Wednesday, September 26The Voice of London

What does it mean to be transgender in the UK

Words: Delmar Terblanche
Subbing: Etienne Fermie
Photo by Tim Evanson (

300,000 people marched in London’s Pride parade this week, while over a million watched. The Mayor was there, as were more than 300 LGBT Metropolitan Police officers – a new record. LGBT rights have become , in many ways, a publicly accepted fact in the UK. Remarkable in a country where, just 20 years before, seven gay men were convicted of “gross indecency” for daring to have sex.

But one part of the LGBT community still lags well behind: Transgenderism. There are signs of change – the government has launched a 16 week consultation into the legal process of “gender transitioning”, assessing the requirements needed for transgender people to receive legal recognition. But the proposal was muted, hidden behind a louder, more public one to ban gay conversion therapy. Additionally, reaction to the proposal has not been universally positive. An article in The Economist was sharply critical of the Government’s enthusiasm for “self identification” of gender, while The Spectator has published two recent pieces questioning the safety of transitioning, and implying that “transgender ideology” was responsible for a “mental health crisis”. Meanwhile, noted union leader Len McCluskey has signed a letter accusing trans activists of intimidation, while at Pride, the parade was briefly interrupted by anti-trans activists who accuse the movement of “erasing lesbianism”.

A culture war has emerged surrounding trans rights. While MPs across the aisle believe that transitioning should be streamlined, a recent YouGov poll found that a mere 18% of voters agree. There is considerable objection from women’s groups, who fear trans people as “invaders” of private women’s spaces. Earlier this year a group of women’s activists, replete with fake beards, entered the men’s bathing pool in Hampstead Heath as an act of protest.

Phoebe Hadaway is a 18 year old trans woman who lives in Cardiff, but regularly commutes to London. The picture she paints of transgender life is not a happy one. “It’s hard to live in a world that really despises you”, she says. “In real terms, the fact that I cannot get medical help for a problem is ridiculous. Right now I’m facing a possibly five year journey, and over the first year and a half of it I have had zero help. No specialised counselling, no blockers to stop the back end of puberty (which are completely harmless) – all this because I have to prove that I’m ‘trans enough’… I can’t wear what I want for fear of harassment or assault in the worst case (both of which I’ve experienced).”

Sally Lenaghan, a trans Londoner, concurs. “I think the dysphoria you usually put up with can have a  rather detrimental effect on my mood… I certainly notice lots of things happening around me. People stare – some just out of curiosity and usually turn away once you look back at them, but then others give you these incredibly long glares, almost like they look disgusted.

When asked about the proposed reforms and the backlash they’ve engendered, Phoebe is pessimistic. “The slimlining of the process would hopefully actually mean I could get any form of help, although I doubt that the Tory government will effectively impose this. It would be a net good no fucking doubt – it just has to be done right.”

She is particularly bitter about the anti-trans disruption of Pride. “They disrupted London Pride this year and made a space for LGBT (Trans, the T is for Trans) people into a space where they weren’t allowed, a space where they were demonised… A trans woman started pride, she threw the brick (at Stonewall)… and yet…”

Sally, meanwhile, is calm and meditative, but no less stalwart. “I don’t feel like men are going to self identify as women just so they can get into woman’s segregated spaces and harass women. It’s absurd… these people don’t understand what it’s like to be trans.”

She is similarly firm on the benefits of self identifying. “It’s not true that order to be trans you have to go through taking hormones and getting surgery… I think this would be a net good for the trans community, as it would allow people to recognise their legal gender without surgical intervention.”

There are currently only eight gender identity clinics across England and Wales. The process of legal transition, as it stands, is a five year one – involving a legal tribunal who assess the evidence before deciding to hand out a certificate. The LGBT charity Stonewall has said that people often wait for years just to receive an initial appointment.

The claims propagated in articles like this one do not match with the reality of transgender lives, where they are significantly more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of sexual assault.

In the end, Sally is clear on her views regarding “feminist” opposition to transgender rights: “ I understand the concern of men invading woman’s specific spaces in order to harass women… I want to stand up for women’s rights, I really do, but when standing up for their rights comes at the cost of my rights that’s where I draw the line. At the end of the day it’s an eye for an eye – how am I supposed to be sympathetic and stand up for your cause if you won’t stand up for mine?