We need to talk about the T word.
Too many gay and bisexual people have for too long – and I include myself in this – given insufficient support to trans people. A few weeks ago I was having dinner with a small group of transgender activists, after a day spent coming up with ideas to help combat transphobia, and one woman turned to me and said: “We’re so grateful you’re here.” Perplexed, I asked her to explain. She said they’re so used to being left out and unsupported by gay people it was remarkable to have one there with them.
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They need our help. Earlier in the day there were some short speeches and during one a 60-something trans woman spoke about her life. She had only transitioned a few years ago, and when she did she lost her family, including her children. She did not break down as she said this. She did not pause for dramatic effect to let the devastating news sink into the audience. She mentioned it in passing – this is so normal for trans people that it is half expected.
She reminded me of a transgender woman I met at a hate crime rally a couple of years ago. “I get abuse every single day,” she said flatly, almost casually, “From name-calling to threats of murder.” No gay person, apart from those being bullied at school, experiences that level of hate.
A 2009 study into transphobia across the European Union found that trans people are three times more likely to suffer from abuse than gay people. You might assume this report would depict Britain favourably, that we would come out well for trans folk, that our liberal nation would be a better place to live than, say, Hungary. But no. Trans people are more likely to be physically assaulted in Britain than any other EU country.
Gay people are making huge efforts to combat homophobic bullying in schools, to encourage the police to take crimes against us more seriously, to admonish those in public who use hateful language, and all the while, right next to us, our trans brothers and sisters are lying in the street with their faces smashed in. Or they’re being hounded out of jobs, or dumped by their families, all while dealing with the day-to-day realities – for those transitioning - of hormone treatment and painful, expensive surgery.
There are things we can all do to help. We can challenge those who use transphobic language on the internet or in newspapers or in person. For many, the word “tranny” is just as harmful and offensive as “Paki’, and we can let people know that. If someone tells a joke with “tranny” as the punch line, we can all ask ourselves a simple question: “Would we laugh if the word was ‘faggot’?” We can also reach out to transgender organisations and offer our support.
I asked Stonewall why it is they don’t represent trans people and they said that they do in Scotland but in England and Wales there are already organisations specifically supporting trans people.
Many argue that their fight is not ours, that their problems are different, that because discrimination against them is based on gender rather sexual orientation, their struggle is separate, that they are a completely different group.
I say this: all of us, all LGBT people, are punched by the same people. The hate and fear is the same: it is a hatred and phobia of those who challenge the “norm”, who defy gender stereotypes. The black heart of homophobia is fueled more by a disgust for girly men and macho women than it is for same sex sex. The minds and bodies of gay and trans people might be different but our enemies are the same.
The distinction between gay and trans becomes even more blurred when you look outside the West. In parts of Africa, in particular, where hope for gender reassignment surgery is at best scant, trans people can end up living in ways that a westerner might describe as gay or transvestite. Remember the Malawian “gay” couple - Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza - who were sentenced to 14 years hard labour in 2010 for conducting a wedding ceremony? What much of the press didn’t report was that this wasn’t really what we would describe as a gay couple at all. Tiwonge had lived as a woman all her life.
The distinction is also blurred when you consider how common sexual fluidity, bisexuality and homosexuality is among trans people. A trans woman friend of mine, for example, largely has relationships with women. Would we or some of our organisations only kick up a fuss if she was the victim of violence because of her gay relationship but not if it was because she was born with a penis? The logic is laughable.
We are stronger, more effective and more humane if all elements of the LGBT community look out for each other.
Peter Tatchell has championed trans rights for decades. He needn’t be a lone soldier. If we let trans people fight alone what does that say about us?