Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Hayley Cropper (nee Patterson)
Laverne Cox 
Leslie Feinberg
Dr Jay Stewart MBE

Last night my daughter sat quietly reading twitter and then burst into tears. She had just read the suicide note of a young trans person from Ohio, Leelah Alcorn, whose parent’s refused to accept that she could be a girl, not a boy, even to the extent of forcing her into ‘Christian’ 'Gay Conversion' / 'Transgender reparative’ Therapy' – which clearly failed. 

For those who don’t know the story go here and here

As we comforted my daughter, she kept saying she was sorry for being silly. But, of course it is anything but silly to feel great sadness at the loss of any life, but even more so when it is a young person, and the loss is entirely avoidable.

Forty years ago when I transitioned in 1975, I frequently felt like I was the dirt that people wiped off their shoes – and I think from reading Leelah’s suicide note that she envisioned that future for herself.

I am so proud that my daughter, the daughter of a Trans man, does not shy away from that fact. Her university friends are all told the story, and when we went to see her sing in last year’s opera society’s performance, her friends lined up to shake my hand. I wish I could have told Leelah that one day she would discover how cool we now are.

Leelah Alcorn 1997-2014
Seventeen year old Leelah killed herself because her parents could not /would not accept she was trans. 

But this is 2014, well -- 2015 tomorrow. We have spent the last 25 years (or in my case 40 years) doing the social education, winning the court cases, getting the legislation passed, and working with clinicians, the Press, and politicians to create change: to make a world where it is OK to be whatever gender you really are.

And, despite Leelah's death, the evidence of that work is everywhere.

Hayley Cropper (1998 – 2014)

In January 2014, 9.7 million people stopped for a moment and wept over the death of a trans woman, albeit a fictional character; Hayley Cropper (nee Patterson), the red-anorak’ed cafĂ© owner in Coronation Street, the nation’s longest running soap.

Hayley first appeared on British televisions in January 1998, and was the globe’s first transgender character in a British soap, and the first permanent trans character in any serialised TV show.

Julie Hesmondhalgh who played the character had worked with the Trans community, notably Annie Wallace from Press For Change to ensure the character and her on-screen life was realistic and plausible. Annie Wallace now plays the part of Transgender school Headmistress; Sally St. Claire in Channel 4's Hollyoaks. She has just been nominated for a BAFTA for her work in that role (October 2016). Hayley became a stalwart of the show, despite earlier opposition from some parts of the public. Julie also provided huge amounts of moral support for the work of the trans activist group; Press For Change.

And it was the public who wrote hundreds of protest letters about Hayley’s marriage, or rather her inability to be able to legally marry Roy Cropper, another of the show’s character’s. 

The protest combined with the campaigning work of Press For Change led, on April 14th 1999,  to Jack Straw, the Home Secretary to announce the government's Interdepartmental Working Group on Transsexual People. 

The 1999 Non-Wedding
The 2010 Wedding
Ultimately the working group recommended action needed to be taken by the British Government, as the alternative was no longer acceptable. In 2005 the Gender Recognition Act 2004 came into force, and Hayley, now recognised as a woman for all legal purposes finally married Roy in 2010.

The character Hayley, took her own life in January 2014, not because she was trans; but because she had terminal pancreatic cancer. Having seen my Mum die from the disease, I understand why the show’s writers chose to highlight the inadequacy of current research and treatment into this disease. Research into it receives only 1% of cancer research funding in the UK despite being the country’s fifth deadliest cancer, and by 2030 is predicted to overtake breast cancer to become the 4th largest cancer killer. Five year survival rates have not increased in the last 40 years, and remain at 4% - compared to the current breast cancer survival rate at 5 years of 87%.[1] 

During the week in which Hayley’s suicide was screened a petition to persuade the government to increase funding for research into pancreatic cancer gained a massive amount of support. With Julie's support it ultimately reached the 100,000 needed for a parliamentary debate just before the Parliamentary imposed deadline of 1 year for such petitions.
Not many actors will have had the opportunity to massively increase parliamentary and social awareness of major social problems. Julie Hesmondhalgh, playing a trans woman, has made the most of the opportunity twice in her character’s career, and she was recognised for not just her acting but also her commitment to justice for Trans people and cancer sufferers in the 2014 National Television Awards earlier this year.

If only Leelah had had the opportunity to watch Coronation Street, 3 nights a week.

Laverne Cox: 2014 - The Tipping Point

In May 2014, the actress and trans woman, Laverne Cox who is one of the stars of the Netflix hit ‘Orange is the New Black” (OITNB) set in a women’s prison, was featured on the front of Time magazine with the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier”.  

On Facebook, Laverne wrote that the Time cover  published on her birthday, was a wonderful present , and
"I realize this is way bigger than me and about a tipping point in our nation's history where it is no longer acceptable for trans lives to be stigmatized, ridiculed, criminalized and disregarded."
In the series OITNB, Laverne plays a trans character in the show – finally an out trans woman playing an out trans woman. One more small victory for the many trans people who have spent, either in the past, or more recently, years of their life being an activist, campaigning for core human rights and fairness for trans people.

A Small Aside

I came to activism in 1974, when the then Manchester and Bradford Gay Liberation groups stormed a British Medical Association conference at Bradford University. We were objecting to the participation of Dr John Randell, a psychiatrist at London’s Charing Cross Hospital who specialised in ‘treating’ transsexual people. His treatment consisted primarily of insisting you take off all your clothes so he could photograph you, and then telling you that you would do what he told you to do, or you could forget having any gender reassignment treatments (he is the unseen psychiatrist here). 

Our invasion was successful – John Randell MD stormed off the stage never to be heard again at an academic conference,  Dr Rosemary King, a cross-dressing, trans-identified GP took his place, and Bradford University gave the Gay Lib groups a free hall and disco a month later to compensate for the distress they had caused.

I was fortunate not to be Dr Randell’s patient whilst starting my gender reassignment treatments. I had seen a psychiatrist in Manchester who had thrown me out, refusing to treat me, telling me that I would never live as a man. 

My GP came to my rescue and in 1975 took the extremely daring step of deciding to have a living trans patient instead of a dead one, and prescribed me testosterone.

Unfortunately, though, in 1978 I did become Dr Randell’s patient for a short time. I was taken to the Emergency Room at the hospital after collapsing during a trip to the theatre in London. Because I am trans, instead of being treated for being ill, I was admitted to John Randell’s secure, locked, psychiatric ward. This meant plastic knives and forks, and a male nurse observing me whilst showering (I was pre-op so this was incredibly humiliating).

It was during this stay, and whilst in his office, that John Randell asked me to remove all of my clothes so that he could photograph me. I refused to do so, telling him to get lost - he wasn’t my psychiatrist and there was nothing wrong with my mind anyway. He then told me that I would stay in his ward until I was willing to be photographed. It took my Mum, Barbara Valente, a senior medical secretary, with the help of her boss, a Professor of Oncology at Christie Hospital in Manchester, ten days to get me released from the hospital. 

The experience on that ward is another story entirely, but I realised then what a megalomaniac Randell was, and how very strange was his behaviour – for a start, he used to walk around the ward muttering under his breath ‘tick tock, tick tock, tick tock’.

Several psychiatrists who trained as junior doctors under John Randell tell the same story – of how he would invite the juniors to dinner at his flat. On his arrival, he would open the door wearing a long blue evening gown and white ‘above the elbow’ long gloves which he wore throughout dinner. One told of going into a rather sleazy East End pub where women of ill repute were known to congregate to discover sat in a corner, dressed like a ‘tart’, the eminent psychiatrist who would a year later in the infamous 1971 Cossey v Cossey Court case declare that the transsexual woman April Ashley could only ever be ‘a pastiche of a woman’. 

Talk about the pot calling the kettle, though in this case it was a mucky frying pan condemning a gleaming copper bottomed kettle.

Gender is the new Black

That aside was about reflecting on how Laverne Cox said we have reached the ‘Transgender tipping point’ – in other words, what happened in the late 1970s is now ancient history.

But is it? The National Review's Kevin Williamson wrote his column with the title "Laverne Cox Is Not a Woman" and said:

"The mass delusion that we are inculcating on the question of transgendered people ... would impose on society at large an obligation — possibly a legal obligation under civil-rights law, one that already is emerging — to treat delusion as fact, or at the very least to agree to make subjective impressions superordinate to biological fact in matters both public and private."
I remember saying (c 1990) 
“I don’t care what they say behind my back, but I do care what they say and do in front of my face”. 
I may be/have been suffering  a delusion for the last 56 years - that I was much more of a boy than a girl, much more of a man than I could have ever been a woman. But the rest of my life (as a teacher, a researcher, a father, a tax payer etc.) is fine - so does my gender matter at all to anyone other than myself and those who love me. 

Of course not. What matters is that as parents we help our kids, like my daughter, and like Leelah's parents should have, grow up into being responsible, tolerant, happy, confidant world citizens acting throughout their lives as eco-warriors, gender warriors, and peace warriors . 

So do I care what Williamson wrote? Not a jot – except it is ignoramuses like him who persuade people like Leelah Alcorn’s parents to announce that their 'son' 'Joshua Alcorn died in the roadway on I-71 in Warren County, Ohio, after being struck by a tractor trailer'.

However, ultimately it is the Williamson’s of this world who have lost the war. The clock will not be turned back. Sadly Leelah Alcorn's parents have lost so much more, the baby who when born they promised to give their life for if only s/he could be happy. It is such a tragedy that they forgot that promise when the time came and it really mattered that they forgot their own difficulties, and instead smiled and gave approval. We are still fighting many skirmishes in this war, and Leelah’s death is, very sadly, a skirmish we lost. 

But, the truth is Trans is everywhere, and especially on British television. The highlight of this Christmas’s telly was an adaptation of David Walliam’s novel for children and young teens; “The Boy in the Dress” (still available to watch on BBC iPlayer here). Enough said. 

I wonder whether the people who used to wipe me off their shoes, ever thought it would come to this in 2014.

The Boy in The Dress
And, I do wish Leelah had sat in her bedroom watching Lavern Cox in 'Orange is the New Black', and this christmas, that she had sat down with her Mum and Dad to watch 'The Boy in the Dress'.

Leslie Feinberg (1949-2014)

Leslie Feinberg being hirself
November again, saw many memorial events take place for the International Transgender Day of Remembrance (TdoR 20th November each year). The TDoR came about as a result of the  “Remembering our Dead” website built by Gwendolyn Ann Smith, to remember those Trans people who were killed by actions conceived in transphobia, transgender hatred or prejudice. Read 2014's horrendous roll of 226 victims here.

Having MS and finding the cold unbearable, I have rarely attended the outdoor event that takes place here in Manchester on a late afternoon on the Sunday nearest the TDOR, in Sackville Gardens (Manchester M1 3HB). But just as we stop to remember soldiers who have died, each Armistice Day on the 11th November, a week or so earlier, on TDOR, I stop for a minute or two and remember our trans community's warriors and heroes who have been killed.

As the years pass, I find myself now, not just remembering those who have died at the hands of others, but also those trans people, trans heroes and trans friends who we as a community, are now losing to illness and old age. Death will claim us all, but when much of a person’s early life was lost to prejudice, discrimination and the hatred of others, it makes the lives of some amazing people seem to have been very short. 

In November 2014, we lost one such trans hero – the Transgender Warrior, hirself, Leslie Feinberg (partner of the poet Minnie Bruce Pratt) – who died, aged 65, from the complications of Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is a tick borne illness which if treated early with antibiotic can now be resolved quickly. It is endemic in the USA.

Unfortunately, the cause of Lyme disease was not discovered until 1982, meaning those US residents infected prior to then, at a time when accessing health care was incredibly difficult for those were poor, frequently developed consequent lifelong health problems, ranging from arthritis to heart damage.

Leslie was one of the poor - working in dead end jobs, despite being an amazing Trade Union organizer, and a several times published author. Leslie could have gone much further than ze did, despite having moved mountains in hir life, but being trans and refusing to live in only one gender, or to live in stealth, ze had little opportunity to advance hirself, either academically or financially. 
The consequences of prejudice can be very long standing.

Your History Homework

If you know little of the Trans community's history, and need to learn more, I can recommend as a must that you read two of Leslie’s books:

  • Trans Liberation: BeyondPink or Blue

  • TransgenderWarriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman

And for those who need to know what it actually felt like in the 1970s and 80s, or
  • If you are a trans man and you want to know how it was like in those early years of trying to access treatments, or
  • If you are an activist and you want to know what activism was like when all we could do was struggle to survive merely as a community of consciousness raising friends, or
  • If you are anyone who wants to create change and end the ridiculous idea that you can ascribe gender to a baby,
then read Leslie’s amazing novel “Stonebutch Blues”.

What a great shame that Leelah Alcorn never managed to read Leslie Feinberg’s books.

Dr. Jay Stewart, MBE

And so to the end of 2014. If there is one person I really wish Leelah Alcorn could have met, it is trans man and (like myself) a dad of twins; Dr Jay Stewart. Co-founder and director of Gendered Intelligence, the UK’s trans youth support organization.
Jay Stewart speaking, with his partner and co-directer of Gendered Intelligence; Catherine MvNamara
This morning's news was that Jay Stewart has rightly had an honourable mention in the Queen’s 2015 New Year’s Honour’s list and he has received an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) For Services to the Transgender community. I expect he is sharing it with Catherine, as undoubtedly their life has been a real partnership of strength and love.

Isn't it amazing how things change. In 2005 I received my OBE for 'Services to Gender’, presumably as nobody dared to let the Queen know such people as us really existed. This year's New Year's Honours list, finally says it as it really is.

Here in the UK there are so many trans folk, family and friends doing all we can to prevent young people from having the same experience as Leelah. 

This year over 20 primary schools have ordered and read PFC’s Guide The Gender Variant Child’s Right To Attend School[2]. That means 20 primary school age children are able to go to school in their own gender identity – the one they know they have themselves, not the one their mum and dad tried to give them several years ago, at a time, when after all, nobody knew what they might grow up to be.

Leelah Acorn’s death is a terrible tragedy. If she lived in the UK, I would like to think that she would be alive today, reading this blog. Next week, Leelah would be returning to college as she prepared to take her A’Levels, before  going on the University. She would meet up, on the way, with her large gang of friends – as Leelah.

Leelah's Mum and Dad would have been in touch with Mermaids when she was much younger, and having learnt how to support their gender variant child in her developmental choices, they now would be leading members of their local PFALG UK group. 

And Leelah might well have regularly seen Hayley Cropper  on Coronation Street, sat with her Mum and Dad, after dinner. She would have certainly sat in her bedroom, with her girl friends, watching Laverne Cox in OITNB. She would have known of Leslie Feinberg, and maybe even read the one of his books by now. And she would have probably met  Jay Stewart and the amazing Gendered Intelligence team, having spent some time last summer working on one of Gendered Intelligence’s Art projects for young trans people.

2015's New Year Resolution

In 2000, after the publication of my personal commentary in 'Perfidious man' my mother told me that I was embarrassing the whole family (by going on television, the radio and speaking out in magazines and the newspapers) and would I please stop 'doing this' ... now. 

I told her that I had resolved many years earlier that I would carry on 'doing this' until no child or teenager had to go through the fear and terrors that I had gone through. 

Thankfully my Mum came round to that idea., especially when, in 2005,  she got to come, 
with my wife Sarah,  to the 'Palace' to watch me receive my OBE. Jay will now have that pleasure with his own family.

Sadly though, Leelah Alcorn’s death means that to carry on 'doing this', is once again my New Year’s resolution, as 2015 knocks at the door.

[1] - See more here
[2] Available by contacting Press For Change at office[ – at – ] (remove[ – at –] and replace with @. PDF copy free to Schools and the parents and guardians of young gender variant children. All others; £12.50 plus £2 postage and packing for a hard copy, £3.50 for a pdf copy by email. All money raised goes to Press For Change.