Veteran trans campaigner: ‘Cass review has potential for positive change’

When Stephen Whittle made the switch as a teenager in 1975, he was one of a handful of young people in Britain to be offered hormone treatment and later surgery.

Nearly half a century later – much of which was fought for trans rights – he said there was a “mass” he agreed with in this week’s review by Hilary Cass of the NHS’s gender identity services. He said he also believed the report had been influenced by groups and individuals with “transphobic” views, and said “the potential for positive change must be supported with resources”.

Whittle, emeritus professor of equality law at Manchester Metropolitan University, has become one of Britain’s leading advocates of trans rights and has advised governments around the world. Now 68, he views the issues raised in the Cass report from the perspective of decades of personal and professional experience.

He said that as a child “I had no doubt that something was deeply wrong – and I had no doubt what it was.” On one particular sports day at school, “there were boys’ races and girls’ races, and I suddenly realized that I would always be in the wrong race.”

After a few suicide attempts – “There was no doubt in my mind that I couldn’t live as the person people thought I was meant to be” – Whittle was finally seen by a sympathetic doctor. He was offered testosterone, followed by surgery four years later.

“My father, who was quite a Victorian man in attitude, said, ‘We’ve been waiting for this since you were two.’ Ninety percent of people said this made sense. But there was a lot of discrimination and prejudice from strangers or people who hardly knew me. I suffered sexual and physical violence on the streets, and I lost job after job. None of this was easy.”

Shortly after his transition, Whittle met his life partner Sarah, with whom he has four children. “I had not yet had surgery at that time, but she never doubted that I was the man she saw and knew.”

In the mid-1980s, Whittle attended night school and studied law. He co-founded Press for Change, which campaigned for trans rights, and was awarded an OBE in 2005 for services to gender issues.

He said young transgender people today face “different challenges” than those he experienced. “Finding and keeping a job is easier for them. But what’s really hard is (social media). Online can be a hateful place.”

As a teenager he questioned his gender, and later as a trans adult, he said he was very isolated and worked hard to build support networks of people who met regularly. Now it was easier to find people who were going through similar experiences online, but harder to maintain contact in person.

There was also a greater willingness to explore gender issues than fifty years ago. “You have people who ask at a much younger age: ‘Am I trans?’. And then there are people who just know they belong in another body.”

The Cass report identified multiple problems with gender identity services, he said. “Underfunding, overwhelmed staff, data not properly kept, mental health services need massive improvement. But I also think you can see the fingerprints of transphobia on the report.”

Some organizations he described as anti-transgender had outsized influence over government and officials, he said. “I haven’t been involved in a single conversation with the government since 2010, none of us have. But these other people sit around the table and enjoy their power. I think aspects of the Cass report were heavily influenced by the fear of these people and the pressure from them.”

Much of what happened after the Cass review would depend on a willingness to provide services with the right resources and offer “a lot of talk therapy” to individuals. “Cass has the potential for positive change, but this must be supported with significant funding,” he said.