Meet Christine Burns: The 64-year-old transgender activist

Christine Burns promotes her new book Pic: Yona Mazigh

Christine Burns promotes her new book Pic: Yona Mazigh

Meet Christine Burns, the 64-year-old transgender activist who played a pivotal role in helping her community campaign for vital human rights.

One of the pioneers of trans activism, she agreed to talk to Eastlondonlines about the story behind her recent book: Trans Britain: Our Journey from the shadows.

In it she chronicles the history of trans Britain and the struggles campaigners faced in fighting for equal rights for their community.

Burns’ journey started in the 1950s when no one talked openly about trans issues. As a child, she says, she wondered about herself: “Am I the only one like me?”’ She remembered thinking this when she was 11.  

Burns was born in the borough of Redbridge in 1954. This was a time when there was no internet yet and television sets were rare. Burns was never exposed to anyone like her and says: “The only thing you got in the 60s for me was what you could find on the tabloid Sunday’s paper, and that’s not a really good way to learn about yourself honestly. I realised, oh God there is a word for me and that’s not a good thing to be!’ 

A pivotal moment came in 1974 when Jan Morris published one of the autobiographical novels by a transgender person: Conundrum.  This book has got a place in Burns’ heart as it talks about the author’s personal experience of her transition from man to woman.

She recalls thinking: “How do you master people if you want to send them information? You could create newsletters and we used to do that at the beginning.”

She explains that those were made in thousands of copies that got sent to the trans community known at the time. She said: “We folded the copies into small envelopes and then took them to the post office. Posting a thousand envelopes is actually very expensive, especially when you have no money, you can’t move very fast. It’s a nightmare!” 

By the 1990s, the internet became the tool for the growth of the trans community. Burns recalls: “It solved the problem that we had as a small and geographically dispersed community.”

One of her priorities was to pass on her experience and stories, so she decided to set up her own website and email channel to become  a journalist documenting the trans community’s history.

She says: “I believe strongly that if you are going to represent people then they need to see who you are, what you stand up for and what you’re about, you can’t be a hidden figure.”

She did all this without mentioning once she actually was a transvestite.

It was around this time that Burns started working with Press for Change (PFC), a UK-based campaign group focusing on the rights and treatment of trans people. She was appointed an MBE for her work with them.

Burns’ said her perception around her identity changed when she went to an event in Amsterdam in 1993.

She explained: “I learned so much about clinicians, lawyers and other trans people over the world. That was the first time I met trans from the US, Canada, France, Germany and Australia. We were all speaking the same language in terms of experience because we all came through the same development.”

“It was like an epiphany in the true biblical sense, I came back realising that there was something to fight for on genuine human rights basis and I think that’s probably what made an activist of me.”

After that in 1996 the PFC team won a case in the European Court of Justice to enact a law to protect people’s employment rights. Later on in 1998 they won another case in the High Court of Justice concerning people’s access to treatments on the NHS.

In 2002 the European court of Justice agreed to the right of privacy and the right to marry, another case won by the activists.

Last but not least, Burns and the PFC team campaigned for the 2004 Gender recognition Act; one of the most important laws ever amended for trans people.  This act allowed them an official certificate showing ‘legal recognition in the acquired gender’.

The press were opposed to it, she explains. “Every single time the press went ape because: ‘How dare they do this? How dare they win rights?’ That was the only time what we were doing was documented in the press. It was usually documented in terms of people’s reaction to our audacity to pursue our rights and go against these sad stereotypes of us as perverts. Perverts don’t win court cases.”

Burns decided to write her book for various reasons. One of them was due to a shift in contemporary culture.

She explains: “I realised the sudden search and interest about trans-people is because of Orange is the New Black, Caitlyn Jenner and the people on the EastEnders and so on. People actually thought trans was not bad and I’d never heard it before, god knows how they got through all those years!”

As a result of this new generation and their access to internet, Burns thought she needed to share the full story as she knows it, but especially explain the important historical background of the trans community.

Burns says: “ The question was how do you tell a story that goes over 50 years and more? So I decided well, I know all these people that were doing all these things in the 60s and the 70s I could get them to tell it through their own experience.

“I also realised the new young generation of trans activists did not know their history and that’s really dangerous for activists to not understand the context. I figured it was important to tell the story as completely as possible.”

Burns says: “We all go through this idea of phases and the development of our community, whatever it is.”

Trans Britain: Our Journey from the shadows is published by Unbound.

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