“The thing that held us back in the 1990s campaigning was that fear of being out,” Burns says.
Eventually, she came out in 1995; she jokes that she realized she was more embarrassed to be a member of the Conservative party than openly transsexual.
Much of their campaigning remained on the quiet. The passage of the 2004 law to give trans people legal status was “remarkable,” says Burns, because “the government was able to pass an entire act in parliament without anyone throwing a fit in the press.”
In popular culture, the activists became more forthcoming in their attempts to increase popular understanding of trans issues.
Although the arrival of trans character Hayley Cropper in the world’s longest-running soap opera Coronation Street in 1998 was one breakthrough, Julie Hesmondhalgh, who plays Cropper, is a non-transsexual woman.
Some believe one sign that minority groups are not taken seriously is when characters in popular culture are not played by members of that group (from the Black and White Minstrels of the 1960s and 1970s to non-disabled actors taking disabled parts).
“I can advise any casting directors that there are plenty of transsexual actresses,” says a medical professional involved in transition treatments.
More inspiring for many younger trans people was the victory of Nadia Almada in reality TV show Big Brother in 2004. Equally significant was trans man Luke Anderson’s Big Brother victory last year. However, there still persist the likes of TV comedy sketch show Little Britain and hundreds of other belittling jibes about “trannies” and “chicks with dicks.”
Most trans people I speak to say the biggest issues they face are not media stereotypes, but legal rights and access to healthcare. When trans people were allowed to legally register their changed sex in 2005 there was an awful tangle over marriage. Fearful of creating a situation where two women could be legally married, the government decided that trans women who married when they were still men must have their marriage annulled to receive legal recognition as women. So while Ashley finally became a woman in law (with a bit of help from former UK deputy prime minister John Prescott, with whom she worked in a hotel in the 1950s — “a very charming young man,” she says), married couples who have stayed together through one person’s transition still have to divorce if the trans person’s gender is to be legally recognized.
“Imagine the wife of someone who transitions from male to female; I cannot think of an issue that challenges your marriage more,” Burns says. “So this law is absolutely indefensible. It’s a real slap in the face to the partner. The law considers relationships for trans people and those who love trans people to be disposable.”
Sarah Brown, an openly trans Lib Dem councilor in Cambridge, was a man when she married Sylvia in 2001. They stayed together through Brown’s transition, which began in 2005. Brown wanted to be recognized as a woman in law and she and Sylvia convinced themselves that annulling their marriage and becoming civil partners would “just be a bureaucratic exercise that didn’t mean anything.”
When they got their decree of nullity, however, “We realized we had been wrong. We left the court holding hands, in tears,” Brown says.
Far from being healing, the words of their civil partnership a few weeks later were “a kick in the teeth.”