Saturday, August 31, 2013

A little bit of hate reserved just for me

Martin Luther King has been in the news this week with much attendant reflection on the status of black people in the United States, and how it has changed - or not - in fifty years.

Big, societal themes and nation defining conversations.

Other conversations have rightly been continuing around the dreadful situation faced by lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in Russia. Though those conversations would do well to remember that in many parts of the world it's even worse. In 76 countries it is still illegal to even be gay (let alone transgender - in many countries this doesn't even appear in the judicial code as the law makers either have no consciousness of its difference from 'aberrant' sexual orientation, or regard the idea of it as just so inconceivably deviant that you don't even need laws).

And there are nations where vicious, life threatening hate is getting into its stride at full pace now. Countries like Uganda and Nigeria where LGB & T people are attacked and murdered with almost complete impunity and with - in effect - the full support of the state. Where there are laws appearing that require you to report anyone you suspect of being gay to the police - even if it's your own child - on pain of jail time. Countries like Jamaica, where the lives of LGB & T people are now deteriorating at top speed, at the hands of Church sponsored street violence.

If you're like me, sometimes these kinds of stories mean most when you take them down to the small, to the personal, to the individual.

I think of the person I met a few months ago who is trying to provide support and sustenance to LGB & T people through an organisation she helps run in St Petersburg. I think of a long walk I took with an ex politician from Serbia who had shared with me the stories of being publicly and humiliatingly professionally destroyed by the hate of his colleagues and the wider population because of his sexuality, and who ended up having to leave the country. I think of Africans I have met who have talked of being beaten, and of seeing gay friends beaten to death in front of them. Of the courageous trans activist who is unable to stay in one Ugandan village for more than a few days before the mob will find her and she is in mortal danger once more. When she travels, anyone who sits next to her on the bus is themselves in danger too. I think of my trans friend who finally sought asylum in Denmark after a tortuous journey from Central America in fear of her life, and whose welcome to Europe involved a spell in a detention centre where she was repeatedly raped as lawyers attempted to deport her.

And I thank God that I do not have to face these things.

Yet, at least. As the Nazis creep eastward from Russia and East Europe, as the pan democratic ideal of Europe begins to disintegrate, I am not so complacent as to think that one day someone with a buzz cut and tattoos might not learn about me too and decide to ruin my life.

Or even worse, get elected to do it.

It couldn't happen here? Of course it could. The protections I enjoy here are far from embedded, far from secure.

It can happen in any country where the individual does not securely own the right to define who they are, and have their basic value as a human being recognised. Where the state, or the fascist scum hanging around in the town centre, or the cleric steeped in fourteenth century religious hatreds, claims to know better - and can project a different definition of you to others with an authority given them by the law, by the culture, by stupidity, or by a country's lazy dereliction of its duty to protect what ultimately keeps us all safe.

In such a country, your simple assertion...
"I am a Muslim - or a Tutsi - or a Jew - and I am a human being, with the rights of other human beings".
 ...might be met with
"No. You are not a human being, and you do not have the rights of human beings".
That road can lead to Rwanda. Or to Belsen. Think it's a long road? The Bosnian civil war started in 1992. Srebrenica happened in 1995.

In what seedbed does this mentality start to grow? What do people need to think to be able to look away as these things start and as they happen?

I had a little taste of the answer this week. A tiny, humiliating glimpse of one of the grains of sand that can come together eventually to get the crowd to avert its eyes as the boot hits your face, or worse.

It was a small thing. It really wouldn't register at all in the lives of many of those who face the things I described above. And as abuse goes, every trans person reading this blog will have had worse (including me). But I was struck by it, what it meant and where it came from. I thought I had left it behind, and it reminded me that I never can. It hurt me, and I write about it now to externalise it and to examine it for what I think it was.

But first, a little background.

I have been fully 'transitioned', as the jargon goes, for some years now. I understand myself to be a woman. To be frank I have never heard any compelling definition of gender that does not reside ultimately and purely in this understanding - certainly if one is to avoid all the sterile reductive definitions (ie "Women have wombs" [what about the ones who have had a hysterectomy?] "Women have vaginas?" [what about the ones who have had radical surgery for cervical cancer?] "Women have breasts" [apart from the ones who have had them removed?] "Women have XX chromosomes" - [except for the ones who actually don't?]).

I am treated by those who know me, as a woman (though I have no way of knowing what they think inside, I hope it is of me as authentically who I see myself to be). The idea of essential 'maleness' is to me inconceivable and consequently absent in my inner life now.

I am female. I always was, though the world worked damned hard, with my collusion for a time, to stop me expressing it. And yes, I have a narrative. It's one of how I got eventually to be able to live an authentic life. That's what 'transgender' means to me. It's my story, and I will tell it to you if I trust you with it. Though the story has affected me deeply, it isn't 'me'. It's what happened to me.

After my dreadful divorce, some unspeakably painful years of family agony, after 26 hours of surgery in five separate procedures in two countries on the different sides of the world (and three weeks in hospital) funded by myself as the NHS wouldn't, plus hours of painful and costly hair removal, plus expensive voice work, plus psychotherapy, plus trying to get someone to treat my hormone needs, plus fighting with misinformed GPs, plus finding somewhere to live (and moving four times in five years), plus relaunching my career to a baffled industry, plus rebuilding my social life as almost everyone I knew had walked away from me...I got myself on my feet once more.

And in the last few months - it has taken a long time to be able to feel confident enough to do this - my mind has been turning to trying to find a partner. I was married a long time. Whilst I have learned to embrace the single life, and even enjoy aspects of it, I go through periods of powerful loneliness often. I reflect on an approaching old age, alone. I gave up so much of what I had, to get the chance to be me, and really I don't see why I can't have some of it back.

And that means a man. It mightn't have meant that, as sexual identity and gender identity are not the same. But - don't ask me why - I am attracted to guys. This makes me something quite simple to understand I think - a heterosexual woman.

Approaching the finding of a man is a minefield though. Right away the definition I give myself runs slap bang into the issue of what others might think I am - in this case what a heterosexual man might think I am.

And women with my story have approached this dilemma in a number of ways.

First off, there's the 'stealth' model. I hate the very idea of it, but I understand the fear from which it comes. It means never telling your story ever. Some have sustained relationships, even marriages, for years on this basis. Your boyfriend or husband remains completely unaware of what you have been through.

Obviously, there are some for whom this option is simply not possible. Your physical appearance is key. But also, your circumstances, public visibility or family all play a role in your chances of pulling something like this off. And you live a life in which you must be alert to any chance detail reappearing - with potentially a huge price tag attached.

Up to the 1980s, the advice from the medical profession to people like me was to adopt this approach. To 'disappear' from one's previous life entirely - cut off, as if dead, from all family and friends forever, and to launch a new life as if none of your story had ever happened. The general view was that transition in Britain without doing this was simply not possible, and that you were running a significant risk of being at best destitute, at worst, killed.

At the other end of the spectrum are the women who will only look in environments where a 'pre-qualified' sample of 'trans-accepting' men congregate. There are dating sites, clubs etc that are focussed on just this audience - and men (some guiltily, many without the knowledge of their wives) approach these spaces for a taste of 'forbidden fruit'. Though genuine loving relationships do form occasionally - I know of a couple - these environments also attract a significant number of male fetishists who fantasise and simply objectify people like me. No thanks.

Then there's the middle ground in which many sit. I am here.

I have spent time on 'mainstream' dating sites, where I portray myself as who I am, share my interests and values. I do not volunteer my 'story' at this stage, as to do so means immediately shutting down any possibility of contact. Society is full of such deep misunderstanding and prejudice that to do so in this setting would just mean wasting my monthly subscription entirely. Not to say attracting a fair amount of very unwelcome abuse.

In addition, that material isn't there because my past does not define me. It is simply my 'story' - and not all of it at that. I am defined, much more effectively and interestingly I hope (though it sometimes feels like a forlorn hope in the society in which I live) by my interests, by my politics, by how I adore the Mediterranean, by my taste in music or by my love for my children. I'm getting a collection of poetry together and hope to find a publisher - it's a part of my life in which I find great happiness. These are the things about which I talk in my online dating profile.  And because of those things, and because I can, I hope, look fairly presentable in some of the photographs I upload, I do get interest.

Choosing how to accommodate my story into face to face contact with a man, if I am seeing him, is now the big challenge. And it can be pretty frightening. People of my background have been attacked, even murdered when it becomes known - especially if the man has committed himself physically to you. The beating you can get even comes from something that has even been named in legal circles - it is called 'trans panic'.

But I am committed to taking that risk. I have to. If I am to achieve anything meaningful and authentic, this must be shared, somehow.

I rarely bring it up on the first date. This can require a certain quick wittedness (though I never ever lie, I simply try going into areas where it might arise if I can, and most guys love nothing more than talking about themselves so it's less difficult than you might think). And of course I know that most first dates won't lead to a second - he turns out to be anaesthetically dull, and I have the kind of evening which would have lost by an innings and several hundred runs in a match with some quietly drying paint.

On one occasion, I have shared some background during our first drink together. A sweet man, we talked and talked, though mostly about what he had been through. I could see he was becoming emotionally embroiled, and on the way to get a drink he unexpectedly planted a passionate kiss on my lips. I knew before we went any further, that I had to tell my story, as this could go wrong. I also felt that we had both been honest enough on a couple of other subjects to make it feel appropriate.

I was very nervous.  But he was simply confused. He didn't know what any of the words I had used meant. Immediately he wanted to know if I had a penis or a vagina - one of the lowpoints of my world is to have to field questions about my genitals like others do not, and a crowded pub is not where I would choose to respond to them either.

But he took it in his stride and was keen to see me again. I didn't want to see him again though. I do wish him well, but - as I heard someone put it once - he had more baggage than Terminal 5 on a bank holiday.

Another time - my happiest experience - I saw a lovely guy for a couple of months. We got to the fourth date, and I knew that he was falling for me powerfully. I was becoming fond of him too. It was time to bring up the 'story'. He was tremendous. I was practically hyperventilating with fear as I sat in his car and told him - this was in fact my first time of doing so. But it genuinely mattered not one jot to him. He listened, asked me to say nothing more for a moment, and took me in his arms.

Our relationship later moved to a conclusion, but it wasn't because of what I had said. We wanted different things. Thank you David. I will always be grateful.

And now we come to my most recent expedition. And I have run into something that has brought me up short. Destroyed my confidence. It's why I sat down to write today.

He seemed very promising. Gentle, interesting, a wry sense of humour. Strangely we shared an almost identical set of interests, and from what I could tell, values. We emailed for a time, then spoke on the phone, then arranged to meet up.

It was quite a subdued evening, as we shared a coffee and a fairly average meal in a cafe he liked, but we seemed to have a lot in common and talked easily about music, travel, other cultures, and a range of other things. He was shy, but seemed to open up and I felt he might be harbouring something attractive within.

He asked me about my ex husband...was it some sort of 'lure' as he might have been troubled by something? I didn't get that sense. I replied neutrally, though not dishonestly I felt, referring to my 'ex'. At the end of the evening, he pointedly kissed me - I turned my cheek so it would land there. Men who are troubled by some sort of sexual or gender ambiguity don't tend to do this.

And so I went home, genuinely undecided about him.

I waited 48 hours to hear from him - then finally in response to my prompt, I got the text below.

Now, let's take this message apart for a moment.

If you do not have my background you might perhaps see this as some sort of 'joke'. The kind of thing you might hear Sean Lock or Russell Howard come up with on a Friday night comedy show. You will possibly have no idea of just how deeply wounding a comment like this really is.

These two sentences reveal a number of things. First, he has clearly been hunting for information on me online. And he will have to have been looking quite hard to find it. Welcome to the world on online dating, I guess.

Second, and this is key, he regards me as a fraud. Not the person I say I am. And that he has 'found me out', blown open my 'little game'.

I presented myself to him as a woman. It was of course no act. I am a woman. But not, it would seem, according to him. These words - and it is very painful for me even to type this sentence - say that I am a man. And he, with that easy, unexamined cultural privilege, the bigotry from which all else springs, believes he has the right to say this to me, to assert his definition of me, cancelling my own completely. To wipe away an evening together, my presentation of myself to him, in fact to erase my own right to my own identity completely. To wipe me away and in the space I occupied place a liar.

And he feels so secure in doing this that he believes he can even couch it as a 'joke'. My identity - and all that it has cost me to find a way to live authentically - is not even worth taking seriously. Everything I am is reduced to some sort of dishonest 'prank' - created to deceive him and a world which has his back and gives him the confidence to say such things.

I replied calling him "cruel". It wasn't a great reply, not one of my best, but I could hardly breathe with pain. I pointed out, actually, that I do not have 'more testosterone' than him (ironically, the 'joke' fails on every level as of course my story means that I have very little of it in my body. I even know exactly how much. My current level is 0.5 nmol/L - sitting nicely within the 'typically' female range of 0 - 2.7 nmol/L). I added to him that I have no difficulty in sharing my past with those I care about and trust.

Clearly he will never be one of those people.

After I received this text I spent the rest of the day trying to hold back the tears, trying to look energetic and managerial to my team and to my company. Until I came home, of course, where I cried for an hour.

It is a small thing. Microscopic, compared with what many face. But it seems to me to illustrate something. The attitude from which it comes - I am quite sure that this lies completely unexamined in his mind (that's the nature of prejudice and privilege) - is the tributary of blind bigotry flowing mile by mile towards a bigger river of violence and hate.

There were of course a number of ways in which he might have expressed his discomfort with me - none of them very attractive (and in various other settings I have heard plenty) - but options were available to him that might have allowed me to retain some dignity. If my background, found by him without my permission, gave him anxiety, he might have withdrawn politely. But, buying into society's trope that people like me exist only to 'trick' people like him, he consciously sought to exact some sort of 'revenge' by making our final interaction one in which he needed to demean me, denying me my dignity, and he felt entitled to do so. This man who - as I reflect on the evening now - seemed to have done so much less with his life than I have done with mine. Yet I am now destined to become just a punchline in the pub with his friends.

My date that night was no Nazi. Of course not. He had seemed pleasant and personable and quite good company. And I am sure he didn't think of himself as a bigot either. But the fluency with which he moved from what had been an enjoyable evening of conversation into a profound and confident rejection of my most basic, personal rights hit me very hard.

It showed me once more what often lies beneath.

And beneath is the place where all the rest of it starts.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

I still have a dream.

You may recognise much of this.

Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech. Delivered 50 years ago this month.

Reworked a little.

The changes are actually small. (I have revised perhaps 10% of the text. And mostly local references to 1963 America - the ones which could not be recast on a world stage of today.)

The need,
and the pain,
and the hope,


Six and a half decades ago, forty eight nations came together to sign a declaration which stated that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. That declaration, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, came as a great beacon light of hope to millions who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice and the unimaginable calamity of war. It came as the hope of a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.

But 65 years later, we must face the tragic fact that the transgender person is still not free. 65 years later, the life of the transgender person is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. Sixty five years later, all over this world, transgender people live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Sixty five years later, transgender people all over the world are still languishing in the corners of the society and find themselves exiles in their own land.

And so we join together to dramatise an appalling condition. In a sense we've come to cash a cheque. When the architects of that declaration wrote the magnificent words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they were signing a promissory note to which all citizens of the world were to fall heir. This note was a promise that all would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and security of person.”

It is obvious today that the world has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her transgender citizens are concerned. Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, the world has given transgender people a bad cheque which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this world.

So it is time to cash this cheque - a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We also remind the world of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquillising drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of justice.

Now is the time to lift our nations from the quicksands of injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood and sisterhood

Now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God's children.

But there is something we must remember, we who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: in the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvellous new militancy which has engulfed the transgender community must not lead us to distrust of all others, for many of our cisgender brothers and sisters, as evidenced by their support, have come to realise that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realise that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of transgender rights: "When will you be satisfied?"

We can never be satisfied as long as the transgender person is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the world.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the transgender person’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. Or to the isolated and lonely margins of society. Or from a brief life without chances to an early death at the hands of others or, driven to despair, at their own.

We can never be satisfied as long as our young people are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by practices including arbitrary dismissal from their work, or even assault in the street, without reason.

We cannot be satisfied and we will not be satisfied as long as a transgender person in Rio de Janeiro cannot find a job simply because of who they are and a transgender person in Kampala believes there is no point even trying.

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. I am not unmindful that some of you have experienced great trials and tribulations. Some of you have spent time in narrow jail cells. Some of you come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.

You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Guatemala, go back to Turkey, go back to Russia, go back to Nigeria, go back to the quiet bigotry of Europe, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the dream of equality. I have a dream that one day this world will rise up and live out the true meaning of the creed established that day after that appalling war - we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all are created equal.

I have a dream that one day in the poorest barrios of Mexico City the next generation of transgender people and the children of those who used to murder us with impunity will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood and sisterhood.

I have a dream that one day even the nations of Brazil or Honduras, states sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that children will one day live in a world where they will not be judged by their gender identity but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, in parts of Africa, with its vicious bigots, with its politicians having their lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Africa children will be able to join hands as sisters and brothers without the poison of hatred towards transgender people driving them to bully and cast out the one whom their parents say is “different”.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the world with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of England!

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of Canada!

Let freedom ring from the heightening peaks of the New Zealand! 

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped volcanoes of Iceland!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of Argentina!

But not only that.

Let freedom ring from the Blue Mountains of Jamaica!

Let freedom ring from Mount Ararat of Turkey and Mount Athos of Greece!

Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Nigeria and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uganda, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every nation and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black people and white people, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and all others will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!


With full acknowledgement to the King Estate, and The King Center. 

Martin Luther King's original text is here. There are some small additional passages which he seems to have said on the day but weren't in the original text

Saturday, August 24, 2013

I am Chelsea Manning

As Philip Sandifer observed in a piece recently, Chelsea Manning's 'coming out' as female was a shock to many. Not least for those of us within the transgender community.We thought her name was Breanna.

Rumours about Chelsea's real identity have been circulating for some time. Shortly after they started, I heard that the lawyers around her were advising her not to make the information public nor try and use it as some sort of defence. Not for one moment did I imagine that Chelsea's legal team had grasped some finer point around wishing to protect her privacy. I assumed that with their client about to go to court facing charges that could amount to 'treason' against her country, the last thing they felt they needed was to have to defend her against a world sickened by another kind of treason - to her gender.

Or 'his' gender, as the world would, and perhaps will continue to see it.

Selfishly, I'll admit to a certain relief in discovering that Chelsea's trans status was not going to be splashed all over the world's tabloids right away. Trans people are verbally eviscerated on - literally - a daily basis in the media. One of the most vivid tropes within press coverage emerges when a trans person tangles with the law. Many newspapers like nothing more than an easy conflation of our 'deviant' identity with an alleged legal violation. The reductive, cruel headlines always bring together the two ('Sex-swap accountant accused of fraud', 'Crossdressing policeman charged with speeding' etc) into an insinuation of a more profound moral decay - as if breaking the law (or even being accused of it) must in some way be connected with a deeper, culturally dangerous sickness. The label 'transgender' (or its abusive substitutes) then somehow sinks into public consciousness as a shorthand for 'guilty' through endless, unjustified juxtaposition with accusations of wrong doing. In exactly the same way, people of colour used to constantly find the pigment of their skin irrelevantly foregrounded by the press (ie 'Black teenager arrested for shoplifting'), with much the same effect.

I have grown up with these kinds of headlines, and part of me was not looking forward to more of them - especially attached to a case of this immense magnitude. I live and do my job as I am - accepted by my friends and colleagues as the female I know myself to be. But every day I work at that. Every day, a small part of me says, as I walk through the office door, "Make sure they are ok with you today". 

I know that however people seem to feel about me, the crust of acceptance is often an unexamined, thin and vulnerable one. Rooted as it is in little real understanding, it wouldn't take much to fracture it. So I try and strengthen it, in the piece of world I occupy. And I try not to stand on the places where it's thinnest in my life. And I can do without Rupert Murdoch, The Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph, or the BBC willfully derailing my efforts - to advance some cheap agenda or sell advertising space.

But in that sense of relief that Chelsea's gender identity issues were not flooding the newspapers, I also felt some shame. Ashamed that my fear for my own safety (and I am a fully 'transitioned', well off, middle class, employed person with a credible career history) came to my mind at all when reflecting on the situation faced by 'one of our own' who might now be facing the death penalty. Was in that situation for revealing to the world material that included a video of soldiers aboard US Apache helicopters gleefully mowing down a group of unarmed Iraqis, (including murdering two Reuters journalists, the people who came to pick up the wounded in a van, and maiming two children). Someone who might have felt in some way driven to do this because she was trying to deal with features of her inner life that I might understand.

I was ashamed of my worry that the weight of Chelsea's story might suddenly land on my fragile piece of crust, like some asteroid of media bigotry, and smash a hole right through it. I guess that's what a hostile world can do to you.

Because of course it should not have been this way for Chelsea Manning. In so many respects, everything that has happened to her is both horribly wrong and awfully predictable. And my feeling of relief back then that the lawyers were silencing her in her attempts to be herself is actually part of the problem she faced. Because the silencing of her by the world is what may have caused all of this in the first place.

Millions of lines of text are already appearing about who Chelsea is, or isn't. About what kind of life she has had, will now have, and whether her revelation about herself in any way effects her 'guilt' as charged or otherwise. We cannot know the answers to many of these questions - I'm guessing partly because her defense team, complicit in the fear we transgender people have of the hate of society - avoided putting them into the court room properly. We know that Chelsea apologised to the United States for what she had done. We know that she felt remorse for any harm caused. That she believed - believes still I guess - that what she did was in support of the constitution of her country, an attempt to bring wrong doing to light.

We know less about the deeper private motivation behind her actions - and though she is, predictably, being lauded and vilified by groups with opposed political agendas in equal measure - we have little idea whether she feels the crown of 'Whistleblower's Whistleblower' fits. She'll certainly have a long time now to think that one over.

I don't want to add to the speculation about what's been going on in Chelsea's head. I can make a guess at best, and as someone who has been to the edge of despair in my way too, perhaps for some of the same reasons, I might be able to come up with something plausible. But just as Chelsea, and I, want the world to allow us to own our identities, so too, do I want the world to allow me to own my own motivations without hypothesising and forcing the painful results of all that on me. And I wouldn't be surprised if she felt the same.

I can really therefore only speak for me.

Feeling forced to live a life in which I felt I could not be who I fully am had an effect on me, and not a good one. I grew up negotiating between an emerging understanding of my true self and the knowledge that if I ever voiced it to the world the social consequences would be catastrophic.

But the need for inner honesty is a powerful force and it will be heard.

We see its power in so many ways in our lives. The marriage that is forged or broken because it will give you what you, as a person, need, or which has stopped giving it. The career on which we embark which either feeds our soul, helping us to feel authentic, that we are in the right place in the world...or which crushes and depresses us. We talk of feeling 'right' or 'wrong' in a company, a role, a city, a country. Our families and friends represent other locations in our lives where we seek expression and acceptance of our true selves - and if we are unable to do so, our relationships are thin, unsatisfactory, short lived.

Everywhere in life we look for places in which we can be ourselves, and though we may not be able to articulate easily what that 'selfness' is, we know clearly when we feel it or do not. We know what it is like to feel bent out of shape inside to try and fit a model that is simply handed to us from elsewhere, from outside without reference to who we are and what we are.

For the transgender person, finding this sense of authenticity can be tough. The world generally tries to make the one solution you increasingly know to be the one that will help (the one which involves your gender and how you live it) the only one you cannot have (in fact, in many countries, the world says to trans people we will kill you on the streets if you try). And thus you are often left only with partial solutions which you desperately try and make work.

One such solution (though you may not express it in these terms as you try and sell it to yourself) is to try and irrevocably close off your own chances for authenticity, and to force yourself to make the best of other mechanisms in life available to you. Things which can distract, or hopefully obscure the bigger problem. Join the army perhaps? Many do. The army - for many a caricature of self assured, self accepting masculinity, must surely be a place where all this pain can be driven away and replaced by some inner model that you can make work?

Another solution can be to try and vent the need for honesty, for authenticity, in other ways. To try and help others face their struggle. I joined Amnesty International when I was 19, and have been actively involved, in various ways and at various times for over 30 years. I look back at the letters I have written, the petitions I've signed, the appeals for individuals to be treated with dignity, to be given liberty and to be allowed to live their lives as who they are...and I know that I was also writing to myself.

Equally, I was actively involved in trying to support other trans people find ways out of their despair - comforting, counselling and listening - for almost a decade before I could face my own.

Perhaps had I been working in a job with access to a range of deeply disturbing secrets about how my government was breaking the law, jeopardising the lives of innocent people, and much worse, the pressure for honesty and the despair that I could not tackle in my own life might have overwhelmed me? Perhaps I would have leaked those documents in some sort of symbolic expression of my own need?

Some way of getting the 'truth', any truth, out there?

And had I done so, then what has befallen Chelsea Manning would have happened to me. The grandest of pieces of projection, perhaps, but I can't help seeing in what she did some parallels with my approach, on my much smaller stage.

And in a way something many trans people try to do. To just try and make it all go away through denial is one route. Perhaps seeking at least some measure of honesty in one's life in some other sphere, another? And overall, to turn one's life into a pressure cooker clamped shut, whilst doing nothing about the raging heat beneath it. And then to fool about loosening the lid occasionally - releasing moments of inner pressure through symbolic acts.

Chelsea's inner strategy, if this is what it was - her leaking of material as extended metaphor for dealing with some of that pain within - didn't work. And I don't mean for the US military, for the US government, or for its allies or enemies. Depending on where you stand, you may feel she did the right, or the wrong thing, in those terms. I mean for her.

My version of that strategy didn't work for me either. Luckily for me, my life choices didn't arrive framed in the same way as hers. Luckily for me, one of the options along the way to try and fix the pain did not involve actions which could easily have got me executed and I never had to face the entanglement of vast moral questions with what was going on in my own head. Luckily for me, the desperation I felt didn't perhaps get so bad - or get so bad for long - that I no longer cared about the potential consequences for me.

But had I lived her life, had I tried to answer the questions she was facing, in the place she was, then maybe I too would be starting a lifetime in jail.

So perhaps I am Chelsea Manning.

And, whatever your story, in some ways perhaps you are too?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A picture of us all

Take a look at the picture on the left.

Unless - like the two individuals in black - you are a psychopath, you might find that difficult. It's ghastly.

I actually hope that you find it difficult to look at. I hope it unsettles you to your core.

Take another look. Who is the young man kneeling on the floor, forced to pose obscenely with leering apes either side of him?

I don't know the young man's name, and I don't want to know it. I'd like to apologise to him - symbolically, it's all I can do - for using this picture. In fact it's all over the internet. It first arrived there after the two individuals in black, or their supporters and colleagues, posted it on to a Russian social network. Understood to be a young gay man, he had been lured into making contact with a vigilante Neo-Nazi called Maxim Martsinkevich. Martsinkevich has made it his business to entrap gay men by posing as a date on contact websites. His prey go to meet him, where they are humiliated, beaten or tortured. Sometimes in public, with passers by ignoring what they see, or even condoning it. It's often filmed and uploaded - the purpose being to out the individual to school, to friends and to family. The victim sometimes commits suicide afterwards.

This is happening in Russia. 
Right now. 

It's just one manifestation of a situation that some are likening to the Nazi Germany of 1935. That's the year the Nuremberg Laws were enacted there, a sweeping range of legislation designed to start the process of formally excluding Jewish people from society. And 1935 was also the year before the world gathered for an Olympics in Berlin, looking the other way as a whole country geared up towards the unthinkable. 

The Russian police, say activists, are fully aware of this thug's actions, and those of others like him. But Russia is now a country which has enacted a law so broad that it is illegal to even talk in public about being gay, to share information about it, for gay people to wear any insignia, or use any emblems (the rainbow flag, for example) in public. It is illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, for an individual or media organisation to support gay rights, or for a Russian child to be adopted abroad by a gay couple, or even in a country where equal marriage exists. 
St Petersburg Pride 2013
Dmitry Lovetsky / AP
Homosexuality, decriminalised in Russia in 1993, is now moving towards being a criminal offence once more, in all but name. The State, and the police, are effectively on the side of Martsinkevich.

Earlier this year, St Petersburg police beat up and then arrested LGB&T activists who courageously held a (banned) Pride march, after watching them be showered were with bricks, eggs, and other missiles. 

More recently, the day the law was enacted, a small group of protestors held a 'kiss in' outside the Parliament. Police stood and watched as those who took part were violently attacked, and then moved in to arrest all the participants. It's not confined to locals either. The other week, four Dutch tourists were detained under the new law. 

St Petersburg Pride 2012
Alexnader Demainchuk / Reuters
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in Russia are facing the biggest disaster of their lives - certainly since the end of the USSR. One recent report suggests that more than one in seven gay people have been physically attacked in Russia in the last ten months - a desperate expression of growing hate in a country where 85% of the population opposes same sex marriage, 38% of the population believes that gay people should either be isolated from society and/or compulsorily 'treated'. And one in twenty believes that gay people should be 'exterminated'

In a country of 143 million, that's 7 million people who actively want to kill you. How do you think that feels?

The situation has been worsening. Not one of the 436 deputies in the Russian Parliament voted against the draconian anti gay laws. The Kremlin, using the well known 'internal enemies' device with which Putin and his ex KGB/NKVD buddies grew up, is happy to see the hate gathering pace as it offers a focal point for discontent that can take the national eye off the misdemeanours of the government, the vast corruption, the mafiose strong arming of business, the protection of vested interests. 

Police break up a kiss in protest
outside the Duma 2013
Kirill Kudryavtsev  / Getty Images
Next year Russia hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics, in Sochi, a city on its Black Sea coast. The debate is raging  - not least amongst Russia's LGB&T community - about how the world should respond to these appalling developments and whether the games offers a focal point for protest. 

There have been calls for a boycott - immediately of Russian vodkas, and one next year of the games themselves. Others have rejected that approach, saying that avoiding Russian goods will go unnoticed and that a boycott of the games could even be counter productive. 

The point, some say, is best made by being there - and by being out and proud. The Russian government has 'reassured' the International Olympic Committee that LGB&T tourists and competitors will not be arrested, though Russian law says they must be if they do anything which identifies their authentic sexual or gender orientation in public. Parliamentarians are saying different things, calling for the detention of foreigners - though whether the country's leaders are prepared to have the biggest public relations disaster since the 1980 Moscow games on their hands if they do so remains to be seen. 

On balance, it's hard to see what a boycott would achieve. Even at a national level, Olympic boycotts before have had mixed results. The US absence at the 1980 Olympics didn't get the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan and was widely seen as just a piece of political rhetoric which resulted in the Soviet bloc pulling out of the 1984 games in LA and little else. 

And were it just the LGB&T participants and tourists who failed to show next year...well nothing presumably would make the proto-Nazis in the Russian Parliament happier, nor, perhaps many of the Russian people as they are taught by their leaders to deepen their prejudice.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos
1968 Mexico Olympics
Though obviously understanding would be total if individuals felt unable to do so, our LGB&T athletes and tourists should go - open and unbowed. As Dave Zirin recalls here there were calls for black athletes to pull out of the 1968 games in protest at continuing racism within the US and elsewhere, a consciousness coalescing at the time into the nascent Black Power movement. When attempts to organise came to nothing, many black athletes went, and the world remembers not the hesitancy with which they were there but this photo (right).

But we must do more. The Sochi Olympics provides a convenient focal point for protest, but it's one moment in an ongoing spiral of disaster for a beleaguered community in Russia. Attempts we make to support them should not just be about salving our own liberal consciences but about helping to deliver actual change in a society which is degenerating into barbarity for some of its citizens. 

Which brings us back to the picture at the top of this page. 

I, like everyone reading this page, must face up to the challenge it puts. As preacher and academic Charles Aked said, 

"For evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing

And as many of us sit comfortably in the West, celebrating equal marriage for lesbian and gay people in a growing number of countries, we must see that picture at the top of the page as one of ourselves. It is a picture of you. And of me. But who we are in that picture is down to us. There are only two available positions. We must take sides.

My life, and the lives of some I know, make me understand just how close I could easily be to kneeling on that floor with that young man.

He is there simply because of who he is. Nothing more. I am him.

Please don't imagine that you, whether you are gay, straight, trans, cisgender, black, white, male, female, rich, poor or anything else - are somehow magically immune from being him too.




Go here to express your support of LGB&T Russians

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Equal Marriage Act and transgender rights. The prejudice below.

Angry doesn't do it justice. 

Initially, like many others, I was delighted that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act passed through the House of Lords in its Second Reading. 

I was delighted for gay and lesbian friends who are finally being given the right to celebrate their love on a basis equal to others - despite the poisonous and bigoted attitudes poured out all over them by representatives of Establishment, of Church and by sundry other bigots en route.

In one respect - as a side effect of the bill - there's been a general view that the transgender community (more specifically transsexual people) has benefited in its quest to be treated as equal human beings too. Previously, an individual who needed to transition and who was in a marriage that had - against the odds - held together, would be denied the chance to be legally recognised in his or her new (ie genuine) gender unless he or she got divorced. 

Transition is hard enough already on families, but this requirement (which existed because two people of the same gender could not be married - the outcome if legal transition of one took place) was for some a bitter pill indeed. Couples who could see further than the sterile pink/blue world many inhabit and who married each other for something deeper were being broken apart, with children amongst the innocent victims. And yet without divorce, the transitioning partner would simply have to carry on, unable to get their papers changed, unable to be recognised by the State, for who they really are. 

The Equal Marriage Bill will end that requirement, as couples of the same gender can now be married.

And that's good news.

But it wasn't long before some other provisions of the proposed bill -  now travelling fast towards Royal Assent - began to come to light. Provisions that are built in to ensure that whilst trans people benefit from (essentially) a side effect of the legislation, they should continue to understand that they are not actually equal under British law, and that their basic human right to claim and own their own identity does not take precedence over the 'needs' of the rest of the community to be 'protected' from them. 

Because under the surface of this legislation still lurks the odour of stigma and prejudice. 

This first whiff of this crops up in one particular clause. It indicates that if a married person wishes to legally transition and stay married, then that person needs to get the written permission of their spouse first.

If you are a cisgender reader of this blog, that might, perhaps, seem reasonable? No-one should be 'jumped' into a partner suddenly wanting to do something like this without your consent, of course (though with transsexual people being forced to 'live in role' for two years before even being allowed to 'ask' for surgery - it's not exactly likely). 

But let's take a look more deeply at some of the legal implications - and at the moral foundation below them...

Firstly, of course, the situation is unlikely to arise often - granted. If one partner in a marriage has a major difficulty with the other dealing with their gender needs in this way, it's pretty unlikely that they are going to be keen to stay married anyway. And if they are supportive of their partner's actions, then the 'permission' they are asked to give should be a formality?

Perhaps. But this is not the issue.

The legislation is making a legal point. The needs of one spouse shall - in law - take precedence over those of the other. Irrespective of other considerations. And specifically, the desire of one spouse to preserve the status quo of a marriage is deemed to be more important - in law - than the profound and central human right of the other to be who they are. To claim their own identity and to live it. 

The idea of needing another's 'consent' to be who you are is sickening - and it remains sickening even if cases in which it arises are rare. There are principles in play here - and the Bill's assumptions about whose rights should prevail should the issue ever make an appearance are clear. It's reminiscent of the era in which a woman needed to get the 'permission' of a husband to gain a divorce - whatever the circumstances of the marriage, the 'right' of one partner to remain married took precedence over the right of the other even to not be beaten to a pulp. Sometimes.

But there's worse to come.

It has now come to light that the Act sustains and refreshes a deeply problematic and legally obscure part of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. The government, led by Minster Helen Grant, is aware of this. Could have supported a change, easily, in this major review of marital law. Has refused.  

Fresh on the heels of a case in which an individual was found guilty in a British court of 'obtaining sex by deception' because he (a trans man who was still biologically female) did not disclose his past to a partner, the Bill does nothing to change the legal requirement for a person with a transsexual past, who has a Gender Recognition Certificate (and potentially even an amended Birth Certificate - both documents that are supposed to be entirely private and held in very secure settings in civil service files) to disclose their gender history to a potential spouse. 

Failure to do this can constitute grounds for annulment. 

The failure to address this little piece of poison, which made its first appearance in the 2004 Act, reconfirms the law in a way which runs against the entire spirit of the equalities legislation some have been working so hard to bring forward. At the risk of being accused of Godwinism, I can't help thinking of the Nazi's 'Racial Purity' laws - laws by which your family history had to be disclosed before you could marry to ensure that no 'Jewish blood' inconveniently popped up somewhere in your genealogy. It's the last time I can think of in Europe when a law said that who you are, now, is not enough. And that on the basis of something about which you had no control, something profoundly, and morally irrelevant, you could be denied legal rights with no further recourse. 

I am a woman with a transsexual past. I am fairly open about that - to those who are sensitively interested and whom I judge worthy of my hearing the information - in situations in which it is appropriate for me to discuss it. 

It's a choice I make. My choice. Perhaps there are things about your past you choose to share with others, or choose to withhold? 

Often I choose not to talk about my trans past - it is simply irrelevant. At work it plays no role at all. Sometimes I feel that it could stimulate a misunderstanding I do not want, or get in the way by taking the focus off other, more important, things. 

There are times in my life when I just get bored by having to explain it all over again. Sometimes I don't say anything because I don't want to be laughed at, or beaten up. 

Critically these are decisions I take, and the 2004 Act is supposed to protect me in these decisions. Or so most of it said. I am quoting directly from it - it tells me that I am "for all legal purposes" of the gender indicated on the documentation I waited all my life to get.

Frankly, I don't need a piece of paper from Whitehall, or from anyone, to tell me who I am, but my new Birth Certificate and the GRC which allowed me to get it has been an important tool in claiming my right to be treated with respect and dignity 
by British society - by its officialdom and bureaucracy.

But the 2004 Act left one issue ambiguous, and it has sat like an unpaid bill on the statute books for almost a decade. The matter of disclosure around marriage. 

The Equal Marriage Bill restates that I do not actually have the right to be treated in my legal gender under all circumstances.  It is going to say I am not for all legal purposes female, because it confirms another's right to make a judgement for themselves - and for their conclusion to be automatically supported in law if they disagree with mine. 

It is going to confirm that the authenticity of my gender is once again NOT for me to decide, but, in this case, for a prospective spouse to have the final word. 

Once again, let me be completely clear. This is not about how often this might, or might not, happen. Though actually, a person wanting to leave behind decades of prejudice, abuse, or violence and not share hard memories with someone they love is not a situation so difficult to imagine. Especially in the world in which we live. 

Speaking for myself, single, interested in forming a relationship with a man, I think it very likely that I would share my past with a prospective partner - a relationship of trust, for me, needs to be founded on such things.

But I thought that this was something for me to decide. I thought, in a civilised, progressive society, with an Act passed nine years ago which purported to give me legal equality as a human being, that I owned my past. If you are cisgender and are reading this you have this right. 
I was wrong. 

And when that bill passes, it will specifically and directly reinforce an unpleasant irony - uniquely for people like me. Because I actually have a GRC. I have been through the 'system', like the 2004 legislation said I should. Had I not done so, I would not have to share my life story in this way, it seems. 

So much for the Gender Recognition Act.

Thus I am part of an absolutely unique club. A club you cannot join even if you are a convicted paedophile. Or a murderer. Or if you beat up your last partner. The club of those people who are required by law to share something about their previous life to a prospective marriage partner. And I haven't even committed a crime.

Good law has its basis in a good, moral foundation. And it doesn't take long to track the principles which underpin this thinking in the Bill, and in the governments unwillingness to review it, back to a very familiar prejudice - now having light shone on it as the legislation passes though Parliament. 

That prejudice continues to say that we, as transgender people, might just be making all this up. 
That we are not actually who and what we say we are. 

Or at least, that our word is not enough. The final judge must be another person, on whose mercy we must publicly, humiliatingly throw ourselves. The implication is clear. Another must be allowed the chance to say "Ewwww, I don't want to marry you if you're once of those". And protestations that we are simply who we say we are, that we are being honest, are not enough. And nor, it seems, is that new Birth Certificate I have been given, anymore. 

Thus, when I say to the world the simple phrase, "I am a woman", as other women are permitted to, I am reminded now more than ever that there are still relatively few in positions of power in our society who are prepared to accept that, unequivocally, and on the basis simply of my saying it. Society endlessly puts in front of me hurdles to jump, 'proofs' to provide. I thought that the Gender Recognition Act and my completion of all the tasks it set me would be enough. I was wrong, as I now see - again. Women who were born - lucky them - with a physiology which reflected their own internal notion of themselves - do not have this problem. Do not endlessly have the burden of proof of who they are placed on them. Do not have to clear one set of obstacles in front of them only to be given more . Are not called liars.

Beyond all this, the potential marital partner must, it now seems, give formal 'consent' to marriage - having heard this (presumably appalling) 'news'. How this is to be done remains unclear - a Statutory Declaration has been suggested (with visions of Solicitors offices and swearing oaths about 'not having a problem' with (what amounts to) their partner's dirty little secret). Whatever happens, there's much space for further humiliation, further invasion of privacy (something that the 2004 Act was supposed to eliminate), and for legal ambiguity. Look into the future not too far to see the case of an individual who seeks an annulment of a marriage because 'they weren't told'. It becomes a case of one litigant's word against the other, and a great opportunity for someone to get out of a marriage fast even if the real reasons lie elsewhere. It's also a great way of getting a trans person into the papers again, with their past shared everywhere. Or beaten up by angry relatives - and so on.

The Equal Marriage Act - with just a few weeks of lobbying time left - will right a long standing wrong against Lesbian and Gay people. Of course I still support it. But for my gay and lesbian friends now. And for my trans friend who has been caught by the requirement-to-divorce trap, despite, with her wife, keeping her family in one piece for years against the odds.

But I no longer support this bill for me. A few stoic MPs have begun to grasp the implications for transgender people of some of its provisions, and some of its pointed omissions. A few activists have tried to make the politicians hear us. But most MPs have little idea of the issues for us still. Some can barely spell transsexual. A few hate us, with some energy.

Unless something changes, soon - despite the valuable and important side effect of allowing continued marriage for some - it looks to me like the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act could be about to move my personal human rights, and those of many like me, nowhere. 

Worse, it will restate, in deliberate omission and in the unique and new introduction of the legal concept of control of transgender people by consent of another, a fear at the heart of British political classes which over the last nine years we had hoped was on the wane.


Minor edits made June 23 and 24 to reflect accurate situation re legal disclosure around the 2004 Gender Recognition Act

Saturday, June 8, 2013

It's not the size of your schloss that matters. It's what you do with it.

Some might say that it was only a matter of time before the Salzburg Global Seminar embraced its Inner Camp, and held a programme directed at issues facing LGBT people around the world. The Seminar is housed in the eye poppingly beautiful setting where much of 'The Sound of Music' was shot. The mountains, the schloss, the lake that everyone fell in, it's all there - one of those few places around the globe (the citadel of Carcassonne is maybe one, St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow another) about which one might paraphrase Voltaire and say that had it not existed Disney would have had to invent it. Or Rodgers and Hammerstein in this case.

Strolling about amongst the priceless art, suits of armour and fireplaces the size of my back bedroom, I was struck by another parallel. 'That movie' - the one about which everyone talks when there (inevitably reenacting cheesy musical numbers with the assistance of agreeable wine late at night) - covered themes like triumph over preconception plus the elevating power and resilience of the human spirit. It was about the unexpected blossoming of love, the right to it, and the escape from prejudice. With some running about on mountains of course. And dirndls. 

I don't know whether this connection played a role in the mind of the Chief Program Officer, appointed in 2012, when she developed the idea for a week of exploring the global human rights agenda for LGBT people. Perhaps knowing me, and my story, played a bit of a role - we have been friends for 25 years. Or maybe an overarching sense of the need to bring the issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people around the world into a setting like this - more familiar to UN diplomats or World Bank officials perhaps - recognising their critical importance on the front line of international debate and thus an issue with which Salzburg should grapple. Whatever blend of motivations, it was a big departure for the seminar, a decision taken with some courage, and she and her superbly professional team made it happen. Well done to her.

We didn't do a whole lot of running about on mountains (partly because the rain at the start of our week was on a Biblical scale - though one of the seminar team did rock up in local costume for our farewell dinner), but we did spend quite a lot of time exploring and unpacking some of the issues that we, as LGBT people from 33 nations have to face in our daily lives.

We talked about a world pulling in different directions - of notable success in some African nations in some areas, but also of the appalling state sponsored hate being imported into nations like Nigeria and Uganda and into their judicial systems. Of the forced sterilisation of trans people in Europe and elsewhere - the number of countries where you have to have your reproductive organs removed before you can even apply to have your authentic gender recognised in law remains sickeningly high. Of the relationship between religion and nationalism and sexual and gender identity rights, hearing of hard right or religiously sponsored sadism and abuse of an intensity that left the audience wanting to take the speakers, hold them, protect them. But also of - and from - thoughtful religious figures who were as appalled as we at this corruption of their faith - including a widely respected, female Islamic cleric from Indonesia who spoke with an open mindedness and sensitivity some in my country - the UK - would do well to acknowledge.

We heard of success with the funding of projects, shared ideas about how to get funded, though more often of the increasing difficulty of finding money to save lives - and not just (as one might assume) from those in the 'Global South' (as I, Conference Virgin, have now learned it's called).

We heard from someone who had seen a friend beaten to death in front of them, others who had been thrown out of families and communities, made unemployable, been nearly killed by the police, forced into exile, raped. Of legislative bigotry, but also of subtler, cultural prejudice - of countries where the judicial code suggests a level of equality but the reality on the ground is very different.

And we were there when the House of Lords in the UK approved the second reading of the Equal Marriage Bill, to applause. I shared in the moment, delighted too - though also explained that trans people still have to get 'written permission' from their partner if they both seek legal recognition of their gender and wish to stay married. Not something that will affect many, one hopes, but the legal supremacy and 'protection' of the cisgender remains deeply embedded - trans people's basic rights tend to appear only and when they are seen not to threaten that privilege. Even if they are couched in the most primal of human rights terms.

I also told my own story. It came early in the week, and we were yet to hear from many others. I was already humbled, knowing that despite the difficulties I had faced there were many in the room who had undergone things of which I could barely conceive. The group was kind to me, genuinely touched I think by what I had to say as I shared my experiences and how I came to be sitting in front of them, with the von Trapp's mountains looking on.

Later - this time at the very end of the week - I had the chance to expose some of the behaviour of the British media towards trans people - playing delegates a few minutes of deeply transphobic 'comedy' drawn from a range of UK panel, chat and stand up shows on tv, going on to discuss just a little of what the tabloids have been up to via a look at some typical newspaper headlines. I have always felt that accurate, respectful and dignified portrayal of minority groups - trans people are 'mine' - is ultimately about saving lives too. About helping innocent people not get beaten up, murdered or driven to suicide - as the media in any country has a profound role in shaping attitude. It can drive acceptance and understanding or fuel hate, as every government since Caxton has known (and the church even before). But I did wonder - after all we'd discussed, if this group - of all groups - might look at this theme with a little more distance. When you've almost been killed, or you have seen your friends killed, you might perhaps imagine matters media to be a little less pressing than some of the stuff on your personal plate. But the audience was shocked and angry I felt. As we sat there living through a few minutes of average Friday night British tv, I could feel the outrage in the room.

Film set ambience or not, it was a tough week. The powerfully personal was everywhere. So were some agendas that crept into the room from elsewhere. Some geopolitical, a few moments of identity politics. At times I saw pain erupting around assumptions - assumptions made about individuals because of their nationality, regionality, or perhaps because of what some of their fellow nationals were doing in the world. 

Luckily the reaching out to find the common spaces was the loudest theme. 60 people from 5 continents sat and worked together. Found our shared ambitions, found our shared goals. Amongst us were novices, like me, alongside politically connected and diplomatic figures who cared. One afternoon, I shared an observation with one delegate about a UN campaign soon to be launched. She took my point. Sent an email to someone in New York. The next morning the reply arrived - the UN team had agreed to the suggestion. You had the sense that it was That Kind of Week.

Of course whether it really was That Kind of Week principally depends on what happens next. The Salzburg Global Seminar was created after the Second World War to rebuild the intellectual bridges, shared purpose and common humanity of a world shattered by the ideology from which the von Trapp family were running in the famous movie. At the end of the week we hammered out a closing statement, framing our objectives and our basic rights, which we hope will hit important desks around the world and create a tangible response. This issue is now on the worldwide human rights agenda we were told, and having Salzburg's voice behind this community can add much - if the Seminar and those who hold it in high regard now maximise the exposure of our work. And if those of us who were there remain true to the aspirations we identified at the end of our week together, and act on those too.

The production of a nicely crafted policy statement to gather dust on a diplomat's desk was not the purpose of our week away. Our efforts need to make an actual difference to policy makers and governments. And we seek action from them, not mere gestures of support or sympathy. Actions which stop people being attacked, killed, sexually assaulted. Which help them get and keep a job, have a home, retain their right to a family (and the reproductive organs to do so). To love and to be loved.

As Julie Andrews might have said - surrounded by the immense baroque splendour and the snow capped mountains, perhaps in a scene which lies forgotten in the cupboard of an edit suite somewhere - it's not the size of your schloss that matters. It's what you do with it.

Monday, April 1, 2013

"There is no money". And Other Lies.

When the newly appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Laws, got into the office for his first day at work, in May 2010, it's said that he opened a letter sitting on his desk from his predecessor, Liam Byrne. The letter contained just one sentence. "I am afraid there is no money", it said.

The rest, as they are going to be saying - especially after this week, is history. A moribund economy, that the coalition government continues to insist was pretty much dead on arrival when it took office, refuses to recover. The scale of the cuts announced as the government got into its stride defied belief - we could have once joked that they were dealing in telephone numbers, except that these numbers are bigger, much bigger than that.

And thinking of that history when it is written, the government will no doubt be hoping for a certain narrative. One that is truly, perniciously, in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher. That there was no alternative. That the medicine was unpleasant but that it had to be swallowed - but only by some. That the use of tax policy to bring real funds from the wealthy was simply not an option - as it hasn't been since the Conservative party taught the middle classes that they weren't actually well off, making selfishness a virtue, and fatally wounding a key idea of post war 'society'. (New Labour - eyes bulging from the bubble that they inherited and still in awe of a Conservative Prime Minister who beat them for three elections in a row - of course failed to reinstate that idea.) The narrative, they will be hoping in Downing Street, will end with Britain bravely fighting through. And let's not talk about the human cost.

For a lot of other people the story is going to read rather differently of course. They'd be forgiven for thinking they've been unexpectedly cast in a real life, social version of 'Oh What a Lovely War'. Behind the lines of their lives, their political masters have been throwing them like cannon fodder into the trenches of economic carnage-without-end, because like the Generals of World War One, they have no Plan B. The casualty list is already pretty gruesome, but it's about to get much worse indeed.

Because this week the whistles blow for a new offensive, the biggest yet, as 660,000 of the poorest people in Britain are going to give the government on average £728 each per year as they lose housing benefit if they have a 'spare' bedroom. This includes people who need round the clock care, and families with disabled children - neither of these groups have gained automatic exemption from these measures. In fact the government is in court fighting a claim by ten disabled children that their basic human rights are being infringed. And even for others who are not facing these particular problems, the cut in benefit is cruel because their ability to respond to it by moving into smaller properties (taking their children out of schools, losing jobs, adding to travel costs...none of these factors make any difference) is often limited. The properties aren't there, or if they are the reality of  councils making it all happen could take years.

Meanwhile, on another part of the front, legal aid is being withdrawn from many of the less well off, essentially destroying access to the legal system for thousands. Along with that, Disability Living Allowance is going, replaced by Personal Independence Allowance, a reduced and less accessible benefit that now takes six months to qualify for rather than three. And welfare benefits and tax credits become pegged to 1% increases from April 8th, no longer rising with inflation - for the first time ever. By 2015-16, the poorest of Britain will be giving the government £2.3 billion from this last measure alone.

But, hey, there's some good news too.

The wealthiest next week see the removal of the 50p top rate of Income tax.

In fact, things are looking pretty good back at Battalion Headquarters. The 1000 wealthiest people in Britain are now worth £414 billion. Their wealth grew in 2011-2012 by 4.7% - which is £18.6 billion. By any calculation you can make, £18.6 billion dwarfs any extra revenue coming the government's way through the savings it wishes to make in measures beginning next week. It could certainly pay pretty much the entire bill for savings that's been sent to the NHS.
It's not a new phenomenon. The rich, and the most rich at that, have been getting substantially richer for years. 40% of all increases in income in the last ten years has gone into the bank accounts of the wealthiest 10%. And there is no sign that the recession has put the slightest damper on that party.

Meanwhile the economic status of our poorest 10% has collapsed.

So where does this leave us?

The broken record of Thatcher/Reagonomics which came to infect this country's view of itself - like hidden words through a stick of economic rock - would have it that any adjustment of the model is almost akin to suggesting the middle classes should all have their glasses smashed and be made to go and work in the fields, a la Mao or Pol Pot.

That there in no other way is of course, disingenuous rubbish. A tale created to frighten the middle class into never ever again questioning the validity of an economic policy that over the last twenty years has dropped more and more people out of society, and allowed some others to accrue wealth that might even have drawn a few impressed nods at the court of Louis XIV.

"There's no more money" said Liam Byrne's letter. Yes there is. Plenty of it. That £414 billion for a start - that makes these people collectively worth more than Belgium, or Sweden, or even Switzerland, for God's sake. Plus all the extra profit that's been made in just the year since that figure was reported. Let's have a bit of that. Just a bit.

Plus of course the vast sums controlled by the hugely wealthy who couldn't quite scrape together the £72 million to make it onto the top 1000. And don't get me started on the £45-£100 billion that it is estimated major companies are avoiding by failing to pay Corporation tax.

But there's a bigger, deeper question here too.

We have swallowed the lie of No Other Way so completely that barely anyone in politics questions it anymore - testament to a culture in which we have lost all real sense of social obligation and are losing our cohesion. Summer greed riots in our cities is one symptom, the growing number of people living rough on our streets (up a third in two years according to Crisis) another. The idea of being part of a nation to which we all actually belong, and in which we all have worth, was first really assassinated by Thatcher in her 'no such thing as society speech' in 1987 and the mood music hasn't changed much since then (despite occasional glimpses of what we might be, such as the one organised last year in Stratford to Danny Boyle's choreography). These days suggesting that the better off should contribute more - a fair share - for the overall good of the nation, and that they might want to because it is the moral and responsible thing to do is regarded as politically laughable.

Until this changes, nothing does.

We are left with a nation in which the most wealthy pay a smaller proportion of their income in tax than the poorest (35% for the top 10%, 39% for the bottom 10%). A situation where married carers who need a spare room to sleep in as their disabled spouse requires a room of his or her own, are penalised benefit by politicians who spend on a lunch what that couple are given each week in benefit. Where child custody disputes will remain unheard by the courts, causing misery, because legal fees can't be met. Where Shelter reports that child homelessness is at record levels, and Job Centres are starting to send people to Food Banks. And it's all going to get worse, and worse.

"Greed" said Gordon Gecko, in the 1987 movie 'Wall Street', "is good". We thought it was an ironic comment on self serving bankers. It wasn't, of course - as Rich Ricci of Barclays pockets an £18 million bonus twenty five years later and stories of unchecked malpractice from the banks continue to pour forth, we must realise that it became for many of us a cultural philosophy, so embedded in the political psyche of this country that - like the fish that is unconscious of the water in which it swims - we lost our awareness of what it has done to us.

There is money, Mr Laws. And we need to remember why we all need to share more of it around.