Looking back at 2023

December 31, 2023

I usually start these by looking back at last year’s reflection blog post and see what I thought this year would bring. I was right in thinking there’d be progress in my political career, and the work challenges at the time certainly came to a conclusion, but 2023 has been a turbulent year and I’ve had to really weather a storm.

Before I get started though, I know what I want from the year ahead. Calm and stability. I do not feel I’ve invested as much in myself and my transition as I want to. I need to carve out space to do that, and I need to overcome some health challenges that I became aware of in 2022 but have, in parts, got worse towards the end of this year. I feel confident that I can get that this year, I will be entering the second year of my 4 year term as a local councillor, and my current work situation gives me the space I need to do that job well and continue my recovery from burnout.

Let’s start with talking about work. The changes that happened whilst Head of Development became unresolvable, and I left Culture Shift. This was not a happy affair, and both the situation that led to me handing in my notice, and how my subsequent departure from the business was managed has left me deeply scarred. It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time on in therapy, with my therapist noting that the work I’ve needed to do is that of a textbook trauma response. I still regularly have nightmares about being back in some of those situations. I want to thank my union for the support it gave me during that time, and its offer of further support should I have needed it, although I ultimately decided not to pursue that and needed to move on. My main hope is that the product and engineering culture I tried to build has remained. I hope it has, but I do not know.

Wanting to build something greater than myself, a high-performing team delivering good in the world has long been a dream of mine, and it was one I felt I was achieving in that role up until the organisational changes were made. I left with my confidence in tatters, feeling used up and discarded and considering leaving the tech sector as a whole. I was left reflecting and self-evaluating on how well I was managing my autism, and especially where that interacted with the changes coming along with starting HRT.

I was fortunate to have landed on my feet though. When I wrote my blog post last December, I was already applying for new jobs (although I didn’t want to announce that publicly at the time) and I was very fortunate to be introduced by an ex-BBC colleague to Citizens Advice, an organisation I had come across before and had a good impression of. I was successful in my application to Citizens Advice and now work for the national charity as a software developer on their website (specifically the “non-advice” content). I’ve joined a team with a great product-led culture who know what they are doing, and are doing it. We’re shipping regularly, and delivering value. I’m also finding the work easy, both technically and emotionally, which has let me rebuild my confidence. My team seem to like me (I was nominated for a staff award for transparency this year), and the work is tractable. I was terrified of starting in a new place. I was unsure whether or not I’d be able to adapt, as well as returning to using Ruby-on-Rails—a tech stack I’d not used since working on BBC Taster in 2015.

I’m the solo developer on my team, which is an interesting place to be. I enjoy it, but need to be mindful of accidentally writing non-maintainable code. So far, on top of maintenance tasks, we’ve shipped a new updated version of “Find Your Local Citizens Advice“, and we’re about to launch a revamped policy and research section of the website. One of the things I did not expect when I joined was just how much Citizens Advice can use the insight it gathers from providing advice to individuals and identify trends on those to develop policy responses and influence decision-makers to reduce the number of problems people have. Properly highlighting this work on the website should hopefully help in this mission, and I’m pleased to be developing that, and that the great work of the wider website team has made it possible to rapidly develop and iterate on this.

However, I do not feel like my career is developing here. And that’s probably okay. What Citizens Advice has done is given me space and stability to focus on myself, as well as giving me the space I need to be a good local councillor. I still need to figure out which direction I want to develop myself, and whether that’s in the technical or political spheres.

A group of people celebrating, wearing Lib Dem rosettes and holding a sign saying "Ancoats and Beswick"

Burnout is miserable, and although it’s not the first time I’m experiencing it, it’s definitely the most acute. And although I now have more good days than bad, the bad days still happen. The thing that worked last time I had burnout was to focus on a new, creative activity that I had ownership of. So I wrote my book, changed jobs and got on that path.

What I did this time was not quite like that, but I knew I couldn’t just do nothing, and that would not let me recover. So I threw myself into my election campaign, pouring in more effort and energy than I otherwise would have done. The result of that was winning the election only a few votes short of an absolute majority, but with the biggest opposition majority of any seat in Manchester.

I do not recommend doing this to recover from burnout. Although running this campaign let me regain a sense of control over my life that had been taken away from me, the additional stresses that come with being a local councillor, especially a local councillor with a complex and diverse set of issues in their ward, leads to a very pressured situation that has aggravated my health conditions. Especially when combined with the hostility that comes from being a trans person who puts their head above the parapet.

I am very proud of what I’ve achieved as a political campaigner locally. I’ve helped so many residents who’ve fallen between the gaps of multiple different systems, or have been let down through compounded mistakes of front-line services. We’ve successfully influenced some major projects to reflect more of what residents need. Even though we’re in opposition, I’ve applied pressure to the administration that’s resulted in needed changes, and shone a light on uncomfortable truths for the Labour administration. I do my best work when talking to doers and decision-makers, and figuring out how to bypass gatekeepers who want to protect their own power, lacking the self-reflection to recognise or admit their mistakes.

What I do especially hate is being in the council chamber, and the pantomime of Full Council.

This coming year sees a general election. Depending on the timing of the election, I will potentially be the parliamentary candidate for Manchester Central. It seems likely the Tories will be ousted from power, however a Labour administration does not fill me with hope. Keir Starmer’s Labour party seem more interested in having power for power’s sake, and I’m not clear what they’d do with it, other than stop the Tory rot. Which is important in and of itself, but if that’s all we can aspire to, it’s leaves a bleak future ahead of us. My own party seems to have acknowledged that the chance of any real national power is slim, but is setting itself up for an important step on its recovery and I hope even if much delayed, the radical ideas like tackling poverty through a universal basic income, or simplifying our democratic system through proportional representation will see their day.

Within the party, I feel recognised for what I do. It sounds like a humble-brag, but the amount of people who’ve told me how important it was to them that I as an out trans woman got elected really motivates me.

I’ve had influence on Federal Council, despite being extremely frustrated with misfires as the new committee gets set up. I successfully brought a ways of working paper at the last meeting which sets up a better structure for scrutiny rather than soapboxing, and I hope the next year sees a stronger, two-way relationship between Federal Council and the Board which it scrutinises. I was pleased to be asked by ALDC to be a future mentor at their Kickstart training weekend, mentoring and helping to develop campaigners within the party. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved in Ancoats and Beswick, and feel happy that this is being recognised by the wider party.

Two women looking into the camera stood on the shore, a sea with boats is behind them

At the end of 2022, I was just starting a new relationship, and a year later we are stronger than ever. I was not looking for a relationship at the time, thinking I needed to wait until further along my transition to be even capable of having one. But through several complete chances, Meg and I were brought together, and we are now stronger than ever, and I am just in awe at how it’s possible to fit together so well with someone. I love her so much.

The jury is out on whether or not our first holiday away together though, in early 2023, helped or hindered this. It was a long weekend in Barcelona, and it started off eventfully. Because I’m cheap, we did not pay Ryanair for the privilege of sitting next to each other, but for a couple of hours, we could keep ourselves busy without that. Unfortunately, the person I sat next to ordered a green tea on board, took the lid off, and then proceeded to knock it over my lap. It was extremely painful, and after the cabin crew declaring an in-flight medical emergency and asking me if I wanted the plane to land in Toulouse instead so I could be seen on the ground, there was a junior doctor on board who reassured me that it would heal even if initially painful. After a bit of cabin crew confusion (they asked Meg if she could help find her boyfriend’s bag… and she declared through confusion that she wasn’t travelling with a man) we also got some fresh trousers and we managed to find a pharmacy before checking into the hotel to get some painkillers and cream. And just as I started feeling comfortable walking around, Meg came down with Covid, followed by me a few days later. There was a brief window in which Barcelona was lovely and we had paella on the beach though.

I also went skiing again! It made me very happy and I loved it, for the first time in years. Sadly it is not happening again, and I do need to actually build my own group of skiing friends to go with again.

A trans woman wearing a skiing jacket, ski helmet and goggles stands in front of a mountain vista

The other major holiday was a return to the cruise, where Meg and I had a much needed break, returning to the Norwegian Prima, finishing (funnily enough) in Barcelona.

I am still getting used to the fact that whenever I look at travel destinations, I now have to be very aware of my own safety in a way I wasn’t before.

At present, I don’t have any particular holiday plans booked, other than a very brief trip to Marbella in January where I will be undergoing a consultation for facial feminisation surgery from Facialteam.

The path of my transition is still fluid and unset, but as I grow more and more into myself, I am becoming more and more confident with who I am. I am finding my style more, although I always want more time to explore it and play with the different ways I can reflect myself through makeup and fashion. I’ve played with colouring my hair, and plan for more dramatic colour changes yet in January. I know that there is a pressure on being in my mid-30s that I should have it all sorted out, but I’m enjoying that better late than never I’m discovering all these extensions of myself I can use.

I hate that there are times I catch a glimpse in a mirror and see someone feminine looking back at me, but when I look again, it’s lost. I hope that FFS gives me that euphoria regularly. I draw inspiration from those I’ve seen who have taken that step. I still struggle a lot with my voice. I’ve had extensive speech therapy and I know what I need to do, and I’ve found a voice I’m happy with, but it’s just so hard to actually use it. I become scared of being judged or it sounding inauthentic, especially in circumstances like the council chamber. I want to be using my voice regularly in the new year.

Chris Northwood, wearing a red ribbon, stands in the council chamber and reads from her phone

I was elected in Ancoats and Beswick because people have placed their trust in me, and my record of action. Standing up for and supporting residents against a disinterested council, people put their trust in me to work hard, win their battles, as well as to be their voice when it comes to shaping the future of our area, from things like green spaces, affordable housing needs and what the next phase of regeneration in Beswick and Holt Town look like. But, I am openly trans and that also makes me more than just a local councillor. It sounds naive now I say it, but I became so hyperfocussed on the ward during the campaign, that I was not expecting being the first openly trans councillor in Manchester to be more than a passing interest. Of course, I’m not only looked at inside of Ancoats and Beswick, but within Manchester and the wider world too, so it became a focus.

I was asked to comment on the transphobia surrounding the Brianna Ghey case on Radio 4. I was ill at the time, which I used as an excuse. I’ve also seen the cycle of so many trans people who try to use their voice to represent our community, and become burnt out achieving little in the process. I need to ensure I do what I can without pushing my burnout too far in the process.

I am more interested in using my activism for the trans community, standing together, rather than standing apart drowning under a sea of TERFs who wish to push us back into the closet. I want to use my influence in the council to shape our policies on trans inclusion to be ones that actually work, rather than full of meaningless platitudes that add up to less than the sum of its parts. I want to make sure the sickness that is transphobia, with the attempts to respectfully dress it up as the “gender critical” ideology, is eliminated.

Earlier this year I wrote for Lib Dem Voice, our internal party blog, calling out the gender critical belief for the lies that they are. I received dozens of messages calling me a paedophile just for being who I am. Dozens more called me a rapist. And hundreds of people who dare to call themselves feminists decided to pick apart my appearance as not being sufficiently in line with feminine beauty standards in an attempt to destroy my sense of self-worth and hurt me. Gender criticals within the party have attempted to censure me for celebrating the defeat of transphobia at the party conference. I have been subject to a campaign of harassment and bullying since being elected. None of this has ever shaken my firm belief in who I am.

And none of this has changed reality—human sex is not binary, and it can be changed. I can not ignore the effects of HRT on me. Sex is not something simple and absolute, it is the categorisation we give a person based on their sexual characteristics. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica says this “is seen as clearly as anywhere in the human condition itself. Neither sex is completely male or female”. The gender critical lie attempts to rewrite history and redefine sex as something it isn’t. We must resist this.

These beliefs are empty, and only arose by those who wished to find a moral justification for their transphobia. Like homophobia and myriad other forms of discrimination before it, they deserve no respect. I am proud to be trans, to have gone on that journey of self-reflection and to unpick the internal monologue that was blocking me transitioning. I am happier now in myself than I have ever been.

Two trans women taking a selfie, both are in hi-vis and have trans face paint on

Towards the end of last year Trans Pride Manchester had just had a fresh injection of blood with the introduction of new directors Rosie and Arlo, who really deserve so much credit for making the event happen. It was a brilliant day for many, and I’m so proud we pulled it off. Sadly, it was not a good day for me. A group of trans activists decided to bring placards with slogans aimed at me as an elected councillor, and decided to mob me whilst I was attempting to make space for the area we were reserving at the front of the march for accessibility purposes. As the march set off, I was in tears in a side room at The Proud Place. As trans people, we are having to fight extremely hard to defend ourselves from those who wish to roll back our protected rights, imagining threats that have not been realised in the decades or so since those rights were first won. We have to fight even harder to actually make progress in reducing our marginalisation in society. For me to be targetted because I have aligned myself with a mainstream political movement, one that has a track record on LGBT rights, boggles the mind. After that event, I’ve taken a back seat in organising 2024’s Trans Pride Manchester, focussing on supporting in an administrative capacity only. I don’t have the emotional resilience to put up with attacks from within our own community.

My experiences with being a trans activist has also made me reflect on my own personal ideologies. For a long time, my personal ideology has been aligned with the ideas expressed in “Utopia for Realists” by Rutger Bregman. I’ve written before about how I’ve adopted some of the values of the Effective Altruism movement into what I do: maximising positive impact and looking where I can add the most value to deliver the most good—I renewed my pledge to give 10% of my income to charity this year through Giving What We Can. But the Effective Altruism community has had a tough year, and the beliefs of existential risk mitigation and longtermism have come to dominate the space. Although longtermism emerges from the seed of effective altruism, the underlying hypotheses seem too uncertain to give it the level of dominance it now has in the community. I’ve been described as EA-adjacent, and I’m going to stick with that label for now. There is good in the fundamental ideas behind EA, but I find much of the modern community, whom for a long time I respected and looked up to, sadly inward looking and disconnected from the original missions proposed by the movement such as working on global poverty.

I aim to judge other people not by what they say, but what their actions are, and the results of those actions. The gap between what someone says they believe, and what they actually do is extremely frustrating for me, especially when they lack the self-reflection to recognise this. I’m never sure if it’s through negligence, where their actions have unwitting outcomes that they did not intend, or if it betrays their true underlying ideology, with them lying about their stated values because they know how unpalatable they really are. Navigating this is hard and is something I struggle with. This is not limited purely to the EA community, but within the wider activism community too, as well as individual interactions.

I’ve reflected on my liberalism as well, and have grown a disdain for those who describe themselves as “classical liberals”, more interested in discussing theory in thought experiments disconnected from reality, than in applying liberalism in ways that actually make people’s lives better. If liberals are not working to minimise oppression for individuals, and maximise collective empowerment of a society, then that is not liberalism. If you think the world is a zero sum game, where an oppressed minority opposing oppression is equally as bad as constraining those who wish to oppress, then that is not a liberal view, and requires rethinking. And where peoples actions oppress when their words claim liberation, that must be rejected by all well meaning liberals.

I am steadfast in my beliefs. I know myself. I trust others, but judge them by their actions. I have a strong resolve going into 2024. Bring on the year ahead.