“Being transgender is not a trend” Paris Lees on why being trans shouldn't be headline news

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This year, the transgender community has become more visible than ever before. But how does it affect those who live as transgender every day? Here, activist Paris Lees, 26, argues that while attention is good, there is still a big battle to be won

“From reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner to austerity food writer Jack Monroe, it seems that trans people are everywhere in 2015. In fact, you’d have to be a veritable hermit not to have noticed. EastEnders has a trans character now, the first in the show’s 30-year history - and to the delight of the trans community, he is played by a trans man, Riley Carter Millington. Hollyoaks has its first trans actress too - a teacher played by Annie Wallace. On BBC2, Rebecca Root has been winning over fans in Boy Meets Girl, the first British comedy to have a trans person as its star. It’s even reached Hollywood; Tangerine, a film which stars two trans actors in its lead roles, has been nominated for a bunch of awards. In entertainment terms at least, trans people are no longer taking a back seat.

No-one is 100% sure just how many transgender people there are in Britain, but studies suggest we’re about 1% of the population. A true minority, you might say. So, I’ve been wondering, just how did trans people find themselves so high up the news agenda this year? And - more importantly for me as a transgender rights activist - has the explosion of trans celebrities translated into happier lives for ordinary trans people?

Cast your mind back, if you will, to the summer of 2010. There was no boxing promoter Kellie Maloney on This Morning. No Laverne Cox from Orange Is The New Black on the cover of Time magazine. No trans people had ever been invited onto Question Time as I have been, twice in the past two years. Stonewall, the gay charity, didn’t campaign on behalf of trans people. There weren’t any viral online petitions calling for the transfer of transgender prisoners like Tara Hudson, who was sent to a male detention centre for assault despite living as a woman. There wasn’t outcry or debate in the House of Commons for the harrowing treatment of people like transgender woman Vicky Thompson, who was found dead in her cell at the all-male HM Prison in Leeds earlier this month. In truth, there were virtually no trans people in public life and allies were thin on the ground. I said it ‘seems’ like trans people are everywhere these days but the fact is, like gay people, we’ve always been around - we just weren’t able to get our voices heard. Fear, discrimination and lack of opportunity kept many transgender people in the closet for decades and, for those ‘brave’ enough to come out, it used to be a case of just keeping your head down and not rocking the boat.

Now there’s been a trans woman on the cover of Vanity Fair. How times change.

Gaining acceptance

For me, my place in the world today and the acceptance I feel compared to when I was growing up has shifted beyond recognition. I’m what they used to call a ‘classic transsexual’ - a silly term for someone who has known they are transgender for as long as they can recall. One of my very first memories was when I was four. I was in a park in Nottingham where I grew up, with an older girl. I remember telling her I was a girl. And I also remember her being visibly shocked. That was the first time I’d realised the way I saw myself wasn’t the way other people saw me. Little did I know but I had about another two decades of that to come.

As a child, I was what you might call ‘vocal’ about the fact that there had been a mistake. ‘I should have been a girl,’ I would say. ‘I want to be a girl.’ ‘I am a girl.’ To be honest, I wouldn’t shut up about it. Eventually my parents took me to the doctors, but they chickened out when my GP referred me to a child psychologist. Do I blame them? I resent the fact that I didn’t get the support that many trans children get these days through understanding families and fantastic groups like Mermaids [a charity for young people with gender identity issues]. But I’m not sure if blame is the right word. My mum and dad were as ignorant as the rest of society about transgender children.

Whatever the reason, support was the last thing I could expect from my dad. He tried to ‘toughen me up’ with boxing lessons. I was bullied at school for being girly and bullied by him when I got home. So I didn’t feel safe to transition until I was in my late teens.

That may seem young to you but I regret every second wasted walking around pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I thought I was gay for a little while, but now in hindsight, I think that was purely because I knew what gay was. But where were all the transgender people? The only ones I’d ever seen were in those late night shock docs on Channel 4 - back then you only ever saw trans people on TV if they were being wheeled in on a hospital bed. I didn’t know any famous trans people or indeed any trans people who were taken seriously anywhere.

But that all changed in 2004, when a trans woman called Nadia Almada won Big Brother. It showed me for the first time that it was possible to be transgender and still be fairly normal. Suddenly, a light went on. Although it took me a few years to pluck up the courage, I just knew that ultimately I’d be OK. I felt like I had options. My doctor didn’t know anything about trans issues and I sank into a deep depression for two years while the NHS messed me about. Eventually, I was referred to the gender identity clinic in London, but I didn’t get hormone treatment for two years and would sometimes be clocked as trans in the street. It was a horrible time. Like many trans people, I lost friends and my family tree got a bit of a trim. When I look back at the lack of support and overwhelming social pressure to stay a boy, it’s a wonder I made it through - but knowing others had managed it before me helped.

So I think that yes, just this year alone, there has been incredible movement on this front. We’ve yet to see the full ramifications of the ‘Caitlyn Jenner effect’ but there can be no doubt that her showy transition has raised awareness. I just wish it wasn’t all such a big deal. Does anyone bat an eyelid if someone comes out as gay these days? Still, Caitlyn is the most high profile trans person in the world and symbolic of a global awakening. But notice, I say ‘awakening’ and not ‘trend’, which is how some commentators have labelled the recent interest in trans issues. The black civil rights movement wasn’t a ‘trend’, gay liberation wasn’t a ‘trend’, and feminism isn’t a ‘trend’. A recent sketch on a US chat show saw comedians joke about the ‘trend’ for being transgender ‘catching on’ which, although tongue-in-cheek, showed the dangerous rhetoric emerging. Let’s not belittle a push for social acceptance as some sort of fad. Transgender people have been in every recorded culture in history; we are not a ‘trend’. Going forward, we have to make sure our voices are heard along with everyone else’s.

True definition

But while high profile transitions like that of Jenner’s and The Matrix co-director Lana Wachowski may get lampooned in the media, I take heart in the fact that other trans people might now feel safer in coming out of the closet. But here’s the thing: Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t speak for all transgender people and nor should she have to. Laverne Cox doesn’t either. Nor do I. There’s an incredible pressure to be a spokesperson if you are part of the trans community and in the public eye, but the truth is that trans people are as varied as the rest of the population. Kellie Maloney had a successful career in boxing until she transitioned last year - now the media seems to be obsessed with the fact that she is trans.

Can you imagine if the only time you saw a black person on the telly was if they were talking about being black? Or if the only time you saw a gay person they were talking about being gay? Of course not. We don’t define people by their skin colour or sexuality; we define them by their actions and who they are as people.

While the success of shows like Orange Is The New Black and Transparent are great for visibility, we have to make sure that visibility translates into rights for the average trans person trying to live a normal life, because sadly it is still very much the dark old days for many.

Recorded attacks on trans people are up by 25% in London this year and while this could be down to people feeling more confident to report such attacks, it clearly isn’t safe to walk down the street as a trans person in Britain. And how about the Liverpool woman who had to move recently because she was taunted by locals scrawling transphobic abuse on her front door? Many trans people still experience family rejection and the decline in mental health that can bring. And healthcare is slow at best and abusive at worst - in 2013 trans people started the #TransDocFail hashtag on Twitter, sharing thousands of instances of cruelty by GPs. All this might explain why 48% of young trans people in the UK have attempted suicide. Almost half. Not just ‘thought about’. Attempted.

It’s for this reason that I can’t help but see increased awareness as a good thing, even if media coverage is negative on the surface. When feminist Germaine Greer said that trans women are not real women last month she was simply repeating her old prejudice. Greer, who has compared trans women to rapists throughout her career was describing trans women as ‘ghastly parodies’ as recently as 2009 in The Guardian. It was disappointing to see columnists defending Greer’s right to ‘free speech’ - I’ve never seen anyone defend Katie Hopkins’ right to free speech before. I guess we have a way to go before Greer appreciates the constant questioning and scorn trans people face, and the effect this has on our mental health. With increased awareness the public can now put Greer’s words into context. To me, that’s progress.

What would true equality look like for trans people? Well, how about a trans person reading the news on BBC One? What seemed unimaginable just a few years ago seems perfectly possible in this age of media firsts. I’m more concerned about those suicide statistics though. We can’t let excitement around Caitlyn Jenner and other trans celebrities distract from the discrimination many trans people still deal with on a daily basis.

So, yes, celebrate trans people in public life, but let’s not forget that many people in the community are struggling and isolated. I want those people to know they haven’t been forgotten. The fight goes on and will continue to go on until trans people are no longer being driven to suicide - and when simply being trans isn’t headline news.”   

Main image: Gemma Day. Hair: Lee Boone at Percy and Reed. Make-up: Benjamin Ip 

Other images: Rex Features