Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Tribute to Rachael Webb…

Today Rachael’s daughter Leila telephoned me to tell me that Rachael had taken her own life last week. To say I was upset by this news is a bit of an understatement.

Rachael Webb was one of my heroines, a comrade and a friend. She described herself as a Marxist Atheist so with me as a Christian Anarchist we had plenty to talk about and we did. I have a series of emails, that I treasure, that passed between us that make me smile now I’ve reread them as we had a lot of intellectual differences but then again so much in common.

That she chose the time and manner of her death was not a sign of weakness but of great strength. Rachael like myself believed in the importance of control of your own destiny and she did that in situations way beyond those that I have had to face and I respected her greatly for that ability. She was an inspiration to me.

Rachael spoke her mind and told the truth something that those she crossed swords with had to recognise though often begrudgingly. She was a true revolutionary that stuck to her principles and beliefs and I was proud that we were on the same side.

My only regret is that I didn’t know her better or spend more time with her as every time we spoke I learnt from her wisdom. She rang me at Christmas and again just a few weeks ago and yes she told me that she was contemplating her demise but I never thought she’d do it and now having reflected on it I know that once she’d decided that was what was going to happen no one on this Earth could have stopped her.

I don’t want to dwell on her death though she lived an amazing life and I’m going to carry a great memory of someone it was a privilege to call a friend.

Her daughter Leila is going to organise a Tribute Meeting in Brixton, sometime in May as Rachael being Rachael left strict instructions regarding no memorial services. Rachael is not dead, in my mind, as I know her soul survives though she’d hate me writing that. But anyway Rachael I raise my glass to you and say I told you so! LOL It was a pleasure to meet and get to know the spirit that inhabited the body. Rachael Webb was a very special lady.

I’ll end this tribute by reprinting an unedited email from Rachael to me in which she talks about her life and times. It is so typical of her and for those who didn’t know her it might shed some light on why this lady was one of my heroines…

Hi Maggie

There is so much in your email that I want to hold a dialogue on:

You say "not sure why I am telling you all this". Well as far as I am concerned ideas are what people are all about, I know I was labelled a lot of rather insulting things by psychiatrists and psychologists over this, I must admit I could never understand why Albert Camus's anti-hero in "The Outsider" was labelled a psychopath? Very significant and the reason why ... Oh best forget all about the psychologists and psychiatrists for my own peace of mind and almost all are more than average boring?

"Gender Identity Clinic" staff/psychiatrists as Charlatans?

Yes, I get quite angry about this, you are right I am sure. Maybe we should pathologise* them for a change? unless they do what they do because they can't earn a living doing anything else, (could any of them drive a 40 tone truck between here and Alicante without looking at a map? or make biscuits?), I think they must be on a power trip?

*(Ronnie Laing who I was a patient of, (Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise) for a time when I lived in Brixton once said something about, "Saints may still be kissing lepers, it's about time lepers started kissing saints".

Of course I "transitioned", (don't like the word but I can't think of another), in 1981/2, over a quarter of a Centurary ago and assume I am older than you? (dob 1940), and I didn't have to go through the so called "real life test", but the idea that they have control over who and when has female hormones, (or male hormones), appals me. Why? what does it achieve? Who are they "protecting" from what? Just who is going to take female hormones if they were available over the counter at Boots? (You can get them on the internet anyway).

Which man is going to take female hormones unless they are transsexual? I can remember a truck driver who I was in bed with, (that's enough of the salacious stuff), and my hormone patch became dislodged and stuck on him, I laughed when I saw it and just for fun told him what it might do to him, he became quite agitated, either unfortunately or fortunately almost all other men would have a similar reaction? No "normal" (I don't think there is such a beast) man would even dream of taking hormones like hrt so what do psychiatrists achieve by playing god and deciding who should and should not get them?

Nietzsche once said, (bearing in mind he was brilliant and also a self centred egotistical male), "there is no such thing as knowledge only power, no such thing as truth only will". Of course he was speaking objectively, he wasn't saying "this is how I want it to be", he was only saying "this is how it is"; and psychiatrists at gic's are a very good example. I do sometimes wonder whether they get off on tranvestic fantasies? Maybe they lack the imagination to know what being transsexual could be like, but as the numbers of men who practise some sort of transvestism is quite large, (apparently), maybe they assume that all transsexual people are tranvestic and try to make their patients conform with their own limited imaginations?

When I confronted my basic transsexuality I didn't have to jump through those ridiculous hoops because gic's hadn't been invented, I just went along to my GP and obtained hormone prescriptions. I won't bore you with my life history but they produced changes in my body, if I had not been tsp then I would have found those changes uncomfortable and stopped taking them, as it was I knew it was "for me" and persevered.

In the 1980's talking things over with a friend we decided that a tsp from our early times when we were still young, (I didn't approve of the person concerned, she was a leading member of a NAZI organisation), but it doesn't alter what she said which was that really being tsp meant you had to do 4 things:

1) Alter your body shape (by taking hormones)
2) Alter your body hair from male type to female type (by electrolysis or laser or what ever)
3) Alter your voice (speech therapy)
4) Alter you genitals from male to female (with surgery)

Of course I object totally to this persons politics but cannot fault her observation on what is involve in being ts? It is only psychiatrists and other prejudiced people who make so much of it? What do you think of the "four points"?

At my age I can't help but observe that generally things are better now, when I was a teenager, (London 1950's), and spent my youth in Soho in various clubs and bars on the existential and gay scenes, (we took drugs, made love and listened to Edith Piaff and also west coast jazz and we discussed Sartre, Camus, Kafka, Simone de Beauvoir etc), we could get put in prison for gay sex, in some ways there wasn't even a word for "transsexual" so I was totally excluded, even from the society in which I mixed, as for the suburb in which I grew up in, I may as well have come from Mars I suppose. Well, things are better now, I must face up to that and be glad for it.

I knew I was transsexual when I was six years old, my experiences are more normal amongst tsp's than I ever thought. I'm not rambling back in time for the sake of it, I want to establish what is and what is not so we can try to grasp the right questions about the political tasks we approach, even if we cannot think of the right answers.

One thing strikes me is that we mustn't assume progress is inevitable, it isn't. I don't know a lot about it but for example, I understand that the Weimer Republic was tolerant towards the lesbian and gay scene, then thousands or more people like you and me were killed in concentration camps by the third Reich, we can go backwards and we could well do so, we can also go forwards, the marxist in me says that the only thing we cannot do is stay in the same situation we are in now?

I might have been able to get hormones on demand but the rest was often unpleasant due to there being far more prejudice. Of course I was involved in politics, I was a member of Militant, (the RSL), and an active member of the Labour Party and the T&G. I had some positions in the labour Movement where I lived in King's Lynn and am afraid I had to put up with a hell of a lot of prejudice, particularly from some people in the T&G. In some ways I want to put that to one side, I moved to Brixton as "Rachael Webb" in 1983 and took part in Peter Tatchell's election campaign in Bermondsey, Simon Hughes played a disgraceful role in whiping up prejudice against Peter Tatchell, I knew him slightly at the time, and he has since said "that's history" so if he can say that then so can I.

I'll always remember one leading T&G member in King's Lynn who was supportative of me, (there were quite a few), Bill Davidson, who was an ex Durham Coal Miner and former squaddie, he had trade unionism in his guts and he stood by me as a true friend and Comrade, I'll always be grateful to him and to others.

The reason I'm going into this is about the situation of tsp's and how it has developed over the last 25 years. I made the mistake of joining the only available tsp organisation which was called the Self Help Association For Transsexuals, (think of the initials and cringe), it was as reactionary and right wing as the initials suggest, the leading member was a former wealthy business person and Senior Army Officer called Judy Cousins. They expelled me for my left wing feminist views.

I think that both Christine Burns and Stephen Whittle will agree that I was the principle person who stood up for a position of transsexual people within a position which accounted for both feminism and the emerging lesbian and gay political scene, including "sexual politics" etc. I was elected as a Councillor in Lambeth and had a job as a Housing Officer in Southwark and of course the media looked on me as some sort of gift from Sun/Mail heaven, they did me over when ever there wasn't much on the news. I developed media skills, I remember a media course I went on with Diane Abbot and Scarlet McGuire, the lessons I learnt are ones the Press Office of the T&G still tell me to observe: only ever say 3 things when you give a radio or tv interview, keep the three things simple because listeners/viewers can't absorb anything more, say them over and over again what ever questions you are asked - end of lesson. It works, just look at the next tv interview of any politician you see and you will see that that is the ABC of media relations, even after all these years.

Anyway, I became drained by fighting and fighting and by always being sort of available for public inspection. I will never ever forget the first time I was "doorsteped" by a Fleet Street photographer, I could have grabbed his camera and thrown it over a hedge but I knew I had to "grin and bear it", it gets to you in the end.

In some ways I was glad when Christine Burns, who was a member of the Conservative Party stood up at a Tory Party Conference, and for no reason that she can think of, as far as I know, talked about her being tsp, (everyone else in the Tatton Conservative Party Business women's group, of which she was Chair) thought she was a "normal" Tory business woman, so I will always be grateful to her. Stephen Whittle was as far as I know what used to be called a "Euro-Com" after Gramcsci et al. He and Christine and other, fortunately, left wing younger people than me took up the challenge.

They worked with Dr Lynn Jones MP, (I know her now through the LRC, why don't you contact her, she is from your part of the world - details ) and so the GRC was duly passed on my 64th birthday I think it was.

IN 1994 I had become, as I said, fed up with local government and all that went with it, I became nostalgic about my life as a truck driver so I moved to Brighton, bought a 38 tonne truck and went trucking in Europe. What a culture shock, the world of Inner City London Labour Parties to being an international freight driver, it was bad enough being a woman in a man's world, I never breathed a word about being transsexual, the blokes had problems with accepting the few women doing international trucking, let alone being a tsp. Tell you more about it sometime. Well just one thing:

When you look at my photo on "page 3" you will see I am behind Maureen Byrne who was Equalities Officer for Region 1 of the T&G. She gave a talk on Equality issues to our RTC Committee which consists of 17 male truckers and me, a number of them never knew, and in arrangement with her I talked about being tsp, she said afterwards that she studied their faces and said that some of them obviously had difficulty in taking it in but that most of them came round to a reasonable position. Interesting. Glad things have improved and they have, but as I said above we cannot assume they will carry on doing so.

Anyway, yes, I agree with you on a lot of points and disagree with you on some, but on the important issues we are totally together and have everything to gain and nothing to lose by organising together.


Rachael Webb


Jenny D said...

Hi Maggie, thanks for your tribute to Rachael. You two must have had some great debates & conversations over the years. I am glad that I have met both of you over the years at T&G events, TUC LGBT conferences & Prides. Stay strong & proud in what you & Rachael believed.Thinking of you.
Jenny, Region 7 Unite (T&G),Scotland

Anonymous said...

Hello Maggie
Thank you for this tribute to Rachel. I too admired her and from your comments she sounds like a great woman. I had caught reports of her in the news now and then and now feel saddened by the circumstances of her demise. Did it really have to be that way? She was still fairly young and had a daughter there for her - and friends like you. I can of course appreciate how she felt about being mistress of her own destiny. Stay strong and keep shining Maggie as many people similar to yourself out there find courage to face another day because you too are there and tell us that you continue battling through whatever difficulties you face. I wish I could have told Rachel this. Kind regards from Helen

David said...

Hi Fiona, I new Rachael, I drive trucks and once went to Truck Fest with her. I have not seen an obitery to her, and think she should have one. are you on facebook, I am David Avery Hotrot

Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate that Fiona Fox, in her tribute has published an unedited email from Rachael, and has unwittingly slandered the name of Judy Cousins. Doubtless both women lived to promote transgender’s rights in their own way.
“Judy Cousins was not reactionary and right wing, nor a wealthy business person a man, he was a struggling entrepreneur supporting a family and workers, working long arduous hours to turn an invention into a business which was never lucrative, and folded after ten years. He was an exemplary example of kindness, honesty, hard work and citizenship and was not extreme, either politically or socially. As Judy she lived in a state council flat, on a combination of a modest state pension and a modest military pension - having served her country in two wars, World War II and Korea – and, from time to time, earning some income from her commissions. It was her firm conviction of the sufferings of countless individuals that caused her to establish S.H.A.F.T. and she wrote her first ‘newsletter’ at a time in England when ignorance and discrimination on transgender issues reigned supreme. She was in the vanguard of giving a voice to transgender issues and education. “

Angela (Judy Cousin's daughter)