Saturday, 22 November 2014

Interview with Sarah Brown


Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Sarah Brown, a talented British Liberal Democrat politician and transgender activist, the former Cambridge City Councillor for Petersfield ward, for several years the only openly transsexual elected politician in the UK, listed many times on the Independent on Sunday "Pink List" of the most influential LGBT persons in the UK. Hello Sarah!
Sarah: Hello Monika!
Monika: I was so sorry when I heard that you failed to be re-elected as a Cambridge councillor in May 2014? How would you summarize your term and legacy?
Sarah: Thanks. It was always going to be a tough campaign, given the demographics of the ward I represented and being elected originally during “Cleggmania”. Still, I’m pleased that I managed to do some good during my time as a councillor. The two things I’m most proud of are setting up a fund to help teach disadvantaged kids to swim, and getting a motion to introduce a 20mph limit on all residential streets in Cambridge through council with unanimous support. There were times when it was really stressful though.
Monika: You turned down the chance to appear on reality television show Big Brother – arguing it would not help your for the transgender community. In retrospect, do you think it was a right decision?
Sarah: Definitely. I have no desire to appear on Big Brother. I think these kinds of programmes mostly take advantage of the people who go on them for ratings. It’s not for the benefit of the contestants, and I suspect I’d have found it a deeply unpleasant experience.


Monika: When you were elected to Cambridge City Council in 2010, you were the only ‘out’ transgender activist serving as an elected politician in the UK. As a result, did you feel any burden to represent the whole transgender community? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Sarah: Good question. There can be this pressure, as a member of a minority group, to be a “model citizen” because people can judge that whole group by your actions. I don’t think that should stop people from doing what they think is right though. Being in the public eye is hard at times, and I’d advise anyone going into it to be sure they have a thick skin, and are able to tell their colleagues “no” at times when they feel demands on them are getting too much, but with those caveats, serving your community as an elected official can be very rewarding.
Monika: Given your term and transgender mayor Jenny Bailey and her transgender mayoress Jennifer Liddle, Cambridge seems to be one of the friendliest trans-friendly cities in the UK …
Sarah: Cambridge is an odd place in many ways. It’s an expensive place to live at times, but offers a really good quality of life. One of the best things about it is the way diversity is not merely tolerated, but embraced. It can be dreadfully cliquey though!
Monika: You are on the executive of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats and chair its transgender working group. What is its current agenda?
Sarah: I’ve just been re-elected to the executive for 2015. Our main focus at the moment is trying to get those Lib Dem MPs who have gone above and beyond for the LGBT+ people re-elected in a very tough climate. People like Lynne Featherstone, Stephen Gilbert, Jo Swinson and my own MP, Julian Huppert.
In the mountains.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the British society?
Sarah: We’ve gone in only a few decades to being people who had to cower in the shadows to having quite a bit of social acceptance, but it’s far from universal and some women still live in really precarious situations. If you’re white, middle class, educated you will probably be OK these days, but there is a lot of discrimination and prejudice soon and lots of women still have a really precarious time.
Monika: When you fully transitioned in 2007, you were forced to annul your marriage to your wife, Sylvia Knight, and enter into civil partnership. What is the current situation of marriages with a transgender spouse in the UK?
Sarah: 2007 was when I had genital surgery. I actually transitioned in 2005. With the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, you can keep your marriage while getting gender recognition, but there are some caveats. You can’t keep a civil partnership if you transition while in one, and getting a GRC while married is subject to a really outrageous spousal veto.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Sarah: I did. There was a heat surgeon in the US, Becky Allison, who wrote a transition blog and I found it really helpful in giving me the courage to press ahead. She inspired me to write about my own experiences when I transitioned.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Sarah: Overcoming more than 2 decades of fear about what would happen if I did. I had spent so long believing that transition would be impossible for me, would mean the end of the world, and taking that final step made me sick to my stomach.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Sarah: The thing that really annoys me when trans people feature in film is that they are often played by cis actors, and cis actors of the wrong sex. Trans women are almost always played by cis men in makeup, and I think that serves to reinforce this horrible idea people have that we are really just our assigned sex in drag. It ignores the really profound effects that sex hormones have on us, and I do realise that not all trans people can or want to take hormones, but the characters portrayed are usually people who are supposed to have medically transitioned. I’d like to see more of this work go to actual trans people.
Sarah sailing her boat, Raffles.
Monika: Have you recently read or watched any interesting book or event/film about transgenderism?
Sarah: I must confess that I have not. I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction recently. My favourite authors at the moment are Stephen Baxter and Peter Hamilton.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Sarah: I know some people find the grouping controversial. I don’t, because we all have quite a lot in common: we all live our lives in ways which straight/cis society regards as gender transgressive, and the same people hate us, and don’t particularly care which type of “dirty queer” we are when they go for us. That being said, I find the way some members of the LGB community are openly transphobic to be really depressing. It’s just so self-defeating. 
Monika: Is there anyone in the British transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the USA in the 60s and 70s for the gay activism?
Sarah: With Harvey Milk, we have the advantage of looking back with hindsight, and being able to see the impact he had in context. It’s difficult to do that with contemporary activism.
That being said, there are people who are doing great things for trans activism in the UK, and we do seem to be less focused on individuals perhaps. I think it would be unfair for me to name a few and not name others, so I’m not going to try!
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Sarah: I live in a household with two other women and we have a really strong relationship. It’s built on mutual support and open communication, and while we argue at times, as any romantic partners do, I think I’d be lost without them.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Sarah: I sometimes think about it, but it falls victim to what I think is my biggest failing: procrastination! 
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Sarah: I’m doing more and more charity work locally with LGBT groups. It’s lower pressure than the council stuff was, and perhaps less glamorous, but it’s more of a “coal face” experience.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Sarah: What pushed me over the edge was the feeling that I could go my whole life and eventually look back with such regret for not transitioning, never realising myself, because of how other people would react. Life’s too short to live it for other people. Live for yourself.
Monika: Sarah, thank you for the interview!
Sarah: My pleasure!

All the photos: courtesy of Sarah Brown.
Done on 22 November 2014
© 2014 - Monika 

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