I hope you don’t mind me taking the time to introduce myself. My name is Ruth Hunt. I’m the CEO of Stonewall. I’m a Catholic. I love to ride my bike. I’m a godmother to three wonderful little children. I enjoy watching Doctor Who. I’m butch and I’m a lesbian.
Nice to meet you.
Like all people, there are many different things that make me who I am. One of them is my sexual orientation, another is that I have short hair, and another is that I sometimes wear suits and ties.
Some might say, I look like a boy. Others would call me a dyke. In fact, people have been saying both of these things to me since I was 13-years-old.
This is straightforward homophobia and sexism. But the reason I get called a dyke is because I don’t fit with the gender norm. In other words, I don’t look like what you would expect a woman to look like.
This isn’t just the case for women who look like me. The reason effeminate men get called poofs is because they may not fit with the gender norm either.
However, something I should be clear about here, is that I have never – regardless of the way I present who I am – questioned my gender identity. Dressing ‘like a boy’, wearing a suit, having short hair, is my way of being a woman. It does not mean that I’m trans. Most people who are trans have an innate sense that the sex they were assigned at birth does not match their gender identity – it’s not about dressing like how you would expect a boy or a girl to dress, and frankly it’s insulting to suggest it is. In fact, what clothes you wear has nothing to do with your gender identity.
In recent weeks and months, we’ve seen endless headlines about trans people. Headlines that make ludicrous statements about how more people than ever are ‘turning trans’.
You cannot make someone trans any more than you can make them a butch catholic lesbian with dyslexia (I didn’t mention that in the opening paragraph, did I?). Being trans is an innate part of who someone is and what they know to be true about themselves. This is exactly the same thing as me knowing I’m not trans, and frankly it’s exactly the same for sexual orientation. People used to ask me how I knew I was a lesbian. My answer: how do you know you’re straight?
So, why the headlines? Why the constant hateful features about trans people?
The first reason is that now, more than any other time in history, we have permission to talk openly about who we are. In fact, it’s encouraged. We talk constantly – and positively – about our feelings, mental health, worries. We have made it OK for people to question what they’re feeling. This is an amazing thing.
When a young person can go to their parents and say ‘this is how I’m feeling’ about anything – whether it’s what happened in the playground that day, or what they saw on Bake Off that night – we are creating a culture where people are not scared to talk to each other. When the question is related to their gender, we have the opportunity to let them explore that in a safe way. We should not be afraid of the question; we should feel lucky they have the space to ask.
I have never asked these questions about my gender identity – and I imagine that many people reading this haven’t either. That makes me immensely fortunate and means that I’ve never had to experience the same level of deep unease and discomfort as many people I know. But for those who have, knowing there is somewhere – a gender identity service perhaps – where they can go to talk and be listened to, is a relief.
Gender identity services do not turn people trans. They do not measure their successes or failures based on the number of people who end up being trans. Their role is not to convince people one way or the other. The role of these services is to provide time and space for this exploring to happen. If people leave these services feeling much more certain of who they are – whatever that is – this is a success.
Young butch lesbians also need more support, from family, schools, youth services, medical professionals to name a few, so that they too feel confident and positive about themselves.
All these services exist, but they are in no way perfect, and frankly, we need to work with them much more closely to ensure that gender presentation is not ever conflated with gender identity. However, we should be thankful they exist and thankful that they give people who do have questions or uncertainties the chance to explore what that may mean.
Another reason for the sensationalist and vicious headlines is that we have a serious problem with representation – particularly in the media.
It will not come as a surprise to many that people feel more comfortable about who they are if they can see themselves reflected in the world around them.
So what does it say to butch women when we’re depicted as unattractive, short-haired freaks? What about when we’re called ‘dyke on a bike’ in a national newspaper (if you don’t know what I mean, ask Clare Balding)?
Representation of women who may not fit traditional gender norms is very often hurtful, and the mainstream media has, over the years, directly contributed to that hurt. You don’t have to be a genius to see that trans people have a similar media experience. The answer to this is that we need to see different people in public spaces. It’s time now for the media to play an active role for good, and positively represent all women who do not fit traditional gender norms, including those who may be butch or trans. I disagree with the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt, I think familiarity breeds acceptance – both for individuals coming to terms with who they are, and for wider society.
The constant policing of my gender expression leads me on to my next point, which is that homophobia and transphobia are much cosier bedfellows than people realise. As a butch woman I get shot not-so-sideways glances all the time when I walk into women’s toilets – this is homophobic and transphobic, and sexist as well. That’s why I think it’s 100%, uncompromisingly vital to be an ally to trans people. As a feminist, I support the rights of women to be safe and free to be themselves – and I mean all women. There is no one experience of being a woman: some of us may be lesbians, some may not conform to gender norms, and some may have a trans history. Some of us may be all of these things. We are, though, all women.
Equality for, and acceptance of, trans people is vital for all of us. It will strengthen the equality of lesbian, gay and bi people, and it will stop the ridiculous and limiting stereotypes of what it means to be a woman.
We have so much to gain from trans equality and gender equality, and we risk more than we realise if we listen to sensationalised arguments masquerading as ‘common sense’. It’s those same arguments that blocked equality for so long for lesbian, gay and bi people. It’s not only unforgiveable to give these arguments credence, it’s dangerous.