Lives No Longer Hidden: An Interview with Carol Steele
Carol Steele is a pioneering activist who runs the transgender support group Transfigurations. Christopher Bryant talks to her about the questions that face transgender people in 21st century Britain, and the obstacles they’ve yet to overcome.
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The representation of trans people, and consequently their visibility, has changed in many ways since the UK Gender Recognition Act was passed in 2004. On the one hand there have been positive representations of trans characters in the press, film and in British soap operas. And on the other there has been a backlash from writers who identify as feminist yet seem to hold to the contradictory belief that while biology is not destiny for those who are born biologically female, it is for transwomen. This point of view is used as a polemical shortcut to treat transwomen as little more than men masquerading as women, to unjustly dismiss their beliefs, ideas and identities.
The T in LGBT is not always visible, and more often than not tacked on to the end rather than being understood, or even accepted. On a rudimentary level, sexual orientation – the LGB part of the acronym – defines your preference, whereas the T defines your gender – a far more complex psychological, physiological and social fusion. Yet because sexual orientation is social, and our ideas about gender are learned and applied socially – blue or pink, trousers or skirts, home economics or sports – any sexuality that deviates from the norm throws the issue of gender into confusion.
Gender, like sexual orientation, is not a constant. And like sexual orientation it operates on a wide spectrum. The term transgender refers to a section of the spectrum. Traditionally, if someone is transsexual they have had surgery or hormones to realign the body with their gender identity, yet there are many ways that gender dysphoria can manifest, and the trans experience varies from transsexual to genderqueer.
Carol Steele is a pioneering activist who runs the transgender support group Transfigurations. She formed one of the first support groups in the UK for transsexual people in 1972. Carol started her transition in the early 1970s. I talked to Carol about the support work that she does, the questions that face people who are transgender in 21st century Britain, and the obstacles that trans people have yet to overcome.
How long have you been running Transformations, and how did you first get involved?
My first transgender support group was started in around 1972/3 when another transgender woman and myself started the Manchester TV/TS Group. It was started because back in those days the only real group for transgender people was the Beaumont Society – and they refused to accept transsexual women (and they honestly believed that transgender men did not exist).
Transfigurations is the group that I started about 18 months ago in South Devon and we welcome transgender and gender variant people of all ages to join us – as well as giving support to parents (or guardians) of transgender children and youth – and the partners of transgender people. There are a few restrictions which apply to transgender youth and children in order to protect them and their families. Our online forums also have special sub-sections for transgender children which are only accessible to the people in that age group and their parents (parents may only access those forums if they have a child who is a member there). Likewise we have sub-forums for the partners of transgender people so that they can discuss their feelings and emotions without feeling pressured by their partners or other transgender people.
The formation of the group came about after working with the Independent Advisory Group for the Devon and Cornwall Police when it became apparent that some sort of support group was needed in the Torbay area. There is a high level of distrust of the police by the trans community, and they were worried that transphobic hate crime was very much under reported. Working with and incorporating transgender people onto their policy committees starts to break down those barriers so that the police can actually do their work properly in protecting those special characteristics groups. I was later asked to go onto the Torbay and South Devon Healthcare Trust’s Equality and Diversity committee who were working on their policy document regarding transgender staff and patients as part of their commitment to their Public Sector Equality Duty work.
What’s the range of those who use the group across the transgender spectrum? Has that changed over the time you’ve been running the group?
The people who actually come along to meetings tend to be transgender women who are at various stages of their transitions. Our forums contain a mix of people ranging from post operative transgender women, transitioning trans people, those who are confused as to their gender and also a few genderqueer people.
It seems that trans visibility, and the understanding of what it means to be trans, has changed in the last decade alone. Do you find that’s the case? How has that informed the work that you do, and the experiences that people bring to the group?
It changed slowly in the 1970s and started gaining momentum in the ’80s and ’90s, and then with the coming of the Gender Recognition Act in 2004 it did seem to explode and take on a life of its own. I think this is down to a number of factors, not least the Internet and Google, so now people can explore how they feel about themselves and seek friendships and understanding from like-minded people.
This last decade has seen a growing number of people, especially from the younger generation, who are identifying as other than m2f or f2m transgender. This can be seen in the number of people who identify as non-binary or genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, bi-gender or others. If we accept that gender is indeed non-binary and a spectrum, then these categories of self-identification should have been expected – and the fact that these people are now emerging proves that gender identity is indeed a spectrum.
It has also changed for the good in that it is now much easier to find out about gender dysphoria because of the large number of support groups that exist around the country and the sheer number of specialist web sites and Facebook groups which are there to help transgender and/or gender variant people explore their feelings about themselves, but its one drawback is that because the general public are far more aware of transgender people this has led to far greater amounts of transphobia and transphobic hate crime in our society. Many years ago, people might think you are a masculine looking woman, but that was that generally because the transgender people were not being constantly written about and reported on in the media, which is generally quite hostile and derogatory – with just a few exceptions (and even those can occasionally get it badly wrong).
Once media attention starts to wane over the reporting of people undergoing gender reassignment, not doubt they will start to target an even smaller minority within the transgender spectrum – those who self identify as genderqueer, gender fluid or bi-gender.
Quite a few years ago I had a conversation with Fay Presto about the difference between gay and trans politics, and she said that gay politics is about standing out, whereas trans politics is the opposite. Do you think that’s the case these days? Or is even asking the question too simplistic, and that it’s a case of language failing us?
I think that perception is now changing as more and more transgender people start becoming trans activists and start pushing for greater understanding, greater acceptance and greater protections for transgender people. We are now starting to form pressure groups in much the same way that CHE and the GLF did in the late ’60s and early ’70s and pushing the government and other bodies for reforms. We are now starting to get our voices heard – and perhaps more importantly, listened to. This is evidenced in the way that public bodies such as the Police and the NHS are inviting transgender people onto their committees so that we can have a dialog about understanding and inclusivity.
How do you feel about the place of the T in the LGBT acronym?
We do have one major difference – our problems arise out of how we perceive our gender and not our sexuality. Transgender people can be straight, lesbian, gay or bi in much the same way that cis-gender people can be straight, lesbian, gay or bi – but we do have one thing in common with all cis-LGB, we have all suffered from persecution. Stonewall did nothing to help transgender people despite often gaining grants under an LGBT banner which deprived important funding for transgender groups. It is extremely ironic that Stonewall derived its name from the infamous Stonewall Riots which were started by women who fall within the transgender spectrum.
There is still some resentment amongst the gay community towards transgender people and I have often heard gay men disrespecting our identities, for instance, repeatedly mis-gendering us, using the wrong pronouns and using expressions of derision.
Mum & Carol
What you’ve written about your own childhood experience of gender dysphoria is really open, and very touching. Do you find that trying to get people to understand the idea that gender as separate from biology is still a struggle?
I do think it is becoming more widely accepted by people these days – as evidenced by the huge increase in young people being seen by the UK’s only Gender Identity Clinic for children, The Tavistock and Portman Institute in London – however I think that we are in the early stages of this particular battle. It is also important to realise that not all children who express feelings of gender dysphoria when they are very young will want to continue with transition once they hit puberty. A significant proportion do not, according to the Tavistock. However, whether these children who do opt back into living as their birth gender then go on and transition later, only follow up studies will tell. It could be that societal pressures to conform result in some of these children deciding that it is simply too difficult for them at that age.
Unfortunately, some parts of the media have picked on this as their next battle with transgender people. One recent front page headline screamed “NHS to give Sex Change Drugs to 9 Year Olds” despite knowing that hormone blockers would not bring about the development of secondary sexual characteristics even if taken for a 100 years. What was also untrue is that no 9 year old had ever been given hormone blockers as a precursor for giving cross-sex hormone therapy when they reached 16.
You will get somebody who might be a right wing member of an anti-abortionist ‘family values’ group wheeled out to condemn hormone blockers as being child abuse – but my argument would be that it would be child abuse if the parent(s) deliberately made their child suffer the torment of going through puberty and then when they transitioned at a later date have to undergo painful and extensive treatments (eg laser/electrolysis to remove facial hair) and quite complicated and often dangerous surgeries (eg Facial Feminization Surgery etc) in order to become the person that they define themselves as.
Carol, 1975 / 2012
This last year has seen a certain amount of controversy with feminists like Germaine Greer, and journalists like Julie Burchill and Julie Bindel, seeming to turn back to the idea that biology is not destiny – but only when the subject of trans is raised. How have these high-profile altercations affected your work, and you personally?
Personally I think those articles can do a lot of harm as they start to portray us as objects and not as people – and once we are perceived merely as objects this dehumanization plays into the hands of people who then see it as OK to commit physical acts of violence against us. I would have thought that they, as women, would have realised the consequences that dehumanization brings and would have been more understanding. Fortunately the vast majority of feminist groups have decried those outbursts and have, as a result, become more trans inclusive and stand with us against this type of oppression. In a way they have shot themselves in the foot – which might account for the fact that they have been a lot quieter over transgender people in their more recent articles. Plus, following the outcry and condemnation that ensued following those articles, perhaps editors are less inclined to publish this type of rhetoric now.
Then we come across another genre of feminists who call themselves Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists” (TERF’s) and include such figures as Janice Raymond, author of the infamous The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-male, Sheila Jeffreys, author of the anti-trans book Gender Hurts and Cathy Brennan. They have postulated theories about gender that transgender people do not simply fit within – so as pseudo scientific writers, rather than go back to their theories and try to find another theory that fits the facts, they attempt to eradicate our existence by simply denying it – a little like the flat earthers or the Roman Catholic church used to do when they held fast to the idea that the Earth was the centre of the universe and everything revolved around it – before Galileo proved otherwise.
To read Carol’s story, and find out more about the support work that Transfigurations undertakes, click here.
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