A major conference on the lives of transgender people around the world will be held at Edinburgh University this week in an attempt to raise awareness of the inequalities experienced – and change the “tone” of how transpeople’s lives are discussed.
The two-day conference, will see academics from Argentina, Switzerland, India, the US and Mexico, discuss transgender people’s lives, and how they are also affected by race, class and disability.
The event comes as the row over women’s rights and transgender rights escalates, with a protest held outside the Scottish Parliament last week when Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy addressed politicians about her beliefs that women’s single-sex spaces need protected.
There were also attempts to close down an Edinburgh University event discussing the future of women’s sex-based rights next month.
Organiser of the conference, transwoman Gina Maya Roberts, a PhD student in global transgender narratives in literature at the university, said she hoped it would raise awareness of transgender people’s lives.
She said: “Being trans has no privilege attached to it, but even so I’m aware of my own privileges as a white, middle-class transwoman and I was aware that the experience of other transgender people, especially those of people of colour, was vastly different to my own.
“So the conference is an attempt to change the narrative. And there will be transgender people speaking about their personal experience rather than it just being a debate by academics. It’s possibly the biggest such conference to be held in the UK and so I hope it can also change the tone of how transgender people and our lives are discussed by other people.
“There has been a change of tone around transgender rights, and I had people from the Scottish Trans Alliance tell me the past year has been particularly horrible in that respect.
The focus of the conference isn’t on the toxicity of the debate that’s happening, but on the diversity of trans issues.”
The current row around trans rights stems from proposals to change the Gender Recognition Act, which would allow transgender people to self-identity as whichever gender they choose, rather than requiring a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
Women’s rights campaigners believe allow male-bodied people to self-identify would conflict with the Equality Act which allows some services and places, such as domestic abuse shelters, to be single-sex. They are also concerned that it would remove women’s rights to refuse a male-bodied person to give them intimate health care.
However women who have expressed their concerns, such as SNP MSP Joan McAlpine, have found themselves abused online and described as “transphobic”.
Ms Roberts said she agreed with self-identification because “I think it will be used by people living as trans already. It won’t be a whole load of men trying to exploit the situation.”
She added that she believed that transwomen and women should be “natural allies”. “In my journey I have become transgender,” she said. “I like to be included within the female identification spectrum but I am comfortable with being considered trans - it works better for me.
“Women have a historical relationship with patriarchy and female spaces have been created for safety - so signifiers are important when they look at a transwoman, are they picking up that this person is a threat? Am I safe? For some women it’s not a problem, but for some it is.
“Transwomen identify with women, they are natural allies of women. They are not looking to delete female identity they want to belong to it.
“Violence against transwomen from men is a real issue particularly in Latin countries and North America. So why would any transwoman want to be be associated with male violence? There have been trans women, in the modern sense, documented since at least the 1920s - in all that time where are the records of trans women being brutal to women in women only spaces?
“I have been harassed in the street, people shouting abusive things, but in terms of how some other trans people are treated, I’ve been lucky.”
Ms Roberts is originally from Wales and worked abroad teaching English with the British Council before coming to Edinburgh to study a Masters in creative writing - which is when she decided to transition.
She said: “I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show when i was young and I thought - so that’s what I am! I knew I was different from other boys and adolescence was a very frustrating time and I tried to repress things.
“I don’t think people are born in the wrong body - I have my body even if I wish my shoulders were not as broad, that my feet were smaller - partly for my own sense of identification but also because if they were they would send the right signifiers to people. Transgender people realise they have bodies which signify to other people that they are men or women and what transwomen want is to signify that they are female.
“So much language is non-verbal we look at faces, how people walk, their voice and they make a judgement based on that whether someone is male or female. Personally I just want to fit in, avoid attention and, as unfashionable as this sounds, to conform. So you experiment with hormones or surgery until this makes you happy that your signifiers are female. I’ve been taking hormones since 2016 and I’m happy with that. I would like to have surgery hopefully next year which is important for me personally, but is not for every transperson.”
Ms Roberts said the conference organising committee had raised £16,000 through donations both from Scottish Graduates grants and from schools and institutions in the university, which had enabled them to pay for people to travel to Edinburgh to take part.
She said: “I do think the level of unease and hatred against transgender people is on the rise - we seem to unify some people from the right and left who in every other respect would never agree with each other. But of course we also have lots of support and, in terms of dialogue, maybe this conference is the start of something.”