OUTing the Past 2018 Gazetted Presenter Spotlight: Christine Burns

This year, the Festival Comms Team has reached out to all OUTing the Past 2018 gazetted presenters, whose presentations you may see at upcoming celebrations. In order to provide a platform for their invaluable work, presenters were asked a series a questions to acquaint you with their previous and current projects.

Christine Burns was kind enough to share:

I am not a professional historian. I want to say that from the beginning. I’m actually a retired equalities specialist and, for many years, a leading trans activist in Britain — some would say a pioneer, intimately involved with lobbying government and shaping the original Gender Recognition Act. Before I got into equalities I was a Computer Consultant for around thirty years, but now, I have come to be the de facto writer of the first draft of British Trans history.

Just like gay and lesbian people, the trans community was not written or talked about in a fair and objective way until very recently. The mould for how newspapers treated us was established in the early 1950s by frenzied reports about an American GI called Christine Jorgensen and an English contemporary, former Spitfire ace and racing driver Roberta Cowell. The only other places where we appeared in print was in medical textbooks, and those were as wrong — as brutally objectifying — as the ones that reckoned electric shocks were the way to ‘cure’ homosexuality.

How, then, is a historian to start, to gain a foothold? I thought they needed a treasure map. That’s why my first foray — the two volume insider history of the trans rights campaign, ‘Pressing Matters’ — was written to provide just that. Pressing Matters is based on contemporaneous records (~1990–today) from inside the leadership of the volunteer-based campaign that won employment rights for trans people in 1999, the right to treatment on the NHS, and (eventually) legal recognition for gender change. If you want a start on understanding that history then ‘Pressing Matters’ is the place to go. The extensive material included there is the way to then branch out and search for other sources. You can even read it free with the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library or Amazon Prime; for ePUB copies, check iBooks and the Kobo and Nook stores.

Today, there is a backlash to the sudden advance that trans visibility underwent in the last 3-4 years. Time Magazine talked of a ‘Trans Tipping Point’. Vogue headlined the ‘Year of Trans Visibility’. In America, trans people (women especially) became the target of an unholy alliance between the evangelical religious right and alt-right extremists. Support for trans rights by Barack Obama only intensified the pushback. In Britain, we are seeing the beginnings of a similar pushback in the press — intensified because a Conservative government plans to simplify and demedicalise legal recognition. One obvious line of attack is that trans is ‘just a fad’.

Trans Britain, my latest book, was born from that realisation of a great yawning gap. Never have trans people had quite such an opportunity to speak for themselves about contemporary lives. But there is still a big gap. How did trans people get from where they were in the first half of the twentieth century — isolated, solitary cases — to where these new writers are today?

That’s what my lecture is about for LGBT History Month 2018: a detailed look at the problems of putting together a reliable first draft of that history.

I say ‘first draft’ because, as I say, I’m not the professional historian. My intent is to whet people’s appetites. Trans Britain is the ‘Amuse Bouche’ and I hope and pray it will get people salivating for the main course, which others will cook. It’s deliberately accessible, and it is miraculously published in time for LGBT History Month. Everything you wanted to know about where trans people came from but were afraid to ask.

Pressing Matters collection: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0716PNWG7/
Trans Britain: https://unbound.com/books/trans-britain (pre 25th Jan 18) and all good bookstores thereafter

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Also, check out our national media partners, The Canary.

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