From gender reassignment to trade union activist

We each have our own skills and talents but, when we organise, those individual qualities add together to create something far greater than the sum of its parts.

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Unions: not them; us.

“Think not what your union can do for you but what you can do for your union.” Actually when I went through gender reassignment, my thoughts were very much with what my union could do for me. I am a secondary school teacher, so my journey from he to she happened in front of hundreds of people. I’m grateful for the support of many people at work, but my union were superb. I knew that they were on my side because they were my union. That is what unions do, and their advice about the law and the various practical issues that I had to navigate was second to none.

Several years later, another transition has taken place in my life. This one happened much more quietly but it was still very significant. That journey was from them to us.  Unions can sometimes be viewed in a similar way as a central heating service contract. When things get frosty and you have a problem, they come out to help. “They” being something separate. Before I invoke the wrath of thousands of workplace representatives, caseworkers, and local and national officials who work tirelessly on behalf of their colleagues, I need to clarify. This is nonsense, total nonsense. If unions really were “they”, the trade union movement would not have thrived for almost two hundred years.  The key is in the name we use. Unions are us. We – the members – are the union and, by organising and working together, the mutual support we can give to each other is much greater than any external service could ever hope to supply.

In my case, the shift from they to us had an enormous impact on my working life and my involvement in my union. I have learned much and acquired new skills from colleagues at training courses but I have learned far more, and developed those skills, by working alongside them.  My passion for equalities work has been nurtured at both local and national levels. But I am still a teacher and the day after I represent us (not them) on a TUC equalities committee I will be back in school teaching children and getting alongside my colleagues. That support in the staff room is not limited to equalities. I may be trans but I am also a teacher facing issues familiar to every other teacher.

November 20th is the Transgender Day of Remembrance when trans people and their allies remember trans people who have lost their lives in the face of ignorance, oppression and violence.  The support that trans people and their allies give to each other on this day and every other is unquantifiable.  But none of us are single issue people. We are whole people and part of a greater society. The strength of our unions is founded in the mutual support of colleagues who work together. We understand the issues because we share the experience together. We each have our own skills and talents but, when we organise, those individual qualities add together to create something far greater than the sum of its parts.

If you are not in a union, join one. If you are in a union, get involved. If you are involved, encourage others.  It is not about they; it is about us. Together we are stronger.

This article was first published by the TUC Stronger Unions Blog on 20 November 2016: From gender reassignment to trade union activist – my story.  At the same time the TUC published a guide to supporting trans workers.

Author: Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

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