we are here (even when we’re not)

Last month I spoke at GENOVATE’s international conference on diversity within research and universities. I am not thrilled about the term “diversity” and find a lot of the discourse around it really problematic, but I do think it’s important to talk about the phenomenon it describes. It’s what happens when reading lists are full of dead white men and the images on the slides never show people like you. It’s what happens when you’re never taught by someone who looks a little like you, when your mentors don’t experience the things that you do and cannot advise you on dealing with it, when you look at the entity that is the university and cannot see yourself reflected back. From my own experiences and from what others have discussed with me, there’s a lurch as you realise that you’re less welcome in this space that you thought you were, or that your fears are confirmed and that this place isn’t meant for people like you.

I drew on Nathaniel Adam Tobias C—‘s “Diversity is a dirty word” to trouble and reject easy ideas about diversity. C— argues that there are four key strands to challenge in diversity: the “what”, the “how”, the “who” and the “where”.

  • The “what” is the Syllabus: the choice of topics, resources, examples or case studies
  • The “how” is the Process: the teaching methods and learning activities
  • The “who” are the Participants: the students, the tutors, and the epistemic authorities on the programme
  • The “where” is the Environment: the rooms and buildings, the signs and statues, and the local area, taking into consideration the accessibility of these spaces, both physically and socially

After my talk, someone asked me a question focusing on the “who”: what if you’re teaching, but your students don’t seem to be “diverse” (meaning, I would argue, that they do not appear to deviate from the straight, white, cis, able-bodied student that we might imagine. The word “appear” is important). I said then that I would teach as if such diverse students were in the room: after all, we cannot assume that they’re not. Here is why.

Students are not obliged to out themselves

Not all identities or experiences are immediately visible. I might be able to guess at some of my students’ LGBTQ, disabled, ethnic or religious identities if my students make them visible. Sometimes, these things are made visible to me by and through university systems; namely, information about disability that affects how a student learns and is assessed. Sometimes, my students have revealed things to me: their mental health issues, a physical disability that is not apparent to an onlooker, their gender identity, their sexual assault. I have then tried to be extra careful about how I talk about these things, extra aware of how the class discussion moves and where it goes.

However, I have certainly taught students who didn’t feel the need to tell me. Given that the NUS has identified that 37% of female students have experienced unwanted sexual advances and the gender makeup of the courses I teach, I am confident that I’m teaching a few women who have had such experiences. They shouldn’t have to explicitly tell me so. Their presence in the room, and my sensitivity to these unspoken experiences should not be contingent in knowing that such students are here.

It sounds obvious, but students should never have to out themselves to be taught in a non-hurtful way. I have heard enough horror stories about lecturers making crass jokes about mental health, disability, sexual assault, gender and sexuality that have had to be confronted by a student saying “look, I’m ____ and that’s really inappropriate” – an especially fraught interaction. I’ve had to challenge a colleague who would always joke before IELTS tests: “fill in the box for male or female – it’s the easiest question you’ll face today!”; for some people (including me), that’s not an easy question.

However, the onus shouldn’t be on students to reveal something that they may consider personal and private in order to challenge us. The onus should be on us to make sure that we aren’t excluding some of our students.

Students are not isolated

Students have families, friends, colleagues, communities. I cannot know whether one of my students’ parents uses a wheelchair, whether one of my students’ brother is gay and their parents have been unsupportive, whether one of my students’ housemates recently came out as transgender, whether one of my students’ step-family is Black, whether one of my students’ friends has autism.

Our students do not shed their relationships at the lecture hall’s door. We never, ever teach people as isolated individuals, plucked out of their community. Our students bring with them their loyalty and their friendships, their sometimes desperate concern and their love with them. I think it’s important to recognise that. For example, teaching that is aware of LGBTQ issues and acknowledges heteronormativity in teaching materials can signal to the student with a queer or trans sibling that this space is an expansive, welcoming one. I would rather create spaces that create room than spaces that exclude.

Students have emerging identities

Inclusive teaching means that there’s space for students to change. I wasn’t even a baby gay when I went to university; I was tentatively working out what “bisexual” meant and whether I was one but I was a very uncertain young queer. Turns out that Catholic schools really don’t give you a lot of help if you aren’t totally heteronormative! I ended up discovering things like non-binary identities and queerness and gender performance and gender fluidity from linguistics. I can point to the exact book in which I first found it, and it was a sort of star to steer by.

I try to remember that sometimes, I’m teaching my students’ future selves. Perhaps my class is filled with the opposite of ghosts, shifting glimmers of lives that could be lived. I’m lucky enough to teach in areas that often explicitly involve identity, and I often wonder what seeds I nourish and what lives my students might be leading in ten or twenty or forty years time.

Some of my students may not be queer or trans or disabled now – but who knows what will happen in the future? I would not want to be the lecturer who contributes to these students’ anticipation of hostility. Instead, I imagine spaces without fear; spaces in which students with diverse backgrounds and experiences are not continuously preparing to flinch; spaces that speak to the uncertain and scared and oppressed.

Ultimately, I am interested in creating and expanding spaces. I don’t shy away from tough issues – my research has examined police brutality, nuclear weapons and violent transphobia – and I expect my students to be able to engage with difficult issues too. I just don’t see the point of shutting out students with diverse backgrounds and experiences, and instead aim to create spaces where these students can fully contribute.

five thoughts (plus one) on same sex marriage

This has been brewing for a while now, but with recent same sex marriage victories in the US and the Republic of Ireland, I think I want to jot down some of these thoughts.

1.
Honestly, I am probably not the best person to talk about getting married. As a child I couldn’t even feign interest in my primary school classmates’ breaktime ceremonies held in the playground. As a teenager, one of my favourite rants was about marriage being an institution of patriarchal oppression trading women’s bodies among men for economic and social gain. Emotional and physical abuse, rape, forced reproduction and murder all happen within marriage. Marriage doesn’t guarantee love and security.

I think LBGTQ critics of the institution of marriage are right to be ambivalent about its heavy history. I worry that same sex marriage buys into the more problematic aspects of marriage in a capitalist society. Now we, too, can have an eye-wateringly expensive wedding and have articles about our spending power written about us! Hooray! Brands, including Proctor & Gamble, Starbucks, Budweiser and Coca-Cola promptly tweeted rainbow images. It feels like a carefully managed publicity stunt; do brands really care about human rights, or is this a ploy to make them seem a bit more human and appeal to us (and our money)? It seems to be a similar issue to corporate presences at Pride marches. HowUpsetting observes that “being seen to be ‘LGBT-friendly’ attracts a progressive sheen which is viewed as separate from the social activities your corporation or government may engage in; indeed, it can serve to largely obscure these for certain audiences”.

2.
I think there’s a temptation for queer activists to see their relationships as inherently radical. If the relationship escalator ending in State-recognised marriage and children is not open to us, how else do we conduct, recognise and honour our relationships? Dean Spade writes on how “interrogating the limits of monogamy fits into […] queer, trans, feminist, anti-capitalist, anti-oppression politics” by examining relationships, capitalism, and the romance myth’s connections with scarcity. Such queer critiques view marriage as assimilationist and inherently conservative.

However, Yasmin Nair rightly points out that sex – queer sex, poly sex, BDSM sex – is not inherently radical. Instead she argues that “the revolution will not come on the tidal wave of your next multiple orgasm had with your seven partners on the floor of your communal living space. It will only happen if you have an actual plan for destroying systems of oppression and exploitation”. She urges us to “think and agitate collectively around how sex is deployed against the most vulnerable bodies” such as those in prison and sex workers. And she concludes that “Your sex is not radical. Your politics can and should be. Consider the difference, and act upon it”.

3.
Amongst the celebrations, it is impossible to not notice that some parts of our community get less attention than others. There’s a particular poignancy to seeing photos and hearing stories of devoted elderly LGBT couples – this seems to be the only time when we do see them, and hear their stories of determination and resilience. Elderly LGBT people face erasure at best and abuse at worst in care homes, may have been ostracised by their family, and may live with the physical and emotional legacy of violent repression and the AIDS crisis.

Same sex marriage often gets referred to as “gay marriage”. This renders invisible the lesbians who do not identify as gay, bisexual people in same sex relationships, and transgender people (including non-binary people) in relationships that are same sex only in terms of legal documents. Each of these groups face different – often complicated and damaging – issues to the white cis gay men that are so often the face of same sex marriage campaigns and celebrations.

4.
It’s essential that people pay attention to the nuts and bolts of legislation and are prepared to critique it. The UK Marriage (Same Sex) Act 2013 introduced some especially transphobic legislation, as well as further codifying binary genders in law. There are alternatives – Canada, for example, defines marriage for civil purposes as the “lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others”. It’s my hope that any same sex marriage bill passed in the US doesn’t further marginalise people, especially transgender people (including non-binary people) and bisexual people. It’s critical that LGBTQ activists examine – and challenge if necessary – the specifics of any legislation instead of simply accepting whatever’s offered.

5.
This is only the beginning. It varies by state, but many LGBT people in the US are not federally offered protection in terms of employment, recognition of hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, discrimination in schools and discrimination in housing programmes. LGBQ people who are also women, of colour, disabled, of faith, immigrants, elders and/or transgender often face intersecting issues that same sex marriage cannot fix. Trans lives and trans rights cannot be forgotten. Since January, ten trans women have been murdered in the US. Others will take their own lives. Others will be denied vital healthcare. LGBTQ undocumented migrants will be detained, deported and die. LGBTQ people in poverty will suffer. Young LGBTQ people will be made homeless. For a lot of people, being able to marry their same-sex partner won’t change a lot.

+1.
However, and despite all my misgivings, I am pleased that the US Supreme Court have made this decision – the alternative would have been worse. Legal recognition of relationships is essential for so many things: immigration purposes, healthcare, rights as next of kin, parental rights, pensions and other survivor benefits. As someone in a long-term relationship with an American, I am pleased that we could marry, move there and that I would be recognised as her partner for immigration purposes – just as she would be recognised as mine in the UK.

I have heard of too many people whose partners were denied space at their hospital bedsides, too many trans people whose partners were shoved aside and who were buried with a dead name on their gravestone. Ideally, these dignities wouldn’t be contingent on marriage, but until that fight is won, I suppose this is the legal framework we have to work with. Let’s see this as a beginning, not the end point, and fight for human rights and human dignity to be afforded to all LGBTQ people.

Where are our elders?

[content warning: discussion of homo-, bi- and transphobia, racism, domestic abuse and suicide. I’ve tried to keep these fairly non-explicit; the reports I link to go into more detail]

This is a write up of a short talk I gave at the final conference of the ESRC seminar series ‘Minding the Knowledge Gaps: older lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans lives’. The organising team and I have been having an involved discussion since my first post and they were kind enough to invite me to speak as part of the summaries of previous events.

In this talk I discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) identities, Black and minority ethnic (BME) identities and ageing identities. I ask what it means to live at the centre of these overlapping identities and look at how we can extrapolate some issues from what we know about overlaps of age and LGBTQ identities, age and BME identities, and LGBTQ and BME identities. However, this is by no means a perfect solution because it misses that complex intersections bring their own unique issues – there is effectively a known unknown about the experiences of older LGBTQ people from BME backgrounds, and I want to highlight that.

Intersectionality

Very basically, intersectionality is the concept that we have multiple identities and that these identities overlap and inform each other.

age, BME and LGBTQ venn diagram

Here’s a diagram to show these intersections a bit more clearly.There are three coloured circles: a blue circle representing people’s LGBTQ identities, a red circle representing people’s identities as older people and elders, and a yellow circle representing people’s BME identities.

Overlaps of age, LGBTQ and BME identities

When these identities overlap, they create something new. The purple overlap shows the interaction of ageing and LGBTQ identities, the green overlap shows the interaction of LGBTQ and BME identities and the orange overlap shows the interaction of ageing and BME identities. At the very centre is a space where all three factors interact: age, LGBTQ and BME.

We don’t know much about the people who occupy this really complex space. Roshan das Nair talks about “levels and layers of invisibility” and of each factor – age, sexuality and race – all contributing to invisibility. However, intersections change the experience of “being” – of accessing care, of forming relationships with other people, of moving through and understanding (and being understood by) the world. As this seminar series has strikingly shown, being an older LGBTQ person is not the same as being an older heterosexual and cisgender person. And being an older LGBT person from a BME background is not the same as being an older LGBT person from a white background

LGBTQ and BME

While there is a paucity of information on the unique issues faced by older LGBTQ BME people, there is research on ageing LGBTQ people as showcased in this seminar series, on BME LGBTQ people, and on ageing BME people.

Two current projects highlight some of the issues for people who are both BME and from sexual and gender minorities. A Public Health England report on the health and wellbeing of BME men who have sex with men highlighted that:

  • Black men who have sex with men are 15 times more likely to have HIV than general population
  • a third of Asian men and mixed ethnicity men have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16 compared to one in five of white gay and bisexual men
  • significantly higher rates of suicide, self-harm and mental illness

A recent focus group held by the Race Equality Foundation on the experience of being black and minority ethnic and trans* highlighted that people experienced:

  • religious communities overlapped with ethnic communities, and losing one often meant losing the other
  • racism in LGBT communities and homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in ethnic communities
  • cultural assumptions and racism when accessing healthcare

The last point had particular repercussions for Black and minority ethnic trans people seeking to access hormonal and/or surgical interventions for gender dysphoria through Gender Identity Clinics (GICs). Respondents to the Trans Mental Health Survey often found it difficult to access treatment through GICs, with one respondent describing it as “a paternalistic gatekeeping exercise where psychiatrists exercise inappropriate levels of control over the lives and choices of patients”. Another described clinics as having “very rigid ideas of masculinity and femininity”. This affects Black and minority ethnic people if genders in their culture do not map onto gendered expectations in white UK culture. BME trans people also encountered assumptions about family (for example, what does “being out to your family” look like if you have a huge extended family or if “kinship” doesn’t neatly map onto “family”?), assumptions about transphobia in their families, and poor understanding of non-binary genders.

Age and BME

Research on older BME people tended to show that people were affected by health issues occurring at different times (e.g. diabetes and high blood pressure). Black and minority ethnic people may have complex issues around mental health and accessing services. Some communities may stigmatise mental health issues. African and Caribbean men are “under-represented as users of enabling services and over-represented in the population of patients who are admitted to, compulsorily detained in, and treated by mental health services”. As this report on older South Asian communities in Bradford discusses, how families live together is changing. However, there is still an expectation that the extended family will care for elders; this role often falls to younger women in the family. This study also reported that South Asian communities often found accessing care difficult for a huge range of reasons – cultural differences, a lack of cultural competency in service provision, language difficulties, attitudes of staff, differing expectations by both service users and service providers, location of services, gender roles within the family and the role of different children and siblings.

It is also important to recognise the diversity of BME experiences. There are some BME communities that have been settled in the UK for decades, if not centuries. There are South Asian people who migrated to the UK as young adults in the 1970s and who are now reaching retirement age. There are older people who accompanied their family members. There are more recent immigrants. There are people who live with the trauma of fleeing their home and seeking asylum. The term “Black and ethnic minority” itself covers a huge range of people from all over the world, all with different experiences.

Extrapolations

As I wrote earlier, there are going to be known unknowns – without talking to people, we cannot know about the unique, unexpected issues created when identities intersect. However, I think that the research on LGBTQ and BME communities, the research on older LGBTQ people, and the research on older BME people can hint at some issues.

Older LGBTQ people report different kinship structures, the existence of chosen families and possible lack of children. I wonder how this works for older BME LGBTQ people whose cultures may strongly support care of elders within the extended family (and who dislike the idea of care homes or care workers coming into their homes) but who may be estranged from their family and don’t have children.

I can imagine that there are really complex issues around mental health in communities that are more likely to experience mental health issues but who may also have negative experiences of accessing services or who may feel shame about doing so.

Older BME LGBTQ people may have complex histories of violence. As Public Health England reports, gay and bisexual men from BME backgrounds are more like to have experienced domestic abuse. Other BME LGBTQ people may have sought asylum due to violence in their home countries. What might their care needs be?

I wonder about older BME LGBTQ people continuing to face racism in LGBTQ spaces and homo-, bi- and transphobia in BME spaces as they age and these spaces change. This seminar series has discussed older LGBTQ people’s fears about prejudice in care homes; older BME LGBTQ people in care homes may fear a double whammy of prejudice.

Where are our elders?

I argue that there is an absence of older, LGBTQ BME voices in research about older LGBTQ people’s experiences. As researchers, we don’t know much about the issues faced by those in this intersection – as I’ve shown above, we can guess some of them. However, the nature of intersectionality means that there are some issues that will be unique to this group and that we cannot predict.

This is not to say that older BME LGBTQ people do not exist – rather, that we have to do better at reaching out to these communities. I suspect that research into the experiences of older BME LGBTQ people has to be carried out by people from BME LGBTQ backgrounds. My experience of younger BME LGBTQ spaces is that community members are fiercely protective of the tiny spaces they are able to carve out for themselves and they do not want to be observed as a “learning experience” for White straight cis people. It is crucial to recognise that, and crucial to be able to respect how rare and precious these spaces are.

This absence of visible older, LGBTQ BME voices also has implications for younger BME LGBTQ people. Out of the many trans people I know, I can only think of three who are BME and over the age of 40. 40 should not be considered old – and yet. A US study reveals that the attempted suicide rate for multiracial transgender people is 33 times higher than for the general population. Andre Lorde’s litany, “we were never meant to survive”, has a heartbreaking resonance.

As a younger Asian queer person, I want to meet my elders. I want to know that it’s possible to be an older BME LGBTQ person. I want to be able to see some of the possibilities, to see that there are people living lives that are true to their identities. I want to listen to their rich histories and hard-won wisdom. I want to know that we can survive.

Our elders are so important, and their lack of visibility is so sorely felt.

L, G, B – here’s your T

On 30 September 2014 I attended Stonewall’s first group meeting of trans activists. I wrote about my thoughts on Stonewall’s missing T before the meeting; here is my response to the meeting itself. Other people have also written about it and I will be updating the list as other things are posted; please let me know if you’re written something about that meeting and you want me to link to it.

Jane Fae: What happened at Stonewall’s first meeting with the trans community?
Natacha Kennedy: Alliances and Oppositions. Trans activism and Stonewall
Zoe Kirk-Robinson: Putting the T Back in Stonewall
CN Lester: #TransStonewall – the first meeting
Zoe O’Connell: #TransStonewall: The Meeting
Ruth Pearce: Imagining a trans-inclusive Stonewall

What happened on the day
To very briefly summarise, there are four options on the table for Stonewall’s future involvement in trans issues. One option was that Stonewall can remain as an LGB organisation but works to be a better ally for trans people and issues affecting us. The general feeling in the room was that this was to be taken as given. The other three options were that Stonewall could be a much more active partner. We discussed the following three options in small groups, looking at the pros and cons of each.

  1. That Stonewall become a full LGBT organisation.
  2. That Stonewall helps set up a sibling organisation to tackle trans issues – raising initial funds, sharing expensive resources such as IT and HR, and helping with training. This organisation would then become an autonomous, though linked, entity.
  3. That Stonewall remain an LGB organisation, but provide grants to existing trans organisations.

One of the things that Ruth Hunt wanted to explain was just how Stonewall functioned as a strategic lobbying organisation. Part of their role is to work with organisations that are homophobic and/or really unaware of LGB issues. For example, they work with Paddy Power, and will continue to advise on their campaigns. There are also campaigns they can’t get involved with (e.g. sex worker rights) because they’re under so much scrutiny from, for example, religious groups that would kick off about it. I wonder how comfortable trans people would be with that – especially when survival sex work is something that affects many trans women.

I think the current feeling is that we don’t want to completely assimilate into Stonewall and we want to keep a degree of flexibility that will allow for trans specific stuff to be tackled. From the trans perspective, there are issues that will affect us without affecting cis LGB people and we may decide that we wanted to operate in a way that Stonewall doesn’t (for example, by offering services or supporting individuals). Ruth Hunt stressed that she did not want the relationship between Stonewall LGB and Stonewall T to be unequal, junior or paternalistic.

The overwhelming feeling in the room was that we didn’t want Stonewall to issue grants to existing organisations. This felt paternalistic, felt as though it could introduce unnecessary competition between groups, and tied up limited resources into the process of applying for and administering grants. While both options 1 and 2 have flaws, the group generally felt that some kind of option 1.5 would be suitable – sharing resources with Stonewall but being a critical friend rather than subsumed into Stonewall.

Positives and negatives
On the whole, I am cautiously optimistic. The following points are things I liked and found reassuring about the day.

  • Ruth Hunt seems genuinely committed to changing Stonewall and has clearly been thinking about this for a long time.
  • Calm, thoughtful facilitation.
  • On the day itself, there was very little fighting. There had been problems on the facebook group about people’s political affiliation, but there seemed relatively little of that in the room itself.
  • They want to have further meetings with non-white people, people with disabilities, intersex people and children/teenagers.
  • Stonewall are exploring lots of options in how Stonewall should become trans inclusive and it’s not going to be a top-down decision.
  • Ruth Hunt is very, very aware of what Stonewall has done badly in the past and has apologised profusely. She’s very clear on how and why things went wrong in the past.
  • She’s also aware that just general understandings of gender and sexuality have changed and become more sophisticated, and Stonewall hasn’t really moved with that. While they run some very effective campaigns (and I think that some, like ‘Some people are gay – get over it’, have helped create an environment of acceptance and room for more nuanced understandings) but she’s aware they have to be able to engage on a number of levels from 101 to complex, nuanced stuff.
  • Non-binary identities are included and Stonewall is very aware of our existence. Any trans inclusion in Stonewall will not simply focus on binary trans identities and ignore the rest of us.

However, there were also things that I feel less confident about. Some of these are things that Stonewall could have done better – but others are things that the trans community has contributed to. We have to put our own house in order.

  • It was really, really not diverse in terms of race and age. When I pointed this out, Ruth Hunt said that they’d invited more people of colour who declined to attend. I think this is a problem in itself and worth thinking about in terms of why people wouldn’t have felt comfortable attending.
  • There was no information about how the day would be structured given to us before the meeting which worried me – I had no idea about how we’d be expected to work, what they actually wanted to discuss or when we were going to get breaks. This is a problem for people with both mental and physical health issues – for example, what if you have blood sugar issues?
  • Some people had already made their minds up. It’s annoying when you have to see pros and cons of an option for making Stonewall trans inclusive and someone has already decided that that particular option is A No Good Terrible Idea and refuses to see any positives at all.
  • Microagressions. I got mansplained at, and a friend was called “exotic” because she’s mixed race. This is unacceptable – how can we expect cis people to acknowledge the diversity of the trans communit(y/ies) if we can’t be respectful ourselves?

There are some big legal fights looming – I don’t believe the Gender Recognition Act is fit for purpose – and Stonewall have experience in political lobbying, bringing legal test cases and so on. I think it would be foolish to throw that away, but it’s really, really important to think about what trans inclusion in Stonewall looks like, how it works, how closely tied to Stonewall it is, who it’s accountable to and so on.

Three things we want from a trans-inclusive Stonewall
My group came up with three things we’d like to see from any kind of trans inclusion from Stonewall.

  1. Trans issues should be incorporated into existing and future campaigns where appropriate. The current ‘No Bystanders’ campaign is already trans inclusive, we’d like to see ‘Some people are gay’ extended to ‘Some people are trans’ (and, indeed, ‘Some people are they’).
  2. We want to see inclusive, accountable, effective, diverse trans-specific campaigns on a nationwide level.
  3. Any campaign must involve trans people and must be sustainable – both financially, and also in terms of the human cost.

Next steps
The next steps are to consult with a wider variety of people. This meeting was not decisive – only a starting point. Stonewall will be holding further meetings with trans people of colour, intersex people, people with disabilities and trans children and young people. In addition, they want as many people as possible to email and phone them.

They will release an interim report in January and ask for responses on that. They will issue the final report with their recommendations in April. They could be starting to campaign on trans issues by Autumn 2015.

S_onewall and the missing T

So, let’s talk about Stonewall. Or, as many UK trans activists call them, S_onewall (the T is silent). It’s perhaps ironic that an organisation named after a riot kicked off by trans women and gender non-conforming people is so very bad at trans issues.

As a couple of examples, Stonewall is notorious for inappropriately addressing trans issues in anti-bullying material for schools and celebrating transphobic journalists like Julie Bindel and Bill Leckie. Natacha Kennedy has discussed whether Stonewall is holding back transgender equality and whether they are institutionally transphobic. Let us be clear: many trans people feel that Stonewall goes beyond lack of interest in trans issues to actively undermining our efforts. It’s been doubly galling because Stonewall have reach and influence that trans organisations can only dream of – they have the resources to campaign against homophobia in schools, influence government policy and to have a respected international presence.

As such, I cautiously welcome Ruth Hunt, Stonewall’s new Chief Executive, and her desire to open dialogue with the trans community and support us.

At Stonewall we’re determined to do more to support trans communities (including those who identify as LGB) to help eradicate prejudice and achieve equality. There are lots of different views about the role Stonewall should play in achieving that. We’re holding roundtable meetings and having lots of conversations. Throughout this process we will be guided by trans people.

We want to hear about what you think the next steps are to achieve equality for trans people and the role that Stonewall might be able to play. We’re determined to get this right and we promise to keep you updated as conversations progress.

I have been invited to one of these meetings at the end of August.

Ruth Pearce has written an excellent post, Putting the “T” into Stonewall? An important opportunity, in which she explores why this dialogue is important, outlines some of the proposed approaches to working with Stonewall (or not), and outlines her priorities in discussing this issue with both Stonewall and other trans activists. It’s a very comprehensive summary and I don’t want to reinstate it, so I will urge you to read her post first.

My own observations on this:

  1. Currently, there seem to be two strands of trans activism: local and national. National trans activism is focused on media representation, as seen most clearly in Trans Media Watch’s media monitoring and All About Trans’ interventions with media professionals. I am not objecting to this at all; one strand of my own research explores the media representation of trans people. Trans Media Watch offer compelling evidence in their submission to the Leveson Inquiry (.pdf) that negative media represention has a direct impact on trans people’s safety, welfare and mental health.

    However, I do think that there needs to be more to support non-media issues at a national level. In my experience, this tends to fall to local trans support groups. These groups tend to focus on issues that directly impact on individual members of the local community. These may include cases of discrimination in employment and education, access (or lack of) to medical interventions and appropriate healthcare, asylum and immigration issues, and housing issues. When such issues have occurred, the lack of a national organisation capable of advising – or even aware of similar issues around the country – has been sorely felt. As an example, trans people in my local area have had huge problems with the local NHS trust “red-listing” cross-sex hormones, meaning that GPs (with a budget for prescriptions) were unable to prescribe them. Instead, the local Gender Identity Clinic (that does not have a budget for prescriptions) had to assume responsibility. It would have immensely helpful to have a national organisation capable of advising on – or even aware of – the situation nationally. We were left wondering whether this was just affecting us or whether it was a national issue.

  2. In addition, many local groups are entirely volunteer-run. This means that volunteers may have the skills but not the funds, time or energy to provide a consistent service. Activist burn-out is a real problem in our community. It is exhausting holding down a job, dealing with an often unhelpful medical community, dealing with gender dysphoria – and, often, mental and physical health problems – and attempting to support other trans people, to provide training and education, to campaign about the latest transphobic or simply unintentionally trans exclusive awfulness. I know so many brilliant people who are simply exhausted, worn out, ground down by the fact that this never stops, is relentless.

    This also tends to mean that volunteers are more likely to be those who can take on an unpaid, time-consuming position and are less likely to be at the sharp end of homelessness, unemployment, medical abuse, disability. People who are, in other words, privileged and often without first-hand expertise in dealing with such complex, difficult situations. I believe that secure paid positions for trans activists is a priority and would free people to actually work on these issues in a systematic and consistent way instead of expecting them to give up their free time. It would be a very concrete demonstration that trans activism is valued.

  3. We must be focusing on issues like housing, healthcare, disability, violence, poverty, mental health, immigration and asylum, and access to education. We must have an intersectional approach and focus on areas that affect the most vulnerable members of the trans community. We must look at areas where a trans identity makes already dangerous situations life-threatening.
  4. Having looked at the list of attendees, I am concerned that the group Stonewall has invited is skewed towards white, highly educated, established activists who tend to be trans women with a binary identity. As non-white/people of colour we have concerns and experiences that aren’t shared by white people, and I want to raise as many as I can at this meeting.

    Some things I want to talk about are poor understanding from healthcare professionals (everything from their understanding of what family looks like to post-op scarring on non-white skin), racism from the LGBQ community, mental health and lack of representation of QTIPOC (Queer, Trans and Intersex People of Colour).

  5. Building on the last point, we have to be aware of intersectionality and privilege beyond the obvious of a trans history and/or identity e.g. aspects of class and education. We have to be aware of who is underrepresented, or not represented at all. Future meetings must be more diverse.
  6. I would welcome the development of a national trans organisation but feel that Stonewall is not trusted by the trans community; after years of active disinterest and undermining of trans activism (such as its use of “tranny” in the Fit campaign materials) I find such hesitation understandable. However, Stonewall does have lobbying power and has vast experience in bringing lesbian and gay issues to national attention.

    Ideally I would like to see the development of a national trans organisation that can collaborate with Stonewall on campaigns and the development for paid positions within it. However, trans liberation has to take priority rather than keeping Stonewall happy. I am for being challenging, radical, awkward, uncomfortable. I want to have these difficult conversations. I do not want any trans organisation emerging from this to be seen as “safe” or existing to appease cis people. It has to be for us, by us.

I welcome any comments, suggestions or feedback. Please either comment here or send an email to contact (at) mixosaurus (dot) co (dot) uk.

The high cost of researching

Recently I read Pat Thomson’s post about research participants finding the things written about them.

Today, I went to a seminar on Older LGBT people: intersections of ethnicity, culture and religion. As someone who lives in the intersections and who is queer, non-white, has a religious background and family, and who will (probably!) one day be old, I wanted to find people who had a similar set of identities, who might have had similar experiences, and who might be at different stages in their lives. I don’t know what my old age would look like. I wanted to find my elders.

I went to UK Black Pride this summer (here’s my friend Maryam’s post and photos) and it was an amazing, affirming space to be welcomed into with all my identities acknowledged. It was unforgettable to spend the night watching gay Asian men dance to bhangra and dance their own love stories – take the songs of childhood film-watching and make them theirs, fiercely claim that music and movement. It was equally unforgettable to spend the following day hanging out with a queer Bengali friend and allowing his identity as a queer man, as a brown man, as a Bengali man to become intelligible in this space. I felt like a part of me clicked into place when I was surrounded by the joy of my Brown and Black LGBTQ siblings.

However, I am familiar with both the mainstream LGBT community and LGBT research events, so wasn’t too hopeful about this event:

When I got there, I was unsurprised to find that the room was overwhelmingly white. It was a close run thing that I didn’t simply turn around and leave, or that I didn’t leave during lunch.

I enjoyed the presentations, particularly those by Dr Roshan das Nair and Professor Andrew Yip. The discussion was a mixed bag. I think our group did pretty well, and we discussed things like the interaction between non-white and LGBT gendered presentations, invisibility as erasure, the responsibility of making our spaces ready to welcome people before they are there, and the specific healthcare needs of LGB and especially trans people (particularly with dementia).

However, I was struck by the lack of non-white LGBTQ people in attendance, particularly older people. People researching the intersection of age, sexuality and race noted that they’d found it difficult to recruit participants, even when they went looking. There’s an argument that these communities don’t exist, but I argued that just because these communities can’t be seen by white people doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Minorities have always been good at hiding; why should older non-white LGBT people be any different?

The intersection of LGBTQ sexuality, gender, religion and age is a difficult one. As one white researcher told us, her Black mentor had rebuked her when she noted that she was having trouble finding Black women for her research: as her mentor said, why would these women trust her with their stories?

As someone for whom this intersection is a tangible reality, going into an overwhelmingly white room feels unsafe – that I cannot share these stories and experience the solidarity of my queer non-white spaces. Instead, I feel like I have become a display object, a teaching moment – that I am there to educate others while being denied the connections I want to make. People seem to expect me to share my experiences at their convenience, and often don’t acknowledge the psychological toll this takes. It’s as a form of self-care that I have become ruthless about which projects I am prepared to engage in; I will not let someone pick at scabs over wounds that are broken open again and again.

I think there’s a conversation to be had about research fatigue in people who are asked time and time again about their experiences. I am tired of half-baked requests and poorly designed surveys being sent to the LGBT groups I help with. I am tired of researchers expecting me to hold out difficult, painful experiences for their scrutiny without giving me a reason to trust them. I am tired of this being a one way exchange.

So while I had some good conversations and met some interesting people, I can’t help but feel a bit dispirited by the day.

Purple, white and green

I recently read this post by Marilyn Roxie on the colour symbolism of the genderqueer and non-binary flag. The colours of the flag – lavender, white and dark green – are similar (but not exactly the same!) as those used by the Women’s Social and Political Union. Marilyn describes their decision to use those particular colours and their meanings as follows:

Lavender (#b57edc): The mixture of blue and pink (traditional colors associated with men and women, present on the transgender pride flag) as lavender is meant to represent androgynes and androgyny. Also represents the “queer” in genderqueer, as lavender is a color that has long been associated with “queerness” , including gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities.

White (#ffffff): Meant to represent agender identity, congruent with the gender neutral white on the transgender pride flag.

Dark chartreuse green (#4A8123): The inverse of lavender; meant to represent those whose identities which are defined outside of and without reference to the binary. Formerly (#498022), the color is now the true inverse of lavender (#b57edc).

The three colors are not meant to indicate that any of these identities are entirely separate or opposites of one another conceptually; they are all interrelated as well as key concepts in their own right, and there are more concepts and variation of gender and sexuality present that tie into genderqueer identities than can be listed here. The purpose of the flag is to help create visibility for the genderqueer community and related identities.

However, Marilyn was recently criticised for the genderqueer/non-binary flag’s perceived similarity to the colours used by the WSPU.

Needless to say when earlier I received the two messages “this is not a creation, but an appropriation ” and “Ya nicked it!” I just started shaking and trying to hold back tears

I’m not sure I’d agree the use of similar colours in the genderqueer/non-binary flag is appropriative; for me, “appropriation” involves a power dynamic that I’m not convinced is present here. However, I think there’s an interesting history of how colours were used by both suffrage organisations and in the LGBTQA movement to identify groups and voice identities.

 Front view of an admission ticket to the Hyde Park demonstration organised by the Women's Social and Political Union on Sunday 21st June 1908 (from the Museum of London)

Front view of an admission ticket to the Hyde Park demonstration organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union on Sunday 21st June 1908 (from the Museum of London)

The WSPU colours were originally red, white and green but had changed to the more familiar purple, white and green by May 1908. The colours are generally held to symbolise purity (white), hope (green) and dignity (purple) (Tickner 1987: 93; Crawford 1999: 137). However, as Lisa Tickner observes, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the WSPU leader who originally wrote about the significance of these colours for the WSPU, was “liable to sentimentalise them in later years” and so allow “a broader and sometimes contradictory symbolism” to become attached to them.

Colours were used extensively by suffrage societies and organisations. Elizabeth Crawford (1999: 137) lists colours for over twenty such groups, including the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (red, white & green), the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society (blue, white & gold), the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association (pale blue, white & gold), the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage (purple and celestial blue), the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage (black & gold), the Tax Resistance League (black, white & grey), the Votes for Women Fellowship (purple, white & red) and the Women Writers’ Suffrage League (black, white & gold). I think it’s interesting that some colours are used extensively – white and gold seem particularly prevalent.

Many suffrage organisations took part in marches and demonstrations; the use of colours, particularly in the form of brightly coloured, elaborated banners, created a visual spectacle. You can view some of these banners and designs at The Women’s Library’s collection. Lisa Tickner (1987: 60) discusses the significance of these banners as used in marches and demonstrations:

Banners served both as rallying points for the march and as commentary on it. Women formed up around them in predetermined sequence, so that a procession several miles long could be ordered according to its programme and move off smoothly. At the same time, for the onlookers (and for readers in the next day’s newspapers perusing their half-tone photographs), they acted as a gloss on the procession itself, developing its meanings, identifying and grouping its participants and clarifying its themes. Together with the programme of the march, the banners emphasised the broad base of suffrage support, the diversity of women’s achievements and the benefits the women’s vote would bring to society at large. In this sense they were an essential part not just of the spectacle of suffrage demonstrations but of their argument. They went some way to informing the casual onlooker as to the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of women’s presence on the streets.

Meanwhile, badges, scarves, ribbons and buckles in the appropriate colours were also available to buy from suffrage organisations, particularly the WSPU. Their sale was a useful source of income for the organisation and advertised its cause, but also served to declare the wearer’s political beliefs and affiliation.

I absolutely understand Marilyn’s desire to distance the genderqueer flag from a gendered history of specifically women’s political activism; that’s fine, and I’m not trying to force that on them or on this flag. However, this use of flags and colours to articulate identities, emphasise diversity, declare beliefs and provide a rallying point has a long and distinguished history, yet is entirely familiar. It’s something we can relate to and understand. We can still speak a language of symbolism and colours, are still able to fluently interpret it. I’d argue is why the genderqueer flag – and, indeed, many pride flags including transgender, leather, bear, asexual, pansexual etc – exist at all. In that sense, the existence of a genderqueer flag is entirely congruent with an older history of visibility articulated through brightly coloured flags.

References:
Crawford, E. (1999). The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A reference guide 1866-1928. London: Routledge.
Tickner, L. (1987). The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907-14. London: Chatto and Windus.

Thoughts on #1share1condom

Today is World AIDS Day. The past couple of days have seen the hashtag #1share1condom pop up on my twitter feed. Being the curious sort, I discovered that it was a Durex campaign to donate condoms to help fight HIV. You retweet (or share on facebook or renren) one of their facts about HIV and AIDS with the hashtag, they donate a condom to “a local charity”. Sounds good, right?

Actually, this sort of thing makes me really uncomfortable.

I’m one of those awkward discourse analyst types, so naturally my mind immediately goes to what’s not being said here. If I look past the corporate social responsibility speak, what I see is the distribution of life-saving condoms being based on how many slacktivists (and I include myself in that term) can be bothered to retweet something. Durex has a target of 2.5 million condoms; what if that target isn’t reached? Are they going to withhold aid because not enough people shared their facts or used their hashtag? Admittedly I haven’t done much digging, but I haven’t seen anything about minimum donations or what they’ll do if their target isn’t met and this concerns me.

Of course, Durex could just donate 2.5 million condoms – but then they wouldn’t have their brand all over twitter.

I completely agree that it’s important to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS. As someone involved in LGBT welfare I’ve given out countless free condoms and advice on safer sex. At any other time I’d be glad to see awareness of HIV and AIDS seeping into my feed because this is a really important, global issue. I’d also be glad to see free condoms being distributed to those who need them. I’d be even happier if those condoms were accompanied by advice on safer sex, addressing the stigma of HIV and AIDS and empowering women and sex workers. Tackling HIV and AIDS means addressing a host of complex issues including education, stigma, gender, homophobia and transphobia, poverty and religion. It’s too important to be a social media campaign.

Durex’s facts are horrifying:

3.4m children under 15 are living with HIV.
30m people have died from AIDS in 30 years.
HIV is the leading cause of death in women of reproductive age.
7000 people per day are infected with HIV.

Surely people’s lives are worth more than how many retweets something gets?

National Coming Out Day

Be the trouble you want to see in the world

The t-shirt I’m wearing today

Today marks National Coming Out Day and my facebook and twitter feeds have been full of the wonderful, brave people I know announcing their LGBTQ identities. Somewhat predictably, I have complicated thoughts on the topic.

Stella Duffy writes movingly about the importance of coming, being and staying out while my fellow linguist Anna Marchi writes about the importance of visibility. Neither of them have found it particularly easy but both speak of coming out as a duty; they recognise that their relative privilege allows them to come out in safety, if not without difficulty.

They both note that coming out is also not a single event where you burst from the closet in a shower of rainbows and glitter. Instead it’s a process of coming out to lots of people. I’m inclined to think there’s a difference between coming out to your family and friends and coming out at university, at work, to your GP and, should you get your relationship legally recognised, legally as well as in your social relations. There are no rules on who you should be out to, in what order you should come out to various people – you might tick a box in a university diversity survey before you tell your family, for example – and how long this process should take. It won’t ever end, but it’s your choice whether you tell people immediately, gradually, or at all.

However, coming out is not necessarily easy or straightforward, especially if one must negotiate religious and/or cultural issues. There are lots of people for whom coming out is difficult and dangerous, and I worry that days like these put pressure on people to come out when it’s not safe to do so. There’s a particular kind of sadness when you see people proudly declaring their sexuality and gender identities and knowing that you cannot join them in that.

I’ve been reading Avory’s post on the problem with the LGBT movement’s obsession with coming out and Hasan El Menyawi’s 2006 discussion of coming out in Egypt, the globalisation of a US-centric narrative of coming out and activism from the closet. El Menyawi reconceptualises the closet as a place of safety and community, with flexible, ever-expanding walls. He argues that “activism from the closet occurs by publicly hiding — covering — one’s gay identity outside of the collective closet, but still actively engaging in activism — hidden activism”. Such hidden activism may involve campaigning on privacy rights, questioning the close relationship between religion and the state, or activism on issues such as “economic revitalisation, democracy, rule of law, and human rights more generally”. Avory expands this idea, observing that “there can be a joyous safety in sharing our brilliant ideas and forming unique relationships with our peers without having to first make those ideas and relationships fit for mainstream public consumption”.

So while coming out is brave and important, let us not devalue the closet, and let us not forget those for whom the closet is shelter and protection rather than confinement.

Nottinghamshire Pride

Last year, I wrote about my slightly complicated feelings about Pride. As a result of some rather unpleasant transphobic incidents last year, this year the Pride organising committee offered the trans* group I help run our own tent and a bit of money to start us off. This was tremendously exciting – we’d never had a dedicated trans* area and we were determined to showcase the talented, diverse and creative trans* performers in our community, offer a space to our allies to perform in a friendly place where the complexities of their identities were welcomed, be a visible trans* presence at Pride and, perhaps most importantly, reaching out to people and making them feel a little less alone.

Photo of Ruth of Not Right

Ruth of Not Right. Photo by Eriw Erif

There’s an excellent review of the day by Ruth of Not Right and one of our members has a write-up and some photos on the group site.

Single Bass
El Dia (Sisters of Resistance)
Jase Redfield
Elaine O’Neill
Lashings of Ginger Beer Time
Dr Carmilla
Roz Kaveney
Sally Outen
George Hadden
Nat Titman
Troxin Cherry
Jessie Holder (of Better Strangers Opera)
Not Right

Every single one of them was fantastic, bringing their words and music and loves and lives to the stage. Whether this was furious-but-fun punk, elegantly coiled poetry about the acronyms one must acquaint oneself with as a trans* person, sweetly tender songs about growth and uncertainty, bawdily defiant poetry, eloquent fierceness about femme identity or subversively genderqueer readings of opera, our performers were both affirming and challenging. It was an honour to be able to thank so many amazing people at the end of the day, from the performers to Jess who organised the majority of the day, our stage manager and our fantastic sound guy.

As an activist, I think about spaces. I think about the spaces that I challenge and create, and as I watched and applauded and ran around trying to locate performers I thought about the space that I’d helped open up in Pride. The spaces I am talking about are both physical – like the tent – but also more abstract. Space is also about what is given voice, what is allowed to flourish, the possibilities that can be articulated. Much of my annoyance at last year’s Pride was that it was a gay man, and possibly a lesbian, space. This is important, and I’m not disputing the significance of a space where people can hold hands with their same-sex partners and not feel that tiny prickle of concern even at the best of times – that anyone, anywhere, could suddenly take it upon themselves to vocally – and perhaps physically – object to that simple, unobtrusive affection. Other queer identities were less or not acknowledged however, and I found that really problematic. The LGBTQA community is a huge, diverse community and it’s really important to acknowledge and welcome that diversity. When that diversity is not embraced, it’s not simply an issue of our experiences not being given a voice, as isolating and unwelcoming as that is. A lack of trans* awareness contributed to some really upsetting incidents and the Pride organising committee were keen to avoid that happening this year.

There was something magical about being in a tent and being able to listen and watch people who articulated some of my fears and anxieties and desires. There were trans* people speaking and singing and playing about trans* experiences, and cis performers adapting and selecting their work to speak to us. Not us trying to eke out a trans* interpretation of a song or a poem, but them finding the points where we could understand each other. It was people exploring gender and all that came with it; negotiating the NHS, the harsh realities of genital surgery, the misery and joy we find in our bodies. When we started planning our tent, we were determined to bring a radical queer feminist perspective to Pride – something that we treasured in our communities but which we rarely found represented at Pride. In this tent we were able to do something special, and create a space that was visible and proud and joyful and intersectional and defiant.

Jase Redfield of Mental Gellar

Jase Redfield of Mental Gellar. Photo by Eriw Erif.

Obviously things went wrong (technical hitches, delays, transport issues for some of our performers) and I can only thank our performers for being so patient with us. I learnt a lot about managing an event like this, even though the learning curve was so steep it felt more like a ski slope.

I found it an interesting mixture of some of my academic interests and my activist interests. While as an academic I am interested in silences and space, this was an opportunity to put some of the things I’ve been thinking about into practice. Not just thinking about what trans* positive spaces might look like, but trying to actually create one and working out what needs to be done so it is a safe(r) and welcoming space. Theoretically, I want such a space to acknowledge the different and complex ways people identify, encourage exploration of intersectional identities and recognise that there is No One True Way of being trans*. I want this space to provide information and offer solace, to be able to engage with people. What this meant was looking carefully at who we’d invited to perform, having some basic guidelines for behaviour displayed in the tent, making information from a range of different organisations and about different issues available, and ensuring that the people covered in our trans* history information were from a variety of backgrounds and reflected some of the ambiguities of posthumously assigning a trans* identity to a historical figure.

It wasn’t the most academic way to spend a weekend – I’m pretty sure most academics don’t need to hire drumkits the day before an event – but it had impact. Not just in a research sense, although I do hope to work in areas of language and gender identity, but in the way we saw people come in to say hello or out of curiosity or seeking information, and leave feeling affirmed, moved, comforted. A trans* space was political for all the reasons I’ve discussed, but it wasn’t until the day itself that I realised how very personal it would be too.