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International Transgender Day of Visibility: Where do the Royal Navy and the NMRN Sit?

International Transgender Day of Visibility: Where do the Royal Navy and the NMRN Sit? 

In 2009, US-based transgender activist Rachel Crandall founded the International Transgender Day of Visibility (ITDOV), in response to a lack of LGBTQ+ recognition of transgender (trans) people.

For the Royal Navy, ITDOV aims to confront transphobia and cissexism (prejudice against trans people) by raising awareness of trans personnel and celebrating them.

Transgender is an umbrella term used to describe someone whose gender identity differs to the sex they were assigned at birth. Trans people may also identify as non-binary or gender-fluid; definitions can be found at the end of the post.

In a 2018 blog post for ITDOV, the Royal Navy revealed that six serving personnel were transgender. With progressive laws in place to protect trans people in Britain since 2004 (the Gender Recognition Act), and the Royal Navy lifting the ban on transgender personnel in 2014, you might expect this figure to be higher. Similarly, the National Museum of the Royal Navy lacks strong trans narratives. Are we therefore, in fact, faced with trans-invisibility across these institutions?

Coming out in an institution that did not accept homosexuality until 2000, and trans people until 2014, can be extremely daunting. Coming to terms with one’s gender identity if it falls beyond the binary can also be a personal challenge that takes time, particularly when transgender people still face enormous discrimination and violence in society.  Such complexities surrounding attitudes, acceptance and violence on any scale can make this journey difficult and negatively impact self-esteem.

Full transition itself can take up to five years. Some will present as their true identity early on in transition, others much later. Some will never transition, seeing gender as something that changes. Six, therefore, is not necessarily entirely reflective of the number of trans personnel in the Royal Navy, but their work to ensure inclusivity is hugely important in making people feel safe no matter where they are on their journey. 

Joanna; Friday Nights at Sea from the trans military veterans project, Dry Your Eyes Princess with permission from photographer, Stephen King.

What are we doing within the NMRN? We lack these narratives for a number of reasons; many people hid, and still feel the need to hide their identity while others simply choose to remain private. Attitudes have also not always transformed as quickly as laws have come into place; sadly, in some instances, we may have chosen to focus our attention elsewhere. 

The term ‘transgender’ was not coined until 1971. Records of transgender men or women within the Royal Navy or dockyards rarely exist pre-1970. It is particularly difficult to uncover such records from a time where gender non-conformity was “taboo”, and likely to have been alluded to in round-about terms when someone could not bear to use explicit descriptors. 

We do hold some records of women who cross-dressed to join the Royal Navy but the language we use to discuss and express gender identity today did not exist then. It is most likely these women wanted to experience life beyond the confines of their sex, but we will never be able to ask if, for some, there was even more at stake. If you find this topic of interest, we've written about it more extensively in a blog post called 'The Female Warrior: Cross-Dressing Naval Women'.

International Transgender Day of Visibility then provides us with a stepping stone on our way to bettering the representation within our collections and our narratives. It is an easy opportunity for us to start addressing these issues henceforth, rather than a tokenistic date marked just once a year.

The Royal Navy continues to be a trail blazer for equality and diversity, from the active recruitment of trans people to their constantly evolving understanding of the nuances of gender identity under this umbrella term. Official Government documentation for the armed forces states that Defence is ‘committed to ensuring that there is no discrimination against transgender applicants during the recruitment process,’ with the same support extending to those already serving. 

Policy for the Recruitment and Management of Transgender Personnel in the Armed Forces

A 2017 HuffPost interview with two naval personnel from RNS Yeovilton – Gemma and Ben – discussed the immense support they received from the Royal Navy upon wishing to begin transitioning. Both retained their jobs and found that sharing one’s true identity enabled them to be happier and perform better. 

The Royal Navy maintains their pride in their growing diversity, welcoming both cis and trans men and women in both the Navy and the Royal Marines. In 2019, the Royal Navy ranked 19th in Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers List, and both show presence at annual pride events around the globe. 

Royal Navy and Royal Marines march in Pride

In 2021, the Armed Forces announced that members of the LGBTQ+ community who were stripped of their medals and removed from service could apply for the return of their honours in a landmark decision to right a historical injustice. 

Every year International Transgender Day of Visibility is celebrated on 31 March.

Terminology

Transition - The journey an individual takes to become the gender that is opposite to the sex they were assigned at birth. This can include name changes, legal document changes, hormone therapy, surgery and change in use of pronouns. Each journey is unique to each person. 

Non-binary - Sometimes referred to as genderqueer. This is a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine. Some choose to use the pronouns “they/them” to avoid being pigeon-holed into a specific gender. 

Gender-fluid – A gender identity that varies or changes over time. Someone may feel more like a woman one day, and a man the next. This can change throughout the course of a single day. 

Presenting - When a trans person is “presenting” they are publicly expressing their true identity, whether through fluidity or as part of their transitioning journey. 

Cisgender – A person whose sense of personal identity directly matches the sex assigned to them at birth. 

Note: There are many other term and pronouns that may be used by people who identify under the trans umbrella.

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