BY RACHELLE FOSTER
FEATURED IMAGE BY SHARON KILGANNON @alonglines
The transgender community is growing. Significant possible changes in their rights and representation are on the horizon, and debates on these rights have taken the main stage.
Discussions about potential amendments to the Gender Recognition Act picked up momentum in October 2017. Then, Theresa May announced, at the Pink News awards dinner, that plans to streamline and de-medicalise the legislation would go ahead, because “being trans is not an illness and it shouldn’t be treated as such”. She pledged that she will be pressing on with equalities minister Justine Greening’s suggestions made in July the same year to reform the legislation.
Currently, the law demands applicants to submit reams of personal information to an anonymous panel, in which is an expensive process, with almost no appeals procedure.
The government’s suggested changes seek to streamline legislation and make it easier for transgender people to gain legal recognition of their gender, without having to jump through and over bureaucratic hoops and hurdles.
With such conversations taking place, exhibitions such as the Museum of Transology at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery opening, and programmes like Genderquake (essentially a Big Brother for queer folk) taking mainstream television by storm, there seems to be progress happening in the UK’s quality of gender politics discussions.
But is it enough?
Other goings-on suggest not. This year, Trans Pride Brighton had to upload guidelines onto their website advising attendees on what to do in the event of an anti-trans protest. Instructions included keeping a distance from any anti-trans protesters and to not engage.
This action was in light of the protest by Lesbian Rights Alliance who infiltrated and led this year’s Pride in London parade.
The group’s banners read ‘trans-activism erases lesbians’ and in an open letter to Stonewall, they called to remove the ‘L’ out of LGBT.
The Brighton LGBTQ+ community responded to this by supporting the trans community; launching an online video campaign called #LwiththeT — in which many LGB people shared messages of solidarity calling to keep the ‘L’ with the ‘T’, and similar.
Historically, Brighton has been at the spearhead of the LGBTQ+ movement in the UK, having one of the largest queer communities in the country.
So, it comes as no surprise that the largest collection of artefacts representing UK trans people, the Museum of Transology, opened in the seaside city last year.
“There are absolutely trans voices in the past they’re just very, very difficult to locate retrospectively,” says EJ Scott, curator of the Museum of Transology — on display until spring next year.
“They’re missing because if you had what we call ‘passing privilege’ then you may have used that privilege not to stand out so that you didn’t put yourself in danger or in the face of violence, or have yourself not employed.
“You would live your life hidden, so we can’t locate those lives because in their nature they are hidden, a lot of people weren’t trans all the time, 100% because you couldn’t be.”
Representation of the LGBTQ+ community is notoriously missing from museums and art galleries. Scott explains this is because the background of the sector is typically heteronormative, white, male and privileged. He says when looking at the founding of most national galleries it’s apparent that they’re essentially built on colonial conquest.
“We’ve been written out quite simply because of homophobia and transphobia,” he added.
So, does this new exhibition, along with Genderquake and possible new gender laws, represent a positive change in society’s acceptance of transgender people, or is Brighton just ahead of the curve?
MindOut, a Brighton-based LGBTQ+ mental health service, runs a course called Trans 101. It provides training for organisations in responding to the needs of their trans and non-binary clients. The course gives people the opportunity to explore what we know about gender, what this means for trans and non-binary people, and how to best support trans clients and services users.
Ellis Johnson, a trans mental health advocate at MindOut, says: “The aim of the day is to increase confidence in supporting trans clients to access any and all services within the city and for these clients to be treated respectfully and equally.”
This kind of work is essential and crucial, considering that MindOut’s own figures show that 90% of trans people that contact them have suicidal thoughts and feelings.
Johnson says commonly sought after advice includes how to deal with transphobic treatment within the NHS or other health services. This could be situations like GPs refusing to change details, names, or gender markers.
Even if Brighton is ahead of the curve, it seems the city still can’t escape being affected by current national policies on legal gender recognition.
Neither can Brighton avoid having controversial groups like Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) inhabit the city to use the new law reform proposals as a political backdrop for discussion on the validity of trans identity and drive division between feminists.
What these groups don’t understand and will never have to experience, is the tribulation trans people go through in order to legally live freely as the gender they are — a right they are not granted with at birth.
Scott says: “I don’t have a Gender Recognition Certificate, I refuse to place myself within the medicalised mental health system.
“I have had to access that to get medical treatment in the past, but in so far as declaring myself trans within the legal system I don’t exist essentially.
“And yet I have a passport, I have a name, and I teach, and I have a national insurance number.”
If adaptations to legislation go ahead the effect on the administrative procedures, which are currently stifling, would create an undeniable impact on various trans communities.
WPUK argue that the more important impact will take its toll on female-only spaces, such as toilets and changing rooms, and compromise the safety of women using those facilities. They use this argument to actively campaign against progressive conversations in making gender policies more inclusive of trans people.
The reality is that self-identifying gender has been protected by law since the Equality Act 2010 was implemented.
Such groups as WPUK perpetuate a stigma against the trans community and detract from the more important consequences of a revised gender law.
“Trans people are still sent to prisons with their birth identity unless they have a gender recognition certificate, which would mean someone like myself would go to a women’s prison – I don’t know how the women would feel about that, to tell you the truth, that are there,” says Scott.
The changes new legislation would make to these types of circumstances are ones we should surely be supporting. Rather than worrying if toilets will be inhabited by ‘men who simply feel like women’ – as said by Lucy Masoud, the London Fire Brigade’s LGBT union representative, during a debate on self-identification on Radio 4 with Emily Brothers, Labour’s first openly transgender candidate.
And supporting community work in advocation of trans rights is key too.
Daniel Cheesman, CEO of Brighton & Hove LGBT Switchboard charity, says: “We’ve done a lot of trans-specific work over the last few years and we were part of the Brighton & Hove City Council ‘Trans Needs Assessment’ that was done a couple of years ago.”
The B&H LGBT Switchboard contributed to the council’s assessment in 2015 through their work done within the LGBT Health and Inclusion Project (HIP) and it subsequently led to initiatives like the pronoun badges being rolled out across the city.
Local operations such as this do a massive service to the trans-rights movements, but communities can’t do it alone and engagement on a national scale is the only way in which real change can start to become tangible.
“If you look on a national scale, it’s only in the last few years that Stonewall has embraced the T (in LGBT), up until the new CEO Ruth Hunt joined, they didn’t look at trans rights,” says Cheesman.
So it’s been a long haul for the trans community to get to where it is today and finally it seems like local projects have helped to surge a national shift in the UK’s recognition of gender identity.
However, while forward-thinking attitudes on inclusive gender recognition are demonstrated in the bubble of Brighton, the question we should be asking is: is it enough to shift ill-informed perspectives?
Unfortunately, it looks like while the national stage for change grows; the more bigotry perspectives are voiced upon it.
Find Rachelle on Twitter @rachellerfoster