Everything you've always wanted to know about trans issues (but were afraid to ask)

Writing for NS Trans Issues Week, Jennie Kermode outlines the facts about trans issues and language - an area where prejudice and confusion so often get in the way.

1. What is the difference between a transvestite and a transsexual person?

A transsexual person needs a permanent change of gender role, often accompanied by bodily changes, in order to feel comfortable. A transvestite, also called a cross dresser, is a man who dresses in a way usually associated with women, or vice versa. For some transvestites this is just a bit of fun or a way of challenging gender norms; for others it reflects a deep seated need. Some people go through a stage of cross dressing on the way to coming out as transsexual.

2. I've seen people talking about trans* issues. What is the asterisk for?

The asterisk shows that "trans" is being used as an umbrella term, covering not just transsexual people but also transvestites and people who don't identify as male or female.

3. Why do some people in the trans* community find "tranny" problematic?

It's a word that has strong associations wth pornography and it's often shouted at people in the street in an abusive way. This can be accompanied by a threat of violence — sadly not uncommon — so people are reminded of that fear when they encounter the word elsewhere.

4. What happens when a person transitions from one gender to another - what's the process?

There's no one-size-fits-all procedure. The primary process is psychological and social — learning to fit into a different social role and hoping loved ones can adjust to that. Most people take hormones, which can make them feel more mentally relaxed even before starting to change their bodies. Many go on to have surgery.

5. Do all trans people have surgery?

No. Some people are not able to, for medical reasons. For others, intimate changes don't feel necessary as long as their gender is generally accepted — after all, when we meet strangers, we don't usually need to see their genitals to decide what gender we think they are. Many trans men have breasts removed but don't have genital surgery because it carries a risk of urological problems. This means that the notion of "pre-op" and "post-op" trans people is misleading. For many, changing social role is a much bigger deal anyway.

6. What does being genderqueer mean?

This is one of several terms that people use to describe not feeling either male or female. This is different from just not having much sense of gender. For some people, it's a very strong feeling and may lead to them seeking medical assistance to align their bodies with their identities. For others, it's about creating a space in which to escape from the usual expectations of gendered behaviour.

7. I've seen some people call themselves "queer". Is that an OK word for straight people to use?

Because it has a history of being used as a term of abuse, it's best to avoid it in generral discourse. In smaller social circles you may find that people don't mind, but it never hurts to ask.

8. What inaccurate clichés about trans people do you see in the media?

Most transsexual people don't think of themselves as changing sex — they have a consistent sense of gender identity. Rather, they feel that bodily changes are about feeling more comfortable in their own skins and having their gender more easily recognised by others, confirming their existing identities. By and large, they are no more concerned about being manly men or beautiful women than the average person. Some know they will never "pass" very well but passing isn't the point — they hope people will respect the clear signals that they're sending about their gender. The media tends to find these concepts difficult. Likewise, it tends to present people without male or female gender identities as confused (much like the clichés that exist about bisexual people) whereas most have a very clear sense of their gender, it just isn't one that onforms with society's expectations. Finally, there's the notion that all trans people are attention-seekers. In fact, most just want to get on with their lives.

9. Are there more M2F transgendered people than F2M? And if so, why?

We used to think so but gender clinics now tell us they have about equal numbers coming forward to seek help. It's sometimes easier for trans men to stay in the closet because masculine behaviour in women is more socially acceptable than feminine behaviour in men.

10. What does "cis" mean?

It's simply a catch-all term referring to people who are not trans.

11. What kind of problems and challenges do trans people face in everyday life, and in getting treatment?

They are often rejected by family and friends, they can find it difficult to secure employment (especially before getting medical support) and they face high rates of stress-related mental health problems. It is estimated that around 45 per cent of trans people attempt suicide at least once — nine times the rate for the wider population. Trans people are often subjected to verbal abuse and threats from strangers and face a higher than average risk of being assaulted, with this being worse in some areas than others. Getting medical support is a bit of a lottery. There's a new system in Scotland which is very good, but not enough specialist doctors yet to make it work. In England, many people struggle to get taken seriously, face obnoxious treatment from medical profesionals (as exemplified in the recent #transdocfail Twitter thread) and face long waiting lists, while genderqueer people have to pretend to be transsexual if they want to get any treatment at all. This is particularly tough for people who can't afford to go private.

12. What proportion of the population is transgender?

This really depends on how widely you want to cast your net. Around one in five people try cross dressing, even if it's just for fun, and lots of people feel uncomfortable with the roles set out for them as men or women. The number of people who feel a strong need to change roles is much smaller, probably around 0.8 per cent of the population. Of course, that's still a lot of people overall, and the problems they face also affect their friends and families.

If you need to talk to somebody because you think you might be trans, The Gender Trust can help. For young trans people and their parents, Mermaids provides excellent support.

Jennie Kermode is Chair of Trans Media Watch and writes at Eye For Film

A person holds a placard reading "I am the one who decide how I dress and not your standards" as he takes part in the 16th Existrans in France. Photograph: Getty Images

Jennie Kermode is Chair of Trans Media Watch and writes at Eye For Film.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.