With the advent of equal marriage and all sorts of other pieces of gay friendly legislation it’s easy to reach the conclusion that the battles of the past are over. I think that’s a fairly complacent view when you look at issues that still remain over gay discrimination and bullying in schools and the workplace, but no one can deny that in the last twenty years, things have moved on apace.
But there is one section of the LGBT community which for understandable reasons feels very left behind, and very misunderstood.
It’s only in the last couple of years that transgender issues have been talked about in polite society without provoking a barrage of disgust, abuse and name-calling. I’m not pretending everything is perfect now, but all I know is that trans people can now be far more open about their lives and experiences than at any point in our history, and that’s got to be a good thing.
Straight people can usually understand what it must like to be gay and vice versa, but can any of us truly imagine what it must be like to know that you’ve actually been born with the wrong sexual organs? To live our lives in a way we know not to be natural to us. Can we imagine taking that decision to undergo sex reassignment surgery, knowing that there’s no going back? Ninety-nine point nine per cent of us have never had such thoughts cross our minds, yet for some it’s something that is the natural end to what can be a traumatic process.
The fact that soap operas are starting to introduce trans characters is a mark of how far things have come, with East Enders leading the way.
In the past three years I have held seven or eight-hour long radio phone-ins on transgender issues. Would I have been able to do that even ten years ago without attracting the sort of caller you’d rather not attract? Would trans people have even phoned in? When I first did this as a subject I did wonder whether we’d get a single call. I shouldn’t have worried. But listening to some of the experiences my listeners had gone through was both an education and very emotional.
The bravery displayed by many of them was astounding. I well remember ‘Nicola from Basildon’. ‘Hello, Nicola,’ I began. ‘What would you like to say?’ Nicola turned out to have, shall we say, a rather deep voice. At first it was disconcerting, but like my listeners I soon ignored the timbre of her voice and concentrated on what she was telling me. It was horrific to listen to – the everyday discrimination, the ridicule, the abuse, the piss-taking, all of which led to several suicide attempts.
We’ve even had in-depth discussions about children who have been born in the wrong sex and the parents’ reaction. At what age is it acceptable for gender reassignment treatment to start, for example? How on earth does a child, let alone a parent cope with these kind of issues? And these discussions have been held without anyone phoning in with abuse or condemnation. I’m not pretending there wasn’t any on social media, but twitter is the ideal refuge for bullies and cowards.
Making the transition in your teenage years or your twenties is one thing, but to do it when you’re of more advanced years is quite another. Ask Kellie Maloney. How on earth do you tell your friends and family? It makes coming out as gay seem comparatively easy.
Part of the reason I cover trans issues on my radio show is because it shows those who remain firmly in the trans closet that they are not alone. There are now many trans role models. Paris Lees has blazed a trail for many others – she’s now so mainstream (she’ll hate me for writing that!) that she’s been on Question Time not just once but twice. And there are plenty of others too.
Surely the priority for any society is to encourage everyone to be themselves. We are far from achieving that goal, especially if you are from a religious or ethnic minority background, but compared to even ten years ago we’re certainly making progress.
This article first appeared in Attitude Magazine