Retired Trans Campaigner
“I’ve never been able to pinpoint exactly what it is about Manchester’s state of mind as a city, as a group of people, but it is a place where people can do innovative things.”
Christine Burns: Why I handed over trans campaigning to a new generation who refuse to take no for an answer
Trans campaigner Christine Burns led massive progress in the fight for legal and political reform before handing over to a new generation of activists. She shared her story with the #CitizensofMCR campaign from Marketing Manchester. Visit www.citizensofmcr.co.uk for more information.
When did you first come to live in Manchester?
I originally came up to Manchester in 1972 as an undergraduate. I was born in Essex and then brought up in Kent. When I was 18, I came to learn my subject in university. And it was simply actually because, one thing, as a computer scientist, it’s one of the best places to come, but also, they had very considerately given me a very easy offer. So, I thought ‘I’m going to go there in that case’.
I’d grown up in a small group of towns in the north Kent coast. So to come to Manchester: The big city – not as big as London but it’s still a big city – was quite a culture shock. I was quite a bit overwhelmed with how much it had. In those days in the 1970s, Manchester was still quite a depressed place. There were still bombsites. There wasn’t much going on in the evenings and some of the things that were going on were fairly seedy. So, it is only since then that Manchester has grown up and transformed into the thriving place that it is today.
But having said that, on my very first day in Manchester I remember walking up one of the streets here and something communicated itself to me. I just had a very visceral feeling that I’d come home. And there’s nothing in my family’s history to explain why it should be the place for me. And that feeling’s never gone away. I’ve had flirtations with other places. I’ve gone away for six months here, a year or two there, but I’ve come back and I’ve now been living in the same place in Manchester for 20 years and I wouldn’t swap it for the world.
What were your immediate impressions of Manchester?
For one thing, there was the immediate impression of a huge university city. In 1972, Manchester and Salford had a huge student population of over 30,000 and it’s only ever got bigger since. At the time I arrived, they were building lots of university real estate, there were lots of cinemas, there were theatres, there were places to eat, and good transport links as well. There was so much to the place as well of course the attraction of leaving home and growing up in a place with lots of likeminded students.”
You started out as a computer scientist. How did you become a trans campaigner?
I’ve had two careers. I qualified as a computer scientist and then went on to work in various capacities in that field. And then, later in my career, I decided I fancied a change, so I gave up gadding all over the world as an international computer consultant and became an equality and diversity specialist instead, partly because I was tired of going away for whole weeks and I wanted to live in my home in Manchester. So I changed my career so I could spend more time with my city.
I’m a transsexual woman and we have a very long history. But through the 1950s, 60s and 70s and even through the 80s, we had very few rights and the only thing we could concentrate on doing during that time was slowly building up self-help: social facilities, community groups, for ourselves, so that we could support each other. There was no talk in those days of any sort of activism to try and change the legal status quo for ourselves. But at the end of the 80s a number of circumstances came together and I ended up meeting some other likeminded people with different specialities. We came together and worked as a campaign. And progressively, over the space of about 15 years, we changed not one law but a whole raft of laws to produce the protections that trans people enjoy today.
What part did Manchester play in the success of your campaigning?
It wasn’t anything particular about Manchester that did that, apart from the fact that the critical mass of people, and there were only about four or five of us, we all lived in Manchester or near abouts.
Although actually, historically that isn’t surprising. Go back further into the 1950s and the work that was done for the Wolfenden Report and the decriminalisation of same sex relationships in the 1960s, that originated in the North West as well.
So I’m not entirely sure. I’ve never been able to pinpoint exactly what it is about Manchester’s state of mind as a city, as a group of people, but it is a place where people can do innovative things and be supportive. And that’s always born out by the local authority here, Manchester city council, which has always been very supportive in terms of, first gay and lesbian people, and then ourselves, as trans people, as well.
Has the fight for trans rights been won?
The first thing to learn about any kind of social activism is that there are never any kind of quick and easy solutions. You look at the history of all the minorities in history, whereas there are some steps taken quite quickly, the progression towards being unremarkable members of society takes a long time.
As trans people, we’ve actually come a long way very fast because we learned from some of the things that our predecessors had done and didn’t have to reinvent wheels. But actually, by 2014, we all felt that we had arrived. Certainly in Britain, we had achieved the major legal changes that we required. Trans people were a lot more visible. Globally, big publications like Time and American Vogue were saying that there had been a transgender tipping point. It actually felt like we’d more or less achieved our goals. There were trans stars on soap operas. People understood who trans people were. And then very recently in the last couple of years, we’ve had a setback – we’ve had a backlash.
Again, that isn’t unusual in progress. They say, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win. We’re actually in the ‘then they fight you’ part at the moment, so we have some work to get back from that setback and get back on the path to progress that we were making.
Why did you retire from trans campaigning?
I deliberately retired myself just over 12 years ago, saying to the younger generation of trans people, ‘it’s time for you to take over now’, partly because I’m a strong believer that if any social movement is to have longevity, then it has to have a succession plan. It has to be able to breed the skills in another generation to take it forward. We were tired. We’d burned ourselves out. You don’t get a gender recognition act for free. You have to work very hard and that was on top our day jobs. We weren’t paid to do this. We did it in our spare time. That’s another thing that’s changing now because there’s money coming in to support trans people and activism where there wasn’t before. So I’m very enthused. Those young people amaze me so much. And some of those young people still live in Manchester as well. But we’ve actually moved beyond it being a Manchester thing, which again is so often true of Manchester’s innovations – they start here and percolate out to the rest of the country. The principles we brought to our campaign, which were always about being ethical, making friends, winning our arguments on the facts, we weren’t the sort of people to organise demonstrations or pull stunts or inconvenience anyone. We wanted to make alliances. We taught that to our next generation. The superstars that we’ve bred are carrying that forward.
What was it about Manchester which made your campaigning so successful?
The thing that was the magic ingredient was that so many of us happened to be living within three or four miles of each other, so could go and meet up. And before the internet came along, when we used to do our activism by sending out letters to newspapers and magazines, we actually had letter stuffing parties.
So many people now can’t conceive of this when you can send and email to 10,000 people in one go. But in those days you had to get things printed and collated and you and to fold them and put them in an envelope and stick a label on the envelope and a stamp on the envelope. And you couldn’t do it too often because you were sending out a 1,000 of them at First Class postage, and that was £250, so for a little campaign like ours, which didn’t have much money, that was something you had to be very sparing with.
When I first came to Manchester in 1972, as student, I had no idea that this was the place or the area had this long history of creating campaigns: the people who had brought about the 1967 sexual offences bill, which changed the landscape for gay men in particular. Until I grew up a little bit more and managed to find other trans people, and learned my community’s history at their knee, I didn’t know that this place had history for my kind.
Manchester has a significant activist history, whether it’s looking back to the Peterloo Massacre, whether it’s the Rochdale Pioneers, whether it’s Emmeline Pankhurst, who we’re finally managed to properly recognise with a statue in the city, all of these things point to a place where ideas are valued and can be developed.
Are you proud of the role you have played in trans history?
I don’t know if history will record me personally as part of any movement. I was an enabler. I wrote material that inspired people and explained things to people. We’ve always emphasised that we worked part of a team with different skills and the same objectives. That’s what made us as a tiny group of half a dozen people, working in our bedrooms, that’s made us successful. But looking back, when as a historian, I then say, how did that work, you begin to see parallels to some of the other work that happened in and around Manchester, such as the work to develop the Wolfenden Report, which led to the work to decriminalise homosexual relationships between men. But it was not something consciously we were reading in an instruction book at the time.
How excited are you about the great strides being taken by young people?
The thing that marks out the new generation of transgender people is that they’ve grown up without the baggage that my generation carried. When I was growing up, when you finally learned that there was somebody else like yourself, it was usually in a negative way. I learned that there was a name for people like me in 1966, reading the News of the World, on the carpet, in my parent’s kitchen. Because I learned about it in that way, I learned that it was a very negative thing to be. When I started seeking our trans people in Manchester, away from home so I had the flexibility to do so, the places people met were in back rooms. There was a famous meeting place on Camp Street in Salford, where people met on Wednesday evenings. So there was a feeling that was communicated that there was something a little bit shady about being trans. The difference now, with young people, is that they don’t have any of that. They’ve grown up with the gender recognition act, with the right to not be discriminated in employment, the right not to be harassed, the right not to be sent out of a shop without being served. Those things they’ve grown up with. The expectation that they should be taken seriously and that they should have access to healthcare.
Also, millennials don’t take no for an answer. They’re not going to wait until they are 40 or 50 before they can have turn at running things. They know what they want. They’re very intellectual. They grew up with the internet. They grew up with the whole of human knowledge on a keyboard. I’m so jealous of that. I figured, I didn’t want to be that old person who said ‘oh, no you shouldn’t do it that way, you shouldn’t rattle the cages, don’t upset anyone be polite and so on.’ That’s what my generation did. We were frightfully polite about asking for our rights. This generation, I don’t should have to be polite. Society has been rude to trans people for so many decades that the time for being polite is over. So when they go in and trash all the norms and make people feel uncomfortable on twitter. Great. That fantastic. I wished we had that ability in my day.
Is the fight nearly over?
Society changes a lot more slowly than anybody would like and unfortunately for individuals it doesn’t change quickly enough within an individual’s life. If you look at women’s rights, you can trace the first moves back to campaign for suffrage to the mid-1800s and it wasn’t until 1918 that we haven’t see moves in the country to allow women to vote.
I’m talking 150 years of excruciatingly slow progress. Human beings take a long time to change.
It’s foolish to think that just making some success in some areas, like getting a piece of legislation through, solved problems, particularly legislation. All that does is say this is what its acceptable and not acceptable – but it doesn’t change the behaviour. The way that behaviour changes is through excruciatingly slow social change until it becomes the point where discriminating literally becomes unthinkable. And that takes, I’m guessing, well over 100 years. We’ve done a heck of a lot in the last 27 years in trans activism, but it’s going to take a long time still for that to percolate through society to the extent where me being me is totally acceptable. I’m doing my best.