“This is a group who are somehow not taken seriously. They are a bit like Gypsies, whom it still seems OK to make racist jokes about,” Barrett says.
He understands the controversies inherent in trans people asking for medical help paid by the UK taxpayer, but insists that people who have gender reassignment surgery subsequently contribute far more to society than they ask of the NHS. For example, they earn more after surgery.
“If you work out how much more they pay in taxes, they fund their own treatment and then some. If you don’t treat people, they tend to be really miserable and off work and on sickness benefits and in hospital and then they cost the taxpayer, when they could be net contributors in financial and social terms,” he says.
Part of Burchill’s critique of trans campaigners was to suggest they are a small, educated minority who punch well above their weight. Whittle admits trans people tend to be well educated, but says this is a legacy of them having no jobs to go to. Whittle, Lees and Burns all came from humble beginnings and are now smart, networked individuals.
In 25 years, Barrett has seen trans people become “a networked bunch” thanks to the internet. Lees, who also works for Trans Media Action, says social media is the “essential catalyst” for the transformation of trans people in society.
“Society is in transition and we’ve woken up from the operation and there’s no going back. We can’t pretend that trans people don’t exist any more. People have been taking the piss out of trans people for 60 years. The narrative on trans issues has been controlled by people who have no understanding of them. Social media is about us telling our own stories. We’re here, we’re in your face, we definitely exist. That’s the most important thing — realizing we exist,” Barrett says.
Later this year, an exhibition about April Ashley’s life will open at the Museum of Liverpool. Ashley doubts whether trans people will ever be completely accepted, but she believes life is improving.
“There will always be prejudice, but I do think things are getting a lot better, and trans people are also getting a lot better,” she says. “Transsexuals are famous for their sense of humor, their gentleness, their kindness and being nice people because they’ve been through an awful lot. It’s a terrible ordeal to go through to have a sex change. It makes you humble.”