Sunday, 26 January 2014

Interview with Christine Burns MBE

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Christine Burns MBE, a British equalities specialist; former vice president of Press for Change; ranked 35th (2011) and 42nd (2012) on the Independent on Sunday's annual Pink List of influential LGBT people in the United Kingdom (a judge in 2013), and author of many books, including the highly acclaimed textbook “Making Equality Work” and her recent memoir titled Pressing Matters (Vol 1). Hello Christine!
Christine: Well thank you for including me in your amazing collection of interviews Monika - I’m most flattered!
Monika: We are having this interview when you have just published the first volume of your memoirs titled Pressing Matters. It touches upon your biography but it focuses primarily on the Gender Recognition Bill. How important was that Bill for the transgender community in the UK?
Christine: “Pressing Matters” is a history of trans activism in the United Kingdom. It is a history which I was initially reluctant to write, as I wasn’t sure whether I was the right person to write such a thing. I was very close to the action during a phenomenal period of advancement in trans rights around the world. As such I thought I might have been too close to tell such an important story.
My ideal scenario is that such a history ought to be written by others - with the perspective that comes from both physical distance and the passage of time. However, in spite of efforts to encourage that over the last few years I could see that such a history wasn’t going to get written unless someone took the first step.
At the same time I think such a history is absolutely crucial - especially as a majority of those leading on trans activism in the UK now are quite young and would not otherwise understand how the circumstances they find themselves in came about.
Volume 1, which I’ve just published, covers the background to how trans people found themselves so marginalised, and how a handful of people found each other and began working to challenge that situation.
You mention the Gender Recognition Act - which doesn’t happen until the back end of volume 2 (yet to be written). That in itself should underline how change like this is hard and takes a long time. And what we were working towards wasn’t just that piece of legislation.
In fact we achieved a number of equally important outcomes: we secured employment protection for all European Community trans people in 1996 through the clarification of the Equal Treatment Directive in the European Court of Justice; we secured the right to appropriate treatment for UK trans people on the National Health Service; we got the European Court of Human Rights to recognise that a trans person’s partnership with a cis-gender person (and the children they have by whatever means) constitute “family life” in the eyes of the law; and then, yes, we achieved the landmark Gender Recognition Act in 2004.
So, if that’s a long answer to your question it is because the achievement of the GRA has to be seen in that context. It wasn’t a magic bullet solution to trans people’s issues. Indeed if you take all those legal and legislative advances together they still don’t solve everything. People are still discriminated against. It’s just that that discrimination became unlawful and, gradually as a result, less socially acceptable. Within that context, however, a process to recognise trans people for who they are inside - “for all purposes” as the law says - is vitally important to personal integrity.
"Pressing Matters" vol. 1 (2014) - Amazon.
It is so fundamental - so much taken for granted by everyone else - that the law had never even recognised the need for it before. For most people it is unthinkable that their gender should ever be challenged - hence the law never needed to define it for the majority.
I’ve sometimes wondered what the world would be like if the great mass of cis-gender people were deprived of that privilege - if they had to think about and fight for it as we’ve needed to do. So the Gender Recognition Act is a piece of equality legislation, in that it exists to produce the same outcome for trans people as the rest take for granted. 
Monika: Having earned first-class honours in computer science in 1975 and a master's degree in 1977, you became a city IT consultant and a Tory activist. You were still living in stealth. At that time, Britain’s transgender community did not have any rights to privacy, legal protections and the recognition of family relationships.
Christine: That’s right. And again I think it is hard for cis-gender people to get their heads around that since those are things which they take so much for granted that they feel free to abuse them.
If you take the right to marry someone for granted, for instance, then you see pop stars making a mockery of what should be a way of formalising an important bond between two people. If you take it for granted that people can’t just dismiss you if they disapprove of your medical needs or history then you’re not going to fully understand just how vital that redress is, and how much people had to fight to secure it.
Some things are vital to survival - food and shelter are among the most fundamental of human needs. In the 1970s, 80s and early 90s trans people couldn’t secure those things for themselves. If you didn’t “pass” then people would simply not employ you. And if you did “pass” then the ability to hold on to your job depended in many cases on people not being aware of your past.
There was a culture of impunity though. Trans people lived in a world where they could be “outed” at any time. The consequences of such exposure (which remain serious for many today) could involve immediate loss of your job and hence your ability to pay the gas and electricity bill, the rent, and put food on the table.
Monika: It seems that the 80s did not witness any major victory of the transgender movement in the UK.
Christine: Yes and no. As I explain in my new book, the position of trans people from the early 70s in Britain was so dire that nobody was in any position to organise beyond providing community support for each other. That is, there were groups where people could meet and be supported by their peers in transitioning, finding hormones, surgeons, etc… I.e. There were sympathetic ears and sometimes practical help if you were lucky to find someone to take you under their wing.
I don’t think anyone at that time had any idea how they would go about changing the status quo though. It just looked too daunting. Where would you start? However, one individual did start. A trans man called Mark Rees challenged the government on two grounds: firstly, the rule that prevented him from changing his birth certificate; secondly, the ability to marry (in his case) as a man.
Mark’s journey through the legal system was long and arduous. He had to exhaust all the possibilities in the domestic courts before he could apply for his case to be considered by the European Court of Human Rights. As it happens he lost in the end; however the crucial thing was that he put the issues on the table for lawyers and civil rights activists to think about. That’s why I say “Yes and No” because Mark’s action was a successful failure. His dogged determination laid the foundations for what we then went on to achieve.
Monika: The first harbinger of success loomed out in 1992 when the Press for Change was established. How did you get involved with them?
Christine: Ah, well … that’s an entire chapter of my new book. I never started out imagining that I would become an activist - and I certainly never thought it would go on to be such a big part of my life. 
There was no single defining moment to being involved. It was a progression over a couple of years, helped along by the mentoring of a wonderful woman who saw (presumably) something in me. She introduced me to knowledge that I didn’t know existed. Through finding that knowledge I could see there was a way to achieving success, even though I had no idea how complicated it would be. Alice Purnell’s influence on my life was so important that I’ve dedicated volume 1 of the memoir to her. 

Monika: You came out in 1995 to local Tory leadership in order to campaign more openly. Did it work?
Christine: Again I feel like saying that you need to read the book to find out. It was certainly — let’s say — “interesting”! People have a dim view of Tories. Some of it is well deserved. But I would always caution people to be wary of one dimensional images of any group of people (that applies to trans people too, of course!).
During my work I have had the opportunity to study the experiences of people coming out in the Labour Party as well. It may sound counterintuitive but I think my colleagues in the Tory Party at that time were amazing — not everyone, but the majority.
And the Tories as a party of government were surprisingly open to the question of whether to provide for legal recognition. It’s just that I think it would have taken longer, would have been more politicised and hence less helpful legislation if they had led on it.
Monika: You joked once that it was more embarrassing to admit to being a conservative than to being a trans woman…
Christine: Yes. It has always been a good crowd pleaser. It always gets the laugh! There was a time (after David Cameron took over leadership of the party) when I thought the joke might stop being funny. For a time it did look like he was on course to dismantle the image of the Tories as the “nasty party”.
They have slipped back now, of course, so the joke still gets a belly laugh because it taps into a very real perception about the party whilst implicitly acknowledging an uncomfortable truth about how members of my audiences know trans people are still regarded. I think the “nasty party” label will carry on sticking to the Tories but I will know for sure when the general social image of trans people has changed — because then the joke will no longer make sense.
Monika: At that time, did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? 
Christine: I don’t think there were many trans role models around at THAT time — because trans people were mostly so closeted. I certainly admired some of my colleagues. I have immense admiration (and love) for both Mark Rees and Alice Purnell — both of whom I’ve mentioned above. When I was younger — in the mid 1970s — I suppose you could say that the travel writer Jan Morris was a role model of sorts. Her book “Conundrum” came out in 1974 when I was first seriously wondering about how to transition. Her text provided a sort of road map for that.
However it also painted a picture of someone quite unlike me and a really exceptional journey beyond any imagining. I am so pleased that young people these days have so many good role models — not just of their own age, but people who they can see have been around for entire (and happy) lifetimes.
In the book I talk about meeting some of the parent s who set up the “Mermaids” support group for young people. I remember how they scrutinised me so closely because they could see how their children might be “today” but wondered what sort of life they might have in middle and older age. Parents worry about that. They know they won’t be around in a few years. Feeling confident about their childrens’ transition includes the need to visualise a whole life.

Monika: In December 1995, you created the PFC web site as sub-pages within your own home page. It was of the first serious campaign site for transgender people. It is amazing how the Internet facilitated the fight for equality …
Christine: Yes we were amazingly lucky that computer networking and home computers came along in an affordable form came along at exactly the right time. I know everyone takes computers and smart phones and social networking completely for granted today. However none of that was around in the mid 90s.
And it was a problem for us in creating any sort of campaign at first. People were so thin on the ground — geographically isolated. Sending out a newsletter required mass printing and then envelope stuffing and postage. We couldn’t do anything on a rapid timescale. The campaign only worked at all because some of us lived within a few miles of each other. Getting people online and writing a whole new set of rules for how to campaign in that way was transformational. It meant we were able to take officials completely by surprise with the effectiveness of mass action as if from nowhere.
Monika: The first victory came in 1996 when PFC's legal team led by Stephen Whittle won the P vs S and Cornwall County Council case in the European Court of Justice…
Christine: That’s right. And it is important not to underestimate how important that victory was on so many different planes. Firstly, as I’ve already said, employment rights are fundamental to people’s security. Today there are thousands of “out” trans people doing bits of personal or collective activism on social media. That has happened because we made it possible to be secure in being “out”. Without that employment protection, however, people would still be reluctant for people to know about their trans background. And invisible communities find it almost impossible to secure wider rights.
The second point is that our win in this case wasn’t just restricted to the UK. It applied straight away across the European Union without necessarily requiring specific domestic legislation. In order to join the European Community states have to ensure that their laws are interpreted in ways that are compatible with the laws of the Community.
This means that, from the point when the European Court of Justice confirmed that employment discrimination against transsexual people was discrimination on the grounds of sex, anyone in any of the community states could cite that in a court or tribunal considering their unfair dismissal or harassment. It was an enormous win.
Monika: The first battle was won but the war was not over yet. In 1998 you started negotiating with Ministers and Civil Servants. Why did it take 6 years to have it passed? 
Christine: Hah! You may well ask. We did indeed begin negotiating with ministers and civil servants in 1998 (to incorporate the employment ruling into law more formally) and it was not until 2004 that the Gender Recognition Act was passed.
In the book I explain how we actually found out a great deal about the government’s internal thinking through a leaked document. However governmental machinery grinds very slowly. Governments also have limited Parliamentary time to debate bills — sorting us out wasn’t a priority for them. What we had to do in those intervening years was to ensure they had no choice but to act. This is what I’ll be explaining in more depth in volume 2.

Monika: You were among the first to gain a certificate recognizing your gender under the Gender Recognition Act 2004. What was the feeling?
Christine: It’s a rather personal thing. I did start to think that, after having lived and breathed the cause for so many years, I could be more detached. Certainly watching “our” Act of Parliament passed on the floor of the House of Commons after so many twists and turns was less emotional than I thought it might be. But it is not until you get that piece of paper - that official acknowledgement - that you realise the importance extends far beyond mere practicalities. Yeah. I cried.
Monika: The legislation had some flaws too …
Christine: Politics is the art of what is possible at the time. If I remember rightly it took three separate legislative steps to achieve an equal age of consent for young lesbians and gays. Each stage felt like pushing against really heavy barriers. Each next stage took that position for granted as a starting point.
The same applies to the Gender Recognition Act. The Government insisted on a really complicated process if a person applying for legal recognition was still married — this was to avoid creating defacto same sex marriages at a time when lawmakers weren’t ready for that. There were also some complications for Britons who had emigrated long ago and completed their transitions in another country — although we found practical ways round that in the end.
For the most part, however, the GRA was a great success. We set out to avoid the pitfalls which were well documented in the legislation already enacted by other countries — and we mostly succeeded in that. We created an administrative process rather than a judicial one. I.e. provided you could tick the necessary boxes on the form and supply the required evidence legal recognition was a foregone conclusion. More than 97% of applications are successful at the first attempt (and the most of the rest are only remitted on administrative technicalities).
We created legislation that didn’t require any specific surgeries — vital for trans men who often don’t have bottom surgery. We included a specific offense for people unlawfully disclosing a trans person’s status if they learned about it in their official capacity. I could carry on. The main point is that it was ground breaking for its time, in spite of the parts we didn’t win. Still, I’m glad that other countries like Argentina have gone on to produce even more inclusive legislation, taking our Act as a starting point. 

Monika: It has been 10 years since the Gender Recognition Act was passed ten years ago. You indicate that nowadays it is a fight for social rights rather than legal ones…
Christine: That’s right. The point about laws is that they are important for drawing a line in the sand. A non-discrimination Act tells people there’s a line they shouldn’t cross. Nevertheless people will go on crossing lines like that and taking their chances.
People who are discriminated against have recourse to the law — they can set out to sanction people using it. To a limited extent that may modify some behaviours. People will seek instead to circumvent the law if they don’t understand or agree with it. So in the end the next step always has to be to change mass behaviours by consent — to make discrimination literally unthinkable.
Monika: What will be the content of the second part of your memoirs?
Christine: I’ve hinted at certain elements in this interview. Volume 1 charts the genesis of the Press for Change campaign and ends at the beginning of 1998 when (by then) we had all the core aspects of the campaign in place and we had already had successes in the courts.
Volume 2 will pick up the story from there and explain the twists and turns on the way from that point to the actual implementation of the Gender Recognition Act in 2005 — by which time we were all pretty well worn out and had to think about what to do next. But the story of trans rights obviously doesn’t end there.
Personally I went on to work in a variety of roles in pursuit of those tricky social rights. Also, with the emergence of social media, we also saw the explosion in new activity and all the new young faces that are around today. I couldn’t be more proud of playing a part in enabling that to take off. 
Monika: Christine, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Christine Burns.
Done on 26 January 2014
© 2014 - Monika 

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