Monday 1 September 2014

Interview with Helen Belcher

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Helen Belcher, a British trans rights campaigner, member of the UK Parliamentary Forum on Gender Identity, and one of the founders of Trans Media Watch, software developer, and businesswoman. Hello Helen!
Helen: Hi Monika!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Helen: It depends on what you want to know. I’ve just turned 50, I’m happily married with two fantastic children who are in their teens, I’ve been a computer geek since my teens, and have run my own company for the past 10 years selling software that I’ve written.
I sing in a good local choir, I’m a school governor, and I campaign on trans rights. It could all sound incredibly glamorous, but there is a lot of hard work and, generally, I think I’m incredibly boring! It’s just that I’ve had the good fortune to be in some of the right places at some of the right times.
Monika: For many years you have been a staunch advocate of trans rights…
Helen: I guess I’ve been campaigning in one way or another since 2003 when I realized that transition was a possibility for me. My first letters to my MP were on the Gender Recognition Bill; particularly the horrible situation it left trans people in who were married, like me. I really started to get stuck in to advocacy around 2008.
Monika: One of your actions included the support to an investigation over the treatment of transgender patients by General Practitioner doctors (GPs) in the UK…
Helen: Well, firstly, it was around the way that all medics, including nurses, policy makers and management, treated trans people – not just GPs. Although there was a huge outcry that touched our national media, and the General Medical Council did take some interest, at least at face value, the GMC’s investigation didn’t really go anywhere, which was a massive shame.
I think the British establishment doesn’t really understand trans issues, and we appear to have a history of cover-ups in other areas, some of which are only now coming to light. But I think that, in some areas – including trans – the abuse and cover-ups are continuing.
Monika: You compiled a dossier of over 100 complaints from transgender patients. What did they reveal?
Helen: I can’t reveal any details as the people who contributed did so on the basis that their details would remain private. However, there were allegations of sexual abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse, inappropriate and sometimes damaging treatment, treatment withheld, threats of withholding treatment, poor administration, acting against the patient’s best interests. It was pretty horrific reading.
Interestingly there were more complaints about non-gender-related services – people going into hospital or talking to medics about other issues. One of the psychiatrists in the UK calls this the “trans cold syndrome” – where a medic sees your gender history as more important than the medical complaint you’re currently presenting with. But most of the gender specialists didn’t get off that lightly either.
Monika: Given the impressive array of evidence in relation to transphobia among medics, what should be done in order to address the problem?
Helen: I’m not sure I would class it as transphobia. Some people will be transphobic, but a lot are simply ignorant, and have learnt their attitudes from how trans people have been routinely presented in the media. I prefer to call it cis-genderism, an unthinking way of not realizing the specific needs that trans people have.
So some of what needs to be done is to shine a light on that systemic cis-genderism, which means education and engagement. But we do need the professionals to take ownership of that education process – it’s unrealistic for a couple of hundred capable and willing trans people to educate the 1.3 million people employed by the NHS.
I think also that the allegations of abuse do need to be followed up properly. In England we’ve had allegations of sexual abuse by celebrities from the 60s, 70s and 80s pursued through the courts recently, so historic cases can be pursued. I think that the health services need to take last year’s dossier seriously, and they don’t seem to be doing so currently.

At Leveson.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Helen: When I was growing up, I only really knew about Julia Grant (star of the A Change of Sex series on the BBC in 1980) and Caroline Cossey. It was a slow journey of self-discovery, but one of the greatest revelations was that transitioning trans people weren’t incredibly self-assured, as the media portrayed, but often had many questions and doubts. I soon realized that, for my journey, I needed to learn to be myself, not try to emulate someone else.
To be honest, I’ve never been someone who puts people on pedestals. I like meeting interesting people, and I’m honored to have been able to meet many – but that’s not the same as wanting to be like them.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Helen: Telling my wife. We were small group leaders in an evangelical church at the time, and I believed that my whole world would fall apart if I was ever honest with her – I was sure I’d lose my wife, my family, my home, my job, and my friends. However, I realized that I needed to explain what was going on. It was the scariest conversation I’ve ever had with anyone. I’m incredibly proud of my wife that she managed to hold the marriage and family together. And we came out the other side with comparatively few losses.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in British society?
Helen: Firstly, there’s more than just trans women! I think the media coverage of trans people has improved over the past few years, although I suspect that there is now a tendency to ignore trans issues rather than misrepresent them. We do have legal protections that didn’t exist ten years ago, but I think there’s still a long way to go before trans people can view themselves as equals in society.
I think it’s disappointing that law is still made, either through parliament or the courts, that places trans people as inferior to others, or that rights that shouldn’t be seen as competing somehow are for trans people. So improving, but still a long way to go.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Helen: I think in some ways it already is. Although we probably need to be clear what constitutes transgenderism, particularly with the growing emergence of a non-binary narrative. I wish we could just treat all people as equal, and I see lots of other communities which also have struggled to be treated and represented fairly, not just trans people.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Helen: Generally, whenever a trans character appears in fiction, they’re made into a main character. There’s very little treatment of someone who just happens to be trans. A large part of that, I think, is because trans is still seen as exotic.
Until last year in the UK, we got much the same treatment in the press, with aspects of being trans misrepresented. In Trans Media Watch’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry we referenced trans being categorized as either deviant, fraudulent or comedic. Television still has a tendency to foreground trans people, so we’re either the targets of comedy or exhibits in “zoo television”. I do think that, in the UK, that situation is changing slowly. However we do get a lot of Hollywood films, and I’m not sure that the situation is changing that quickly States-side.
Media people then tend to ask how trans people should be portrayed. My response is usually “as people”. I can remember a broadcasting executive being stunned when I pointed out that there was a distinction between laughing at trans people and laughing with trans people. He later confessed that he was appalled that he had been treating trans people as objects, not people. There is a balance to be struck between educating the wider public about trans people and visualizing trans people, but we shouldn’t have to have a neon sign above each trans person in the media, nor a two-minute explanation each time about their history.
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?
Helen: I’ve seen several instances where other letters are appended or the order of the letters is changed around. I really like the term I first heard in January, which is “Gender and Sexual Diversity” – which indicates that everyone has these, and that one set isn’t any more or less important than any other set. It also means that boundaries cease to be important.
I think that, as a small set of communities, we need allies. The LGB communities are natural ones in some ways, because we tend to be picked on by the same people, but that doesn’t mean we should assume that LGB people are naturally inclined to understand trans people.
In the UK I think there’s a growing awareness from the large LG organizations that the B and T have been left behind. So I’m hopeful that attention is turning towards trans and intersex issues.

Helen - April 2013.

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?
Helen: There’s been a lot going on within the trans communities recently that I think is too much for one person to keep track of. I don’t think we have one trans person who is comparable to Harvey Milk, and I’m not at all sure that we should do either, but I do know there are a number of individuals and organizations who are doing some solid work on trans issues, Trans Media Watch included.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Helen: Again, I’d broaden out the discussion from just trans women, and it depends on how you define “politics”. I’m active in that I’m trying to work with politicians to understand the impact on trans and intersex people of legislation under discussion, and campaigning to try to change it where necessary.
During some stages of the same-sex marriage act, I was in Westminster talking with people, including government ministers, two or three times a week. And I’ve been part of the group keeping awareness of the “spousal veto” alive. But I’m not part of any political party. I find party politics too tribal for my liking. And, despite being told many, many times that I should stand for parliament, I have absolutely no plans to do so.
The relative invisibility of trans men does have an impact on how trans issues are perceived. For example, with the same-sex marriage act, it was obvious that civil servants struggled to comprehend that men might stay with their trans husbands.
I do think trans people have their part to play in all areas of national life – politics is no different. But I also think that our society in general is increasingly disconnected from mainstream politics, and that is a huge problem. What I think the involvement of trans people in politics would do is open another front for the casualization of trans people. It becomes much harder for other politicians and civil servants to deny the existence of trans people or the effects of legislation on us when there are a number of elected trans people.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Helen: I know I’d be much the lesser without loving and the love of my wife and children. 
Having said that, I’m all too aware that many trans people have loved and lost, or have never loved at all. I know I’m in an incredibly privileged position.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Helen: I think most trans people go through a phase where we believe that “if only my story could get out there, people would understand it and the world would change”. Except there are hundreds of such stories already out there, and I don’t see the world has changed that much.
Many years ago I did think about writing a book about my experiences. If I was to write anything now – and I know how hard writing can be – I would want it to be different; some kind of voyage of discovery for the reader rather than making myself just another exhibit. But I can’t see myself as having any time or motivation to undertake such a project in the foreseeable future.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Helen: Currently my company is keeping me very busy which does limit the time available for other work. Trans Media Watch has just released a guide for media professionals on non-binary issues, and we have an outstanding project with Channel 4 on trans people and comedy. I’d like to get a series of primer documents for politicians prepared by the end of the year, allied with getting more exposure for the Trans Manifesto a few months before our General Election in 2015.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Helen: One of the things I learnt early on is that you can and should never tell anyone to do anything. It would become very easy for someone to act on advice, have it all go wrong, and suddenly the advice-giver is the one to blame.
Each person’s journey is different – we’re all fabulously unique – and the emergence of your true self is an incredibly fascinating, if scary, time.
So all I would say is that you should try to enjoy the ride, believe that tough times will pass, and be yourself, not who others would want you to be. And that goes for everyone on the trans spectrum, not just trans women.
Monika: Helen, thank you for the interview!
Helen: Thanks for asking.

All the photos: courtesy of Helen Belcher.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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