Paris Lees: 'We won't fix society for trans people without strong allies'

2015-04-23
paris2-683x10241-200x300I’m hosting a Guardian Live event in June called How to be Happy and Transgender. I’ve invited Peter Tatchell and Owen Jones as speakers. Some members of the trans community are unhappy about this. How dare Peter Tatchell and Owen Jones ride in on white horses to tell trans people where they are going wrong, they ask. Of course, that was never the reason I wanted them there. I wanted to speak to them because the biggest barrier to trans people’s happiness is people who are not trans. Leelah Alcorn took her own life last December because of the way she was treated by people who are not trans. In her suicide note Leelah asked for us to “Fix society. Please." Society, not trans people. Trans people just are. We don’t need any advice on how to be trans. We’d be fine if everyone around us agreed to treat us properly. Fix society and trans people are considerably more likely to be happy, or, at least, have as good as chance as anyone else. And it's an urgent issue: just yesterday we learned that Mikki Nicholson, who took her own life last autumn, was regularly abused on the streets of Carlisle. She didn't need advice on how to be happy, she needed a kinder world to live in. Fixing society is a tall order, though, so who you gonna call? Owen Jones and Peter Tatchell. Obviously. If any two people know more about systemic inequality in modern Britain and how to change it, tell me who I’ve missed. Owen freely admits he didn’t know much about trans issues just a few years ago – who did? It took me a few years to get to grips with the political situation for trans people, and, being trans myself, I had every reason to be interested. Owen has recently felt a huge responsibility to champion trans rights, and, as I say in the current issue of Attitude, I am very grateful to people like him and Laurie Penny for speaking up for the trans community. Both of them are hugely respected on the political left, and boast huge public platforms too. Of course I want people like them to be part of the conversation. We need them. Peter Tatchell has spent decades campaigning for the human rights of all, including the rights of trans people. A few months ago Peter made, in my opinion, the mistake of signing an open letter in the Observer, which claimed to champion free speech, but – also in my opinion, and the opinion of many trans people – was designed to paint trans people as a bunch of angry, aggressive loonies, which, in some quarters, it definitely succeeded. I believe Peter signed it in good faith, but I also thought his response to the criticism he faced was unhelpful. At the time, though, I didn’t see what was to be gained by entering into a public spat with him. Bashing him certainly wouldn’t have moved the cause of trans people along. I asked him if he’d be up for doing a live chat sometime in the future to discuss some of the issues raised in a calm setting. Hence the invite. If trans people really don’t care what people like Peter Tatchell and Owen Jones or any other non-trans person has to say about trans people, if it’s so unimportant to trans lives, why bother getting upset on those instances they get something wrong? Anyone who knows anything about me, my activism and what I stand for will know that I am committed to engaging with the masses, forging friendships with potential allies and, yes, challenging transphobia. Over the past five years I have argued again and again that trans issues belong within the wider LGBT umbrella, not because I think that being gay and being trans are the same thing, but because we face many similar struggles and the support of our gay brothers and sisters is extra fuel in the tank if we wish to reach our destination sooner rather than later. During that time several influential organisations like Glaad and Stonewall have chosen to further the cause of trans people as well as gay, bisexual and lesbian people too. Good. I’m all for anyone who wishes to organise their own, trans only event, with only the purest of pure, tortured trans people allowed to have a voice, but it’s not anything that interests me. The fact is that society is not run people trans people, it is run people who are not trans. Cis people, if you like. I see no point in having any conversation about how we improve the lives of trans people without including cis people. That said, I agree it looks sort of odd that we have two cis men speaking on a panel about trans issues. I want this event to be watched by a wide audience outside the trans community and the truth is we simply do not have that many trans people with large platforms in British public life to attract that audience. I approached Rebecca Root, star of the BBC’s upcoming trans comedy Boy Meets Girl, but she isn’t available. Everyone on the panel is kindly offering their time for free. I also invited Juno Roche, who gave a rousing speech at the NUT Conference last year, but she is out of the country. And yes, I tried high profile American activists like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, to join via video link, and they were busy too. When you’re trying to get hold of successful people, all on the same day, that’s just how it goes. And I for one am really pleased we have so many busy people working towards trans equality. So we decided to get the event up with some big names attached and continue to work on it. That work continues, and before anyone says that Peter and Owen are ‘taking the place’ of a trans person, no, they are not. There wouldn’t be a place to take if I wasn’t setting up this event and I wouldn’t be interested in setting up a trans only panel. I will be inviting speakers because they have something interesting to say on how we fix society and improve things for trans people. I'm delighted we've secured academic and stag-attack-survivor Dr Kate Stone and bright young Guardian journalist Fred McConnell. Of course I want to see more trans people getting their voices heard – it’s precisely why I helped set up All About Trans, a project to introduce journalists and TV big shots to young trans people and hear first hand what we have to say about our own lives. That’s the method I’ve chosen, if you have a better one, don’t let me stop you from changing society overnight. But if you ask me, if we want to improve life for trans people we need strong action, strong engagement and strong, active and engaged allies. BY PARIS LEES