Today is International Coming Out Day. You can expect to see a lot of LGB people writing happy blog posts about what a positive experience coming out is, and how more people should do it. It is a wonderful, uplifting event. Posts by trans people, in contrast, will probably be rather less common, and not just because there are fewer trans people.
As Hal Duncan noted during the recent Salon Futura podcast on writing LGBT characters, social attitudes towards LGB people have softened considerably over his lifetime. That’s not true everywhere in the world, as yesterday’s reports from Serbia make all too plain. But conditions for trans people, even in the West, are far less friendly. A report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission titled How Fair is Britain? was issued today. Mostly what it has to say about trans people is “we don’t know” because there are so few of them, and they are so rarely studied, but what evidence it does have suggests that they are more discriminated against than any other group included in the report. I’ll comment on this in more detail another day.
On October 1st a new Equality Act came into effect in the UK. Mostly this is a very good thing that extends and consolidates rights for various disadvantaged groups in society. For trans people, however, it took rights away. In direct contravention of the existing Gender Recognition Act, the Equality Act states that trans people who have completed gender transition are not to be legally regarded as persons of their desired gender. It states that all trans people can be legally discriminated against in a wide variety of ways. I can legally be denied work and housing, thrown out of pubs and restaurants, denied service in shops, and denied access to transport services, simply because someone else says that they find my presence offensive. The right of other people to do these things to me is enshrined in UK law.
This new law is almost certainly in contravention of both British and European Human Rights legislation, but in the absence of a successful test case it still stands. Given the existence of such legislation, it is unsurprising that trans people are unwilling to be open about their status (though from what I recall of reading early drafts, the Equality Act makes concealing your trans status during a job application a criminal offense).
The argument for coming out is, of course, that the LGBT community needs role models. Gareth Thomas is doing a wonderful job in the rugby world, and the It Gets Better campaign on YouTube is providing much needed emotional support to frightened LGBT teens.
Trans people can be role models too. Chaz Bono has lent his support to the It Gets Better campaign. A potential role model in the UK is Nadia Almada, the Portuguese woman who won Big Brother. Judging from this interview with my friend Christine Burns, Nadia is a bubbly, confident person with a positive outlook on life. She’s busy setting up a new business. But the interview also touches on her suicide attempt following the recent Ultimate Big Brother show, which re-united past winners.
When Nadia was first on Big Brother, her housemates were unaware of her trans status. The programme’s producers played this up to the viewers, who were let in on the secret. That was part of the “entertainment”. For the reunion show, everyone knew about Nadia’s background. As this interview reveals, Nadia’s housemates were allowed to bully her, and this bullying was edited out by the TV company, thereby avoiding the outcry that resulted from the racist bullying of Shilpa Shetty, and making Nadia seem ill-tempered and hysterical to the viewers. This too was part of the “entertainment”. You can say this was all Nadia’s fault for wanting to be on TV, but putting yourself forward in that way is exactly what being a role-model is all about. You can’t inspire anyone if you keep yourself private.
It wouldn’t be so bad if all you were risking was yourself. Unfortunately homophobic and transphobic bullies don’t content themselves with persecuting the objects of their hatred. They often turn their attention to the families of those people too. You may have noticed that I have been rather more open about my own status of late. That’s because I am no longer living with my mother, and her home is no longer at risk of being vandalized simply because I live there.
The average age of gender transition in the UK is apparently around 40. That, I am sure, is an historical artifact. It makes no sense to transition at that age. Those people who want to transition are generally well aware that they are trans when they are at school. The longer you wait, the more time hormones have to make their mark on your body. The younger you can transition, the better. But until recently very few people have had the courage to go through gender transition, let alone come out.
So we currently have a society in which trans people are going through transition in late middle age. Many of them will have married earlier in life in order to appear “normal”, or in an attempt to “cure” themselves of their feelings, just as gay people did in my parents’ generation. Some will have children. If they go public about their trans status, they put their families at risk.
Finally there is the whole question of what it means to be “out” as a trans person. As I have explained elsewhere, there are many different types of trans people. Some are adamant that they are neither male nor female, and are very happy to be identified as something else. Others, however, want nothing more than to be accepted as ordinary members of the gender in which they feel they belong. For them, being out as a trans person means that they can never have that acceptance. It means that people will forever be seeing them as “really” a member of the gender they hate being seen as belonging to. It means admitting to themselves that they can never have the life that they dreamed of as children. For some it is an admission that their lives have been a failure.
Despite the desperate need for positive role models, trans people are very reluctant to come out. I regret that, but I very much understand where they are coming from, and I will try never to condemn anyone for failing to do so. I hope you won’t either.