Monthly Archives: February 2016

Trans or not trans? Is there a middle-ground?

I’ve been reading Lori Duron’s Raising my Rainbow for years now. I even bought the book. Her adventures with her now-nine-year-old child have been remarkably similar to my own.

I vividly remember a month of heart-searching, sweating and hyperventilating as my wife and I debated whether or not to show our child Jazz Jennings‘ book, I am Jazz. Eventually, we took the plunge, all the while thinking this is it: this is where our son is deleted and replaced by a daughter. So we sat down with him, and we read it together.

At the end, we asked him what he thought of it and held our collective breath. He pondered for a while and said that it was a brilliant book, and that it was really interesting what Jazz was doing with her life (he loved the pictures of her in the swimming pool with a mermaid tail). He also said that that was not him. He understood what “transgender” meant and he wasn’t that.

Cue sound of stylus being dragged across an LP.

We had been sidling up to that moment for years and had reached a point where we decided that we needed to give him the option, regardless of personal cost. And he didn’t take it. I have never, in my whole life, had more of an anticlimax (it was a bigger anticlimax than the ending of the Blair Witch Project).

I have, subsequently, been told that my son is transgender (by a stranger on the internet). I choose to believe my son, to be frank, as he knows himself best. If he changes his mind at some point, we are ready for that. For now, he’s the boy who prefers dresses and long hair, and who knows where his path lies. The future is foggy and indistinct,

And Lori noticed that too. She has a much higher web-profile than I do, so she gets many comments from all around that tell her either that she is a hateful mother for forcing her son to wear girls’ clothes and that she’s making him gay (because being gay is a terrible thing, of course) and she should be locked up, or they tell her that she needs to respect her transgender child by using feminine pronouns and admitting to herself that a full transition is inevitable. Lori, however, is guided by her child. He wishes to be addressed with masculine pronouns, he wishes to be seen as a boy. Lori is respecting his identity by allowing him to pick his own clothes and by addressing him in the manner he has asked to be addressed. He certainly does know what transgender is, and he has a couple of young friends who have transitioned. He does not wish to do so himself, and it is Lori’s tough job to stand not only outside the traditional gender binary, but also to stand outside the cisgender/transgender binary.

Her family, like mine, must stand outside of the boxes that society likes to put us in. In an age where same-sex marriage is a thing and where transgender people are beginning to be accepted for who they are and not simply used as the punchline of a stag-night anecdote. Gay people and transgender people do not defy classification, however. If you have divided the world into neat binary categories, you can incorporate same-sex marriage by tweaking the rules slightly (he likes him, rather than her), and you can incorporate transgender people by tweaking the rules slightly (I thought of her as him before, but now she’s a she). The gay and trans people in this example can be accommodated simply by putting the person into the other box (“likes men”, “is a woman”).

Society seems less able to accommodate people who don’t much like sitting in these neat boxes, though. Bisexual people (hi, there) and gender-nonconforming (or gender creative, or gender awesome) people do not neatly fit into the “likes men” or “likes women” category, or neatly into the “is a boy” or “is a girl” categories. Families like Lori’s and ours are still stuck in the grey areas and still have to address inclusion for our children. Every time they sign up for a new activity or a new club, we get to be educators and have to bring yet another set of people up to speed on the fact that not everybody is a boy, or a girl, or gay or straight or whatever. Legislation in the UK is pretty good with the Equality Act 2010, but even that only caters for people on a binary (man/woman, disabled/able bodied, transgender/cisgender). We find ourselves having to stretch a point or two to claim legal protection under the Act because it wasn’t really written with us in mind. In other places, there is no legal protection at all, and prejudice and discrimination, where not specifically outlawed, seems to be legally acceptable.

Even under the Equality Act, it is lawful for a company to have separate men’s and women’s uniforms. A transgender person can wear the uniform appropriate for their affirmed gender, that is no problem, but a gender nonconforming person is on shaky ground, and a bloke with a beard in a skirt may not be quite the corporate image that any given company wishes to expose to the public.

In the end, we’re all people, of course, and the law, our employers and providers of service really should just take a chill pill and treat us all as such.

No society can legitimately call itself civilised…

The Second World War ended in Europe on the 8th May 1945 (it ground on for several blood-soaked months in Japan). The United Kingdom went to the polls two months later to choose a government to take them from the ravages of war into peacetime. Standing against war-hero Winston Churchill was Labour’s Clement Atlee.

What do you expect? We’re British. The war was done, we didn’t waste nostalgia on the man who had won the war for us, the man who declared that we shall fight them on the beaches, and Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. War was over, and our wartime prime minister was over. Atlee took the election by a landslide with the biggest swing ever recorded in a British general election.

In his cabinet, Atlee appointed a young Welshman to a hugely important post. An appointment that would go down in history and would come to define one of the things that the UK was rightly proud of, and remains proud of.

As minister for health, Aneurin Bevan created our National Health Service, funded through general taxation and providing world-class healthcare delivered on the basis of need, and free at the point of delivery. This radical approach to a nation’s health that takes more money from those who pay the most tax (usually the wealthiest in society) and spends most of it on those who need the most healthcare remains an approach that makes radical capitalists nervous. The service was rated as the best in the world in 2014 and the second most cost-effective (money spent divided by lives saved) in 2011. At the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, we shouted to the world how proud we are of our NHS.

I was born in the NHS. My wife was born in the NHS. My children were born in the NHS. I have had life-saving surgery in the NHS. Both of my grandmothers had years of cancer treatment and end-of-life care in the NHS. Both of my grandfathers died peacefully in NHS care. One of my close family members takes a veritable pharmacopoeia of expensive medication every day to manage allergies, asthma, blood pressure and arthritis. My brother in law was scraped, in pieces, off the road a couple of years back by a team of NHS paramedics who took him to hospital, where a team of experts put him back together again over multiple surgeries and months in hospital. The total cost to our family for all of this treatment has been almost zero (the medicines cost us ten pounds a month, which would get us maybe three cups of coffee in Starbucks; in Scotland, the medicines as well would be free to us).

Every family in the UK will have similar stories to tell of how Bevan’s brainchild has saved their life, has restored their mobility, has helped their newborns into the world and has been there, just holding a hand, in the last moments of life.

Given that I am a child of the NHS, I have never understood the USA’s method of healthcare, in which people need to arrange their own medical insurance and fund the premiums out of their own pockets. People who cannot afford this insurance are playing roulette every day. If they get cancer or get hit by a car, or even slip on ice, they are staring down the barrel of bankruptcy (to pay for the emergency care that got given), and death because they can’t afford the non-emergency care.

When Barack Obama introduced the Affordable Care Act, half of the USA went into screaming rages because… well… I’m not sure. Maybe they thought that poor people deserved to die or something.

Personally, I’m with Bevan’s assessment, published in 1952

No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.

Fast forward to 2010 and the weird general election result that left us with an uneasy coalition of the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats, with my MP, Andrew Lansley, as the minister for health. Lansley spent several years upsetting doctors and patients alike with his Health and Social Care Act 2012. According to some sources, this has already destroyed what the NHS was. Undeterred, when the Conservatives scraped a narrow majority in the Commons in 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Jeremy Hunt as minister for health. At this point, things got decidedly weird.

It seems that Hunt decided to follow in the footsteps of Michael Gove who, as Education Secretary in the previous government managed to upset, demoralise and enrage every teacher in the land. Since May, that is just nine months ago, Jeremy Hunt has managed to upset, demoralise and enrage just about every healthcare professional in the land.

He wants something called a “7-day NHS”. This boggles the mind, as the NHS is open for business 7 days every week, 24 hours every day, even on Christmas Day, New Years Day, and throughout the long summer holiday when MPs are off on their yachts in the Bahamas. Indeed, I well remember ringing in the New Year with my 1-year-old son having just returned from the hospital where my pregnant wife was staying the night on an emergency admission.

Anyway, he’s suggesting that the 53,000 junior hospital doctors who currently run the service need to work more hours. And no, he’s not going to find (and fund) more doctors because of the increased workload. He’s going to attempt to upset the British public enough that the doctors feel no choice but to work even harder, to the point where they’d earn a better hourly rate at Starbucks.

Oddly enough, the British Medical Association is not impressed and the doctors have already been on strike twice in the last few months. Public support for them looks solid for now. Following the second strike, Hunt decided to impose a new contract on them (because negotiating one was meeting some resistance). Legally, this involves sacking every single junior doctor in the country and leaving NHS employers exposed to 53,000 employment tribunals for unfair dismissal (which the doctors are likely to win), even if the doctors do then sign the new contract and stay at work (UK employment law is funny like that).

If the doctors receive their letters of dismissal and move to Wales, Scotland, France, Germany, Uganda, Taiwan, or anywhere that needs highly skilled, highly trained and highly qualified doctors (I know, who’d have thought that doctors have transferable skills that could get them jobs pretty much anywhere in the world), then that leaves the NHS with an even deeper staffing crisis than it faces today.

When that happens, Mr Hunt can tell us all that the NHS truly is falling to bits and it’s his duty to take it apart and sell it off to the private sector.

And we had better be grateful, because the private sector is the best way to deliver healthcare to populations. I mean, just look at the USA. They spend more than twice as much per capita on their healthcare and still millions of them cannot afford to get cancer or to get hit by a car. It has to be better.

The man is either utterly incompetent and needs to be removed from his post for sheer idiocy, or he is cold, calculating and determined to destroy the best healthcare system in the world for personal gain, and he needs to be removed from his post for sheer malice.

Any government, any minister who takes a service beloved by the people and praised across the world and tries to destroy it needs to be stopped. The NHS is a world-leader in healthcare provision, it is a world-leader in cost-of-service, it is an example to the world of what can be achieved with the sensible application of taxation. It is an example of what a civilised society should look like.

And it is under sustained attack from the people we elected to look after it.

The madness must stop before we lose the thing that our lives, literally, depend upon.

UPDATED: I added a bit about how Bevan planned for the NHS to be paid out of taxation of everyone and delivered on the basis of need. This appears to be a bit too close to Communism for our US-ian friends.

We all get things wrong sometimes, let’s admit it

My children get stuff wrong all the time, and sometimes they do things that are downright naughty. The worst thing that can happen to them in these situations is getting caught and having a grown-up call them on their naughtiness. My youngest will frequently deny any wrongdoing, often spinning a long and elaborate yarn to explain how what he was doing was not, in fact, naughty. If anyone suggests that lying about it doesn’t make it any better, the volume just goes up, and we are all treated to “I’m not lying” in a voice louder than a foghorn.

The older ones do the same sort of things, but they have layered a bit of sophistication, these days, but still do not like being called on misbehaviour. In 80’s prison sit-com Porridge, whenever Ronnie Barker’s character was asked what he was in prison for, he said, simply, “got caught.”

As adults, we are no better than the children, really. I know that I don’t much like being told that something I did was wrong. Not just that I made a mistake and got something wrong, but that I made an active choice to do the wrong thing. Because I do that sometimes, as we all do. My own reaction to that situation suggests that I have not got very much further than my children in admitting wrongdoing and being accountable for my actions.

On many occasions, I have been accused of wanting to blur the lines between the neat categories that we put people into. I do, this is true. The implication, however, is that blurring those lines is a bad thing, which I fundamentally disagree with. The person I am talking to will usually react in a way that implies that we need those neat categories and sharp dividing lines so that we can determine if any given person is “us” or “them” and whether we can dismiss them out-of-hand as “wrong”, “evil” or “different.”

I came across this article, a week or so ago, and it made very interesting reading, and seems to bridge my two previous points. All of us have made morally questionable decisions in our lives (albeit some with larger consequences than others) and all of us have been morally upstanding and honourable on some occasions. The article admits this and makes suggestions about how we can admit to doing wrong when we have.

The message is not a comfortable one. Real accountability is not about you. It’s about the person you have wronged. A tendency we have, when admitting doing wrong to somebody, is to keep the focus on ourselves, how we’re very sorry, and how we know now that it was wrong, we were selfish, oh woe is me, etc. Having made our speech, we then demand immediate forgiveness and to be that person’t best buddy again. Wrong answer. That attitude is just us being abusive all over again, and attempting to deny the other person agency. It is entirely up to them whether or not they wish to forgive us, and we have no option but to accept their decision. It’s not about us. We must also accept that our actions may have broken that relationship beyond repair. It’s a shame, because relationships can be awesome, but demanding that we be in relationship with someone who does not want to be is to deny their agency again, and it is just another form of abuse.

In admitting wrongdoing, we are going against some of society’s most primitive rules (particularly for men). We are making ourselves vulnerable. We are allowing another to decide our fate: whether or not they forgive us (or if that decision is going to have to be deferred). We are not in control of our destiny at that moment. For men in, we have been trained since birth that we are and must be in control of our destiny, and that to deliberately lay that down is to emasculate ourselves. For others, it is still no fun, even with slightly lower societal expectation, to put ourselves in a vulnerable position. We are nice people. We are not like them. But it is not so simple. Even nice people can be abusers.

Maybe it’s time to admit that caring for people who have been abused is only treating the symptoms and that, if we truly want abuse to stop, we need to treat those who do the abusing. In the same way, feminism will never achieve its goal of equality unless it engages men.

In a riff on the theme, I came across an article that discusses someone doing the wrong thing. In this unique instance, we have a glimpse into both sides: the joke as told by a comedian, and we know a bit about the butt of the joke because of her TED talk. Maybe it would be appropriate for the comedian to admit to wrongdoing here. Monica Lewinski is a human being who made a silly mistake when she was 22 (20-odd years ago) and the fallout from that nearly killed her. Curiously enough, the person in that relationship with all the power, the one we might have expected to be held accountable for the error (that they both made) remains a highly respected elder statesman and former president of the USA. ‘Tis ever thus.

We are all people, and people are belligerent, hard-nosed and often wrong. Maybe the world would be happier if we admitted it from time to time.

Bigotry is still fashionable

Disgraced Top Gear presenter and all-round foot-sucker, Jeremy Clarkson made what he might consider a “gaffe” (yet again) last week in his article in The Times. I’m not linking to it, just Google for “Clarkson transgender” and you will, no doubt, find it.

I won’t say he’s sunk to new lows, because he hasn’t. He is simply doing what he does best, spouting his uninformed prejudice as fact. Transgender people don’t exist, you see, except as the punchline to a stag-night anecdote. He’s been defending himself, of course, and pointing out that, after a thousand words of bigotry and hatred, that he did make a half-hearted attempt at showing empathy for someone whose gender was not aligned with their body and suggested that a third option on official documents might help.

I’m so glad he said that, because that makes it all better. That single point at the end of the article is, obviously, what the whole piece was leading up to. Obviously.

My children have a book about bullying, how to recognise it, and how not to become a bully. In it, one of the examples of a thing a bully might say was in the form “<hateful slur>. Only joking,” as if the “only joking” part makes it acceptable to say the <hateful slur> part. Newsflash, Jeremy, it does not. It might help you to sleep at night, having spouted venom at yet another vulnerable group within society, but it doesn’t diminish what you said immediately before the “only joking” part.

I guess the thing that got my goat particularly with this article is that he states, a point he would emphasise with spittle, that the parents of differently-gendered children must be prevented from “poisoning the mind of a child.”

I suppose I shouldn’t be particularly surprising that he is spouting what seems to be the view held by the majority that differently-gendered children are only differently-gendered because their parents make them that way. This majority is completely content to see a child and their parents on the street, take a one-second glance at the family and reach a well-informed conclusion about the struggles that family has been through for the previous however many years that have led them to that place. The parents of gender-expansive children are no more stupid than any other parents, and they know full well the reaction that society is likely to have to seeing them out and about. The reason we allow our children to dress in the clothing of their choice is just that: it’s their choice. The reason we buy it for them is, usually, because the child is distraught when forced into clothes they hate. A November 2014 article in the Guardian reports that 48% of UK trans people under the age of 26 had attempted suicide. That’s attempted suicide. They had actually tried to kill themselves, not just thought about it (nearly 60% had thought about it).

I wonder, as I write, if there is anything that might cause this group’s suicide rate to be six times the rate of the general population (The Samaritans collate suicide statistics and report that the underlying population rate is around 8%). It’s not a particularly hard wonder, to be honest. Clarkson is merely saying what many are thinking when they knowingly meet a transgender person. When you imagine trying to go about your day swimming though a society in which your very existence is shocking and repulsive, you get some idea.

There is no respite even in traditionally equality-loving spaces. The Independent reports that (some) feminists hate transfolk just as much as Clarkson does. I wonder if those prominent feminists would enjoy being lumped with Mr Clarkson on an issue. Not all feminists are the same, of course. Those who believe Feminism is about equality do seem to get it. When a person says they are a feminist, yet says that transwomen have no place at a women-only event, that is not about equality. It’s not even about protecting the women-only event from the unwelcome attention of men. It’s simply about claiming the right to deny the womanhood of someone who has been fighting for years to have their womanhood recognised. Or the right to use the toilet in a room where they are less likely to be assaulted. Or the right to walk down the street without having insults spat in their faces. Or the right to be sent to a prison where you are not raped over and over and over again by the other inmates.

It’s not rocket science.

We’re all people.

It’s as simple as that.