Tuesday 22 July 2014

Hopeful for a Sunrise

As a scientist, I love classifying things.  But more specifically, I'm an ecologist with a passion for evolution; so I also like to take classes of things and decry them for undermining the wonderful flux of variation we see in the natural world.

Activists though; the very word makes me shudder.  Which is odd, because if I was classifying myself in that regard, I suppose I would technically be one.  Given job, relationship, etc, I could likely be classified as a militant bisexual feminist(1).  And everyone shudders when they walk in.

1 - should really use 'pansexual', but that would just confuse people; especially my mother.  (Love you Mum!)

The trouble is you see, I naturally shy away from anything overtly militant or confrontational (irony noted) and I think feminism is less of a political ideology and more of an obvious reality.  So I should by all logic, gravitate away from anything even remotely activist-related.  On the feminism front, I do.  While there are still plenty of glass ceilings to go around, I feel that the message is pretty well out there now.  In the western world at least, people who traditionally didn't, finally get it, even if they don't all agree with it.  In essence, the shouting has happened and what's left is encouraging everyone to internalise it.  On the transgender front, however, I don't feel like I can just stand quietly to the side.  It's hard to miss that transgender people are being talked about quite a lot at the moment.  They always have been I suppose, but now the people doing the talking are trans themselves.  We are totally in vogue!

It can't be downplayed just how fundamental this shift has been in the last few years; that transgender individuals are increasingly feeling not only happy, but proud to talk openly about their gender.  In 2004 being trans was enshrined in law as a secret that should legally be kept hidden at all costs (this is not just a historical concern and even today, keeping the specifics of your gender secret is often for very good reasons of personal safety, as well as for avoiding discrimination).  A decade later, being trans is now something to proudly grace the cover of Time Magazine, who refer to a 'tipping point' and 'Civil Rights Movement'.  It certainly feels that way.  It's not just simple narcissism either; knowing someone trans is now okay too.  My dad recently started talking about my being a transgender woman, with the bloke fitting his new kitchen.  With pride!

I recognise that we're at a delicate stage in the UK though.  As I noted in my previous article, Blue on Blue, in the passion to change the world we can sometimes fail to notice when that change is actually happening.  The danger is that this so easily undoes the positive momentum that has built.  And trust me, there's real momentum.

Recently, I was invited to an interaction with The Sun newspaper, organised by All About Trans.  I was only too happy to accept the invite, as I'd been subject to a couple of articles in The Sun myself.  After the meeting, it felt to me like one of the most positive and groundbreaking of these type interactions I've yet to attend.  It's no massive surprise though, that in the sort of circles which discuss the progression of civil liberties, when one mentions any tabloid there's not often much love.  "They're all the same," "Evil," "Bullies who'll never change." Et cetera.

To be honest, I was braced for a superficial reception at Sun HQ, while barely letting myself hope for better.  So imagine how incredibly moved I was, just how many of their most senior staff not only came but stayed and engaged enthusiastically for over an hour.  Very quickly, we reassured them that we were there to chat, not to berate them.  They admitted they were bricking it too!  For many journalists, the experience of anything trans is from Embarrassing Bodies-esque TV shows or from a venomous letter following an inappropriate headline or article.  They were perhaps rightly expecting a chest-poking from a platoon of angry self-righteous activists, who'd somehow managed to break the normally solid defenses of the reception desk.  If they had received that, I wouldn't have blamed them for making excuses and cutting things short - they're busy people.  Instead, there was a genuine drive to understand each other's perspective and I am convinced that we actually have another strong ally there now.  An ally with the one of the largest distributions in the UK (narrowly behind the Daily Mail); which is a big deal.

The key to this and all the work that All About Trans is doing, doesn't lie in naive positivity, but in negotiation.  The bad feeling which remains after experiencing an angry mob resplendent with burning pitchforks is long remembered.  I remember speaking to seniors at The Observer about just this and how frightening it is to be on the receiving end; especially when you as an individual don't understand why you're the focus of so much hate.  However justified the protest, the message ultimately has to get through and be taken onboard - otherwise you're just wasting good pitchforks.

At The Sun, I picked up the same vibe. Many of the senior editors there today, still pick up flack and hatred for articles written by The Sun when they themselves were still in primary school!  I'm not naively jumping up to defend all tabloids now, far from it.  But they have a role to play in journalism, which is in demand (and however you feel about the role itself, you have to concede that The Sun do that particular job really very well).  Most importantly though, while we busied ourselves with putting a human face and story behind 'meeting a real transgender person' for them; they in turn highlighted to me that a newspaper is not faceless.  It is put together by real people who aren't at all unlike the professionals I meet and work with day to day.  Incredibly, they reacted in the same way too.

I know from painful experience over the last few years, that having people tiptoe around you while treading on eggshells, for fear of enraging an all-powerful civil rights lobby, isn't a win.  It's a barrier to genuine progress and is the reason that I'm not actually a massive fan of LGBT groups appearing unapproachable or unquestionable.  To avoid these barriers, anyone hoping to improve the world in the way we are, must always remain approachable, over and above being confrontational - however difficult it may be to calm your anger.  As I saw on a postcard recently, 'I'm not arguing; I'm explaining why I'm right'!

We all left The Sun HQ full of hope, with offers of support and guidance from us and promises from them to ask for that same guidance in future.  Time will tell, but I'm happy to give over to naive optimism for a little while.  It's notable that as I told my story, the Managing Editor ('Stig' Abell) had to google for the articles about me.  He was sincerely embarrassed that this was ever allowed to be printed - even though it was well before his time - and he has remained true to his offer of removing the article from their website.

It's an olive branch and I think we should take it.

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