Around eight years ago I started to seek solid backing for my campaigning work, which was based around legitimising and authenticating trans lives and identities within our education system, principally looking at our visibility, safety and proud presence within the design of school buildings, library content and the curriculum.
It felt like a bold new day was beginning. Of course I wasn’t the first; I stood on the shoulders of giants such as Press For Change’s Stephen Whittle, Christine Burns and the brilliant journalist Paris Lees, but it was the dawning of an era in which trans people could be themselves without shame, without hiding, without constantly trying to please others by hiding their processes or their desire to exist with or without surgery or intervention. We felt that finally we wouldn’t have to constantly explain.
The global mantras of ‘be the best you can be’ and ‘be true to yourself’ seemed to have real meaning and traction for the trans community and trans kids wishing to be honest and open in school. Day by day, week by week, I witnessed shards of enlightened space open up and people – trans people – starting to breathe easy.
We had a ‘tipping point’. We had books and shows and lead characters. We had support. We had Laverne Cox. We had broad support from faith schools, political parties and leaders. There was a shared feeling that trans people, students, teachers, parents could all aspire and dream about futures unfettered by the huge welts of discrimination that had previously misshaped our hopes and lives.
We also seemed – pre and post tipping point – to be a vital cog in the ongoing battle against gender stereotypes and the damage they do, which is so endemic across society. We, the trans community, seemed to offer a different way to encounter and occupy gender – if we could change and challenge that then perhaps we could address all the ‘hetronormative white books’ in the library. As a writer and campaigner I felt that not only were we achieving acceptance but we had real value. We mattered. We were gaining a platform built on respect as well as kindness.
Then something changed. People started to ask more questions about the spaces in which trans bodies, they felt, might collide with theirs, with others, with cis bodies. How would we manage the spaces in which we might mix; toilets, changing rooms, prisons, swimming pools, marriages, beds, dating? The question of how would we keep these spaces safe started to become a narrative – first innocent and then toxic.
Often I’d sit in a room discussing trans pupils and their aspirations, and the toilet issue would come up. Somehow the trans pupil, often between the ages of eight and 15, would change from being brave and wonderful, to being perceived as a danger – a potential rapist, aggressor, abuser or assaulter. I defended these pupils, feeling that people would realise the spite inherent in their often hysterical unfounded fears. And so I would bat back and forth: the facts we had that there had been no cases of trans children abusing others, in fact quite the opposite; trans kids being bullied right across schools; trans kids dropping out of school and becoming fearful non-attendees. I felt that if I presented the truth and a sense of moral reality around these brave kids, then there would be an end to the panic and a sense and sensibility would be restored. But then the insidious concept of ‘trans femme as dishonest male danger’ started to grow legs and leave the playground, the myth splashed across the news.
It only takes one voice to make that happen.
When I transitioned as a teacher, only a single person complained – just one – but had they wanted to they could have gone to the local paper and ended my career. Look at the tragic hounding of Lucy Meadows, which started with a single complaint. That voice grew into many but their evidential basis stayed the same – empty, scant, specious. We the trans community had truth and historical struggle on our side, but due to systemic discrimination we also had little quantitative evidence, other than the personal, the lived and the anecdotal, as well as a few small qualitative studies that were easily brushed off.
The voices that were growing against us having a right to, say, self-identify had a field day as they realised they could gain traction by creating headlines long crafted in the right-wing press: ‘trans woman as predator to children in Topshop changing rooms’, ‘transsexual predator gaining entry to a women’s prison’ – quick and easy to craft and place. And there’s the rub – papers like the Daily Mail exist by printing hate and untruths, by printing myths about the EU, Brexit, immigrants and gay people. All that had to happen was the transphobic ‘spreaders’ had to sell their souls to join up with the far-right media they had long since despised.
They now have easy access to a massive space that operates far from truth. By twisting the facts and presenting convoluted data (are they sexual predators or vulnerable prisoners – who knows, who cares?) they can peddle seemingly believable lies and myths by claiming either innocent investigation – made easier because there is little readily accessible evidence – or that the readership isn’t looking for truth anyway, so there is no question of not being able to sell lies.
We cannot win in this space by trying to debunk every falsehood – we only end up in a space created for lies and sustained by myths. It horrified Sir Brian Leveson who described the trans community as being subjected to “disturbing and intrusive reporting” in his report on press conduct. When we take on these lies we enter a realm in which we are already the money shot, packaged up years ago as ‘mad men in dresses’ – a trope so out of fashion it’s taken the respectability of feminism and the deep-seated ‘fear of the penis’ to not only resurrect but sanctify the myth.
Two worlds have wilfully collided and colluded to fight their great fight against us. The basis is not fact but fuzzy myths – lies are woven, data is crafted to appear fleetingly as brave honesty, free speech and fearful facts and our rebuttals are simply packaged as the privilege of men. Apparently, we are so misogynistic we can’t even see it. This battle is not concerned with truth or even locating truth – and the further away from truth it gets the more it works for the side with power. We have no power, or very little, so trying to debunk the non-debunkable from a place of weakness is an impossible, soul-destroying task.
It’s destroying our ability to live our lives, reducing us to battle-tired soldiers, bogged down in knee-high toxic mythology. Like quicksand, the more we fight the deeper we sink. I know we’re tired, and that we are worth far, far more than this. History will judge them and reward us, eventually.
We need allies and lots of them, we need to know that we are creating fine lines of history by existing and that those lines have an inherent honesty to them. We need to speak of our human experience, of the beauty in our lives and the impact for good we have in society. We need not to get drawn into long winding alleyways in which myth resides with great comfort. Our silence may just start to work for us in terms of these particular debates.
Solidarity dear trans and non binary brothers, sisters and siblings.