Between the 2nd and 5th of June, volunteers of the Scottish Transgender Alliance travelled to Bologna, Italy for the 6th European Transgender Council run by TGEU. Admittedly having slept through my alarm in the morning, thankfully fellow attendee Mat called me in time to get to the airport where we all gathered equally tired, but excited for the trip.
The excitement proved to be well justified, as we spent the evening around many other transgender activists so there was much to learn. On the way, we also got to explore Bologna a fair bit. The city was introduced to us as the most queer / LGBT-friendly city in Italy, but in the company of around 300 other trans and/or gender-nonconforming people from all over Europe, I feel that in any case that everyone felt welcomed. Even on the first night, when there were no familiar faces to be seen apart from our Scottish delegation, I felt part of the community presented to me. I had attended events with LGBT+ only attendees, and trans caucuses before, but being around several hundreds of fellow trans individuals – and activists – was a unique experience.
The next day started with an opening by MIT (Movimento Identità Transessuale), who hosted the council, and TGEU (Transgender Europe) who the council was run by. Personally, this gave me a valuable look into what both organisations had done before, and especially in the case of MIT it told me more about trans activism in other countries. Living in Scotland, it’s very easy to overlook trans activism in other countries, and even being German I knew very little about the German trans movement. In this session, and generally at this council, that exchange was one of the most valuable experiences.
We also heard the keynote speaker Nils Muižnieks, Human Rights Commissioner for the Council of Europe. Primarily, he highlighted issues such as hate crimes, legal difficulties such as compulsory sterilisation for a gender change, but also reminded us of the responsibilities European countries carry in terms of caring for their transgender citizens. While it was debatable whether a cisgender keynote speaker was necessarily the best choice, it was inspiring to hear from someone who equally had a lot of power, and a lot of compassion for trans people. Allies in high power positions like Muižnieks give me hope for the future of trans people, and hearing his full acceptance of trans individuals moved me. I think this was the general sentiment of the conference, and something to think of on days when there are setbacks or disappointments.
The first workshop I went to was possibly the most inspiring, since it was run by T-Action, a trans activist group based in St Petersburg. The workshop was called Trans people visiting doctors – overcoming barriers in access to healthcare. To me, doing trans activism in Russia always seemed like a near impossible goal. Despite this, T-Action told us about their campaign to grant trans people better access to hormones and surgery. For this, they spoke to over 30 doctors, informed them about trans issues and identities and assessed how trans-friendly they are. They even set up a mailing list for trans-friendly doctors that can be further informed. This project impressed me immensely, since these activists are risking their safety to make lives better for others, and go against the government’s strict rule against LGBT people.
The second workshop that day was a workshop on Self-Care, and was called Wellbeing – we’re all ok, aren’t we? Self-care – an overrated luxury?. This was run in two parts, the second of which was run the next day. In some ways, I felt that maybe I could have spent my time in a workshop more useful for trans activism – but in the workshop itself, it was exactly that attitude that I realised was difficult. As activists, we often put a lot of our time and energy into helping others, and for me personally I gain all the more energy from doing this and feeling accomplished. Nevertheless – in people who want to do the best for others, you often find a tendency to forget about your own needs. It’s important to remember that once you get into a state where you are not caring for yourself, you realistically get worse at caring for others too. And even so, there is no shame in putting yourself first, and wanting to be healthy.
The workshop itself was run by a therapist from Berlin, and talked about the need of a survival skill in social work. The main priority they laid out was stress reduction, and better communication and interaction with oneself. To do this, the group did some exercises and we shared experiences about emotional and psychological challenges and things that had helped us with them. We also talked about concepts of different needs and feelings, and how to identify them. What helped me especially from this workshop was being taught a grounding technique, which is helpful in moments of intense anxiety and I still use regularly. While this workshop might have not been something that brought me further in terms of tangible trans activism, it definitely helped me as a person and will indirectly help me to be a better activist.
What followed was the Open Exchange, which was simultaneously my favourite and least favourite part. It was all built around a lot of interaction and physical activity, which for me as someone who (as mentioned before) struggles with anxiety and was quite exhausted at this point was quite challenging. However, past the parts of jumping and dancing activities, the open exchange facilitated one-to-one conversations with random other participants of the conference, which as mentioned earlier was a really valuable experience. I heard so much from participants from all over Europe, in different organisations, each with completely different roles and aims but all united in the fight for making trans people’s lives better.
In the evening, I was too exhausted to take part in much of the evening activities, but did discover what became my favourite part of Bologna: The Gelateria a few minutes away from the Palazzo Re Enzo where the conference was held. To be quite honest, for this alone the trip would have been worth it.
The last workshop I went to was a workshop on the The European Commission’s “List of Actions to Advance LGBTI equality”. This was mainly filled with a lot of statistics and facts, which proved to be quite interesting though. These statistics showed that trans people still have the worst standing in European society – in that only 43% of people would be comfortable with having a trans person in their country’s highest political office. It also taught me that the EU’s anti-discrimination Article 19 does not yet cover gender reassignment, but that trans issues are nevertheless worked on at a European level. The main steps that should be tackled on a European level is
- The improvement of rights
- The enforcement of existing rights
- Reaching citizens
- Supporting the key actors in relating activism
- Expanding their action
The EU also provides financial support for TGEU and other European LGBT+ organisations. Much like the keynote speaker, seeing that a big organisation like the EU is acting in favour of trans people gave me hope. A lot of it may be politics, and gaining positive publicity, but even the fact that helping trans people is now seen as something positive rather than something gaining criticism is a huge step forward in my eyes.
The day was rounded off with a panel about the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases, which talked about the pathologization of trans people and their healthcare. Mainly, this discussed whether “gender incongruence” should be recorded in the ICD – and therefore classified as a disorder – at all. This was a difficult discussion, since trans people do need medical support in terms of hormones and surgeries, but also do not want our identity to be seen as a disorder. The problem in this is how these discussions can sometimes further the stigmatisation of mentally ill people. As someone who is both trans and mentally ill, this is a really difficult topic since trans people and mentally ill people often face similar stigma, but there is often a refusal from trans people to be affiliated with mental illness since this could be seen as invalidating to our identities. This is definitely something that needs to be discussed further, and something where trans people’s opinions need to be considered more.
In the evening, the gala dinner took place at a local bike-shop-turned-bar, which was a great night and a great finish to the council. All in all, I was incredibly happy to be able to attend this, and am really grateful the STA chose me as a volunteer to attend.