From Gay Community News
An Interview with Trans Activist Stephen Whittle
by Kay Inckle
Professor Stephen Whittle OBE, PhD, MA, LLB, BA (to give his full title!) is addressing Ireland’s first ever Trans Human Rights Conference which takes place in Dublin this week (organised by Transgender Equality Network Ireland, BeLonG To Youth Services and USI). Stephen is a trans man whose life and work have been shaped by his struggle for legal and social rights, not just for himself and his own family, but also for trans people across Europe. This journey has led to his Professorship in Equalities Law at Manchester Metropolitan University as well as the award of an OBE in 2005 for his work on gender issues.
The conference, which will be attended by legal, health and social care professionals, as well as activists, has ‘transforming attitudes’ as its key theme. Stephen described his visit to Ireland as, “an incredible privilege, to be at the start of something which will be so significant in Ireland, I feel incredibly honoured that I have been asked to speak. I have been involved in the Irish cases and this conference is a major step forward.” Drawing on his thirty years experience as a lawyer, activist, campaigner and founder member of the Press for Change organisation (www.pfc.org.uk), Stephen explained that transforming attitudes can take place through a variety of tactics. He said, “We have a lot of experience of how to do change now. There have been massive changes in the United Kingdom over the last twenty years through the work of organisations like Press for Change and the Gender Trust, and similar work needs to be done in Ireland.”
Recent years have witnessed a number of significant rulings in favor of trans rights by the European Court of Human Rights but none of these have been implemented in Ireland. Stephen said, “The fact that trans people have human rights has been barely acknowledged in Ireland. In Europe, Ireland remains one of only two countries that have failed to afford any legal recognition and rights to trans people.”
Stephen is keen to emphasise the broad-ranging impact of trans rights and gender law. “If we can solve the trans problem I think we can solve the problem of any difference: of difference in lifestyle, difference in how you want to be who you want to be, and also the differences that come with bodies. If we have solved the trans issue we can solve the problem of people who are overweight, in terms of whether they are treated equally in the work place; people who are Black or people who are Asian; or people who have a disability, anything where the body is involved. If we can do it with trans people and get over the hurdles of the mental barriers in people’s minds then we can do the rest.” This is evident in that, “by changing public attitudes we have seen a drop in homophobic crime, for example, as well as transphobic hate crime, and we’ve seen the government having to think very, very hard about the question of marriage, ‘cos if you’re going to give trans people the right to marry could you not take that a step further and give an equivalent right to gay and lesbian people?”
Stephen adopts a broad-ranging approach to creating change: “there are three ways in which you do it: one is by changing public attitudes and this conference is a part of that; but also by taking cases through the courts, such as the Lydia Foy case; and also by lobbying for changes in legislation which TENI is very involved in doing.” Another example is Hayley in ITV’s Coronation Street, the first ever trans character in a soap opera. Hayley resulted from years of lobbying by members of Press for Change until “suddenly the story of trans people was reaching the hearts of eight million people three nights a week and it forced the British government to act.” The day in which the episode was aired, where Hayley was prevented from marrying Roy (her long term partner) because of her trans status, the British government announced a full investigation into trans issues.
Stephen’s conference address will focus on his current research regarding trans people and health care services. “One fifth to one quarter of patients have very poor experiences in terms of being trans, or any other aspects of health care they are trying to access, once they start transitioning or they are known as a trans person.” Furthermore, “one seventh of doctors in Europe provided their patient with no care whatsoever in relation to their transsexualism. They, in fact, refused to pass them on to qualified care givers in the field.” The research also uncovered, “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of examples” of doctors and health care professionals who have been “aggressive” or “abusive” towards trans patients, or who “have made innuendos”, “dismissed” and “insulted” them.
These kinds of attitudes are not unfamiliar to many LGBQ people in Ireland and Stephen is keen to emphasise the importance of LGBT alliances. “The link with the LGB movement is very close because historically we were all lumped together. LGBT people were all queer, we were all abominations, and we see the historical medical text books not just talking about trans people, but also talking about lesbian and gay and bi people in precisely the same way, in terms of preventing us, stopping us, giving us aversion therapy, whatever else.” In confronting today’s challenges, he said, “though we are different our issues are often the same, and the LGB community also need to recognise that a far larger proportion of trans people are gay, lesbian or bi.” He continued, “for trans people to succeed in Ireland they need the support of the lesbian and gay and bi movement, for the LGB movement to succeed in Ireland they also need the support of trans people. The two communities need to recognise each other, to not be threatened by each other, and to ultimately move on together. And if they do that they will achieve great things.”
The Transforming Attitudes conference is a historic first step on the road to a bright, diverse and equal future for all.