Sarah Brown (auntysarah) wrote,
Sarah Brown

My Papers Are Not In Order

I'm a child of the Cold War. I grew up knowing that only a few hundred miles away, the two most fearsome armies the world had ever seen, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, were facing each other across a no-man's land that stretched from the Adriatic to the Baltic. That war could turn hot at any time. That the reason we had to do this was because we were Free and the people on the other side were Not Free; they lived in an Orwellian nightmare made real. This was what we grew up knowing, until it changed on that December day in 1989.

For my impressionable teenage self, the spirit of this was captured in film most memorably by the Clint Eastwood Cold War epic, "Firefox". In it, our hero, a US special forces veteran with who spoke Russian thanks to his grandmother, is recruited to penetrate the iron curtain and steal a web browser, er, top secret fighter jet, the eponymous Firefox. It's the ultimate air superiority weapon, a thought-controlled super fighter that could give the Soviets the crucial advantage they need to outmanoeuvre NATO.

Anyway, there's this bit where good old Clint is in Moscow, posing as an American salesman on a rare trade mission. He's in a loo in a metro station when the nightmare scenario happens - a KGB agent walks in and demands to see his papers, because that's how people live behind the Iron Curtain. Everyone knew that; they had to show their Papers all the time, to any petty official who asked, as a sort of constant low level harassment to keep them in their place. That's why the West was better.

After looking through Clint's papers, the KGB agent declares, "your papers are not in order" and goes for his gun. A fight ensues, Clint kills him and goes on to steal the plane and have gripping dogfights as he tries to fly it home over the icecap.

Some may be aware of the current furore over the new requirements to attend the Liberal Democrat party conference - we have to supply information to the police well in advance so they can perform some sort of background check (to be shared with the conference organisers) and determine if we're suitable people to be allowed in. Apparently the police insisted on this, apparently our insurance for the conference would be invalid if we declined, and it would bankrupt the party or something,. As you can imagine, many of us, who campaigned on the basis of scrapping ID cards and rolling back the security state are extremely unhappy with this, seeing it as the police restricting the right of freedom to associate for political purposes.

Many of us are also rather suspicious that the undisclosed nature of the threat this is meant to counter has less to do with preventing some sort of physical attack (the venue already has airport style security), and more to do with preventing heckling. The elderly gentleman ejected from the Labour conference under terrorism powers for heckling Tony Blair is fresh in the mind. Of course, terrorism is implicated - we live, we are told, in dangerous times (more dangerous, apparently, than when the was an active IRA bombing campaign on the British mainland). The spectre of the 1980s IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton at the Tory party conference is raised, apparently with a straight face despite the fact that the bomb in question was not planted by anyone at the conference.

I'm not going. I'd really like to go, but I object to this in principle, and also for personal reasons. Others have asked me why I don't go and campaign against it inside, but I cant do that because that requires me to submit to the vetting process and I don't want to do that. On one hand, it's a point of principle, and I wouldn't be able to live with myself. On the other, My Papers Are Not In Order.

Let me explain. My Papers are superficially valid. I'm a white, middle class, Cambridge educated, 37 year old woman with a clean criminal record, clean driving licence, good credit history. If anyone asked me that question they like to embarrass politicians with - have I ever taken illegal drugs, I can genuinely answer "no" (sorry, I know it's boring). The problem is, if you scratch the surface it becomes apparent that there is a problem. I didn't exist six years ago, and when that little bit of trivia surfaces, it leads to me being outed as trans.

Of course one might ask what the problem is, given that I am "out" anyway, but I'm in control of that. I'm out in a general sense, but not out to every supermarket cashier, every traffic warden, every policeman in the street and so on. I don't wear a metaphorical sign around my neck that says "Hi. Trans person here!"

That sign does appear, however, whenever someone looks into my background.

A few years ago I had a Criminal Records Bureau check. They outed me to the organisation requesting the check. They weren't supposed to, but they did.

Last year I bought a 3G SIM for my iPad. I needed a credit check. The was some sort of problem. I passed the check, but it involved phone calls and puzzled looks from the salesman, and took a long time.

A few weeks ago I went to the bank with Sylvia and Zoe to open a joint current account for the household expenses. This is the bank who've known me for 21 years. They're quite nice to me, I'm a good customer. Part way through the process the bank clerk noticed there was another signatory to the existing account. "Who's this person?" she asked, pointing to that name which appeared on the screen, which I'd assumed had been expunged. I was mortified.

For trans people, this can be a constant worry. Procedures set up to protect us often don't work because the organisations implementing them are institutionally incompetent. Some organisations don't even have any such procedures. Sometimes broken IT systems out us. That annoying verified by VISA thing? I can't expunge my old name from it - every time I try and buy something online it pops up. The name hasn't been on my credit cards for years.

And every time this happens the person I'm dealing with is in a position of power. In a transaction where it should be irrelevant, they are given information they could use to humiliate me if they were malicious, or possibly just tactless. I really don't like background checks.

And here they are intruding into a new part of my life, and I've had enough. Being trans isn't the only reason for someone's papers to not be in order - I imagine there are lots of minority groups to whom it happens, but I suspect something many of us have in common is the constant low level stress it causes.

This surfaced yesterday, quite unexpectedly, when I was feeling frustrated about this, and angry at colleagues who just didn't understand why I can't just go along with it this one time. Suddenly I found myself thinking about all those occasions when someone probably found out, like the SIM card, or the CRB check, or a whole host of others. I found myself thinking about those months I spent early in transition, in the so called "real life experience", which is a sort of ritual humiliation that the medical profession insist trans people go through because it's funny, or something, when I was constantly aware of being visibly gender variant. People would notice in public, laugh, stare, point, sometimes look at me with real hatred in their eyes.

The threat of having to deal with this yet again, and trying to explain to people who simply don't get it broke me. A huge mental scab was picked off and it all came flooding out. I realised as I sat there in tears that I was experiencing post traumatic stress. I expect it's there in members of lots of minority groups who are exposed to constant low level "othering" in society. Eventually it all comes flooding out.

Well I'm not doing it this time. They're not getting my details to store indefinitely, and grub around in my background, and have random conference officials who check my badge possibly find out how I got to be who I am now (one would hope the supporting IT systems aren't set up like this, but one can get nasty surprises as I found out at the bank).

My papers are not in order, and I can't steal a plane and just fly away to some magical wonderland where it doesn't matter. It's my life, forever, and I refuse to expose myself to more stress over this than I need to, because the routine administrivia of life will do enough of that all by itself.

My Papers Are Not In Order, and so I'm not going to the party conference.

Also posted at - you can comment here or there.

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