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Making the change: Exclusive interview with Scottish Trans Alliance manager James Morton

Image credit: David Anderson, Holyrood

Making the change: Exclusive interview with Scottish Trans Alliance manager James Morton

James Morton grew up in a village outside Edinburgh in the 1980s where, as a little girl, he believed that he was like the other boys in his class other than he had been born with a female body. He felt safe and accepted. And pre-puberty, feeling the way he did caused him no real issues other than whether he should stand up or sit down to pee.

Morton had no idea what being trans was and as he grew older, he read many books on second-wave feminism, desperately wanting to ‘cure’ himself of feeling he should be male by trying to find a way to be a different kind of woman.

“I really wanted gender not to matter and I thought by reading enough, becoming actively feminist enough and kind of determined enough, I could stop myself feeling this disconnect from my birth sex and having this utter distress about my body, but it just wouldn’t undo.

“It is so hard to explain because it wasn’t like a delusion – I know I was born female – but in my dreams, I just always had a male body, I was always a boy, and even though I could see when looking in a mirror that I had a female body, I would often forget others weren’t seeing me as male. There would be a weird dynamic because I was unmistakably looking and sounding female at that point.

“I don’t know why I developed such a strong sense of myself as male and a strong need to be seen by others that way but, for whatever bio-psycho-social reasons, I did. By the time I was in my teens that was what had really crystallised for me. I think sometimes it’s like how much gelatine is in someone’s identity to make them set. Some people clearly have a more movable sense of themselves and other people are set firmly. 

“Looking back, people would probably have seen me as a very troubled teenager but not known why. People would probably have said that this – being trans – all came out of nowhere because my physical appearance in my early teens was as such a girl, a very librarian-looking, long-haired girl.

“I don’t think that people would have thought my issues stemmed from gender and when I came out as trans, I think people were quite surprised. Once they thought about it … it started to make more sense, but their initial reaction was like, ‘what…what?’”

The political backdrop was the early 1990s – Thatcher’s Britain – with an ugly row over Section 28 at its height when schools were effectively banned from covering LGBT issues. Consequently, Morton had no one to talk to, no role models to see himself in, and when his periods started, he became increasingly anxious about what his body was doing. And by the time he was 16 and preparing to sit exams, he was depressed, self-harming, and suicidal. Despite this, he achieved five ‘A’s in his Highers but while contemplating university, one teacher told him, pointedly, not to apply for any face-to-face interviews because he would “come across as too weird”.

Increasingly distressed about who he was, Morton made several suicide attempts and attended the Young People’s Unit at the Royal Edinburgh where, for the first time, he found a way to meet other LGBT young people.

“There was this little photocopied black and white leaflet in the YPU for what was called the Stonewall Youth Project back then but it’s now LGBT Youth Scotland and so consequently, all the folks who were going to the youth group had come from the YPU and we were all quite distressed but that was the first time I had knowingly met anybody else who was LGBT.

“To put this in some context, this was around the same time as the very first Scottish Pride and so the LGBT youth group made a banner but only about three people felt able to take it and go on the march because the rest of us were too scared.

“I did try to tell adults about the issues I was having with my gender identity, but I didn’t really have the words or the confidence to explain it very clearly. I think I just thoroughly confused them, and it wasn’t until I was at university that I got more confident in being able to explain who I was.

“When I finally decided to transition, I was told by the gender identity clinic and by other trans people to expect to lose family and friends, to expect to have to move to somewhere else and to start my life over again. To keep my history a secret and invent different aspects, like if you went to a girls school then put down a boys’ school’s name instead, and say whatever you need to in order to not reveal your trans status.

And if you end up outed and people realise you’re trans, expect to have to move on and start again…basically, if you can’t hide your past, then expect to have an intolerable life. That’s why very few people transitioned back then because that’s how it was painted.

“Things were very difficult with my mum at first. My dad had died when I was 18 so that made it doubly difficult for my mum because she was still trying to come to terms with that loss. I look back and I do feel guilty about the amount of stress that I put her through back then. I think it is very difficult for parents because it can feel like they’re kind of grieving for the vision of their child’s life that they had. There can also be this sense of will they feel connected to this new version of their child. I think my mum was kind of scared that it would feel like a stranger was turning up at the door and going, by the way, I’m your long-lost child, the one that you didn’t know you had. I know all of that was hard, but she is an amazing mum and a great ally now.

“I dropped out of university at 19 because there was no protection back then and the way that a gay friend had been treated by other students was so horrific, I just felt I couldn’t transition there and really without going into too much detail, between the ages of 19 and 21, life was very difficult. I had really bad mental health, my relationship with my mum had broken down and I started my transition while I was part of the Edinburgh homeless scene.”

Morton describes the surgery when he had his breasts removed in a disarmingly matter of fact way as “just removing some tissue that didn’t need to be there”. He was more conflicted about taking testosterone “adding medication into my body that could affect my brain”. And when, later, he had a hysterectomy, his mother’s reaction surprised him more than his own.

“I wasn’t exactly sympathetic to my mum’s reaction at that point because I thought she’d properly understood that there would never be grandchildren but now, years on, I do understand that for her, while she accepted me as James, that really was shutting the door on a biological grandchild because I am an only child. I understand that now.

“People ask people like me, are you sure you weren’t just a lesbian and I would have loved to have been a lesbian instead. Virtually all the trans folk I know are like, gosh, if I could have waved a magic wand and only be LGB that would have been so much easier. But it’s not who I am. We are not neat, we don’t fit easily, and there’s people who’ve been coming out in the last few years of all different ages. Some of them have lived most of their adult lives as lesbian women and now they are finally feeling able to live as trans men and there’s younger people coming out as trans. Most of the trans people I know do not identify as straight and heteronormative after transition, they are saying they are ‘queer and trans’ or, ‘bi and trans’, or ‘I don’t care who I end up having relationships with and trans’. I personally feel like it would be hypocritical if I were to require my sexual partners to have particular bits when I don’t have the bits most people would expect.”

But it’s ‘having these bits’ that has, unfortunately, become the focus of proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) that could see trans people self-identify and no longer have to go through what many see as a painful and humiliating process to acquire a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) and be legally recognised by being able to change their birth certificate to reflect how they live in society.

The row has increasingly branded left-leaning feminists as bigots for refusing to accept the rhetoric that ‘trans women are women’ and for raising questions about the risks that self-ID could pose to women and young girls, particularly around male-bodied people accessing single-sex spaces such as changing rooms, women’s refuges and prisons. An angry backlash has seen some women’s groups saying they have been attacked with their concerns shouted down, while conversely, there has been a reported increase in transphobic aggression.

As the Scottish Trans Alliance manager, Morton has been at the fore of the campaign to push the changes to the GRA and says that the last time he felt this vulnerable about being trans was when he was a teenager.

I think because less than 0.6 per cent of the population are trans people, we feel quite terrified just now because it’s not a level playing field and power feels like it is elsewhere.

“I feel a great deal of responsibility, personally, for trying to help navigate through all the contentiousness and we’ve always tried really hard to find pragmatic ways of making policies and practice work that make a service good for all service users. We haven’t been not caring about the impact on others and, for instance, the work we do with prisons is really difficult work, but we do it because we believe in good quality risk assessment and want everybody to be safe and we don’t want anything to go wrong.

“But the things that people are worried about and questioning right now, most of them aren’t affected by the GRA. So, for example, there’s a very important discussion to be had around women’s sports and what is fair and safe competition. The GRA has no impact on that because there’s an exception that no one’s proposing changing that says that getting a GRC doesn’t stop the sport’s governing body from being able to treat you differently.

“Likewise, with single-sex services, getting a GRC isn’t a free pass that means that you can never be thrown out of a service and you don’t have to have a GRC to be treated in your lived sex, indeed, in order to get your GRC, you need to show that you’ve already been moving in society [and] treated in that sex for at least two years.

“So, put simply, the length of time that somebody has to wait between changing their other documents, like their passport and changing their birth certificate, we would like that to be shortened, mostly because at the moment, it’s two whole years and a lot of trans people actually just forget to come back and sort it out.

“The GRC actually has quite a limited function. It is one of the reasons why we didn’t think it was very contentious to ask for it to be a bit easier to obtain, especially because now pension ages have equalised. Yet pension companies still ask you to show your birth certificate, so if you’ve not changed it as a trans person, you can end up outing yourself to your employer simply to join the pension scheme.

“In terms of marriage, you can get a marriage certificate regardless of what you and your partner’s birth certificates say, so it’s not about whether you can or can’t get married. It’s about whether you feel confident and able to be called a husband or a wife during the ceremony and use the terms that feel right for you without having to reveal your trans status to the registrar.

“It’s about not having that last document that can out you. Being able to relax and go, OK, all my paperwork is now in order.

“This isn’t about what services or toilets you use, it is about how your life is officially recorded and not just for now, but for the next generation. Does somebody in my family in the future look back at the family tree and see me – James – or do they see this person that I never felt I was and which doesn’t reflect my adult life at all?

“I have a GRC and I did it for three reasons. Firstly, so I wouldn’t have the stress again of having to out myself just to join a workplace pension. Secondly, so I wouldn’t have that uncomfortable feeling of one piece of my official documentation still being in a name and sex that doesn’t match my life and lastly, and importantly, to be sure that when I die, nobody can erase my hard-won identity and my right to be remembered as me.”

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