In conversation with Heather Peto

OULC Publicity Officer Jay Staker interviews Heather Peto, trans activist and 2017 Labour parliamentary candidate for Rutland and Melton.

When did you come out as trans and how did your friends and family react?
I came out as Trans, 20 years ago. At first my family were very upset and kicked me out of home. We only repaired our relationship when they realised I had become ill, lost my housing and was sleeping rough. It was quite a long time ago so there was not the knowledge that there is now about gender identity. Some friends thought that I was gay and had an unusual way to express it. Many found it hard to acknowledge who I was, but some of my friends, especially female friends, were really great and supportive and helped give me advice about all the fashion mistakes I was making!

Did you find it difficult to come to terms with your identity?
Growing up was difficult, there was no information at school, and it was really before people got info online. There were only negative stories in the press and a lot of gay bashing – people thought I was gay, and as far as I knew that was what I was if I thought I was a woman. Yet another reason why it was so bad for growing up as LGBT+ was Section 28. I actually have a funny story about my gender identity and sexuality. I am bisexual but that was another thing that was never spoken about. I was confused about my sexuality because I was attracted to both sexes. At the time I thought I must be attracted to men because I am really a woman, and attracted to men because I am physically male. It was only when I got to university, Oxford as it happens, that someone said – that is bisexuality. I felt such a fool. The real difficulty with my identity was worrying about what my parents would think if I told them. That was hard.

Why do you think the fight for trans equality is lagging so far behind the rest of the LGBTQ+ community?
I think, part of that is its history of the way trans people were treated as mentally ill, part of it is numbers of people who were out, and part of it is a very misinformed anti-trans lobby.

There has been controversy recently about trans women being able to run on Labour’s all-women’s shortlists. What is your opinion on this?
I think it is a media-made problem. I was accepted as a woman by the Labour Party 20 years ago on the basis of self-identification, and was a Woman’s Officer in the 2000’s at university. There was never a problem then. We just have a very loud anti-liberal voice in the press and social media at the moment.
A claim is sometimes made that transwomen have not experienced the same prejudice and glass-ceilings as other women so should not be on AWS. […] Trans women experience huge prejudice, discrimination and sexual harassment in life. Our average pay years after transitioning is the worst of the protected minority communities. So while women suffer a whole host of prejudice and barriers in life, not every women will experience all of them, and to make a set of tick boxes to say you must have certain experiences to be a woman actually limits our fight against gender prejudice.

In 2017 you ran for parliament for Rutland and Melton. What was the reaction on the doorstep to having a trans candidate?
Mostly positive. I was chased off a driveway by one irate resident. Rutland does have some villages that are a bit Midsommer Murders-like, and when I first went there jaws dropped. But after a while, most people liked coming up to chat and [thought that] if I had had a tough life fighting prejudice then I would be a good MP fighting for their problems. In general, being trans has been an advantage – it gets me recognised and remembered.

What would you say to a trans person who is struggling to come to terms with their identity?
That really depends on the person and their circumstances so there isn’t really blanket advice. Generally though, being yourself is liberating. Find a group of friends who are supportive (either online or through local LGBT communities) and if you decide to transition do it at your own pace.
Online support has really been undermined by anti-trans campaigners who have been posing as trans to then out people and ridicule transitioning. For example, ten years ago, some bigots at university thought it would be really funny to pretend to be trans on a support site so that they could share with their colleagues and have a laugh about me. I believed I was talking to someone trying to come to terms with their identity…only to find my sex life was being shared around my work colleagues and my identity parodied on the net. I am not unique in having this done to me, and…the result is that there is a lot less support online now.

The government is currently undertaking a consultation regarding potential changes to the Gender Recognition Act. What do you hope will result from the process?
Mostly we want simplified self-identification as a matter of dignity and acceptance, because no-one else should have the right to tell you who you are and you should not need medical permission. It would be absurd if you needed a GP and a specialist to sign letters to allow you to identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, so why should we have it for gender identity?
There are also a lot of legal implications for trans people who do not have a gender recognition certificate, ranging from privacy protections to finding your insurance is invalid. The law is complicated but basically you can change your passport and driving license but those do not change your gender in law, only changing your birth certificate using the long expensive Gender Recognition Act process will. If you sign an insurance document or other contract using your self-identified gender you can in theory get prosecuted for fraud and other offenses. You can even be prosecuted for kissing another person in a club if you cannot prove they knew you were assigned a different gender at birth.

Do you think the future is bright for the trans community?
It all depends on if we can stop the trend of populism misinformation and hate. If we can’t then the future is bleak not only for the trans community but also for LGB rights…and for other minority communities. However, in general I am very optimistic; more people are coming out as trans and most students and young people are supportive. Soon people will just accept a person’s gender identity as readily as their sexuality. I am looking forward to it.

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