Friday, 18 September 2015

Transcript - Stonewall Keynote, 17 April 2015

I've been asked if I would add here the transcript of the speech I gave at Stonewall's Workplace Conference on 17 April 2015.  It's rough, as it was meant to be spoken rather than read, but here it is anyway, in raw...

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Stonewall's Workplace Conference, 17 April 2015


I was initially filled with trepidation in accepting the honour of addressing you at this conference today.  Trepidation quickly giving way to disbelief and finally fear when I realised just who had stood here before me and who’s shoes I have to fill.  My dubious thanks then to Ruth Hunt and Caroline Ellis who are about to discover, like you, that I’m just a simple pilot. 
I am not a CEO in charge of half a million employees.  Nor a Baroness.  Nor a minister in charge of a country – All previous speakers here.  No.  I'm a fairly simple Search and Rescue pilot who considers it a good start to the day if I manage to feed the cats and find a matching set of bra and pants before leaving for work. 

Sirs, Ma’ams, Ladies and Gentlemen.  My bio describes me as a proud member of the RAF Search and Rescue Force and that couldn’t be more true.  I’m proud of these (medals), of these (rank bars) and of these (wings).   I am stood here in my formal uniform, rather than my more usual flying suit, both of which hold fairly overt symbology.  I am equally proud though, to be a part of the transgender community.  There is no overt symbology for me on that score though, and to show my pride in this, I have to talk about it… 
In this company, any pride may seem obvious, but apply that statement slightly wider and it is one that may not traditionally fit.  I spent the first few years since my coming out as trans wrestling with whether to keep that fact secret or not once my transition was over.  Many of my close friends advised that I should, for very sound reasons of personal safety and avoiding discrimination – you don’t seek to face bigotry, discrimination or worse still become known simply for being trans at the expense of everything else about yourself. 
Two things ultimately stopped me from hiding my trans-ness.  1) The Sun Newspaper – more on that later. 2) The unblinking support of my employer who have supported trans individuals openly serving since 1999 – I often tell the story which symbolises this for me perfectly; of the grizzled guard on the gate at RAF Valley.  He was the guy who greeted me on my first day presenting at work as myself, but with my old ID card in hand which didn’t exactly look like me anymore.  The guard, a man from a very different era of Diversity and Inclusion, threw up a salute, smiled, and said “Ma’am, you aren’t the first and you won’t be the last. Good luck to you.”
  
What he didn’t realise then, and probably still doesn’t, is the importance simple actions like his played in making it even possible for trans people like me to contemplate having pride in that part of themselves.  You see, the important people in this aren’t just people like me, not really.  The people surrounding me are. 
Allies.  Are you spotting a theme today?  Allies are brilliant for a number of reasons and if you suspect you might be an ally I hope you know just how important you are.  It’s very obvious for someone like myself to stand up and advocate for trans people.  But the relationships a person has throughout their lives are just as important as the individual.  When you get down to it, how one relates to the world, as their innate self, is a critical element of what being trans actually is.  It stems from deep sense of self, but is experienced externally.  Dr Jay Stewart does a fantastic TED Talk on this very subject and explains gender far more eloquently than I could – Highly recommended viewing.
  
Highlighting those positive relationships, be they professional, casual, romantic or otherwise, is a powerful statement, putting a person in context.  By doing so overtly, even in very small and casual ways, each of you are in turn giving permission to others to do the same.  The power of this simple act can’t be undersold.  But it only works if that message is heard.  With a subject as personal and sensitive as being transgender, where confidentiality and respect for personal boundaries are so important and married to a minefield of terminology and differences in lived experiences, it’s actually understandable that some would feel uncomfortable or unqualified to pass comment.  It’s just one reason why I… felt a huge sense of progression… when Ruth began Stonewall’s thorough consultation with the trans community.  I won’t hold back in voicing my support of that and the way the process was conducted.  It can be a tricky road to begin, but we truly are stronger together and I thank Stonewall for their vision.
This, to me, is a sign of progression and of evolution. 
A trans friend described my transition to me just this week as a ‘Gold Plated Transition’.  I’ve kept my career, my beautiful wife, Wren, her and my families’ love and so much more besides.  In retrospect, I can say that, well of course I kept all those things, why shouldn’t I have?   In the run up to my coming out though, I felt that each and every one of these things could so easily be lost.  I almost expected it.  That I was left with no other way to continue life (in a very real sense) without being braced to lose everything I loved, is small testament to the anguish anyone who’s experienced gender dysphoria can relate to.  Everything I had learned through my life about trans people; subtle and overt jokes, the tabloid stereotype, the chat-show victim’s story, the lack of anyone visible who hadn’t lost at least some of those things, alongside their dignity as a person.  That lifetime of education forced me to believe, above all other things, that I absolutely, certainly could not be ‘one of them’.  If I was, then I knew my fate.  It was a certainty.
  
Except, I did know of some trans people who were respected, who were living full and… well, normal lives.  And some of them even worked in the same sector as myself.  They were quiet about it, as was befitting of the time, but in a small world, I had met them.  I’m not sure they know just how important they were to saving my life.  They gave me a glimmer of hope and of possibility. 

I remember vividly the weekend that I resolved to live the rest of my life as myself.  My biggest fear, after trying everything I could to live as the male character people assumed I was, was that I could die one day without anyone ever having known who I was.  Even the people I loved the most would never have known me.  This was the void that had always been within me, and always remained; even after ticking all the boxes of success that I could, and whatever I tried to hide this fact (even from myself), that aching void remained. 
That weekend, my parents called me and offered their love and support… whatever happened.  Dad, bless him, in typical dad style, had been on Google researching and proceeded to teach me all the things he’d learned about being transgender! 
  
I recognised instantly how fortunate I had been.  I huge slice of that fortune was my family… my wife. A significant enabler though, was the policy and (after 10 years’ of experience), the ethos of the RAF.  I could ask my boss for a meeting, come out (simple really!), and while he looked at me with a look that exclaimed, “Look, I want to help, but know nothing about this!” I could hand him a copy of the policy document that explained exactly what could happen next.  I promised him as much support in return as I was asking from him and my colleagues – it would be a transition for them as well, of course.  From that day on, we both moved forward with a policy of honesty and pragmatism.  He was my rock and one of the most natural leaders I’ve had the pleasure to serve with.  As an individual, as a unit and as an organisation, we were served well by the policies in place and came out the other side fitter for it. 

I went through a process of coming out to a few people at a time, wanting to use my own words to avoid the stereotypes prevalent in culture then.  It was very much my choice to come out and by no means a choice that everyone makes.  As good as they are, people are still people and the rumour mill began to turn.  Word got back to me that rumours were circulating and my boss suggested that I nip things in the bud by speeding up my process of coming out.  I was on the road at the time and wondered what could possibly be the fastest way of reaching as many of my friends and colleagues in my own words.  Facebook!  My boss later described this moment as, “Going nuclear” and apparently not quite what he had in mind… 
I was pretty pleased with that coming out letter – shared widely and respectfully amongst my colleagues and friends via social media.  But it did mean that I received the call 48 hours later, that my story would be spread across the front page of The Sun.  I remember it clearly, in 2010, and rather fittingly with current events, as the other headlines of the day revolved around a general election. 

They say, “Never read the comments.”  They, are right.  But I don’t know many people who resist that temptation.  You can imagine them.  My very existence put up for public scrutiny.  Across a number of papers’ websites who had reprinted the article, comments ranged from, “How can someone so selfish be allowed to do that job.” To suggestions that I was mentally unstable.  I wasn’t mentally unstable, incidentally, and I had a doctor’s note to prove it.  I was just trans.  I am.  I fix.  I move on. 
Always one to look for a silver lining though, there was ultimately an upside to this experience.  I sought guidance at the time from members of an organisation called ‘Trans Media Watch’ and was fortunate to become involved with a project that later evolved into what’s now called ‘All About Trans’.  Their approach to changing attitudes in the media fitted my own and was based on engagement and visibility, rather than on chest poking and blame.  Literally, we’ll feed you tea and cake, just come and meet a real trans people and engage on a level playing field.  Also, there’s so much you could be saying.
The response has been fantastic and media representation has reflected a growing confidence and inclusion of trans people in UK society.  People know a bit about it now and they talk slightly differently about it.  Trans people are competent, they are professionals; they love and they are loved; they don't just demand inclusion in society, they are society.  Increasingly, the idea of a need for secrecy around this subject only serves to highlight a type of shame at being trans, which is certainly not justified.
‘Not reading the comments’ is a suggestion I’ve stiffly ignored many times over the years since then.  But doing so has let me witness a shift.  Over time, the positive comments started to balance out the hate until eventually, when reading comments on current articles; I noticed hatred and fear of trans people being in the minority, and better yet, often challenged.  It’s a crude measurement of culture, but inspiring. 
Like many here, I tend to get correspondence following this sort of thing, from all sorts of people.  When that is from a teenager who takes the time to write and tell me they see a future now thanks to a positive story, I’m reminded of the role models I had and future they gave me.  If a visible and positive trans story gives one young person hope for the future, then that’s got to be good for everyone, however you analyse it. 

I was fortunate.  Extremely so.  I was inherently protected by the RAF.  Living on a base patrolled by military guards with guns is reassuring to be honest, as is a media team on hand to offer advice.  Once again though, my fortune highlighted to me the lack of fortune that other’s still experienced. 

There has been a lot of reporting recently on transgender teenagers who have taken their own lives.  They were the people who didn’t hear the message that things can be okay.  It can work out and in fact, you can do well… this does not need to be a millstone to carry.
That’s true in my world. The world I’ve been blessed to experience.  But was not true for any of the dozen trans-related suicides, reported in this year alone.  And that’s just those reported, and just those who had lost all hope.  In some very developed parts of the world right now, there is a very real and current threat to alienate and even deny the very existence of trans people.  Of people just like me.  That’s a strong message for kids growing up trying to be honest with the world about themselves.  If I had been born in one of these states and not the UK, I would barely have been allowed to form part of society.  That terrifies as much as it baffles me. 
The #itgetsbetter campaign, Stonewall’s Education For All initiatives, Diversity Role Models, and many others with a similar message, are far reaching.  But we still see deliberate barriers put up to block that kind of message.  Many of these kids who’s deaths were reported recently heard it, but didn't believe it over the noises telling them they shouldn’t exist. 
Allies are critical at this time. Young people particularly, especially those working out their gender or sexuality, need to hear the message, clearly, consistently and from as many of us as possible, that we need them to be their wonderful selves.  That we'll help them work it out and that contrary to being a millstone around their neck, authenticity can be the biggest enabler to their lives.  The finest way to stick two fingers up to those who would crush your spirit, is to live and live well. 
I am not alone in that and am constantly inspired by the many trans men and women who increasingly have the confidence and the mutual support to be open and honest about that part of themselves.  Unashamed at being trans.  Most importantly, I've been struck by the diverse backgrounds and talents that these people possess and how impressive they are as individuals.  What is being recognized now, both within and outwith the community, is that being trans is not something to be overcome, it is something to be embraced and an experience in self-awareness that adds true value to the individual.  (Employers take note!).  They exemplify to me not just the history that’s led us to where we are now but represent a strong future; so many of them standing as role models and excellent representations of what being trans means in the 21st century. 

Sometimes, after these type of events, I’m left with a wonderful sense of community but come out the other end wondering, “Okay… what next?” 
I was fortunate to be involved in the Stonewall Leadership Programme last year.  At the end we were encouraged to make a statement and a promise.  Mine was, that I would stop apologising. 

Transgender is not a phrase that should be mumbled.  By anyone.  I promised to stop apologising.  Each trans person has an inherent capacity to be a role model in their own right.  Each person connected to them, each person who reads a story and each person who comments positively… are role models.  We can afford to be vocal about that.  I’m proud to belong to a community, an organisation and a nation showing just what is possible when diversity of human experience is embraced. 
I said I was just a simple pilot.  I really am.  In Search and Rescue, we regularly find ourselves thrown into working with units from organisations with who we are not directly connected.  We turn up with different processes and capabilities and very different organisational structures, but in the moment we all have the same focus.  Just like the many sectors and organisations represented here today, and coining a phrase that’s been used for SAR a few times in recent years, “We come together, to bring hope to those who have none.” 

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