Introducing Trans Issues Week

Every day this week, the New Statesman website will host a blog exploring gender issues.

In the twelve months preceding November 2012, at least 265 transgender people were murdered across the world. That figure comes from the Trans Murder Monitoring group, and covers only documented cases in 29 countries, so the true tally is likely to be higher.

For anyone interested in equality, it should be obvious that trans people are subject to harassment simply for the way they express their gender identity. If they do not "pass" in the street, they can be subject to everything from cruel comments and sideways glances to assault or rape - just for standing out. The kind of dehumanising language which most people would find outdated and offensive if used against women, or a racial group, is routinely used when talking about trans people.

In recent decades, there have been great improvements in the way that both the medical community and the wider public deal with issues around gender identity. But sometimes it seems that a lack of knowledge, or awareness, is preventing people from engaging in what should be an important cause. Many people I know would never deliberately set out to offend, but are clueless about what pronouns to use, or how to refer to trans people. 

For that reason, the New Statesman blogs will be hosting a week devoted to trans issues, with a new blog every day on the subject. We hope to dispel some myths - and also offer some hope. Talking about trans issues purely in negative terms does not do justice to the many trans people living happy and fulfilled lives, and so there will also be pieces celebrating positive trans role models in pop culture, and describing the reasons to be optimistic about the future of trans people in Britain. 

The aim of the series is to reach out in a straightforward and friendly way to people who haven't considered these issues before: potential commenters should know that no one is waiting to jump down your throat for an innocent mistake. 

There won't be room this week to cover the breadth of trans experience, and so the articles that follow should be viewed only as trying to start a conversation. We hope that you will continue it in the comments here, on social media, and in your own lives. 

Monday: How a trans teacher showed adults have more hang-ups about gender than primary school kids by Jane Fae

Tuesday: Everything you've always wanted to know about trans issues (but were afraid to ask) by Jennie Kermode

Wednesday: Trans people, pronouns and language by Juliet Jacques

Thursday: Trans role models: Janet Mock, Paris Lees, CN Lester and Luke Anderson by Matthew Reuben

Friday: Trans people and the current feminist movement by Petra Davis and Non-binary: An introduction to another way of thinking about identity by Sky Yarlett

PS. I should add upfront that this theme week was planned before the recent Twitterstorm about Julie Burchill's article. We won't be hosting a response to that, as the idea of a New Statesman comment piece about an Observer comment piece about a Guardian comment piece about Twitter comments made after a New Statesman comment piece might be testing the patience of a casual reader.

PPS. You can find our previous theme weeks at the following links: Britishness; censorship and pornography; masculinity and British comics.

Backstage at the Pink Pageant, sponsored by human rights group Blue Diamond, in Kathmandu. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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