Last weekend the UK Independent on Sunday released their annual ‘Pink List’, described each year as a ‘celebration of the gay and lesbian community’. It’s been a tradition of mine to look through lists such as these each year and bemoan the lack of representation for the wider LGBT and queer communities. Last year’s list produced a lot of justified criticism for not including any visibly bisexual or openly trans* people and not representing the grassroots activists within the LGBT community. It’s been very easy to be critical of a list of ‘influential British LGBT people’ that reads as a hierarchy of mainly cisgender (as in, not identifying as trans*), apparently able-bodied, gay and lesbian famous people and politicians who mostly live in England, mainly London. Cynicism is especially easy when it’s arranged as a league table complete with comparisons to where each entry charted in the previous year.
Since last year’s list was released, Time Out Magazine produced an even more problematically structured ‘Pride Power’ list, which at least included one openly trans* person, highly deserving activist Christine Burns MBE, albeit handled in a pretty problematic way. As you’ll see from that blog post and its comments, that spurred Christine and the equally wonderful Trans Media Watch to put pressure on the Independent on Sunday to produce a truly trans* inclusive Pink List this year. As a result of this campaigning, and I’m sure pressure from other parts of the LGBT community, the IoS appointed trans* journalist and activist Paris Lees to the panel of judges and asked their readers to put forward their own ‘unsung champions’ and ‘heroes’ of the LGBT community for inclusion in the nominees for the 2011 list.
With those announced changes, I approached this year’s Pink List with some degree of optimism, and I was indeed extremely pleased to see a considerably improved list with:
- The frankly amazing teacher Elly Barnes, who has done invaluable work to exorcise the ghost of Section 28 from the nation’s schools, in the top position
- A performer clearly described as bisexual in the third position
- More women included in top positions
- An openly intersex activist in the ‘Nice to meet you section’
- Six trans women and one trans man in the numbered league table
- Another two trans women and one trans man in the Lifetime Achievement Awards
- And yet another trans woman in the ‘Nice to meet you’ section
Note though, five of trans women included were not explicitly noted as trans*.
It was clear that this wasn’t just a small step towards token trans* representation as I’d worried, but a significant jump towards treating trans* people as equally valid members of the LGBT community.
Is the list perfect? No, by no means. It’s still arranged in league table format, it’s still mainly white, English, well educated, apparently able-bodied (there is not one mention of ‘disabled’, ‘disability’ or any particular impairments on the entire list), apparently dyadic (non-intersex) people. People who lampoon these things as ‘Pride Privilege Lists’ still have much to rightfully criticise.
My traditional scouring of the list has been to look for bisexual representation and, despite singer-songwriter Jessie J now appearing in third position with a clear declaration of bisexuality, there are no other entries described as ‘bi’ or ‘bisexual’. All other uses of ‘bisexual’ are simply writing out LGBT or ‘gay and bisexual’, there is not one usage of the term ‘bi’ which is preferred within the UK Bi Community or the word ‘queer’, my label of choice. There are other people on the list who I know are bisexual, but not one of them is identified as such, and so bi invisibility continues. As a long term active member of the UK Bi Community, which is hugely accepting of queer-identified, trans*, nonbinary and genderqueer people such as myself, I was particularly disappointed to see all the hard working bisexual activists overlooked yet again.
This year the Bi Community focused its visibility activism efforts onto equal bi inclusion in the Lesbian and Gay Foundation’s ‘Homo Heroes’ award, gaining hugely deserving nominees in four categories (none of whom won the popular vote). It’s quite telling that the trans community aimed its visibility activism one way, the bi community another and the end result was that two prominent perviously ‘lesbian and gay’ lists gained more inclusive representation for one of the usually overlooked B and T but not the other (although one of the bi ‘Homo Heroes’ nominees is also trans*, so L, G, B and T are all represented there). I think it’s highly likely that the next Bi Activist Weekend will be discussing strategy to get a bi activist judge on next year’s Pink List panel.
So yes, there is much to criticise and much of my immediate response (on Twitter) after congratulating those listed was to critique the list’s failings. Many others in the trans* community (and beyond) have criticised the list too, some with anger at how the trans* people who were included were all transitioned binary transsexual, mainly trans women rather than trans men, not people of colour and mostly from England rather than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There was considerable disappointment that not one openly nonbinary (living as neither a woman nor a man) or explicitly genderqueer (identifying as challenging the gender binary through non-normative gender expression – your definitions may vary, I find the distinction useful) person was included. The trans* people who were included all fit the dominant transgender narrative of cross-binary gender identity and transition.
Some people defending the lack of such people on the list have argued that no British nonbinary, genderqueer or solely gender nonconforming (as in not trans* in other respects) people have done anything notable enough yet and this will come with time. While this may be true of activists (those prominent in the field live overseas while British activists have only come to the fore recently), it isn’t the case of performers and famous people. What about Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror and Crystal Maze fame who came out as nonbinary transgender in 2009? What about stand up comedian, world famous actor, ‘executive transvestite’ and ‘male tomboy’ Eddie Izzard who has helped normalise femme male gender expression, has been an inspiration to a huge number of trans* people of all stripes for years and who recently ran seven weeks of back-to-back marathons (with Sundays off) across the UK to raise money for Sport Relief? Personally I’d have liked to see at least one nonbinary or genderqueer activist or performer on the ‘Nice to meet you’ list and I am hugely disappointed that CN Lester was overlooked for that honour. But I am hopeful for next year.
Unfortunately much of the perfectly valid criticism of the structure and composition of the list inadvertently reads as an attack on the trans women and men who are on the list for the first time this year. There is a very uncomfortable air of belittling or dismissing the achievements of the people who are on the list, because they are ‘tokenism’ or because others ‘more deserving’ are not there. Some of the critiques feel like they’re dragging those people down rather than lifting others up, which CN Lester eloquently describes and confronts here.
This Stuff Is Important
Much like CN, I had an ‘inspiration board’ on the wall of my teenage bedroom, full of printed out song lyrics, pictures and newspaper clippings that kept me going through my last couple of years as a closeted queer teenager at a rural comprehensive school (1996 to 98). My board included people like teenage Age Of Consent campaigners Chris Morris (who was the same age as me) and Euan Sutherland, and famous performers like Ellen Degeneres, Wilson Cruz, Brian Molko, David McAlmont, Ani DiFranco, Michael Stipe and Skin from Skunk Anansie. Being surrounded by images of successful queer and gender nonconforming people and listening to their music made me feel like less of a freak and gave me hope for the future.
As a community, we need visible inspirational ‘heroes’ to look up to. Some people survive, get through it and are inspired to succeed and perhaps become activists themselves due to newspaper articles just like this one. It is possible to critique the form of an award and the nature of the organisation that issued it while still seeing it as important and valuable. As little as I believe in the honours system and the monarchy, I still found it incredibly significant and inspiring when the establishment recognised the work of trans* activist Christine Burns by issuing her with an MBE in 2004 and Stephen Whittle by issuing him with an OBE in 2005.
I see these lists and the tendency to single out certain prominent famous and notable people for recognition and awards as only problematic in isolation. If we let this be the only way that trans*, queer and LGBT people are celebrated in our communities, then yes, it is problematic. If we let this start a conversation about who else should be recognised and celebrated, the hard work that so many others do in our communities and all the different ways people make a difference, then it becomes just one of many ways that the deserving, inspiring people in our communities receive thanks.
When Dan Savage started the It Gets Better campaign, I was among the critics who found it deeply problematic. But it started a conversation that prompted complementary and constructive campaigns that focused on helping young people to Make It Better, and inspired many other It Gets Better videos that weren’t problematic in the ways that Savage’s had been. There are now some amazing trans* and queer It Gets Better videos out there and no end of testimonials from people saying how seeing them has helped them in the way my inspiration board helped me.
I would like to see positive and constructive reactions amongst the justified critiques of the organisation and form of the current Pink List. While campaigning for next year’s list to end bi invisibility, recognise bisexual, pansexual, asexual and queer activists and include more trans men, nonbinary, genderqueer and gender nonconforming people, we should also be putting forward our own lists of inspiring queer and trans* people, and thanking and celebrating all those who inspired us personally, or who have worked to make our lives better as queer or trans* people.
As such, last night I asked my Twitter followers to indulge me for a while as I thanked those who had inspired me. Rather than focusing solely on individuals, I tried to thank entire groups and classes of people who have helped our communities, while highlighting particular examples that I’ve personally come across and been inspired by. My own personal Inspiration List. You can read it in my Twitter favourites, starting at 10:12pm. Note, there are many many more people who I could name (each category was limited to 136 characters) and, as I was reacting to a list of inspirational British LGBT people, my list was intentionally focused on people from the UK. I would write a very different list if I was including those who are active in other countries and internationally.
I would love to read other people’s Inspiration Lists, especially international lists and lists covering queer and trans* communities of which I’m not a member. I encourage you all to thank everyone who’s inspired you, made it easier to be queer, trans* or gender nonconforming or helped you or your communities in practical ways.
Deserving Their Recognition
And let’s not forget that we do have eleven openly trans* people and several more trans* allies recognised within the Pink List article. Forget the numbering and the different categories and focus on the recognition these people have been rightfully given. As I said above, I want to see more trans* people included, more trans men, more trans* people assigned female at birth, more nonbinary, openly genderqueer and solely gender nonconforming people, and I want us to work towards getting those people into next year’s list and given recognition through our own community efforts, independent of The Independent. But let’s not play down the hugely important work those who are listed have done to represent, inspire and improve the lives of all trans* people.
So here’s my personal take on how some of the trans* people who are recognised in this year’s Pink List article have inspired and represented me as a nonbinary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, queer-identified, atypically transitioning, androgynously presenting trans* person…
I was extremely pleased to see people who have been personal longterm inspirations to me on the lists:
Stephen Whittle and Christine Burns, whose campaigning work for Press For Change was a practical help and inspiration to me while transitioning in the late 1990s, especially as their website and resources recognised that not all ‘trans people’ they campaigned for transition in the same way or at all, live ‘full time in role’ or identify as simply female or simply male.
It is thanks to Press For Change that Britain now has legal employment and provision of goods and services protection for trans* people (by adding the protected class of ‘gender reassignment’), including the changes in the Equality Act 2010 that mean those protections are no longer prerequisite on a ‘gender specialist’ psychiatrist’s approval or any medical treatments. Stephen has also featured in two prominent television documentaries about transsexual men and numerous trans* publications, providing inspiration to many. As mentioned above, Christine is one of the most vocal campaigners for recognition of the full diversity of trans* activists and influential people in lists such as these.
Travel writer Jan Morris whose groundbreaking 1974 memoir Conundrum and its journey through her transition (most notably chapter 12) was my first exposure to the reality that it was possible for me to become androgynous, it wasn’t just something that some people were naturally gifted with that I could never achieve. I cannot overstate how important this was to me and how much hope and inspiration it gave me as a dysphoric nonbinary person trying to find comfort with my body and social role.
Activists I Admire
I was also overjoyed to see recognition given to current activists who I admire, all of whom have in some way helped nonbinary and gender nonconforming trans* people as part of their work to represent the entire trans* community:
Sarah Brown, Britain’s only openly transgender activist serving in an elected political position; a Liberal Democrat Cambridge City Councillor, and chair of the Lib Dem Transgender Working Group. Sarah was instrumental (along with Zoe O’Connell) in influencing Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert to raise the issue of gender neutral documentation such as passports in the House of Commons. Something that will be vitally important to many nonbinary, genderqueer, transgender and gender nonconforming people in this country (including myself).
Jay Stewart of Gendered Intelligence, an organisation that does hugely important creative work with young transgender and genderqueer people and is explicitly inclusive of the wider transgender spectrum. Jay organised the wonderfully positive and inclusive Trans Community Conference, that I was lucky enough to attend this year, and was previously the chair of FTM London, an AFAB (assigned female at birth) trans* support and social group known for being inclusive of all identities and expressions within the wider transgender spectrum. I have briefly spoken with Jay and seen him speak from stage and on video. He comes across as someone who comfortably challenges stereotypical assumptions that all trans men are hyper-masculine. Read him here encouraging readers of the Times Educational Supplement to celebrate transgender students and allow male assigned students to express femininity in their schools.
Journalist Juliet Jacques (in the ‘Nice to meet you’ section) whose blogging for The Guardian has talked frankly about the process of coming to terms with being a trans woman and undergoing transition in a very public and visible way that has exposed the human story behind trans* people’s lives to a whole new audience. In her earlier articles, Juliet talks about how she did not have the stereotypical transsexual childhood story (in a way I hugely identified with), and tried on and explored numerous transgender identities and communities before transitioning. She writes about having been drawn to male crossdressers, made to feel less alone by the comedy of ‘action transvestite’ Eddy Izzard and going through years of identifying as a gay male crossdresser and later ‘transgender’ as described by Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein. As such she is one of the few journalists to have written about transgender people who ‘live beyond the traditional gender binary’ in a mainstream outlet.
Creativity and consuming the creative works of others is hugely important to me. As such, I was pleased to see three creative trans women whose work I enjoy recognised in the lists as much for their non-activist careers and artistic merits as their work as ‘professional trans people’:
Roz Kaveney is given recognition as a poet and novelist. I first saw Roz on television talking about science fiction and fantasy, then later met her in person through science fiction conventions (where she is well known and respected in the community of authors and fans). If you like a science fiction or fantasy author, Roz is probably friends with them. I later learned she is openly transsexual from her (highly recommended) poetry LiveJournal and from there found her Twitter feed, where she’s shared sonnets about transgender history, remembrance and bodies [NSFW], and challenged the prejudices of others (most notably Julie Bindel) in a relentlessly reasonable and open minded way. Roz is notable to the nonbinary community for having talked about neutrois (agender) identity along with the wider inclusive meaning of transgender, for the Guardian newspaper’s blog in June 2010.
Comedian Bethany Black is given recognition for being successful in the competitive and male dominated world of stand up comedy while being openly transsexual. She describes herself as “Britain’s only Goth, lesbian, transsexual stand-up comedian” and challenges binary transgender stereotypes enough to proudly feature in the MtF Butches Tumblr. She’s also very funny.
Actress and singer Adèle Anderson of marvellous humorous female cabaret group Facinating Aida is recognised under ‘lifetime achievement’. Adèle is recognised for her acting and singing career, and her campaigning for the British Humanist Association, most notably against the Pope’s recent state visit to the UK. Adèle came out as a trans woman in the mid-1980s after success while ‘stealth’, in part due to pressure from the press, she later talked publicly about how difficult that process was. As a transgender singer and lover of comedy music, I personally find inspiration in Adèle and her willingness to pursue a singing career despite the risk of it outing her.
So while I am not aware of any nonbinary, genderqueer-identified or solely gender nonconforming trans* people recognised on the Pink List this year, every one of the trans* people listed above has either worked for their rights and/or recognition in some way, or challenged binary gender roles and the public’s stereotypical view of transgender people through their openness, their humour or their own gender nonconformity. I don’t know about you but, as a genderqueer and nonbinary person, I think that’s worth celebrating.
And let’s not overlook the significance of the inclusion of openly intersex activist and LGBTQQi addiction specialist Sarah Graham recognised in the ‘Nice to meet you’ section, who has been frank and open about her life experiences in an article for The Independent and an episode of the BBC radio programme The Essay broadcast on Radio 3.
Finally, we should not forget all the people on the list who work for trans* people as part of their careers or wider LGBT activism. I want to wrap up this article by pointing you at a video of the person who made the number one spot in this year’s Pink List, Elly Barnes talking about how her Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans History Month work in schools led to her pupils being exposed to positive queer and trans* role models in assembly and taught in science classes about how gender variance and transition is a normal part of some people’s lives. If Elly’s recognition in the Pink List leads to just one other teacher following her example and achieving the same, then it will have been an indisputable success.
* The asterisk at the end of ‘trans*’ denotes that this is the wider inclusive form of trans that includes all transgender, transsexual, nonbinary, genderqueer, gender variant and gender nonconforming people regardless of gender identity or expression.