Gender Identity doesn’t need science

So once again, a rash of articles and blog posts by “gender-critical feminists” asserting that we can’t offer protection for gender identity based on self-determination because there is no scientific consensus on what gender identity is. These articles then neatly segue into a discussion (usually biased) of the science, hoping no-one will notice the entirely false premise.

Scientific consensus is not required to protect a minority group. Virtually none of the “protected characteristics” in the UK Equality Act are the subject of scientific consensus. Sexuality? The scientists are still arguing whether it’s the gay gene, the size of your hippocampus, how many older brothers you have, or good old environmental factors. Race? The definition in the act talks about colour, nationality and ethnic origins, none of which is exactly amenable to ready scientific categorisation, and pretty much all scientists now consider the idea of absolute distinctions between races to be Victorian pseudo-science. Disability? The definition is an impairment with a substantial impact on someone’s day to day life – again a definition which is contingent on social factors, and hence established for equal monitoring purposes by self-definition. As for the scientific consensus on religion – well, the less said about that, the better.

We live in a pluralist society. We understand that it would be both ridiculous and hugely problematic for the government to impose central, monolithic categorisations for race, or disability, or religion, and apply them to everyone at birth, and place them on every government document. We would consider it to be a sign of an intolerant authoritarian government if you had to get formal permission to change those categorisations. And yet we can still manage to operate equality protections, despite the fact that definitions are fuzzy, despite the fact that some people may change how they describe themselves. We do this through the legislation being broadly phrased: the religion category does not come up with a list of religions and say these are the protected religions and this is how we define who belongs to which: it protects any religion or philosophical belief. Same for ethnicity and disability. That doesn’t invalidate or diminish concepts such as “Christian” or “Asian” or “blind”, nor mean that those groups aren’t protected under equality legislation, but it allows for flexibility and fluidity around these categorisations, and allows for the potential emergence of new groups who might also require protection.

As a society, we have a blind spot when it comes to the protected characteristic of “sex” (and by extension, to “sexuality” and “gender identity”, which are defined by reference to sex). Up until fairly recently, it was assumed that it was the government’s role to regulate this, and to do so in a clearly discriminatory way. It was assumed that it was necessary to be able to define who could marry who on the basis of genitals; that it was necessary to be able to treat women and men differently in tax and pay and pensions and insurance. Therefore the government needed to have a central definition, and it made sense to write M and F over every official document going. That’s out of date now. Thinking has changed, and from any feminist perspective that surely has to be a good thing. The government’s role now is to eliminate discrimination and promote equality. Therefore we should start to think about legislating for sex, gender and sexuality in the same way as we do for other equality characteristics, where multiple definitions and fuzzy categories are possible, but discrimination is still unacceptable.



The times they are a-changin

Oh baby boomer progressives*. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you’re in serious danger of turning into your parents. Complaining about the sexual and gender liberalism of the youth of today. Why can’t they just uphold the gender norms you grew up with, eh? Get a proper haircut and stop challenging society’s beliefs about the proper roles for men and women.

And what’s with all this namby-pamby politically correct hippy nonsense they’re teaching them in the polytechnics these days? All this right on stuff about liberation movements and challenging prejudice, and trying to be supportive towards people with mental health vulnerabilities. Whatever happened to the good old British stiff upper lip? Pack ’em all off to ‘Nam, that’s what I say. Toughen ’em up a bit. Weren’t things better in the days when you could insult ethnic minorities, and women, and gay people, and trans people, and Jewish people, and Muslims without anyone taking offence (or at least, not anyone who really counted?) It’s political correctness gone mad!

After all, topics such as “Are all homosexuals paedophiles?” and “Aren’t trans people just deluded perverts?” and “Shouldn’t women be in the kitchen having babies?” and “Are people from some ethnic groups naturally inferior?” are perfectly legitimate questions of academic debate (even when there’s no evidence). Only those who hate free speech would refuse to participate in such a debate, or challenge the appropriateness of such a debate taking place where they live and work, or criticise you for suggesting that these are valid debates.

Think of prominent and dedicated social campaigners (like Mary Whitehouse) getting heckled when speaking at higher education institutes by disrespectful students (like Julie Bindel)** That’s just not fair, is it? Honestly, you’d think university students would understand that it’s their role to sit there and silently absorb what their seniors tell them is correct about gender and sexuality.

Dylan covered this in ‘The times they are a-changin’. The difference is, you’re the writers and the critics now, the mothers and the fathers. So, try not to criticise what you can’t understand, and don’t speak too soon while the wheel’s still in spin, cos the order is rapidly changing.

And for God’s sake, someone remind me in twenty or thirty years time that you can’t take social change movements out of a box, let them run a bit and then put them back when you’ve had enough.



*Not all baby boomer progressives.

**Described in Bindel, J. (2014) Straight Expectations

Trans Inquiry – the Final Report

I have to start by saying that overall, I am extremely impressed by the report from the UK Parliamentary Inquiry into Trans Equality. The vast majority of the recommendations are progressive, sensible, and have genuinely taken trans people’s views on board (and I’m not only saying that cos they quoted me). I absolutely praise and endorse the Committee for that, and for the hard work that went into that.

However, there are two areas where they have fundamentally missed the point, and several others whether they have acknowledged a problem but copped out of proposing action. It seems to me that those are tied together by some unspoken assumptions about gender that we need to address.

Spousal veto

Let’s start with an analogy. My friend Laura is a devout Catholic. When she started dating, it was important to her that her partner also be a Catholic. She met guys through Christian dating websites, and church events. When she got engaged to Jack, the two of them had marriage preparation classes with the parish priest, got married in the parish church, and agreed that the kids would be baptised and raised Catholic (and in fact, they were sent to Catholic schools).

Let us imagine that Jack now wants to convert to Judaism. For Laura, that would be a fundamental reshaping of the basis on which they entered the marriage. As far as she is concerned, they said their vows in front of God, and that was a religious contract. She probably wouldn’t have started dating Jack if he hadn’t been a Catholic. That doesn’t necessarily mean Laura would want a divorce – she and Jack are very close, and they might find a way to deal with this. But there has been a fundamental change in their marriage, and that could end in divorce.

What would not happen in this situation is state involvement. Jack could declare himself to be Jewish on all government documents, and expect total equality on faith grounds in all areas of work, goods and services. Jack would not be required to submit evidence to a Faith Recognition Panel from 2 rabbis, confirming that he was really Jewish. He would not have to demonstrate to the FRP that he’d been living as a Jew for two years. He would not have to confirm whether or not he’d been circumcised, and if not, get a doctor to explain why not. The Women and Equalities Committee seem to have basically got the point that there is no reason to treat gender as being different from faith in this respect. However, they still want to retain a distinction with regard to spousal involvement. In my analogy, Laura does not have to consent to Jack’s religious conversion, at any stage. If she feels a mixed faith marriage is intolerable to her, the option open to her is to seek divorce. However, if I were married, my partner would have to consent to my gender recognition. I do not think it is reasonable for the state to decide that gender is fundamental to my relationship , but faith is not fundamental to Laura’s. People are different. What they think is important is different.

There are other, more practical issues with the spousal veto. The Committee has acknowledged spousal veto is open to abuse. Good. However, they don’t seem to have thought about situations where consent isn’t an option. Suppose you have an older married couple, and one partner has dementia and lives in a care home. It is fully agreed the person with demetia no longer has legal capacity, and the other partner has power of attorney for them. The other partner is in the process of transitioning, but continues to visit their spouse regularly, and the person with dementia seems to be aware that their visitor is someone who cares for them. Under the spousal veto, the options open to the trans person are either to divorce their spouse (which, aside from the horrendous emotional impact, would probably also create financial and legal complications) or to wait for them to die. That seems needlessly cruel.

I think the reason for the difference in attitudes towards faith and gender is that, after a few hundred years of bickering, the state has basically now grasped that it should not intervene in matters of religious conscience.  But we’ve only very recently come out of a period in which gender was regulated by the state. Until pretty recently, it was considered well within the state’s remit (indeed, possibly part of the state’s duty) to use things like marriage and pensions legislation to reinforce social norms on gender relationships. We need to establish that that isn’t the state’s role any more.

Informed Consent

Much as  I like him, I think John Dean of the Laurels GIC was responsible for giving the Committee a misleading view of this. As far as I’m aware, no trans person is seriously calling for hormones and surgery to be available on the NHS on instant demand. What we are saying, as the Committee’s report itself acknowledges, is that the current system is paternalistic, arbitrary and does not treat trans people as active participants in their own care, and that needs to be fundamentally re-thought.

How does the current system work in practice? Well, despite the fact that no-one has ever proved the existence of a gay gene, Dr James Barrett, consultant at the London GIC wrote a book in 2007 in which it’s pretty clear he believes homosexuality and gender variance are linked and run in families – so if you go to London GIC, you might well get asked if you’ve got any gay relatives. On the plus side, they’ll probably assess you and offer you hormones you in two appointments – provided you’ve got your deed poll sorted. The Laurels makes you have compulsory sessions of psychotherapy; Daventry will give you a physical exam and ask you to write your life history; Nottingham will make you bring a parent or a partner to an appointment; Sheffield needs to see you six times before it will consider hormones. The Laurels is known for being pretty supportive of non-binary options, but many of the others won’t consider (for example) chest surgery for AFAB people who don’t want to take testosterone, or else treat it as some extra special situation that requires extra sign-off.

Whether you want to talk about “informed consent”, “evidence based medicine”, “patient centred care” or any other buzzword of the day, the current system has nothing to do with individual patient needs. None of the requirements above have anything to do with the international standards of care the clinics say they work to – in fact, some of them explicitly contravene information in the standards (for example, the standards explicitly say you do not need to socially change role before starting hormones, but most clinics require this, or at least put you through the system faster if you have). They’re simply practices that have grown up over the years and turned into rules.

The NHS Constitution already includes the following right:

“You have the right to be involved in planning and making decisions about your health and care with your care provider or providers, including your end of life care, and to be given information and support to enable you to do this. Where appropriate, this right includes your family and carers. This includes being given the chance to manage your own care and treatment, if appropriate.”

If that was consistently met, I suspect we wouldn’t really be discussing informed consent, except as a philosophical issue. I know plenty of trans people who would be capable of managing their own care and treatment, and where it would be appropriate for them to do so. Just give us the rights the NHS has already said we should be guaranteed.

The cop-outs

Particularly where it came to young people and non-binary people, the Committee were very cautious. They did recognise there were problems, and in some cases proposed adjustments that would be helpful, but they often stopped short of concrete recommendations.

I think this comes back to the tendency to paternalism with regard to gender, which I’ve already outlined as being relevant to both the spousal veto and the GIC system. Neither medicine nor parliament seems quite ready to let go of the idea that it might know best about a person’s gender. And while the report does mark a shift, the shift is strongest for binary adults. There still seems to be a tendency to talk about non-binary people and young people as being potentially “confused”, and thus needing protecting from themselves.

There are two things to say to that. Firstly, a lot of the non-binary people and gender variant young people I know are extremely unconfused. Some non-binary people have been out and campaigning for recognition for years. Some young people have been saying the same thing about their gender, consistently, for years. It is unfair and patronising to treat them as confused, or to say that they need protection from themselves.

On a slightly separate point, the whole idea of people who are “confused” needing protection by making it harder for them to be recognised seems deeply flawed. It seems to me that the converse is true – they would be better protected if the law recognised that gender can be fluid, and it’s not the end of the world to change your mind. I change my mind regularly about whether I call myself gay or bisexual (although I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as confused on the subject, more hampered by terminology). I find it far more freeing that I am able to change my mind about how I describe myself, and am not expected to prove myself, or make a permanent commitment, than if I had to prove I was *really* a particular sexuality and intended to stay so permanently before I could be recognised as such.

Given that legal recognition is explicitly not tied to decisions such as surgery, and generally has pretty little relevance to anything any more, I say let people be confused. Let young people experiment and change their minds if that’s something they need to do. Let genderfluid people be fluid.

It’s time for the state to realise that its job is to promote gender equality, not control gender. The report shows we’re getting there – but we’re not there yet.


Dilemmas of Trans Living #2 – Somebody that I used to know

When I was eight, my best friend was – well, let’s call him James. We went to junior school together and were very close. We went on holiday together at one point, and were more or less inseparable. In fact, I think he was probably the best friend I ever had during my school life. That’s possibly because it was the last friendship I had before gender started getting in the way. I’ve said before that I didn’t have any sense of being a boy as a young child – my hair was long, I sometimes wore dresses, and I’m sure both James and I were clear that this was a friendship between a boy and a girl. But at the same time, I don’t recall feeling that the fact I was a girl and he was a boy especially mattered: it was a minor detail.

And then when I was about ten, my parents moved away. And James and I kept in touch for a while by letter, and then, being kids, got distracted by other things and the letters tailed off. Probably nowadays it would be easier: kids probably keep up with old friends by social media. But this would have been somewhere around 1995 and we didn’t have social media.

Cut forward 20 years, and I went up to my dad’s last week. And he told me he’d had a phonecall from James’s mum. My family have a distinctive surname, and my dad’s in the clergy, so he’s not that hard to track down. She’d got in contact, saying James had looked for me online and on Facebook a couple of times, and not been able to find me. Which isn’t surprising, because my name’s changed.

I don’t have pre-transition friends. Literally, none. I am not in contact with anyone not related to me who knew me before I was out. That sounds like it was a deliberate decision but it wasn’t, really: I didn’t get on with the other kids at secondary school, so didn’t keep in touch and I came out pretty much as soon as I started uni. So I’ve never really had to deal with the whole pre-transition friendships issue.

I had a look for James on Facebook myself. His name is more common than mine, so there were a few to go through, but I recognised his face as soon as I saw it. If I’m honest, I was checking out how tolerant he might be. No sign of any romantic relationships on his behalf (straight or queer) but he’s worked for an arts charity, which I reckon is probably unlikely to go hand in hand with rampant homophobia and transphobia.

Yesterday I sent an email to James, saying hi. I imagine contacting old school friends is a bit weird at the best of times; it’s weirder when they knew you as a little girl, and you’re emailing them as a thirty year-old man. I tried to keep the mention of my transition brief and factual, and then went straight on to my education, and my career history, and my boyfriend. I suppose I was trying to make it clear that other things have happened in the last twenty years too. But all the same, it feels awkward.

I’m also a bit nervy about what – if any – response I get from him. I don’t want to deal with crass questions about transition, but it’s natural he would have some. Or do we sort of end up making polite conversation because we both feel a bit awkward about it? What do we even have to talk about anyway? I’ll see when – if- he responds, I suppose

Dilemmas of Trans Living #1 – Passing and Stealth

I pass. I have done since very early on in my transition. That’s not something that happens because I work at it, or because I’m a good person. It’s an unearned privilege, and I guess like most unearned privileges, it’s something that I often feel uneasy about handling.

Unlike other unearned privileges, it is something that often gets directly raised. As far as I can recall, no-one has ever directly congratulated me for being white, or not disabled. But I do quite often get admiring comments, and even congratulations, for passing. “Oh, I never would have guessed”. “Well, you look really good now”. And the like. It comes from people who are trans and people who aren’t, and it’s rarely in a context where it’s appropriate to pause and give a lecture on why that’s not the right thing to say.

In any case, I’m not quite sure what it is I want to say. Politically, I don’t think people should be judged on their looks, and I think being trans is a good thing, so the fact that people don’t know I’m trans by looking at me should be an irrelevance. But of course, it isn’t. It does make things a hell of a lot easier. People accept me more readily as a man because I look like what they think a man should look like. I can sign for a parcel in boxer shorts and a baggy T-shirt, and I still get called sir. My bank doesn’t accuse me of fraud because of how my voice sounds on the phone. No-one hassles me in the street or on public transport.

In my old job I had been, by default, stealth. I didn’t tell anyone I was trans. But when I came back to uni, to study LGBT health, I had given up on being stealth. Obviously the team I’m in know what I’m studying. Whenever I write or talk about the background to my work, I talk about my background in running trans groups. I’ve got links to trans stuff all over my Facebook.  One of my supervisors is trans, we have loud discussions in the office I share with someone else, and in the corridor. I advised another colleague about including trans questions on a survey. I was out… I thought.

And then at the office Christmas lunch I was sitting with a group of colleagues, and we were discussing names: what their parents had called them and why. And someone asked me a question about my name, and it became blatantly obvious that none of them had any idea I was trans. I said I’d changed my name, but ducked the question of why. And I felt guilty about doing so, because I think I ought to be out, but at the same time the Christmas lunch isn’t really the place to do it, because it either kills the conversation stone dead, or else takes it down inappropriate routes.

So New Year’s resolution – or at least, goal – is to come out. Again. And to remember that coming out is continuous disclosure, not a one off

Trans Inquiry – Session 4

So I watched the final session of the trans inquiry today (a bit piecemeal, as I was nipping in and out of meetings, so I didn’t see it all live). Today it was the evidence from the ministers, so I was going to blog about  what they said. Then I went off to a rather different kind of meeting, a meeting of a university student trans and non-binary group, a place where students can talk about gender issues. Most of the students who attend are 18, 19, 20 years old. I doubt any of them have watched any of the trans inquiry, nor submitted evidence.

So I’m not going to just talk about what the ministers said. I’m going to compare what they said to the conversations I had 2 hours later. (All names are pseudonyms)

  • Ministers said they were on a “journey” with regard to understanding trans identities. They want to listen and understand. They sort of acknowledged that there may be some issues around non-binary identities in terms of recognition and equality protection and they were open to looking at it, but it would take time. They outlined the guidance they make available to employers, though they acknowledged guidance isn’t always taken on board.

Cass was leading the group meeting that evening and explained to the group that they have a gender fluid identity: some days they present as masculine, some days as feminine, and some days as androgynous. They have no intention of medically transitioning. Cass is in their final year of uni. In about six months, they will be applying for jobs. At the moment, Cass is not guaranteed any protection against employment (or any other) discrimination regarding their gender presentation.

  • NHS England Commissioners explained that they were working on “growing capacity” in gender identity services, will “model through” service demand and had made progress in improving stakeholder relationships. They were taking clinical advice on how gender services should assess patients, and were working on developing GP awareness of referral routes.

Two hours later, Katie said she didn’t feel that ready to talk to medical professionals re: transition and wasn’t sure what, if any, medical interventions she wanted. I advised her that the waiting list for the GICs in her region ranged between 12 months and 3 years, so she might be best off asking to go on a waiting list now, even though she didn’t really feel ready to talk to her GP. And Sarah told the group that because she’d written the date of her gender clinic appointment down wrong, she’d now been discharged, and would have to be re-referred.

  • Ministers said that they were determined to tackle hate crime, and were interested in hearing about any legislative changes that might be helpful. They needed to do more training to ensure that police are always supportive and believing to victims of transphobic abuse. They didn’t know what the current conviction rate was

Rose told us that, once again, she’d had abuse shouted at her in the street. This has been an ongoing issue for Rose for some years, to the extent that she largely treats this as routine. I’ve encouraged her to report, but she’s reluctant.

  • Ministers were “interested in hearing the evidence” for changing passport application procedures and allowing non-binary recognition. They stressed that a passport is a travel document

Again, Cass will be applying for jobs in 6 months time. To do that, they will need to show a passport or a birth certificate (despite the statement that a passport is a travel document). They would prefer to describe themselves as something other than male or female.

  • Ministers said that gender was very important in terms of identification but they were open to listening as to whether less focus was needed on gender, and open to debate on self-identification. They thought gender was important for monitoring issues like equality in education. They thought some trans people might need time to adjust and make decisions regarding living in their permanent gender, and might need medical support. They stressed the obligation to protect personal data re gender change.

Katie asked me why it cost £140 to have her gender recognised in the UK. She asked why it was assumed she needed time to consider how she wanted to have her gender recorded since, after all, it wouldn’t do irreversible harm if she did decide later she wanted paperwork changed again. As already noted, she’s going to have to wait at least a year for medical support anyway. She was worried about approaching tutors to start the process of getting gender records in the uni changed, since she wasn’t sure they’d understand their duties regarding recognising her change of details and keeping this private. It is also worth noting that the UK government manages to monitor the impact of issues such as ethnicity and socioeconomic status on Katie’s educational participation without requiring her to write it on her exam scripts nor have these details centrally and permanently recorded.

  • Ministers said they had struggled to find and talk to partners of transitioning people, and that they understood that marriages were personal and sensitive area. However, they thought changing gender could be a significant change in the basis of the marriage, and some partners might need protection.

Cass and Sarah’s girlfriends both said that they were happy with their partners’ trans/genderfluid identities, and that this had not caused them to rethink their relationships. Conversely, another (non-trans) couple I know have recently broken up because one of them took a job far away. Transitioning is something that may make a significant difference to a relationship: so is changing from a cohabiting to a long-distance relationship. I am unclear why the government feels the need to decide for people what counts as a fundamental change in their relationships.

If I’m honest, after first watching the ministerial session of Trans Inquiry through, I was mildly positive. The right noises were made, there seemed to be some willingness to budge. After spending the evening with young trans people, I’m embarrassed by how little I was willing to settle for. And I’m embarrassed that I’ve been having these same conversations with young trans people for over a decase now. I shouldn’t be telling them that this is the way the system is, and change will happen but it will be slow, and take time. They deserve better. They should be angry, and we should be angry on their behalf.

Gender Recognition for All

The case of Tara Hudson, a trans woman sentence to be imprisoned in a UK men’s prison is unjust. Not only is it patently wrong and unsafe for someone who has been living as a woman for several years to be placed in a male prison, it also goes against existing guidelines. I hope that this turns out to be an error, and is quickly corrected.

However, it brings into sharp focus the issues with the UK’s current gender recognition process. Before I start, I should say that I do not know the specific details of Tara Hudson’s circumstances, and I do not know what factors lie behind her not seeking legal gender recognition, or a female passport. But I do believe that the UK gender recognition is less accessible to trans people who are socially marginalised or facing multiple sources of discrimination, and I believe that social marginalisation and multiple sources of discrimination disproportionately affect trans people in prison.

The problems are:

  • Applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate costs money. It costs £140. There is a fee remission scheme, but it is rather complex. The guidance notes run to 31 pages, including explanations of what a “contrary interest” is, and how to correctly apply a “disposable capital test” and a “gross monthly income test”. I would consider myself highly literate and fairly numerate, and it took me a couple of readings and a few minutes with a calculator to work out whether a friend of mine could get a partial discount. If English was not your first language, you had poor literacy/numeracy skills and/or you simply don’t like paperwork, I think you would struggle.
  • Getting together the paperwork for a GRC can cost money. You need two medical reports, and doctors can charge you to provide them. That can run to £50 a report, maybe more. You also need to pay £5-10 for a statutory declaration in front of a solicitor.
  • You need to provide at least two years’ evidence that you have been living in your acquired gender. If you have moved repeatedly, especially between temporary/shared accommodation, been kicked out by family members/former partners, had a disaster such as a fire or a flood, or are someone who doesn’t cope well with paperwork, you may not have two years’ worth of evidence readily available (those transitioned for less than two years are not eligible to apply at all.)
  • The Panel can ask for more information if they don’t think you have sent enough, or see what you have sent through as in some ways unconventional or contradictory. One example is that they have a tendency to ask for more information where an applicant has recently had a child. That may mean gathering more paperwork, paying for more medical reports, and writing more letters. Some people simply give up.
  • If you are legally married or in a civil partnership, you will also need your partner to complete paperwork, and/or may need to formally end the relationship, and/or convert a civil partnership into a marriage.
  • Non binary people are not recognised at all
  • You need to know and understand the above information, and apply it correctly. There are still many trans people who do not know gender recognition is possible at all, or think getting a new passport is the same as gender recognition. For most day to day purposes, gender recognition is not in fact relevant. It can however turn up very suddently and bite people on the arses in fairly dramatic ways: when they’re sentenced to prison; when the validity of their marriage is questioned; when their ex-partner claims sexual assault

As it happens, I have got gender recognition. But I’m someone who files his old bank statements, who knows pretty much what a GRC is and how to apply for one, and who can find £140 without it leaving me short on basic necessities.A gender recognition system that works for people like me, and excludes the trans people who are likely to need it most is not fit for purpose.

Narratives of Trans maculine Identity #4

There’s been a little bit of a hiatus with these, partly because I’ve been distracted with the UK Parliamentary Inquiry into trans issues and various other media issues but also partly because I think this next bit of narrative is the one most potentially open to misunderstanding. However, I do want to include it.

To recap for anyone who hasn’t read the earlier posts on this (stories one, two and three), I’m giving short little stories which show how aspects of my “trans story” could be narrated. Sometimes they’re things other people have said to me, sometimes they’re things I’ve wondered about myself. Afterwards I discuss them.

This one’s the sex story.

Story Four:

My earliest memories of thinking about sex were always been about myself as a man, with a man. I fantasized about men having sex before I knew exactly what men did together (my parents told me where babies came from when I was about two, we watched sex education videos in school from ten onwards, but I was told about anal sex in the playground by classmates when I was about eleven). I used to have male fantasy alter egos, which tended to have names which started with a particular letter. When I picked my final name as a male, I deliberately chose one which has the same initial.

I can’t remember ever thinking about sex involving women before I transitioned, except for having a crush on a very butch member of my year group when I was about 17 (but I think that was more because I sort of hoped she might be a trans man too). Funnily enough since that point, my sexual fantasies have become much more diverse, though I’ve only ever had relationships with men.


I think in part the reason why I’ve been a bit uncomfortable about this one is because there is such a strong history in the trans community of insisting that sexuality and gender identity are entirely different. On an intellectual level, I don’t think that’s true. Sexuality and gender identity are certainly not exactly the same thing, but they’re not absolutely separate either.

However, often trans people are very keen to stress the distinction between sexuality and gender identity because sexuality has been inappropriately used to categorise us. If a trans woman gave the same sort of story as me in reverse, it would be open to categorisation as “autogynephilia”. That’s an extremely controversial concept, which has received a lot of criticism from trans people, which basically holds that trans women who are bisexual or lesbian are really just living out some kind of fetishistic fantasy about having sex as a women. Among the arguments against it are that there’s no absolutely evidence that subdividing trans people based on who they are attracted to is meaningful or useful, unless maybe you’re trying to set people up with dates, and some rather clever research by Moser which has pointed out that (rather obviously) a lot of non-trans women are turned on by the thought of having sex as women.

There has been a lot less focus on trans masculine sexuality, possibly because the early writers on trans people seem to have largely assumed trans men were very rare and largely just some kind of extreme butch lesbian; possibly because there is just generally more of a voyeuristic gaze on trans women. Nonetheless, I think there is still in general a tendency to insist that who we are attracted to develops entirely separately from our own gender identity. And for me, I personally don’t think that’s true. That’s not to say who I’m attracted to is the whole of my gender identity: it isn’t. But I do believe there is some kind of connection.

Channel Four – “Girls To Men

So I contacted Ofcom yesterday about the Channel 4 programme ‘Girls to Men’

One of the participants within the show has raised major concerns that the programme as produced was not what they thought they was agreeing to participate in, and that old footage was used in a way they had not intended. This person has explained this eloquently in his own words and I’m not going to attempt to speak for them.

I had wider problems with the show. In fact, let’s start a level further up still. Channel 4 has badged this show as part of its ‘Born in the Wrong Body’ season. Many trans people do feel that ‘born in the wrong body’ is a useful way to summarise their experiences, and that’s absolutely their prerogative. I do not feel it is useful to describe me. In fact, I tend to think it’s unhelpful. There’s about eleven stone of me (I’m trying to make it ten stone, but that’s another story). The sections of my body that I wasn’t that happy about were a pretty small part of the whole. In fact, the bits of my body I was most unhappy with were my breasts, and I emphatically was not born with them. As for my body now: I have two feet: they’re my feet. I have two hands: they’re my hands. I have one liver: it’s my liver. You get the picture: I believe that my body is my body.

And in fact, being unhappy about my body was really never the major issue for me, it was the social and cultural expectations that go with that. Screening a series of documentaries about trans people under the title ‘Born in the Wrong Body’ implies all trans people identify in that way and we don’t. Indeed, All About Trans, an organisation that was involved in making one of the programmes in the series, has stated via social media that it did not know the ‘Born in the Wrong Body’ subtitle would be used, and objected when they found out about it. So it’s not simply a problem with finding language that all trans people are happy with (which admittedly can be difficult), they also specifically used language that they knew the trans people they had been working with did not like.

Down a level – the title of the programme, ‘Girls To Men’. Well, immediately this seems to clash with the ‘Born in the Wrong Body’ way of thinking. Born in the wrong body tends to be associated with a view that trans men were always male, they were simply in the wrong body. ‘Girls to Men’ clearly suggests they were once girls. Both views are controversial and not shared by everyone. It is clear from the link I gave above that at least some participants did not appreciate being described as ‘Girls to Men’, and that that should have been obvious to producers. Additionally, it’s simply unnecessary – the participants seem to have agreed to participate under the title of ‘Testosterone Diaries’, which seems to me to be pretty inoffensive. The obvious reason for change was sensationalism.

The actual trans men in it came across very well, as articulate, pleasant young men. They were mostly treated sensitively, though there were two specific sections I was unhappy with. One was where a 17 year old was placed in an apparently staged and rather aggressive discussion with someone who referred to transmen as ‘glorified dykes’. There seemed no obvious editorial reason for this, and I don’t think it meets welfare duties to a young participant. The other was where a guy who’d just come out of surgery was filmed in his hospital bed, saying that it hurt to breathe and he’d never want to go through that surgery again. That seems to show a lack of regard for his welfare – if he was in that much pain, why was the cameraman filming him rather than going to find the nurse? It also seems an unfair representation of his overall decision to have surgery (especially since C4 issued a screenshot of this moment and the dialogue as a standalone image via Twitter). Many pregnant women would probably say ‘never again’ if you interview them straight after labour – that does not mean that they do not in fact want more children, or that they regret having their baby.

The major problem was the overall focus of the show, reinforced by the narration. Again and again we got images of surgery, discussion of surgery, images of packers, injections going in. We got photos of the participants prior to their transition, references to their old names, and every other sentence seemed to be ‘X used to be a girl’. The narrator also told us a young couple “considered themselves to be heterosexual”. I wonder if the narrator would be happy to be described as “considering himself to be” his preferred sexual identity term, or would he see that as somewhat invalidating?

Channel 4 have said they hope the show raises awareness – awareness raising is not helpful if it raises awareness of precisely the wrong thing. Most trans men do not want people constantly asking them about their surgery, asking them about their old names, asking for old photos of them. They do not want to continuously be described as “previously a girl” (especially if this is not how they identified at all). Including this in a documentary encourages the view that this is socially acceptable, when in fact it is rude and insensitive. Again, it seems that at least the participant who spoke out (and most likely others) had made this clear to the programme-makers.

There were also a number of medical ‘facts’ provided in the programme in very absolute terms which are at best unproven, at worst simply false. We were told testosterone makes you infertile. Except Channel 4 itself has screened at least two previous documentaries about guys getting pregnant after several years on T. Testosterone may well affects your fertility (though even here I don’t think there’s much quality evidence) but stating that it makes you infertile is patently incorrect. It’s also highly irresponsible, since some viewers may incorrectly conclude that trans men do not need to use contraception.

We were told mastectomy (not most trans guys’ preferred term) is a highly risky procedure. Not true. Major complications in a planned operation on otherwise young healthy patients are always possible but pretty rare. There is a risk of loss of nipple (the only specific example of the ‘high risks’ which was given) but that risk can be significantly reduced by healthy choices such as not smoking. In any case, many trans men would consider losing a nipple less significant that remaining with breast tissue.

We were told testosterone raises the risk of ovarian cancer. This has been a theory for a while. It’s certainly possible, and health policy in the UK take a ‘better safe than sorry’ line on this. But since there are no reliable stats on cancer in trans men, the statement about increased risk is based on theory and a few anecdotes. It should have been qualified with ‘may’ or ‘possibly’

The really sad thing is that we’ve had these conversations before. I complained to Ofcom (the broadcasting regulator) five years ago about an otherwise sensitively made Channel 4 programme that misrepresented young trans people’s gender. Ofcom did conclude (after a couple of challenges) that using terminology in the narration which the participants might not like could come across as insensitive or offensive (well, duh!) and at the very least the programme-makers should have given some explanation or justification. Organisations like All About Trans and TransMediaWatch have gone out of their way to talk to media organisations about these issues. Media representation of trans people has been raised repeatedly within Parliament.

Thus far, Channel 4 is being bullish. It claims that it is proud of the programme, and participants gave their consent. However, consent is not as simple as signing a one-off form to agree documentary footage can be used. The Ofcom code makes it clear that participants should understand the purpose of the show, and be informed about changes that might materially affect their consent. In my view, if you take even the most sensitively shot documentary footage in the world (which Girls To Men was not) and screen it under a misrepresentative title, or overlay an objectional narrative, or edit hours of complex discussion down to a focus on surgery and genitals or a couple of shots of someone with his shirt off, those are changes which could materially invalidate consent.

The other thing to point out is that Channel 4 are, ultimately, shooting themselves in the foot (as well as, of course, damaging us). Trans people are not going to positively engage with them if they keep misrepresenting and sensationalising our lives. Instead, we end up with a downward spiral where few trans people will work with them, so they target naïve or young participants, who may later feel misrepresented, so even fewer trans people engage, and so on. It’s not like Channel 4 are short of people trying to have these conversations. It’s not like they didn’t have people they could have called for advice once it became clear that there was a controversy. They need to start rethinking how they engage with communities.

X passports

So the trans parliamentary inquiry discussed the issue of X gender passports today. I have to admit, I’m still somewhat puzzled by why this needs debating. The international rules allows them. Australia issues them. As far as I know, Australian border control has not collapsed into anarchy. All that has happened is some people have a passport that better suits their identity.

This is particularly important as, in practice, passports are not simply a travel document. To work in the UK, you have to show either a passport or a birth certificate, and both those documents show gender. It is not possible to get a job without showing a document to your employer describing you as male or female, even if you don’t identify in that way. This is despite the fact that there are very, very few circumstances where a UK employer needs to make a technical distinction between employees on the grounds of gender.

The UK government has given a sort of response to why it won’t issue X passports, but it seems rather muddled.

Issue 1 is that it’s expensive to update the computer systems. That’s probably true, though their estimate of £1 million seems a bit on the high side – can’t they tie it in with some other updates?

Issue 2 is a series of be several waffle-y points about people might select X accidentally, or select X and then be offended if they are treated as non-gendered or asked about their gender by border control, or gendered people might ask to be listed as X, or if trans people ask to be listed as X it might contravene their rights to not disclose their trans identity. I don’t think any of this constitutes a reason why adult human beings shouldn’t be trusted to take a decision about what gender option they want to be listed as. Rather oddly, they also state that a reason not to have an X gender is that other people might ask whether listing gender is proportionate. If the passport office can’t justify listing gender as proportionate, then why are we even having this debate?

Issue 3 is the risk that people might be stopped at the borders of non-LGBT+ friendly countries and harassed. That undoubtedly is a risk. But it’s a risk for me now. If I fly into one of those countries, and the border control there decide they need to search me, they will probably work out that my anatomy is not conventionally male. In fact, last time I went abroad I ended up getting down to my T-shirt and pants with border control. As trans and non-binary people, we already have to take decisions about our safety when we go abroad.

Issue 4 is a question of how people would prove that they are non-binary, because apparently ‘self-identification would not be appropriate’. I think this is also, in a roundabout kind of way, touching on the unspecified ‘security’ and ‘identity’ and ‘fraud’ issues mentioned elsewhere in the report (and also hinted at when the Parliamentary Inquiry mentioned that US border control might not think X gender passports met their identity standards).

I am unconvinced that gender is a particularly useful marker for preventing fraud. If I were a male criminal, and I was stealing or counterfeiting passports for nefarious purposes, is getting a specifically male passport that high an additional barrier? Random selection gives me a fifty: fifty chance, and presumably I could to some extent target my passport-stealing activity to tip the odds further in my favour.

I think the conversation we are not quite having here is probably that border control operates risk algorithms, and those probably assume that men are more likely to be terrorists and criminals. I think if that is the issue, we might as well actually discuss it. Firstly, on a pragmatic level, it doesn’t seem to me all that likely that we would have a rush of criminals and terrorists seeking to register themselves as X in the hopes of circumventing the algorithms, especially given the current system is scarcely foolproof at preventing bad guys from flying. In any case, for the purposes of behind-the-scenes risk calculations, you could presumably treat the (probably relatively small number of) X passports as being the same risk level as M, at least until more detailed data emerges.

More philosophically, there are probably many pieces of data the US security services would like to be able to collect and use about people entering the States. What colour is your skin? Are you a Muslim? Have you ever belonged to the British Communist Party, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals? Got a criminal record? Ever smoked dope? Who are your friends? That doesn’t mean the UK government should oblige everyone to have that information recorded on their passport. There is a balance to be struck between privacy and public protection, but it’s not okay to take that out on minority groups without at least having an open discussion about it.