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“It’s important to fight transphobia where we can”: interview with Trans Action Warwick

Transgender activists from the University of Warwick made national headlines after they protested the appearance of Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi at a Conservative Association event. They were protesting over previous comments made by Zahawi, who has used his role as Education Secretary to support a professor accused of transphobia (Kathleen Stock) and to produce guidelines for how teachers should treat trans students alongside the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Many trans people feel that Zahawi is using his power in government to restrict their rights and endanger the marginalised group further, particularly by targeting young trans people.

There has been an increase in hate crimes against LGBT+ people

The protest against the Education Secretary, which took place on 27 May 2022, was organised by the independent Trans Action Warwick and was intended as a non-violent attempt to disrupt the endorsement of transphobia on campus. Warwick Pride stated on its website that the group responsible for the protest outside of the talk was separate from their society, although they felt Zahawi “plays a significant role in institutional transphobia as Education Secretary”.

Both the protest against Nadhim Zahawi and the media response to the situation have highlighted the current state of transphobia in the United Kingdom. It has been reported by Vice that there has been an increase in hate crimes against LGBT+ people over the last two years, with transgender people being targeted in particular. Transgender identity hate crimes increased 3% from 2020 to 2021, according to the Home Office’s annual hate crimes statistics, following on from a 16% rise the previous year. This year, the Council of Europe also listed the UK alongside Russia, Hungary, and Poland as a site of “extensive and often virulent attacks” against LGBT+ rights. Considering the current state of rising transphobia in the UK, The Boar thought it was worth investigating what it was like to be a transgender student (particularly as a trans rights activist) at the University of Warwick.

One of the founders of Trans Action Warwick, who was behind the protest against Zahawi’s talk, was contacted by The Boar and agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity.

You recently protested the visit of the Secretary of State of Education: can you explain (for readers who might not know) why this protest was necessary?

There’s a few different things to talk about.

Zahawi is a very influential political figure who is very “anti-trans people”, along with the rest of the Conservatives. One particularly harmful thing that he has done is support conversion therapy just for trans people [but not for other members of the LGBT+]. While conversion therapy has been outlawed for cis queer people, on the basis of it being harmful and not appearing to “work”, it is still legal to perform on transgender people. This demonstrates that Zahawi is aware of the negative effects of conversion therapy – while he thinks it’s immoral for cis queer people to undergo conversion, he defends the use for trans people in the same breath. This is undeniably transphobic.

It’s also necessary to talk about the guidelines he’s been suggesting to teachers as Education Secretary. Getting schools to out [expose their gender identity without their consent] trans people to their parents is an act of violence that will make life hard for trans students who need community and support. It could result in young people being outed to violent parents or made homeless.

[According to Stonewall UK, 25% of trans people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. This means trans people are more likely to be made homeless than cisgender peers.]

Trans Action Warwick came together to actively disrupt his talk

At the moment, the battleground is trans children because they’re vulnerable and they live with families who may cause them harm. It’s very easy for people like Zahawi and his supporters to make the argument about medication and make it seem like it has a negative effect on the lives of trans people, particularly children. Helen Joyce, a journalist for The Economist who openly supports Zahawi, wants to ban all transition for all people and uses children as a starting point for this argument: it’s easy to whip up a moral panic against trans children, who may lack the freedom to fight against it, and then go onto use that against all trans people once that fight has been won.

Trans Action Warwick came together to actively disrupt his talk, unlike other societies (Labour and Pride) who decided to go in and ask difficult questions. We decided to disrupt rather than engage with him, as engaging with the talk suggests Zahawi could be won over. By attending the talk, it could be argued that they’ve already given in to the fight against transphobia to an extent, by giving transphobic rhetoric a platform and an audience – even if they’re being critical of it. It’s important to come together, as trans people, to work against transphobia on campus and in the media.

The story was definitely misrepresented in the press

It’s important to fight transphobia where we can, like at the University. It demonstrates to other students and campuses that we will fight against transphobia instead of letting it exist here.

Was the protest successful in your eyes? Why/why not?

The protest was very successful in what it set out to do, in that it drove Zahawi away from the campus. Him and his security were seen being violent towards protesters at the event, grabbing and shoving people [which was not included in other press coverage of the protest].

While the media portrayed the protesters as inciting violence against the Education Secretary, with the BBC reporting that one had hit Zahawi himself, this isn’t what happened. There was space left in the corridor outside the room so that Zahawi could leave safely, but security instead pushed through the crowd and reportedly hit students as they passed. Several people reported that they had bruises.

The story was definitely misrepresented in the press, though it wasn’t surprising to us. Narratives around transgender people and the discrimination that we face is always documented, and therefore constructed, by cisgender people (who will be impacted by the media they consume) even though trans people are the best voices to listen to and have a lifetime of experience.

But ultimately I would say that the protest was successful. While Zahawi likes to seem like a powerful figure, he was intimidated by the presence of trans protesters. This protest shows that demonstrators can make a difference when it comes to combating transphobia and bigotry.

Increasing visibility has… instead led to more violence

You referred to the UK as “increasingly hostile” towards trans people on your social media: can you explain what this means and what you think has changed in recent years?

2014 was called the “transgender tipping point” by Time magazine (in terms of visibility). Over the last decade or so, trans people have become more visible in the media, often not on their own terms. The idea was that increased visibility would lead to more acceptance.

Unfortunately, increasing visibility hasn’t corresponded in increasing acceptance, it has instead led to more violence. More violence both by the state and in our day to day lives. Now, people are more aware of trans people and therefore more likely to notice them. This is beyond the control of trans people. It has come to the fore in terms of politics and social issues. Transphobes and Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) are now informing and being part of how things are done (such as policy and education).

The more people are aware of trans people, the more “should trans people be in sports?” articles are written, attempting to exclude trans people from more and more spaces. There are more lies about medication and the effects that they have, as well as people jumping on this trend when they lose to trans people in competition. Access to healthcare has gotten worse for trans people as more people need it because trans healthcare and the use of medication has been framed as negative.

In general, with a lot more attention on trans people, comes a lot more negative attention.

Most people would think that trans rights have come a long way in the 21st century: do you think the UK is progressive when it comes to trans rights?

There’s many different angles for this. Cis people claim things are slowly getting better, but things are actually getting worse and will get worse from here. Rights have to be enforced by someone and trans liberation won’t be achieved by getting more rights under an oppressive system; rights are being negotiated away right now, such the separation of sex and gender in equality acts. Gay marriage was not the end of queer rights.

Health care waiting lists are long and you have to meet specific requirements or risk being rejected by the NHS — which means you have to fit a certain ‘mould’ to be accepted as trans. Cissexism has been maintained and gotten worse. Being less likely to be called a slur doesn’t change things.

Trans people have been pulled out of toilets at Pop! and attacked at clubs, such as Kasbah. Cis people don’t perceive these issues because they aren’t affected by them.

Trans rights are needed right now— slow progress isn’t enough— and we need to demand them because we deserve them. It’s not for cis people to decide whether trans rights have come far enough or whether the UK is progressive or not.

I don’t feel less scared on campus because I’m not scared of them

Zahawi was invited to speak at Warwick University by a student society. How does that make you feel?

It’s easy to imagine that transphobes exist in some other place, separate from us, and that they don’t exist here at Warwick. But that isn’t the case. It’s not a surprise to any trans person that there’s a lot of transphobic people on campus— cis people are not offended by trans people being removed from a bathroom, but are offended by a slur.

I don’t feel less scared on campus [knowing there are transphobes here] because I’m not scared of them, but there are probably some people who do feel scared of them. I’m not sure whether it would make people afraid to “come out” at university: a lot of being in the closet comes from alienation and feeling unable to live their queer life. Seeing transphobes might be scary, but seeing people come together to oppose Zahawi might help trans people understand that even though they have people in opposition, they also have people in support.

Do you feel that students at Warwick University are supportive of their transgender peers? Why or why not?

Yes, but very passively. Most people wouldn’t do any amount of work to dismantle their own biases or look at the intersections with other issues, such as race, sexuality, and disability. Most people I know do use the correct pronouns for trans people, but I choose to hang out with people that will.

I would say to any cis people reading this that if you expect a “yes” to make you feel better about yourself, you have to actively be supportive, and come to protests, and oppose transphobic rhetoric and conversations. Getting someone’s pronouns right isn’t the end of the issue— most people feel this is the most important thing. Only accepting trans people who pass, or getting pronouns right isn’t the same as treating people well and making sure people feel comfortable around you.

They can look at what [trans activists] do and learn from us

Do you feel that staff at Warwick University are supportive of/understanding towards transgender students?

It depends on the department and differs from person to person. There are Philosophy professors at Warwick that have signed a defence of Kathleen Stock, a University of Sussex professor who was forced to step down due to her transphobic comments. But the University staff aren’t a homogenous group: I’ve felt comfortable around most of my professors but I know plenty of people who haven’t.

What changes do you think could be implemented to make Warwick University more trans-friendly?

There’s a variety of things (different levels of short and long term).

Trans students should be allowed extensions based on mental health, dysphoria, and other trans issues. If nothing else, it’s stressful going through second puberty around other people at university.

The Health Centre on campus should prescribe hormones to trans people who need them, just like they’re willing to prescribe them to cisgender people who need them. There are actually more cisgender women taking oestrogen than there are transgender women. Healthcare is very expensive and inaccessible to most trans people, even though it greatly improves our quality of life. Trans people deserve autonomy and the right to have control over their own bodies – trans healthcare is the same as any healthcare. Doctors are gatekeepers that stop trans people from solving their problems and preventing access that’s important.

Why do you think a group like Trans Action Warwick is necessary?

The only way to exist is to exist on our own terms. We need to fight against forces that are trying to take away our rights. We could easily lose real gains that have been made in the last 40-50 years. Cisgender people need to fight for us too: listen to us, stop trying to force a cis liberation, and accept that trans liberation is breaking away from the system. Where will it end? After taking away the rights of trans people, they’ll start taking rights away from other LGBT+ people and women – cis women have already been affected by transphobic rhetoric as it perpetuates sexist ideas as well as cissexist ones. A lot of people will be harmed by the regression in terms of trans rights.

Is it important to separate trans activism from overall LGBT+ activism?

Early queer groups had no distinction between being gay and trans (being gay had to do with subverting gender norms). Groups that are designed for all queer people end up marginalising trans people in their groups – transphobia exists in LGBT+ groups. We need groups that focus on trans rights specifically, rather than just larger issues, as these are directly being attacked and are different.

How can readers who don’t know about transgender issues educate themselves?

The actions of trans people on this campus: they can look at what we do and learn from us. There are books like Trans Britain that provide the history of transgender rights, issues, and culture. You should always read books by trans authors, rather than cis, as we know more about being trans than any cisgender person can ever hope to understand. Listen to actual trans voices and read or watch things by trans people.

It’s also necessary to understand that trans people aren’t monolith, like any group of people, and that our experiences and expressions of gender are all different. On a similar note, trans people in the media aren’t always representative of all trans people and are often sanitised versions that are chosen to fit conventional media narratives.

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