Sunday 2 March 2014

Blue On Blue

Blue-on-blue.  A NATO term for friendly fire – An attack by a military force on friendly forces while attempting to attack the enemy, either misidentifying the target as hostile, or due to errors or inaccuracy.

I don't remember much from Sunday School, but recall from the teachings of Mr Freeman and Mr Pitt in the movie Seven, that pride was something best avoided.  Later Brad was to teach me about airline travel and sculpted torsos in Fight Club, but honestly, both nuggets were of scant use to my later life.

Pride is an important driver.  If well placed and balanced with a suitable dose of temperance.  Without pride we have shame, which is crap to live with and pretty debilitating.  Now that I've established pride as an essentially awesome virtue though, I'm going to suggest we need less of it.  Bear with me!

Of course, in a rather tortured fashion I'm angling my narrative towards Pride marches and Mardi Gras held across the world.  By design they are a place to strut your thing, literally, with pride.  That's an amazing thing to do, I know, but I've never been on a Pride march.  As so many now are thankfully able to, I strut my thing every day, but without fuss (I am English, you know) and wonder if there isn’t something to be said for the quiet approach.

Several times in the course of my work, I've been asked why we (LGBT) need to hold committee meetings.  The front page of my employer’s intranet has for the last few weeks proudly displayed that the Ministry of Defence is Stonewall’s Most Improved Employer in 2014; being ranked number 35 on this year’s Top Employers list, with the Royal Navy and British Army also making the top 100 and the Royal Air Force narrowly missing out at number 108.*

Not bad, considering many still consider the stereotype of these being less than gay or trans-friendly places to work.

"One of my key aims as a leader is to ensure that everyone is given the opportunity to perform at their very best. People are more productive, creative, loyal and successful when they can truly be themselves at work. Winning this award shows that we have taken meaningful action to address our working cultures in order to unlock the full potential of our people by recognising the strength of their diversity."
Jon Thompson
Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Defence

Genuinely, this isn’t just a policy thing – that was just the start. Following the policy and the legal protection, comes the evolution of culture and ethos and for the most part, that's happened within this organisation.   True, no system is perfect, but I still hold up my employer – along with my colleagues and peers – as a pretty good benchmark on how this sort of thing should be done.

Fitting then, that peers sometimes question why we still have special awards and meetings just for LGBT matters.  In the wonderful logic that goes hand-in-hand with life in the forces; we have policy, everyone gets that policy and agrees, why is there still an issue?

It’s difficult to fault the logic and to be fair, on the surface they’re right.  But there are still great swathes of society and the world where this breadth of human nature is still stamped on. Tragically, often literally.  Any alienation, anywhere and no matter how subtle or subconscious, can and does lead to tragic consequences.  Even when it doesn’t and on the surface everything is hunky dory, where there are social barriers there is a loss of creativity, trust and success, for the group as much as for the individual.

*(Naturally, this being Stonewall in England, criteria is specific to LGB employees and Trans is not included (the subject for another article); though from the MoD and Armed Forces’ perspective, LGB&T is inclusive).

Subtlety and Empathy

When Tom Daley came out via You Tube he had me in tears of happiness for him.  Did you see how happy he was?  He positively shines!  Overwhelming love and support followed, but also an echo of, ‘So what?’.  Later, England women's football captain Casey Stoney and Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger also came out, to the sound of many applauding their bravery (and pride) but also to questions about why this was a big deal in the first place.  Surely, in 2014 it’s no big deal to come out, so why go on YouTube or to the newspapers to publicise your story?  Why the drama?

Like my colleagues, they’re actually right.  But missing the big picture.  Fact is, confrontational (or sensationalist) activism was immensely important a generation ago and was the only way to elicit desperately needed change from society.  But it does create something of a clique.  In the UK at least, as a direct result of that activism we have policy and law protecting many marginalised characteristics, such as gender and sexuality.  As a good friend said to me a while ago, we’re now in the process of building bridges.  It’s about normalisation and providing role models.  Tom, Casey and Thomas are still too rare – hugely successful people, sportspeople no less, admired for their abilities as professionals, who totally normalise their sexuality.

As for transgender visibility… we’ve still got a long way to go.  We’re playing catch-up on that front, but I fear we are in danger of alienating the wider public with some of our well-meaning efforts to progress; often out of sheer frustration in the rush to have our voices heard.

An example of this happened a few weeks ago on Piers Morgan’s ill-fated US chat show.  In an interview with Janet Mock, I felt that Piers was not only courteous, but (quite rightly) singing Janet’s praises regarding the work she does and for her recently published book.  They talk about her work, her life, her gender transition (appropriate, as this is a key narrative to her book) and her boyfriend.  All is well and I think to myself, what a lovely chat and how great it is to have cisgender allies like this, even if he’s a little behind the drag curve.

Then an unusual thing happened.  I felt sorry for Piers.

Throughout the interview, the caption at the bottom of the screen stated, Born A Boy.  Meanwhile, Piers’ questions were those typical of a reporter without any experience of trans individuals; namely to shoehorn this person's story into their own rigid and often limited concept of gender and sexuality.
In his opening remarks, he says, “This is the amazing thing about you; had I not known your life story, I would have absolutely no clue that you ever would have been born a boy.  A male.  Which makes me absolutely believe you should always have been a woman.”

Let’s be clear.  As far as emotional correctness goes, Piers was spot on.  Where he failed was in his understanding of terminology and of not allowing (or I should say, encouraging) Janet to tell her story her way.  To be educated, if you like.  In turn, he failed to pass on such an education to his audience and worse, reinforced some serious misconceptions.  That’s frustrating, but I thought this failure was pretty well offset by the warmth and respect he obviously felt towards Janet as a professional as well as her natural intellect and engaging personality.  She was welcomed as a peer.  If you like, there was an obvious bridge between the two of them.

Piers’ failing was arguably a failure of reporting; but regardless, we should love him for trying, not tearing him apart for getting it wrong.  The subtleties in discussing gender variance and even sexuality can be damn confusing for someone who’s not had to learn them, let alone experience them.  They’re tough for me for goodness sake!

Following a backlash from the trans community, Janet was invited back by Piers to explain why she was born a baby, not a boy.  Janet did well to explain why what he’d said could be offensive, and why she felt intimidated not to correct him at the time, but at the same time continued to chastise him for not getting it right first time.

I titled this article, Blue on Blue – referring to the NATO term for friendly fire in conflict.  I suppose my point is that we need to be better at recognising our friends, even when they’re fallible.  Aren’t we all?  It’s our intent that is the important deciding factor.

With the secret meetings, exclusive culture and the risk of vilification if you misunderstand and worse, say the wrong thing, isn’t it understandable that alienation still occurs?  It’s why we need people like Tom Daley to normalise their sexuality and be the unassuming role model that challenges stereotypes.  Who says that it’s okay to chat about this – there’s no taboo here.  It’s also why we need people like Johnathon Ross to act as fantastic allies to break down those imagined barriers.

And that’s just the gay stuff!


One of the great difficulties with transgender issues, is that there’s an inherent level of secrecy which is actually enshrined in law under the Gender Recognition Act 2004.  I understand this need to almost eradicate one’s gender history.  It’s an easy way to avoid misunderstanding the subtleties of gender variance which Piers and so many before him fell foul of (many wilfully so, to be fair).  To use the Piers Morgan interview as an example; don’t refer to me as having been a male, because I wasn’t.  Imagine it from my perspective; I’ve always simply been myself.  I didn’t change and neither did Janet.  Any implication of change is charged with the misnomer of choice, which is completely missing the point.

The easy solution which we've taken to date is, don’t talk about it.  Which doesn’t exactly help to progress the situation.

Worse, the whole concept of hiding one’s gender history implies shame in that fact.  Just as is the case with Tom being openly gay and so obviously happy at not hiding that – even a little bit – there is no shame whatsoever in anyone being trans or being able to talk about that.  It doesn't define them any more than being gay now defines Tom.  It's simply a wonderful level of human diversity.  This is changing, slowly, and more trans people are open and proud about being trans.  This is critical, obviously, if there is to be improved visibility of what it’s like to be trans and a casting aside of imagined taboos.  That can be a scary thing to do.  It can leave you feeling vulnerable and alone.  But there are more allies out there than any of us realise - we just need to recognise them and let them know.

“He changed laws, but he also changed hearts.”
President Obama 
At the Memorial Service to Former South African President, Nelson Mandela

1 comment:

  1. Ayla, since coming into contact with you, you have regularly surprised me. Yes, all us Trans, are fighting a battle, a battle we lose and win at different stages, and yes, so agree with Janet Mock, I was born a baby, a baby with a birth defect, that took 42 years to be recognised, then a further 3 years to be corrected. In regards to the MOD accepting us, I just wish I had known. back in '96, that the MOD accepted us, I left because I thought we were treated the same way, they treated all Gay's, back then? if I had stayed, I would have been a new woman by the time the new Century came around, and the regulations changed? Amanda