Following a year of intense debate around ‘gender recognition’, five trans young people speak to Caitlin Logan about what it really means to be trans in Scotland today
CAMERON was 14 years old when he first had the language to pinpoint why his mental health had deteriorated two years earlier as puberty came knocking: he was trans. Now, an 18-year-old computer science student, he sits in a bustling coffee shop next to a table of burly men and speaks with the good-humoured ease of any other boy his age.
“I’m trying to listen to their conversation – they’re talking about a sport but I can’t figure out which one,” he says, eyeing them over his shoulder.
We’ve met together with Emily, a film and media student, self-proclaimed fashionista and video games aficionado with whom Cameron came into contact through LGBT Youth Scotland after getting involved with the charity last year. Emily jokes that she’s a “dinosaur”, having joined one of the youth groups five years ago at age 15, before she yet understood that she was trans.
“I had come out as some level of bi or queer or whatever, and I was like, oh, here’s a trans identity knocking on my door. That was really helpful because otherwise I would have never known what I was going to do, or how I was going to handle coming out as trans. It sounds dramatic, but it saved my life,” Emily explains.
The past year has been a difficult one for Cameron and Emily, along with the three other trans young people who agreed to speak me, as the Scottish and UK Governments’ consultations on reforms to the Gender Recognition Act have opened up an unprecedented level of scrutiny to trans rights and identities.
Designed to remove the need for a psychiatric diagnosis before changing the ‘male’ or ‘female’ marker on a birth certificate, to lower the age limit for doing this from 18 to 16, or to 12 with parental consent, and to introduce a third, non-binary option on birth certificates, the proposals have been fiercely debated.
While the floodlights have been turned on to trans rights, the people seeking these changes to improve their own lives say they feel they have been relegated to the sidelines and obscured from view.
“There definitely needs to be a reminder that this is a piece of policy but it's to support real human people,” says Aaron, an 18-year-old who describes his decision to transition as “the best step I ever took”.
“What people are missing amongst the discussion is the faces of who it'll impact: us.”
This is the basis on which LGBT Youth Scotland recently launched its #OurLives campaign, aimed at “cutting through the misinformation” and “putting a spotlight on the humans behind the headlines”.
In a campaign video, Aaron appears on roller skates with a Resistance Roller Derby sticker on his helmet (representing a Glasgow sports club for queer and trans youth), and doing “push-ups” – against a wall. The idea is to show the fun side – the human side – of the young people whose lives have become collateral damage in a national war of words.
“I'm a student and I work part-time, I'm moving out and I go to the gym and hang out with my friends, and I'm a trans rights activist,” he tells me. “You'll see my anywhere in the world from university, to making baguettes at work to being at the face of this reform which I'm so passionate about.”
For Aaron, coming out as trans and being true to himself has allowed him to become “the most confident and strong-willed” he has ever been, despite losing people along the way who could not understand or support his experience.
“I was trapped in this world of hating my body and how I felt because I didn't understand and I thought it was wrong, but every step I took to explore how I felt opened a new door for feeling comfortable,” he says.
All of the young people are keen to share the nuances of their experiences, including the positives, which they feel are rarely seen amid typically sensationalist narratives, stressing that social attitudes and systemic barriers are the factors which make their lives more difficult.
“Tell the good stories, not just the doom and gloom,” says Jo, aged 22, who feels that trans young people need to know that there are people out there who can and will support them. “Someone said the negative stories are the best stories because no one gets angry over a happy ever after.”
For Jo, who volunteers with elderly and socially isolated people and works at a hotel, achieving that happy ever after is still a work in progress, but having a support system to fall back on has been a vital part of the journey. “When I knew myself to be non-binary I was having a gender identity crisis. I work as a drag queen and I was finding myself uncomfortable in male clothing but I was also uncomfortable in female clothing,” Jo recalls.
“My family still don’t know, but when I came out to my LGBT community, I felt like I had a family; I felt welcomed and accepted.”
This is a sentiment echoed by each of the young people in one way or another: their ability to make connections to other LGBT young people has been transformative. Charlie, now a 20-year-old social sciences student and lover of all forms of arts and crafts, first got involved with LGBT Youth Scotland in 2013.
“I honestly think my involvement with LGBT Youth Scotland has changed my life - I no longer feel isolated and alone, I have a group of close friends that I wouldn't have otherwise,” Charlie says. “Before I started going to groups, I was very withdrawn and anxious. Through involvement in the groups and other opportunities, I have truly come out of my shell.”
This support has been particularly important because Charlie’s mother still struggles with the concept of “non-binary”, uses the wrong pronouns (Charlie uses ‘they’) and, occasionally, the wrong name; although, Charlie points out, she has never been “cruel or unkind”.
It’s not just the news media which has responsibility for sharing more nuanced stories, the young people suggest, but also those creating cultural output. “There’s not enough representation anyway, but I would definitely want to see more positive representation on TV or in films. It’s quite difficult to get that done because a lot of people don’t like it or can’t be bothered doing it,” says Emily, a filmmaker herself.
There are limited examples to point to on British TV where trans characters have been featured at all. However, ITV has recently brought the lives of trans children into mainstream programming with its three-part drama series Butterfly, which concluded on Sunday 28 October.
Cameron feels the series has done a good job of accurately representing what it’s like to be a trans young person, the struggles which can be faced in accessing gender services, and the fractures which can emerge within families.“When I've been watching it I've seen similarities with my dad and Maxine's dad,” he says.
“They've also shown what happens when trying to ignore a child's gender identity and they've braved to touch on self-harm, which is a very common occurrence with trans youth. The show is important because it educates those who watch it about the real situation, it's getting people thinking and talking about their own experiences, and it’s making people think about what they would do in a similar situation.”
Despite progress in some areas, and opportunities to have constructive conversations such as those invited by Butterfly, all of the young people feel that hostility towards trans people has intensified over the past year or so amid the Gender Recognition Act consultations.
“I think the coverage since the consultation was announced has had a significant impact on every trans person,” Charlie says. “There's a constant pressure that someone you look up to or care about may be on the other side of the so-called ‘transgender debate’, arguing about your right to live your life and exist.”
One of the driving forces behind this, the young people suggest, is the extent of misunderstanding around the proposals. “If you look at any kind of negative press, it’s the same language as Section 28, it’s the same rhetoric and arguments that people bring up: it’s about child safety, it’s about women’s safety,” Emily says.
“It’s really got nothing to do with that because the Gender Recognition Act is specifically about a birth certificate and not about access to spaces, and trans women who feel comfortable using women’s refuges have been using those for the past eight years under the Equality Act.”
Indeed, much of the opposition which has arisen around the reforms has been framed in the context of women’s rights – with organisations such as Fair Play for Women and Woman’s Place UK being set up in England with the purpose of highlighting what they describe as the risks to women’s safety of allowing trans people to change their birth certificates on a self-declaration basis.
In Scotland, a considerably different picture has emerged as the nation’s leading feminist organisations - Close the Gap, Engender, Equate Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Women 50:50, the Young Women’s Movement, and Zero Tolerance - have thrown their support behind the legal changes and clarified that they have been including trans women on a self-declaration basis for years.
As the young people tell me, updating the Gender Recognition Act is not the be all and end all, and it will not bring an end to the inequalities faced by trans people, but it represents a fairly straightforward step that can be taken to make things that bit easier.
“The whole process is really difficult for people to go through and a lot of the time it doesn’t work,” says Emily. “There are trans people who have surgery, have hormones, live in the gender for two years and could have one document that’s not right and then not get a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC).”
Cameron, who is only just ‘of age’ to begin the process, says this barrier has limited his right to privacy. “If it had been lower than 18, I would already have a Gender Recognition Certificate, so I could have that for job applications. Because I don’t have a passport, I have to use my birth certificate which means I have to ‘out’ myself every time.”
Ultimately, Jo says, the reforms are about giving people autonomy over their own identities. “People will smile condescendingly and say ‘that’s not what it says on your birth certificate’. People should have that choice and be able to say ‘no, this is what I am, that’s what’s on my birth certificate’.”
The responses to the Scottish Government consultation, which closed earlier this year, show that the majority agreed. With over 15,000 individuals and over 100 organisations responding, 65 per cent in Scotland support introducing a self-declaration system, 66 per cent back recognition of a non-binary option, and 66 per cent agree the age limit should be lowered to 16.
What is undeniable from speaking to this group of young people is that they are all committed advocates for their and others’ rights, with big ambitions for themselves and for Scotland: Cameron hopes to become a computing teacher; Charlie aims to gain a doctorate in clinical psychology and work as a child psychologist,; Aaron plans to keep up his activism as part of his career; Jo wants to be a published novelist and tell positive stories to empower other young people; and Emily envisions herself as an MP.
“We’re all super passionate about making our lives and everyone else’s lives better,” Emily says. “It sounds kind of soppy, but genuinely, because we’re sick of the way things have been, for us and for people who have come before us. We want to change the world!”
Pictures and video courtesy of LGBT Youth Scotland
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