Why India Willoughby is not representative of TransPeople

When I saw that India Willoughby was going into the Celebrity Big Brother House #CBB, I thought that this would be good for the trans community and help improve attitudes towards trans people. In the past, trans people have always been popular on Big Brother, and India already has a high profile as a newsreader and Loose Women panellist.

Oh, how wrong I was.

She has certainly got attention. But for all of the wrong reasons.

Part of the problem I think is that India went into the Big Brother house too early. This is something Shane/Courtney highlighted in some conversations. I remember when I transitioned 15 years ago I embarrassed a lot of people – especially my family.

But worse, I really damaged my own reputation, and that has taken a long time to repair.

The challenge was that when I transitioned, all that pressure from hiding in the closet was released and finally, I could just be the woman I always felt I was. But it wasn’t easy. I didn’t have 50 years of experience of growing us as a girl/woman behind me. I had missed out on the teenage years, getting all dressed up for a night out, wearing strappy tops and mini skirts.

I had to relearn life, now as a woman, and build some memories and experiences, which was fun, but frankly a bit of an embarrassment. I also had to unlearn 50 years of behaviours and experiences of growing up socialised as a man – also not easy.

I immersed myself in the world of women and found some new friends who would tell me truthfully when I was getting it all wrong and started to learn the new social and engagement skills I needed as a woman.

One thing that helped me greatly was going to university, shortly after transitioning, to study Gender. Being at uni meant that I socialised a lot with younger people especially women and I also engaged with the LGBT community, where I was generally well accepted despite my age. That whole re-socialisation process took me about 5 years, and it’s still incomplete.

There are some experiences I will never have, simply because I was raised as a boy. I never experienced the risks of getting pregnant, having periods or fear of sexual abuse. I never experienced the joy and pain of childbirth and motherhood. I did experience, though I didn’t appreciate it until I lost it, male privilege.

So I understand why some feminists get upset when trans women shout out “I am a Woman.” as if transitioning makes them like any other woman. It doesn’t. But I am also no longer a man.

There is no universal experience of being a woman or being a man and it’s far more than what body we are born with. The binary system of men versus women is outdated and obsolete. We need to rethink our entire approach to sex and gender, exploring the rich diversity of third gender options; not something that India Willoughby seems happy to do.

The mistake I think she is making is, in one breath, to loudly proclaim “I am a woman,” in the next breath, claim, “I am a trans woman and activist.” If you want to identify as a woman that’s fine. I know some women who have never even told their husbands that they were born with a male body. And before you cry foul – that is their right by law. It is a criminal offence for anyone to reveal a persons gender history without their permission.

But if you loudly claim to be trans, don’t be surprised if people treat you as different from a man or a woman. India seems actually to be locked into the gender binary. She sees herself as a woman, not as a trans woman and if she had gone into the house and been one of the women, that is how she would have been accepted.

Which brings me to the difficult issue of Misgendering. Who even knew that term before #CBB?

I am a trans woman and I am proud to be a trans woman. There are currently only two legal gender options, so I prefer to identify as female. My driving license and passport both show me as female. I have a gender recognition certificate and my birth certificate shows me as female. So I expect to be referred to with female pronouns and title and be called madam, not sir.

However, my voice is quite masculine and I have not done much to try to change it. As a result, I get referred to as male often – misgendered.

When it happens, I quietly correct the person and we move on. If they keep doing it I will get irritated and may correct them more publicly. If someone persists in referring to me as male, I will probably take some action because that is harassment and it can be really embarrassing.

If there was an option to have a third gender significator on my passport and driving license I think I might. It’s a new world and it’s going to bring with it a few challenges, in particular, the pronouns. Kate Bornstein came up with the idea of third gender pronouns ze and hir instead of he/she or him/her – but no-one remembers them. The other option is to use plural pronouns them and their – which is difficult to get used to.

When writing I use plural pronouns to avoid gendered text. My tip for using plural pronouns when addressing someone who identifies as bi-gender or gender neutral is to think of them as two people, one male and one female, in the same body – then it’s easy to get the pronouns right.

The government is proposing to introduce a third gender significator on UK passports later this year. However, changing the law is relatively easy compared to changing attitudes.

What India is not aware of yet, is the huge backlash against her and her beliefs in the #CBB groups on Facebook and on Twitter. Most of that I think is because she has positioned herself as different from other women while trying to claim she is the same. It also doesn’t help that she can be very rude and aggressive, qualities that women particularly dislike.

I have been running transgender awareness training courses since 2005 and I thought I was seeing a steady improvement in attitudes. OK, 80% of my audiences are female, but at least I thought most women were getting the whole trans thing. Apparently not. I have been shocked by the level of vitriol expressed, often by women, against trans people generally.

There is clearly a much bigger undercurrent of hostility towards us than I imagined.

The issue of “which toilets trans people use” keeps coming up. This has been a huge issue in the USA with some states passing local laws making it illegal for trans people to use toilets appropriate to their gender.

I thought this was not really a problem here in the UK – but the past few weeks indicates that a lot of people are being persuaded by awful anti-trans campaigns on social media. Then I read an article by India Willoughby telling trans women not to use the ladies unless they are transitioning – and by transitioning she clearly means undergoing genital reconstruction surgery.

1 in every 100 people is born Transgender – this is about 600,000 people in the UK right now. Yet less than 10,000 have had any surgery. Most trans women will cross-dress and, however well they pass or don’t pass as women, they will not be safe using male toilets. In the UK it is perfectly legal and accepted from them to use female toilets.

India’s article incites harassment and hostility towards trans women and especially trans women who don’t pass well. What she seems to be doing is to create a distinction between trans women who have surgery and those who don’t, and that is discriminatory. Her comments regarding drag queens inclines me to believe that she is also not happy about trans women who don’t pass well or who wear too much makeup or identify as transvestites.

Well not everyone is lucky enough to pass; not everyone is obsessed with fitting into the binary, No matter how we look we are all entitled to live without discrimination, harassment and victimisation and without having to undergo invasive surgical and hormone treatments in order to do so.

All trans people are different India Willoughby – Get over it.

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  1. At first I was pretty annoyed by India’s assertions re toilet usage. How dare she, I thought, like most other trans women. It’s hypocritical of her to say such a thing, for a start, because I know full well she would’ve used the Ladies’ on a night out, before she started her transition – no-one makes their debut in public on the same day they start, it’s just irrational.

    Then I got to thinking, she has a point. Badly expressed, but valid – yes, there is a difference between tv’s and those who are transitioning or are fulltime. I’ve seen abominable behaviour by a few crossdressers in bars and clubs, and it affects us all because the public don’t know the difference.

    Now, I’ve spent some time with her, and I realise that it’s her experiences through transition that have made her so opinionated. Whoever was mentoring India should be sacked, coz she’s full of complexes and seems locked into a specific gender path, as you said. She’s immature as a woman and has been given the wrong ideas on transgender identities.
    But, she can change. With the community’s help.

  2. Thank you for this Chrissy.

    Back when I did my masters degree I asked a few research question on Roses Forum which was very active then. One question I asked was “is there a difference between Transvestites and Transsexuals.” You may recall back then that many trans people clearly identified as one or there other. I had identified as a transvestite for years until I finally realised that I not only wanted to transition but was prepared to face the challenges that entailed.

    Asking that question was very enlightening. A month of passionate posts, sometimes so passionate that the moderators had to suspend the discussion or ask people to calm down – the bitter divide was disturbing. But as I discussed this with people I realised that most people like myself, who identified as transvestites, were simply too afraid of the consequences of transitioning and with good cause.

    I have spent over a decade since then supporting trans people and delivering trans awareness training and I am convinced that the primary difference between us is the consequences of transitioning. We are all trans people and we all have to travel a difficult path – so the last thing we need is one of our own joining the adversaries and making life even more difficult.

    Watching the exit interviews last night it’s clear that India realises that she got it all wrong – but now I see that she is tweeting that it was because other people manipulated her. So I am not at all sure she gets how much she has angered trans people by here behaviour.

    Hopefully newly transitioning trans people will learn from her mistakes but I fear that people who, for one reason or another, are unable to live full time are going to be the ones who find the process of coming out much much harder unless they undergo medical treatment. There are a lot of people who want to separate and demonise people who cross dress and brand them Transvestic Fetishists (the new DSM5 term).

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