Kate Stone: I’m proud to be transgender — but ask me about my work first

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Kate Stone at TED2013 / Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Kate Stone speaks at TED2013 / Photo: James Duncan Davidson

When creative scientist Kate Stone gave her talk at TED2013, her biggest worry was whether her paper DJ decks would work onstage. Something she didn’t think twice about: being “outed” as transgender. She didn’t want to detract from her work, and figured that her gender identity was her own personal business. But now, one year later, Stone has decided to speak out.

What’s changed? On New Year’s Eve last year, a freak attack by a stag left Stone with a punctured trachea and esophagus, a fractured neck, and damage to her vocal cords and spine. To add insult to traumatic injury, many reports of the incident focused on her gender identity. UK tabloids ran headlines referring to her as a “sex swap scientist” and “transgender academic.” A Daily Record article tracked down and printed a photo of her from before her transition. The experience left Stone (who is currently recovering from a ten-hour throat operation) feeling voiceless in more ways than one.

As Stone told me by phone, she hadn’t wanted to be a spokesperson for trans issues — but the disappointing articles persuaded her that speaking up was better than being spoken for. For though Stone is confident in her lifestyle, she worried about what the press could mean for other trans people already afraid of coming out. “Those articles tell literally millions of people, if you see a transgendered person, the first thing you do is label them, the second thing you do is ask their previous name, and the third thing you do is try and find pictures of them,” she said. That’s why she wants to clarify her gender to the TED community — and move on.

For Stone, who calls herself a “happy healer” rather than an “angry activist,” the confidence has been hard-won. When she first transitioned in 2007, she says, life was “absolute hell.” Isolated from her friends and former partner, says Stone, she felt like she was being attacked from every corner. “Every single day I left my flat, somebody would shout abuse at me. One night, I found myself locked up by the police because of stuff that people had done to me. I’ve been thrown out of bars. People would pick ice out of their drinks and throw it at me while I sat in a bar.”

Such abuse is all too common; a local trans support group in Cambridge, UK, where Stone is usually based, even met in secret to avoid harassment. But such stigma is another reason why Stone wants to take a stand and make the case that being transgender is the least interesting thing about her. Says Stone, “The greatest compliment I get from anyone is that they want me to meet their friends. They want to invite me in. And that is how you should treat a transgendered person. Actually, that’s how you should treat anybody. With respect.”

(Today is International Day of Transgender Visibility Day. Watch Geena Rocero’s talk on why she’s gender proud and find out from experts how to talk about transgender issues.)

UPDATE: In May 2014 Stone filed a complaint with the UK Press Complaints Commission (PCC) regarding the tabloid articles that focused unnecessarily on her gender history. As a result the online “sex swap” headlines were removed. Watch a clip of Stone reflecting on her success.