Monday, 28 July 2014

Interview with Emma Roebuck

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Emma Roebuck, a transgender activist from the UK, Chief Officer Gay Advice Darlington/Durham GADD, ex-rock group roadie, and ex-pharmaceutical chemist radio broadcaster On Pride Radio North East. Sci-fi geek progressive rock, rock music,  and all-around nerd. Hello Emma!
Emma: Hi Monika!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Emma: Just me I suppose. I am lucky enough to be paid to do something I am passionate about and as a result, make a difference in people’s lives. I am a post-op trans* woman who transitioned over 12 years ago but had been living a 50/50 life for years before that. I am 52 years old and looking back I have no idea where the time went of how I got here.
I have lived with the same guy for over 10 years but still identify as Bi despite it finally occurring to me about 2 years ago I was in what looked to the outside world to be a straight relationship. It was bizarre that I was presenting a role that almost conformed to a stereotype. This was something that I had been railing against for my whole life. I run an LGBTQI charity which is the vehicle for much of my work and the foundation for the good practice we seek to do.
Monika: For many years you have been dealing with transgender advocacy. Could you elaborate on some of your initiatives and actions?
Emma: I began by getting involved in a small local social group in Darlington and volunteered my time to a local dressing service for crossdressers which was supposed to be the antidote to the likes of ‘Transformation’. It folded and I took on the mailing list and started a group in my own home with the names. In this time I now look back at how na├»ve I was about the political aspects of being trans. All I knew was that it's really shit to be Trans and it felt like no one cared. We were a dirty secret that was let out of the box in darkened rooms and backroom bars.
If I fast forward in time from then to now via a very strange journey from being a Chemist in Pharmaceuticals at that time to now. I look back and see landmarks on the journey. Persuading GADD to move from being about gay men and HIV/AIDS to being inclusive with Lesbian Bisexuals and Trans people is something I am proud of in my early days. I was surrounded by a group of Older Gay men passionate about the problems of HIV and how it had killed many friends and was not yet even close to being under control. Yet they listened and saw how they had connections and common problems not just HIV/AIDS but all the other things that were a problem.
Monika: You dealt with a hate crime as well, right?
Emma: Yes, I was the first specialist hate crime worker for LGB&T people in the country and was instrumental in the business planning and development of the role. It is such a success that the project is in its 10th year of consecutive funding. It’s a flagship project and has highlighted the disproportionate way Trans women are targeted for the population size. It has been the lifebelt for over 2000 people in that time directly but has also helped influence the lawmakers and the justice agencies that deliver to the community. I remember being the lone Trans voice in the HIV conferences in the UK trying to get Trans on the agenda and it falling on deaf ears. It took a lot of campaigning but we are getting there slowly.
I have also with others pushed the domestic abuse profile for LGB&T people when it was not fashionable. We now have a training pack for mainstream Domestic abuse organizations that is trans-inclusive but also a Trans specific training program to help Women’s organizations understand the impact and how to support trans women in refugees and other women’s spaces. There is always something new on the horizon and in work of this kind you cannot stand still.

NHS Citizen - Emma Roebuck. NHS England and
NHS Improvement. Source: YouTube.

Monika: You also delivered many keynote speeches…
Emma: I’ve done my share some were a pleasure and some terrifying. Talking to every Chief Crown Prosecutor, sharing the stage with the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecution, and being the only non-government employee in the room was a little daunting. I had to then tell them they needed to think harder about marginalized communities and to buck their ideas up. I learned a huge lesson in diplomacy in that one. 
Talking to a high-profile conference on domestic abuse to a room full of some very angry women, (nothing I had done thankfully). A very controversial character had done the opening address and set out a very challenging stall leading to huge conflict and I had to open the afternoon session. It felt I was in front of a firing squad even the local councilor chairing the session put a distance between me and her. I had prepared for the speech with great care and written out the whole speech. The tension was horrendous. No trans woman had addressed such a group in the past and I felt like a lamb to the slaughter.
I have always had a flair for the dramatic so I walked up to the lectern took out my notes and said into the microphone “after this morning I feel everything I had intended to say was futile so I will speak from the heart”, I then threw the notes onto a nearby table and spoke for 45 minutes without notes. I spoke of unity and of a recognition that we all want to do is help victims of abuse no matter who or what they were.
In the end, I thanked them for their patience. Then a moment of expectation and I was either going to be burned alive at the stake or run for the hills. Instead after a brief pause, I got a standing ovation. The two key lessons I picked up, know your subject but also know the people who you are talking to.
Monika: … and were a rock group roadie …
Emma: Ah people have been talking … Like many Trans people I have a chequered past probably more than most. I will qualify it by saying music has been my savior more than anything. In my darkest times when I saw no way out a song or piece of music saved me. I discovered live music in the 60s when my grandparents took me to see the seaside shows of the day. I saw variety shows of the day but also many of the pop bands of the day played these things. It had a stark realism that I saw nowhere else. My first rock gig was 1976 Barclay James Harvest and that rekindled that memory.
I became addicted to live music and sought out at every opportunity the chance of a fix. AT that time I got to know many musicians and started helping out lifting carrying and doing donkey work. I learned that if a band was playing at the Apollo Manchester if you got to the venue about 7.00 am and asked if they needed a hand you would be taken on. Guaranteed tickets and a beer with a burger. It was a hard graft but fun.
I worked with a band called Pallas a lot Marillion occasionally IQ Uriah Heep after I got to be known for being reliable and solid. As a guy at the time, it was amazing. Freedom risk and hedonism all rolled into a chance to run away from my inner demon that refused to go away no matter how far I ran. Only one of the bands now knows that I am Trans and they welcomed me back with open arms so whenever Pallas tour or play dates I revisit my misspent youth.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends?
Emma: I spent my first 20 years in the closet after figuring out that a Yorkshire mining community has some very fixed ideas and deals with differences poorly. I put my alter ego in a box and tried to lock her up, stifle it kill it to no avail. I have been in and out of that closet more times than I care to remember.
Emma lived in Narnia venturing occasionally out when I went to University in Manchester. I tried to fit in with the crossdressers of the Beaumont society but it was a poor fit. I got to my mid-thirties when things hit the crisis point. I nearly died and that changes your perspective. I walked away from Chemistry and reset my life. It took 4 years in a call center selling insurance to put the plan into action but Emma grew and grew in that time to the point she was really everywhere but at work. The transition was one of the only two options I had then, a pine box 6 foot under or be me and live a full life showing those who hated the idea how little I cared about their opinions.
Monika: And your family?
Emma: My family as ever was variable as it ever is in these situations. My two brothers were OK annoyed that I had said nothing in the past about this without realizing my older brother had said many things that gagged my voice at the time. My mother’s first comment was ‘I knew you were some sort of puff but not what sort! BUT I still love you and look after your daughter and yourself. My father refused to even engage we didn’t speak for 13 years until just before his death.
None of them pretended to understand but did their best.
Nothing new about the employment situation really the administration stuff was easy it took longer to sort out which toilet I was going to be allowed to use. I worked for a French company and they seemed to be progressive for the time. Some of the staff were brilliant some just blinkered it off. There was a standing order about bullying and any was harshly dealt with.

Faith Matters. Emma Roebuck - Winner of the CPS
Special Awards. Source: YouTube.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Emma: I think my role models come from before my transition really. I remember the documentary series ‘A Change Of Sex’ in the 70s and thinking that’s me! So could say Julia grant. The scary aspect of the rude therapist and the adversarial approach of the time scared me to death. It stopped me in my tracks but also gave me hope that I wasn’t alone and not a total freak.
I discovered others as I progressed in life: April Ashley, Coccinelle, and the performers in Paris. My problem is that I saw beautiful women and I did not see myself in that framework. I was an awkward teenage boy. I saw Jan Morris on Parkinson and felt more of a connection with her because she was more like a regular woman which I felt was attainable. I am a scientist by training and female scientists are a rarity let alone Trans scientists with a profile. It felt that to get on as a trans woman you had to be in show business. I tried being in a band at 16 and was diabolical.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Emma: Two things really one was risking losing my daughter forever. The other was if I was wrong about the way I felt. I had been prepared to lose my friends and family and hoped that I would get away with minimal damage on that front.
Being wrong and having to admit to myself and the world that it was a phase or fetish was so scary. My daughter is precious to me and I had delayed my transition so many times because of fear of damaging her life many times. It felt like I was walking a tightrope constantly.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in British society?
Emma: We have moved forward so far in the last 20 years. From figures of fun and perversion in the 70s, we have moved to a more acceptable face. We have so far to go yet before we are on an equal footing with everyone else. The number of trans people assaulted attacked or abuse is disproportionately high for the numbers of trans people. We are seen as an easy target or easy to ignore. Getting a job as a trans woman is so hard because you are starting from such a disadvantaged point. No employer will say I won’t employ you because you are trans but they will see you as a difficulty, not as an asset.
We have many trans women out there who are now successful but no leaders who people will support. We can be our own worst enemy in that respect with infighting and hierarchical ideologies. In all honesty, I have almost walked away from Trans Politics many times out of frustration at the behavior of my own community.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Emma: I believe it has been now for a number of years in the west and the rest of the world is following. There has been such a change in the way that gender is viewed in recent history and trans people have been one of the drivers in that change. I speak to trans people from across the world via social media and the fight for recognition is so strong but very difficult in many parts of the world.
The religious backlash in many countries against LGB&T people and especially Trans people worries me. What changes we have gained are so fragile and could so easily be reversed by a small change in politics. Look at Russia, it is now so dangerous to be different, let alone Trans. Therefore bridges need to be built internationally so a common thread and voice can be heard.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Emma: Frankly it still disappoints me still. Far too many dysfunctional Trans characters are around in movies and series. Don’t get me wrong Janet Mock and Laverne Cox are beginning to break the mold but the majority are either serial killers or Prostitutes or unsavory characters. Even the positive role models present such a high expectation of beauty and femininity that it is rare for a trans woman to match. The pressure to fit Cis ideology and ideals sets so many up to fail and that badly affects so many.
Newspapers have moved a long way from the titillation and sensationalist approach but it still happens far too often. Trans Media Watch in the UK have done some sterling work but the agreement is often forgotten when a hurried story is put out in the news.
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?
Emma: I think to have a meaningful voice you need a certain critical mass and unfortunately the Trans community does not have that at this moment in time. The T in the LGB&T has for a long time been a bolt-on and been more tokenistic than realistic. Now more organizations are seeing that they need to wake up to that tokenism and actually becoming genuinely inclusive. Similarly with Bi-inclusivity and visibility for these organizations.
We need the LGB community because of that mass but it has to be real and not just a letter. The commonalities are huge between the strands and the difference is fairly small in reality. The public needs to be educated in the differences and the similar issues of marginalization and stigma and bigotry.

Durham PCC Office. Emma Roebuck from the Hate
Crime Advocacy Service. Source: YouTube.

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 gay activism?
Emma: I believe we have not had such a person as yet. The trans revolution has one of attrition and slow change rather than an explosive one. Harvey is remembered more for his assassination rather than his achievement as one of the first openly gay elected officials. We have no real high-profile people who have that reach or accessibility to the corridors of power as yet.
We have many activists but no one who is in the places to effect the societal change we are looking for right now. No one needs to die to make these changes but we still are in high numbers across the world and only the trans community recognizes this problem. When the world gets behind an issue it gets coverage to look at Malala Yousafal getting shot by the Taliban for just going to school. Yet trans women are killed regularly across the world and not a flicker in the media.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Emma: I could answer this simply by saying yes and yes. 15 years ago and more I was banging the drum for trans issues from outside governmental structures and it felt like no one was actually listening. I was the only ‘trannie’ in the village in many places and felt like giving up on so many occasions.
The world of the late 90s and now is very different but so many barriers still exist to meaningful trans representation in the places that count. That difference is because people kept banging their heads against the door until it opened. People like Christine Burns and Claire Mcnab kicked arse in the past and that needs to be recognized and more voices need to be added to that chorus. So yes we can make a difference.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Emma: I would say it’s important on many levels. Without emotional contact, we are nothing but robots. I have been with my partner for 10 years as I said and he is a quiet man, apart from when he is watching sport but he is a bit of stereotype that way. He is a rock in the stormy seas of life. My daughter is important to me and I feel it’s important that she gets a good start in life. It gives meaning to our lives and when I feel that I am struggling I know there is someone out there who values me for me.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Emma: I have been asked this by many people and I think memoirs about documenting a life lived and I hope mine has its best parts to come. I also struggle with the idea of who would really be interested in my life. I also am too busy living my life to spend what I know would be a very serious amount of time to write such a tome. I always fancied writing an allegorical tale based on my experiences rather than a straight biography. I could then exercise my love of fantasy and sci-fi.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Emma: Constantly picking up new stuff and revisiting old projects to see what was of value. I am working on developing a holistic Trans service across the Northeast of England that will slot into the gaps that GICs miss such; Life skills, personal development, equal rights, welfare rights, and social skills. Also working with the health agencies and the National LGB&T partnership on producing some health guides for Trans people. There are other things on the go like revisiting a training program for a local police force on and inclusive LGB&T police officers. It keeps me out of trouble.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Emma: I am trying to avoid the trite aphorisms her but a couple of things spring to mind straight off. Be yourself and stay true to it. Your feelings are real and cannot lie. You are not alone there are many like you who have got through the pain, the fear, and the doubt. Let no one else judge you no matter who they are. Transition is about a journey and that takes a lifetime.
Monika: Emma, thank you for the interview!
Emma: A pleasure.

All the photos: courtesy of Emma Roebuck.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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