As the battle over transgender rights grows more polarised, Tristan Smith is campaigning to make life better for young people on the frontline of the culture war. Chris Burn reports.
Tristan Smith waited for years before telling family and friends he was transgender at the age of 17 – partly because of concerns he did not have a stereotypical male personality despite feeling he was in the wrong body.
“It took time for me to realise this is incredibly diverse and that just because I don’t like sports or wasn’t a massive tom-boy doesn’t mean I’m not trans,” Smith explains. “I have a friend who has known me since I was five years old and six months after I came out and she said she had never seen me happier.”
Just a few years later and Smith, who is originally from Clifton on the outskirts of York, has been selected on the University of Huddersfield’s Inspiring Future Leaders programme for his work campaigning for improved transgender rights on campus and recently won a national award from the National Union of Students for his activism.
Smith, an English literature student, says the campaigning role was one that came about almost by accident as a result of his experiences at university after starting last year and frequently coming across a lack of understanding about the issue. “It was mostly little things like staff not believing my name was my name,” Smith says. “I love problem solving but I hate maths so I like to do it in more social situations. I’m not one to follow the status quo.”
Since the Gender Recognition Act came into effect in 2005, fewer than 5,000 people have legally changed their gender but a recent Government survey found the vast majority of people identifying as trans had not applied to do so as they found the process “too bureaucratic, expensive and intrusive”.
Under current law, trans people need a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria – where people feel discomfort or distress because of the mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity – and proof of having lived in their new gender for at least two years to legally change gender.
The issue of transgender rights has become increasingly mainstream – and contentious – in recent times, as referrals to clinics specialising in treating transgender adults have increased 240 per cent in five years while more than 50,000 people have responded to a consultation on reforming the GRA.
The intense debate around the act saw trans rights activists and some feminist campaigners take opposing sides, with arguments particularly focused on what the risk of predatory non-trans men making self-identified gender changes as way to gain access to vulnerable women in places such as refuges and prisons would be.
In December, the Big Lottery Fund announced it would review a planned £500,000 grant it had planned to give to Leeds-based charity Mermaids, which supports children who believe they may be transgender and their families. The review was announced after a backlash from opponents concerned about the charity’s support for medical intervention, such as hormone blockers that delay puberty, for children in this position. Conservative MP for Monmouth David Davies said he was “absolutely horrified” at the planned grant and described Mermaids’s work as “utterly wrong”.
Earlier this week, it was confirmed the Lottery grant would go ahead but in response to the review being ordered, an online gamer raised over £250,000 for the charity from supporters by asking for donations to play the computer game Donkey Kong for 24 hours.
Smith says the bizarre episode exemplifies how polarised the debate has become. “Mermaids’s work is misunderstood, they don’t offer any medical treatment themselves but they offer support. It is very unfair on children potentially in very bad states. As a teenager, my mental health was awful. If all of this had been happening around then, I would have really struggled with that. My heart does go out to all the children that are experiencing and seeing this and also parents hearing these views.
“It can be presented as reasonable concerns and I do understand people having concerns. But there is so much out there that is obviously targeted. You have got these very negative things being put out there that aren’t necessarily based in fact.”
A recent study by charity Stonewall found two in five of trans people have experienced a hate crime because of their gender identity in the past 12 months, with most not reporting offences against them due to fears of further discrimination or a perceived lack of support.
Smith says the statistics chime with personal experiences. “It can be unsafe. I have personally been dragged out of a toilet and thrown out on the street in Huddersfield town centre. It was a horrible experience and to be frank, most trans people I know have had that experience.
“Sometimes, it is very dispiriting when I’m having to read through these statistics and they are in my head a lot of the time.”
He says one of the aims of his work at the university, through a project called Trans Inclusion in Education, is to improve understanding of the issue.
Smith has created a training programme for staff and will run a pilot project this month for student union workers with the aim of running a wider scheme for university staff later this year.
The university’s estates team has been asked to introduce more gender-neutral toilets, while booklets have been created for trans students about what support is available, along with guides for friends and family on how best to be supportive and what questions to ask – and avoid. “It makes people more aware and more comfortable being allies.”
Smith says he understands many people struggle to know the right things to say on a topic they may know little about and can make mistakes like ‘deadnaming’, where a trans person is referred to by their birth name. “I do understand it is difficult for people when you know someone for 17 years and they are asking you to make a change. But it does happen and it is ok.”
He says telling friends and family he was trans was not a simple thing to do and took some time. “It was definitely a challenge and it took me a long time. It occurred basically over a year from when I came out to the first person and changed my name. It was a long process and it is still a bit scary when you don’t know how someone will react. I have some very good friends who reacted well and other people who didn’t react so well but I am in a place where they don’t really matter.”
Smith says he hopes to be able to continue making a positive difference. “I would rather my work was a drop in the ocean, there are so many amazing trans people doing so much work.
“I want people to not go through things that I have been through and my friends have been through. Just having more knowledge can help people feel more empowered.”
Questions over Government help
Ministers have been accused of “mishandling” their approach to trans people by focusing on legal reforms to identification laws rather than practical matters such as improving access to basic healthcare services.
The claim was made by Maria Miller, chair of the Commons’ women and equalities committee, last month as she said the consultation over the Gender Recognition Act had “eclipsed” issues relating to public service usage.*
“The debate has been focused in on issues that are much less important to trans people’s lives,” she said.
The Government said ministers had an “ambitious LGBT action plan” which had £4.5m funding to boost healthcare access and ensure trans people received appropriate support.