Jacqui Gavin (Prev. Scott Whyte) – Scottish trans champion
Growing up as a boy in 1970s in rural Scotland, he was young, trans and vulnerable. His short career in the army ended abruptly. After transitioning her budding photographic modelling was destroyed by those who misunderstood her identity and she endured humiliation from the British press. Despite the enduring hate, she channelled her energy into making things better for other trans people. She brought Scottish trans people under her wing and went on to help make the civil service the inclusive industry-leading employer it is today. She was recognised by the Queen with a British Empire Medal in October 2020.
Being trans in 1970s Scotland
She said she realised she was trans when she was 10. “I describe it as a wake-up call, I was 10 years old. I was flicking through the pages of a magazine and found a picture of a man straddling the back of a chair. It was in black and white, he was naked and sad. I didn’t understand why. I flicked to the next page and saw a picture of the same man in the same pose with his skin ripped off. Underneath was a beautiful lady with smooth skin, flowing locks and perfect makeup. As soon as I saw this image I knew what had been missing in my life. But this was 1970s Scotland and my parents dismissed it as a photographic trick. Boys were boys, girls were girls and there was nothing to be done.”
She was encouraged to be a boy and do the things boys do, such as play football, which to her dismay she was quite good at. She said: “I represented my school and country as a boy till I was 15. Then I told my managers I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt like a failure- like I’d let my parents down.”
At only 15 she ran away from home in 1983 and headed to London where she spent evenings waiting tables for a surprising amount of cash and discovering the other outcasts who had arrived in the gay mecca of Soho and come to call it home. Despite this newfound haven, she returned home when her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and her parents filed for a divorced. She took care of her siblings and then, not being able to stay there any longer, she enlisted in the army, following her older brother’s footsteps. But then her secret was found out. She hadn’t yet transitioned, and during training had injured her knee so was taken to the hospital. While in the ambulance she was told she screamed, ‘I want to be a girl.’
She said: “I was put in front of my commanding officer and offered prison time or to be sent back to basic training.” She used her waiting money to buy herself out of the military and used the rest of her money to buy her transition surgery at age 20. She ended up working in Aberdeen, but the queer scene there wasn’t like in Soho. She described it as “underground backwater places, down dark alleyways.” She said: “The community was small but it was family. Everyone looked after everyone, but we’d have to leave a venue together or be subject to abuse, hate and people spitting on you.”
She wanted to change things to keep people safe. She said: “I created a group with my friend Anne Forester to give support for people regarding gender expression. It was a safe space where trans and non-binary people could go and be themselves. Guys could come along and put a frock on in a safe environment. We provided a resource and brought in people of authority. The police came in because they wanted to engage and talk with us and even local Aberdeen city council members. These were conversations that allowed us to build trust and respectability between the police and the LGBTQ+ community.”
How transphobia almost destroyed her career
Despite her success in empowering her community and bridging these divides, her career remained non-existent. She said the discrimination against her as a transgender person “has impacted my career massively. All opportunity for promotion was denied. I was told I wasn’t ready. There was a stereotype that trans women are overly sensitive. They’d say ‘you’re too vulnerable because of your trans status.’”
She was scouted by a modelling agency whilst in Scotland, but her career ended when she was exposed as trans. She said: “Being trans in the modelling industry at the time was not acceptable. It destroyed my modelling career. The rights for trans people were non-existent back then. There was no legal protection so I found myself going from job to job. My CV was a patchwork quilt. I’d be in a job for no more than two years and be found out.”
She described the time she arrived back at one job after taking compassionate leave when her mother passed away. She had been exposed as trans by the British tabloid press. She said the director of the company asked her why she’d ticked the ‘F’ for female in her application form. At that point, the HR manager stormed into the room to Jacqui’s rescue and told her to go back to her desk.
She was ripped apart by the press in 1995 after her runaway wedding in Barbados to her now ex-husband. They took a holiday wedding to avoid the laws in the UK which restricted trans people from marrying. She described clutching her birth certificate as they registered, which had her old name and gender at birth, fearful the clerks would ask for it. She returned to the UK with husband Steve Gavin greeted with devastating headlines like: ‘Guy do! Butcher Jacqui gets wed after sex swap’.
Why she became a campaigner
She gained progress and recognition for her efforts when she joined the UK civil service in 2009. After only a few weeks in an admin role for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), she said she got the ‘we know about you’ call. But instead of being fired, she was asked to set up a transgender network within the department. From there she became the first chair of the first transgender network in the entire of the civil service. She was then given the role across the whole civil service to impact the way trans issues were seen. She went on to work in a similar role for the Fire Service, not just for trans people but for other minorities too.
However she said her impact at the civil service is her biggest achievement to date. She said: “In Whitehall, in 2009 it was as though you were at school. You don’t speak out of turn or challenge the seniors in these organisations. By the time 2015 came around the organisation was listening to people and viewing and valuing who we are. It’s become the most inclusive employer in the country. We got there by working together and breaking down barriers through conversation. I realised if you get things right for one marginalised group such as trans people, that makes things easier for other groups too. It has a positive knock-on effect.” (summarised from an article in the Cambridge News)