The chances are that if I were to tell you of a group within society who suffered ridicule and prejudice from others for the way they dressed and occasionally spent their weekends, you would probably think I was speaking from my experience as a transgender woman. You might even think your initial impression was confirmed if I were to add their wives didn’t understand them, don’t join in with their hobby and only on some occasions tolerate it……….. Strangely though, I’m not talking about the transgender community, or myself……………..

While waiting at Southampton for a train back home to Bristol, an elderly man came upto me and asked if he could share my seat. “Sure” I said moving my handbag so he could sit down. He gave me a glance, sat down and unpacked a notebook, camera and tripod. Next he organised his collection of books around him before saying, “Yes, I admit it, I’m a trainspotter. Bet you find that a bit strange eh ?” Turning to him, I replied “Not so much, my names Joanna and I’m transgender”

He grinned “Alright, it’s not a competition” Standing, he looked me up and down and reminded me he “fought a war for me”. Not really sure what point he was making, I thanked him for protecting our freedom and steered him back towards telling me about his hobby. “Are you sure ? he asked, “I’ve never had anyone ask me before”

“Sure, I’ve got time, I can always catch a later train” I said. “Would you like to grab a coffee ?”

And just like that, we had a conversation. Although I can’t remember it all verbatim, I thought I would share that pretty cool moment. It turns out our groups have a lot more in common than you might think, who’d have thought it ?

He asked all the usual questions you get when you’re out and about, did my parents approve ? was I married ? What did she think ? Why did I pretend to be a woman, was I going to have the op ? If my boobs where real, what my real name was, where I kept my bits, If I liked men or women, even if I had AIDs (how very 1980s) He occasionally muddled pronouns and once and even told me to sort my makeup out after I had wiped some mayonnaise of my upper lip. Responding to this barrage of questions, I found it easy to sympathise with how many trans people feel about how they fit with society and their perception of transphobia.
A good example of this was when he asked if “I was a tranny ?” Explaining that for many trans people this was a deeply offensive word and wasn’t a label that many would appreciate, it was comforting to see his reaction and apology. “I genuinely didn’t realise, I’m so sorry” he offered.

Trying to diffuse the situation I offered “That’s ok, I thought Trannies were white vans that Ford make. No offence taken”

Our conversation rambled on and eventually it came to my chance to ask him about trainspotting. I asked him why one line, gauge, or class was better than another, why he couldn’t share his hobby with his wife, if he was a full time trainspotter or not, what sort of support network there where did he go to share his experiences, how did he meet people, how he dealt with people looking at him and judging him. I also asked if he judged himself unfavourably if someone had some kit that he didn’t, if his wife approved and if his beard was real (just for fun of course)

I was struck at how passionate and knowledgeable he was about his “lifestyle choice” or “hobby” , how his eyes lit up with excitement when he told me about the romance of the golden age of steam and how, now that he was older it was his gateway to the world which helped him get out and enjoy new places and meet new people. He told me about the groups that he had joined and his layout in the attic (n gauge apparently, representative of part of the east coast mainline) it just poured out of him with almost schoolboy enthusiasm. He then said something that made me think “It’s just got to the stage now where I’m too old to care about what other people think and I want to get out there and make up for lost time”, “It’s not like I’m hurting anyone doing it”

Thinking about what he had told me, I took a sip of coffee and that instant of silence became a moment which became noticeable. “Are you ok ?” he asked “I haven’t upset or bored you have I ?” After thanking him for telling me all about trains and explaining that I’m more of a plane girl, I went on to say that for some members of both communities, trans and trains, I guessed that some of the things we had asked of each other and the way we had clumsily asked them could be taken as being offensive. But over coffee and cake (or in my case a sandwich) we had just been two people seeking to educate themselves about the others interests and lifestyles.

“What’s your point ?” he asked. So I went onto explain a little to him about prejudice and how it often led to a particular hate crime called “transphobia”. At this point, his body language changed and he rasped “I’m not prejudiced”, almost challenging me to defy him. It’s frightening how a single word can change the tone and direction of a conversation between two people, much like the original word that caused the comment in the first place. Once out there though, lines get drawn, people get defensive and the conversation becomes adversarial rather than engaging.

Thinking a little about it later on the train ride home, it seemed to me the experience had shown me that before we judge, we should at least try and understand the context of the situation that we’re in. Although I’m sure many will quote that “ignorance is no defence” and favour a zero approach to this sort of prejudice, I wondered if doing so on occasions risks alienating the very people you are trying to get acceptance from. Worse still is when you just highlight the issue, without pointing out why it’s a problem and then providing a solution.

I imagined some of my friends listening in to our conversation, perhaps even reading it now and saying this person was “transphobic” because of what he had asked, (particularly the “tranny” part). Then taking to social media to vent their anger at “yet another incident” What positive change comes from such an action though ? The chances are that person, or group of people, don’t read your blog as it’s not on their range of interests of things to follow.

For me the key to progressing acceptance of trans (or any other minority group, including trainspotters) in the wider community is education in the first instance, followed by support of all parties as our understanding of each other increases. Sometimes though, the first attempt fails, maybe even the second, but although it may test you, it shouldn’t deter you.

Press ahead with education and understanding, rather than frustration and highlighting prejudice. Of course, you’ve got to be safe when you’re taking on these battles and sometimes there will be times where no amount of positive action, support and education will help, but hey, you’ve got to try !!!

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