Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz

Invisible Lives


It’s a skeptics in the pub write-up!

In case you missed it, I luckily made it to Westminster Skeptics to see Juliet Jacques give her talk,

Thinking critically about transgender issues

and you can listen to it on the Pod Delusion but I shall write up my notes for those who prefer to read!

Firstly Belinda Brooks-Gordon introduced the talk by saying that trans rights have not really moved forward along with women’s rights. To try to highlight this and educate people, Juliet has a Guardian blog where she posts regularly about trans issues.

Now we can hear what Juliet has to say – it’s a lot of stuff, hugely informative, and it was a great talk!

I’ve put in a few thoughts of my own with [Comment: …] along the way.

Transgender” is almost deliberately a loose term. There is no commitment to a transsexual (TS)/transvestite (TV) distinction; the two not being the same thing, in case you’ve never thought about it before.

It turned up in late 1960s United States literature and became popular in the 1990s as an umbrella term for gender non-conformity and gender-variant identities.

Terms such as male/female (referring to bodies) were challenged by transgender communities.

A Whistle-Stop Tour of Trans History

Gay/lesbian histories and identities are far better explored (also bisexual but to a lesser extent) and it is much easier to define these terms.

In the Victorian era, modern industrial cities like London were giving people the chance to cut themselves off from their families and old friends, to reinvent themselves and be isolated from their past.

Thus, LGBT identities became possible.

However, men who dressed as women in public were arrested and sent to court. The Met, from 1829 onwards, accused the offenders of being ‘sodomites’; Victorian authorities associated cross-dressing or, officially, ‘men in female attire’, with homosexuality.

[Comment: at this point I’m reminded of one of my favourite comedians. Now, it might piss some people off that I bring it up, but having had close family dismiss him for his transvestism when I was quite a lot younger, since then I’ve felt uncomfortable when people poke fun.]

Men would often try to have the charges dropped using a defence of humour; “it was just a lark”. They dismissed their actions in this way to avoid prison.

In 1870 two men were often seen out and about as women. The mainstream press showed photos of them and they were well-known in London theatre. One was also associated with the aristocracy. They were charged with committing an “unnatural offence” and were subjected to examinations trying to prove they had engaged in anal sex. This (unsurprisingly?) failed and new charges were brought:

“Conspiring to incite others to commit an unnatural offence”

There was no frame of reference. Law and the media were reacting to events, creating legislation. The prosecution tried to prove cross-dressing was innate in order to suggest that sodomy had occurred.

There was the basic assumption that these people were deliberately trying to deceive men into having sex with them, by pretending to be women.

Obviously everyone’s lives revolve around heterosexual male perceptions!!

Women were also not accorded sexual agency; feminine sexuality was also suppressed.

[Comment: it was in the Victorian era that genital mutilation really took hold culturally; sex was something to be ashamed of and dampened, for both men and women. Circumcision was touted as a cure for boys’ masturbation ‘problems’ and female circumcision became popular to suppress female sexual desires and ‘hysteria’]

A new defence was then brought: that they’re actors! Actors continuing their roles outside of the workplace. Male-female cross-dressing was a long tradition particularly in English theatre so there was an assumption of performance associated with it, and that London was a City of vice.

The judge did not like the police; he felt they had violated the men’s human rights with their invasive ‘questioning’. Public support increased due to this mistreatment.

In 1885 an amendment to criminal law was made: 2 years in prison for male-on-male sexual acts (which ensnared Oscar Wilde and he was sent down under this law).

Germany’s Paragraph 175 outlawed homosexual behaviour. After this, sexology developed, in order to classify and understand human sexual behaviours.

The medicalisation and pathologising of ‘conditions’ such as homosexuality and transgender/gender-queer identities then began.

Medicine and Media

In 1909-1910 Havelock Ellis published a book called The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress.

Language is always evolving but there was little to describe transgender behaviour. Transvestite was coined as a broad term then, but is obviously more specific now; referring only to the act of wearing clothes traditionally thought of as being suitable for the opposite sex.

During World War I, Edwardian British and German sexologists were less active. There was still no separation of maleness vs. masculinity or femaleness vs. femininity.

In 1928 The Well of Loneliness was published, one of the first accounts from female perspectives.

The Institute of Sexual Science was founded in 1919 and pioneered sex reassignment surgery. A Danish painter, Lili Elbe, died after attempted ovary and uterus transplantations (Niels Hoyer wrote an account of her life, Man Into Woman). In 1933, the National Socialist Party closed the Institute down and people photographed the book burnings that took place.

These events caused the study and understanding of gender issues to be significantly held back.

Gender verification in sport also became an issue, resulting from people’s suspicions and prejudices, particularly those of Avery Brundage. Examinations to determine (mainly female) competitors’ sex were introduced with the intention of identifying people with an ‘unfair advantage’ – i.e. those born physically male but living as women.

In 1945 the first female-male sex reassignment surgery was performed on Laurence Michael Dillon who later wrote his own book, partly inspired by The Well of Loneliness.

Male-to-female transitions drew attention. A TV/TS schism formed, and also between TS and Gay/lesbian – the latter emphatically not desiring of surgery.

Then the first male-female transsexual was a friend of Dillon, in the early 50s; Roberta Cowell, an ex-pilot and racing driver. Her transition was serialised by the then equivalent of OK/Hello! magazine.

The front page of the New York Times featured Christine Jorgensen, a former US army conscript, in 1952. Her doctor, the sexologist Harry Benjamin, emigrated to the States during WWI. He worked on medicine for TG people, and with those who believed in pathologisation of the ‘condition’. He was closely involved in the development of phychological assessment and requirements for patients to follow ‘paths‘ to get the treatments they wanted.

The medical establishment was in control; unreasonable demands of femininity were made of M-F trans people (F-M were somewhat invisible – people assumed that women did this for practical reasons, to assume more powerful and respected roles in society); antiquated ideas of femininity were forced on people.

In ’66 Benjamin’s book The Transsexual Phenomenon was published, which detailed types of TS e.g. ‘Type 4’ – those with no desire to undergo surgery. These were all ideas articulated by non-trans people.

TS people became aware of the book. People understood the boxes to tick to get what you want – answering the questions posed ‘correctly’!

In 1960, April Ashley had surgery in Morocco. She had been married to Lord Corbett. He took her to court for divorce and the ruling was that she should still be considered male, so the marriage was void and there was to be no settlement. This set a legal precedent in the UK – that TS people’s sex is defined by what is printed on their birth certificate.

In the 60s, transitions and who could afford them were strictly controlled. ‘Sects’ emerged, for example in San Francisco. Sex workers funded their surgery. Police often harassed and blackmailed them in Compton’s Cafeteria, eventually causing them to fight back and a documentary film was made covering it.  Later the New York Stonewall Inn bar, rented by the LGBT community, was scene to more famous riots, where Sylvia Rivera stood up to police oppression. This led to the modern movement of Stonewall as the gay liberation front (gay in this context being queer & non-conforming identities).

People became more vocal about trans not being equal to gay and vice versa. Many were trying to integrate with ‘respectable’ hetero society. It became a cliché in the press; “I was born into the wrong body” – people started to think it was a new idea.

Lesbian and feminist groups became prominent in the 1970s. These were women-only spaces; M-F transitionists, did they fit in at all? Sport was also a bi-gender separated space. Trans decisions (and often requirements) to conform to patriarchal ideas of femininity annoyed some feminists.

Janice Raymond wrote ‘The Transsexual Empire: the making of the modern she-male’ and other anti-trans feminist literature, very aggressive in its content.

She managed to suggest that TS women were worse than rapists, that the appropriation of female bodies “becomes a total rape” (!). [Comment: hovering dangerously close to a no true Scotsman, I feel that ‘feminists’ being so obviously prejudiced against gender non-conformity would run against the very core of feminism itself, but maybe that’s just my view of it.]

She claimed [comment: epic invocation of Godwin’s law here] that TS technology was perfected in concentration camps, but there is no evidence for this. She interviewed 12 TS women (TS men didn’t fit; they were mainly dismissed as butch lesbians). This was prominent in the media.

Carol Riddell addressed Raymond’s comments in 1980. Sandy Stone also responded with The empire strikes back: a post-transsexual manifesto.

The Victorian persecution of cross-dressers made trans people invisible. Clinicians were free to frame the experience in a light designed by them alone, to propagate stereotypes, create legislation and silence trans people.

The mainstream media/trans schism developed as trans people were not used in film, TV etc. – the experiences presented were not framed by trans people themselves.

Authors stepped forward to promote the anti-transphobia cause, including: Jan Morris (Conundrum: An Extraordinary Narrative of Transsexualism, 1987); Kate Bornstein (Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women And The Rest Of Us, 1994); Leslie Feinberg (Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come, 1992); and Viviane Namastie (Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People, 2001).

The organisation Press for Change was established in 1992 and finally the UK government passed a bill to create the Gender Recognition Act in 2004.


Trans identities have some constitution now. The meanings of words for ‘Gender-queer’ individuals (TS, TV, TG etc.) are still evolving. We are experimenting with the language. The challenge is tackling transphobia and in a sense this is following on from the gay liberation movement. Homophobic violence is still often based on gender expression and identity.

Fear of unknown and unusual drives people’s prejudices. This is often reinforced in the media, a prominent example being Psycho; in which Norman Bates fits the ‘all crossdressers are crazy!’ stereotype. [Comment: I’m reminded again of Mr. Izzard’s distinction between TV people in general and the “fuckin’ weirdo transvestite!”]

Work is ongoing to close the gap between the mainstream media, trans people and how articles are produced. Also questioning the usefulness of bracketing TG with mental illness; at the moment it is still in the DSM of mental disorders. Perhaps we can overturn the idea that TS is a mental health issue. TS people do have a fear of ‘coming out’ so to do so may help.

In tackling transphobia there is a need for good language use and critical thinking on these issues.


Q. The ‘Real life experience’ requirement – no scientific basis to it; just tradition?? Good reasons for it potentially being harmful. Barrier and ritual humiliation. People coming to harm via the ‘Hormonal black market’ – e.g. oestrogen without prescription.

A. Especially in Britain. The Trans pathway is structured by the NHS’ fear of being sued; transition and regret. Public money and anxiety over its use! People often suggest decommissioning of gender reassignment to save money (approx 70% comments on Guardian!).

Need for some gatekeeping. If there’s no test; it’s an irreversible surgery. Russell Reed: hormones as diagnostic tool (effects are reversible) – one can stop and revert.

Bit of an endurance test. Street hassle, everyday things become an ordeal. Some programmes do away with the psychiatry element. Difficult – more flexibility? Equality? They were allowed x time… cut-off points?

Increased acceptance – more people – pressure from the right to not spend money?

Q. Language. LGBT(Q) bit awkward? Internal disagreements – your view?

A. Ever-expanding acronyms. LGBTQQI (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning, intersex) – a way around?

Umbrella term. But PC & this are kind of concurrent. Press fatigue with ‘PC’. Introduction of new words isn’t really tolerated now cf. 70s/80s.

“PC” is now pejorative. Causes some friction? Sexuality =/= gender identity. The state didn’t separate these.

How do to this but keep an ‘alliance’? Tend to occupy the ‘same spaces’. Contesting rights (Belinda BG). Trans & bi rights trampled! Medicine/sci/law intersection and research is behind –> guesswork policies.

Q. Liz D. Popular culture e.g. Coronation St. (did it badly?) M-F trans people e.g. in Little Britain – offensive?

A. C St. Hayley. History of trans people not given a direct voice/part. Spurred dialogue and was sympathetic to the issue.

Dana international won eurovision; informing people that TG different from L/G etc. “City of Lost Souls” TS singer in lead roll. Autobiography “Man Enough to be a Woman”. Warhol, punk etc.

Tara O’Hara character. Argument on need for surgery and ‘womanhood’.

Little Britain:  trans women as comedy. Trans men ignored; men who want to be female/feminine are funny whereas if women want to be men it’s practical. Merton & co. should be more careful with jokes.

You don’t always know how your creation will be perceived eg.. Al Murray pub landlord! Taking the piss out of people but then they adopt it; uncritical identification and missing the point.


Stereotypes often have a basis. Not being critical of them, historical context needed. The LB catchphrase “I’m a lady!”  is now shouted at people; people aren’t aware of transphobia.

Q. Pronouns. He/she/it ?? Queer has pejorative connotations (depends on who it’s from) – are you happy with the bifurcation?

A. Personally, yes. Have there been attempts to create new terms for people who don’t fit M/F and or don’t want – outside the binary; se/hir.

If you’re not sure, ask! Give the right of ID to the person rather than imposing your definition, but if you can’t…

e.g. Sonia/David Burgess and tube incident. Press coverage was awful.

Transmedia watch. Work with media creators; gap in education. Social innovation camp; trans techies, media, journos/broadcasters – contact us @transmediaact @transmediawatch

Q. A utopia where law does not interfere with people and their gender? Legal M-F/F-M transitions.

A. There was; they just existed. Legislation and pathologisation led to project to re-normalise.

Q. Change of language ?? To reflect diversity of trans group?

A. Complicated! TG is useful for many. Weird stereotypes around TV e.g. otherwise successful men putting wife’s undies on at home.

Trans cf. privacy issues. Often that history is irrelevant and incidental.

Q.  Is the goal to erase negative or balance negative with positive?

A. Balance. People will share strong negative opinions inevitably.

Q. 1. is use of ‘proper’ pronouns a barometer for accpetance? 2. Maybe human minds are wired to categorise things. 3. Sexuality =/= gender… do you think it might be useful to dissociate completely from LG(B)?

A. 3. Trans people have sexuality; B or G or L… L&G esp have fixed gender associations and so are inadequate to deal with trans. Hence, LGBTQ(I) more relevant.

BBG: Stonewall etc. have resources and can often help.

1. Principle: right to self-determination. Choose your own pronouns (cf. ms?) Changing beauty standards related.

Q. Scientific studies e.g. on brains etc. If there is a ‘trans test’, is it good or potentially harmful?

A. It would change dealing with transsexuality.

Q. Ignorance. People are unaware of the issues; do trans people need to ‘get real’ and understand that people generally have no knowledge of these things?

A. Panic about making mistakes can increase their frequency; allay people’s fears – better for all – some trans responsibility here.

LGBTQQ… we’re all beaten up by the same people!

A call was made for a Corrie/LB blogpost.

Also: David Walliams played ‘Vulva’ in Spaced; when wearing some make-up after filming and walking through a park – he was verbally abused and stones thrown – he wrote about it and was apparently amused by this?!

Also listen to the Pod Delusion report by Liz in Episode 107! Transgender and the Media (41:00) ft. Nathalie McDermott


Author: noodlemaz

I prefer to think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but perhaps that's just optimistic. Honest, atheist, scientist, feminist.

3 thoughts on “Invisible Lives

  1. Pingback: Offended? Good. « Purely a figment of your imagination

  2. Pingback: Cuts, labels and preferences « Purely a figment of your imagination

  3. Pingback: Are you transphobic? Am I? | Purely a figment of your imagination

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