Thoughts on Stonewall: Parts 1 & 2

This Saturday, Stonewall UK is holding a closed doors meeting with a hand-picked group of established UK trans activists about how it might begin to support trans communities. In spite of assurances to the contrary when the meeting was announced, the list has only just been published. Nevertheless, the meeting is taking place, and I’d encourage everyone who can to write publicly about it or contribute to Stonewall’s current consultation.

While the question of what trans communities in the UK need is a greater one, the question of what Stonewall can do for us is still broad. Accordingly, I’ve broken this post into three parts: What Stonewall (the LGB charity) should already be doing, what past wrongs it must address, and what it might do in future (with trans communities).

Stonewall (Present)

Right now, Stonewall is nominally a Lesbian, Gay and Bi charity, though its charitable remit is broader (human rights) and its work narrower (predominantly Lesbian and Gay). As it stands, the treatment of trans people in Stonewall’s work is inexcusably sparse, even if criticism is constrained to our intersection with LGB communities. To continue functioning as a credible LGB organisation, Stonewall’s political materials at the very least must permit the possibility of trans LGB people. It is no longer tenable to praise and form partnerships with organisations whose LGB-friendly stock is rising while they simultaneously do active harm to trans LGB people.

Just as trans people are lesbian and gay, whatever the crises of representation in our own organisations, we are also bi, and people of colour. If Stonewall is to include trans people in its current work (as it should), that means addressing longstanding criticisms of its bi inclusion, as well as its complicity in a colonialist and whitewashed discourse around LGB liberation. In short, it should properly reflect the movement from which it took its name.

(Disclosure: I’m white and queer, so please refer to and signal-boost criticisms from bi communities and communities of colour over mine)

While all of Stonewall’s resources should adequately reflect the diversity of gendered experience within LGB communities, it owes an acute duty to LGB young people. Growing up LGB without a word for it is difficult. Growing up trans and having your gender dismissed as a facet of LGB experience can be devastating. Whatever its plans for the future, Stonewall must urgently integrate the possibility and validity of trans identities into its work on sex and relationships education

Stonewall (Past)

Over the last 10 years, Stonewall has often cited its limited remit as a reason not to intervene on behalf of trans people, while on the other hand having conversations which materially affect trans lives in private. The basis for any trans work on Stonewall’s part must be one of trust, including an acknowledgement of where its past work has been to the detriment of the UK’s trans communities.

Most recent is the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act. Prior to a complete about-face on the necessity of same-sex marriage in the UK, Stonewall’s former CEO suggested that conversations were had around resolving the forced divorce aspect of the Gender Recognition Act. It is vital that Stonewall disclose which conversations were had on the subject, with whom, and to what end.

There must also be some explanation of the appropriation of “Equal Marriage” – adopted by bi and trans activists to describe the law we needed – to describe a law which failed bi and trans people. Stonewall’s tacit acceptance of the spousal veto – in both its praise for Baroness Stowell, and continued reference to “Equal” Marriage – is not acceptable.

Less glamorous, though even broader in scope, is the Equality Act. Rushed into law during the parliamentary wash-up, through a civil service hostile to trans women, it’s deeply flawed. Most troubling is the explicit absence of harassment protection for LGB and trans pupils in schools. Stonewall and others have accepted this, citing cases which would  informally be described as “harassment” and could be prosecuted.

What has never been shown is the necessity of removing explicit harassment protections when they remain for other relevant characteristics, and the curriculum is explicitly exempted in all cases. There is simply no way trans pupils – a supposed rarity when the act was drafted – would receive stronger protections than LGB pupils. As with the Marriage Act, it is impossible to assume good faith without knowing which conversations were had about this concession, with whom, and why.

There are countless media mishaps (some bigger than others) which also bear addressing, but in the interest of comparative brevity I’ll avoid them here. Suffice to say that where Stonewall has briefed the media to the detriment of trans people, it should be open to discussion with those affected on how to rectify any resulting harm.

Part 3 will follow, spoons permitting.


LGBT elections: Don’t vote for Tokenism

The year is 2014. It’s over 10 years since university LGB groups in the UK started including trans students in their campaigns, and at least 5 since those which didn’t started to attract funny looks from everyone else. Yet, without a hint of irony, candidates in their elections continue to stand on exclusively LGB platforms.

Representing trans students on UK campuses is a full-time job, almost exclusively done by part-timers as part of a wider portfolio. Until there are separate full-time trans officers in every Student Union, every LGBT officer or society chair needs to put forward a clear program for trans liberation. If they don’t? Don’t vote for them.

If their approach to sexual health is just condoms and dental dams? Don’t vote for them.

If they don’t have a position on the crisis in NHS trans services? Don’t vote for them.

If they don’t know how your institution unduly regulates trans identities? Don’t vote for them.

Representing trans people isn’t an optional part of any overarching LGBT portfolio. It’s not good enough to defer to us after you’re elected. We need to know up front that you’ve got our back. And if you’re not standing yourself? Don’t vote for tokenism.

Re: Solidarity – Supporting the Strike from your Inbox

Following on from the 31st of October, union members in higher education are working to rule, with a further strike announced for the 3rd of December. October’s strike for fair pay for university workers attracted much greater support from students and their unions than in recent years, though some students did cite the rise in the tuition fee cap as conscious reason for crossing picket lines.

During my degree, my mental health (and before that a complete absence of class politics) limited my practical solidarity to interventions at SU meetings, and supportive conversations with staff and fellow students. With that in mind (and on the understanding that those who can afford to should do more), here are some suggestions I wish I’d received for supporting industrial action from the relative safety of my inbox.

Note: Generic tactics are not a substitute for working directly with your campus unions. If at all possible, take your lead from far left staff, not far left bloggers.

At many institutions, management will send a mass email out prior to the strike, and most such emails will assume that students expect to be inconvenienced and assert that the strike won’t cause any disruption. This is by definition a move to undermine the strike – no disruption means an ineffective action. It is propaganda, just as if workers had emailed the student body predicting a complete shutdown – but with the impunity of a signature from some provost, registrar, or other.

The most obvious response here is to reply thanking management for making you aware of the action, declaring your support for it, and expressing your expectation that they will of course accept the striking workers’ very reasonable demands. You don’t have to be super liberal or super militant (just be you), but straightforward politeness (however much it sticks in your throat) would be advisable. The important thing is that they know that students see the strike as more than a timetabling issue, and that campus workers have your support.

If not in the same email, you might separately receive details of arrangements to practically undermine the action – rearranged classes, altered opening hours, etc – and an address to contact if you are inconvenienced by the strike. Understanding as you do that the inconvenience is a consequence of staff receiving a 13% real terms cut in wages (essentially 34 days lost pay), this is probably also the address to contact to clarify that students won’t be penalised for refusing to cross a picket line. This is particularly important for international students, students receiving bursaries, and those with assessments scheduled, all of whom may stand to be substantially penalised for non-attendance. There’s no need to phrase it as a cheeky request – it isn’t. It’s a reasonable expectation. Management are the ones in dispute with staff, not you.

Part of the tactical efficacy of strike action comes from the element of surprise, so you won’t always know which lecturers are planning to take action. Accordingly, there’s no harm in sending messages of solidarity to everyone whose classes you’d otherwise expect to be attending on the day of the strike. Lecturers on the whole genuinely care about their students – having your support will be important to them, and could be the tipping point for staff who are undecided. The decision to strike is a difficult one, and knowing that their classroom won’t receive them with hostility the week after will help make it easier.

So you’ve contacted management, your department, and your lecturers. Who’s left? Students, of course. If you’re a course rep, society chair, or similar, consider (carefully – don’t risk more than you’re comfortable with) providing the students you represent with any information that was left out of management’s announcement – say, the substantive details of the dispute. As an individual student you can call on your representatives to do likewise, and share information about the action anywhere other students congregate – Facebook groups, (appropriate) VLE bulletin boards, etc. Don’t be preachy, don’t just copy and paste. This struggle is relevant to students, so just present it at face value as such.

There’s always more to be done, but setting narratives is important. That one management email is supposed to do that for your campus – and on moderate ones, it’ll work. Even if you can’t physically / mentally make it to the picket, disrupting that prescribed “consensus” helps to create political space for those who can.

We Won’t Kick Transphobia Out of Football with Rainbow Laces

Today Stonewall announced a campaign, sponsored by Paddy Power, in support of gay footballers. As well as the usual press and publicity, every player at the 134 professional clubs in the UK has been sent a set of rainbow laces and asked to wear them on Saturday as a show of solidarity. Great stuff, right? Unfortunately not.

Last year, Paddy Power ran an advert for Cheltenham Festival which boiled down to Spot the Trans Women (T/W transmisogyny). Much to their public annoyance, that advert was suspended and no apology followed until today’s press release. Besides being a footnote in a document that isn’t easy to find (I didn’t see it until Stonewall tweeted a link), the apology doesn’t make at all clear that Paddy Power understand what the problem was.

Living away from home, I don’t get to as many Everton games as I’d like, but there are few gigs or conferences (my other spectator sports) that come even close to the atmosphere of Goodison Park. Unlike anywhere else (even churches and charities), I’ve never had any shit off another Evertonian. That doesn’t mean we’re perfect by any means, but it’s an environment I’m comfortable in. Even so, psyching myself up to go the game as a trans woman is difficult.

Before HRT made any major changes, it was easy enough to just throw a jumper on and avoid the loos at half time. After a couple of years though, androgyny is neither straightforward nor particularly socially comfortable. Mostly I’m past caring about how I appear to strangers, but among a predominantly male crowd in steep, neatly regimented chairs it’s still more than a bit nerve-wracking. Disappearing quietly for five minutes’ breathing space is difficult, and in an all-seater stadium moving for the rest of the game isn’t an option.

Physical appearance isn’t such a big deal now (though if anyone from the club shop is reading, can you get on with a women’s fit version of the 13/14 away kit? Cheers, Everton). My voice, however, makes me nervous. At the volume of general conversation it’s fine – for a while before any transition I was regularly mistaken for my mum on the phone. Unfortunately, the last time I got any concerted practice of screaming my lungs out in plastic Scouse was at my all boys’ secondary. Medicine does nothing for the voice, so what comes out is down to practice – and there aren’t many women who naturally belt out Grand Old Team like a grammar school boy from the Wirral. (Incidentally, I have the same problem speaking German)

So if the environment is so welcoming, why am I worried about letting any cues slip? Put simply, there are a lot of dickheads in the world, and I have a lot of experience of them picking up on those cues and giving me shit for it. With their Cheltenham advert, Paddy Power legitimised turning that into a sport – not that many, even those who should know better, needed the encouragement. Stonewall in their infinite wisdom have chosen to run a campaign of solidarity with gay footballers alongside a company whose creative output has made it much more difficult for me to feel safe as a trans woman at football matches.

Neither party has made it clear that they actually understand the problem, and tacking a T onto every mention of a campaign to help gay players doesn’t change that. If Stonewall think that the apology (which should be to trans people – it isn’t theirs to accept) is clear and sincere enough to make working with Paddy Power anything less than insulting to LGB trans people, they are mistaken. An unreserved apology for unspecified “actions” is so broad as to be meaningless, and tacked on to the bottom of a press release comes across only as cynical pink-washing.

Some players will no doubt come in for flack for not wearing rainbow laces at the weekend, and others will be applauded for the gesture. Any Everton players who stick to their usual laces at the weekend will get the benefit of the doubt from me, and a little extra applause for not selling out my right to go the game in peace as a trans woman.

The Gaslighting of the Student Left

There have been several occasions when I’ve wanted to write about the tactics employed by self-declared moderates to stifle radical action within students unions locally and nationally. Predictably though, the one thing these incidents have in common is that there’s always something more pressing to do than write – usually agitating for that action, frequently providing solidarity and care to the students caught up in those tactics and their consequences. Now that there’s a suitable pause, I want to discuss how our beliefs, motivations, and numbers, are deliberately and systematically questioned and undermined.

As recently as 2011 I was a member of the Liberal Democrats (until conference accreditation put paid to any notion of changing things from within), and it was only this year that I joined the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts. When I enter spaces further to the supposed left of where I’ve come from, I’m consistently surprised not to find myself finally on the reactionary right. This isn’t because I’m the second coming of Trotsky – not that my history is strong enough that I’d notice if I were. It’s because the caricature of radical left politics perpetuated within the student movement is just that – a caricature.

The primary tactic employed at conferences and general meetings (when we can actually secure a discussion at all) is to undermine our legitimacy as representatives of some quorum of left wing students who we are required to represent. This is disingenuous even on its own terms. With the size of delegations to the larger national conferences, an individual student wouldn’t even need to represent 20% of their campus – much less as a lone speaker at a GM. It also bears noting that liberation campaigns and groups – spaces far more accessible to some of those who struggle most in accessing and remaining in education under the current system – consistently take a line to the left of the self-appointed mainstream (and in the case of autonomous caucuses, often much further to the left).

But numbers aren’t the point. A substantial proportion (if not a majority) of my closest comrades engage with their unions not to facilitate others (an important though secondary concern), but to seek an immediate improvement in their own conditions. Representative democracy is a luxury we are not afforded, because the radical change required for our safety, mental and physical health, and access to education, mysteriously dissipates with each level of indirection. We are left with no choice but to act for ourselves – if we organise outside of our unions we are divisive, within them we are entryist. Whereas telling a student in a bar, a library, or a focus group, that their experience is mistaken would be unconscionable, at a national conference it becomes imperative.

When our experience can’t be denied, all that remains is to question our tactics. There’s always another consultation to run, another debate to be had, or more time to reach consensus with government and management. But that isn’t time that we have. It takes two weeks of missed classes before my institution will recommend a leave of absence. Two weeks is the maximum extension it will normally allow on any assignment. A fortnight. Each delay to fit management’s timetable is another roll of the dice on a student’s progression. Each uninvited courtesy and compromise is an investment in a cordial relationship with staff outlasting another student’s curtailed academic career.

The enduring argument against us being supported in pursuit of our own solutions to our own problems is the consent and cooperation of the broader student body. Moderate politics dictate that it’s better to do less with greater consultation, even if that consultation is dominated by those who will see none of the consequences. This is not the same thing as consensus or solidarity – the loss of moderate political capital is not a material stake in any struggle where other people’s lived experience stands as collateral. Still, it is unsurprising that it might be framed as such by a politics which sees bussing far flung activists in to sway a local election as morally and tactically superior to doing the same to resist a fascist march.

All of this is very easy to say now, of course. I’ve been involved in my own union for six years, much of which I spent fighting the administrative fires that follow any minority student around, and making sure that they wouldn’t happen again for anyone else. What seem like mere roadblocks at the time only reveal themselves as a coherent narrative in hindsight. This is why I talk about gaslighting. The individual speeches, motions and soundbites form part of a concerted campaign – conscious on the part of moderate figureheads, unthinking on the part of those who follow them – to make us question our own experience and place within the movement. Most brazen amongst these at the last two NUS national conference has been the leadership denouncing the left in set piece speeches, while demanding that students not feel attacked for membership of parties for whom our very existence is a mere political inconvenience.

Fundamentally, this behaviour is abusive and has no place in any movement. Membership of particular organisations, and the tactics that they employ, are political activities that attract accountability – sometimes even vitriol. It is entirely legitimate to direct anger at those whose personal or collective political programme puts your education at risk. Any forum that demands parity between those who are interested in an issue and those affected by its outcome will continue to foster the abusive dynamics outlined above, and then some. What is never acceptable is to deny our agency simply because of our politics, or to belittle us because of the solutions we offer to our own problems. We have the politics that we do because of our lived experience – not in spite of it. Don’t ever condescend to tell us otherwise.

Cis until proven guilty: Disclosure and consent at the Court of Appeal

Content Warning: Alleged violations of consent and descriptions of their nature (quoted from the judgement)

Yesterday, Zoe O’Connell reported upon the Court of Appeal judgement in the case of McNally vs R – the latest in a handful of sex-by-deception cases in the UK. Regardless of its conclusion, the framing and phrasing of much of the judgement is deeply concerning, particularly coming from Lord Justice Leveson who had appeared sympathetic in regard to establishment mistreatment of trans people at his inquiry into press ethics. However, I’d like to focus on an extremely pertinent question of law that I believe has been overlooked in the judgement.

If it’s not immediately apparent, I have no legal training and nothing in this analysis should be taken to consitute legal advice. As it is unclear from the available information how the appellant identifies their own gender, I’ll be using neutral pronouns throughout.

The relevant part of the appeal against conviction appears to rely upon the assertion that the appellant had been misinformed and, absent a guilty plea, no conviction would otherwise have been secured. Citing R(F) v DPP, Leveson notes that in determining cases of consent, “the evidence relating to ‘choice’ and the ‘freedom’ to make any particular choice must be approached in a broad commonsense way”. On the face of it this appears reasonable, notwithstanding the undertones of “I know it when I see it”.

In paragraph 26, Leveson contends the following (emphasis mine):

Thus while, in a physical sense, the acts of assault by penetration of the vagina are the same whether perpetrated by a male or a female, the sexual nature of the acts is, on any common sense view, different where the complainant is deliberately deceived by a defendant into believing that the latter is a male. Assuming the facts to be proved as alleged, M chose to have sexual encounters with a boy and her preference (her freedom to choose whether or not to have a sexual encounter with a girl) was removed by the appellant’s deception.

Leaving aside the unspoken cissexist premises of the “common sense view” employed, there are two substantial questions which the following paragraphs do not address. First is that there is a matter of legal fact as to whether or not the appellant is a “girl”. Second is whether or not establishing such a legal fact would in itself imply that any substantive deception (such as could negate consent) had taken place. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t believe that either is the case.

Since the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 in which the relevant offence is set out, UK law regarding the matter of gender has undergone two substantial revisions. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA) provides for legal recognition that a person’s gender is not that which was assigned to them at birth. In addition, the Equality Act 2010, while defeating some aspects of the GRA, provides a modicum of protection for all people of trans experience regardless of their intention to seek, or subsequent acquisition of, legal recognition.

Under the test set out in s. 7(1) of the Equality Act, the appellant would by their adoption of a “male” name and corresponding presentation be understood as “[having] the protected characteristic of gender reassignment” – that is, qualify for legal protection in employment, provision of services, etc, on grounds of their trans experience. It is clear then that socially, if not administratively, their status is recognised as not being uniformly female.

If one applies for recognition under the GRA – and none of the material facts would in themselves have prevented the appellant from succeeding in doing so – s. 9(1) states that “the person’s gender becomes for all purposes the acquired gender”. The Act then goes on to state that this “does not affect things done, or events occurring, before the certificate is issued”, but that (as should become apparent) is immaterial in this case.

While s. 75 and s. 76 of the Sexual Offences Act list a number of circumstances under which consent can be assumed to be absent or void, deception as to gender is not one, and the ruling relies solely on s. 74. That is, the question of gender comes not from the simple fact of the appellant’s administrative gender (as distinct from their social experience of gender), but from the argument of some common sense understanding that their being male or female (in whatever sense) materially alters the sexual nature of what took place, and that the appellant’s actions removed M’s choice in the matter.

All else in the case being equal, had the appellant secured legal recognition as male – which is not predicated on their physiology – there would be no case to answer. While the issue of a certificate would provide no comfort to M, it would emphatically negate any question of deception as to gender. Upon discovery of the certificate, police would be forbidden from disclosing its existence to M under s. 22 of the GRA, as there would be no crime to investigate, and no court or tribunal proceeding taking place. Given this deus ex machina, it is difficult to contend that it is the actions of the appellant in presenting as male which meaningfully remove M’s ability to choose.

Objections to the ideological delegitimisation of trans identity and experience aside – and that’s a big aside – I don’t know whether there are further legal grounds on which the appeal against conviction could be denied. What does seem apparent though is that the judgement has been constructed at a troubling distance from the perceived legal status of trans people in the UK. Whether that is an error on the part of the courts or parliament, there is certainly a gaping chasm between our protection under law and the protections we have been led to believe that we enjoy – and that needs addressing urgently.

ULU and You: What’s happening? Why should I care?

On Friday morning, a group consisting of managers from the University of London (UoL) and its Colleges convened to consider the outcome of a review into the operations of the University of London Union (ULU). That review recommended that the University take control of ULU’s premises and services, and that the union’s democratic structures be replaced by an as yet non-existent pan-London union. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these recommendations were accepted and ULU will cease its current function in Summer 2014.

The review was initiated at the end of 2012 following concerns raised by outgoing sabbatical officers from a handful of University of London Colleges. By all accounts there are legitimate criticisms to be made of the way ULU operates, although its current sabbatical officers are working to address them. As I’m not a UoL student I can’t comment on how ULU represents its members – instead, I want to talk about what this decision means for SUs nationally.

One thing that should immediately jump out is the membership of the review board – not a single student had a vote on the union’s future. There are very good reasons why ULU wouldn’t be charged with reviewing itself. Fortunately (with the exception of the School of Advanced Study) each of UoL’s constituent institutions has its own union – the very unions which, on behalf of their students, prompted the review in the first place. It appears disingenuous in the extreme for UoL management to treat these unions as the legitimate voice of its students when it comes to criticising ULU, yet to only trust them with mere consultation when deciding its fate.

The National Union of Students (NUS), while in full PR flow about its annual award ceremony, has been outwardly completely silent on the matter. In an email to London SUs, NUS President Liam Burns cites a lack of consensus on the review’s findings as a reason for this silence. So let’s spell it out. ULU could ignore its members on free education, lead them to Kennington in the rain, and fritter money away on a rebrand and payrise for the CEO. The conduct of this review would still be reprehensible. University management do not make decisions on how we organise as students. If that’s a red line that NUS is unwilling to defend, it may as well close its own doors next Summer.

Fortunately (and I say that in the loosest sense), the majority of SUs in universities have a modicum of protection under the 1994 Education Act. ULU is a special case in that it only provides primary representation for SAS students – all other UoL institutions have their own SU to fall back on. This makes it slightly trickier for management to play these particular existential games with other unions. However, with university and union management across the country taking out injunctions against students, summarily suspending our officers, and treating their own governance structures as an optional constraint, we can’t be complacent. Our freedom to effectively organise against all manner of shit that the sector wants to throw at us is under concerted attack.

So what does your union need to do about it? At the very least, I hope that everyone who supports the principle of unions run by and for students will sign the petition supporting ULU’s right to exist. Public statements of support from individual unions would no doubt also be appreciated – this is a very immediate attack on ULU, but it strikes at the heart of why we have SUs at all. Decisions about students need to be taken by students, and any challenge to that should be resisted at every turn.