It has been a few weeks now since the TGEU conference in Bologna and the memories of the conference, the people, and its conversations have left me with pride, joy, rage and hope. I was honoured to be part of warm, friendly and optimistic Scottish contingent and thank the STA for the opportunity to attend.
Until the conference, it had been many years since I had looked back at my own coming out and transition experiences in India and how frightening, lonely and dangerous they were. I managed my transition and gained access to my rights mostly as a matter of luck, legal ambiguity, exploiting the limited privilege I had as an English speaking light skinned Indian, the support of mainly cis women and my ability to “pass” (an abhorrent expectation).
The opening address of the conference was a sobering reminder that my experience was still the experience of trans people in Europe as it is for trans people in the rest of the world. The harsh realities as set out in the opening address by the Council of Europe commissioner for Human Rights firmed up my views on legislation. This is the time for us to have legislation that clearly defines the rights of trans people. We should have the right to self-determination, and the same rights and liberties as every citizen of a nation state. The rights which I constantly expected to be taken away from me in India, and naively expected to gain when I migrated to the UK. Until the conference began, I hadn’t fully accepted that it is possible for the collective voices of trans people working together across countries and within countries to bring pressure on governments to change and introduce positive laws. Thus my conference in Bologna began, with the negative energy of my physical transition which had been lying ignored and neglected in my bones flying off to hell.
The first workshop I attended “Achieving Legal Gender Recognition” was hosted by Transgender Equality Network Ireland. The workshop was particularly significant in the context of the emotions that I was feeling that morning. I have a personal and professional interest in achieving social and legislative change for a minority group in a society which does not necessarily see their needs and presence as positive i.e. current attitudes towards migrants in the UK and the legislative and societal barriers experienced by migrants mainly from outside of the European Union. It was fascinating to learn about the approach taken by TENI to achieve legal gender recognition. What struck me from the workshop was the facilitators very clear message that to achieve the gender recognition law in Ireland they had to get out of their comfort zone and put themselves out there, and that campaigners have to have an unashamed and proud belief in yourself and your rights. The case study approach of the workshop detailed the patient and persistent political lobbying of TENI and their use of networks of supporters to get their voice heard. However, what was significant was making the trans story, the human story, see the video Gender Recognition Matters (2015).
In Scotland, the major political parties have committed to a Gender Recognition Act that will hopefully reflect the positives of Ireland. I am in no doubt that the STA and its supporters have to do a lot of work to ensure that we do have legislation that is world class. My interest in the impending legislation is its benefits/challenges for those from BME communities and especially those who are migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and the rights they could, if any, gain from the proposed act. As someone who campaigns for the abolishment of no recourse to public funds for migrants affected by gender based violence, I think I learnt a lot about positive campaigning from this workshop.
It was with these thoughts that I attended the afternoon’s workshop on “None Left Behind – Best Practices on how to make the welfare system and services accessible to trans people.” It was hosted by representatives from a number of Bologna based homeless organisations and a representative from UNAR which is Italy’s national office against racial discrimination. The workshop unfortunately did not go as well as it could due to language barriers, so the discussion was a bit stilted. Despite that, the aim of the workshop was that we share learning from different countries of access to the welfare system as a trans person. What became quite clear to me was that the challenges of being an undocumented person from outside the EU or being subject to immigration control was not going to give you access to any of the meagre services available to other homeless trans persons in Italy. This of course was no surprise and frankly it was truly depressing to think that trans persons of colour across Europe are likely to experience additional injustices based on their immigration status if not the colour of the skin. I felt that this had been acknowledged but not really discussed or campaigned for constructively by TGEU or even locally within the represented countries at the workshop. This criticism is evident even in the UK, where the recent enquiry into Transgender Equality by the UK government’s (Westminster) Women and Equalities Committee did not look at trans people’s experience of the immigration system. I was able to dwell and express this with other participants in the afternoon open exchange session, which was a fascinating experience of group consultation, where every individual participant had an opportunity to share what had been left unsaid or not included in the Council’s program.
My hope for the second day of the council was to gain deeper insight into the work of TGEU in areas that are relevant to my work in Rape Crisis Scotland and Shakti women’s aid. The first workshop that I attended was on TGEU’s partnership projects in Europe and worldwide entitled “ Pro Trans and Transrespect and Transphobia worldwide” The workshop was interesting because it spoke about a comprehensive research project on the legal, healthcare and social situation of trans people worldwide and has been running since 2009. You can find out more about it here www.transrespect.org Key highlights from the discussion were that some of the organisations involved in the research worked in an environment where their premises, staff and volunteers were in constant danger of physical violence from individuals and in some cases also the state. It was also significant that in some EU countries the organisations were far more poorly resourced than partner organisations outside of the EU who receive funding from international donors, whereas funding in the EU is directly linked to the elected government’s attitude to trans rights. These have clearly presented challenges for the research, but more crucially also reinforced my belief that achieving legislative equality is such a long and dangerous journey, and that once achieved, it is fragile and can so easily be taken away from us. Therefore, we must as a movement constantly stay active and make visible our value to society.
The last workshop I attended was the one that has stayed with me the longest and I continue to be anguished by the emotions some of the discussion in the workshop raised in me. This was the workshop on Sex Workers Rights : A trans and intersectional perspective. The workshop presented the rationale for TGEU’s sex work policy and the support for decriminalisation of sex work. It was very helpful for me to hear the argument for decriminalisation from those involved in prostitution and the potential benefits to them. The discussion was very clear in its criticism of the Nordic model of criminalisation of purchase of sex, the debate stated the inequalities for trans people and violence within which prostitution is carried out in countries such as Turkey and now in France. I agreed with the presenters about the harmful realities in which those involved in prostitution operate and earn their living and couldn’t disagree with those facts. I also agreed with their view that criminalisation of purchase of sex is likely to be counterproductive without a sustainable and well-funded investment in tackling the inequalities and discrimination and dangers experienced by those involved in prostitution. I do believe that an absence of a clear strategy to tackle stigma and other negative impacts around this work will fail to achieve the social change that the introduction of such legislation will bring to society.
However, what I found jarring was the narrow framing of the advocates of the Nordic model as being one of preventing human trafficking, led entirely by cis women, and the criticism of the abolitionists ( which I apparently am) as wilfully infantilising or presenting those involved in prostitution as victims. I think that was a misrepresentation. It does not fully acknowledge the reasons those who support criminalisation of the purchase of sex wish to pass on responsibility to those who buy bodies. I cannot ignore the fact that those who buy sex think they can buy sex from anyone not just those involved in sex work, this is not just the experience of cis women it is also the experience of trans people. I myself have been subject to the pricing of my body by those who have with impunity thought my body is for sale just because of my trans status. They can only do this because there are no consequences for them. It is an exertion of the power that society has given them and decriminalisation can only empower this destructive power.
I am well aware as a trans woman that sometimes selling our bodies may seem like the only choice that we have, I stared that stark reality in the face during my transition and it was at great peril and delay to my physical transition that I desisted. But I question and challenge the circumstances that lead us to make those choices and whether we should frame it as a choice?
The presenters failed to convince me how complete decriminalisation of sex work is going to benefit trans people? If anything, it will take away responsibility from the state to intervene and offer protection and challenge society. Furthermore, what frustrated me as a trans migrant woman was the presentation of trans migrants choosing to come to Europe to sell sex from the Global south. The presenters made it seem that trans migrants knew what they were getting into when they came, and that the problem for them was the poor and unsafe conditions that they work in on arrival. The problem really is that we do not put pressure on our governments to offer safe refuge to those escaping violence including transphobia and a class and privilege based immigration system.
In the end the council has adopted the proposed sex worker policy, I could not raise my hand in the workshop to support it, I don’t think I ever will. The council and its members must have good reason to take this stance and I respect that. However, the contradiction for me is that every other discussion that I was part of at the conference, was framed on our responsibility to create a better world for those who come after us and to work with wider society, yet I feel that this view did not frame the debate on the sex worker policy or at least the workshop did not highlight how that would be achieved. I felt that there was an expectation that maybe all trans people should support decriminalisation of all parties involved in sex work i.e. the purchaser, the manager and the worker. I support decriminalisation of the worker and that is where it ends for me. Either way, I suspect that I might be a lonely voice yet in the movement and am more likely to be flamed for my views rather than welcomed.
I suppose that explains the rage that I felt but I didn’t have the words then to express them articulately, I am still forming them and know that I might have done a clumsy job here.
What I am glad of though is that I had the opportunity to engage and feel energised and hopeful. I had a lot of fun at the council and my sari did get me a lot of attention. It was disappointing to some that I hadn’t actually come from India, but we can wear saris in Scotland and that is something to be proud of.