Saturday, 28 January 2017

Why Trump's attitude towards refugees and immigrants worries me as a Lutheran Christian

"The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself". Leviticus 19:34.

What a week it has been in the political whirlwind that is Trump's US Presidency. There's so much wrong policy wise that I could talk about, it'd take me days to explain but there's one particular aspect of Trump's platform that worries me greatly. That relating to refugees and immigration. It worries me because I think about Trump has managed to do in the US and what his fellow far-right conservatives want to try and do in the UK. A proposal was floated by the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, at the Conservative Conference that called for businesses to keep a register of all immigrants working in their firms post-Brexit to check whether they were legal or not, regardless of whether their legal status and documents had already been checked prior to commencing their job. If you're from an EU country, you currently have the right to remain and work in the UK provided you show your passport and qualifications. Those from outside the EU who are skilled workers are subject to Tier 2 immigration laws, which means they need to have a certificate of sponsorship prior to entering the UK and legitimate businesses (who need to be licenced Tier 2 sponsors) will check their passport, visa and qualification documentation thoroughly. Ms Rudd also talked about tests being tightened for UK companies so they find it tougher to recruit from abroad, saying effectively that "immigrants are taking jobs British people could do". Suffice to say that the speech has been treated as a " non-crime hate incident" by West Midlands Police and I'm not particularly surprised by that. What Ms Rudd might say is a "British job" may differ from PM Theresa May and what Mrs May sees as a "British job" might differ from UKIP's leader Paul Nuttall or god forbid, Nigel Farage. The worst part of Ms Rudd's speech was that she failed to address an important issue; that of the exploitation of workers in sweatshops and on farms as a result of rogue gang masters and agencies taking advantage of a workers' desperation. These agencies pay their workers below the minimum wage, withhold their passports and other legal documentation in a bid to stop them from attaining work elsewhere or to stop them reporting the agencies to the police.  I do feel the Government has more work to do to prosecute rogue gangmasters and agencies to save immigrant workers from exploitation and to help those workers get into sustainable jobs in the UK so they can support themselves and their families rather than deporting them. After all, it wasn't their fault. I'm glad the proposal for a registry has now been dropped by the Conservative Government but I remain cautious as the mood within the Conservative party turns towards tightening immigration controls post-Brexit.

I'm not sure that the UK will remain entirely committed to taking in 20,000 Syrian refugees before 2020. I'm not sure whether Mrs May wants to tighten controls to make it more difficult for political and religious refugees to claim asylum in the UK, especially if they are being persecuted for being LGBTQIA, as they currently can under Article 3 of the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) which says that "no one shall be subjected to torture or inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment." As the Refugee Council have noted, in the UK in 2015, 14, 832 asylum seekers were locked up in detention centres, half of them detained during the asylum process and 154 of them were children. Since 2005, refugees are only allowed to stay in the UK for a maximum of 5 years. That's not long enough for them to make decisions about their future-whether to study for a degree, get a job etc. They have to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (IRR) (ironically my Mum has this as a Norwegian citizen adopted by a British Citizen) but still it's a lot of paperwork and such a request may be less likely to be granted post-Brexit. As a Christian living in the UK, I want to see a change in legislation so that refugees who want to stay in the UK can do so indefinitely without having to apply for IRR and to make sure that child asylum seekers do not end up being imprisoned in detention centres, especially if they already have family in the UK.

Now Trump....

Trump seems to have an irrational fear of migrants. He's obsessed with building a wall to keep Mexican illegal immigrants out and doesn't seem to care that the £15bn cost will be paid by working and middle class American consumers as the 20% proposed tax on Mexican imports get slapped onto the retail price. More disturbingly, Trump seems intent on keeping Muslims immigrants and refugees from entering the US, especially if they happen to come from Middle Eastern Countries.
Trump has signed a 90 day Executive Order immigration and visa ban against 7 Muslim majority countries. Trump has also banned all refugee admissions for 120 days and bans Syrian refugees indefinitely. Obama's refugee quota for 2017 has been slashed by less than half. All supposedly in the name of National Security to reduce Terrorist threats. You know the most telling part of his immigration policy is that Trump is going to try and make exceptions for Christian refugees, such as the Yazidis from Syria so he can grant them visas to come and resettle in the US. This policy smacks of a veiled attempt to try and retain the US's supposed "Christian purity" despite the fact there is meant to be some level of separation between Church and State; it is engrained within the US Constitution. Discriminating against refugees on the basis of religious belief also happens to violate the UN Constitution on Human Rights but judging by the New US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley's speech yesterday, I don't think the Trump administration really cares (she's gathering the names of ambassadors who are willing to oppose Trump's policies for the UN because they won't "back him". Very thin-skinned and petulant course of action I think).

It's disgusting to think that Trump has no compassion for those Muslims fleeing persecution because the way they practice their faith does actually differ from that of the radical fundamentalist Islam terrorists. Very few Muslim refugees or immigrants want to throw white gay conservatives off a building (I don't know any Muslim who would) because they've seen ISIS do it to gay Muslims in Iraq and Syria. Very few Muslim immigrants want to rape a young white woman in the street because they've seen their wives and daughters or friends raped in the street by ISIS terrorists. I can't even begin to comprehend what effect witnessing such barbarity in the flesh has on your mental health but to be then told by a man who has very little knowledge of Islam that he views you as the enemy, as a "threat" to his country's national security, just because a few Muslim men who sought asylum (or pretended to) have committed suicide attacks and rapes in Europe and the US? It's extremely irrational to me as a Lutheran to accept that it's OK to demonise people based on a generic understanding of their religious beliefs. Besides, doesn't Mr Trump know there are plenty of white evangelical Christian men who do this, even to their own wives? Ask those who have survived rape on college campuses about their ordeals and you'll find that Christian men and women commit such acts even though they claim to be devout followers of Christ.  As a Christian, I have always believed deliberate espousal of divisive rhetoric against a different religious group is fundamentally at odds with Christian teaching. I'm not a radical fundamentalist Islamic terrorist apologist but neither am I a radical evangelical Christian apologist. I think we should lock anyone up that commits a heinous crime such as a white supremacist murdering innocent African-American worshippers in a church in Charleston or an ISIS sympathiser murdering nightclub goers in Orlando, Florida. Both are equally to blame for their actions and you cannot demonise one extreme form of religion without demonising others. Those who say that Christians in the US commit less murders than Muslims really need to get their head out their bigoted arse and look at trying to reduce the murder rate as a whole. Using religious belief as a weapon to hurt others in some vain attempt to make a country safer are just deluding themselves.

What does the Bible say about refugees?

You know evangelical Christians are quick to point out Biblical verses that support their pro-life, homophobic, transphobic views but cannot point to many verses that explain their hostile, anti-refugee stance. The Bible is full of quotes which inform us that God expects us to do our Christian duty, which is to look after those less fortunate than ourselves:

  • Deuteronomy 10:18-19: "He defends the causes of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt." God reminds us here that it is our Christian duty to look after orphans, widows and refugees by providing them with the essentials needed to survive. Food, clothing (and housing) should be provided without malice or expectations of reward. This is later reinforced in Luke 3:11: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none…"
  • Ezekiel 16:49: "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." No country that deigns to call itself Christian in the 21st century should be wanting to follow the example of Sodom. The poor and needy I believe includes homeless migrants and displaced political and religious refugees. Why should we turn our backs on those who need our help the most and instead focus on enriching ourselves through excessive materialistic and hedonistic tendencies?
  • Exodus 23:9: "Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt." Christian (and Jewish) ancestors were treated as slaves in Egypt by an oppressive regime and God reminds us that we should not wish to emulate such a regime in any country which sees itself as truly Christian.
  • Malachi 3:5 reminds us that we need to ensure that refugees and migrants are just as deserving of access to justice as those who are native to the country. Those who are willing to take away the right of refugees and migrants to seek justice, such as being defrauded by unscrupulous gangmasters, will be judged by God.
  • Job 31:32 : "No stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveller." Job was a "blameless and upright man" who devoted himself to God despite facing a number of tragedies during his life. God thought Job loved him because he gave him protection, so he removed his "protection" by taking Job's wealth, children and his health to test his loyalty to God. Job remained devoted to God despite his suffering and so God restored Job's wealth and allowed Job to have another family. This quote proves that even the midst of our own suffering, it is incumbent upon Christians to remain open-minded, open hearted and willing to help strangers. This is reinforced in Romans 12:13 where it is the said "the mark of the true Christian" is to "extend hospitality to strangers", that includes those who have different religious beliefs or are agnostic or atheist.
  • I John 4:7-21: "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God…We love because God first loved us." Love is unconditional and should be given freely, no matter how hard it may be to show it. Compassion is a form of love; being empathetic towards refugees is not a sign of weakness but a major sign of inner strength.

Trump has never mentioned any of these Biblical quotes once in his campaign speeches. He was lucky to get his 2 Corinthians one correct and yet that act along with a few random church attendances seemed to convince Evangelical Christians that Trump was their political saviour because he said he'd be tough on abortion and preserving the right for them to express hate because it is a form of "Religious Freedom". Yet by positing such disgusting policies against immigrants and refugees, I think Trump wants to emulate the leaders of Sodom and as Ezekiel tells us, God doesn't want Christian leaders to emulate Sodom. Christians such as myself have a duty to speak out against the need for religious registers, discriminatory refugee policies and flagrant attempts to violate internationally agreed laws. We should stand up for all refugees who have been left displaced by violent religious and political conflicts regardless of their nationality, religious faith (or lack of), sex, gender identity, sexuality, age or disability. As I John 3:18 "Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action" reminds us,Christians cannot just express our discontent at policy decisions. We can try and lobby politicians who are in Government to try and get their leaders to amend their policies; for example getting Trump to remove the indefinite ban against Syrian refugees but with the administration under the influence of Islamophobic brain farting Breibarters like Steve Bannon, I doubt that would happen. So what we need to do is to try and change mindsets so that such policies will not be retained by other politicians in the future. Getting wonderful young progressive people who came to the US or UK as refugees or migrants to stand as candidates for Congress/Parliament is one positive step forward. The Resistance against Mr Trump is organised, engaged and I'm sure will support any refugee wanting to do this, regardless of their religious beliefs. Resistance members should go into their communities and talk about why Trump is wrong implementing temporary bans against Muslims, even using quotes I've provided in this blogpost to do it.

However, we Christians have to attempt to act away from the political sphere too. This may mean donating to charities on an regular basis. It may mean having the strength of our convictions to join organisations such as Refugee Action, The British Red Cross (or International Red Cross) or Amnesty International. You could do anything from helping them to advocate for a change in refugee policy to helping get food, clothing, educational materials and camping equipment to the refugees who need them.  When refugees come to the UK or the US and settle in your area, you can also make them feel at home. Offer to help them to learn English. Invite them to join your local coffee morning club or Zumba class. Make them feel welcome. If Christians do not make an effort to extend our hospitality willingly to those who have been through so much in their lives, especially young children, why should we expect them to respect us for who we are? 

I hope this blogpost has shown you that not every Christian agrees with a narrow-minded, inward looking, nationalistic approach to governance. I hope liberal, progressive and moderate Muslim refugees know they have friends in the US, UK and Europe who know that their views differ from those of the radical fundamentalist Islamic terrorists. I hope progressive liberals in the US who are part of The Resistance know that they are not powerless, that they can do so much to help refugees and raise awareness of the hypocrisy behind Trump's immigration policy. It can be difficult to decide to take action because we worry about our own credibility being shredded by those who are fundamentally ideologically opposed to us but we should not fear their mockery or threats. Christians should know that if we stand by the strength of our convictions we do so knowing that God is behind us. Job's example shows us that we can withstand the ridicule because our reward is better awareness of God's love and that's better than any material gain or false sense of security instilled in us by those who wish to make us fearful of others.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The UK's New Industrial Strategy: As Good As It Seems?

Monday morning, Theresa May's Brexit Tory Government released the long awaited Green Paper on the UK's Industrial Strategy. Most UK voters will not have heard of such a programme before but it's essentially a comprehensive plan where the Government reveals how it will invest in local and national infrastructure and provide funding in the hope of improving productivity levels in key business sectors. This particular Industrial Strategy is also designed to prepare us for the possible difficult trading conditions we may face the years immediately following Brexit. Whilst I broadly welcome a renewed emphasis on investment in regional infrastructure, more tailored help for businesses and a focus on developing high-level skills amongst the UK workforce especially in working class Northern communities, it does seem slightly hollowed out in places. As a trans, dyspraxic Arts graduate with qualifications in Accountancy and HR living in Lincolnshire I am wondering how such an Industrial Strategy will benefit me specifically. It's important therefore for people like me to read the Industrial Strategy and attempt to critique it. You can read the Green Paper in full for yourself here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/585273/building-our-industrial-strategy-green-paper.pdf.

The Industrial Strategy has 10 "pillars" and I shall be discussing each in turn.

Investing in science, research and innovation:

I do worry about the suggestion made in the Green Paper that our research and development (R&D) sector should become more commercialised. Whilst the UK needs to improve productivity levels in the R&D sector across the UK, the UK must be careful not to make profit the primary factor for companies investing in R&D especially within the bioscience and biotechnology industries. There should be a sense that such research is carried out for the common good and not necessarily to enrich shareholders. At the same time I do realise that we as a country need to do more to embrace new technology; automation is not our enemy.  I was surprised to read the UK has been more reluctant to use robotics to help design more productive ways of working so changing attitudes in businesses towards automation needs to happen, without entry level workers feeling as if they are being replaced unnecessarily. Very tough ask!

The Government should be helping home-grown inventors and the NESTA Challenge Prize Programme for "everyday entrepreneurs" sounds a good way of doing it, but we must not discourage international inventors for wanting to work or set up businesses in the UK. A German born inventor could be just as likely as a British born one to find the cure for HIV/AIDS in the future and wouldn't it be amazing if such a cure was to be developed in the UK? The Green Paper talks about establishing "anchor programmes" to attract leading international research scientists to head departments in the UK but attracting and retaining high quality international PhD students matters too. That means no attempt by the Government to cut international student numbers in the future; maybe if they don't count students as part of the migration quota as Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott has suggested is a way forward on this?

I'm dismayed to see that the UK Government has fallen behind other EU countries when it comes to the percentage of GDP in private and public funds spent on R&D; Sweden and Denmark spend more than 3% of their GDP on R&D but the UK only invests 1.7%! The Government has to recognise it has failed to plug the gap in the last 6 years (they've only ring-fenced the science budget) and therefore we can only be optimistic that it will attempt to do so over this parliamentary term. The Conservatives can no longer blame Labour for failure to invest properly in R&D so the promise of an extra £4.7bn "separate from what can be recovered from current EU funding" is welcome (the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund). Increasing the number of PhD places in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) especially in robotics and artificial intelligence and clean energy technologies is a must.  The UK must try to grow its battery technology capabilities and skillset, so I wait to see what Sir Mark Walport (the UK Government's Chief Scientific Advisor) has to recommend when his report is published in respect to this.

It's also striking to note that the Government is creating a centralised body- The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) which brings together Research Councils and funding streams for later stage research provided through Innovate UK. A strategic approach does yield results as long as the focus is on nurturing new projects and not scrapping them because of their cost effectiveness. UKRI could allow for an expansion of programmes such as the Higher Education Innovative Funding (HEIF) programme that gives money to universities to fund patents and the Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme that gets PhD students into companies to help improve their skillsbase.

Developing skills:
As Britain begins the process of leaving the EU, it is now more important than ever that UK based workers possess the high level skills needed to participate in key industrial sectors. The Green Paper shows that the UK is facing a shortage of workers in industrial sectors that require STEM skills. I personally would like to see more research scientists, engineers and computer programmers recruited from the Lincoln area but at the same time I don't want to put students off from wanting to study English and Philosophy (as I did) at the University of York. Studying an Arts based subject can equip you with excellent skills, especially critical thinking, written and verbal communication and interpersonal/teamworking skills, all vital for gaining employment in a competitive local jobs market.If a student wants to go on and work for the mainstream media or to become an actor, there should no attempts to curb their aspiration. The Government must be careful not to stifle artistic creativity. The lack of emphasis on preserving and expanding the Arts is one reason why I'm a fan of Corbyn's Arts Premium in primary schools and his plan to make crafts and arts based courses free to all adult learners as part of his National Education Service. So yes, advocate for more LGBTQIA coders, more female aircraft engineers and more BAME nuclear physicists but don't impose a need to push science and technology onto students. A love for science has to be nurtured, not forced.

I do think the Government is correct to address the problem of skills shortages amongst those who choose not to go down an academic route- i.e. those who study A Levels and then go to University. To think that England is the only country on the OECD list where "16-24 year olds are no more literate or numerate than 55-64 year olds"! Very shocking. 90% of jobs will require digital literacy by 2036, but "23% of adults lack basic digital skills". That's in spite of colleges running ECDL courses. So what can be done about it?

I'm weary of bashing qualifications for the sake of it but there can be no doubt that some employers do find the number of vocational qualifications currently on offer bewildering, especially in regards to vocational/technical courses. For example, is a Level 2 qualification in Lean Management worth the paper its written on if there is little practical content to the course to help the student implement what they have learned into their own occupational area? Do students really use Kaizen principles when they work in an accounts practice? Finding out that "the UK is placed 16th out of 20 in terms of OECD countries for the proportion of people with technical qualifications" (only 10% of adults have a technical qualification as their highest qualification) is embarrassing but even when a student achieves a technical qualification, they can be locked out from the jobs market as a result of  prejudice based recruitment decisions or a lack of opportunities within their area/region. It's OK studying a Maths degree for 3 years but if the only option given to you after you graduate is to become a teacher because there are no start-up positions available in private firms and you lack the funds to locate to a city, what do you do if you don't want to be a teacher? I know biology grads, maths grads and engineering grads who are locked in entry level service sector jobs because of a lack of graduate positions in businesses in the Lincoln area. Working class talented STEM graduates need to be encouraged to cultivate their own opportunities or to be supported financially so they can relocate, especially if the employer is unwilling to pay for relocation costs (which is increasingly the case). The numbers of SMEs and start-ups in rural areas remain small (mainly due to transportation issues and bad broadband coverage/low download speeds), so until the infrastructure has been updated, there isn't an awful lot that Maths graduate in Lincolnshire can do!

The Government does seem to have a strong approach to addressing the inadequacy of technical education in the UK. Simplifying qualifications, recruiting suitably qualified instructors and tutors and creating a UCAS style system for GCSE students to apply for technical education all sound good on paper. The idea of creating Institutes of Technology using £170m worth of infrastructure funding to deliver high-quality technical education in STEM subjects is bold but I don't know what the criteria would be for selection for those schools and if the entry age is 14, (as some are suggesting) it does seem rather disruptive when students need to focus on achieving GCSE passes in Arts based subjects such as English or Religious Studies. What will a student do if they are recommended to attend an Institute but they want to study Religious Studies alongside the STEM subjects? It's not entirely clear yet.

Transition years for students between 16 and 17 who are not ready for advanced study to help improve their basic numeracy and employability skills is a welcome idea but I hope that there will be opportunities for differentiation so that disabled students are allowed to develop numeracy skills at their own pace. For example, if a student with dyscalculia fails their GCSE Maths course they should be able to use the transition year to retake the GCSE exam, as is currently the case if they achieve below a grade C. Digital proficiency can also be addressed during the transition year and perhaps even advanced coding lessons can be offered for those who show promise or an aptitude for programming. Extra tutoring sessions will mean that more teachers, teaching assistants and SEN assistants will need to be recruited to cope with the additional transition year. That ultimately requires more funding from the education budget.

I'm also glad to see that the Government is starting to notice there needs to be a better universal careers advice service for secondary school students so that they can make an informed choice about their future. This should not mean stifling ambition. Careers advisors should help disadvantaged children expand their horizons so they don't feel that they will be resigned to a life of being on benefits if they have a disability or being stuck in an entry level position because they don't have access to an extensive Old Boys Contacts Network. The £900m investment in the Careers & Enterprise Company Enterprise Advisor Network, which connects 1,300 schools with local companies to provide work experience is a start, but it's not enough. Therefore I shall look forward to reading the Government's Career Strategy Review later in the year which seeks to address existing issues.

Upgrading infrastructure:
Ask the average voter on the street in Lincoln, Labour or Conservative, Green or UKIP one question: "does our infrastructure need updating?" They'd probably all answer yes. In Lincolnshire, this means the Government needs to focus on updating digital infrastructure, rebuilding flood defences on the East Coast and repairing our roads and railway systems. The Government has already announced the National Productivity Investment Fund which allows £2.6bn for transportation improvements to reduce journey times and £740m to support the roll-out of fire-optic broadband connections and 5G mobile technology. Having talked to voters about the Autumn Statement these proposals were broadly welcome but there was some scepticism as to whether the projects were deliverable before the next General Election (you can read more about the discussion here: http://sassysvensknorsk.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/grassroots-survey-on-mr-hammonds-first.html).

What's different in this Green Paper is that the Government has said that it will be more interventionist investment wise. This includes improving the framework for public investment, setting up the National Infrastructure Commission and Infrastructure and Projects Authority "to enhance planning and project delivery". Supporting private investment is OK through provision of investment bonds and loans and the construction-only guarantee sounds OKish but it shouldn't be to the detriment of government departmental budgets.

I like the Government's announcement of a £2.3bn Housing Infrastructure Fund which allows for more houses to be built in areas where there is acute need, especially on sites which aren't initially seen as viable by property developers and construction firms. The £1.7bn Accelerated Construction programme is also designed to support new entrants into the house building market to build twice as fast as traditional house builders-i.e. building an element of competition into the market. This may improve house building productivity but at the same time it's important not to throw money down the drain for the sake of competition for its own sake, especially when funding is still needed to improve our over-stretched NHS and Social Care services.

In terms of flood defence, the Green Paper states that there is "a £170m investment as part of a £2.5bn investment over 6 years". This will lead to the building of 1,500 new flood defence schemes which will protect 300,000 more homes than before. All good news if you are a homeowner whose home will fall within the protection zone as long as those projects do actually materialise and work when the storm surge hits.

Supporting businesses to start and grow:
Start-ups are the backbone of the UK. 350,000 start-up businesses were recorded in 2014 and there are 5.4 million small businesses currently trading in the UK. The Government wants to see more small businesses scale-up and feel that offering more access to funding will be the way to do it. It's strange to me that the Government will use data gathered from HMRC and Companies House to identify firms that are "fast growing at an early stage". I hope that doesn't mean there will be pressure to make these businesses scale-up. Scaling-up won't suit every business owner. For example, if you're a local bookkeeper offering services in your market town and you feel you earn enough to support yourself and your family and you don't want to increase stresses on your personal life, you won't want to scale up. However, those start-ups who do want to scale-up need to be given the long-term funding (patient capital) to make it happen and if fast-growing small businesses are identified by the Government and they are put in touch with the ScaleUp Institute to get advice on accessing funding, that's great. The Government have also said they are committed to looking at the reasons why venture capital funding levels differ between the South East and the North East, working with the British Business Bank to do this.

I still think non-monetary barriers to entrepreneurship need to be lifted. There needs to be more opportunities for start-up business owners to network and pick up key skills to grow their business without having to pay through the roof to attend courses. Working class people, LGBTQIA people, those from BAME backgrounds or who are disabled should be encouraged to think about starting up a business and SME owners to be encouraged to scale-up, especially if their business is connected with R&D or technology. Tailored support could include paying for a mentor to work with a dyspraxic business owner to help them improve business productivity (maybe facilitated through the Productivity Council since the Government gave them £13m in the Autumn Statement) or create a tantalising business plan to access bank funding from the British Business Bank. Business schools may help some who wish to set up a business (4,700 students have been placed into businesses and 800 new businesses have been set up) but they haven't necessarily helped working class NEETs in Lincolnshire as of yet.

Improving procurement:
The UK Government needs to think smart when it comes to public service procurement. Current spending levels are £268bn per year, equivalent to 14% of GDP. I'd like to see Local Government services support more local small businesses by using strategic procurement to do it, so I'm pleased to see that the Green Paper commits the Government to increase the share of SMEs in central procurement to one third. Ensuring that government contractors also pay their suppliers on time by signing them up to  the Prompt Payer Code is good news for small businesses too. There has also been efforts to encourage more small businesses to bid for government contracts by advertising them transparently on the Contracts Finder website.

Public procurement using UK small businesses still doesn't mean that the Government can get away with spending more taxpayers' money than is needed on a product or service just because it is new. When considering bids for government contracts, I am sympathetic to Jeremy Corbyn's suggestion that private contractors would be obligated to take on apprentices when their contract is worth over £250,000. I also believe Mr Corbyn is right to look at pay ratios for the bosses of private contracting firms bidding for government contracts, so they can only earn 20 times more than their lowest paid employees (20:1). That would save taxpayers' money that can then be spent to help improve the NHS, Social Care and Adult Education.

Encouraging trade and inward investment:
Isn't it good to find out that the UK is currently the No1 location for inward investment in Europe?! I hope this will not be scuppered by our exit from the EU. What is clear is that the UK is great at importing but must improve our exporting capabilities. Less than 11% of UK owned businesses export goods abroad. The Department of International Trade has a massive task on its hands. Yes, it is good that the department has already been approached by Mexico, the US, New Zealand, India etc to do a trade agreement but they will take a while to negotiate and come into effect after we have left the EU. We'll have 63 trading agreements that need to be negotiated after we leave the EU, including with Norway.
The "Team UK" guff sounds a bit gimmicky to me but I'm pleased to read that the Government has a Prosperity Fund to help boost growth and look at trading opportunities in "horizon markets" such as Nigeria. It's not just China or the US that the UK should be looking to trade with, after all. The launch of an integrated digital platform "great.gov.uk" to bring together exporters and investors will help make exporting easier for small businesses and there should be more recurring international trade fairs for the Creative Industries that take place outside of London in Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh. National and regional trade fairs need to be more promoted by Local and National Government but detail as to how the Government is planning to do this is sketchy in the Green Paper.

Delivering affordable energy and clean growth:
Millennials such as myself care deeply about protecting the environment and we want to see a sustained commitment to tackling climate change. I don't want to see a reduction in environmental legislation after Brexit just because some businesses may regard them as "red tape". There has to be a balance and meeting the legally binding targets under the Climate Change Act is not enough. The Government needs to develop renewable energy projects across the UK. Initial start-up costs may be expensive but the energy output is generally more affordable as the projects develop and expand. I am heartened to see the Government will be looking at ways to reduce the cost of offshore wind farm energy production but where are the announcements for more biomass plants, more hydroelectric power stations or plans to explore possible geothermal energy resources? There's no commitment to ban fracking, but a commitment to honour construction of the Hinkley C nuclear power station, despite mass opposition.

Investing in new technologies such as electric cars and driverless cars to reduce fuel consumption is good. The Government has already invested £600m to accelerate the transition to low emission cars and a further £270m was announced in the Autumn Statement. Some critics will ask whether such money should be better spent on improving public transport systems in rural counties such as Lincolnshire but the Government feels there needs to be long term investment in car technology and that includes testing grid energy technologies in places across the UK to test the viability of electric cars. If such projects help the UK to transition to a low carbon economy, they should receive funding.

Energy costs do need to be lowered for businesses to thrive. Introducing interactive smart-meters to every household and small business in Great Britain is a good start as it will help businesses to monitor their energy usage and keep track of their spending but making sure that Ofgem keeps energy providers accountable and transparent so they can provide details on affordable business energy plans matters too.

Cultivating word-leading sectors:
This primarily involves the Government creating an "open door challenge" to companies and individual entrepreneurs across the UK and different industrial sectors to devise proposals to transform their sectors...i.e. "Sector Deals". It's "pretty pie-in-the-sky" thinking to me but companies should have some say over how to improve productivity, boost skills amongst the workforce in general, increase exports etc  in their own sectors. A film production company knows more about developing workforce talent in their industry than someone whose background is in engineering or accountancy. Sir Peter Bazelgette has already had some input into creating a "Sector Deal" for the creative industries and any policies that can lead to addressing regulatory barriers (that do not reduce workers' rights) will broadly be welcomed provided they don't suggest scrapping employment rights, safety legislation or environmental protections.

Driving growth across the whole country:
The Government believes that the infrastructure investment funding can be differentiated so that it supports the local economy and rebalances the national economy away from London and the South East. The Housing Infrastructure Fund and £1.1bn road investment fund means that money can be directly given to local councils in time for them to fund local investment projects as and when needed. Current major infrastructure investments announced by the Government include the Midlands Rail Hub and Northern Powerhouse Rail. The devolution of powers should help give more control to local decision makers, including through new mayoral combined authorities and regional bodies such as Midlands Connect. More voters want to see accountable governance at the local level as long as local businesses and residents get to have some say over investment infrastructure decisions.

Graduate skills retention rates as mentioned above need to be improved in rural areas such as Lincolnshire. Yes there has to be more apprenticeship opportunities for working class school leavers but at the same time, entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged, tech and social enterprise start ups need to expand to allow for more apprenticeship places to be created. Unless graduates feel that they will be able to make a living in Lincolnshire, they will not stay here and not every STEM gap can be filled by an apprenticeship straight away.

Creating the right institutions to bring together sectors and places:
Collaborative networking is key to improving productivity in the UK. Universities and colleges can help provide high quality locally based apprentices/graduates to fill entry level positions in SME companies beginning their scaling up process and these companies in turn could provide future entrepreneurial talent that will create sustainable jobs. Local Enterprise Partnerships already exist to encourage networking and provide advice on funding. The Government says it's doing its part by devolving business revenue to local government for them to invest as appropriate. The Green Paper suggests other ways to encourage further collaboration during and post the Brexit process; for example, supporting the growth of UK based supply chains to reduce import costs for businesses or relocating Government agencies to a Business Park setting in the hope of creating a cluster to boost private sector growth. More controversially, the Green Paper talks about using cultural assets to make different areas more attractive to private businesses. I don't think that museums, art galleries and national monuments should be used as a means to an end but it's OK to market Lincoln to potential businesses by talking about the merits of Lincoln's historic architecture that can be seen at Lincoln Castle or Cathedral. Cultural assets can be a draw for potential entrepreneurs who are culture vultures but unless they have the initial funding and advice to set up in Lincoln they'd never stay. Encouraging universities to network is good but not purely for commercial means. The Government offering funds for collaboration on certain research programmes such as those offered by Midlands Innovation, based in Nottingham does seem appropriate, though.

Conclusion:
The Green Paper proposed by the Government is certainly detailed and bound to appeal to business owners, large and small across the UK who want to see funding levels increase, accessibility to venture capital funding improve, infrastructure co-ordination programmes expand and basic literacy and numeracy skill levels improve in the local area so that they can employ more local people in their businesses. If you're a pig producer who wants to export more Lincolnshire sausages to China or a PhD student who wants to study animal science at the University of Lincoln, the Industry Strategy should give you hope.

However there was a sense that there needs to be a lot more thought put into funding key Industrial Strategy proposals. The Universities and College Union (UCU)'s general secretary, Sally Hunt, points out that £170m is a "drop in the ocean" funding wise to help establish Institutes of Technology across the country. Clive Lewis, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy mentions that there has been a cut to the Adult Skills budget of £1.1bn since 2010, so £170m for vocational education isn't really enough to plug that gap. There was also no talk of how such Institutes will be able to recruit enough tutors and instructors to help run them effectively.   There was no talk of bring back Night Schools as David Lammy, MP for Tottenham has suggested as a way of providing digital literacy, English and Maths courses for free to full time workers. Lifelong learning courses should be easily accessible and affordable, so those who do want to develop high-level STEM skills to try and gain a position in a local tech firm can do so. Plus we still need to make sure comprehensive schools have appropriately qualified staff in sufficient numbers to help deliver the National Curriculum and increase numeracy and literacy proficiency. The Conservatives do seem to make a habit of taking away with one hand and feeding us crumbs with another, especially in relation to adult education.

The Green Paper didn't mention any extra help in terms of childcare, nor any mention of new schemes that can help disadvantaged graduates establish entrepreneurial businesses in their home towns. The Careers Advice Strategy won't be published until later in the year but students need decent careers advice now as they prepare to choose their GCSE subjects and future path post-16.

The Industrial Strategy also did not address the current situation of The Green Investment Bank, a solely Government owned bank created in 2012 which helps to provide investment for green energy projects in the UK which was supposedly being privatised by the Conservative Government but the deal now hopefully seems to be in doubt. There was no mention of rolling out more renewable energy schemes to help the UK transition to a low-carbon economy, either. The UK Government needs to look into the possibility of creating more tidal power stations, hydroelectric power stations and biomass power stations rather than focussing on fracking and expanding nuclear power stations.

I pretty much posed a question at the start of my blogpost: Would the Industrial Strategy help a trans, dyspraxic Arts graduate with Accountancy and HR qualifications in Lincolnshire? Not directly. It may lead to an increase in job opportunities in Lincoln if start-ups are given the funding to scale-up and local infrastructure is improved but that's a big if. I don't need to be skilled up in numeracy, literacy or IT and starting up a business is real hard if you have a few gaps on your CV. Perhaps the Industrial Strategy isn't as good as it seems, after all?
 

Monday, 23 January 2017

Intersectioning the Transgender Kids Debate: My Response to the "Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?" Documentary

If there is one issue that divides ideological opinion on gender issues, it's that of talking about the possibility of children defining themselves or being defined as being born "in the wrong body" or "wrong gender"-i.e. transgender kids. Do trans kids exist? Should they be given treatment before the age of consent (16 in the UK)? Are trans activists poisoning their minds by making them hate themselves before puberty starts? The questions seem endless and are very often ignored by the mainstream media. The BBC tried to address this by airing a documentary on the 13th January 2017 entitled Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? The documentary explore the work of a sexologist, Dr Kenneth Zucker treating children questioning their gender identity at his clinic in Canada (the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto). Dr Zucker had been fired for proposing treatments that could be classed as "gender-reparative therapy" for trans kids-i.e. a form of conversion therapy with the aim of preventing transgender people from transitioning after they reach the age of consent by making them try and conform to gender stereotypes. As East Midlands PhD trans male blogger "sexdrugssmh" has noted in his blogpost: https://sexdrugsmh.wordpress.com/2017/01/13/thoughts-on-transgender-kids-who-knows-best/ (well worth a read btw), trans activists didn't get Dr Zucker fired for being "transphobic"- "they weren't his employers after all". There was no attempt to discuss the circumstances behind the closure of the clinic. Despite this, various comments were made about the decision to air the programme and even more were made after the programme was shown and all show how divisive the transgender kids debate really has become:
  • One on the one hand we have staunch trans activists who believe that trans children need to be protected from adhering to an old fashioned gender-binary by talking through their feelings with sexologists and psychologists so they can be prescribed the treatment they need to help ease their genuine gender dysphoria (such as puberty blockers). Shon Faye, who appeared on a Newsnight programme prior to the BBC documentary's transmission pointed out the fact there was a lack of testimony from trans people who had successfully made a transition after experiencing issues with their gender identity in childhood and Paris Lees mentioned on her Twitter page that Mermaids, a key organisation that works with young transgender children on a daily basis had not been approached by the BBC to give their opinion on Dr Zucker's methods.
  • On the other hand we have radical feminists and gender critics whose primary aim is to protect children (especially girls) from going through any treatment for fear of erasing their sexuality or biology identity pre or during pubescence. GenderCriticalDad on Twitter asked "do you support gay kids or those trying to fix them?". They challenge the idea of gender identity being "innate", stating that it's better to challenge gender stereotypes imposed on children by society. Stephanie Davies-Arai from Transgender Trend for example praised Dr Zucker for his "watch and wait approach", calling claims against him "false and libellous" and reiterated the need for the BBC to continue to challenge the "trans cult" head on.
It's a very contentious, very emotionally charged debate and more often than not, trans activists and rad fems shout over one another, trying to score points without finding a sensible common ground on which there can be some sort of practical consensus. Trans activists believe they've not been heard and gender critics and rad fems believe they're the ones whose voices have been silenced due to charges of transphobia being made against them. No-platforming happens on both sides. As an intersectional transfeminist, I feel it's more important than ever to make the attempt to talk through the key issues that have arisen in layperson terms, so that those unfamiliar with the issue can try and understand and engage with it. So here's my first thought: I believe rad fems and trans activists can agree that the most important aspect to this gender debate is that we continue to show compassion and love towards those children who are questioning their gender identity pre and during pubescence; that we never condone hurting kids physically or emotionally for wanting to talk about their feelings and that no child is ever coerced into an action which they do not want to carry out either by their parents, activists or sexologists. That's a pretty good start don't you think?

Young Trans Activists need to be heard:

A key argument made by trans activists is that there is often little representation of their views on TV programmes. It should be the case that trans activists, trans feminists, sexologists and those who work to provide frontline services for young trans people in the UK should have their say openly and fairly. After all, there are trans activists who have transitioned in their early 20s and beforehand who have vital stories to share with the public at large. Naturally some commentators who are against the idea of transgender identity existing among young people might dismiss the testimony of Aimee Challenor, chair of LGBTQIA+ UK Green Party as being entirely irrelevant because she's "only an activist" and not a sexologist. By saying that Aimee's voice cannot count as legitimate you forget that Aimee is a young woman who has been through the transition process in her late teens and so can tell us honestly,positively and realistically about how she felt before, during and after the process. Yet Aimee was never asked to give her perspective on Newsnight to give the British public an alternative perspective on the Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best documentary either before or after the programme had aired. The BBC hasn't encouraged her to approach them to be in a UK based documentary either. I thank God that Aimee had the courage to write a HuffPost blogpost about her experiences because I found I could identify with some of them myself. I was desperately worried about attending my Year 13 prom because I thought that I would not be accepted for wearing what I wanted to wear-i.e. that my identity could not be accepted as authentic or valid in public by those who are charged with allowing us to develop our authentic self in a safe setting (i.e. at school). I wasn't surprised therefore when I read about Aimee being threatened with a ban from the prom by a Headteacher for wanting to wear a dress or being told by her grandparents who are meant to love you unconditionally that you wanting to live an authentic life is "attention seeking". Such events happen often to trans and non-binary people and so we all have an interest in trying to debunk stereotypes and change attitudes around expressions and perceptions of gender.

The Youth Transgender Centre of Excellence Programme:

Soon after the BBC Programme had been transmitted, I happened to read an article by the Leicester LGBT Centre. You can read it for yourself here: https://leicesterlgbtcentre.org/news/2017/1/leicester-lgbt-centres-response-to-the-bbcs-transgender-kids-who-knows-best. I was very sad to see that young trans people had been upset by the broadcasting of the BBC programme. The LGBT Centre has created a flagship Children In Need supported project- the "Youth Transgender Centre of Excellence" and members of the YTCE "felt angry, disrespected, hurt and afraid", almost as if their emotional experiences were invalided and that they cannot be "gender affirmative" because they could be subject to ridicule, suspicion and treated as if they were intentionally mentally ill. A "gender affirmative approach" is one that respects how children "wish to express their gender and identity" and that sometimes means allowing them access to specialist youth services that are available at the Tavistock and Portman Gender Identity Development Service, the only service of its available in the country. Leicester LGBT Centre, Mermaids, Stonewall have all made it clear that it is imperative that the public understands the facts concerning the transition process. The NHS Care pathway offered to young people is extremely lengthy. Cross-sex hormones (Hormone Replacement Therapy) cannot be prescribed unless the young person has been diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria and they can give their consent. The age of consent, is 16 in the UK and because Gender Reassignment Surgery doesn't happen until a young person has been on cross-sex hormones and been expressing their chosen gender identity socially for 2 years, teenagers cannot have access to GRS. Puberty blockers which are reversible are given to children around 12 years old, before the onset of facial hair, pubic hair etc (see below for further discussion).

Other children who are members of the YTCE do not wish to seek out such advice and would prefer to speak with friends who are gender non-conforming and that's great to see too. The trans male blogger sexdrugssmh that I mentioned above explains that "gender affirmative care is not and never has been focused upon preparing children for medical intervention...Every practitioner would seek to tailor their approach to the child and family involved." believes there should be a focus on protecting intersex children from facing invasive inappropriate surgery to "correct" their body and I'd hope everyone agrees wholeheartedly with him.

Reading about the work that the YTCE has done with young people, I can't help but be elated. To know that a Children In Need scheme has had success in getting children to feel better about themselves without reducing conversations down to medical treatments. In 2016, YTCE helped 27 people who "experienced anxiety, low mood and almost certainly tried to self-harm having previously tried to take their own life". Recent statistics have revealed that 44% of children who identify as LGBTQ have considered committing suicide. 44%. Higher than the average of 32% cited for under 18 year olds in general. If allowing young non-binary and trans people to talk with experts to the point where they desist from self-harm means them turning to organisations such as YTCE, so be it. YTCE managed to reduce instances of self-harm was to show respect and compassion to those young people. All it took was to be mindful of pronoun use, using the name they wanted YTCE professionals to use with them and allowing them to discuss the issues they are facing at home, school and during leisure activities without fear of mockery, disdain or physical reprisals, even if their family members would never use physical violence against them in the first place. Parents have seen a positive change in their child as a result of attending the YTCE and started socially transitioning. They are being given the chance to live their lives authentically, whether others agree with their choice or not. Access to a safe space to talk through issues is paramount to the transgender kids debate and trans activists and gender critics alike should be applauding the efforts of Leicester LGBT Centre and their YTCE.

Dr Stuart Lorimer's interesting comments re Detransitioning:

Gender Critical commentators are very quick to talk about detransitioning and the need for more detransitioners to have their voice heard by trans activists and the public at large. The "Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best" programme included the story of "Lou", a trans man who had been "encouraged" to go through treatment for gender dysphoria which included undergoing a mastectomy and hormonal treatment. Lou decided halfway through the treatment that he no longer wanted to carry on with the transition but the effects were irreversible. It's hard not to sympathise with Lou. To know that he cannot restore his body back to its original state must be heartbreaking for him. Any trans activist would have to be made of stone not to feel empathy with his situation. Lou is only one example. I get that there will be other detransitioners out there who want to tell their story and they should be heard. Trans activists and rad fems alike have to give them space within the narrative to do this without making condescending comments or trying to appropriate them into a discussion to "win a point".

But the fact there are detransitioners out there does not invalidate the fact there are people who go through successful transitions, such as Aimee Challenor. I felt I needed some more information so I happened to chance on the Twitter handle of Dr Stuart Lorimer. Dr Lorimer has stood out for me throughout my exploration of transgender people and the treatment they receive at GICs. Dr Lorimer has spent 15 years working with trans and non-binary people and I would say that qualifies him enough to have had the chance to contribute to a debate. He's right when he talks about activists "debating gender theory all over the shop"; we spend so much time battling over the semantics of the issue and not enough talking about experiential outcomes. So Dr Lorimer decided to talk about what the detransition stats were for adults with gender dysphoria. On the 15th January 2017, Dr Lorimer tweeted that he's personally seen over 4000 people over his 15 years of practice and out of those, 10-15 had been detransitioners. Dr Lorimer suggested that the majority of detransitioners may have done so due to "family or relationship pressures" and that they would consider transition again after they had resolved any "barriers" that had arisen. "Only a quarter" of Dr Lorimer's patients who were detransitioners had had GRS. Dr Lorimer also believes that TV programmes need to now show a different angle on the debate, to share the stories of those who retransition "non-binary or otherwise". I'd like to see such a documentary made but the question is, is any TV channel brave enough to commission it? Plus, we need far more evidence to look at detransitioning around the age of consent to see what the numbers are.

I shall never advocate any form conversion therapy. I don't for gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual people (i.e. on the basis of sexuality) so why would I support any form of conversion therapy on the basis of gender identity? Detransitioning should certainly not be construed as conversion therapy but there will be cases where coercive pressure has been applied by disapproving parents, relatives etc. to prevent older trans teenagers from going through with GRS. I can understand exercising continued caution under the age of 16 (and GRS isn't even given until after you've turned 16, remember) but when a trans person gets to the age of consent they can make an informed decision for themselves. Even if their parents disapprove of the action they are taking, they cannot stop them unless they try and argue they are mentally ill on the grounds of temporary insanity (which is ridiculous). Dr Lorimer admits that more research needs to be done with regards to detransitioning in young people, especially around the age of consent, to see whether the reasons for adult detransitioning are the same in young people and to see how many consider retransitioning afterwards.

Detransitioning can be a valid choice but it is not as common a choice as previously thought. Plus, as children cannot go through GRS or have cross-sex hormones, it's pretty much a moot point. Unless there's any attempt to reduce the age of consent, which hasn't been put forward by any trans activist, sexologist or LGBTQIA+ organisation that I know about.

The importance of tackling gender stereotypes (No, this trans woman does not reinforce gender stereotypes):

The "watch and wait approach" isn't revolutionary or radical and it isn't one that's disputed by trans activists and transfeminists alike. I've not heard Paris Lees call for mandatory GRS at 13 or that all non-conforming kids should receive puberty blockers "just because". It's very important not to blow up discourse and scaremonger for the sake of it. For this reason alone, it's essential that trans activists and transfeminists read around the subject to see what supposed opponents say on the issue and vice versa. FairPlayForWomen for example make a point in their response to the Zucker documentary by focussing on the unknown risk of puberty blockers: https://fairplayforwomen.com/response-transgender-kids-who-knows-best. Puberty blockers are "GnRH analogues, designed to treat prostate and breast cancer with side effects including depression and osteoporosis". Sexologists and trans activists remind me that it is rare to prescribe puberty blockers to children and cross sex hormones are not taken, as the article correctly points out, until 18 years of age. 18 years is above the age of consent so if a young person decides to take them, I feel pretty assured that they have had appropriate conversations with their sexologists prior to agreeing to take them. So yes, they will know that taking cross-hormones causes sterility. Not every person wants to have children of their own and therefore such a decision will not be swayed by the ability never to have kids again. I'm one of those who will consider taking cross-sex hormones and sterilisation doesn't affect me because I don't want children. I'm not castrating myself to prevent it happening though. I'll do it because I want to. You can see that I'm uneasy with fearmongering over puberty blocking; if 90% of those taking puberty blockers at Tavistock GIC do progress onto cross-sex hormones, are they not doing so willingly? 10% have desisted from taking cross-sex hormones so shouldn't their story be told too? Calling trans people like Aimee Challenor "guinea pigs"as TransgenderTrend have done is divisive and unhelpful.

I agree with certain elements of the FairPlayForWomen article; for example that society needs to do more to tackle gender stereotypes. With increasing numbers of children attending Gender Identity Clinics, (a 10 fold increase since 2012), there is a sense that children are now questioning their gender identity more openly than a decade ago. I think this is great because it means children are prepared to open up to parents, teachers and experts to talk through their issues. There is a general trend for more discussion in secondary school classrooms thanks to the improvements in Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) lessons. Gender critics and radical feminists say the increase in GIC attendances could be the result of societal pressures to conform to a traditional notion of gender-for example they say there has been an increase in gendered products. FairPlayForWomen says that products have become increasingly gendered driven by rampant consumerism. They give the example of the Disney brand, showing how superhero toys are now aggressively targeted at boys and princess toys at girls which has only gotten worse since Disney acquired Marvel and Star Wars merchandising rights. Disney now turns over £3 billion a year based on following rigid stereotypes. We should have a situation where it's socially acceptable to play with Darth Vader and Cinderella if you are a boy or a girl.

Reading Dr Dannii Cohen's (resident psychologist with The Gay UK) article entitled "Why Transgender isn't always the answer": http://www.thegayuk.com/comment-why-transgender-isnt-always-the-answer/ got me to think about my own childhood in the 1990s and early 2000s, a time before the advent of Disney Princesses and Marvel Superhero toys. Dr Cohen raises an important question- "are four-year olds too young to know their own identity?" I vaguely remember how I was at 4 years old: I wore hot pants all the year round and played with Barbie Dolls, Kens, animal figures and pushing my cat BabyShell around in a pram. I read Bible passages and Irish Fairytales with my Mum. Once I remember putting on some of Mum's "very special" lipstick and ended up damaging it. She was absolutely livid and the debacle meant I couldn't watch Rupert Bear for 3 days as punishment. Are such experiences necessarily indicative of being trans or non-binary? Possibly so. I never uttered any desire to be a girl or to be both a boy and a girl until I was 7 years old and even then my words were dismissed because they were too busy trying to sort out my dyspraxia than to address my "gender issues" but my Mum remembers that I never ever called myself a boy, not even when prompted to do so by my primary school teacher. Was it the right approach to ignore this? Did not talking about my gender identity damage me between being 7 and 13?  Not necessarily. I think it was more to do with my Mum and Dad being pretty accepting of my "uniqueness" rather than any attempt to think I wasn't "a boy". Mind you, my parents are liberal; my Dad was a mod-hippy and my Mum was a punk feminist. If I had been offered a chance to speak to a psychologist I'd have done so gladly but it never happened. I'm not bitter about that because I was a rather strong willed child and after the age of 13 my parents couldn't really find a way to stop me from dressing how I wanted to at school and at home. At school I used to wear a vest so that nobody could see me developing under my shirt. I didn't want anyone to know that hair had begun to grow down below. I even started wearing a blue v neck sweatshirt and a brooch to really maintain a sense of authentic identity that was apart from everyone else but especially the guys in my class. I was lucky to attend a good school where bullying, even on the basis of perceived sexuality or gender identity was low. Besides, I think my teachers  accepted this as me being "unique" and they didn't want to rock the boat because I was doing exceptionally well in my subjects-better than had been predicted due to my dyspraxia. My strength of character saved me from caving in to pressures to conform to gendered norms but I realise that many children and young people are not so lucky. They need to have the opportunity to talk through their experiences with experts who have their best interests at heart.

I'm very careful not to confuse gender identification issues with those caused by my dyspraxia. The FairPlayForWomen article highlights a study that has been carried out which says that "children with Gender Identity Disorder are seven times more likely to be on the autistic spectrum than the general population". I separate out my gender identity and my dyspraxia (which is part of the autistic spectrum) because when you try and restigmatise trans people because they happen to have a disorder on the autistic spectrum, I see it as a possible attempt to invalidate or erase their identity. To try and make out that dyspraxic trans, non-binary, genderfluid and/or queer children and young people do not really know their own mind when they reach the age of consent. Yes, more studies should be done to explore whether such a link between GID and autism really exists commonly in the UK population but do not use them to erase trans people out the picture. I knew I was gender non-conforming before the age of 16 and I didn't need to be told by an expert familiar with dyspraxia that I felt that way. Dyspraxia affects my hand-eye-coordination, not my decision making faculties.

That's not to say that there could not be internalised form of hatred of one's biology or attributed gender. Internalised misogyny certainly exists in some young girls and women, as Dr Cohen's personal experience has suggested. Being told that "you might succeed better if you're a man" referring to Dr Cohen's stand up comedy career or being told "you look like a bloke" on a regular basis is disgusting and those that say such things should be called out for their bigotry, whether they happen to be heterosexual, homosexual, cis or trans. I've known guys who identify as gay or bi and they've been told by several people at the same networking event that they are "too camp or feminine to bag themselves a gay guy" so they should transition to fit in with societal gender norms and hopefully bag themselves a guy. Luckily I've not felt that way (mainly because I'm not interested in sex) but I recognise it can happen and the LGBTQIA+ community has a lot more to do to tackle such intra-discrimination.  Yet there will still be men and women who want to fully transition after making an informed decision after they've reached 16 and they should be allowed to without receiving hate from those who should know better. I'm quite sympathetic to Dr Cohen's suggestion that those who wish to transition fully at 16 need to discuss it "at least 5 times" with a range of psychologists as well as with friends, family and if possible, their GP. I don't think such a suggestion is radical and if you speak with sexologists such as Dr Lorimer, you discover this pretty much does happen through the NHS Care pathway. Nobody believes in a deviation away from the NHS Care pathway but this doesn't mean that there isn't a need for more staff to help 16 year olds discuss their options as the numbers of people asking to be seen by GICs increase. There needs to be more funding for sexologists, specialist nurses and referral times do need to decrease. If that means opening up another specialist GIC for young people, so be it.

My View RE Gender:

Now gender critics believe that transfeminists should be fighting more for an end to gender specific clothing, toys etc...anything that helps to reinforce gendered norms on our kids. I cannot agree more. I believe our society is stifled by old fashioned stereotypes perpetuated by those who are often too stubborn or too afraid to change their views on what constitutes masculinity or femininity, instead reducing it down to biological dual binds. I'd be quite happy to see the back of restrictive gender labels on legal documentation so that I don't have to refer to myself as male/female, boy/girl etc if I don't want to. Abolishing gender was something I actually advocated for whilst at the University of York. In fact I can remember a Philosophy of Literature class where I left my peers completely gobsmacked because I said I wanted to take a poststructuralist, postmodernist approach and therefore get rid of all labels except that of my name. I just wanted to be known as Matti and that was it. The disagreements came thick and fast. One student said that my view would lead to more sexual violence and another said that it would destroy his own macho identity. Naturally I admit that a total disregard for labels is a very radical idea and too idealistic; we all get perceived within a gender-binary whether we like it or not. I don't want someone to look at me as if I was a "man with testicles in leggings" but it'll happen whether I fully transition or not.  Reducing the essence of our identity down to sexual organs doesn't win me over. I'm not going to be a slave to biology because being enslaved by biology (sex) means you end up being caught up in a dividing line which helps to crystallise  harmful stereotypes which are extremely difficult to shake off- e.g. radical feminists poo-pooing the idea of a non-binary child who is biologically a boy but considering transitioning being banned from joining the Girl Guides on the basis of them being "a danger to girls" even though they haven't even reached puberty yet. Scaremongering for the sake of it even though the same people advocate for a "wait and see approach" so as to not erase non-binary identity and want to see gender labelling and stereotypes abolished. A bit hypocritical, no?

Yes I accept that there are some elements of biology that cannot be easily ignored. I think it's important for transfeminists to advocate for sanitary products to be freely available to homeless women because there will be those who identify as non-binary or transmale who are homeless and haven't had the treatment to stop the menstruation process from happening. Yet we should all be abhorred by attempts by some to misgender on the basis of biological function, especially if doing so creates a mental health issue. That's why I feel the to remain compassionate when I am talking about transgender kids because although I may be comfortable in a sort of non-binary trans middle sort of identification where only being called my name matters, many are not. Having empathy for those who differ from you is vital and that means not shouting over each other all the time just because we happen disagree ideologically. I believe in gender self-identification and that means allowing people to identity with whatever they are comfortable with, whether ridiculous or not. That's life.

Conclusion:

At the end of this very long blogpost, I hope my readers can see that an intersectional feminist approach is vital to discussions on gender non-conformity in children. It's absurd to argue that children are always being hurt or coerced by trans activists, sexologists, psychotherapists who are helping children to talk through the issues they have concerning their gender identity. GRS isn't available to under 16 year olds and treatment prior to this is really restricted to cognitive talking therapies and puberty blockers. Trans activists and organisations aren't trying to force all children to take these blockers or convince parents to do it in order to make their child conform. Trans activists aren't deliberately trying to turn all children who turn out to be gay, lesbian or bisexual into trans people to get them to fit into outdated dual binary model. Yes I feel that trans activists need the space to talk about their experiences without being accused of "predatory ideological behaviour". As Ms Challenor has noted in her blog- "why would some trans activists choose to be trans in this world if they are being vilified by the media on a regular basis?" I don't know the answer to that truthfully. I'm someone who believes that we should have the right to choose our own gender identity, even if that means changing our bodies to achieve the authenticity we feel that is needed. I cannot vilify any person for wanting to be who they are whether I agree with them or not. After all, whether the person changes their physical appearance, sexual organs, pronouns or mode of dress, they are still the same person underneath. They have the same hobbies, same academic qualifications, same occupation, same wishes and aspirations as before. So should someone treat them differently just because they decided to transition or in fact, detransition? Don't. Demonstrate compassion altruistically. Do the same for those who are non-binary, genderqueer or gender-fluid too. Don't just restrict compassion to those who choose to live within a gender binary identification.

At the same time I do realise that a child needs to reach the age of consent to make an informed choice and that any attempt to reduce the age of consent from 16 would be extremely foolish. Children need the chance to talk as much as possible about their feelings and to know they are being loved for themselves unconditionally. "Kids should be kids", allowed to dress how they want, when they want and to play with whatever toys they want, how they want, when they want to play with them. Gender stereotyping needs to be tackled, especially in the leisure industry. I'd like to see more trans activists support campaign groups such as "Let Toys Be Toys" and "Let Books Be Books" to help do this. I'd like to see trans activists talk about empowering intersex activists and speaking out against the cruel practice of inappropriate reassignment surgery for those too young to give consent about their own identification. I'd like to see rad fems accept self-identification doesn't lead to the erasure of their own biological identification and that not every trans woman is a threat to their safe space and not every trans man is in need of saving. I'd love to see trans activists, transfeminists and rad fems taking an intersectional approach and coming together to do this but perhaps I'm too optimistic. Optimism, love and hope aren't to be sniffed at, though. As I am reminded by the extremely wise example of Dr Martin Luther King Jnr: " I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear". We can all try and adhere to that, no matter how hard it may be for us to achieve. Even in such a divisive debate as that of transgender kids.

Friday, 20 January 2017

#TheResistance Against Trump is Fabulous

"Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle." Martin Luther King.

Who thought in my lifetime that I'd have cause to join an interesting, thriving movement that aimed to protect Western society from going down the dark hole of oppression, bigotry and nepotism. A lot of my friends have asked me why I'm so aggrieved at the thought of Donald Trump entering the White House and occupying a position which the strongly principled, compassionate but politically compromised Barack Obama had taken with grace and goodwill. Trump is a man who never seems to learn from his mistakes. He can play a far more powerful hand than Obama because the Senate and Congress both have Republican majorities. Obama had many policy ideas but was filibustered and blocked at every opportunity by a hostile, selfish Republican party who pushed the falsehood of birtherism to try and delegitimise Obama's presidency. Now Trump cult followers are angry that respected, experienced journalists dare to question Trump's lack of tact on Twitter because let's face it, why on earth does he think he has the time to Tweetstorm satirical comedy shows (Saturday Night Live) and theatre companies than to come up with policies to unite the country, such as protecting the Affordable Care Act (ACA) from being decimated or respecting Obama's decision on Standing Rock where he promised to protect the Water Protectors from being maimed by over zealous police officers who care more about protecting an oil pipeline than their fellow citizens.

Trump hasn't shown much respect for tradition or rules- e.g. Trump has chosen to not show his tax returns because he just can't be bothered to do it and Trump didn't show respect for diplomacy whilst President Obama was still in office because he meddled in the Israel 2-state solution talks at the UN, publically undermining the US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power.  Trump loves the idea of putting on countless rallies to proclaim his "greatness" in the states that voted for him but at the same time does not have the bottle to answer questions from those who voted against him in states such as Colorado, Nevada or New York. Trump's attitude towards the mainstream media shows that he's unwilling to work to build bridges; he wants everyone to come over to his side before he deals with them rather than taking a more compassionate, realistic approach by going to them to ask why they still oppose his presidency or why they have to ask the questions they need to ask. Trump always seems to see criticism as a slur on his manhood and he'd rather throw a journalist out of a press meeting or mock them online or on TV than to address their criticism in a grown up manner. Trump's presidential qualities seem to be rather lacking but let's face it, when you choose to have Putain Putin who talks about Russia having the most "beautiful hookers" rather than order an investigation into the veracity of the intelligence gathered about possible attempts to delegitimise the US Election as a role model, you're not going to get a very open minded, compassionate answer.

The reasons why people in the US are still refusing to see Trump as an legitimate President are numerous; it's not just because of the reports coming from intelligence agencies about Trump's ties to Russia or the possibility Putin used paid trolls to influence angry voters to whip them up against Hillary Clinton and for Trump. So let's explore the other reasons why Trump might not be winning over progressives:

Trump's Attitude Towards Women: Feminist Resistance

Trump's blasé attitude towards sexual violence and assault is frustrating to see. There's been no attempt by Trump to try and show that he has changed his mindset when it comes to treating women less as sexual objects and more as intelligent, smart human beings. It takes more than hiring a bunch of female billionaires who have funded the GOP for years and have got a cabinet position in exchange for their funding. Bernie Sanders made an excellent point with regards to the Education Secretary choice Betsy DeVos: "Betsy DeVos, if you had not given $200 million to the Republican Party do you think you would be nominated to lead the Education Department?" (January 17th 2017). Pay to play nepotism seems rife in Trump's administration and it is concerning that 6 nominees come from Goldman Sachs, a bank that Trump had been disparaging of for funding Hillary Clinton's campaign.  Trump hasn't visited a domestic violence survivor shelter. Trump's not called for tougher prosecutions for those who commit sexual assault and rape on college campuses. Trump still calls his disgusting comments from the Access Hollywood Billy Bush interview "locker talk" even though he kind of fake-apologised to the nation to try and keep Republican evangelicals on his side. Who could support a President who thinks its ok to say that women should be "grabbed by the pussy"? Nancy O'Dell, the married woman referenced in the video was right when she said that objectification of women is wrong whether it comes from a President or a college freshman.

I heard the stories of  those 15  women who made historical sexual assault allegations against Trump, including Jessica Leeds in the early 1980's and Cathy Heller in 1997. I have to say I believed their accounts.The tone, the detail, the feeling of being afraid to expose a man who is more powerful than them because he threatens to sue them into silence all resonated with me. Now on the eve of Trump's inauguration another accusation of unwanted sexual advances has been made, this time by Summer Zervos, a former Apprentice contestant. Gloria Allred, a lawyer and wonderful advocate of women's rights in the US has filed a lawsuit against Trump for defamation and hopefully Summer will have the strength to withstand Trump's dirty tactics.

The Republicans have unveiled plans to defund Violence Against Women grants, which just makes me even more suspicious of Trump. He's clearly not on the side of those who have been raped or sexually assaulted whether by a stranger, a friend or family member. That's very shocking to me. In a world where Rape Culture is rampant on university college campuses, especially against women, how can a President not want to help those who survive such attacks and allow them to recover without having to worry about having the money to pay for psychotherapy sessions?

On top of that, Trump seems to be very ambivalent towards the preservation of Pro Choice rights. Progressives are concerned that the GOP will try and overturn Roe Vs Wade to allow abortion laws to be made at a state level. That could mean millions of women in Republican states being able to get an abortion legally and safely. With the Republicans also announcing their plans to defund Planned Parenthood which helps to carry out abortions safely as well as providing contraception, family planning advice and cancer care, no wonder some women feel their rights are under attack. It's imperative that I stand with those wanting to defend Pro Choice Rights and to continue to lambast the GOP for their lack of understanding about compassionate Christian values. Being a compassionate Christian means allowing women to have power over their own bodies. If they want contraception, they should have access to it. If a woman needs to have an abortion as a result of being raped or because it might harm their own heath, they should have access to appropriate facilities to do this. Conservatives in America (and Northern Ireland) don't agree with this but we progressives do. That's one particular reason why progressives have joined the Resistance against Donald Trump and why there will be a Women's March on Washington DC on January 21st. There's also marches planned in London, Paris, Oslo, Stockholm, Berlin all against Trump. A powerful message is going to be sent to Trump: You won't get another chance to disrespect women and we're watching your every move.

LGBTQIA Resistance:

Trump has a very cold attitude towards improving the rights of LGBTQIA Americans. He's shown that he has no awareness of the progressive policies that Hillary and the Democratic party were going to introduce in relation to improving LGBTQIA rights. Trump won't bring in an Equality Act and he hasn't said whether he's going to honour Obama's Executive Orders such as prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in federal housing schemes. Trump's shown no desire to end conversion therapies for LGBTQIA children in all states, suggested no improvements to the Better Than Bullying Plan and won't pass a Safe Schools Improvement Act or a Student Non-Discrimination Act to protect schoolchildren from being systematically bullied by homophobes and transphobes masquerading as legitimate followers of Jesus Christ. I'm a Lutheran Christian and I cannot condone any attempt to make it OK to shame LGBTQIA people because it is part of "religious freedom" to do so. Trump doesn't care about improving rights for non-binary people by allowing them to change their gender markers on passport documentation. Trump sees LGBTQIA issues as too "niche" for him to deal with at a national level, instead leaving it to states to decide whether they're compassionate enough to offer gender neutral bathrooms rather than force trans and non-binary people to use the bathroom of their gender. It's rather funny- me, my brother, my Mum and Dad all use the same bathroom at home and my Mum never says I can't use it. Why should there be such a fearful attitude to gender neutral bathrooms in public?

Hillary's HIV/AIDS Strategy would have been wonderful to see implemented in the US. Unfortunately Trump doesn't seem interested in helping AIDS patients get better access to treatment. He has shown no preference for capping monthly and out-of-pocket expenses for patients to $250. Trump hasn't shown willingness to support HIV/AIDS research programmes or to get rid of the Criminalisation Laws. I can't see Trump or Melania or Ivanka doing a PR campaign to raise awareness of PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) medication to increase uptake especially amongst those populations at greatest risk of infection - transgender people and black men who have sex with men. How sad. So you can see why there are many in the LGBTQIA community who remain sceptical of Trump. That's even without considering any attempt by House Republicans to repeal Same Sex Marriage nationwide. There's still a fear that Trump will consider this so it's vital that LGBTQIA Democrats, Greens and Independents keep a very close eye on what goes on in the House of Representatives. Any attempt to repeal SSM, to reduce rights for transgender people to serve openly in the military or allow LGBTQIA people to be dismissed unfairly from work.

Environmental Resistance:

Trump seems to be a climate change denier. If you look at his tweets, he blames the Chinese Government for perpetuating a climate change hoax . The problem for Trump is that there is pretty much a scientific consensus which says that climate change is real, mostly man-made and action needs to be taken to protect our planet from being destroyed. Who wants to see animal species made extinct, water supplies shrink and dissent and poverty increase as a result of increases in the world's temperature? Trump should have committed himself to honouring the Paris Agreement on Climate Change but nope, he simply cannot allow himself to do it. Trump doesn't want to commit to cutting green house emissions by 30% as Hillary had wanted to do. Trump doesn't want to get rid of lead poisoning during his term or to ban drilling in the Artic. Trump wants to keep the Keystone XL pipeline going and more than likely wants to make the Dakota Pipeline project a reality again (seeing as he has a vested interest in the project). Trump doesn't like solar panel projects because he thinks they take jobs from coal miners, even though coal mining adds to the greenhouse effect because of an increase in carbon dioxide levels.  Instead Trump nominates a man (Scott Pruitt) to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who wants to see it shut down because it limits industrialisation and fossil fuel mining. Pruitt is attorney general of Oklahoma and an ally of the state's oil and gas industry who filed 14 lawsuits against the EPA because of it's "activist agenda".
Yet it's rather funny than when question by Democrat senators today, Pruitt finally admitted climate change was real, and that Carbon Dioxide levels needed to be monitored by the EPA, something Trump can't bring himself to do unequivocally. Nonetheless, when you nominate a saboteur to run a government department, don't be surprised to see tens of thousands of Green voters and activists rally against Trump.

Disability Rights Resistance:

Perhaps saddest of all for me is that neither Trump nor the new First Lady, Melania have shown much interest in improving the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the US. Autistic children deserve to have all the help and support they need to lead full, happy lives. Hillary had a specific plan to help autistic people across the US because she realised that they had their issues addressed in the past. Trump doesn't care about extending insurance cover for autistic people so they don't have to worry about access to services, whether they be provided through private insurance schemes or government healthcare plans. Trump didn't bother to think about introducing an Autism Works Initiative which would have guaranteed a post-graduate plan for every autistic student. Trump hasn't talked about investing in autism research programmes and encouraging early screening at public schools so that help can be given sooner.  I'm sorry if such social policies seem too "niche" to implement but those who voted for Hillary really cared about them and if Trump wanted to gain a shred of credit from them, he would have come up at least with some proposals to help Autistic students and workers. He didn't. That's one major reason why a progressive such as myself cannot support a man like Donald Trump or his equivalent in UK, the UKIP/Conservative party.

Conclusion:

As you can see, resistance to Trump's presidency isn't just based on the usual lines trotted out by Trump supporters. Depending on the decisions that Trump and the GOP make in the next two years with relation to LGBTQIA issues, disability issues, environmental issues and economic ones, there could be a massive exodus in support for the GOP at the Midterm elections. That means Senate and Congress seats up for grabs that could dent or wipe out the GOP's majority. It's vital that a generation of Millennials opposed to Trump's policy platform are brave enough to speak out against him. That doesn't mean just writing blogposts, putting up drawings, attending marches and Tweetstorming Trump's account. There's a need for Millennials to get actively involved in Politics at a local, state and federal level. If you feel you can't run yourself, encourage and empower a friend, neighbour, colleague or local community hero to do it. Consider offering support using your best skills. Candidates need great graphic designers to do their posters and leaflets, great orators to help craft their speeches, idealists to help come up with new ideas and technophiles to help run social media accounts. The fabulousness behind the Resistance is the fact that many are capable of becoming actively involved and making that difference between winning or losing an election. Now is not the time to cower and capitulate. The Alt-Right journos, trolls and politicians want us progressives to give up because they crave having absolute power but remember there are issues that they never bother to talk about. "Niche" social issues need to be discussed alongside major ones. If we decide not to talk about them, further progress will not be made. That's why, even from these hallowed foreign shores, I can't help but want to be a part of the Resistance. Alt-Right nationalists don't want us progressives/liberals/anyone considered left wing to collaborate with each other to come up with great ideas because they despise globalism/internationalism. Yet the ironic fact is that they do the same thing to empower their base of support. Brexiteers work with Trumpers to bolster their confidence. Why can't us progressives do the same and more often?

Trump wants deference and capitulation. The reaction shown by those who oppose him in the US and around the world shows that he's just not going to get what he wants. That's how it should be. Trump can try and limit the power of the mainstream media by banning press journalists from the White House but that'll only encourage new journalists to come out and ask the difficult questions that he seems so reluctant to answer. The more authoritarian traits Trump displays, the more resistance people will show. Trumputain will soon realise the irony of playing the Rolling Stones' song he loves so much because yes, Trump, sometimes "You Can't Always Get What We Want."