Kaleidoscope recently held a panel event in honour of Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR), to discuss the lived experience of trans people at work and university. We were joined by Alisa Mayes, Trans Rep for the SU LGBT+ Support Group, Andrea Burroughs, former University of Bath staff member and Emily Hunt, Physics Alumna and the event was chaired by Jimmy Brightwell the Gender Identity Representative.
TDoR is an annual observance on November 20th that honours the memory of the transgender people whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence.
As the world progresses to be a more inclusive home for everyone, there is still a lot of work to do and the University is heavily supporting this. As we speak there are developments being made on the University’s Trans policy for staff and students and most recently, Kaleidoscope have published a document for Being A Trans Ally.
So, here’s how it went…
[JB] What does the Transgender Day of Remembrance mean to you?
[AM] To me TDOR is about remembering. Firstly, remembering all those who needlessly lost their lives over the past year, showing they were important, real people, friends or family and not just be another statistic. Secondly a reminder about how much we have left to go. While TDOR is a good thing the best thing would to be at a stage where we no longer need it.
[AB] Three things: remembering transgender people who have lost their lives, like my friend Gaby. The last time I saw her was going to see “Danish Girl”, the film with Eddie Redmayne where he plays Lily Elbe who lost her life due to surgical complications in 1930.
Gaby was a mature student who was subject to transphobic bullying. She took her own life just over four years ago. I remember seeing her Facebook posts just before she died and will always feel I could have done more. There are lots of Gaby’s out there.
The collective impact on physical and mental health, relationships and finances of being transgender is considerable.
TDoR is also an opportunity to celebrate past selves as those who are transgender become familiar with their new identity. It’s also a time to reflect on friends, family and colleagues who are trying to come to terms with and support transitioning others.
[EH] The main thing for me is the importance of history. It's so important to remember where we've came from and the immense struggles and sacrifices made by our forbearers in the past.
[JB] On this day, who inspires you most and why?
[EH] Again on historical themes, I'm most inspired by Marsha P Johnson. When she was alive, she put immense work into caring for other trans people and building a community from nothing. Without people like her, the trans community wouldn't be where it is today or with as much strength as it has today.
[AM] While there are many well know famous transgender people either throughout history or in the media, the ones who inspire me the most are the everyday people.
I often browse Reddit and I’m subscribed to a few trans related subs and its always great to see small posts along the lines of “I just came out to my sister” or “I just bought my first binder/skirt”, “First year of HRT progress”… These small, little victories and milestones are always the most heartening and relatable things to read.
[AB] I think there are a number of inspirational transgender people, such as Roberta Cowell who was a racing driver and second world war pilot who died recently in her 90s and James Barry, a high ranking, trans military surgeon born in 1790.
It’s also important to remember Boulton and Park, two transvestites whose legacy has impacted LGBT+ judicial law since 1870.
A number of people of a celebrity status are given a spotlight these days, which is great, but it’s the transgender majority who get on with their lives that inspire most.
I was sad to hear on the news, after the event, of the death of historian, author and writer Jan Morris at the age of 94.
[JB] There has been slow but steady progress on Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) in schools, with the latest being LBGTQ+ inclusive RSE being taught in England's schools from September this year, with roll-out over the next two years in Scotland and Wales. One of the primary challenges to sex education in schools is that children are too young and impressionable -- this concept of childhood innocence. There is also a countermovement that teaching children about LGBTQ+ people goes against their parents’ rights to decide what their children learn, often with faith cited as a reason. In this context, it would be interesting to learn a bit about timelines.
[JB] What was your experience and how did you overcome any adversity?
[AM] I don’t remember much of my RSE from when I was younger, but it didn’t really have anything remotely related to LGBT+ topics. Growing up, because I was never taught about these things, I spent many years not knowing why I felt the way I did and worrying about what was “wrong” with me. It took me up until my second year of Uni when I finally reached out to the LGBT+ society and found others like me and that I was not broken. I think its important that LGBT+ topics are taught as well to stop others from going through something like this when its so easily avoided.
[EH] It was really difficult sometimes when the topic of trans people came up at school as a joke or something to be laughed at, all while I was still in the closet and feeling really isolated because of it. The internet was a huge help because I was actually able to get good information about being trans and how I could try to transition in the future.
[JB] When did you first learn of other trans people and when did you know you were trans? Did you experience adversity?
[AB] I grew up pre internet. I knew I was “different” from a very early age and remember a specific moment whilst in a rugby scrum when I was 8 or 9!
When I was in senior school there was a programme on BBC about Julia Grant who transitioned from male to female. I can remember the playground conversations and realised there were other people out there and found out more. A few years later the story broke about Tula (Caroline Cossey) who was transgender and had a tiny part in a James Bond story and who appeared in all of the papers.
[AM] Feelings that I was trans probably started around puberty, although I didn’t know what exactly it was. A few years ago, I went to London for a convention called RTX, which was for an online group that I liked to watch. On the way there my friend and I met two siblings on the train and found out they were also fans going to the convention. We ended up spending the weekend as a group and really enjoyed our time.
Part way through I learned that they were a trans man and non-binary and it was such a non-issue. I always had this idea in my head (mostly from negative media online) that being trans was bad and wrong and if I was trans I couldn’t have a normal life, yet these two lovely people were perfectly normal and happy.
Seeing this I was able to start accepting the fact that I too was possibly trans and that was ok. A few months later I reached out to the society and although it still took a while, I was eventually able to accept myself.
[EH] I can't remember any stand-out moment when I realised trans people ‘exist’ and that I could be trans. I think it happened gradually between the age of 10 and 12. I felt a strange mix of feeling happy to have discovered something important about myself, yet extremely scared for the future - which ended up being how it played out as my dad reacted very badly to things.
[JB] How has being trans impacted your day-to-day life in the workplace/at University, if at all?
[AM] At the start it was a massive stress factor and when I first accepted it, it was very hard to deal with and dysphoria was more intense.
I remember one day spending 20 minutes trying to get the courage to leave my house and go to a lecture wearing some skinny jeans. When I stated my job, I had only just started HRT and changed name, but everyone was very nice and understanding which was very helpful.
As time went on, I got more comfortable with myself and became more confident. Nowadays, being trans is a minor thing in my life. I don’t get misgendered, except very rarely, or treated poorly and I am much happier than I was.
[AB] I effectively transitioned prior to starting at the University of Bath (I left earlier this year). They were completely supportive but the personal and professional impact of being trans, older and with a big professional network who knew me as my former self was at times daunting and challenging but universally supportive and wonderful. Changing documentation and paperwork is really difficult!
[EH] It can make a lot of things harder, especially during my undergrad. The lack of self-esteem and life goals made looking towards the future a lot more difficult. It was hard to stay motivated throughout my degree.
Additionally, there's a lot of extra things to worry about - finances being the big one, because many parts of transition (e.g. facial hair removal, voice coaching, binders) are added expenses not covered by the NHS that make managing finances a lot harder.
At work, the hardest part was coming out again for the first time. You never know how people are going to react - which is really nerve-wracking when these are people you're going to have to spend the next few years working with.
[JB] You have worked at multiple institutions (and in some cases, in different countries and cultures). What are the one or two things that you find the most surprising or troublesome about trans support at these different institutions or countries?
[EH] Germany isn't that different to the UK I think! People can be more socially conservative but are also more likely to be open-minded. Also, there is no TERF (Trans-exclusionary radical feminist) movement here, unlike the UK, and it's refreshing to be away from that (although also really upsetting that I'm even more powerless to do anything about it!).
[AM] I will go for two troublesome things as they’re important and need to be addressed.
Firstly, the waiting times for trans healthcare. To get seen for an initial appointment from the NHS takes about 2-4 years and that’s only to get your foot in the door. Many people cannot afford to go private (which still takes the better part of a year), either because of poor finances or no parental support. This amount of time for such important, potentially lifesaving support isn’t acceptable and tragically people sometimes opt to take their own life as it seems so out of reach and they can’t deal with their current situation.
Secondly, the misinformation spread about trans healthcare/support and what’s best for trans people. The media in the UK is very biased against transgender people and often gives a bad view of them and the healthcare associated, either maliciously or through ignorance. This gets spread around a lot through the general public and therefore support is heavily scrutinised and gatekept from those who need it in case “they’re too young” or it’s seen as “dangerous”.
[AB] There are a lot of wonderful support organisations about there (Mermaids, Beaumont Society and local groups) but the quality of care available and given to those who are transgender is broken in this country. Waiting lists are years to get first appointment, many self-medicate and pay for other services. I’ve personally spent at least £3,000 on electrolysis.
[JB] We are talking about the TDoR as a day of remembrance for those members of the trans community who have lost their lives over the years due to transphobia in various forms. At the same time, this could also be an opportunity to commemorate our past selves, which we have moved away from as we became familiar with our trans identity. There could be people listening today or in the future, who are in that place currently.
[JB] Without asking you to relive any past trauma, and in the vain of It Gets Better, what would you tell your past self?
[AM] You’re ok, you’re not broken and you’re not alone. Find others who love and support you and surround yourself with them. There will always be those who try to tear you down and don’t understand but try to ignore them. They don’t matter!
[AB] Be brave, be confident, find support networks to talk about it – it, and you, will be OK!
[EH] Find a support network and hang on! I wouldn't be where I am today without the immense help of support groups. Given time, things can and will get better.
[JB] Finally, Stonewall reported that 62% of graduates go back into the closet when entering the workplace. What advice would you give to graduates as they enter into an industry where there might be greater experience of transphobia and how to challenge it effectively?
[AM] I don’t think going back into the closet is a good thing. Read into the company policies, speak to HR and make sure you know what protections you have.
If you experience transphobia don’t stay quiet, and challenge it, either directly or through the company. If the workplace doesn’t seem to have protections in place or support you, then you should maybe look at finding work elsewhere. Although money is important, your welfare is more so.
[AB] I think the Stonewall Employer Index is great; it was a positive factor that led me to Newcastle Hospital. It’s also useful in terms of identifying sectors where there are positive approaches to supporting diversity.
I don’t like “trans silos” so would encourage to look across equality, diversity and inclusion agendas and how leaders in the organisation embrace LGBTQ issues. Newcastle (Council and Hospitals) are exemplary and Cardiff University is the top University.
[EH] Don't be afraid to be who you are! The company doesn't deserve you if they don't support who you are. You don't need to rush yourself; it took me a few months to come out to co-workers, but you'll be a lot happier once you do.
As for challenging the transphobia, make yourself aware of anti-discrimination practices at your workplace and reach out to HR if necessary; know your rights! Transphobic discrimination is illegal in the UK and it is your employer's responsibility to fix any issues that arise.
[JB] I wish to say a massive thank you to Alisa Mayes, Andrea Burroughs and Emily Hunt for taking the time to share their stories and their thoughts on TDoR.
I’d also like to say a big thank you to Tanmoy Laskar who has done so much behind the scenes for this event and Sophie Miles and Thomas Williams for their hard work in getting this set up. You are amazing and your efforts are truly appreciated.
Thank you everyone, the viewers at home, for attending and taking an interest in this, it truly means the world to myself and everyone involved. We hope you’ve learned something today and we look forward to your support going forward.
For anyone seeking more information, guidance and support, for staff please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or your HR Advisor/Business Partner, and for students please contact email@example.com. You will be treated dignity and respect and we will do our best for you.