By Kit Rafe Heyam, Chair, LGBT History Month
As I cycle up Albemarle Road, my heart sinks. That sign saying “City Centre This Way” can only mean one thing: it’s a race day. They always take me by surprise. Hopefully I’ll get into the station before they put the barriers up, but I’ll return to chaos: police tape across the back alley which I need to access to put my bike away, drunk people in fascinators stumbling down my road, standing in a vast queue in the local shop while racegoers drop their money and abuse the shopkeeper, Blossom Street littered with takeaway packets and pools of vomit. And I’ll need earplugs when I go to sleep, because they don’t leave quickly or quietly.
I dash into town to go to the bank and return my library book: it’s a bit of a rush doing it before work, but the crowds thronging Coney Street make the city centre basically unusable on weekends. Today it’s quiet, and I pause to look up at the Minster against an overcast sky. Someone once told me that you’re never “from” York until you can pass the Minster without looking up; I’m not from here, I’m from Lancashire, but it’s my home and I reserve the right to respond to it with childlike wonder.
I pay in my cheque and the bank teller says, “Is there anything else I can help you with, madam?” The wrongly gendered address slams into the pit of my stomach. It’s so unnecessary: why do people feel the need to say anything that implies gender? I grimace, wondering whether to correct her and tell her I’m actually a trans man, but decide it’s not worth the anxiety of how she might respond. I head to the station instead and buy my ticket to Leeds, grimacing afresh at the extortionate price for a 25-minute journey on which I’m far from guaranteed a seat. I dance a little on the platform; I need the loo, but I’d rather wait and use the ungendered toilet on the train than face the frisson of anxiety that comes with using the gents in the station. I’ve not yet had a bad toilet experience, and I count myself lucky compared to the vitriol directed at trans women, but I haven’t lost the fear: it only takes one person to ask me a question, and my voice would give me away. I distract myself and my bladder by watching the gentle bouncing of Northern Rail trains. The first time my husband Alex saw a Pacer, he looked aghast and said, “I’m pretty sure the south threw those out ten years ago…”
The mood at work is one of grim laughter at political chaos. Younger people look askance at older ones, particularly the colleague who ordered champagne on the day of the EU referendum result. I return to York, wrangle my way through the temporary ticket barriers with their exasperated staff, and cycle home along Skeldergate and Terry Avenue to avoid the racegoers. My mood mellows as I pass under the dappled shadows of the trees, swerving around fluffy pyramids of goslings, and I break into a smile as I spot the rainbow flag flying from the ice cream boat by Millennium Bridge: I really must cycle this way more often.
After tea, a couple of queer friends come over for a drink. It makes far more sense than going out. None of us could afford a pint in town; we like the Golden Ball in principle but it doesn’t have a toilet for my non-binary friend or my wheelchair-using friend; and we’re reluctant to go into any of the other local pubs in case they’re the kind of place where everybody stops talking when you walk in. (When Alex and I lived in Leeman Road, we tried out the Leeman and the Jubilee and got that response; we never went back.) Even the designated gay pub in the city centre isn’t a safe space for trans people: it’s frequented by laddish gay men who think it’s okay to grope you in order to work out what’s in your pants, and who drunkenly misgender you on the dancefloor. So we stay in, drink fruit beer and fruit tea, and talk freely. It’s such a relief to be able to free-associate in conversation, to not have to censor my anecdotes in case they make the people around me feel awkward. My chest fills with an almost unbearable rush of love for my queer community. These people have kept me going through anxiety and oppression and seemingly endless gender identity clinic waiting lists. When the state fails to support us, we keep each other going.
I awake to an automated text message reminding me that this Saturday is a race day. I’m grateful for the warning; perhaps I’ll go for a bike ride that afternoon to get away from the noise. It should all be over by 5pm in any case; the racegoers will have walked into town, sobered by the tap water provided by the racecourse to every departing guest, and helped en route by the friendly team of racecourse employees who give directions and clean up mess as it’s left.
I’ve got no commitments until 11, when I’m meeting a group of ten in the Minster library to discuss some sixteenth-century texts, so I cycle into town to read by the river. The riverside area behind the Coney Street shops has been restored and opened to the public, giving every shop a back door as well as a front. Shoppers have two thoroughfares to choose from now, and both are less busy as a result. Islands of decking, set with benches and flowering plants, extend out into the Ouse. I buy a cup of tea – discounted because I brought my own mug – from a cashier wearing a badge that specifies “She/her pronouns please”. When I tell the cashier the milk jug is empty, she calls to her colleague, “Can you bring some milk out for this customer, please? They need it for their tea.” I smile at the fact she hasn’t assumed anything about my gender from the way I look: the comprehensive awareness training offered free to every business by the Yorkshire Assembly’s elected trans representative has really taken off.
My seminar in the library is lively: the students aren’t afraid to speak their minds, having been taught in small discussion groups all the way through secondary school. On my way out of the Minster library I pass a couple of pensioners who have popped in to marvel at a twelfth-century book of hours. I’ve got a few hours before my next work commitment, so I’ve arranged to pop over to Leeds to see a friend. Now that the line has been electrified, it only takes fifteen minutes; from there it would be another half hour to Manchester. One of the first acts of the Yorkshire Assembly (one of several regional governments created soon after the 2016 EU referendum in response to the realisation that northern communities desperately needed more control over their economic situation) had been to take the railways into public ownership. Transport remains a hot political issue, so the representatives know they need to keep the railways in good shape, or their party will risk losing its place as senior partner in the coalition at the next election. I find a seat easily: all the trains are at least six carriages long these days. Along with the low ticket prices and the speed of electrification, this has finally pushed most people into commuting by rail rather than road. The trains that call at smaller stations are of the same quality, meaning towns like Barnsley are desirable places to live for people of all incomes. Neighbourhoods are now mixtures of people from different backgrounds, and people take advantage of the quick, cheap trains to visit other nearby communities in Yorkshire and experience their cultures and ways of life.
After catching up with my friend, I return to York, using the station’s gender-neutral toilet and tapping out with my transport pass as I exit the station. I head across Scarborough Bridge to the building formerly owned by Yorkshire Mesmac, now extended into the nearby church and known simply as Queerspace. I’m employed for two hours a week to offer support in an area where I have medical expertise – an approach that has dramatically cut down the wait to see a GP. The Yorkshire Assembly quickly realised that two overcrowded gender identity clinics in Leeds and Sheffield, and nothing at all in York, weren’t adequate to serve the region’s trans community, and that the best way to approach this issue – and many others – would be to pay existing experts rather than training new ones. This afternoon I have an appointment to meet a young non-binary person who wants to talk through the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy before requesting a prescription from their GP. We look at the Queerspace resources together – crowdsourced from people with direct experience of the issues – and I help them work out what they want, making sure that their consent to any treatment will be fully informed. They leave happy, heading on to another appointment where they will discuss pain management for their disability with another person who deals with chronic pain.
Alex and our cat greet me as I walk into our house, a two-bedroom terrace we’ve owned for a few years now thanks to strict regulation of the housing market and a ban on landlords amassing houses for profit. We spend the evening in a pub chosen simply because it’s local to us, and fall asleep quickly, hearing only the occasional sound of a bike whizzing by.