Years ago I was a ‘trans ally’.
I thought ‘trans’ meant transsexual and my idea of a ‘trans woman’ was someone who had had genital surgery and was quietly going about their life, doing their best to ‘pass’ as a woman, or at least look as if they were trying. I knew a few such people back then and they seemed to fit this idea. Whenever I encountered an unknown ‘trans woman’ in a public toilet (never ever in any other female spaces back then) I noticed and I felt uncomfortable. But I was polite and respectful and did my best to pretend not to notice because how awful it must be for them. And after all, it didn’t happen often.
I also knew a few men who were not transsexual but who wore women’s clothing. Some did it just because it was the 1980’s and they looked good in it, so why the hell not? There were others though…
There was a boyfriend who liked to cross-dress in the evenings as he found it ‘relaxing’. I tolerated this until he started trying to introduce his hobby into our sex life. And no thanks, I did not want to go to a tea dance at Madame JoJo’s with him ‘dressed’ and no thanks I did not want to join Wives of Beaumont.
There was a man who developed a creepy stalky fetish around my sister and tried to dress just like her, look just like her and copy all her mannerisms, especially if they would be at the same event. He went to my sister’s wedding dressed as my sister. He was kind of tolerated on the edge of our small-town social crowd but all the women knew he was a creepy fucker and we kept a sharp eye on him.
We were never expected to believe or even pretend that any of these other non-transsexual men were women. We were never expected to respect their ‘identities’ or welcome them into female spaces. We naively imagined we had a sort of ‘honour system’: we wouldn’t make a fuss if transsexuals used the women’s toilets as long as they behaved (despite never having been asked if we were OK with this in the first place) and as long as we could tell the rest of these men to get to fuck.
So it was a bit disconcerting when things like this started to appear in the mid 2010’s:
The category of ‘trans’ now apparently included drag queens, transvestites and cross-dressers, according to ‘a bunch of queer and trans folks who lived in Houston, Texas.’ For a couple of years it was possible to think that this was just some outlandish idea that nobody would take seriously.
Then in 2015 Stonewall, the largest and most influential UK charity for lesbian and gay rights, became ‘trans inclusive’ and they took this outlandish idea very seriously indeed. Their definition of ‘trans’ would henceforth be:
‘An umbrella term to describe people whose gender is not the same as, or does not sit comfortably with, the sex they were assigned at birth.
‘Trans people may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms, including (but not limited to) transgender, transsexual, gender-queer (GQ), gender-fluid, non-binary, gender-variant, crossdresser, genderless, agender, nongender, third gender, bi-gender, trans man, trans woman,trans masculine, trans feminine and neutrois.’
Reference – https://www.stonewall.org.uk/help-advice/faqs-and-glossary/glossary-terms
Archive link – https://archive.is/TPXvw
Quite suddenly, whatever ‘honour system’ we imagined we had was broken because we were no longer permitted to tell the rest of these men to get to fuck. They were all ‘trans’ now and to object to the presence of any of them in our single sex spaces and services was ‘transphobic’.
But the trans umbrella is older than we thought.
Here is a version from 1994. Note the inclusion of ‘crossdresser’, ‘transvestic fetishist’ and ‘transvestite’.
The trans rights movement in the UK started with the Beaumont Society – a club for heterosexual cross-dressing men and their wives, set up in 1966. Transsexuals were permitted to join but the main focus until relatively recently was definitely male cross-dressers.
Alternative link – https://www.beaumontsociety.org.uk/documents/Beaumont_History.pdf
The Beaumont Society was started by Alice Purnell, following an epiphany in a soho sex shop:
‘Anyway, I searched and searched through bookshops, and of course I read Krafft-Ebing and Magnus Hirschfeld and Freud, and everybody you could think of. And always they associated anything to do with gender variance as a type of deviance, and I got more and more horrified by this and I thought, what the hell am I going to do, and I came across … would you believe it, in a dirty book shop in Soho, a magazine called Transvestia and I thought, what? And this was a magazine produced by a Dr Virginia Prince, who was an American pharmacist, and she had organised a thing called Phi Pi Epsilon, very American, which stands for Full Personality Expression. And the essence of her thesis was that you could be a woman, though male. So the goal of her organisation was to try to maintain marriages or relationships between men and women when one or the other, usually the one that was officially male, gender migrated by cross-dressing or by being what eventually we came to know as transsexual. The whole vocabulary of gender was a dreadful, dreadful nuisance.’
You can hear all about it in this enlightening interview of Alice by best mate Christine Burns:
My guest on this show is a former geriatric nurse and a counsellor. She writes poetry and lives in Hove. Alice Purnell OBE is perhaps best known to many listeners as the founder of the Gender Trust, a support organisation for trans people. Before that she had also been involved in co-founding the Beaumont Society, in the mid 1960s. She also founded a ground breaking series of biennial conferences, bringing together international clinicians and stakeholders for the first time in the 1990s to discuss improvements to care for such people. Alice speaks about all that and more at home on the South Coast as she celebrates her 70th birthday.
Burns went on to set up Press For Change with Stephen Whittle in 1992. In the early 1970’s Whittle had co-founded the Manchester Transvestite and Transsexual Support Group, and had also joined Beaumont as the first ftm (female-to-male) member.
Dr Stephen Whittle is perhaps the world’s best known transsexual man. He is Professor of Equalities Law at Manchester Metropolitan University, the President of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health and the Chair of Transgender Europe, in addition to being one of the founders of the UK lobby group Press for Change. He is also a committed family man, with a wife and four children. In this in-depth interview, originally recorded in summer 2007, we cover his own personal background growing up in Manchester, his transition in the 1970’s, his work as a campaigner, and his views about the future for trans people.
Press For Change is the organisation that is pretty much solely responsible for the Gender Recognition Act being passed in 2004. They championed the use of the term ‘trans’ precisely because it made no distinction between ‘transsexual’ and ‘transvestite’. Christine Burns:
‘Until human rights campaigners like us came along, talking about umbrella concepts, this diverse community had got along with a relatively stable lexicon for many years. There were ‘transvestites’ and ‘transsexuals’ – TVs and TS’s in the community shorthand – and that was more or less the only language you needed to know for more than a generation since Harry Benjamin had coined the latter term in his book ‘The Transsexual Phenomenon’ in 1966.
‘Our successes as a campaign were grounded in progress made for people who fitted the clinical definition of transsexual. At the heart of this was a tacit understanding that people in positions of power might be persuaded to change laws for people with some kind of clinically underwritten status – something they couldn’t help being. This is why ‘Transsexualism – The Medical Viewpoint’ was seen as strategically important and why all the key court cases had rehearsed the developing scientific understanding of a basis for us being born or developing this way. It was also why the government would expect to include a medical definition of ‘transsexual’ in the forthcoming employment protections they planned to consult upon.
‘We knew in our hearts at that time that policymakers and judges weren’t yet sophisticated enough in their understanding to contemplate rights for people whose difference appeared self-identified or impermanent or maybe even optional. That didn’t mean we weren’t going to try where possible. There was a valid freedom of expression case to be made for people to be able to present in whatever way they wish. But we were also pragmatists, careful not to frighten the horses at this early stage. (Note, however, that in the Equality Act 2010 – which replaced the Sex Discrimination Act – the requirement for having been medically diagnosed was finally removed).
‘I cannot recall exactly how we reached a consensus inside Press for Change. It wasn’t written down in email correspondence – it arose in telephone or face to face conversations, including the long calls I was now having with Claire McNab on Sunday afternoons before setting off for another hotel. Somehow or other, however, we arrived at a consensus that if we maybe all used the word ‘trans’ as an umbrella term – and words like ‘transsexual’ only when we needed to be more specific’ then maybe some of that would catch on gradually.
‘And so that is what we did. From there on, without fanfare, my essays and our web content discreetly began to use this language. Claire took the opportunity during the move of the PFC website to revise the existing content in the same way.
‘In the weeks and months ahead people would sometimes ask what the word meant or why we were using it. Then we would explain the rationale and suggest why we thought it was important. The change was gradual. In fact it took years for the word to begin sounding familiar and to hear it in other people’s language. In 2002 when we were consulting over government press releases to announce the forthcoming Gender Recognition Bill, the officials still weren’t convinced that enough people understood the new word to use it. Yet today most people seem to embrace the word naturally – when they are not simply calling themselves men or women.’
Throughout the history of trans rights campaigning there has never been a time when transsexuals and transvestites were not working together, involved in the same groups, pursuing the same aims, or at least intertwining their aims in mutually beneficial ways. All that happened in the mid 2010’s is that they started being open about this and stopped pretending it was all about rights for a tiny number of transsexuals.
Perhaps they decided that policy makers and judges were now ‘sophisticated enough’ and it would no longer ‘frighten the horses’ to campaign openly for transvestites’ and cross-dressers’ rights. Or perhaps they decided they had now pushed through enough legislation, that completely coincidentally gave unintended rights to cross-dressing men, that it didn’t matter if they now showed their hand. Ha ha, too late. The strong push-back against GRA reform and the sharp, renewed focus on the Equality Act, suggest they may have miscalculated.
Gerry Davies, 2021