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LGBT history month : An interview with Carol Steel.

As part of LGBT history month I was delighted to be able to have the chance to interview a prominent activist who has seen her fair share of change over the years.

In 1961, at the age of 16, Carol began in earnest her journey to physically transition from male to female and in 1972,  she formed one of the first groups for transsexual people in the UK with a friend, Linda B. The group grew fairly rapidly and she was asked to give a talk to the students union at Manchester University about transsexuality. After the meeting she was approached by a young trans guy (who identified as a lesbian at the time) who told her that he had always been conflicted about his gender – this person transitioned shortly afterwards and later went on to become one of the leading campaigners for transgender rights and he was part of the legal team that won that all important victory in Strasbourg that forced the then Tory government to implement what became known as the Gender Recognition Act of 2004.

Currently she is doing groundbreaking work supporting trans people in Devon, with her site transfigurations, and ongoing work exploring people’s experiences with their GP’s (something we found to be a big issue with our members in our straw poll in 2014).

Transiness: Hi Carol, I was wondering if you wanted to take part in a small interview for about your activism and the GP database for LGBT history month. I think it’s such important work!

Carol Steele: Yes, I would love it if you would promote it, it is something that is very important and could prove a lifeline for some people.

Transiness: How did you come about having the idea, of the database?

Carol Steele: It came about from somebody mentioning in one of the groups of the hassle that she was having with her GP to get her referred to a GIC – and the rudeness of some of the other staff at the practice.

Transiness: There’s a lot of content on your site, how did you envision it?

Carol Steele: Yes, the site was meant to be a resource where anybody (transgender people of all ages, parents, partners) could gain a little insight into the condition as well as gain reassurance that they were not the only ones in the world – which is what a lot of people feel when they are coming to terms with how they feel about themselves.  That’s why I included some pages about “our stories” to show people that we are all the same but at the same time all unique. Unfortunately that side of it has yet to take off properly

Transiness: Yes, it’s much more in the public eye than it was. I remember going to my first support group and thinking “thank god, it’s not just me”.

Carol Steele: My thoughts as well.  When a person who was counselling me put me in contact with a couple of other transwomen – and with one of them we set up the first TV/TS group in Manchester.

Transiness: Oh, what was that called, and how did it go?

Carol Steele: As we wanted it to be very recognisable, we went for the name of ‘The Manchester TV/TS Group’ lol! It later went on to become the Manchester Concord I believe, but that was well after the time I left to get a job in London. It very quickly became very popular and together with the Leeds TV/TS group were responsible for some of the early activism – including gatecrashing the annual psychitrists conference in York one year lol!  They ended up throwing us out!  It was around 1974

Transiness: omg I wasn’t born then.  It’s incredible all the work that was done for TS/TV people but when I was young there was absolutely nothing to be heard of.  The nearest I had was Kenney Everret and frankly that was so scary for a very young trans girl.

Carol Steele: Yes, it was difficult back in those days as there was no such thing as home computers or the internet. The Manchester Gay Switchboard used to pass on all enquiries of a transgender nature to me. Some gay friends of mine were actively involved with it and they suggested it as they felt it was better to refer a caller onto me whenever possible rather than try and handle it themselves. That was back in the days of CHE and the GLF

Transiness: The CHE?

Carol Steele: Campaign for Homosexual Equality – a bit like Stonewall – a respectable organisation working for gay rights. The GLF (Gay Liberation Front) was more proactive as its name might suggest

Transiness: Ah ok. It sounds like attitudes to gender minorities were quite good from sexual minorities – is that how you experienced it?

Carol Steele: Yes, very much so – we used to work well together – no such thing as TERF’s back in those days.

Transiness: Right, is that what happened then, is that what caused the rifts?

Carol Steele: A lot of gay groups are still very helpful to trans people – we have one in Devon called Proud2Be and we work very well together. It started with Germain Greer and then the publication of the Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond. It served to drive a wedge between some feminists and transgender people, or perhaps I should say some feminist lesbians

Transiness: Yes Germain Greer has been in the press recently, thoroughly discrediting herself. I think a lot of modern feminists just wish she’d shut up now! There were some laws passed in America that saw that sexual minorities had rights, but trans people didn’t, and moreover, that transgender people were denied access to medical treatment. So around this time you were in London?

Carol Steele: Yes, Cathy Brennan and her cohorts had a lot to do with trans people losing rights to medical insurance etc.  Yes I was in London from the mid 70’s to the very early 80’s

Transiness: And you’ve been an activist all this time?

Carol Steele: No, not all the time – when I moved to Torquay to set up my businesses, I took a break.

Transiness: To live in stealth?

Carol Steele: Yes, I owned a hairdressing and beauty salon and I don’t think I would have got very many clients if they had known I was trans lol

Transiness: Yes, exactly… on a personal level, how was that for you?

Carol Steele: It was great, just being accepted as just another woman – but I, like you, was lucky in that respect- I could blend in without a problem

Transiness: Yes, it’s actually who we are.  What made you come out again?

Carol Steele: The realisation that there was still so much to be done for people who were not as fortunate as I had been – and that I had an (almost) lifetime of experience – both good and bad – that I could help people with… so I joined an online forum and quickly became a site moderator – but I became disenchanted as they would not accept people below the age of 18 – when most people need that help.

Transiness: Yeah, I hear Tavistock is rammed right now. So is that when you started your own group?

Carol Steele: Yes, around 4 years ago

Transiness: How did you get things started?

Carol Steele: Originally it was just for Torquay people – a casual group meeting up – but I saw that there was a need for it to be much wider based (and open to trans youth/parents/partners) so set about becoming much more active with the police, the NHS and other bodies – then I decided to create the website

Transiness: It’s looking really good, and it’s fantastic to have a very personalized site. It must have taken a lot of time and effort.

Carol Steele: Yes, originally, it was often a 20 hour day whilst I got it up and running and looking the way I wanted it to…. but well worth it in the end. It receives a huge number of visitors these days Just as well that I have a good web hosting company!

Transiness: And what are your plans for 2015?

Carol Steele: Further expansion, more membership, go out into schools, help people back into employment, work with the NHS to try and improve transgender healthcare – the usual stuff! I have a tour of the custody suite at our local police station – and then some important work around a new protocol that we are developing for transgender detainees being held in custody in the afternoon.

Transiness: Carol thank-you so much for your time.

Part of Carol’s work includes the GP database, if you identify as trans-gender or trans-sexual and have needed to approach your GP about it, please take the time to fill in Carol’s survey below.

Since it was first published in July of last year, the results of the survey into Trans Friendly Doctors and GP’s has been accessed 3,100 times by people from all over the UK – showing that there is desperate need for this type of information by transgender people all over the UK – yet sadly, many transgender people are not coming forward to supply the much needed information sought by so many.

Please, please, PLEASE those of you who have been retiscent about providing information in your area, please take the 5 mins to complete this survey so that you can help others in your area find a GP who will treat them with respect and dignity – or those to avoid because of bad practice.

You can find the survey here.

And here for another article about Carol’s work.

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