Historicising trans*

Historicising trans* is a symposium that I’m convening at Liverpool John Moores University on 22 August 2015. It’s supported by Homotopia and it will be one of the first research symposiums on trans* lives in the UK. Here’s the blurb from the symposium poster:

In 2006, Susan Stryker called for ‘cross cultural and historical investigations of human gender diversity.’ Discussions about the rights of the trans* community may be in the ascendency but historians have yet to historicise trans* identities in the same way as samesex desire. This symposium seeks to address that absence and suggest ways that the study of trans* lives might be advanced.

We invite contributions from both academics and nonacademics which historicise trans* identities. Proposals from postgraduate, postdoctoral and early career researchers are very welcome. We also welcome interdisciplinary papers and those which discuss the methodological implications of researching trans* lives.

Abstracts or panel proposals should be sent to Dr Emma Vickers at E.L.Vickers@ljmu.ac.uk by 30 June 2015.

I’m really looking forward to getting a nice group of folks around a table for the first time.

Stop press! Registration is now live!  https://buyonline.ljmu.ac.uk/browse/extra_info.asp?compid=1&modid=2&deptid=61&catid=9&prodid=145 Please note that the new date (22 August) hasn’t filtered through to the online shop just yet but it will be altered asap.

If you’ve submitted a paper I’ll get back to you some time after the 30 June with more details.

The 1st National LGBT History Festival

February is almost upon us and already I’ve given a paper in Strathclyde and I’m frantically writing another one for the First National Festival of LGBT History for early February.

This upcoming paper is special. Not only did I become an academic advisor for the festival late last year but I’ve also volunteered to give a paper on my new baby: a project on trans* veterans of the British Armed Forces. I’m completely petrified about standing up in front of a crowd of academics and assorted guests but I’m determined to crack on and produce something which outlines what I’m thinking about. Wish me luck!

http://lgbthistoryfestival.org/

 

Trans* veterans of the British Armed Forces

For the past few months I’ve been travelling up and down the country interviewing veterans of the British Armed forces that define themselves as trans*. By trans*, I mean a whole spectrum of identity ranging from people that wear clothes that don’t conform to gender stereotypes to those that are defined by medicine as transsexual, meaning that they might want to transition into their preferred body. Trans* covers this all, and is a good umbrella term, especially for those at various stages of transition.

Why the Armed Forces? Well, those of you that read this blog and know about my work will have noticed that I enjoy the intersection between gender and war. This project stemmed out of that interest, and out a growing interest in how the Armed Forces has responded to minorities within its ranks. Before 1999, an admission of a trans* identity could have resulted in rehabilitative imprisonment in a military prison or discharge. I want to explore how trans* personnel experienced the services and how the authorities understood trans* individuals.

What I’ve discovered so far is really interesting. First, almost all of the veterans that I’ve spoken to (all of whom are women) joined their respective service to sublimate their gender confusion and ‘make men’ of themselves. Second, there is a really high prevalence of PTSD amongst the group which raises a number of questions about the relationship between PTSD and trans* identity.

The project has also made me more aware than ever that oral historians need to be trained in some aspects in counselling. I’m not one to shy away from challenging situations but just recently I’ve questioned whether I’m equipped to deal with the needs of some of my interviewees.

That’s a ‘to be continued’…I don’t have the answers but I’m thinking about it!

Wurst: my two pennies worth

conchita-wurst_495235It’s not often that I feel compelled to comment on a public event, let alone Eurovision. However, Conchita’s win for Austria has really made me think, particularly about labels. Paris Lees, the self-proclaimed friend of  ‘pretty much half the gay people in Britain on Facebook, not to mention every transgender person and a respectable showing of drag queens’,  has called Conchita an ambassador and an inspiration. I sort of agree, although I’m not sure that ‘adoring’ Conchita and her performance has become such a compulsory part of LGBTQ existence as Paris claims. Surely that’s boxing us minorities off, no? It’s unwise to assume that all LGBTQ people embrace everything that represents them.

Anyway, what’s made me sit up is the idea that because Conchita Wurst (translation: ‘pussy’ and ‘sausage’)  is otherwise known as Tom means that Conchita is not ‘properly’ transgender and therefore doesn’t deserve our respect and sympathy, and that Tom needs to decide ‘either way’. That’s the beauty of the term trans*, which encompasses a variety of identities and performances, whether it’s dressing for fun or someone who feels that they need to alter their physical body to match their brain. One isn’t more legitimate than the other. As my trans* neighbour will tell you, dressing as his alter ego  is hugely important to him. It’s not a joke, he doesn’t want your sympathy and he doesn’t use it as a vehicle for showing off (not that it would matter if he did); he dresses as a woman because he has always felt compelled to do so. He’s also happily married to his wife and has been for 50 odd years. People who cross dress are just as legitimate as those at the furthest end of the trans* spectrum.

Conchita and Tom are no doubt fully  aware that their win will land them some money and fame.  They’re probably also aware that the best song didn’t claim the title. That’s not the point, though. Conchita’s appearance flicked a ‘V’ sign at Putin , his appalling policies and his scarily normative twins, who were booed by the baying crowd. It was an event that also reminded us to keep our eyes on Russia. The end of the Winter Olympics means that LGBTQ people in Russia need our help and protection more than ever. And it’s not just in Russia, either.  Trans* people in Britain are still subjected to obvious and subtle transphobia, some of which is fatal. I was unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of some when I was out with my partner and my neighbour in Blackpool last year. (It would seem that watching trans* people on stage is fine and somehow ‘safe’. Put them amongst a largely heterosexual crowd, however, and things become a lot less comfortable.) In my new home city of Liverpool, too, there is still a huge amount of work to be done.

So, if you take anything from Conchia, it’s not so much that she’s an ambassador, rather that she and Tom have thrust the issue of trans* on to the European stage and opened up a really fruitful debate. Conchita and Tom have truly won if more kids ask awkward questions of their parents, and if more young trans* people feel that they have someone new to scrutinise and compare themselves to.

Mental health and academia

I’ve just read  a blog post on mental health and academic life written by Nadine Muller, a bright, feisty colleague here at LJMU. It’s inspired me to reflect a little bit on my own wobbles which seem quite standard across the sector.

http://www.nadinemuller.org.uk/musings/an-anxious-mind/

If I had a pound for every time I’d declared that I was giving up academia, retiring early or finding a new job, I’d be much richer. I’ve said quite a few times, both privately and publicly, that academia is not a place for the faint-hearted. We have to deal with huge amounts of pressure and criticism which unfortunately, isn’t always constructive.  Not only that but if you’re anything like me, feeling fraudulent is an everyday battle. The slightest badly-timed comment can send me spinning off into a black whole of utter desolation that can last for weeks and weeks. I, like many of you, I suspect, internalise any shard of negative comment and fail to take on board the good stuff because somehow, praise seems insincere or charitable…or both. The consequences of this are rubbish; you question your own ability, begin to doubt that you’re liked by your colleagues and you become sweaty-palmed when you realise that you have research to do and papers to deliver. Even though I have been invited to give both of my upcoming papers, I feel utterly unprepared and more like an imposter than ever before. My dreams are full of anxious scenarios, both real and fantastical, and I’m tired and stiff. This, I am told, is fairly common in academia.

I’m still trying to work out how to squash my demons once and for all. I suspect the answer will combine more exercise, therapy and a thicker skin. I might also re-take a course that worked wonders for me while I was at Reading. It’s called the Fear Course  and the marvellous chap that led it helped me to identify that my anxiety comes from the fear of being exposed as a fraud.His techniques also improved small things like my ability to make eye contact and speak to strangers, all of which are part and parcel of my overall anxiety.

I also think that we need to hold on to what matters to us. For me, gratification does not come from delivering papers or sitting in a reading room pouring over sources and trying to think of ways to set the world on fire. (Helpfully, I was once told that my research would not do that.) It comes from my students. I wanted to write my most recent book, and start the PhD on which it’s based, because I wanted my future students to engage with a narrative that wasn’t utter tosh. That drive has not gone away. Whenever I have a wobble about the bitchiness of academia or the pressure to produce 4* REF pieces (when really we need to be producing useful work that we enjoy and our colleagues respect) I am reminded of the curiosity and joy of my students.   They’ve encouraged me to become a better teacher and mentor, and forced me to think hard about to produce courses that stimulate their thinking and make them as employable as possible once they graduate.

In short, I owe my career to them. While I doubt that the urge to run away and set up a nice gastro pub by the sea will ever go away, I am determined to enjoy this part of the ride and not let my head ruin the view.

New book!

My first book is out at the end of October and is available to pre-order on Amazon. Laura Doan thinks it is pretty good, which is good enough for me!

‘This empirically rich study adds a new chapter to the history of homosexuality
in the context of the Second World War. Fascinating in its detail, Queen and
country shows how the very attempt to regulate same-sex intimacies and desires
gave rise to new sexual identities and queer communities.’ Laura Doan, author of
Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experience of Modern War.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Queen-Country-Same-sex-British-1939-45/dp/0719082943/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1379507441&sr=8-3&keywords=EMMA+VICKERS

I’m scrapping my old car today and it’s made me want to write about it because it’s made me think about how the things that we take for granted and use everyday hold memories. I’d never thought about it before until I was driving home from Liverpool in what one of my friend’s terms ‘the fun bus’. We’ve had some excellent fun in her. I can remember scraping past a gate somewhere in Reading and getting out to retrieve the wing mirror that I’d just driven over. I can also remember driving to meet the person who would become my partner in that car. In the nervous to-ings and fro-ings that followed, I apologised for it’s knackered appearance lots of times. She must have liked the car and me because we’re still getting up to mischief together. 

The fun bus has also been with me for some sad moments too. She helped me to move all of my possessions out of my first proper office at Reading. I also broke up with my first significant partner in that car, too. She (the car) was something of an anchor during that time.

 

So anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so attached to an inanimate object as I have my old car. I feel rather sad about losing her today for something shiny and devoid of any memories. I guess I’ll just have to start making some. 

My first visit to a prison

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Today I visited HMP Risley near Warrington to talk to one of the rehabilitation team about some potential placement work for our students. I was pre-warned by my partner that prisons were odd, intimidating spaces and that I should plan something nice for after the visit. In actual fact, I didn’t want to leave.  My contact at Risley gave me a tour around one of the wings and I got the opportunity to ask lots of questions about life in prison. The best part of the meeting was talking to my contact, Viki about her work rehabilitating prisoners.  What an amazing job!  She spoke with so much passion about her role at Risley and how much it means to her. She actually used the word ‘family’which is a good measure of just how much some of the prisoners value her and her team.  Although she’s only been in post for six weeks, Viki has high hopes for her programme. Her enthusiasm and absolute passion for encouraging personal development took my breath away.

As an oral historian, I mentioned how great it would be to talk to some of the prisoners about life behind bars, and how it could form a integral part of prisoner rehabilitation. The therapeutic value of oral history has been documented by historians and health practitioners alike and reminiscence is a well used rehabilitative tool in many environments, including  care homes. When I mentioned the idea of an oral history project, Viki’s eyes lit up. She is rightly proud of the progress that some her men have made and would love to share that progress with others. For the inmates themselves, there is real value in meeting new people and telling their life stories. And for out students, there are numerous benefits to hearing inmates speak about their lives.

Hopefully then, LJMU and Risely will be able to set something up soon. I couldn’t be more excited. I can safely say that days like today make academia worthwhile. I’m allowed to pursue things that interest me and work across boundaries in a way that isn’t always possible in other careers.  It can feel treacherous sometimes; like I’m an interloper or an imposter. But I quite like the fact that I’m allowed to indulge in things that interest me and be nosey in contexts other than my proper day job.

 

What does T stand for?

In September, I start teaching my third year undergraduate history module, Queer Britain. My students at Reading loved it, so I’m excited about delivering a ‘new and improved’ version of the course at Liverpool John Moores, which will include a field trip to the National Archives and a visit to the April Ashley exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.

However, having just started a bit of research on trans personnel in the military, I’m more aware than ever of the redundancy of the letter ‘T’ in the abbreviation LGBTQ (not to mention bisexual, but that’s another post!).

I’m determined to make trans history visible in the module, but it’s impossible to find a general trans history of Britain.

This invisibility isn’t just evident in academia. Stonewall is a gay, lesbian and bisexual charity which makes no mention of trans people. Given the recent tragedy of Lucy Meadows, the trans community need support. They also need to be rendered visible in the historical record so that undergrads like mine can put the correct meaning back into LGBTQ.

Watch this space. This might just be a gauntlet that I’m willing to pick up.