One Saturday afternoon in September I became a book; a living book in a human library. I hadn’t heard of human libraries before; apparently they date back to the Summer 2000 Roskilde Festival. They’re all about breaking down barriers. “Take out your prejudices” potential ‘readers’ are urged. They mean it literally; living books offer readers the rare opportunity to engage openly with people whose voices are usually drowned out by the rhetoric of the Daily Mail.
The human library organised by St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace took place during the St Barnabas Community Fête which, since 2003, has been held annually in Mile End Park. Known locally as ‘Bowstock’, it’s not your average church fête. It’s styled as “a non-religious, participatory, free and not-for-profit festival organised by local people” with a mission “to break down social barriers”. In recent years it has participated in projects such as The Future Laboratory’s ‘Living Britain’ study commissioned by Zurich Financial Services Group, and has worked with Professor Margaret Harris, Chair of the Centre for Voluntary Action Research at the Aston Business School.
First of all though I had to choose a title for my book; that was a problem. How could I possibly sum up the path I had travelled over the last ten years in just a few words? ‘Reluctant transgender activist’ was by no means perfect, but it came closer than any other label I thought of and at least hints at the dilemma I found myself facing some years ago.
“What dilemma?” Well for me the answer to that lies in an A Level English Literature syllabus. Dick Diver, the protagonist in F Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender is the Night’, was a man who knew that “the price of his intactness was incompleteness”. When I first read that phrase in a classroom in a grammar school in Essex, I had no idea how it would still resonate 30 years later. However I doubt I will be the only member of the transgender community to identify with the truth it holds; we cannot be complete unless we are true to ourselves, but being true to ourselves involves personal risk; order and balance fly out of the window.
The dangers are not imagined. Research published by the Equalities Review chronicles a history of exclusion from family and home, the workplace, from public spaces and in accessing healthcare services. In the largest survey of its kind, 45% of respondents reported that gender variant behaviour contributed to the breakdown of a relationship, 23% either lost their job or left because they felt their position was untenable, more than 36% were subjected to inappropriate comments in public and in more than 15% of cases, medical treatment was denied or delayed because doctors or nurses did not approve of gender reassignment. It’s hardly surprising if transgender people delay the decision to transition; in its 2011 update on the number of gender variant people in the UK, GIRES (the Gender Identity Research and Education Society) reports that the median age of those presenting themselves for treatment for gender dysphoria is 42.
But transgender people always seem to get left behind: government has been particularly slow to recognise or respect transgender identity. In 1970 the House of Lords ruled in effect that, for the purposes of getting married, the sex of the bride and groom was determined by their birth certificates. On that basis, April Ashley’s marriage to Arthur Cameron Corbett, subsequently the third Baron Rowallan, was a nullity. It took 35 years and the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights to introduce a mechanism for amending birth certificates. Similarly guidelines on the detention of transgender prisoners, which the Home Office began to review in 1996, were not published until March 2011. Equal rights in the workplace were delivered in stages; those who had undergone, were undergoing or intended to undergo a process of gender reassignment benefited from the Sex Discrimination (Gender Reassignment) Regulations 1999. Those who did not intend, or were unable, to present for surgical intervention had to wait for the Equalities Act 2010. It was the same Act which finally outlawed discrimination against transgendered people when providing goods and services, but it’s worth noting that similar discrimination against gay or disabled people had already been unlawful for some time.
The bad news is that bigotry against transgender people seems to be increasing. Figures published by ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers) show that although the number of reported hate crimes decreased during 2010, year on year transgender hate crime increased by approximately 13%. Should we be surprised? Public perception of transgender people is informed by a media that reinforces stereotypes; we remain a focus for ridicule. Who can forget the monstrous Emily Howard from BBC TV’s Little Britain? Newspapers pandering to the prurient interests of their audience are equally insensitive of transgender identity. Misgendering (addressing a transwomen as “Sir” and applying male pronouns and vice versa for transmen), is commonplace as is the disclosure of previous names. Transgender lived experience is sensationalised in pejorative terms and salient facts such as the cost to the taxpayer of medical treatment under the NHS, are routinely exaggerated or otherwise misrepresented.
So how does this relate to a community fête in the east end of London? While transgender people welcome the progress represented by recent legislation, the fight for equality and justice is far from over. The advances we have gained have been secured in the main by a small group of determined people who risked much when public opinion was even more firmly set against us, but there are still those who continue to oppose transgender identity and who seek to stand in the way of further progress. Transgender people cannot afford to be complacent about their hard won freedoms; the need to celebrate and champion transgender lived experience is as great as ever. But if I expect someone else to champion my rights, do I not have a responsibility to champion theirs? Selfishly, it’s something I would rather not have to do; it’s not an easy life. As I told those few people whom I talked to in Mile End Park in September, I guess I’m just a reluctant transgender activist.