ruin my life, making me lonely, undesirable and miserable?
To cut a long story short, two things committed me to thinking about who has privilege and power, and how they use it. The first was my parents not being able to manage the fees and taking me out of the grammar school after my second year – during which it had reversed its policy of excluding women. They sent me to the comprehensive in Horley, giving me first-hand experience of the differences in resources and aspirations available to those who were able to afford them and those who weren’t. There’s far more to say on that, which I’ll cover in the memoir I’m currently supposed to be writing, about how I moved from being a frightened and confused ten-year-old to my late twenties, when I spent three years navigating the gender reassignment process via the NHS, and documenting my life as a transsexual woman – the second thing that challenged me to rethink – for the Guardian website.
By July 2012, I was living in London, on the border of Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. I’d lost my temporary job in a wave of NHS cuts and was signing on, writing occasional blog posts for this publication, and for my Guardian series, covering the run-up to my impending sex reassignment surgery. I had a stalker, who kept seeing me walk past the railway arches to Tower Hamlets Jobcentre. He pulled his motorbike up to me and asked: “Shemale?” I told him to leave me alone, but every time I walked down Dunbridge Street he was there, telling me that he liked “shemales”, just wanted to take me for dinner, and would be nice to me.
I kept saying no. He started following me home, waiting outside, and soon I felt constantly on edge walking anywhere between Cambridge Heath Road and Brick Lane. I only saw him during the day, but I couldn’t relax at night: Helen, my housemate, warned me to be careful where I went after dark. One evening I was returning from Whitechapel tube after a Julia Holter gig, too tired to add five minutes to my journey by sticking to the main road. I checked up Buckhurst Road. Seeing nobody, I took the short cut. Then I heard a voice.
“Don’t you remember me?” He walked up to me. “I’m Gino.”
I hesitated. He grabbed my face and kissed me. I held him off.
“What are you doing tonight?”
“I’m going home.”
He paused, registering discord between my appearance and my voice. “Are you a man or a girl?” I waved my arm and walked away. He called after me.
“Can I stick my dick inside you?”
I quickened my pace without running. Luckily, I was nearly home. I took deep breaths and tried to stop shaking. The lights were off: Helen was either out or asleep, so I aired the incident on Twitter, where I often spoke to a small but kind and intelligent group of people. Some asked if I was okay: I was drained and distressed, but alright. Then I realised that I’d not foreseen sympathy because I’d come to expect this treatment, and above all, felt relief that it hadn’t been worse. I mentioned it on Facebook, where several trans women suggested that, in these people’s eyes, we were something less than male or female, and that those points where men are attracted to us when we ‘pass’ and then repulsed with us and themselves when we don’t are the most terrifying: to them I’m a broken man, so they don’t fear a violent response, but not a ‘real’ woman so they won’t treat me with even the tiny modicum of respect that they might – might – reserve for other women, and all bets are off.
If I had been assaulted or raped, I wondered where I might have turned. I didn’t trust the police, or the legal system: the media often reported very low conviction rates, although such figures had been challenged, and I worried that institutional transphobia might mean I would be ignored, or worse. I wasn’t sure I could go to a rape crisis centre either: the Equality Act of 2010 explicitly allowed them not to admit transsexual women if they thought my presence might make the space unsafe, which made me feel that I wouldn’t be welcome at any shelter, even if they explicitly said I would. I wasn’t going to do anything about this incident except write it off as a routine hazard of trans living, but one woman said that reporting was more about ‘telling yourself that you deserve better’ than anything else, and another suggested sending anonymous details to Galop, who monitor LGBT hate crime. But, as someone else pointed out, this was at its origin an example of the misogynistic abuse that all women face. I agreed, but I told Galop anyway, if only to stop myself feeling that I was falling through a crack in existing support services.
I’m aware that this article is entitled ‘On the ‘dispute’ between radical feminists and trans people’ and I’ve barely touched on it so far. It’s partly because I’ve always agreed that ‘the personal is political’, as many second-wave feminists said, and partly because two things have often been missing from this ‘dispute’ as it’s recently played out on social networks and in the mainstream media: a sense of humanity, and a sense of history.
Writing in the New Yorker, Michelle Goldberg tried to address these issues, especially the latter, in an article entitled ‘What is a Woman?’ Goldberg mentions some of the main flashpoints of the conflict between trans people and a group labelled trans-exclusionary radical feminists (or TERFs for short, especially within the limited space of a tweet), but various trans people have remarked that the piece is rather one-sided. I’m not going to critique it here – Mari Brighe did an excellent job of that at Autostraddle. Instead, I will offer a counter-history that tries to be fair but makes no claim to impartiality – if you want balance, maybe read Goldberg and me side-by-side – and look at how that history has informed my own engagement with mainstream liberal media.
In Victorian London, numerous men wearing ‘female attire’ were arrested and tried on charges of disturbing public order, or for ‘inciting others to commit unnatural offences’, including John Travers in 1846, George Campbell and John Challis in 1854, George Paddon in 1863, and most famously, Boulton and Park in 1870-1871. Suspected of sodomy – the only consensual sexual act outlawed at the time – because of the widespread belief that cross-dressing and same-sex intercourse were inherently linked, they usually denied any intrinsic drive to present as women. ‘It was a lark’ or ‘a bet’ became a common defence, as it generally resulted in a fine and public humiliation, but not prison, with some exceptions: Paddon couldn’t afford the 25 pence for bail, and was taken to ‘durance vile’ (a long sentence). I invite you to momentarily consider what that may have been like.
Most attention was paid to Boulton and Park’s arrest, because Boulton’s association with Lord Arthur Clinton raised expectations that their trial would expose a cross-class ring of sodomites. Despite an intrusive medical examination, no proof of any sexual activity was found, and they were charged with ‘conspiring to incite others to commit unnatural offences’ because they behaved ‘like women’ in their daily lives. Somehow, their argument that as actors, they played women all the time, with their off-stage use of the names Fanny and Stella simply being an extension of this worked, with the judge grudgingly acquitting them because there were no rules against their presentation.
That outcome fed into Henry Labouchere’s infamous contribution to the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885), which criminalised ‘gross indecency’ between adult men ‘in public or private’ and allowed the authorities to send them to prison just because they didn’t like the look of them – it was under this vague legislation that Oscar Wilde (an admirer of Boulton and Park) was sent to Reading gaol. With similar rules in force in Germany, people in the new field of sexology there and in Britain worked to better understand sexual diversity and gender variance, and their intersections, in the hope of liberalising the law.
In Britain, the sexologist Havelock Ellis insisted that the two were linked, proposing first ‘sexo-aesthetic inversion’ and then ‘Eonism’ to suggest that men cross-dressed to become the objects of their desire. After interviewing hundreds of people in Germany, Magnus Hirschfeld disagreed, concluding that gender variance was separate from sexuality, and publishing his findings about the diversity of their motivations and their sexualities in The Transvestites (1910). Hirschfeld won the argument, partly because female-to-male people and female masculinity became more visible after the First World War, in life and in literature, wrecking Ellis’s argument, but mainly because he had given far more time and respect to people’s lived experiences and based his ideas upon them.
(Bizarrely, Ellis’s theories were reanimated by Raymond Blanchard in 1989 under the even more clunking banner of ‘autogynephilia’, which was destroyed when Charles Moser’s research found that 93 per cent of non-trans women could be classified as autogynephiles under Blanchard’s conditions.)
Hirschfeld’s inter-war work at the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin included research that led to the first sex reassignment surgeries, on male-to-female and female-to-male people, before the Nazis destroyed the Institute in May 1933, soon after coming to power. Hirschfeld died in exile in France two years later, but his language gained currency and after 1945, a number of people transitioned in Europe and North America before Christine Jorgensen appeared on the cover of the New York Daily Times and became internationally famous in December 1952.
Perhaps empowered by the visibility of Jorgensen and others, more gender-variant people began to emerge. They established a set of political concerns, focusing on their relationship with providers of hormones and surgery, and institutional and social prejudices which led to violence or exclusion. Harry Benjamin, an associate of Hirschfeld’s who had moved first to New York and then San Francisco, became the leading US specialist on gender identity, understanding that not everyone he saw wanted physical interventions on their bodies, but handling hundreds who did. He classified different types in The Transsexual Phenomenon (1966) by how likely they were to want a ‘conversion operation’, and it became clear that trans people were moving from isolated individuals into identifiable categories, if not a group.
In Transgender History (2008), Susan Stryker notes that the ‘transgender aesthetic’ which emerged in 1960s and 1970s US counter-culture – proto-punks Jayne County and the New York Dolls, underground films by Jack Smith and Andy Warhol, performance art groups such as The Cockettes – inspired Lou Reed and David Bowie, who brought it to mass audiences. At the same time, long hair and less traditionally masculine styles became popular with young men opposed to the Vietnam War, but these stylistic innovations did little to alter systems of oppression based on gender. Working amidst the right-wing backlash against such expressions, Stryker writes that: ‘Access to transsexual medical services thus became entangled with a socially conservative attempt to maintain traditional gender, in which changing sex was grudgingly permitted for the few of those seeking to do so, to the extent that the practice did not trouble the gender binary for the many.’
The elite, university-based research around ‘the transsexual phenomenon’ led to a split between (often fractious) lesbian, gay and bisexual politics and transsexual or transvestite organisations, as differentiation between gender identity and sexuality became more widely understood, and the common ground eroded. There was already some mutual antagonism, with each side worried that association with the other would make their cause seem less acceptable in a conservative society, especially given the complexities of their historical relationship. Then, in 1973, homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), meaning that there were no longer a shared need to criticise the medical establishment, although the transsexual community’s relationship with it was more complicated in any case.
Whereas gay and lesbian activists opposed pathologisation and the resultant aversion therapies, transsexual people understood that mental health services offered access to hormones and surgery, as long as they satisfied the gatekeeping requirements of the psychiatrists – which often demanded that transsexual women show a very traditional kind of femininity in their clothing and mannerisms before being referred for treatment. Transsexual people were encouraged to ‘pass’ and live in ‘stealth’, and so cut themselves off from existing relationships or support networks, in order to protect themselves from reprisal and perhaps those around them from exposure to the possibility of workable trans lives. Not complying with this, or critiquing the system, might mean refusal, with nowhere else to go, making it best to accept these unfavourable terms rather than risk access to treatment – the only thing they had been allowed to retain.
Stryker posits that: ‘In many ways, the transgender movement’s politics towards the medical establishment were more like those of the reproductive freedom movement than those of the gay liberation movement’ in that they both centred around bodily autonomy, and ‘access to competent, legal, respectfully provided medical services for a non-pathological need not shared equally by every member of society.’ (The forced acceptance of sterilisation as a pre-condition for surgery has long been an important issue for trans activists.) In 1973, the US Supreme Court ruled on Roe vs. Wade, deeming abortion a fundamental Constitutional right – which women have had to constantly fight to retain – but transgender medical needs were not viewed through the same rationales that won Roe, writes Stryker, in part because an emerging feminist position on their issues proved incredibly hostile.
At the same time, there were splits occurring in the second wave feminist movement along lines of gender and sexuality. After Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963) aired anxiety that social homophobia meant lesbian participation in feminism would impede its progress, lesbians who had seen early second wave feminism as too heterosexual and establishment-oriented focused on linking straight and lesbian women around shared gender oppression, with male-defined gender roles functioning as an instrument of power. They rejected the ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ styles within lesbian erotic culture as mimicry of heterosexual relationships, and posited an androgynous, gender-neutral style in an effort to break the expectation that female bodies, ‘feminine’ behaviour and sexual orientation towards men should be linked.
They set up women-only organisations, the borders of which were swiftly and hotly contested. The eligibility of trans people to enter those spaces was debated, and not everyone argued for their exclusion – in the controversy over transsexual singer and activist Beth Elliott being expelled from the lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis after a vote on her presence went 35-28 against, with another vote at the West Coast Lesbian Feminist Conference in 1973 similarly split, Lesbian Tide publisher Jeanne Córdova defended Elliott, calling Elliott ‘a feminist and a sister’ and later expressing her frustration at the movement devoting so much energy to the tiny numbers of trans people within its orbit.
As is often the case, the loudest and most hostile voices came to dominate. (This phenomenon, like this conflict, did not originate with Twitter.) The most virulent anti-trans text to emerge was The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the Modern She-Male by Janice Raymond, published in 1979, and summarised from a trans perspective here. Three years earlier, women-only Olivia Records had appointed transsexual woman Sandy Stone as a recording engineer. When this became public knowledge, Olivia were asked to remove her. Olivia’s response supported Stone, stating that ‘for many women, evolving a consciousness of class and sex oppression involves uncertainty, anger and the turmoil which accompanies any major life process. For transsexuals, who are simultaneously evolving through confronting their true sexual identity, these processes are doubly difficult’. Stone soon left voluntarily to minimise damage to Olivia’s business.
Describing the importance of Raymond’s book in trans political history as ‘a sourcebook for anti-transgender opinion and a goad for transgender theorising’, Stryker quotes Raymond’s explicit identification of reassignment with rape: ‘All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact [sic], appropriating this body for themselves’, saying that although rape is usually accomplished by force, it can be done by deception – claiming that Stone did so by working at Olivia Records without announcing her gender history, ignoring the fact that Stone most likely knew that if she had done so, she would have got plenty of hassle and Olivia would not have been able to utilise her skills.
Raymond wrote that ‘The Transsexual Empire’ is 'ultimately a medical empire, based on a patriarchal medical model. This medical model has provided a “sacred canopy” of legitimations for transsexual treatment and surgery'. Having only spoken to a handful of service users – 13 at most – she missed the point that the relationship between the gender identity clinics and transsexual people was often antagonistic, and attacked them as dupes of the patriarchy rather than engaging with their structural conditions. Using male pronouns for trans women throughout, Raymond concluded that ‘the problem of transsexualism would be best served by morally mandating it out of existence’, advocating ‘consciousness-raising therapy’ as an aversion to the existing system where possible.
It might be tempting to read the above, think that identity politics are ridiculous and write it off as an interminable spat between two minority groups. Inclusion within feminist spaces is not the most pressing issues for trans people – access to medical services, relationships with family, friends and co-workers, institutional and social violence, and housing discrimination remain more important today, as in the 1970s – but it becomes a bigger deal when debates about trans people which exclude trans people are then allowed to influence related health and social care policies. In 1980, the National Center for Healthcare Technology commissioned Janice Raymond to write a paper entitled Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery to help them make evidence-based decisions on the efficacy of treatments.
Here, Raymond described sex reassignment surgery as ‘unnecessary’ and as ‘mutilation’, and insisted that people with no lived experience of transsexualism be allowed a say over its treatment. A year later, Medicare stopped coverage for sex reassignment surgery in the US, a decision only overturned this May.
Several people responded to The Transsexual Empire, including trans man Lou Sullivan in A Transvestite Answers a Feminist, and Roz Kaveney in a Gay News debate with lesbians Marsaili Cameron and Sonja Ruehl. Carol Riddell’s ‘critical review’ Divided Sisterhood, published in 1980, argued that it was Raymond who was making an issue of trans people’s inclusion, writing that ‘in the British women’s movement, there seem to be two transsexuals’ and maybe a dozen in the US. Riddell also wrote that the clinics ‘were not regarded with favour by most of the medical patriarchy’, with the ‘gender-amendment training’ arising from the fact that ‘like all marginal institutions, they strove to justify themselves by their conformity’, hence the often oppositional relationship with their patients.
Attacked from all sides and dealing with the HIV crisis, trans communities spent most of the 1980s supporting each other, and the radical feminist orthodoxy remained entrenched. A crucial intervention came at the end of the decade when Sandy Stone’s essay The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto began to circulate on digital networks, before being published in Routledge’s Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity anthology in 1991. Unlike Sullivan and Riddell, this did not argue on Raymond’s terms. Instead, it encouraged trans people to question the concepts of ‘male’ and ‘female’, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ and explore space between them in their writing, simultaneously challenging the Gender Identity Clinics’ ideas of who was trans, and undermining conservative and anti-trans feminist stereotypes.
A new wave of activism followed Stone’s call for trans people to assert their histories and identities in the 1990s. Holly Boswell and Leslie Feinberg helped to popularise ‘transgender’ in a bid to unite people previously defined as ‘transvestite’ or ‘transsexual’ and create a new vocabulary that better described their lives and social conditions, reclaiming it from the medical establishment. For all the theory and art that followed, however, the core issue with exclusionary feminism stayed the same, with arguments about what constituted womanhood still bitterly contested.
The growth of the internet, combining anonymity and connectedness, also changed the dynamic. Trans people, traditionally discouraged from forming a community, could now talk, find resources and organise far more easily. It also meant that hostile editorials in left-leaning media could be shared more widely, becoming lightning rods for activists fighting transphobia. Crucially, it exposed the exclusionary logic to a bigger audience – it had already leapt from the relatively closed circuits of feminist conferences and publications to the mainstream media, but now people could leave counter-arguments in comments sections and campaign in larger numbers, by email or in person.
Recently, like most political discussions, this has moved to Twitter, where the tone of an already bad-tempered argument gets harsher by the day. Whenever I discuss it with baffled outsiders, they say that neither side has emerged with great credit, and if you want to find examples of people from either group going far too far in attacking someone, you can. Goldberg and Brighe both found evidence of abuse and attacks, but it’s worth remembering that many people involved are young and vulnerable, damaged by experiences in their everyday battles and kept permanently on edge in a world where cuts to medical services and support groups are disproportionately affecting minorities, including women and LGBT people, with right-wing ideologues relentlessly arguing to reverse hard-won provisions of gender reassignment and abortions under the veneer of fiscal necessity.
I’ve mostly kept out of this: arguing on the internet isn’t my thing. Online communities have always been vital for me, though: I would have died as a teenager if we hadn’t accessed the Information Superhighway via dial-up in 1996, allowing me to Ask Jeeves where I might find other trans people near me, and talk to them about their gender identities. In my early twenties, I found Stone, Feinberg and others by doing a Masters at the University of Sussex, but their ideas had not yet moved far beyond academic and activist circles, and the liberal-left media agenda was led by people whose position echoed Janice Raymond’s.
Most notable were Julie Burchill and Julie Bindel, whose 2004 Guardian column entitled ‘Gender Benders Beware’ began by arguing against a transsexual woman being allowed to use a rape crisis centre before leading on to a more general assault on stereotypical trans identities. This led to her being invited on to radio shows and panels to debate whether sex reassignment surgery was ever necessary, and writing further editorials where she argued that ‘sex-change surgery [rather than, say, aversion therapy] is the modern equivalent of aversion therapy for homosexuals’. Bindel has since apologised for the tone of the 2004 article, for which she received plenty of angry responses including death threats. She was unlucky, too - although she was far from the first left-leaning journalist to express such sentiments, she among the first to do so after the explosion in online media meant it would remain in view on the Guardian website for ever.
I came to realise that through a mixture of British legislation, German sexology and American feminism, my body, clothing, mannerisms and being had been politicised and policed, and I wanted to weaponise it using the media that propagated transphobic ideology. I followed Stone’s advice, deciding to document my transition in a rolling blog, targeting the Guardian as I felt more optimistic and better equipped to challenge prejudice on the left, finding the acting editor of the Life & Style section sympathetic, and willing to take a chance on an unknown writer. (More on how it was commissioned here.) My aim was to re-centre matters around human experience, moving away from theoretical discussion. Editors, I was told, thought that readers found trans politics too complicated – a barrier that I had to work around.
I was reluctant about the autobiographical framing: it felt like a relic of the time when the main means that trans people had to document their experiences in detail was the memoir. Produced in a climate where any discussion of collective issues was deemed undesirable and unprofitable, these struggled to avoid perpetuating a stereotype of trans people as individually-minded, and the problem of their thoughts and feeling being taken as representative of the whole. Using it was a compromise, but once I’d convinced my editors that I knew what I was doing, they let me say almost whatever liked, and I challenged myself to get as much theory and politics into the ostensibly personal structure as possible.
I was rarely asked to redraft, but I hadn’t thought enough about the burden of representation, despite friends warning me to be careful about doing something so private in public – as far as I was concerned, undermining caricatures of our lives, and the political actions these enabled, was bigger than my own wellbeing, already precarious after a lifetime of gender dysphoria. Challenging the stereotypes proved easier than I expected, especially the one about trans women blindly conforming to gender expectations – all I had to do was name Norwich City’s centre-forward and that died on its arse, before even considering whether femininity and femme identities were inherently reactionary – but my friends were right about my mental health.
I’d anticipated plenty of transphobic abuse and quickly learned to ignore it (the moderators were zealous in any case, to the point where I told them to relax a little), but I hadn’t expected to become any sort of advocate. I tried to establish that although I highlighted some shared challenges, I wasn’t representing anyone bar myself, but with so few of us working on such a platform, I was constantly aware that anything I said might be painted on to us as a group if they seemed to confirm the prejudices of conservatives or anti-trans feminists. Spending hours on my posts around a full-time job, every sentence became fraught with anxiety, as I tried to deconstruct preconceptions without appearing humourless or unduly angry – an accusation that had frequently been levelled at our entire community.
It came to a head in late 2011. I’d just moved to London, and I was honoured to be invited to the Diversity Role Models launch at the House of Commons. There I met Roger Crouch, who had campaigned tirelessly against homophobic bullying in schools since the tragic death of his son Dominic. I told him how I admired his resolve and how important it was – every LGBT person I’d ever met had been bullied because of their clothing and mannerisms, or who they slept with – and we swapped email addresses.
Two weeks later, I read on the Guardian website that Roger had been found dead. I’d been trying to stay strong through the stresses of transition: coming out to my family, whose occasional remarks when we’d seen trans people on TV during my youth made me fear that they’d disown me; telling my friends and colleagues; dealing with mockery, intimidation, sexual harassment and violent threats in public; worrying that the police would single me out at anti-Fascist demonstrations. All that had been catching up with me, and this brutal reminder of how close I’d been to death in my teens - ridiculed at school because other people didn’t think I was masculine enough, even though I never dared tell anyone about my gender issues; told, when I said that I didn’t have any friend,s that I wasn’t trying hard enough to fit in - broke my spirit. A few days later, I made a hasty exit from a nearby friend’s house and came home. I was crying as I opened the door, and moments later I was rolling on my bed, weeping, screaming, hyper-ventilating. If my housemate Helen hadn’t rushed in, asked what had happened, and then put one hand round my shoulders and the other on my knee as I cried on her shoulder and then explained about Roger and everything else, I don’t know what I would have done.
I needed to see another therapist – my fifth in five years, including the two at the Gender Identity Clinic who decided on my hormones and surgery. I found one who seemed perfect: she promised not to blame my difficulties on my being transsexual, focusing on how to disentangle my private life and my media career. “Come to my office on Fleet Street,” she told me, and immediately, I realised that detaching the personal and political might not be possible.
I didn’t air this in public, though, partly because I thought I might look ungrateful – I had a media platform, after all – but mainly because trans people are often portrayed as unhappy, broken individuals. This made me feel intense pressure to depict my life as blissful: it wasn’t – and couldn’t be in contemporary Britain – but it was still easier to deal with other challenges now that my body was closer to fitting.
Feeling that the movement wasn’t for me and knowing nothing of the third wave, let alone the fourth, I hadn’t seen my work as feminist, and was surprised when younger people invited me to speak in feminist spaces. One place where I knew I wouldn’t be welcome was the Radfem 2012 conference, to be held at Conway Hall. Scheduled to speak was Sheila Jeffreys, formerly of the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group whose 1979 conference agenda asked ‘Transexuals – does castration constitute the female?’ and discussed ‘The phasing out of women through sex choice and increasing numbers of transexuals’. Jeffreys was to talk on sex work – another area in which the conclusions of certain radical feminists have been challenged by those with lived experience – but Jeffreys’ track record of publishing anti-trans material combined with the conference being open only to ‘women born women living as women’ raised concerns.
People petitioned Conway Hall not to host Radfem 2012 unless it changed its entry policy. As a result, it was cancelled as the venue decided that under the Equality Act, it was not reasonable to bar trans people on this occasion: arguing in the Guardian, Roz Kaveney said the group was ‘acting like a cult’ whilst Jeffreys claimed she was being censored, though clearly not by the newspaper. Jeffreys was still furious with the Guardian, though: her recent book Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism lambasts the ‘politically correct’ Guardian for printing ‘men who have transgendered [sic] such as … Roz Kaveney and Juliet Jacques’ and (seriously!) ‘rarely [publishing] material that raises any kind of questions about the practice’.
Jeffreys’ language is revealing: I wonder if - like all those who commented on my Guardian posts to ask “Why is this funded on the NHS?” - she thinks that she’s the first to tell me “You’re a man” and that it will destroy me, unaware that I’m endlessly told this by drunken dickheads in bars and I just think it reflects worse on them than me. As it stood, I read Jeffreys’ sentence, compared her rhetoric to Jeremy Clarkson’s and then decided, like everyone else, not to read her book. (If you’re in any doubt about such misgendering, though, read any article on someone who isn’t trans, reverse the pronouns and see just how petty and spiteful it looks.)
By then, my Guardian series was long over. After the last post in late 2012, I realised just how severely I was burnt out, even though I’d never considered myself an activist, and decided to stand back, and spend the next year writing about art for this site, giving myself however long I needed to recover by focusing on less contentious subjects. Two weeks into January 2013, however, the Observer published an op-ed by Julie Burchill, that opened with some non-sequitur about eating lobster but still being Julie from the block before launching into a broadside against ‘dicks in chicks’ clothing’, ‘trannies’ and ‘shemales’.
This gave me little choice but to spend all day countering it on Twitter, but I declined the Guardian’s request to write a response as I’d already seen Facebook friends furious that “they probably think they can get Juliet Jacques to write something and that’ll make it alright.” I nominated Roz Kaveney as she’d been fighting this battle far longer than me, but later, I saw Burchill as a useful idiot: had she exposed the animus behind some of those texts arguing that providing sex reassignment services to those who desired them was unethical? If not, she had at least shown outsiders the level of contempt that we could encounter in spaces that they might have expected to be supportive.
Then I thought again. Hadn’t Burchill, by dint of her reputation as a controversialist, been able to get one piece past a small number of editors who either agreed with her opinions or saw no problem with hosting them, and so invalidate all the work I’d done on that website, meaning I’d given away so much about my physical and mental health for nothing? I stopped feeling like this once the Guardian took the unprecedented step of removing it from their website, but I still wondered: how did it get there in the first place? And later I asked – was Gender Hurts peer-reviewed, as standard for academic texts? If not – why?
As a writer I’m obsessed with language, constantly trying to address the legacy of 20th century sexology and its lexicon. I’m intrigued by the resistance that trans people's attempts to define our own terms has met, and wonder what’s behind it: part of the problem is that the project launched in the 1990s, when liberal-left opposition to ‘political correctness’ was at its height, before people began to see it as a tool to help minorities make it harder for their oppressors to harm them.
There have been lots of discussions lately of ‘cisgender’ as opposite to ‘transgender’. One concern is that ‘trans’ was adopted to unite a range of gender positions and open space to create new ones, so the concept of an opposite is tricky, and often leads to circular definitions. But it’s not an attempt to create a new binary, but to frame one that already exists, as I know from a lifetime on the ‘wrong’ side, in less unfavourable terms than ‘women-born-women’ and the more recent appendage of ‘living as women’ once the trans-exclusionary radical feminists remembered that trans men exist. (Janice Raymond barely mentioned them in The Transsexual Empire but afterthought them into her scheme by saying they were buying into the patriarchy.) Post-transition, I still feel – and I am still made to feel – discomfort with my body and social expectations of it, but nothing like the discomfort that made me seek hormones and surgery. Truthfully, my experiences have been far more complex than the words, categories and theories available to describe them, and historically, attempts to cram the realities of people’s lives into pre-existing belief systems have rarely ended well.
In the New Yorker, Michelle Goldberg presents the laments of Jeffreys et al that it’s become harder to hold a trans-exclusionary radical feminist conference in terms that are reminiscent of a 19th century farming community fearing the arrival of the threshing machine. She notes their objection to the TERF acronym as ‘a slur’. (Far nastier than describing elective surgery as ‘mutilation’, obviously.) Originally, the term was intended to acknowledge that radical feminism accommodated differing positions on trans inclusion. The aim in using ‘TERF’ was to discourage rejection of all of the good political theory and work, and often great art, done in or around radical feminism – another problem, not new to Twitter or exclusive to this conflict, is a tendency for people to dismiss an individual or movement because they disagree with just one of their positions. If I applied this to my personal relationships, I wouldn’t have many left – certainly not with my family, and probably not even myself: looking back over old writing, diaries and letters as I wrote my memoir, I was amused by how often I said to myself: Fucking hell, I thought that?
Some of the logical inconsistencies, double binds and outright falsehoods that were allowed to become dogma about trans people just because they were presented as an ethical, rational critique are, in hindsight, staggering. Raymond’s assertion that the relationship between clinicians and their users was frictionless may have felt plausible if you didn’t encounter any trans perspectives – or just ignored them – even if the implication that transsexuality was a patriarchal plot to infiltrate the women’s movement seems slightly far-fetched. The simultaneous characterisation of trans women as unthinking supporters of male-defined roles and politically aware enough to convince hardened feminists to admit them, however, is a theoretical clusterfuck, and every critical thinker who let it past them – and plenty did – should be utterly ashamed of themselves.
Raymond wrote that ‘the transsexual becomes an agreeable participant in a society which encouraged conformity to rigid sex-role behaviour’, whilst constructing a framework which aimed to stop ‘the transsexual’ from participating in any politics that might challenge it, with any objection dismissed as male entitlement. You might imagine that trans women who have spent time in spaces where men don’t see any women could offer some worthwhile insight, and perhaps there may be more constructive ways of engaging than “Argh! Penis!” The conversation about how trans women do and don’t benefit from male privilege could be far more honest, too: I would speak more about how, for example, my undergraduate opinions on European intellectual history probably gained more respect than they might if I hadn’t been perceived as male, but also about how the rigorously policing of any incongruence between my body and my expressions, long before I came out as trans, shaped my personality and mental health in a way that has impeded me personally and professionally, and will do until I die. However, the knowledge that this will just result in my identity being trashed keeps me from doing so.
Political ideologies are a combination of positions on social issues, some of which may change over time as long as the vital foundational blocks remain in place. A socialist party which ceases to place the working class at its heart is worthless, as anyone involved in Labour policy-making since 1994 won’t tell you, but the very fact that it was so hotly debated suggests that actually, feminism probably could include trans people and not disintegrate.
In an article entitled ‘Transsexualism: The Ultimate Homage to Sex-Role Power’, published in Chrysalis art journal in 1978, Janice Raymond criticised Andrea Dworkin for writing that ‘sex change operations should be provided “by the community as one of its functions” [as] an emergency measure for an emergency condition’, aggrieved that even though Dworkin broadly agreed with her on gender roles, she did not share her opposition to surgery for those who wanted it. Gloria Steinem recently took the admirable step of apologising for supporting Raymond’s position in the 1970s and 1980s, stating that ‘[Transgender] lives should be celebrated, not questioned … their health care decisions should be theirs alone to make,’ and it’s a heartening sign that such an influential figure should now make this unequivocal statement of solidarity.
The core question of Michelle Goldberg’s article – ‘What is a woman?’ – will continue to be disputed long after we’re all dead, so I have no intention of becoming the latest person to try to resolve it to the satisfaction of all concerned. (I probably should have mentioned this earlier. Sorry.) I don’t ask that debate be shut down: merely that those involved think about the implications of their contributions, beyond the “I’m sure these people have difficult lives, but …” disclaimer, as any writing on this subject forms part of the wider cultural climate, and there are many ways in which academic writing and journalism can intersect with healthcare policies, that are not always easy to predict. I was amazed to be told at a Trans Media Conference in 2011 that people in government read my Guardian series whilst producing their Transgender Action Plan; I don’t know about Bindel’s article of 2004 and the later Equality Act, but I do know that Elizabeth Hungerford directly contacted to the United Nations to argue against protections for gender identity in 2012. Whether or not Raymond’s paper informed the Medicare decision made in 1981 – Raymond rejects that charge here – the fact that a government body was consulting someone so openly hostile to trans people is quite problematic.
The Gender Identity Clinics eventually learned to reconsider their criteria in dialogue with service users above all else. However, I believe the slow pace of transition and particularly the fact that it took me more than a year to get hormones, which changed my body enough over time to minimise the transphobic street harassment, is informed by TERFs and mainstream media paying disproportionate attention to the tiny numbers who voice post-transition regrets – Goldberg writes that ‘expert estimates of the number of transitioners who abandon their new gender range from fewer than one per cent to as many as five per cent’ although she doesn’t say who these experts are – in the knowledge that emphasising them puts more pressure on the clinics and those who decide on their funding. (Although I also feel that if the Conservatives continue to fund transition via the NHS, it’s because it’s fiscally the best thing to do: that’s the only language they understand, after all.)
I often argue for conflict resolution by citing Napoleon, as I’m fond of his maxim: ‘Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.’ I don’t believe that all, or even most, ‘gender-critical’ editorials genuinely set out to make our lives harder: more that their writers don’t realise the impact they can have in the structure outlined above. I think the same of liberal editors who commission such works thinking that the relatively small numbers on both sides means the playing field is level, not aware that the overlap between conservative and TERF positions put us at a massive disadvantage.
This is exacerbated by the fact that so few know any trans people, with the twin problem of family and friends being encouraged to disown them and their feeling that they have to live in stealth. Factor in a media culture that values bad-tempered slanging matches above sensitive exposition, with broadcast slots or word counts too small to allow much beyond familiar soundbites, and the problem is even worse. The tendency of publications and broadcasters towards clickbait-style questions debated by thundering bellends is by no means limited to trans people – witness BBC Newsnight’s jaw-dropping decision to ask ‘Is it ever OK to call women sluts?’ and invite Godfrey Bloom, a man shoved off the right-hand edge of the UK Independence Party for his views on women and ethnic minorities, to help them find a consensus. But we’re constantly forced to justify our existence, responding to questions which people aren’t conditioned to see as unreasonable: I got loads on starting transition – usually about my genitalia – but the most difficult was simply “Why?” I don’t know what caused my gender dysphoria – nature, nature or some combination: it just is, and I don’t see why I should bear the responsibility of answering it to anyone who meets or reads me.
When I was a child, I’d go to my grandmother’s house and start writing. When I picked up my pencil, she’d tell me that in her day, left-handers would be forced to write with their right hands, which seemed ridiculous to me. Luckily, those days were over and although my left-handedness is still treated as a curiosity by people who expect me to have terrible script, I can write as I wish – but sometimes I imagine how absurd, not to mention vindictive, a campaign to return to this would look, and wonder if we’ll ever reach a similar point where my transition is quietly accepted as a matter of bodily autonomy.
I wonder, too, how some of the other debates around our lives might look in a less conservative society. The discussions are often pushed onto the most emotive issues and framed in the most loaded terms: recently I’ve been troubled by the description of hormone blockers that delay puberty as ‘child abuse’. If I’d been asked as a ten-year-old if I thought blockers were abusive, I would have said “No, where can I get them?” and if you asked me now, I’d say that what’s abusive is not delaying puberty until trans people are considered old enough to give informed consent, but forcing them to spend their teenage years watching as their body grows far further from their needs than it might have done, knowing that they’ll have to spend the rest of their lives dealing with the physical and mental fallout.
As for the rape crisis centre example, I don’t have an answer to that either: if someone sincerely felt that my presence would make it unsafe then I wouldn’t want to disrespect that. In the age of austerity, though, specific provisions for trans people may be too much to hope for, and I wonder how that question might have been answered if trans people had never been characterised as walking rapes, or if the decision-makers had paid more heed to Leslie Feinberg’s point in Transgender Warriors that it’s fairer to think of unsafe behaviours rather than unsafe groups.
The endless circularity of all this is most dispiriting – seriously, if you’ve not worked out if you can be a feminist and wear high heels yet, perhaps it’s time to ask something else – and what irked me most in Goldberg’s piece was its airing of autogynephilia, and Jeffreys’ accusation that Julia Serano, the trans theorist who besides Stone has done more to shape my writing than any other, is an ‘autogynephile’. Looking at my notes on ‘What is a Woman?’ every other paragraph is annotated with historical facts, theoretical points and personal recollections, but this just has ‘FUCK OFF’ next to it, underlined, which is all it deserves. In a world where left-wing politics have often derided LGBT identities as ‘bourgeois’ and then accused us of splitting the movement, it infuriates me that I’ve had to take a break from writing a piece on the Tories’ ‘liberation’ of the NHS to write 8,500 words to debunk a sexological concept that was shown to be untenable before the start of the First World War.
On top of that, we’re attacked for only talking about our identities when the dictation of such stupid terms prevents any focus elsewhere – for so many creative trans people, this is one of the most frustrating ideological injustices of all. Ultimately, though, this is not so much the fault of the trans-exclusionary radical feminists as of those who uncritically make us fight on their turf, meticulously preserving the ‘balance’ and forcing people like me to carry the weight, looking around desperately for support as our bodies buckle and break.