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Famous and Inspirational Trans People: Christine Burns' diary 1995

 
Christine Burns
 

Among the shouting and jostling, the soundbites and the posturing at the 1995 Labour and Conservative party conferences a small group of citizens politely asked to be heard.  In some respects they failed.

With barely the resources to photocopy a few hundred leaflets and hire a hotel room, the tiny organisation, Press for Change, had a very simple goal : to try to tell people that Gender Identity Disorder (transsexuality to you) is a tragically misunderstood medical condition ... that it's treatment is highly successful and cost-effective when properly managed ... but that ignorance and the false stereotypes of decades have led to a legal and social framework which is unjust to the point of pure spitefulness.

     

For the author, the campaign move involved a difficult personal decision.  The decision to come out as a transsexual woman and give the message another face, and the authority of personal insight.

All transsexuals have to come out once in their lives of course ... to explain to family, friends and colleagues that, despite all the efforts to conform to expectations and a deep sadness at the hurt it may bring, the lie cannot be continued ... that your spirit and soul, your values and aspirations, will only ever be realised in this world as a member of the opposite physical sex ... and that you've felt that way almost from the day you were first conscious of yourself as a person.

Many of life's choices can be fudged.  Kept quiet.  You have something embarassing?  Go away and get it dealt with, then forget about it.  You're Gay?  Well, keep quiet and we'll not say any more if you're discreet.  You're transSEXual? ...

My own transit through that particular hell is a distant and unwelcome memory now.  I'm cured.  The original anguish is gone, and I've got on with my life ... ably supporting myself as a professional businesswoman, and slowly building a place in the community that I moved to.  I have a place on committees of good, upstanding and committed citizens ... nice people, like me.  And if they've ever discussed me then it's merely to wonder why I'm not married ... and to keep an eye on their husbands.  In short, I've fitted-in, and my medical history is as likely to be shared with others as a childhood illness.

To come out again, therefore, is not a decision taken lightly.  Even the most sympathetic of receptions involves a loss of something that everybody else takes for granted.  Yet, we are the victims of our own invisibility ... defined by others, rather than ourselves, in such a way that our non-status in law and society seems like a wholly justifiable punishment for wantonness.  I'm judged unfit to marry, to adopt or foster children ... some are even prohibited from seeing their own.  I'm told to live with a birth certificate that humiliates me and can prevent me from getting a job ... and those in employment have no protection against unfair dismissal.  Laws meant to protect other women from the world's brutality are denied me, yet if a transsexual falls foul of the law themselves then the prospects are less than humane.  Good or bad, however, we all serve a life sentence.  And, in the words of Michael Howard in Blackpool, "Life means life".

So we had a message to sell, and I had a reason to sacrifice my privacy in its' name.  But did anyone listen?  Did anyone notice?  Our failure was certainly not for the want of trying, anyway.

This is the diary of a (reluctant) conference campaigner.  A woman who threw herself to the media, only to be ignored.  A woman who tugged at the coat tails of the great and good, only to be patronised.  A woman who asked her contemporaries to listen and was shunned.

It is a human account which may make you feel uncomfortable.

But can you afford not to read it?

Monday
October 2nd

The Labour party conference has begun and at 9.00 am I'm at home in Cheshire frantically telephoning my cleaner so that she'll not arrive in the middle of a live phone-in for a BBC local station. I'm on with Labour's Dr Lynne Jones MP, the leader of the campaign's cross party parliamentary forum. It is just three days since her press release, citing me as a transsexual Conservative Party activist, and by now I'm getting into the swing of talking to journalists and faxing them my fact pack. Facts ... and a firm refusal to answer silly personal questions seem to have little news value though. The best I've achieved has been a lurid front page headline on a London evening free sheet (Major's Tory Transsexual Turmoil!) and I'm wondering whether to even bother to go out and buy the Daily Star this morning after Sunday's long chat with their Claire Lumley. At least with a live radio programme you know you're getting somewhere .. even if it's only playing to an audience of 10,000. I decorate my office with pillows to kill the echoes and to turn it into a makeshift sound booth. Then I hover over the 'phone for the scheduled call ...

It all started on Thursday night with a veritable flurry of calls ... right in the middle of dinner. First there was a midlands press agency ("When did you have your operation?"), then the political editor of the Birmingham Evening Post ("When did you have your operation?"), then a rather disinterested man from the Press Association ("When did you have your operation?"). Then agency number one sent round a photographer ... barely seventeen, covered in acne ... and moaning that he'd been on his way home when ordered to come and find me. I offered him tea and sympathy. He declined ... and we moved around the house with his camera... A photo with me at my computer, a photo in the lobby ... a couple more on the settee in the lounge. He said the Mail were interested in the agency's package and I made a note to buy it just for once on Friday. As the boy left, he turned and asked his only real question of the entire visit ... "When did you have your operation?".

I slip out to buy the Star, not sure whether I feel self conscious at buying a paper that's plastered with the evidence of men's sexual agenda from front to back ... or whether it's because a neighbour's just popped by to warn that they're talking about me over the bar in the local. This is when the sacrifice starts to feel real. When you've consciously given up a completely normal role in the local community to endure, instead, the status of freak. I remind myself that this is why I'm making the sacrifice, and wonder whether I'll end up moving house eventually, when it's all over ... assuming ..

The local Conservative branch where I'm the secretary and a vice chair is having an emergency meeting tonight to discuss me. My Chairman has called the meeting after she came back from holiday to a call from the Mail. "What did people think of this revelation about me?" (Strange that they never rang me). She told them (truthfully) that she doesn't know, grateful for the fact that I'd briefed her and all the local Conservative councillors a couple of weeks previously. I ponder what it feels like to be a subject of discussion, and decide I'll go and see my Mum and Dad in the evening, by way of a welcome distraction. I'm starting to feel alone...

Back home, the Daily Star goes in the bin. Nothing! But there's a phone call from a man on The Times diary. He's reading from a press release that's come from an agency that read what another agency had sent them ... a sort of professional game of Chinese whispers. "What's this about Tory Crossdressers holding a fringe meeting...?". I fax him an original of the Lynne Jones press release along with the campaign summary and wait whilst he digests them. After two hours he's not rung back and I ring him instead.. "Oh sorry, I got dragged out to lunch. You know how it is..". I commiserate whilst trying not to sound too cynical. We talk. Er ... No, .. he talks, ... I just listen and occasionally try to but in. He says he'll try and squeeze something in. Just one last question ... "When did you have your operation?". When the phone is back on the hook I scream.

 

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Tuesday
October 3rd

I'm up, dressed, packed and in the car by 8.30 am. It's a long drive from Cheshire to Brighton and I want the time to wind down before the fringe meeting on Wednesday. A brief detour to the hair dressers (appearances suddenly seem vital, more than ever before), and then I'm on the motorway headed south.

On the long drive I think back over the last few days and, particularly, about the branch meeting the night before. The chairman had rung just after I got home from visiting my parents and announced the jury's verdict. It had taken them nearly two hours to arrive at their considered answer to the press. If approached, the agreed line was apparently to be : "No comment". Now, the morning after, I wonder whether it had been altogether wise to get emotional on the phone.. to have said that I'd expected something better in return for three and a half years of commitment to them and to question what sort of people were afraid to voice simple support for a colleague for fear of what the press might make of it. And this is the generation that loses no time telling the young how they fought for our freedom. The Nazis experimented on and then gassed my kind. The civilised response doesn't feel a lot better at this moment. The chairman protested that if I'd been a fly on the wall then I'd have heard all the nice things that people had to say about me (failing to mention one, it seems, who thinks that "that sort of thing is OK so long as they don't flaunt it under our noses"). This was supposed to be a comfort ... but then I suppose they'll be equally comforted to know that I've said nice things about them in private too. I dare say they're caught between a rock and a hard place. There's a lot to be learned, if they'll stop long enough to listen. But we're in this place by being too soft for too long on those who prefer ignorance to responsibility. I've offered enlightenment. The rest is up to them.

I decide to make a detour on the way, to visit the mother of a seventeen year old transsexual. She's on the 'phone to a woman's magazine journalist as I arrive, explaining about the group she's formed to support parents in her position, and we talk about Jill's progress and Wednesday's fringe meeting over tea and cake. Jill's lucky in many ways. The world is a kinder place than it was, although Jill was still too petrified to tell her Mum how she felt inside until Moira worked it out by elimination and inspired guesswork three years ago. When I was fourteen there would have been no understanding ear for my distress ... and certainly no treatment. I kept quiet and tried to conform. Yet the prospects for Jill's future had already disappeared by my own sixteenth birthday ... when transsexuals became legal nonentities because of a badly judged divorce case in 1970. Jill still faces being unable to marry, and a birth certificate that will brand her wherever she goes. She'll have no protection against dismissal, and no proper redress in law if she were raped. She may have to fight to stop her treatment being axed by a health authority that looks on such things as non-essential and if she commits a crime this pretty and timid young woman stands to be put into solitary confinement among the sex offenders in a men's prison and denied the drugs that prevent her unoperated body from going through a male puberty. I visualise the scene and shudder. I know too that Jill could quite easily become one of the desperate 30% who commit suicide if her treatment is disrupted.

Back on the road I'm glad I made the visit. I've reminded myself why what I'm doing is important ... and about the people whose futures depend on sacrifices made now and over the last few years by others like me. People keep telling me I'm brave. So why do I keep wanting to stop and cry?

Arriving at a friend's house in Hove, the hospitality for the night has already been planned. We head for an Italian place that the conference goers haven't yet spotted, and then it's on to a local folk club where they say they'll try and make a spot for me to perform some of my poems. I've never performed poetry to a proper audience before and the thought takes my mind off the day ahead. I've not delivered a speech at a fringe meeting before either ... let alone to journalists and Labour conference delegates. Am I about to fall flat on my face twice in twenty four hours?

The folk club's programme is full and in the end they don't have time for me to perform. Christine Burns, poet, goes unheard ... and I wonder whether that's prophetic on the basis of my experiences with the press over the last few days. I sit and sip my mineral water as the minstrels gather on stage for a joint, unrehearsed, finale. "It's a lesson too late for the learning" ... I hope not ... "I could have loved you better, didn't mean to be unkind, you know that was the last thing on my mind" ... Would that it were so...

 

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Wednesday
October 4th

I've been working towards this day for the better part of six months and as I get dressed and roll up the sleeping bag I'm glad I'm staying with friends rather than in a hotel. A bed would have been more comfortable than the battered settee in Alice's library, and the light at the dining table's hardly ideal for a neurotic campaigner desperate to get her makeup just right today. However, Alice is a not just a real live psychologist but a five star earth mother to boot. We breakfast deliciously with beans on toast and talk about the conferences we've worked on together. She calls a taxi, flatters me to death and then ... the most important thing of all ... holds me tight for a few minutes. It's what I need, and I wonder why nobody else has cottoned on to the fact. I'm scared. ... smart and cool might be the image ... but tiny and frightened is what's going on inside. Everybody needs one Alice in their life.

I'm surprised during the taxi ride that Brighton seems to have so few visible signs that a major conference is in progress. In Blackpool and Bournemouth there always seem to be Conservatives everywhere. Conservatives walking to the conference venue ... Conservatives milling around the shops ... maybe we just stick out more than Labour activists? The taxi driver isn't impressed anyway ... Labour supporters aren't (he reckons) great taxi users. Arriving at the hotel he jumps out to open the door and apologises a lot that he can't get any closer to the entrance. The weather is foul and I give him an absurdly generous tip to make some sort of oblique political point.

The lobby has a little pack of familiar faces when I get inside. Half a dozen transsexuals and somebody's partner. I note (as I always do on such occasions) that we never get unaffected people campaigning with us, but I decide not to speculate on this occasion. A positive state of mind is essential.

Upstairs, the room my Labour colleague has booked is perfect ... and I wonder whether we'll fill all the seats. I'm assuming, of course, that all these able volunteers have turned up from a morning of frantic leafleting and I'm a bit worried when it dawns that they haven't. My colleague, it seems, feels that an entry in the fringe guide is enough though, so I go off in search of a drink of water.

Five minutes before the appointed hour and one solitary photographer has arrived and is looking out to sea. The expert speakers arrive from the bar and we form a little huddle to decide which order we're speaking in. I'm on last. A few more faces have appeared in dribs and drabs and, by a quarter past, we do at least have six assorted journalists and a two man crew from Central TV joining the photographer. Ken Livingstone appears briefly and then disappears again and I wonder whether it's some sort of record to hold a fringe meeting at a Labour conference with no actual delegates present. As Lynne Jones starts her introduction I assure myself that my notes are within reach at the top of my bag and, as I look up again, realise that the photographer's lens is pointing unwaveringly at me. I decide he's waiting to get an unflattering picture and desperately try to ignore the sudden itch at the tip of my nose. This is not a time to scratch.

Lynne's opening speech is clear, concise, and very good ... which is more than I can say for the two experts that follow ... who mumble quite uncharacteristically, and assume their audience will understand the jargon. From wondering what I'd have left to say, I realise that I've got it all to say. Thank God I typed up a crib sheet last week and jotted some ideas before breakfast.

I decide that maybe the photographer (whose lens still hasn't wavered) would like some different facial expressions to choose from, so I run through as many as one can reasonably express when sitting next to the speaker. The shutter still doesn't move, so instead I stare straight into the lens and arrange my jaw in the way that I've practised to produce a pleasant but intelligently reposed look. The journalist sitting beside the photographer signals that he can leave if he wants. He takes a picture and is gone. I go back to concentrating on what's coming next.

In the end, rising to my feet I'm relieved. I open my mouth and am pleasantly surprised to find that I've still got a voice. The rest comes naturally. I deliver what feels like the best speech of my life ... certainly the most passionately articulate. I slip in a couple of humorous bits and the audience relaxes ... visibly. I keep apologising for the length of the list I'm stepping through ... to make a point. I make eye contact with each journalist in turn as I find something that maybe they can identify with. And, at the end the closing words are pure inspiration, and just right. I sit down to a warm round of applause, and I'm PLEASED.

The questions are sensible ones for the most part. Do I intend to leave the Conservative party? No. Which MP is chairing the event in Blackpool next week? "Unfortunately I couldn't find one."

Some points are made about the constructive role that the press could take to undo the negative public opinion they've generated by the style of coverage in the past, and then the meeting's over and I head for the tea and biscuits at the far end of the room.

Two women from Today and the Express come over to ask some more questions and chat. It's non-invasive stuff. Either they're very good, or maybe they understand. Tongue in cheek they ask me when I had my operation and we laugh when I comment that I've been asked once or twice before. They say they both hope to do good pieces and I want to believe them. The communication and the understanding seems to be woman to woman ... and I wonder how much that difference in approach brings them into conflict with their male colleagues. Can goodwill translate into good copy?

Lynne is engrossed with a piece direct to camera for the TV crew and I wonder if they'll want me too ... but they don't. I talk to another couple of women from a Japanese news agency .. same questions, same replies ... and then mercifully they're all gone and I can flop in a chair with another cup of tea. Unusually for me, I stir in a generous spoonful of sugar. It's over. Maybe tonight I'll be big in Tokyo. Will London notice though?

Originally I thought I'd stay for a second night in Hove, but now I just want to get back home. Alice wants me to get the experts back for a talk about their joint research over tea and biscuits. I know that Richard, the American won't be able to resist the prospect ... even though the other is protesting that he must get a train at four. Psychiatrists are complicated folk and I enjoy, on this occasion, taking charge and organising them into a taxi ... ringing ahead with my portable for Alice to get the kettle on and check the timetable just to seal the decision.

Back at Alice's we admire her collection of collections. Her house is like a magic grotto and Richard is captivated. I sit on the edge of the discussion, and say intelligent things, but now my mind is starting to work on to the week ahead. What will the Conservative conference be like? This is just a one day affair; next week I'll be involved before, during and after.

On the drive home I speculate too about whether anything's happened while I've been away. Worse, will the leaflets I've ordered be ready in time ... and will the people I've organised to distribute them pull out at the eleventh hour?

I put on my favourite compilation tape and reflect that, whatever else, the only way now is onwards.

 

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Thursday
October 5th

A quietish day, marked only by a call from a sympathetic-sounding woman on the London Evening Standard. We talk for twenty minutes and I fax her the fact pack before ringing a friend down there to ask if she'll keep an eye on what they print. Old suspicions die hard. There's nothing, of course, in either Today or the Express and I start wondering whether they're busy instead trying to dig up background on me. I start pulling the curtains in the evenings and looking more carefully in the car's rear mirrors when I'm out.

 

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Friday
October 6th

The day starts with two very different letters in the post. The first is on the familiar Parliamentary stationery and contains quite a testy letter from Gillian Sheppard in person. I've complained that the Department of Education and Employment has evaded giving a straight or constructive answer to all our criticisms of the holes in the Sex Discrimination Act ... in spite of clear evidence that the committee drafting the act had intended it to cover transsexuals ... and that her last reply was so vague that it could only be tested in court. Why must citizens risk their entire livelihoods for the convenient practice of getting legislation defined by case law? She didn't like that and went back to stating flatly that the government had no plans to review the situation. That's better, I hate all the phoney expressions of concern.

The second letter is a complete surprise. A transsexual in North Kent had read about me in some paper or other (could this be a first?) and felt moved to write a thankyou, care of the Conservative party since she didn't have my address. What a nice thought ... although as I opened the envelope it had struck me that the contents could be in green ink and express very different sentiments. How will I react to that if it happens? I resolve to drop my well-wisher a thankyou note before setting off to collect the leaflets I'd asked for. This is going to be a weekend dominated by little organisational details....

 

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Monday
October 9th

Some people will be setting off today for the Conservative conference in Blackpool, but I'm not going there until tomorrow. There's too much to do at home and, besides, I'll not be missing much if I don't arrive till Tuesday afternoon. In the meantime I sort out the invitations for the next constituency women's supper club event, which I chair ... and pop my head into the local party office, ostensibly to deliver the letters for distribution. Really, of course, I'm testing the water. I gave my MP permission to brief his agent and the staff there and I haven't seen them since the Mail rang round ... but all is sweetness and smiles. I sigh inwardly and head on to a nearby photographer's who'd persuaded me to have a sitting a fortnight previously. I'm astonished to find that I like the portraits they've taken too ... and spend far more than I can afford on a big framed portrait as a Christmas present to my parents. And the ego boost couldn't be better timed. All this exposure of my past is making me very self conscious. A few weeks ago I was just a local businesswoman. Now I'm something else entirely.

I vow to have an early night.

 

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Tuesday
October 10th

A busy morning's preparation, including another trip to the hair dresser's and I'm finally on the road to Blackpool at lunchtime ... with only two false starts when I suddenly decide to take extra shoes and other bits I'd previously decided I could do without. I reflect that one benefit of planes and trains is that I'm then forced to restrict myself to a suitcase. In the car, the case gets supplemented by countless carrier bags and things on hangers that one only folds under duress. Paranoia is in full flow. I have backups for EVERYTHING!

Arriving in Blackpool I find the hotel in five minutes, and spend another twenty looking for somewhere to park the car and unload. I wish, as I struggle with hanger-fulls and carrier bags, that I hadn't optimistically convinced myself that I'd be able to park outside. The room is impossibly small and has no en-suite facilities, so I enquire after a larger one. It'll be another £20 a night they say, but one look at the larger room and there's no contest. I cough up, unpack and change from leggings into conference attire before sorting out a healthy stock of leaflets and flyers to take into the Winter Gardens. I park the car a mile away outside the hotel where tomorrow's fringe meeting will be. I've concealed extra stocks of everything in the boot. Then I grab a taxi for the conference. This is it!

There is now one job which I cannot delegate to anybody else. As the Conservative conference itself is only open to representatives with security passes, it falls to me to distribute leaflets and flyers inside. There will be volunteers outside tomorrow, assailing people as they queue to get in ... but if we want to maximise the number of people we get to come along then we'll have to get to some today, before they've decided on their fringe programme.

I limber up with a preliminary walk around, look in on the conference itself, have a cup of tea .. and then do my duty ...

Conservatives are very nice people. Very polite. And when a young-ish woman walks up to them with a pile of leaflets, there's a very well rehearsed protocol. They look up and smile, forgive you for disturbing them, graciously accept the proffered leaflet and either promise to read it or tell a white lie and say they'll come to whatever event you're advertising. Simple. Usually ...

For my first targets I seek out a couple having tea on one of the main thoroughfares. As I approach they both look up and smile, and then the husband's eyes roll downwards to my bosom whilst I address his wife : "Would you like to come to a fringe meeting which I'm chairing tomorrow at 1pm?", I ask in my friendliest tone. She beams back, "What's it about?". I hand over a flyer and start to explain as she reads the title : The Medical and Legal view of Transsexuality in the 1990's. A look of profound unease replaces the smile and she gingerly hands the sheet back to me ... holding it as one would hold a used handkerchief belonging to someone with the plague. "Oh no.." she intones distastefully "we're not interested in that sort of thing". I take a breath and explain that "that sort of thing" is about the ignorant and bigoted treatment handed out to nice people like me ... a woman who might be the secretary on her committee. For a brief moment I can see that I've profoundly shaken her beliefs. Her husband too has stopped fantasising about my breasts and is craning to look at the flyer which she's handing back. The effect is momentary however. I offer leaflets explaining the realities about Gender Identity Syndrome but she doesn't want to know. The prejudice overrules the senses. I smile, I'm polite and I move on to repeat the same experience over and over again as the afternoon rolls on.

One man tells me quite proudly how I won't change his views and how he's travelled widely and knows all about that sort of "practice" ... embarrassing his slightly less rabid wife who can actually grasp the irony. I hear again that word flaunting. (Here we are, I suppose, flaunting our political views). Another woman proclaims loudly that she doesn't approve of Gays ("Gender Dysphoria has nothing to do with sexual orientation" I point out patiently ) ... or Transvestism ("Transsexuals aren't the same as cross dressers" I explain) ... and she brushes off each correction to her stereotypes with an ease that leaves me wondering whether there's any logic at all beneath her freshly permed mane.

I'm starting to feel ashamed. ... Not for being transsexual of course ... but for supporting the party that attracts these sort of people. You offer them a chance to learn something ... and to consider whether their ignorance makes them party to a terrible miscarriage ... and they decline. They're happy with their prejudices. Don't for heavens sake trouble them with facts. I start to think about the answer I gave the journalist last week ... when I'd firmly stated my party loyalty. I decide I need another cup of tea...

As I sit and wonder about tomorrow's fringe meeting I wonder how I'll fare. Is nobody going to come? Will it be a press humiliation? Or will a band of bigots turn up just to tell us how depraved we all are? For the first time in my life I understand what blind prejudice is and how it feels. Till now my life has been charmed. What a revelation.

The young man at the next table is looking at me ... appreciatively thank God ... and I strike up a conversation with him and his colleague. It turns out they're from a market research company and I have the presence of mind to push aside all the feelings of despair from the leaflet exercise to make serious enquiries about possible opinion surveying we could do, and to look for sources of PR guidance. I explain the campaign and my involvement and they're riveted. I've found intelligent life at last. What a relief! We swap business cards and I go off to seek more enriching encounters on the Amnesty International stand, after promising to get in touch next week.

Later, back with another cup of tea, I make the second useful contact of the day. I find myself sitting next to the organisers of Torche, the Tory Campaign for Homosexual Equality (and, ironically, one of the largest interest groups in the party). Although many transsexuals, like myself, have a heterosexual lifestyle (and some are wary of existing prejudices being reinforced by association) I'm keen to make sure that we learn to work together ... since we share the same discrimination in many ways. I'm also keen to challenge the prejudices that some homosexual people have about us too (especially some lesbian feminists), realising that the transsexual desire to melt into 'normal' society can be misinterpreted by people who might mistakenly think we are closet gays looking for an easy cop out from discrimination! To some, transsexual men are seen as misguided dykes ... and transsexual women as imposters. There is a defined pecking order when it comes to bigotry, I'm sad to say.

The Torche people are interested in what I've got to say and promise me a hearing at their own fringe meeting that evening, if I'd like to come along. I promise I will ... and I go back to my hotel for a rest feeling at last as though I might actually be achieving something valuable. It strikes me that I haven't a clue what went on in the afternoon's debates.

The evening's meeting does turn out to be a good move. First I find myself in conversation with a local radio reporter sitting next to me, after remarking that his tape machine is the same sort that I used to go out with when I'd done work for the BBC twenty years ago. We talk about lugging the confounded things around (they're not light by any means) and then he asks why I'm there. Am I one of the very rare Lesbians in the organisation? I explain and he says I'm the first transsexual he's ever met. I point out the obvious ... how does he know that? ... and we agree that perhaps we'll do a piece later.

I score a hit with the meeting too ... by putting a zealot from the Conservative Christian Fellowship in his place. I'm starting to enjoy myself as a fearless campaigner ... and when I'm invited at the end to give a plug for my own meeting I find I'm talking confidently and with a message that's well received. I sit down to applause, and people come over to say nice things afterwards. My radio reporter has disappeared though ... so I slip away myself and go off boldly in search of a pizza. I'm going to have an early night. I make a quick call to ensure both my speakers are OK for tomorrow, and then I turn out the light.

 

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Wednesday
October 11th

This is it! I've set the alarm for 7am and I open my eyes to instant wakefulness. I take my time getting up though and do everything in my power to think and to be serene. There's a nasty moment when I don't seem to be able to turn the shower off, but eventually I'm ready and set off to walk to the conference centre. It's sunny and there's not much breeze and I'm in a good mood when I arrive at the Winter Gardens to review my troops by the entrance. They're all there and well on the way to giving out the balance of the five hundred flyers which we'd had printed. Interestingly, few people have made a fuss (but then I'm polite to lobbyists outside the centre too) and so I go in to do some more leafleting myself.. and maybe see a debate as well!

By now, I'm starting to see a lot of familiar faces. I've made friends on the Terrence Higgins trust stand from last night's fringe meeting (the first year they've been allowed inside the conference venue I'm told). I finally bump into some people from my own constituency too. They ask "What fringe meetings are you going to?" and I take a deep breath ... "Well actually I'm chairing one this lunchtime ...". Instinctively I keep wanting to be discreet, be an ordinary representative ... but what does it look like now, if I fudge the issue with some after confronting the others? Grimly I press on.

I spot Michael Howard and go over to talk to him. The Home Secretary knows me by name now. Last year he even left his entourage when out walking and came across to ask how I was ! He always beams in such a friendly way. It's a shame he can't follow through by acceding to a few simple requests though as well. I cheekily invite him to the fringe meeting and he parries as expected.

Later I also come across a junior minister whose job it once was to reply to correspondence from and about transsexuals. It's a good opener, as I've got a whole sheaf of obfuscatory 'answers' from him in my own files. He's enchanted, it seems... Tells me how lovely I am ... and calls over a very nice woman from Agriculture. She wants to know how come my voice is pitched naturally and I roll my eyes discreetly as another stereotype gets aired. Talking to them, however, it becomes apparent that my diligent correspondent has never actually read the carefully worded letters I'd sent. I have the feeling that the man who'd assured me for so long that 'The Home Office is continually reviewing the status of transsexuals' had never actually read up on his subject. At that moment somebody from the BBC runs up to snatch him away. It's just as well ... I might have said something unladylike if he'd stayed.

I keep looking at my watch and decide eventually that it's time to leave and head for the fringe venue. I flirt sweetly with the taxi driver on the way, and curse that I've chosen a hotel that's so far away from the centre of things. I retrieve supplies from the boot of my car and then order tea in the lobby and try to appear nonchalant whilst waiting for the room to be readied. Around me the police are doing a detailed security check. We're sharing the hotel with the foreign secretary and a hoard of Arab businessmen it seems.

Once inside the room I start sorting out a leaflet display and a plain clothes police officer comes in to check things out. "What's the meeting about?", he enquires. I explain ... and he wonders why I'm campaigning for people "like that". I tell him ... and he's off balance for a moment ... but sophisticated enough to then apologise and listen more intently. He takes some leaflets with him, and I ponder the conversation that'll be happening in the canteen later that afternoon.

Sometimes the extent of the ignorance is just breathtaking. Am I taking on the impossible? Should I just move somewhere else? Turkey perhaps? It's curious to think that the country epitomised for me by Midnight Express actually knows how to treat people like me sympathetically ... like most of the rest of the civilised world too. And here I am, working for the party that's steadfastly refused to even discuss the issue for its' sixteen years in office. The people who don't even read their post.

The speakers and leaflet volunteers arrive and we all sit, watching the door expectantly.

At ten minutes past the appointed hour, the thing is beginning to have the air of a farce. Three people have turned up. There's an association chairwoman whose own daughter was transsexual (and whom I'd met by sheer chance the previous day whilst leafleting), then there's a representative from Torche, and finally Roger Simms MP ... a junior health minister who'd come along out of his own interest, having met a transsexual constituent in one of his surgeries. We've also got a young reporter from a local newspaper ... although I can see that he's not going to stay the distance if the audience is this pitiful ..so I suggest he sits down for five minutes with one of the speakers, the legal specialist Dr Stephen Whittle (himself a transsexual man). Thus briefed, and astonished to learn Stephen's background, the reporter goes on his way. Maybe another stereotype can be worn down a little ... there are blokes too!

I decide in the end to go on, regardless ... although I haven't got the heart to say much myself. I introduce the first speaker after a brief and pointlessly bitter piece about bigotry in the party. I regret what I've said almost immediately, and think instead about how soon it will all be over. Five minutes into the discussion, the audience is swelled by the arrival of a man who bustles in and parks himself at the back. The BBC's Vincent Hanna has come along as he'd promised. Oh well, maybe it's not that much of a disaster after all.

We lumber on and, in fact, the meeting ends up quite constructively all round. We attack the coffee and break up ... and I go back to the Winter Gardens. I'm determined to see a debate! As I enter the place I'm assailed by Matthew Parris of The Times. He wants to do a piece. He thinks what I'm doing is very brave and says he'll give Roger Simms a verbal pat on the back for coming along. I wander on in a daze.

Before I get to the conference hall I'm grabbed from behind by two strong hands. I freeze .. and then I realise that it's a man whom I'd met at my very first conference two years ago! He sent me flowers that year when I got home and insisted we have dinner. He was very sweet back then and I'd felt guilty when, after a few weeks I had to be firm and say that I didn't fancy him. Since then he'd remained friendly ... and now he wants to know about the fringe meeting I've been chairing. News travels fast! He tells me all about a transsexual friend of his ... and then asks me how I've got involved with the subject. What on earth do you say at a moment like that, bearing in mind that he might read about me tomorrow for all I know? Another deep breath ... I tell him ... and he takes a step back. I feel awful. I'm not trying to hurt people or rub their noses in it. Quite the opposite. It's the thing I was most afraid of in coming out. He recovers admirably though ... and the smile is still there. "What a pity I don't fancy you", I think ...

I go to the debate, but I'm not concentrating. I'm not even sure which debate it is.

Wednesday evening is mapped out in advance thank goodness. No time to brood. There is to be a reception for all the North West constituency representatives at the Imperial hotel first, and then our own constituency people, past and present, are getting together for dinner in the hotel where the majority of them are staying. The reception is crowded, as usual, and it's a chance to renew acquaintances made in the past ... though on this occasion I've decided to be vague about what I've been doing in the conference.

I am quite touched by how many people go out of their way to make sure I'm in no doubt about being invited to the dinner. This is the unseen side of Conservatives. The side we hide, to our detriment as a party. Mine is a new constituency, torn away from another seat by boundary changes and so I'm even more touched when the chairman of the old association comes up and presses a sealed envelope into my hand. It's from his family. I go and open it in a corner and read the good wishes. Such a simple act. Such an important gesture. I'm deeply affected.

A sudden surge of the crowd interrupts my reverie. The Prime Minister has arrived in the room unexpectedly. He goes round, shaking hands and I press forward for a close look. Our eyes meet for a second and I manage a false smile, but I'm too far away for him to offer his hand. I'm relieved in a way though. The heart isn't there right now for encouraging John Major. I've given plenty already ... in terms of both money and time. What I'd like back is so very little to ask.

Dinner is enchanting however. Our MP's agent has worked out a good seating plan and I'm sandwiched between the only two young men present. I decide to be vague about my conference experiences again in the interests of politesse and my own battered feelings, but it's not to be ... as one of them very sweetly makes it clear that he wants to talk about the problems faced by my campaign. This allows the other to join in too, and we talk earnestly about tactics till I remind them that there's a lot more to me than just that. The rest of the night we're normal .. except that I feel rather too self conscious to flirt quite as I'd like. Can people really imagine themselves into my shoes? I doubt it.

By the time coffee comes round I'm having difficulty keeping my eyes open and, after a decent interval I make my goodbyes. The old constituency chairman makes a point of kissing me on the cheek as I leave, and I tell him how much that means.

It's been a long day and I get back to my hotel room just before midnight. I make a conscious effort to switch on a smile before confronting myself in the mirror to remove my makeup but it's to no avail. With the pressure off at last I sit down on the edge of the bed and cry my eyes out.

No one reason. Simple emotional overload.

 

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Thursday
October 12th

I award myself a lie-in but still manage to arrive at the Winter Gardens just after 9.00 am. Today I want to just enjoy the conference. I spot a lady in an electric wheelchair whom I recognise from both previous years. I always make the point of chatting to her, and promise to attend the disability fringe meeting which is starting in ten minutes' time. Just time for tea and biscuits!

The meeting is interesting, and I'm waylaid by a man who wants to know if I'd like to help his organisation in the North West ... although I'm honest and say that I've got a campaign of my own to run too. Maybe when I've done what I can for Press for Change ....

Isn't it strange how the world separates out into those who care and get involved and those who don't want to see? I think again about the words of one lady which keep resurfacing ... "I don't mind about transsexuals as long as they don't flaunt themselves under my nose" she said. I substitute the disabled for my own label and connect. It had never really occurred to me where the roots of such sentiments lie till now ... and now it's so clear. They don't want to know the facts about life because, if they did, then they'd have nowhere to hide the fact that they care only for THEMSELVES.

At lunchtime I meet up with my branch chairman and the chair of the womens' committee. We swap thoughts about the conference and disagree on the rights and wrongs of Margaret Thatcher having taken a place on the rostrum next to John Major. We always do disagree about Margaret Thatcher and I'm relieved ... it's business as usual!

The afternoon feels like familiar territory too. It's the Law and Order debate and it's one which I don't want to miss. On this occasion it feels different though ... rather unsettling. A very brave man takes the rostrum and tries to oppose the idea of compulsory identity cards. He is booed and hissed and, for the second time this week I feel ashamed to be among the crowd on the floor. These aren't Conservatives in my book. They're narrow minded wolves baying for blood. I can see the virtues of a good system of identification and I've thought about it in great depth in connection with the identification problems faced by transsexuals. However, as a computer professional I'm also becoming aware of the serious risks posed by the opportunities which the system opens up. We all want the superficial advantages which we can perhaps perceive in an identity card system, yet it's so easy to give much more away in the headlong rush to implement it. Catcalls don't facilitate serious debate ... but once again I'm looking around at people who don't want to be bothered by complicated ideas. They want simple answers. Simple solutions for simple people.

The conference chairman admonishes the audience for their un-democratic behaviour. He says it's un-Conservative, but I don't hear many listening to his call.

After Michael Howard, I go off in search of tea. I'm killing time because I've arranged an opportunity for electronic correspondents on the UK Politics Forum to meet up at my hotel. There's an hour to spare and I sit down next to a woman in a striking turquoise outfit. I decide that I'll compliment her on her taste and open with the standard conference-goers line "Are you enjoying the conference?". We talk and then we realise that we're both electronic correspondents on the forum. I love these sort of coincidences. Ten thousand people milling around and you sit down next to somebody whom you don't realise you know!

On the way back to my hotel I also bump into somebody from Westminster's House Magazine .. an incredibly lively woman who invites me to join her with friends over dinner. The evening is sealed. I can start to wind down.

I eat well, laugh, perform my poetry and talk politics into the night, getting back to my hotel room at 3.45 am to fall into bed and grab three and a half hours' sleep. Wednesday is now just a dim memory.

 

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Friday
October 13th

If you had asked me on Thursday night then I would have said I had no intentions of attending John Major's speech. In previous years, when he spoke in the afternoon, it was necessary to appropriate a seat in the conference hall by 10.00 am at the latest and stay there ... going as a party so that each could take turns to go to the toilet or fetch refreshments. I assumed that it could only be worse now that he was to speak before lunch and tried to back up the reasoning by thinking about the logistics of checking out of the hotel early enough and fetching the car from its' parking spot, a mile up the promenade.

Waking at 7.00 am, however, I shame myself. What if everybody reasons the same way? Would the Prime Minister get up to find we've all gone home? So I get dressed and pack and negotiate for the hotel to look after my things securely. Then I stand in the conference hall for two and a half hours because there are, of course, no seats left.

By 1.00 pm it's all over for another year and I'm on the road. What a fortnight!

Getting back, I unpack the case, put various bits in the washing machine and take the suits round to the dry cleaners. The mundane things of life crowd in so quickly, like the advancing tide swirling round the afternoon's sand castle and levelling it.

Before going back to an empty house I pop in at a friend's in the village and we talk about the conference and about the trips she's made whilst I've been away, over biscuits and tea. I'm relieved that I've not lost simple little things like this. Somehow the conversation turns to the horror stories which all women travellers can relate about the men you sometimes encounter in hotels. We're in mid-anecdote and I'm nodding in understanding when she stops ... suddenly .. and apologises. She hopes I'm not offended by her running down men in that way. "Why on earth should I be", I answer ... regretting my complacency. I stare across the chasm that divides our understanding and patiently explain for what seems the umpteenth time that I'm a woman. I've always been a woman between my ears, and I have the same experiences as other women .. the same encounters with men as her. Why should she think otherwise? Does she realise now why transsexual people want and need to bury their histories and why the government's attitude is so callous? Can she begin to understand what I've given up so that a generation of Jill's can be cured of their distress and then never have to face this?

I'm trying not to hurt her feelings, but mine are shot through. I'm guilty for the discomfort I bring when I start to cry, but I can't hold it back.

As I set off home I'm desolate. Tired and beaten. Grieving a life that I've knowingly sacrificed. I cannot blame others for their indifference to this campaign, but often I wish there were more who understood just what it costs those of us who venture out of the trenches.

© Christine Burns

October 15th, 1995

 
 
     
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