Tuesday, 25 April 2017

"Pride, Not Prejudice": A Trans and Non-Binary Anthology For Our Time

Trans and non-binary people in the UK have become more visible over the past few years. Whilst we've always existed (look at the example of eunuchs as gender non-conformists), there's been an attempt to erase our identities out of history, mainly because we dare to challenge the traditional social norms governing gender identity. Most historians have been adherents to a rock solid socialised belief that "God made man and woman only" even though the actual Genesis 1:27 quote is that "God created mankind in his own Image, in the Image of God he created them; male and female he created them"...he never went on to define what masculinity or femininity entailed in the Garden of Eden because acts such as childbirth didn't happen until after the "Fall of Man" incident.....you know the one where Eve got blamed for wanting to find out more about the world from a seductive snake....still have no idea how that story can be proved! For the past thousand years or so most Christian (Catholic and Protestant) denominational interpretations of gender which see gender wedded indiscriminately to biological sex characteristics alone has dominated the socio-historical narrative. It's been preached in every pulpit across the country, along with the idea that adultery was a sin and love of money was "the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10) and yet wealthy male parishioners got away with indulging in adulterous affairs and became incredibly materialistic. At the same time, it's perfectly reasonable to assume that there were parishioners who innately felt they were a man rather than a woman or didn't believe they belonged to one gender or the other. Working class parishioners especially would have faced many barriers towards openly expressing their beliefs and because most weren't given the tools to write "in an academic manner" (because they didn't get access to the grammar school/public school education they needed to be able to attend university), their stories were very rarely recorded.

In fact, there are few biographies of historical gender non-conformists around. One of the most interesting historical figures that received contemporary attention was the enigmatic Chevalier D' Eon, a solider who fought in the Seven Years War and who spent time working as a spy for the French court, having successfully infiltrated the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia dressed and presenting as a maid of honour. The Chevalier spent the last 33 years of their life presenting and identifying solely as a woman. D'Eon actually insisted at the time they were assigned female at birth, and were forced to dress as a man in order for their father to inherit money from their relations. King Louis XVI granted D'Eon their request to be recognised as a woman, on the condition that they wear women's clothing for the rest of their lives. There was no real fairytale ending for the Chevalier; they ended up impoverished and living in London following the French Revolution.

Very few students in state schools in the UK, let alone trans and non-binary ones know of D'Eon's fascinating story. I've always felt that the lack of trans and non-binary role models being taught about as part of the National Curriculum has meant that it's been difficult to encourage acceptance and empathy for gender non-conforming identities which would help to tackle instances of street harassment and transphobic hate crime. LGBTQIA+ inclusive Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) will help to introduce Key Stage 3 and 4 students to the basics of trans and non-binary identities (i.e. definitions), but exploring biographies and ideas that have originated from trans and non-binary people would help challenge the narrative that trans people are "a trend" or that non-binary people didn't exist until Judith Butler's Queer Theory came along. Judith Butler may have challenged traditional gender stereotyping head-on academically but the view that gender identity is something that can be changed or is fluid has existed far longer than Queer Theory has been taught in A-Level English Literature.

Here are a few examples of historical trans and non-binary people who could be discussed in schools:
  • Elagabalus, a Roman Emperor who was known to be outrageously bohemian, having been married 5 times to both men and women. Elagabalus does seem to have been gender-fluid, as it was documented by contemporary historians that they wore women's cosmetics and dressed in the latest female fashions of the era. It's also recorded that Elagabalus offered a huge reward for any doctor who could give them female genitalia
  • Albert Cashier, a trans man who served in the Union army during the American Civil War and took part in 40 battles; he was so dedicated to the Unionist cause that he overpowered a prison guard so he could return to his regiment
  • Laurence Michael Dillon was the first trans man to undergo a phalloplasty and wrote the first book about transitioning and trans identity: "Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics"in 1946. Dillon believed gender identity was innate and unaffected by conversion therapies or psychotherapy and concluded that hormone therapy and surgery was the best way to help trans people. Dillon took part in the first gender reassignment surgery (GRS) in the UK, an orchidectomy (removal of the testes) operating on Roberta Cowell, a trans woman.
  • Roberta was a British fighter pilot during WWII who was taken prisoner by the Germans after crash landing in Bochtolt, Germany. She was kept in solitary confinement for weeks at an interrogation centre before being imprisoned at Stalag Luft I. She had a vaginaplasty on the 15th May 1951, after presenting as intersex to a private gynecologist following her secret orchidectomy. Her story was published in Picture Post and her biography was published soon afterwards, which brought her attention from international media, especially in the US. Cowell did continue stating she was intersex for the rest of her life and unfortunately spoke out derogatorily against trans people who had XY chromosomes in a 1972 interview with Michael Bateman of The Sunday Times, calling them "freaks".
  • Alan L. Hart was one of the first Americans to undergo a hysterectomy in order to have GRS. Hart was an X-ray technology pioneer, having developed techniques for tuberculosis screening and his research helped to save thousands of lives.
It's important that trans, non-binary, gender-fluid, genderqueer people know that there were people before them who dared to challenge the dual gender binary norms. That's why an Unbound anthology "Trans: A British History", was crowdfunded. Unbound, are an innovative publishing team that allows books of all types to be published with the help of Crowdfunding campaigns.  Over 113,658 people have supported an Unbound project and the company has published 218 books to date (https://unbound.com/about) including the groundbreaking and timely anthology of 21st century authentic voices from the British BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) community, edited by Nikesh Shukla, author of the 2010 Costa First Novel Award shortlisted "Coconut Unlimited". "Trans: A British History is being edited by  Christine Burns MBE who helped to build up the trans activist organisation "Press For Change" and took part in the process to create the Gender Recognition Act 2004 will be important to read. I actually suggested Philip Davies and Richard Littlejohn go and get themselves a copy of the anthology to help inform their understanding of the history of trans activism in the UK and read the words of trans activists who have fought hard to allow people like me to be protected from discrimination in the workplace (protected characteristic in the Equality Act).

However, it's imperative that we challenge the assumption made by those on the right who adhere to conservative doctrines on gender identity that trans and non-binary people think, believe or act in the same way. Trans people do not all believe that SRE should be LGBTQIA+ inclusive (unfortunately) and there are activists who believe that trans people are judged too much on how "alike" they look to "normal" cis men and women and are accepted the more "aesthetically pleasing" they appear. Representation in the mainstream media has been rather tokenistic, with trans people being required to offer their view "as a trans person" on controversial topics in a debate structure that's designed to look for stark differences in opinion than focusing on similarities. Destructive rather than constructive. Trans and non-binary people aren't always prepared to just sit there and wait to be cordially invited onto another diversity panel where they can give their opinion to those who may already be allies. Wouldn't it be nice for a trans person to present a BBC politics or debate programme or a non-binary person to win a prize for their photography or painting or play based on the merit of their work, not just because they'd be the "first" to do it? Wouldn't it be nice for a trans non-binary person to be to contribute their view on any topic, regardless of their own gender identity?

You might think therefore that it would be counterproductive to be excited at being asked to contribute an essay to a new Unbound anthology project that features trans and non-binary voices. However the anthology is ambitious and aims to explore the intersectional issues that affect trans and non-binary and cis peoples' lives in the UK. The anthology will contain essays covering a wide range of issues that affect trans and non-binary people, from the nature of passing (and the unnecessary amount of gatekeeping that takes place based on superficial aesthetic definitions), trans feminism and feminism within the trans community (whether trans people can really take their place advocating for gender equality within an inclusive, intersectional feminist movement and why it's important to allow non-binary people their space to advocate freely too) and the relationship between gender identity and religious faith (the challenge of being a believer and defying denominational interpretations of gender and why religious texts help in this respect). The essays will also touch on issues that are debated by the population at large from a trans and non-binary standpoint, including mental health, education, disability, socialisation/class and representation in the mainstream media. Because you know trans and non-binary people talk about a lot more in their daily lives than just their gender identity or sexuality. We have multiple interests and multiple types and levels of expertise which should hopefully be laid bare in this comprehensive, challenging set of essays. Plus, there's also going to be an essay which shall be exploring the "origin of trans identities in Victorian London" which I must personally say I'm looking forward to reading.

"Pride, Not Prejudice" will be edited by Helen Belcher, current Lib Dem Parliamentary Party Candidate for Chippenham, businesswoman and author who has been "recognised by the Independent on Sunday as one of the most influential British LGBT people three years in a row"(.https://unbound.com/books/pride-not-prejudice).  Helen is also co-founder and co-director of Trans Media Watch, which campaigns for a change in mainstream press attitudes towards trans, non-binary, gender-fluid and genderqueer people. 

"Pride, Not Prejudice", will contain essays from 21 trans and non-binary people from across the UK who come from all walks of life. Some contributors you'll have heard of before whilst others are writing professionally and/or being published for the very first time.
Contributors include:
  • Seasoned, passionate trans activists and all round fabulous trans non-binary Youtube vid producing couple Fox Fisher and Owl https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvhxR6fuRcl9EeZrvKOEhiA (Fox also co-founded My Genderation, making 50 films exploring contemporary trans and non-binary issues and speaking to trans and non-binary people, including trans teenagers)
  • accomplished comic actress and the UK's "only goth, lesbian trans comedian" Bethany Black
  • awesome Maria Munir who has the envious brag that they came out first to President Barack O B A M A who has written for the Huffington Post (equally enviable)
  • superb writer, (I adored the 2015 "Tiny Pieces of Skull") writer, critic and founding member of Feminists Against Censorship, Roz Kaveney who appeared in a 1988 After Dark episode featuring radical feminist Andrea Dworkin
  • talented photographer J Jackson (see their non-binary photo project on Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/nonbinaryportraits/) 
  • author of the powerful and incredible moving "Trans: A Memoir", Juliet Jacques who began chronicling her transition on her blog in 2010
  • roving reporter and all round funkster Sarah O'Connell, who has produced a YouTube show introducing novices to trans issues: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHjm1cByr7oYs15Z9dOzWcA
  • passionate writer, founder of https://aetherandichor.wordpress.com/ a publisher of short fantasy stories and future critic to watch out for Eris Young (you can access Eris's blog here: https://apiomancy.wordpress.com/)
  • the phenomenal Surat-Shaan Knan who founded and manages Rainbow Jews, Twilight People (a project exploring faith and gender beyond the dual binary distinction) and Rainbow Pilgrims (a project that aims to uncover the "hidden history" of LGBTI migrants of faith who settled in the UK, from the Jewish Kindergarten Transport (1938-1940) to the present Syrian refugee crisis)
  • trans role model and IT engineer Justine Smithies who attended Jeremy Corbyn's (and one of my fav MPs, Shadow Secretary for Equalities Sarah Champion's) LGBT History Month reception: http://justine.smithies.me.uk/
  • diversity guru for Sainsbury's and fellow dyslexic Leng Montgomery 
  • amazing musician and campaigner Kate Hutchinson, currently director of Wipe Out Transphobia, co-founder of TELI and working with Pathways Training  (you can access her insightful blog here: http://katiekhaos.blogspot.co.uk/?m=1) 
  • then of course there's someone like me....a working class, dyspraxic, non-denominational blogger just grateful to be in such esteemed company!
The trans and non-binary voices you'll be reading will be authentic and from the heart. They will be explaining how they see 21st century British society and how 21st century British society perceives and evaluates them as individuals and as part of the LGBTQIA+ community. The words that you'll read may make you uncomfortable at times but only because those words may be exposing examples of blatant hypocrisy that exists at every level of British society when it comes to discussing gender, especially the eagerness of some who claim to be critical of gender stereotyping to resort to trans-misogyny and cissexism to justify their separation arguments. There's no doubt there will be essays critiquing viewpoints such as "trans people are seeking to erase homosexuality" or "trans women are wanting to invade the ladies loos" or "trans people are a threat to the traditional family unit" or as the current supposedly "diversity friendly" Catholic Pope Francis puts it trans people are declaring "global war on marriage". These viewpoints do need to be questioned and stereotypes need to be broken down, not reinforced.

At the same time, I hope the essays will explore the similarities in views between those critical of gender and trans and non-binary people who want to be seen authentically as themselves and be valued for who they are. Challenging outdated gender stereotypes and roles should be a common goal. Do gender critical feminists really think trans people transition so they adopt the role of homemaker or want to be subservient as part of some weird "fetish" that some far-right Conservative men would love to see come back into the mainstream? Why do we want to live in a world where we're all het up about insisting on men wearing suits to work and women having to wear high heeled shoes to stand at reception just to "make a good impression to clients?" Surely it's better to question those gender norm policies and change mindsets, so we get to the point where we don't batter an eyelid when even a cisgender guy comes into work wearing a dress!

When I engage with people I don't particularly care what make-up they are wearing or what shoes they have on their feet. I care about their ideas, their opinions and views and empowering people whose voices are rarely heard to share them with the world. I want to hear their views on how to make HR policies fairer to trans and non-binary employees or to help disabled people who are losing access to benefits that they need to maintain a dignified and healthy life. I care about listening to people who have ideas about how to engage our young people in the political system or folks who just want to extend the hand of compassion to Syrian refugees fleeing the horrendous conflict between dictator President Assad, rebel forces and ISIS. Trans and non-binary people across the UK have such ideas yet they hardly get the chance to discuss them. Instead, the mainstream media outlets want to rehash discussions that stagnate, salivating over which trans women will deny they are real women and which non-binary people will be shouted at by those who engage in hate discourse rather than offering constructive criticism. I can't believe we're still at the stage where we are debating the very existence of trans and non-binary identities. Could you imagine constant mainstream debating of homosexual identity on a weekly basis in 2017 in the UK? It's bad enough watching the disturbing events unfolding in Chechyna, where a radical Muslim authoritarian President has publicly declared he's going to massacre innocent people before Ramadan on the basis of their sexuality.

Trans and non-binary activists, politicians, journalists, painters, architects, musicians, lawyers, healthcare professionals, aid workers, teachers and yes, even satirists are using their platforms to debate, discuss and critique issues that affect all of us in 21st century UK albeit with their unique perspective gained through individual life experiences . The "Pride, Not Prejudice" anthology will offer a valuable, vital window into such debate, discussion and critique. For that reason alone I believe that it deserves to be published. So if you want to help get it printed, published, promoted and disseminated and if you want your own copy, you can pledge your donation on the Unbound website here:
https://unbound.com/books/pride-not-prejudice. Every pledge counts and will be appreciated.

(Thanks to Eris for designing this!!!)