I read this book, published by the excellent crowdfunded publisher Unbound (I would have contributed to this one’s campaign had I know about it – from the batch I’m currently supporting I’m realising how long the lead-in times are so this one was in progress before I’d found the publisher) for Kaggsysbookishramblings and LizzySiddal’s “Read Indies month“ and fortunately they have allowed a small overlap into March so everyone can fit in all their reviews! It also fit in with LGBTQIA+ History Month as I read most of it, all but the last two chapters, during that month. Out of these four books bought at the same time, I’ve read two, this one and “Mother Country”, so far.

Christine Burns (ed.) – “Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows”

(20 July 2020)

A fascinating and deeply important book charting the history of trans people in the UK (taking in, by careful definition, transgender people, those who cross-dress and people who do not identify as gender binary, as these groups of people have been mixed up both inside and outside their respective movements, included and excluded one another and generally intertwined in their histories and organisations). All of the chapters are by people who are trans or non-binary (or all) or those who are closely involved with these communities and can offer a different and valuable viewpoint: the practitioner in a gender clinic, the parent of a trans child who helped found the Mermaids charity, the MP who campaigned for trans rights and was instrumental in getting laws changed. Most voices are from the communities themselves, however.

The book opens with a long set of introductions to the earlier histories of trans people, those who have already passed on but left some kind of record. Interesting issues of class come up here, with early upper class people perhaps better able to do what they needed to do and express themselves in their correct genders than the working class (I didn’t see anything about intersections with race in this book, which is quite clearly asking for a new book including that aspect). Then there are three sections, Survival, Activism and Growth, which chart the progression of trans and other communities from the early days of tracking down books or finding scraps of information in otherwise prurient and unpleasant media coverage (here I will acknowledge my cis-gender privilege of being able to talk about reading this book without having to worry about outing myself). In Activism people start to come together, showing the power of the Internet age, which has made the “sudden” flourishing and visibility of a group of people who have always been there possible as they were simply able to find each other; there is important charting of earlier collectives which relied on printed newsletters, phone calls and meetings. In Growth we learn about new initiatives to watch the media, change the law and embrace an increasing range of gender identities.

The set of essays is bookended by two stories of transition, Adrienne Nash’s early struggle to even communicate with a doctor contrasting with Stephanie Hirst’s seemingly smoother and better supported transition recently. A small group of activists, including Christine Burns, is credited with so much work early on, and we learn about gradual and hard work on the law, religion, personal identity, human rights and more. I hadn’t realised matters around marriage and birth certificates were quite so complicated, a horrible mess ensuing in the 60s with one divorce case which reversed in one stroke the ability to change a birth certificate, and even equal marriage didn’t seem to sort out the jumble of inequitable laws. There are interesting comments about the framework of laws being the impetus for societal change in favour of all protected groups of people and I do hope that is so, because 1 in 100 people are trans, which means we all must know a few trans folk (I certainly and happily do). I was struck by another statistic, that a third of people experience themselves as non-gender-binary in whatever form that takes, having never particularly felt massively woman-like myself, with a much smaller percentage expressing that identity.

The non-trans people in the book reminded me of the White people in “The Good Immigrant USA” taking it upon themselves as allies to explain, for example, the history of the Charing Cross Clinic, in Dr Stuart Lorimer’s case, or explaining their path from misapprehension to greater understanding in Dr Lynne Jones (ex-MP)’s case.  I was moved by the fact that Dr Lorimer is a friend of a friend and Dr Jones was my MP for some of the time that’s detailed in her chapter! Importantly, it did not feel that the trans narratives were being somehow legitimated or dominated by these few cis-gender narratives. Each one spoke to specific lived experience that I don’t think could have been covered by a trans writer on the topic. Dr Lorimer pops up later, and movingly, as one of the many examples of supportive people, helping Mark Rees (who bravely took his case to the European Court of Human Rights) to get his gender recognition certificate in later life.The book does not sweeten the pill of trolling, abuse, vile reporting and systematic exclusion from human rights, but the moments of joy and support are equally covered and important.

This is recommended reading, a great counter argument to narratives that have been damaging the cause of assigning equal rights and protection to trans and non-binary people. There is dissent within the movements covered and different opinions are expressed in the essays, but it’s a rich and important read that many could benefit from. I would be interested to read reviews by trans and non-binary people, or their thoughts on this book; please share if you have any links!