Transgender Awareness Week: Awareness Without Activism

Activist and author Ben Pechey (they/them) writes on the current state of trans awareness and activism in the UK, encompassing their personal experiences and calling for greater support from allies. 

Editors Note: This article contains references to transphobic organisations, articles and statistics relating to transphobic hate crimes and hate crimes against the LGBTQIA+ community. If this is something you have experienced, Galop is an anti-violence charity supporting LGBTQIA+ people and they can be contacted via their website or their helpline on 020 7704 2040. This list of organisations from The Terrence Higgins Trust offers a comprehensive look at organisations and resources available to support trans, non-binary and GNC people. 

Every year, Trans Awareness Week aims to help raise the visibility of transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive people and also to address issues members of the community face globally. It culminates with Transgender Day of Remembrance, where we remember all the community members lost over the years. 

In the UK today, we are experiencing a tremendous amount of public awareness and focus on the Transgender community.  Trans, non-binary, and gender-expansive people and elements of our culture are being discussed in mainstream public discourse. The media has thrust the spotlight on the community and not gone much further. I would argue that this is creating more discourse – a great deal of which is biased at best and transphobic at worst – and less action. 

There is a growing culture of transphobia and corresponding transphobic action cultivated and engaged in by corporations, government and media. This is fostering an incredibly dangerous and hostile environment for the trans community in the U.K – and I believe it is only getting worse.

With the arrival of Trans Awareness Week 2021, let’s explore the reasons the trans community is currently existing in a reactionary state, what this means in terms of rights & access, and where we go next.

The Problem With ‘Difference’

I often think about how much of my work is focused on shifting perceptions. Education, awareness and activism often arise from the need to change people’s minds about fundamental issues. Yet, how hard is it to do that? Certainly, I know how strongly I feel about the issues I share. Trying to change other people’s minds can feel impossible. We can feel fiercely loyal to our own perspectives and beliefs. However, I would encourage a flexibility or an openness to entertaining perspectives outside our own. Having the ability to listen, and to hear what is being said, does not diminish the strength or integrity of our own views. If anything, it can make them even stronger.

A huge part of human life is experience. Our experiences inform our decisions. The more we experience the more we can potentially come to know or understand. Hence some people who have only experienced one approach to life/gender/race/health/religion – or any pertinent issue that causes contention in modern society – may have a stronger attachment to a singular view. 

Our experiences can inform our morality and the ways in which we may judge right and wrong. It is feasible that some people find the idea of transgender and non-binary identities alarming, or even “wrong” – initially – because it is may feel oppositional to their experiences, and what they know. This initial response may be informed by a fear of the unknown. Understanding this impulse can help us move past it. We are greater than our fears may otherwise allow us to be.

Evolutionary Forces

Our fear of the unknown can be traced back to our distant ancestors, from whom we have inherited many of our essential instincts and behavioural mechanisms, including the particular survival mechanism of Fight, Flight or Freeze. This is the human response to a perceived threat. In response to stressors, “the adrenal medulla produces a hormonal cascade that results in the secretion of catecholamines, especially norepinephrine and epinephrine.” This hormonal response creates a chain reaction that affects how we behave in certain situations.  

But what has this got to do with Trans Awareness Week, you ask?

Fight, Flight Or Freeze Meets The Trans Community

For a long time, there was little to no accurate representation of the community in mainstream (aka. white, cisheteronormative,  patriarchal) media. So the first time someone meets a trans or non-binary person – or indeed, even (perhaps especially) when first encountering an idea of gender beyond the binary – that perceived difference can potentially trigger a fear response. A number of people do not check that evolutionary response and become angry, volatile and violent. Perhaps an even larger number do not check that response and allow prejudice to take root in their opinions and attitudes. This response is not the whole story of the origins or perpetuation of transphobia – social conditioning and internalised messaging from external systems like media and government have an enormous responsibility in this regard as well. To a great extent, these external factors capitalise on the fear responses of their readers or viewers, compounding it in a cycle of misinformation and reactionism.  The fear response is a function that plays a role in transphobia, as people can have a tendency to follow their fear impulses. And there is media that tells them that this is the correct path.

We have seen this play out in the rise of hate crimes experienced by trans people and the wider LGBTQIA+ community. Stonewall, a charity fighting for the freedom, equity and potential of LGBTQIA+ people everywhere, found that two in five trans people have had a hate crime committed against them in the last year, and one in eight trans people have been physically attacked by colleagues or customers at work. 

More recent research from Galop found that in 2020 four in five trans people had experienced a hate crime in the previous 12 months. I have experienced this violence personally, and know so many people who have been subjected to these attacks too. 

These attacks are far too common. We need to create more resources to address this harm, provide care and support for victims, and expand education that presses back against all such instances of aggression, violence and injustice.

Transphobia

We can see the emotional responses that perceived difference can cause in humans. But, there is a paradox at work here, with the fear response being triggered by the unknown when the trans, LGBTQIA+ and genderqueer community is arguably more publically visible than ever before. In newspapers, TV, social media and radio, we’re being discussed and often maligned, often by cisgender people, more than perhaps we ever have. So difference alone is not the sole reason for the hostile situation that the trans community is currently facing. 

One key factor, certainly in terms of column inches and public forum debate, is the rise of the so-called LGB Alliance. I wish to give them as little airtime as possible, but for clarity, they are an organisation with highly questionable charity status that believes transgender people are part of a gender identity extremism movement. A slippery concept, gender identity extremism is essentially an accusation levelled at people who focus on transgender issues, with the argument often running that this collapses and disintegrates “women’s issues”, leading to “the erasure of women”. These conversations do seem to generally focus on some imagined dichotomy between cis and trans women, and though there are many elements of transphobia present in the ideas that frame this understanding of a gender identity extremism movement, the assertion that trans women are not women is deeply transphobic, wildly inaccurate, ill-informed, and tragically widespread. Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism, also known as TERF, conceptions are just one notable example that has started to appear more and more in the mainstream. For all their bluster and crafted words, the LGB Alliance are a trans-exclusionary group that have garnered a following and a foothold around the world. Their rise has correlated with a rise in transphobia in the UK,  and I would argue that there is a big connection between the two.

They held a conference in the U.K. in October 2021 and even went out of their way to invite British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Whilst the PM was unable to attend, his office did find the time to write back.

“The Prime Minister is delighted to learn of this ground-breaking event and is aware of what a truly momentous occasion this will be.” … “However, on his behalf, I would like to thank the LGB Alliance for their incredible hard work and send my best wishes for a successful conference.”

The letter can be read by following the link at the end of this sentence, which will take readers to the LGB Alliance’s Twitter feed – link to the letter.  

This is the highest office in British politics praising the work of an organization with trans exclusionary ideology. This would certainly seem to demonstrate the breadth of impact the LGB Alliance, or at the very least the ideology it endorses, is having on governmental functioning and culture in the UK.

The BBC has also shown its hand by supporting a transphobic narrative on more than one occasion. In a recent article they published, Caroline Lowbridge aimed to highlight the cis lesbians who are allegedly “being pressured into sex by some trans women”. The article is not even veiled transphobia. It is blatant transphobia, with poor research, questionable sources, and highly suspect validity. Yet this is being published by the BBC, a global brand and corporation trusted by millions. The article can be read here.

So transphobia has been given many a legitimate platform from which to grow. We are caught between greater exposure and a corresponding increase of hostility in the form of transphobia. 

Here is what can allies do to help press back on these transphobic developments. 

Action Is Key

One big factor in the increasing awareness and animosity we face is the sheer amount of inaccurate and unrepresentative information being published across the media. A large amount of the content we see is mostly written by cisgender, non LGBTQIA+ journalists with little or no experience of the content they are covering. 

If the content is not written by trans people, featuring input from a number of trans people or endorsed by members of trans and gender-expansive communities then it can never accurately represent the topic – and more importantly, the people – it is trying to cover. We need more trans people telling trans stories and addressing trans culture. 

To additionally help break the cycle of misrepresentation in the media, government, and corporations allies need to be doing a lot more work. 

On a simple level, this looks like Googling questions and finding avenues to read about issues from balanced resources. Head to Stonewall to explore their specialist research. Combine this newfound knowledge with donations to trans charities. Mermaids, Gendered Intelligence, G(end)er Swap and Not a Phase are a few examples of organizations I endorse and see as doing great work for the community. 

Another step up is looking into the budget of the organisation you work within. Book trans speakers to come in on DE&I (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) focus days. Host panels to platform real experiences and knowledge that will help your business incorporate trans rights into the principles of your ethos. Hire transgender consultants to help you reduce harm and support shifts to a more inclusionary way of functioning. Hire trans, non-binary, and gender-expansive people across the board and put them in positions of power and decision making.  And deepen your understanding of intersectionality in how it pertains to harm and access. All of these suggestions are part of an ongoing process, not an attainable end goal where the work is done. I never said it would be easy!

This process of unlearning and learning about the trans community may make you feel uncomfortable. Please don’t interpret this as “you’re a bad person”. Instead, use this energy as momentum to create change! You have the power to do so. 

The US group Act Up had a message that Silence = Death. This was used to refer to the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s, but I believe it has relevance to the transphobic media frenzy I have discussed here today. We need support from communities outside of our own. With a concentrated effort from allies, I believe we could significantly weaken storm transphobia washing over the U.K. in 2021. 

I hope for 2022, the state of trans rights will have improved. This is imperative for all of our sakes. Your move allies… 

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