Christine Burns, grande dame of trans campaigning looks back at how the internet has been used to support trans folk and trans campaigning since the very start.
A quarter of a century ago, in the summer of 1995, I explored the world wide web armed with one of the first browsers ever written for the Personal Computer. The ‘web’ was new to the public then and folks were still working out what it was and how it could be used.
The Trans Information Gap
Inevitably my exploration led me to look for sites with information about trans people. I didn’t have huge expectations and I wasn’t surprised by the paucity of what I found.
In those days there was very little anywhere — other than what was written and published by other people about us. But I knew that trans people could and should be using this new tool.
I had been using email and discussion groups online for several years. Some of that was initially academic in focus, but I had met our opposite numbers in Europe, the United States and Australasia at conferences and continued those associations through sites such as CompuServe and AOL. Email had taught me that if we could get trans people online then the outcome could be transformative.
Our problem was that the trans community was sparsely distributed, often isolated and poor. We couldn’t afford to publish and post more than half a dozen short newsletters a year. We couldn’t rely on everyone reading the magazines produced by earlier trailblazers like the Beaumont Society and Gender Trust.
Our message was different to theirs anyway. And we couldn’t expect people to travel across the country to conferences. Put these together and it’s a real obstacle when your aim is to build an educated activist following. It was a chicken and egg problem. Computers were still very expensive in those days. A personal computer could cost half the price of a new car until Amstrad came along. And what was the point in asking people to invest in going online unless there was something there for them to go to? To borrow from the film ‘Field of Dreams’, we needed to build something so they would come.
I began creating something later that year, over the Christmas holidays. In my book Pressing Matters I’ve explained how my own epiphany as an activist came much earlier when I attended an international conference and learned things about transgender law, medicine, sociology and human rights that I had never seen before. The mainstream media simply hadn’t provided this stuff and my rationale was that if such knowledge had had such an explosive effect on me then who knows what might happen if we made that kind of material available to others.
I began building with the material to hand: legal judgements and analyses from my colleague Stephen Whittle and stuff that I’d already written myself for the Gender Trust’s magazine. The more I had and the more I demonstrated this to people, the more ideas and content I was offered.
The project rapidly got out of hand. I had a day job and other things to do with the Press for Change campaign in my spare evenings. Creating material, uploading and linking it took time. Soon I was joined by a new colleague, Claire McNab. We carved up a very neat division of responsibilities: her as the web mistress and me as the site’s editor. Later she became a key writer too.
During 1996, more and more people came online and found us — especially as the site increasingly complemented our legal activism. When we knew a new legal case was about to break we could prepare the site in advance. Then when the news was out we could save hours of work by directing all the interest from journalists and trans people to the relevant web pages.
Press For Change
The Press for Change site began to become famous. We lacked permanent staff, offices, equipment and money but our web presence substituted for all of those things, so much so that people began to imagine we must be much bigger than we actually were. The reality was fewer than half a dozen of us working from our bedrooms as volunteers, inspiring hundreds of ordinary trans people to go out and do stuff themselves.
Over the years our web site grew and became the number one place for information about the campaign for trans people’s legal rights. By the late nineties the analytics showed that over 50,000 pages were being downloaded every month, from around the world. All this happened before many famous, established and well-funded NGOs had even worked out what the web was for. There were in fact no rules, no role models to follow. We just invented the editorial principles as we went along, totally driven by our campaigning requirements. Some have even claimed that, for a time, we were the largest online campaign on the World Wide Web. I don’t know if that’s true. We weren’t chasing numbers, only quality and relevance.
We had several distinct audiences and we aimed to have something for all of them: Legal advice and basic background knowledge for trans people trying to make sense of themselves and the world; Background for journalists and politicians coming on board with our legislative aims; Resources for lawyers either supporting trans cases or wanting to come up to speed; A library of the good, bad and ugly of newspaper coverage; Profiles of ourselves; Philosophical articles about the issues we faced. As Parliament prepared to debate the Gender Recognition Bill in early 2004 we also added daily reporting and editorial analysis of the proceedings. We transcribed and published the relevant Hansard reports before Parliament had thought of putting them online. We even created a sub-site to help people apply successfully for Gender Recognition when that became available in 2005.
Decline and Fall
A few years after that activity had peaked we volunteers who had worked collaboratively for fifteen years began to wear out and go our own way. The enormous and constantly updated site we had built with our bare hands began to fall apart in our absence. Then it collapsed altogether, without a technical manager to keep it going. The trans community’s enormous library of knowledge simply disappeared from the web — at least unless you knew how to find the archived copies made by the British Library.
I missed the Press for Change web site — not out of any sense of ownership or nostalgia, but because it was so incredibly useful. I used it all the time as my reference library. I could send other people to it. The answers to any question, plus the essential historical record of what happened, was all there. Everything became harder to do without the resource we’d grown to rely on.
Phoenix from the Ashes
That’s why I’m so delighted that this new web site is being created. I don’t expect it to be all the things we spent over a decade building. It doesn’t need to be. The requirements nowadays are different. But some simply and pretty core requirements still exist. Above all, there is a real need for a simple site explaining trans people’s existing legal rights and I’m pleased to see that that is the first priority for the new editors.
So, all I can do is to offer my congratulations to the team behind “Still Here”. I know that building and maintaining something like this is not easy. It’s much harder than it looks. But it’s putting back in people’s hands the very essence of what we needed to provide a quarter of a century ago.