26 June 2023
By Andrew K Kauffmann @JKaye82
Listen to the piece in full:
‘There comes a time – and this is it – when staying silent is no longer an option’
Ruth Smith in The Independent (2017)
Travel back to Valentine’s Day this year. Can you remember where you were and what you did? For some LGBTQ+ people, it’s hard to forget. Waking up on February 14th, the tragic news that Brianna Ghey, a 16-year old transgender girl, had been murdered was still reverberating. Three days had passed since she was attacked, it is alleged, by two youths in a park in Warrington.
The police investigator who first stated there was no evidence to suggest Brianna’s gender identity had played a part in her murder, by the afternoon of February 14th conceded that perhaps this was a hate crime after all. LGBTQ+ people who could have been enjoying themselves on romantic dates, or else railing at the commercialism of Valentine’s Day, instead found themselves lighting candles and attending vigils in memoriam. Online they fought to preserve Brianna’s story. Her identity as trans was obscured in major news publications.
Travel back a month or a year. There will be a row, somewhere, debating trans and non-binary people’s place in society. There’s a headline that creates unease for trans people. You might consider the headline hostile and unhelpful, and move on with your day. LGBTQ+ people, and trans and non-binary people in particular, may come to absorb the story on a more corporal level, coming to experience it not as a news story as such, but as a form of threat: one of many, as more stories about trans people appear in a blaze of hysteria and disproportion.
Many of these stories, oversimplified as they are, are designed to dehumanise trans and non-binary people as ‘other’: as an abstract, almost alien, entity. Shon Faye, in The Trans-Gender Issue: An Argument for Justice goes further. She says that by the end of the 2010s, trans people were already being depicted as “the proponents of a powerful new ‘ideology’ that was capturing institutions and dominating public life. No longer something to be jeered at, we were instead something to be feared.”
As a Jew, and a gay man, and keen as I am on history, I recognise these tactics to ghettoize (or ‘other’) a community. When anyone is ‘othered’ in this way, as trans and non-binary people are in the 2020s, and as Jews were in previous generations, I am reminded of German theologian Martin Niemöller’s quote, ‘First they came for…’ from his 1946 poem about witnessing other people’s persecution and failing to stand up for them in solidarity (‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist…’).
Niemöller was writing about a very different political period, so I’m not making direct comparisons, but I do think that what trans and non-binary people are currently experiencing, in the UK, the United States and in many other locations, is extreme. The sheer volume of headlines – the political and media attention showered on trans people – is cause enough for us to reflect, as Niemöller’s poem once did, on whether we’re witnessing a minority group consigned to (and persecuted on) the margins.
I’ve come across newspaper headlines from the past five years that ‘other’ trans people as not only ‘different’ but also people that hold inimical, and even sinister interests. These headlines – featured below – largely went unchallenged, which should give us pause for thought:
Whistleblowers at human rights commission say boss is facing ‘witch hunt’ from trans lobby.
‘I’d rather die than call her a him’: Christian teacher banned from teaching for misgendering trans pupil says he feels no remorse
Staff so determined to push pro-trans policy, patients were treated as ‘collateral damage’ it is alleged
Patients don’t have the right to know if their medics are transgender and may be guilty of discrimination if they ask to see another doctor
He’s Not Only in the Wrong Body… He’s in the Wrong Job
One 2018 article in a national broadsheet featured this egregious statement (from a report by Hacked Off):
‘A worthy movement to help a minority group has become a form of McCarthyism in bad wigs and fishnets, thanks to a bunch of bullies, trolls and humourless misogynists. Feel too daunted to venture an opinion of anything “transgender”? Great! That’s exactly how the bullies like it.’
Opinion pieces intended to stigmatise in this way carry real-life implications for people’s mental health. An academic study of transgender adults has concluded that negative transgender-related media messages ‘are associated with adverse mental health outcomes’. Trans Media Watch made the same point in their 2011 submission to the Leveson Inquiry on the culture, practice and ethics of the press. Not long after Trans Media Watch submitted their evidence, a trans woman teacher in Lancashire, Lucy Meadows, took her own life.
We can’t say categorically Lucy took her own life as a consequence of the transphobia she faced, but her story was sensationalised by a red-top tabloid in the months running up to her death. Lucy was deliberately misgendered as a man in the most offending article. Even repeating these stories carries risks, and on balance, I only decided to feature them to underline how sustained and how vicious this attack on trans people is in the UK.
I don‘t believe I’m alone in finding ‘the debate’ about trans and non-binary people dizzying and dispiriting. I refer to it as ‘the debate’, because that is how trans and non-binary people’s lives are often now framed, as if there’s something about their lives that needs to be debated. For all the messages and memorandums broadcasting words of solidarity and support, during Pride month for instance, many of us in the LGBTQ+ community still feel under some degree of attack, characterised as we are by influential figures in politics and the media as ́militant’, a ́lobby ́ and non-normative. I know I’ve felt a degree of alarm.
One need not have a background in psychology to picture how a state of alarm can devastate mental health, especially when there are so many things to feel alarmed about. As I watch ‘the debate’ play out about trans and queer people’s lives today, I worry how a culture of homophobia and transphobia might be affecting mental health and wellbeing not only today, but for many years to come.
When I was in my teens in the 1990s, I was closeted, as were many gay kids at that time. I went to a nightclub one Saturday evening. I can’t remember what song was playing but let’s imagine we’re in 1996, that I was 14, that I was wearing a plaid shirt from Burton, and ‘Wannabe’ by the Spice Girls was playing on the sound system.
Pretending to my straight mates that, like them, I was there ‘on the pull’, I wasn’t there to do anything but ‘pass’ – as straight. Heading from the disco floor, and taking a pause from the pretence that I was there to meet a girl, I bumped into an old classmate in the corridor.
“Look at him.” He pointed at me, turning to his friends. “God, he looks so bent.”
My classmate goaded me, and encouraged his friends to laugh at my expense.
As I continued to smile, something inside me coiled. ‘Bent’: I knew what he meant. He thought that I was different, and that warranted me being labelled gay (after all, bent is the opposite of straight). Worse, he thought I was weak. He knew he could get away with making the accusation and that I wouldn’t react. And it did feel like I was being accused of something. In the tribal dance of 14 year olds, he was marking out his territory and demarcating mine: ‘I’m superior and you’re inferior’ was his (not so) coded message.
When she came to pick me up from the disco, I couldn’t tell Mum what the matter was when she asked me why I looked so upset. Like a glass pane that falls from a window and shatters on contact with concrete, I felt with this one word – ‘bent’ – that I had been floored and separated. By uttering the word, my classmate voiced what I already feared. I was irremediably capable of being exposed as a fraud, and labelled as an outcast. In the weeks that followed, I laughed along as other classmates engaged in homophobic banter. I flashed a ready smile. ‘They’re not referring to me,’ I thought. ‘At least they’re not referring to me.’
Like many LGBTQ+ kids, my instincts were not to affirm my identity, let alone to celebrate it. When you’re closeted, and you suppress your true feelings – when you hide your very identity as a daily means of surviving in the world – you don’t think about the strengths you possess, but what you lack. It was during these teenage years of industrial-scale fibbing, when I passed my GCSEs and A-Levels, that I also passed the absurd test to come across as straight. I suppose I could say I ended up feeling included.
Pretending I was straight – ‘passing,’ so to speak – was always going to take its toll on my mental health. Working hard to feel included came at a high price. While the Spice Girls were riding high in the charts, I became hypervigilant, switched on to the threat that someday soon, another kid might call me ‘bent’, or a ‘poof’, or any of the other slurs that felt common in the mid-nineties. I wasn’t spicing up my life. I was forever trying to tone myself down, dressing in grey, hunching my shoulders as I dashed across the playground. I felt I had to be on watch: to curate and control how I presented myself.
For trans and non-binary people, the stakes are often higher still. Good or poor mental health can spin on the casino wheel of whether they feel they ‘pass’ as cisgender. There is the all-too-common fear of being abused, not just mocked.
Who Do You Think You Are
I no longer need to wear the fake smile I wore when I was 14. I’m an out gay man. I ́m happily partnered. I like to see myself as an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. This doesn’t mean I don’t have a legacy of internalised homophobia to still chip away at with a chisel. This Pride season, I am on vacation with my (male) partner and our six-month old son. At times, I care just a bit too much what other holiday makers think of us as we arrive in the cafeteria for breakfast, or as we pass by with a pram. My chest constricts as they stare. Coming down to breakfast as a family, I know I can’t ‘pass’ as straight, and nor do I wish to, but at times I try to affect an air – perhaps as someone who walks with a particular gait. I’m not proud to admit this.
I write this because I feel there’s something instructive and illustrative about what happened to me in the nightclub that night in the mid-1990s, and what still puts me on edge and runs through my mind as a grown man of 41, struggling even today with being my spontaneous self. I share these experiences not just to understand my own mental health, but as a point of reference to consider what other LGBTQ+ people, and trans and non-binary people in particular, might be experiencing in terms of their mental health.
For my part, I am a cisgender man, which means I am the gender I was assigned at birth – male. I escaped the dominant culture of homophobia relatively unscathed, at least in terms of experiencing any physical scars. I didn’t need to be beaten up, however, to experience the nagging sense that I was undesirable, or to feel that I was destined for bad things. I grew up when government legislation (Section 28) prohibited teachers from even mentioning gay people and when those infamous Don’t Die Of Ignorance adverts frightened a generation of gay and bi men about the threat of being infected with HIV/AIDS.
Telling my friends and family that I was gay at the age of 19 wasn’t a liberating act, not against this backdrop, and not in the first instance. By coming out, I felt alone in a body of water. Unmoored, and suddenly adrift from the identity I’d worked so hard to construct in my teens, I experienced psychosomatic symptoms. Panic attacks were common. I felt dizzy. I lost weight.
It wasn’t just psychosomatic symptoms that I needed to come to terms with. Coming out didn’t spare me from a diagnosis of OCD. I’m convinced it lay in wait in the many toxic teenage moments I supressed my true self, when I obsessed that I needed to exercise self-control, and cursed myself that I hadn’t yet found a girlfriend.
The point is that I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I heard the odd taunt in isolation, in the confines of a draughty disco hall. I still suffered and to an extent I still do, in terms of my fluctuating mental health, and yet my experience was relatively harm-free. The internet was yet to enter our lives, and I didn’t experience the intense, unrelenting torment of online bullying. I didn’t grow up feeling the gender that was assigned to me was wrong.
I can’t know what life feels like for trans and non-binary people coming out, who can’t ‘pass’ (or justifiably don’t want to). I can only imagine what it feels like to grow up trans in this current political and media environment. As a gay man, I do feel it’s my responsibility to at least find out. My experience of mental ill health is relevant here. It binds me, compels me even, to see myself in community with trans people, who often face greater mental health distress.
Hate crime and violence against LGBTQ+ people is on the increase in the UK. A special rapporteur from the United Nations, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, has expressed his concerns about the ‘toxic nature of the public debate surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity’ in Britain. He’s noted how “abusive rhetoric by politicians, the media and social commentators has trickled down to create a culture of increasingly abusive and hateful speech against LGBT persons in the United Kingdom”. He’s not the only person worrying about the implications for young LGBTQ+ people’s welfare and mental health.
The recent Positive Futures report from Just Like Us, the LGBT+ young people’s charity, surveyed 3,695 people aged 18-25, including 1,736 LGBT+ young adults from across the UK, and ‘identified a link between a lack of LGBT+ inclusive support in childhood and poorer outcomes for mental health, wellbeing and career prospects in early adulthood.’ Digging deeper, the statistics point to the deeply regrettable stain homophobia and transphobia can have on people’s sense of inner worth.
LGBT+ young adults from unsupportive school and home backgrounds were more than twice as likely to have experienced panic attacks (60% vs 28%) and nearly twice as likely to have experienced depression in the past year (82% vs 42%). If LGBT+ young adults felt they weren’t supported, they are now three times as likely to say they ‘never or rarely’ feel optimistic about their future (42% vs 12%).
It’s striking that of the 3,695 young adults surveyed, a significant majority of those who described themselves as “not supportive” of trans people said they do not know anyone who is transgender (74%). Meanwhile, the research found that people who know a transgender person are twice as likely to be trans allies.
Earlier, Stonewall’s 2017 report which focused on trans people’s experiences stated that two in five trans people (42%) who would like to undergo medical intervention as part of their transition haven’t done so yet, because they fear the consequences it might have on their family life. Almost half (48%) of these trans people who were surveyed said they didn’t feel comfortable using public toilets through fear of discrimination or harassment. More than two in five trans people (44%) avoided certain streets because they didn’t feel safe there as an LGBT person. According to Stonewall, the issues at stake for trans schoolchildren are especially alarming. 64% of trans schoolchildren in Britain reported being bullied for being trans or for their perceived sexual orientation. Devastatingly, 84% of British trans young people reported having self-harmed.
Focusing on the number of hate crimes recorded by police in England and Wales, sadly crimes against transgender people saw the biggest rise in the year ending March 2022, with 4,355 reports, up 56% from the previous year. Although estimates can vary, it’s worth underlining trans people make up a very small proportion – 0.5% – of the overall population in England and Wales. The Home Office said the rise in crimes against transgender people could be because “transgender issues have been heavily discussed on social media over the last year”. Hate crimes targeting people’s sexual orientation also increased – by 42%, to 26,152.
In Trans: A Memoir and Variations, Juliet Jacques details the heavy toll transphobia has taken elsewhere in our history, in 1930s Germany, and in Reagan’s United States for instance. Again, I am not making direct comparisons, but we can agree that trans people’s mental health is deteriorating, and media interest in trans people’s lives is again intensifying. In 2020 alone, Shon Faye notes The Times and The Sunday Times between them ran over 300 articles – almost one a day – on trans people (again, just 0.5% of the population). Even more recently, 68% of LGBT+ young people say their mental health has ‘got worse’ since the pandemic, compared to 49% of their non-LGBT+ peers.
When it comes to possible solutions I think we can begin by accepting this simple proposition: ‘We all have the right to live authentically and without fear of abuse’.
It was this statement from Galop, the organisation that supports LGBTQ+ people who have experienced abuse and violence, that stood out amidst so much noise on International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. This aspiration to live a life free from the fear of abuse should hardly need stating in the 2020s, but it does; not just in places where homophobia and transphobia has run rife for decades, but sadly, in the UK, too.
The aspiration to live authentically and without fear of abuse arguably feels furthest away for trans and non-binary people. We cannot, with conviction, state we’ve created that supportive environment for trans and non-binary people, not across society as a whole, and not – it’s painful to consider this – across all sections of the LGBTQ+ community. What other steps might we need to take?
The Royal College of Psychiatrists has been a strong advocate (along with NHS England and many others in the mental health sector) in calling for conversion therapy to end. The College has argued that “Conversion therapy is a damaging, degrading and discriminatory practice that seeks to correct something that does not need fixing – a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression.” At the time of writing, the ban still hasn’t been introduced. There are reports that when a ban is finally implemented, it will contain a consent clause that could render it meaningless. On other policy measures, it’s notable the UK government still lags behind European counterparts in liberalising the law on gender self-identification. Statutory guidance for schools is set to be consulted on in the coming months. There are grave fears that the guidance will serve to chill conversations in school about gender identity, placing children and young people in a position where they might even risk being outed to their parents as trans or non-binary. This all comes at a time when the UK now ranks 17th place in a table on how LGBTQ-friendly European countries are, a low after historically appearing at the top of the rankings through to 2015.
We can’t simply look to the media and government to act. What might at last convince us, all of us, to speak out, not on the ‘threats’ certain commentators want us to believe trans people pose, but on trans people’s wellbeing and mental health? I suggest we recall Niemöller’s poem. We can refuse to stand by in silence.
Say You’ll Be There
I think one of the first things anyone cisgender can do at this heated moment is listen. We can be attentive to what trans and no-binary people are telling us, refusing to fill the void with our own assumptions and projections about trans people’s needs, concerns and motivations, and instead hear them in their own words. In this context, it’s not nearly enough for me to call myself an ally, or to offer lukewarm words of support. I need to sit alongside people, not to debate and discuss their lives over their heads, but to hear what they have to say for themselves. I recommend actively seeking out the work of trans writers, such as Shon Faye, Juliet Jacques and Travis Alabanza, and performers, activists and artists such as Ezra Michel, Alok V. Menon and Elliot Page.
In the few conversations I set up, not as formal research, but simply to listen to trans people, I have only scratched the surface in terms of coming to hear trans and non-binary people’s experiences, which, of course, are not uniform. Here is what I heard.
Gender dysphoria, a deep ‘sense of unease that a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity’ can cause trans people and non-binary people intense distress, which the NHS states can be so severe it can lead to ‘depression and anxiety and have a harmful impact on daily life.’ I have also heard about the gender euphoria individuals can experience on transitioning, how it can feel affirming to receive support with binding as a trans man, and to receive electrolysis as a trans woman. However, I heard that not every experience of transition is linear, and not everyone sees their transness in the same way.
In instances where trans people take hormones, have to be confirmed by gender identity clinics as psychologically ready for surgery, commit perhaps to voice and speech therapy, wait months and often years for medical support, and need to commit to the ‘Real Life Experience’ of living as trans before hormones or surgery are even made available, it’s unsurprising life can grind some people down. Coming out, dealing with questions of body image, and on top of that, facing all the other routine challenges of life: the sustained effort to be who you dream of being can have a cumulative impact in shredding trans and non-binary people’s mental health.
What I also heard from trans and non-binary people I spoke to, and through other interviews and on podcasts, is that some people are feeling weary right now. Some people are angry. Some feel, on top of everything else they must confront and deal with, they’re being put in an invidious position of needing to justify who they are. Some people are depressed, and feel anxious in the face of political and media commentary that seeks to politicise and question their existence. Some trans and non-binary people are active in resisting tropes and fighting for their rights, but the stress of doing this can be huge. Some feel forced to return to the closet, or to retransition. Some people are simply trying to get on with their lives in spite of the toxic environment they find themselves in. There are mental health implications for all, battling when they shouldn’t have to.
While Harry Nicholas, a trans gay man, writes about the transphobic and homophobic violence he recently encountered crossing a street in his local community, and how hate and obstacles seem to grow when you have an intersectional identity, he speaks too – we must also acknowledge this – of the power of reclaiming one’s trans identity, and distorting notions of gender presentation. “We can celebrate the bodies we have rather than the bodies we do not,” he writes. Some, like Harry, are reclaiming the language and transness that feels individual to them. However someone experiences life and sees their identity, the fundamental point is that life really shouldn’t have to be as difficult as it is right now for so many trans and non-binary people. So as well as looking to politicians and opinion formers, we too can take action. As one of the young trans people says in this video for The Trevor Project’s research, Shared Space, we can all listen a little bit more to one another, because ‘kindness is free.’ As a gay man, I can say I’ll be there. Going further, I can actively challenge prejudice where I see it.
2 Become 1
It would be disingenuous of me to portray myself as a fully consistent champion or defender of trans and non-binary people’s rights, or indeed any LGBTQ+ people’s rights. Earlier, I mentioned how I’ve had to wrestle with a lifetime of internalised homophobia. Over the past few years, I’ve tried to hold a mirror to and question these long-denied feelings of homosexuality, and the shame I nursed through to my mid-twenties. Attending assertiveness training courses, educating myself, immersing myself in books and films on queer history, challenging homophobia where I see it in newspaper editorials – I consider myself more of an activist now, but it wasn’t always so.
I remember a time in my teens, embarrassed and compromised as I was in hiding my sexual orientation. I didn’t want to be associated with gay people or mistaken in any way for being gay. When a trans man began working in our local post office, if I’m being honest, I later made fun of him to one of my sisters.
My best friend at secondary school, an affable guy, was considered effeminate by some of our classmates. We had a friendship in our all-boys grammar school, and while I can’t say I felt sexual attraction, I would contradict myself, acting jealous at times, and at other times distancing myself from him. I didn’t treat him well. There were things he said or did that I took to be ‘too gay’, for example when he said he couldn’t stop listening one Christmas holiday to 2 Become 1, the Spice Girls’ number one hit. He was saddened we’d had a falling out, so he told me that this felt like a fitting song to listen to on repeat. Hearing this repelled me somehow, so I scorned him. In the process I mocked myself by pretending it was his musical preferences that I hated and feared, not the idea that we might be mistaken by classmates as a couple, or indeed, that it was me who was gay, and not him.
This sensitivity to being associated with people you fear somehow, who may represent a change to your status quo, or you deem too similar in their likeness, may be influencing some in the wider LGBTQ+ community. We aren’t universally acting with the utmost tolerance or respect for trans and non-binary people. I won’t rehearse all the debates. Put it like this. In one interview, I listened to a trans man talk about the regrettable fracturing of the LGBTQ+ community – what he termed as the ́Balkanizing ́ effect of seeing LGB people choosing to split themselves away from trans people as if to remain superior in some cultural or political hierarchy.
Returning to this question of prejudice within the queer community, research has explored the harms and microaggressions trans and non-binary people can face on dating geolocation apps such as Grindr, spaces designed to be inclusive, but proving in practice to not always feel safe. It’s incumbent on all in the LGBTQ+ community – those of us who may have been victims of prejudice – to check we’re not prejudicing anyone else. This surely has to be the very least of our expectations.
The spirit in which I hope to extend a hand of solidarity to trans and non-binary people comes from a complex place. If I can’t be honest with myself about this, I can’t be authentic or wholehearted in seeking to reason with others about why, first of all, transphobia, like any phobia of ‘the other’, needs to be tackled, and second, how that requires genuine self-reflection. If I can ́t be honest about the sensitive and sometimes difficult questions at stake here, for me, to act with consistency, I cannot begin to do justice to the many varied, complex, nuanced issues that must still be addressed to support trans and non-binary people, and indeed the wider LGBTQ+ community. One of these, to be frank, is the concern surrounding attempts to introduce new terminology to better describe LGBTQ+ people, such as at John Hopkins university in the USA, which recently suggested (in the spirit of not wanting to cause offence to trans people, I think) that a lesbian can from now on be understood as ‘non-man attracted to non-men’. This felt clumsy. It’s not entirely clear to me who such efforts are aimed at, or who in fact they help.
I’m also not going to pretend there aren’t different views on issues relating to biological sex and gender. There are differences of view within the LGBTQ+ community too. It’s not for me, a cisgender man, to throw grenades at people who fear their own voice is being erased in a debate that is being whipped up, I feel, at everybody ́s expense. What I am certain of is that we can holler all we like, on either side of the ́debate’, but there will be mental health consequences to doing so. For me, the urgent question to grapple with is what do we intend to do to address the increase in hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people, and in parallel, LGBTQ+ people ́s worsening mental health.
Whatever one ́s position on gender critical feminism, gender affirming care, gender affirming schooling, or any other ‘wedge’ issue in modern politics, we can positively choose to focus on the common ground – a universal need to tackle hate and prejudice. We live in extremely heated and unfair times for trans and non-binary people, but as a gay man, and as a Jew too, I want to say: I see you. I hear you. I will not stand by as you are ghettoized. There aren’t two groups – you and us. There’s our LGBTQ+ family, and as far as I’m concerned, in the interests of all our mental health, and to advance trans inclusion, we must indeed act as one.
If you’re trans and are experiencing mental health difficulties, the following organisations can provide tailored support:
Gendered Intelligence | Call 0330 355 9678
Switchboard | Call 0800 0119 100
Mermaids UK | Call 0808 801 0400