A while back the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) decided to have a conference about trans people. They didn’t actually invite any trans people to speak, but they selected an impressively transphobic line-up to speak against us. Amongst the guest speakers were Dr. Az Hakeem, who believes that he can “cure” trans people, and Britain’s number one trans-hater, Julie Bindel.
Naturally the trans community got a little upset by this, and various protest activities were proposed. This included blogging, bombarding the RCP’s PR department with angry letters, and of course a planned demonstration outside the event. I almost blogged about it myself a couple of times, but I was ludicrously busy for the past year and never quite got around to it. I did, however, note that the conference was very conveniently timed for May 20th, when I was hoping to be in London for the British Library event. I hadn’t been on an actual demonstration (as opposed to a Pride march) in a very long time.
It was a good plan, but I had reckoned without the efforts of my activist friends. On April 19th Charing Cross Gender Clinic, embarrassed by the amount of negative attention the conference was getting, pulled out. This finally persuaded the RCP that they had a public relations disaster on their hands, and they cancelled the event (though of course they made other excuses for doing so — why anyone should believe them when they cancelled immediately after Charing Cross pulled out is a mystery to me).
So there we were, all set to have a demonstration, and nothing left to demonstrate against. It was at this point that some smart person (not me, I wasn’t involved) decided that we should have our own conference. Quite a few people in the trans community are involved in psychiatry, psychology and medicine in various ways. What did we have to say about such issues?
As it turned out, quite a lot. We started out with a presentation from Ruth who is a PhD student researching general health care for trans people. That’s not gender reassignment surgery, it is standard GP stuff. Those of you who have heard me rant about how NHS doctors frequently refuse to treat trans people, even for very ordinary ailments, will know what this is all about.
Next up was Lyndsey who is a trained therapist. Apparently it takes 7 years to qualify to practice psychology. Depending on where you train, that will include between zero and 16 hours on gender issues. And yet trans people are often referred for psychological counseling when they start down the road to transition. Lyndsey said a recent survey of practicing therapists showed that the vast majority believe that trans people are mentally ill.
Much of the discussion centered on the infamous DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and its various definitions of “abnormal” behavior. As this Slate article explains, the new version of the DSM proposes another massive increase in the number of ways people can be defined as crazy. The new “disorders” include being over-fond of shopping, spending too much time on the Internet, drinking too much coffee, and having too much sex. This isn’t psychiatry, this is social control.
There probably isn’t much we can do about this. The power blocks in the American Psychiatric Association are too well entrenched. But we can make fun of it. I think what we need is a disorders trading card game. I’m doing pretty well on the above list already. Gotta Get Them All!
The following session from Natacha took aim at Dr. Hakeem’s ideas about curing trans people, which seemed to revolve mainly around putting the poor patients into “focus groups” whose job it is to bully them into saying they no longer want to transition. Hakeem is very big on the idea of transsexual regret — that people will have gender reassignment surgery and then regret it and want to be changed back. The idea plays very well with the media: man has penis chopped off then wants it back! Why, of course he would, wouldn’t you?
The reality, however, is very different from the scare stories that Hakeem and his friends feed the newspapers. According to Natacha, the total number of confirmed cases of transsexual regret in the UK is 6, with no new cases being reported in recent years. That compares with around 300 people every year applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate.
Natacha also took aim at the idea that being trans is “unnatural”. I knew all about the various species of animals that change gender naturally, and indeed the many plant species that exhibit both genders. What I didn’t know about was bighorn sheep. Like many herd animals, they spend most of the year in gender-separated groups — in which they are enthusiastically homosexual. However, biologists have observed that some males run with the female herd, and mimic female behavior. The natural world is a weird and wonderful place.
I didn’t have the right sort of expertise to give a talk, but Roz Kaveney, Juliet Jacques and I all offered to chair sessions, and that was fun. I always knew that going to conventions would train me for something. Around 40 people attended altogether, possibly more as people were coming and going all day. I got to meet the amazingly talented CN Lester, which made me very happy.
I had to leave half way through the afternoon in order to attend the British Library event in the evening, but I think some of the sessions may be put online soon. That will enable me to catch up, and if they are I will point to them.