LGBT* on the Streets

By Nick Burdett and Emma Simpson 

Originally delivered as a speech at the Young Local Authority of the Year 2016 public speaking competition by the representatives of Leeds City Council on Thursday 19th February 2016.

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We make assumptions about homeless people. There might be people in this room that would stand up and deny that, but these assumptions are culturally produced and lie thick across our grey matter. Even if you aren’t making them, you will hear them from the mouths of others: lazy, drug addict, dangerous, mentally ill. The reality, of course, is that people become homeless for a large number of reasons. The way we speak about these reasons reveals us, as do the things we don’t say. Something that often escapes the assumption of grumbling pedestrians passing by the homeless is their sexuality or gender identity.

Queer is an umbrella term that can be used to define anyone that identifies as something other than heterosexual or cisgender. It indicates that someone exists outside of these social norms of gender and sexuality without specifying an exact gender identity, or with whom that person forms relationships. Queer is a fluid label that can help to create a bond for members of the entire LGBTQ+ community. Queer is still seen as controversial by some, because of its history as a slur, but it has since been reclaimed by many members of the LGBTQ community.

Of the young homeless people in the UK, the Albert Kennedy Trust estimates that one in four of them identify as queer. This isn’t simple demographic representation. One in four homeless young people aren’t gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans* because it mimics the rest of the UK community. The number of queer homeless youth is disproportionate to the known percentage of queer people in the general population. According to the 2014 Integrated Household Survey, more than 90% of 16-24 year olds identified as straight, with less than 3% openly identifying as L, G, B or T.

So what is the reason for this discrepancy? Leeds City Council, in its recently released ‘Housing Equality Improvement Priority Areas’ report, claims that, of people using homeless accommodation services in England, over 60% are young people made homeless due to a “relationship breakdown” with family and friends. One origin of such relationship breakdown is a child, peer or partner being something other than heterosexual or cisgender. Homophobia and transphobia mean that family acceptance and safe homes are not guaranteed for young queer people.

We are now coming out earlier and earlier than our contemporaries. Where people would come out in mid-life or in their 20s and 30s, young queer people today are coming out at 12 and 13. While this is a positive indication of social cues that affirm queer identities, it means that young people, who are forcibly expelled from their homes, or under threat from family members, are too young to live independently.

Young queer people are also likely to have already exhausted the usual social safety nets of school, friends or foster care. Gay and trans* youth face bullying and marginalisation from peers in schools and in foster care, and are too frequently met with misunderstanding or further discrimination from adults in those environments. The Metro’s ‘Youth Chances’ survey identified that over 40% of young queer people had suffered from harassment and a further group of more than 20% had been physically assaulted because of their orientation or gender identity.

Salt in the wound of this lack of support at home or in school is the absence of targeted material from shelters or local government programmes — something that became clear to us early on in our research. Though there are social support groups available to the young queer population of Leeds, these have proved very difficult to find and, as stated, contain no explicit mention of homelessness concerns. This contributes to the notion that homeless queer youth are unwanted and unprotected. Even where services exist, and can be accessed successfully, queer people may still end up fleeing due to discrimination or harassment. Where public services are the only thing standing between young people and living on the streets, this is not only dangerous: it is an invitation to homelessness.

In the ‘Housing Equality Improvement Priority Areas’ report, Leeds City Council recognises youth homelessness as a key issue for our housing services. The document speaks on how we have let young people down, how we must do more to reach them, but it says nothing about queer youth. Queer identities are not recognised as a priority marker within the housing needs assessment, or included explicitly in documents focused on homelessness. The authority signposts third-sector organisations working to resolve domestic violence and sex trafficking within the queer community, but does not refer to any Leeds-based services that tackle homelessness. Leeds City Council has also only recently introduced equality and diversity training for all staff, which raises questions about the preparedness of front-line services interacting directly with vulnerable queer people.

While we appreciate that many staff may have joined the authority before queer issues had come to the fore, these are barriers we must overcome — and quickly. We cannot assume that our messaging is reaching queer people: without an explicit focus on the particular needs of that demographic, it is unfair to expect them to feel safe in approaching our services. In 2006, Michelle Wang, a lesbian woman from Chicago, was turned away from a homelessness shelter after she told staff about her orientation. In 2014, a shelter run by the Salvation Army refused housing for a transgender woman on the basis of her gender identity. When stories like these exist, we must be proactive in reaching out. As Michelle Wang commented, “Too often, vulnerable people are too occupied with meeting their immediate needs to exercise their rights.”

While the situation for young queer people may seem dire, there are some institutions that are getting it right. Manchester City Council, for example, has worked with the LGBT Foundation to build a homelessness service specifically committed to examining the threat of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic behaviour as part of a needs assessment. Councils everywhere should be doing the same.

Not only that; local authorities must also tackle LGBTQ homelessness at its source by running programmes for family acceptance, and working closely with schools to support and protect queer students. Front-line staff must be trained in equality and diversity to prepare them for conversations around sexuality and gender identity, and queer youth must be named as a priority in housing policy. For too long we have overlooked or ignored the welfare of our queer citizens: it’s time for a change.

This is Why We Must All Celebrate Mother’s Day

By Noa Sasson-Brooks

I did not think this would be the title of my article.

I thought I was going to have an angry rant about the commercialisation of this day, about the suggestion it gives that mothers want to be given pink things, or overpriced chocolates and flowers – the production of which is destroying our planet with chemicals…. I thought I was going to write about how narrow-minded the cards one can buy seem to be, focusing as they do on thanking mum for all the cooking and the cleaning, all in pink; about how this deification of mothers is another way to make women feel inadequate when they become mothers, or doesn’t allow for the lonely road that is believing you are the only person whose mother is a bit rubbish and not worthy of thanks… And I thought I’d write about how alienating the holiday can be for single mothers, single dads and children of single-parent families.

I also thought that before I started ranting I should make sure I knew exactly what Mother’s Day is about. I had a vague idea that it has something to do with Easter but wasn’t sure exactly what. I researched the history and I have to say that, despite still believing all the rant-worthy things about the commercial side of the day, I have completely fallen in love with Mother’s Day and I will celebrate it every year until the day I die.

My history lesson starts with today and will work its way backwards.

The commercialised Mother’s Day we recognise today was modelled on something which started in America in the late 19th century, and has its roots purely in the desire to express appreciation for mothers. It was brought to the UK in the 1920s and by the 1950s was widespread and commercialised, which explains why there is still such a heavy emphasis on mid-century values of motherhood and homemaking in the cards and gifts widely available.

We in the UK, however, celebrate Mother’s Day on a different day to our transatlantic friends. Constance Penswick Smith, who was responsible for establishing Mother’s Day in the UK, was from a family of vicars and chose the traditional Christian Mothering Sunday to be the date of Mother’s Day. This explains why my Granny always calls it Mothering Sunday. But what was it?

It had historically been the fourth Sunday of Lent, a surprising feast day in the middle of Lenten fasting. It was a day when everyone, even servants, would return to their ‘mother church’ where they were baptised. It was the only day of the year when working-class families could all be together, as servants usually had to work on other holidays. Due to the celebrations taking place in the spring, there was an emphasis on flowers, decorating the church with flowers, and giving flowers to their mothers. There were even special types of Mothering Sunday cakes, which developed over time.

This is where my interest was piqued. Why the random feast day in the middle of Lent? Its real name was Laetare Sunday but became known as Mothering Sunday because of the return to the ‘mother church’? Really? The only information I could find about it is that it occurs on or near the vernal or spring equinox. Now I sensed pagan roots forming, and delved further….

The Romans had a week-long celebration of a demi-deity called Attis, and the day of the vernal equinox was supposed to be a celebration of his resurrection. Three days after his death. Involving carrying a tree trunk through the streets and being killed. Sound familiar? (Fun fact: the reason the date of Easter changes every year, despite the Romans’ scrupulous recording of events, is because it is calculated according to the first full moon after the vernal equinox).

But let’s talk more about Attis. He was the ‘husband’ of the Magna Mater, Cybele. When Cybele first decided to make Attis hers, by gate-crashing his wedding to a princess, he was so overcome by her power that he and his would-be father-in-law went mad and chopped off their own genitals. Cybele felt bad about this and made Attis a demi-god, and their followers in Greek and Roman society were eunuchs. There was another romantic spring festival for Cybele, the Megalesia, which was about agriculture and involved castration of livestock.

Who on earth was Cybele? I’ve always been interested in Greek gods and their Roman counterparts, but had never heard of Cybele. Well, she wasn’t technically a Greek goddess, but it was very common for these ancient empires to absorb the deities of territories they expanded into, to keep the people happy. The Greeks found Cybele strange and exotic but she was welcomed into their pantheon. Aside from her association with castration, she rode a chariot pulled by lions, and lived in the Leo constellation, and was usually depicted seated.

This is where it gets really good so stay with me. Cybele was originally a Phrygian goddess. She was the lead deity of their pantheon, but the only female. She was goddess of agriculture and fertility, and reigned as ‘mother nature’ from 1200 to 700BCE.

But before the Phrygian people, there was a society called Çatalhöyük, from around 7500BCE. Archaeologists have discovered a probable precursor to Cybele, in the form of many figurines of a female deity (and not very many male ones). She is depicted seated and pregnant, flanked by two lionesses. It is unclear whether she was a goddess of harvest, fertility or death, or all three and more. Many ancient religions linked fertility with agriculture, and birth with death, and represented them with a female deity. It is believed that Çatalhöyük was a completely gender equal society or perhaps a matriarchal one.

That is the end of my history lesson. Let me sum up this amazing theory: nearly 10,000 years ago, a powerful goddess was revered above all else. She clung on through the religions, being incarnated as various mother nature characters or fertility goddesses, associated with lions and always remaining powerful, to the point where the males surrounding her were castrated. And her festival has survived until today, and is now called Mother’s Day. And if that’s not amazing, I don’t know what is.

By all means, join me in eschewing the commercialised aspect of modern Mother’s Day. But this is a day of ancient celebration of the power of all women.

*DISCLAIMER* I am not an anthropologist, theologian, historian, or even a Christian. I don’t want to offend anyone, and would love to hear more information on this topic from those more knowledgeable than I am.

We Need to Talk About Sex (Education)

By Amber Wilson and Kaammini Chanrai

Originally delivered as a speech at the Young Local Authority of the Year 2016 public speaking competition by the representatives of Brent Council on Thursday 19th February 2016.

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We need to talk about sex. Well actually, we need to talk about relationships and sex.

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Consent workshops were recently introduced in universities around the country. However, one particular university student didn’t see their value. Holding up a sign stating ‘This is not what a rapist looks like’, George Lawlor publicly refused to attend. He found the invitation an insult, arguing that the seminars would be “a waste of time” and that no new information would be learnt. Yet, an astounding number of myths continue to surround the concept of consent, such as references to a grey area and references to victim blaming.

Clearly, we are not the only ones that need to talk about sex and relationships.

However, comprehensive Sex and Relationships Education is still not statutory across British schools. At most schools, some topics are compulsory from the age of eleven, such as reproduction and sexually transmitted infections. However, discussions on consent, healthy relationships and online safety are often missed out entirely. With nearly half a million cases of sexual assault every year, decreased funding to domestic violence services and an influx of online abuse, we must ask ourselves: are we really doing enough to teach young people about sex and relationships?

So, what is Sex and Relationships Education?

Sex and Relationships Education, or SRE, teaches the emotional, social and physical aspects of growing up. Although SRE includes lessons on sex, sexuality and sexual health, it is not limited to this. SRE gives young people essential skills for building positive, respectful and non-exploitative relationships and staying safe both on- and offline.

So, why is SRE so important?

Although it’s not mandatory to teach SRE, we definitely have a legal obligation to protect children from harm. Ofsted found that SRE is inadequate in nearly half of schools and that this leaves children vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. An estimated one in twenty secondary school children have been sexually assaulted and sadly, most of these cases go unreported. Children need to be taught how to recognise this abuse. Too many children don’t even know the official names of genitals let alone how to report when somebody is taking advantage of their body.

In the wake of several scandals, child sexual exploitation and grooming have become a national priority for social services. What we have learnt from high profile cases is that, too often, vulnerable young people have been groomed to expect that a Happy Meal deserves a “happy ending” for the person buying. Consent requires choice and the freedom and capacity to make that choice. This is not just about the grooming and abuse of children. The demand for university consent workshops arose because young adults feel they are leaving school without having properly addressed the issue of consent. Statements like “well, she seemed up for it” can no longer be tolerated.

Young people have a right to information that will keep them healthy and safe. It’s widely reported that when pupils receive lessons on sex, consent and relationships, their first sexual activity is likely to occur later, and is more likely to be safe and consensual. Effective SRE can also lower rates of STIs, teenage pregnancy and abortion. Let’s take Finland for example. When SRE was made optional in 1994, Finland saw a fall in the use of contraception and a 50% increase in teenage pregnancy. SRE has since been reintroduced. It is careless that we continue to ignore these tangible benefits that SRE can bring.

Teenagers are frequently involved in online sexual activity, often below the legal age of consent. The UK’s largest group of internet pornography consumers is 12-17 year olds. Yet, the last government guidance on SRE dates back to the year 2000, well before the rise of Facebook, Snapchat and Tinder and Grindr hook-ups. Considering these changes that we have seen to social networking, it is crucial that we provide proper education on online relationships and cyber-safety. Online bullying towards the LGBTQ+ community has also increased dramatically in recent years. The fact is that virtual relationships are being virtually ignored by the outdated SRE guidance.

Unsurprisingly, the lack of comprehensive and consistent SRE in schools disproportionately affects women and girls. SRE would include teaching on healthy, equal relationships and violence against women and girls, including topics such as Female Genital Mutilation, domestic violence and sexual abuse. This surely lies at the heart of a society based on gender equality and human rights. As women, we are told how to keep ourselves out of danger. But shouldn’t we be teaching the next generation not to perpetrate violence rather than just how to avoid it? Prevent isn’t cure. The economic cost alone of violence against women and girls in the UK is over £40 billion a year. And what of the human cost? Two women are killed by domestic violence every week. This is frankly unacceptable.

We would like to see a compulsory, age-appropriate programme of SRE on curricula across all primary and secondary schools. If SRE were statutory, the material would gain legitimacy and consistency, and teachers would feel more confident and supported teaching the subject. This would also mean increased funding and resources, better teacher-training as well as specialist teachers. While there is of course a financial implication of implementing SRE nation-wide, future benefits would definitely outweigh any short-term costs.

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George Lawlor has not been alone in arguing that consent workshops are a waste of time. However, different reasons have been given for this. Introducing consent classes at university is too little, too late. These lessons need to be embedded from childhood. Otherwise, we are complicit in the exploitation of children, we fail to prevent violence against women and girls, and we undermine the opportunity for both women and men to have happy and healthy relationships. Enough is enough.

A call by MPs to make Sex and Relationships Education compulsory in all schools was rejected by Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, earlier this month. This decision has been widely criticised by students, teachers and parents.

Why We Need to Stop Condemning Cosmetic Surgery

By Malene Bratlie

The last couple of years has not been so bad for feminism. Yes, we do still experience sexism, we are still paid unequally based on our sexual differences, and our nipples are still heavily sexually loaded despite our will but, at least, we are heading in a direction of conversations and debates on how to create a society that is equal for all genders. But if we ever are to reach that point, we need to unpick all those aspects that underpin gender inequality, why they still exist and how they can cease to exist.

One of those aspects is that of putting women into fixed categories. I like to think that we have grown towards a more nuanced understanding of women’s personalities and that there is little need to put us into categories. And in many cases we have, but when it comes to female celebrities, categorisation does happen.

It is especially so in the case of female celebrities who fall into the category of ‘sex symbols’. Though not all of them, there seems to be a subcategory of female sex symbols which is relatively rigid, shaped by aspects such as silicon breasts, blonde hair and plump lips.

Often these women are presented as slightly less intellectual and a bit too obsessed with their own looks. A very recent example of this is Norway’s top blogger Sophie Elise, a 21-one- year-old woman who has had two cosmetic surgeries including breast implants and nose job as well as Restylane injections in her lips. Almost immediately, the media and her readers put her in this category: a sex doll, only to be judged by her appearance and her ‘dumb’ statements. The moment she expressed her concerns for environmental issues, the dreadful treatment of circus animals and the prejudices towards refugees, she was ridiculed by the tabloid press and by media experts. She also flashed at an awards show recently to demonstrate how tired she was of solely being evaluated by her looks. It seems to be that when a woman succumbs to the pressure of ideal beauty, she is deprived of the right to discuss issues besides beauty and boobs, only to be seen through the lens of sexuality.  

In the latest issue of The Gentlewoman, Pamela Anderson follows in a similar vein of frustration. “People have a very fixed image of who I am and what I can do,” she said. One of the leading newspapers in Norway pointed out the irony of first having breast implants and then complaining about the immense body pressure women experience. However, what they did not point out is that the choice to undertake cosmetic surgery, at a very young and insecure age, is a choice very likely to be influenced by a patriarchal society that primarily focuses on women in terms of appearance.

What these concerned media experts fail to take into account is that a woman — cosmetic surgery or not — can actually be so nuanced and complex as to care about different things at once. Like we all do, we care about issues that affect us as a society, about the TV shows we watch and the conditioner we use. That doesn’t mean that the right to speak up about serious as well as shallow matters should be robbed from us. So why is it okay to do so in the case of these women? Is it because they chose to put themselves in the light of the media? Because they chose to go to more extreme lengths to meet a beauty ideal that we are being fed on a daily basis?

In the case of women who carry out operations to meet society’s ideal of beauty, we are quick to condemn. Is it because it is too uncomfortable to realise that it is not these women who create the pressure of ideal beauty, but rather, the patriarchal structures of society who so repeatedly tells us that we are evaluated first on how we look, and then for our intellect? Is it really so strange that in the midst of this pressure, some succumb to it, and let the wonders of cosmetic surgery revile the burden of never being pretty enough, or thin enough? What we need to condemn instead are these patriarchal structures that prevent a more diverse representation of women.

This issue is not a new one in feminist conversations. One way to tackle gender discrimination is to end objectification — an obvious goal on the feminist agenda. But we need to repeat this conversation again and again until we don’t have to fight for the choice of when we can be empowered by our sexuality and when we can be empowered by our intellect. Even though feminists (and everyone else for that matter) have a responsibility to dismantle and challenge the idealistic conception of beauty, we must also keep in mind that when women choose to have cosmetic surgery it is not them we should try to change, but the decisions of a media industry who consistently feeds us with a homogenous picture of ideal beauty.

Why is Reporting About Violence Against Women so Disjointed?

By Emily Morrison

Recently, we have seen a welcome resurgence of feminism and feminist discourse in the media, however, there is still a lack of awareness and recognition of the spectrum of gender-based discrimination, of which violence against women — for example, stalking, domestic violence or female genital mutilation (FGM) — are just one extreme end.

In the past few weeks, there has been much domestic news coverage focussed on the gruesome murder of 19-year-old Becky Watts at the hands of her step-brother, Nathan Matthews. As usual in such cases, much of the coverage has focused on his character as a “psychopath”, or as a “monster” obsessed with pornography. Such coverage indicates that this kind of crime — in which a woman is murdered by someone known to her, whether a family member (as in this case), a friend, a partner or ex-partner — is a rarity. In fact, statistically speaking, it is the norm.

Of course, the tendency of the media to distort the context is not confined to coverage of gender-based crimes. There is, in contrast, a tendency for the media to highlight and over-emphasise what are often statistically unlikely but more dramatic events. For example, there is the often-touted fact that we are far more likely to die in a road accident than a terrorist attack, and yet media coverage causes people to be preoccupied with the latter. Furthermore, a recent study found that murders of men by women, although far less frequent than the reverse, are disproportionately portrayed in the media.

Whilst the wrongful media portrayal of events is not in itself unusual, in the case of violence against women it can have severe consequences. Not only does the skewed emphasis indicate that women should fear dangers from strangers rather than those closer to home, it also means that our approach to tackling it becomes misguided.

As anyone aware of violence against women and issues of gender inequality more generally knows, these crimes do not happen in a vacuum and are strongly related to societal norms and policies that dictate gendered behaviour patterns and views on women.

In the UK generally, there seems to be little recognition of this. Any feminist campaign not deemed ‘serious enough’, such as that in 2013 led by Criado Perez to have a woman depicted on a banknote, is invariably met (if not with explicit threats of violence) with criticisms of being ‘trivial’. This is then often accompanied by the assertion that there are ‘bigger problems’ facing women. Basically, it’s the equivalent of countering complaints about anything short of nuclear war with a dismissive “first world problems”.

Not illogically, many people simply accept this reasoning. The image on a banknote which few people even consciously notice, hardly seems akin to the crisis in funding for women’s refuges or young girls being subjected to FGM. However, while certainly understandable, this pervasive attitude is unhelpful. They silently (sort of) accept that serious and physical forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG) and the more widespread but subtle forms of discrimination which block women from participation and representation in public life, are quite distinct and not part of a single problem. But, arguably, that is one of the reasons why — alone among violent crimes — the VAWG statistics remain stubbornly high.

Nowhere is this lack of understanding more apparent than in the reporting of domestic violence. Whilst not having a female on a banknote may seem insignificant compared to the average of two women a week who are killed by partners and ex-partners, they are two sides of the same coin and need to be tackled simultaneously.

When domestic violence is reported in the media (and, in the majority of cases, it is not even mentioned), the cause of the crime is usually indicated to be a one-off incident resulting from the character either of the victim or the culprit. There is rarely, if ever, any indication that such crimes are caused by more widespread societal attitudes towards women. This means that many women are simply not aware of the typical warning signs of domestic violence until it is far too late, and, even more significantly, it means that there is little pressure to tackle the root causes of this crime. Official measures in the UK largely focus on dealing with the consequences such as refuge funding or legal measures such as Clare’s Law, rather than prevention.

So what can be done to change this? Although in the UK and in many other countries domestic violence is either ignored or wrongly portrayed in the media, this style of reporting is not uniform. In Spain — a country which has managed to reduce domestic violence in the last two decades — all murders of women by partners or ex-partners are reported in the national news as a running total.

These crimes are then explicitly linked in a way that makes it impossible for them to be seen as isolated or ‘freak’ incidents. While this might seem macabre, it is a clear, and relatively easy, way of underlining that these crimes are part of something much wider and more pervasive. And is, in fact, a measure which is already used in the UK when reporting on gun crime. Of course, a change in media reporting could only represent a single strand of what would need to include a more widespread policy of education and attitude-change. But, in a mature media market, it could nonetheless be a successful and relatively easy way of beginning such a process.
Whether this will catch on in the UK — where domestic violence statistics are not even officially collected — is another question. But we can keep pushing.

Gender Fictionalism: How I Learnt to Love Eyeliner and Live My Own Life

By Georg(ia) Penfold

I wear my hair long, my eyeliner thick and I shop ever more frequently in the “women’s section”, but I’m not trans, nor do I identify as any of the other ever-growing gender categories that are used within queer culture. The reason behind this is simple: I’m a gender-sceptic.Years of personal and academic philosophy have pushed me more and more towards the conclusion that identity, and with it gender, are no more than fictions which we construct to try and make sense of who we are and our place in the world. This may seem somewhat out of place on a blog specifically about gender, but this is to assume that I take these fictions to be useless, and this could not be further from the truth.

I personally don’t identify as anything. I don’t eat meat but I don’t identify as vegetarian. I’ve only slept with men but I don’t identify as gay. I was born in England but I don’t identify as English. I don’t identify as these things because I feel that they fail to tell you anything about who I am and about who I am becoming. Yet I hold the belief that these identities have some importance, much like how even the most sceptical person still accepts that they have hands. The reason for this comes from the fictionality that I take to be my basis for rejecting self-identification, for although by being fictional there is nothing that it is to be a certain gender, there is something to identify with a character in fiction even if it’s just a small part. From this, ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (I use the binary genders for ease and emphasis as they are most prevalent) are not ways of being. The stories we tell of them are not guides to how our sexed bodies should be, rather they are characters in fiction through whom we tell our stories, but what we so often forget is that we can create and live stories that have never been told before.

Familiarity, by nature, is comforting — it makes us feel safe. Many of us are taught from a young age to shy away from the strange and distinct, and in so doing we tighten the realm of possibilities. Existence precedes essence: there is nothing that we are meant to be, no destined fate, or prophecy to follow, we are all our own beings. But the familiarity of gender roles that we see around us obscures this and we fall into line too often out of fear and uncertainty, fear of our own freedom. By following the familiar fictions that have been told through generations, we fall under the illusion that our lives will be carried out in the joyous and happy way that those fictions so often present. That marriage, kids and family dogs are not ways our lives could be, but the way they need to be for us to be happy, complete and have our place in the world. But these are just fictions and, like any old story, so rarely do they come true.

These fictions of gender, seen in this way, can become dangerous, causing harm to the self and to others. For example, taken to the extreme, one might feel that they cannot truly be who they take themselves to be until they have had sex with a member of the opposite sex, therefore building an ever more aggressive and hateful set of feelings out of the frustration which not feeling ‘complete’ can manifest. Feelings that, in an even more extreme example, can force one to feel a need to cause violence. Another example is a life followed without thought to how else it could be lived — doing everything right by society because that’s all you were ever told to do; reaching middle age with everything that you were ever meant to have, but ending up feeling empty inside with no understanding as to why.

To follow these fictions as truth, to see them as the way one’s life needs to be, is clearly destructive, harmful and stagnant. It casts aside any thought of Darwin’s theory of evolution — for how can we evolve if we always repeat that of old? However, as I said earlier, I still think there is some use to gender (at least for the time being). It allows us to understand the way the world has been, to grasp why things are the way they are, and hopefully how we can change them. It’s useful to recognise parts of ourselves in others, to begin to understand what we might want and desire. My own experience has shown me this for, as I departed from manhood, I found stories of women who I identified with, whose stories made sense of my own life and so helped me develop who I am. Yet those stories still left me wanting (as did many stories of men), for I only ever saw parts of myself in them. I could have tried to follow one of these fictions, to find their ways of being happy, but I knew that I would then have to create a new fiction — a new way of being that would depart from the fictions so frequently told.

However, this is not a fiction I tell, it is a ‘fiction’ that happens to me, as my life takes its blind twists and turns, throwing new people and emotions at me. I know there is no way to tell this fiction, no point in trying to tell myself where it will go and how it will end, for it is all yet to happen. Life, then, is not a fiction we tell ourselves, but one that others tell about us; a fiction in which gender is there to suggest but not to guide us, to make sense of the part but not the whole.

Bella Kinesis: The Ethical Sportswear Brand Moving from Strength to Strength

By Shaleena Chanrai

In school I hated Physical Education. I was never good at competitive sport and I couldn’t see the benefit of it either. When I got to university, there was obviously no mandatory workout and I was living on junk food with no exercise. Eventually, the lack of healthy living caught up with me. I had gained a lot of weight and become increasingly lethargic, and there were days when I was tired of being tired. My only saving grace was that, as a photography student, I was building my own sets and doing a lot of heavy lifting.

I thought it would be easier to control my food intake and workout regime after I had graduated, but I was wrong. Working as an assistant photographer for one of India’s top fashion photographers meant that, most days, I was on set from 5 am until midnight and all we were given to eat were rice-based dishes or pizza. Initially I thought it would be fine as I was burning calories while building sets. However, I was put in charge of computer and camera duties and as a girl, I wasn’t allowed to do any heavy lifting; instead, I was told to sit and watch. I was far from dainty so I couldn’t understand why anyone thought I was incapable. When I started the job, the crew was made up of men except one other woman and myself. A few weeks later, she left and another girl was hired. We were constantly surrounded by models, which did not do much for my self-esteem — especially when at the end of the day my boss would comment on my weight, hair or my “professional look”. Neither of us girls stayed as long as we would have liked. My boss once told me that he didn’t know why women never lasted in his studio and I didn’t know how to answer without offending him.

About a month before I left my job, a young woman who was on a photo assignment was raped and brutally beaten in a studio down the road from where I worked. When we heard the news we were all angry and heartbroken and from that day on I was treated like a glass ornament. I was not seen for my full potential and I could feel my talent slipping away from me, as I was never given an opportunity to prove that I had any. I was incredibly unhappy with my situation — I was not where I had pictured myself being, close to two years after graduating. One day, however, I suddenly felt this fire light up inside me. I had spoken to a friend who understood my passionate feelings towards my situation and also understood that if women wanted to be taken seriously, we needed to work from within the workplace to change the way men see us. This is why we developed Bella Kinesis.

Bella Kinesis is an ethical sportswear brand, inspired by the fact that my best friend (now business partner) and I both had different health issues we needed to address and that when we went shopping together, there was a lack of fun, functional and well-priced sportswear for women of all sizes. The existing brands seemed to be designed by fit people, for fit people and as a newcomer, it was overwhelming and intimidating, so we decided to create our own brand that women could identify with. We manufacture our clothing in the UK, which gives us an opportunity to test our clothing to make sure it functions and does what we say it does. As we were becoming healthier and stronger, we wanted to transfer that strength elsewhere and so we teamed up with the foundation Mann Deshi. For every item we sell, we fund a one-month business education course for women in rural India. By giving them the tools needed to start their own businesses, we are helping them achieve financial independence, which will not only boost their self-confidence, but will also earn them respect within their communities. This will lead to young girls being more valued and therefore pushed towards education and jobs, instead of early marriage or even prostitution. Projects like this have a domino effect; these courageous women inspire others, resulting in a real change in attitude in villages, then cities and then finally on a national level.

For us, combining our idea for a sportswear brand with this push towards women’s empowerment came naturally. As women start to become more active, both their physical and mental strength grow. This increased stamina translates into other benefits, mainly increased self-confidence. Strong, confident women work to help and motivate others. Our brand supports healthy body images and hopes to encourage young girls to keep active, even if they aren’t good at traditional competitive sport.

Bella Kinesis is about self-improvement as well as the improvement of other people’s lives. We call our movement Strength for Strength!

 

Visit bellakinesis.com to discover more!

Fight, Flight…or Freeze: Rethinking Reactions to Sexual Assault

By Lindsay Riddoch

September is my least favourite month of the year. I figure I’m not the only one who hates it — Green Day at least seem to be on my side. My hatred for it — aside from the obvious end-of-summer reasons — comes from September 9th 2011. I’d just been staying with a good friend in Cardiff. It was the summer between my slightly unusual sixth form and university. I had 3 weeks until I started my new life in London. I was booked on a Megabus from Cardiff to London, and then from London to Edinburgh. It was a hellish journey, but one I had done before. My iPlayer was fully loaded with documentaries and it was all going to be fine.

At Victoria Coach Station, a man sat next to me on the bus. I don’t have a visual memory, and probably couldn’t even describe what my best friends look like, but I could draw you a picture of this man. After about an hour (judging by the fact that I had watched one documentary on iPlayer) he started to assault me. Four long — though simultaneously incredibly short — hours later, he got off the bus in Manchester.

I didn’t scream, I didn’t even say the word ‘no’. I moved my legs, moved them again, and then my brain disappeared. In the last few seconds before my brain and body went into shut-down, I was more scared of causing a scene than I was of losing my autonomy over my own body. I had flashes of a video we watched in year six about ‘feeling yes, feeling no’. I considered, as instructed on this video, shouting no. But as I was considering this option my brain went into survival mode and decided that taking me out of that situation was the safest option. Without an option to physically escape, it let me mentally escape.

Those 4 hours changed my life forever. As I tried to process the trauma in my mind and body, I was told by a psychiatrist that I needed to ‘get counselling to learn how to say no’. My lack of assertiveness was seen as the problem that needed treating. Even as more empathetic people explained trauma theory to me, they kept talking about ‘fight or flight’. Common parlance and psycho-babble alike kept explaining to me that when in danger, my body goes into fight or flight mode. Yet I didn’t do either of those things — did that mean I wanted it, that my body betrayed me? I didn’t punch him, regardless of the fact he wasn’t that big. I didn’t get up and demand to be let off the bus. After attempting to move within my seat I sat completely still. I froze. In terms of evolutionary survival, I played dead.

Running and fighting are not the only two options when faced with a threat. There is a third option — often touted in response to grizzly bears. Play dead. Stop fighting. Wait for the attacker to get bored whilst inflicting as little violence as possible. As children, girls are told not to fight: they are taught not to raise their head too far above the parapet. They are taught to wait, to ignore. Meanwhile their subconscious mind quickly picks up on the strength of boys around them. Their subconscious makes a snap judgement — that on the balance of probabilities, this man is stronger than they are. Back then, as an 18 year old, I was faced with a situation that my rational mind had no map for — no learnt or taught reactions to — my evolutionary brain took over. It used all the information available to it and froze.

In an email I wrote a few weeks after my Megabus journey I said the following: “I know you’re going to be sitting there thinking this is some kind of super big deal. But this isn’t sexual assault. Honestly. It’s not as bad as it sounds. I just wish I could know why my mind shut down; and how to stop it doing that to me again, because it seems like whatever kicks in after the brain leaves makes incredibly unsound decisions.” Reading that now breaks my heart. I’d heard of ‘fight or flight’. It made sense to me, and as far as I could tell my evolutionary mind had let me down. It hadn’t fought and it hadn’t run. From there came the victim-blaming; from there came my guilt. Yes, the media is part of that problem, and so is all that advice about how not to get raped. But, in my opinion, the single biggest contributor is every single time we miss out the freeze when we discuss ‘fight or flight’.

The freeze response is, I believe, something less common in men, who are more likely to have been raised to fight, or to weigh-up that they are able to flee. In a world dominated by male ideas, we are given a male understanding of traumatic reactions. Yet actually, across the board, freeze is the most common of the three reactions. Last time a car almost hit you in the road, did you run? Or did you actually, to the mockery of those around you, stand dead still in front of it as it honked its horn? If we’re going to curb the misunderstanding and slander of rape and sexual assault victims, we need to start with a basic psychological education. We need to give people an understanding of how their brains react that is bigger than the basic ‘fight or flight’ idea. Preventing people from raping in the first place would obviously be the ideal, and lessons about consent are vital, but we also need to help people understand their own reactions. Boys especially need to understand the evolutionary reactions when one’s mind assumes a physical strength deficiency. Girls need to learn about freeze when they’re young, not only after — heaven forbid — they fall victim to a terrible crime.
In a sexual assault or rape scenario, freeze is by far the most common reaction. We need to remember that for ourselves, for our loved ones and for everyone who is sitting blaming themselves for something that happened to them. Even more importantly, however, we need to understand why our bodies do it. We need to not hate them for their attempts to protect us. We need to realise that, whatever the after-effect, in those minutes both our mind and our body were doing their absolute best to keep us as safe as possible. We need to remember that whatever happened to our body was not a sign of us enjoying ourselves, but instead of our evolutionary protection of ourselves. And every single time we say ‘fight or flight’ we must say ‘fight, flight or freeze’. We must raise a generation of young people who know that freeze is an evolutionary reaction. We must make judges, psychologists and police officers understand that playing dead works. We must forgive our own bodies for doing their best.

Blowing the Whistle on Prejudice in Football

By Kaammini Chanrai

Last week, after the Champions League fixture that saw Paris Saint-Germain play Chelsea, footage surfaced of a group of Chelsea fans chanting a racist song. ‘We’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it’, they sing as they physically prevent a black man from boarding the Parisian Métro. Three men were suspended from Stamford Bridge whilst Chelsea F.C. released the following statement that same day, reprimanding what happened:

‘Such behaviour is abhorrent and has no place in football or society. We will support any criminal action against those involved in such behaviour, and should evidence point to the involvement of Chelsea season ticket holders or members, the club will take the strongest possible action against them, including banning orders.’

This incident is a disgrace and it has rightfully attracted widespread attention and condemnation. Racism in football is pandemic, indicative by examples from last year alone. In April, Villarreal fans racially targeted Barcelona player Dani Alves by hurling a banana at him. Similar events occurred in May with bananas thrown at Milan’s Kevin Constant and Nigel de Jong by Atlanta fans. In August, the League Manager’s Association defended racist and homophobic texts sent by then Crystal Palace manager, Malky Mackay, as ‘banter’. In December, Mario Balotelli pleaded guilty to the FA for an anti-Semitic post on Instagram – Balotelli himself has been subject to racial abuse by Juventus fans and online.

I don’t want to undermine racism in football. The attention that it is receiving is entirely necessary and the discussion must continue in order to tackle such a deeply rooted problem. But I’d like to use this opportunity to open up a wider conversation, which encompasses sexism and homophobia in football as well. Sexism and homophobia are pervasive at football matches and occur so regularly that they have almost been normalised.

I’ve been at football matches where players were subjected to abusive chants for supposedly being gay or queer or transgendered. I’ve attended football matches where catcalls follow the every move of a woman on the pitch. Just recently I went to a match where the female physiotherapist on the pitch bent down to assist a player and a supporter shouted for her to give the player a blowjob. Nobody bats an eyelid. These comments are brushed off like mud on a player’s shoe and dismissed as playful banter.

The absence of openly gay players is well documented and discussed, and it is only recently that LGBT supporters’ groups have sprung up in response to fans’ fear of homophobic abuse, sometimes even from their fellow supporters. Brighton players and fans have been subjected to harassment simply for their town’s associations. A survey last year revealed that 73% of fans in the UK would be comfortable with a member of their national team coming out as gay – a relatively high proportion compared to other countries, and one that was met with praise. This statistic, however, belies the full quarter of British supporters who would reject such a player, let alone the almost certainly hostile reaction if said footballer played for the opposing team. Thomas Hitzlsperger remains the only openly gay player to have played in England’s Premier League – a sad truth which illustrates the antagonism that still exists within the game and the consequent difficulty for players to be open about their homosexuality.

I had never personally been harassed at a football match – not until a few weeks ago, when I attended my team’s Boxing Day fixture. My sister and I accidentally strayed into a sea of West Ham supporters and, without realising it, we were the only two females in the vicinity. It was only when my sister gave me a communicative stare that I properly listened to the singing behind us: “I bet these two take it up the arse,” a group sung repeatedly. “Get your tits out,” a few of them began to shout. I rolled my eyes and we continued walking, deciding it was probably better not to react and let the day’s scoreline speak for itself. There were plenty of police around, some of which definitely heard the abuse, and it was clear that they had been desensitised to such behaviour.

Of course, an indictment of all football fans is entirely unfair. Not all football fans are hooligans. Too many are racist, sexist or homophobic but it would be unfair to chastise all supporters because of the actions of some. I’m a Chelsea fan myself and I – along with most Chelsea fans – would never hurl racist abuse or physically assault another individual on the basis of their skin colour, gender or sexual orientation.

However, that this happens time and time again in football says something about the group mentality of football fans. Why such discrimination occurs is an entirely different question. The exertion of hegemonic masculinity is likely to have relevant implications. Hegemonic masculinity can be described as ‘a question of how particular groups of men inhabit positions of power and wealth, and how they legitimate and reproduce the social relationships that generate their dominance’ (in Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity by Carrigan, Connell and Lee). The existence of this seems evident in many sporting contexts and a situation such as a football match – which brings together a high amount of ‘masculine’ behaviour – is a breeding ground for prejudice.

Another explanation is the effect of collective behaviours. Multiple theories of collective behaviours exist but ‘Contagion Theory’ perhaps best describes this mob mentality in football. Gustave Le Bon stipulated that crowds exert a hypnotic influence over one another, which negates individual responsibility. He said ‘by the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs on the ladder of civilisation.’ Along with historical rivalries, strong emotions and an element of anonymity, this is likely to exacerbate prejudice and irrational action.

From a structural perspective, racism and sexism are accepted in entirely different ways universally. Thus, the microcosm of racism and sexism in football pans out in the same way. Sexism is often downplayed in such contexts and it is sometimes dismissed as irrelevant. In her article Female Fandom: Identity, Sexism, and Men’s Professional Football in England, Katharine W. Jones highlights the argument that sexism is not considered to be ‘as important as racism because of the lack of female footballers. They could see the direct effects of racism on players but could not envisage where sexism might take place.’ And yet, female referees and commentators are still hard to come by, sexism exists pervasively towards women’s football and there is a widespread narrative that football belongs to men.

Slowly, things are improving. Although they have been the subject of sexist and offensive remarks, female referees, assistant referees and commentators do exist around the world. The figures are miniscule but they are an improvement from a few years ago and hopefully the barriers to entry will begin to erode sooner rather than later. Moreover, just last week a match to display anti-homophobia was played between Dulwich Hamlet and Stonewall F.C, who are Britain’s top-ranking gay football team and current Gay Football World Champions. The Rainbow Laces campaign, also run by Stonewall, recently saw an array of Arsenal players speaking up against homophobia as well.

Racism, sexism and homophobia are not the problem of only one football club. Such prejudice and discrimination happens across the board, across the world. These issues are institutional, not incidental. They are structural, not isolated. FIFA and UEFA have already sanctioned campaigns to combat racist behaviour, but unfortunately the responsibility of holding people to account has been delegated. Better regulation must be a priority. And as we ‘Say no to racism’ we must also ‘Say no to sexism and homophobia,’ loud and clear.

[I would like to thank my sister for her contribution to this article]

Reconciling the Personal and the Political

By Kate Gilchrist

I can feel the blood rising, a quickening of the heartbeat, flushing of the face, shifting in my seat, and an urge to either shout out or leave the room.

‘I’m sorry, but you just can’t deny there is a biological-based difference between the way men and women behave.’

This statement was voiced by only one relative at a recent family gathering, but it reflected the room’s general consensus following a prolonged discussion. We had been discussing why, in the case of a couple that we know, the woman was keenly waiting for her male partner to propose marriage rather than asking him herself. The conversation had swung back, as ever, to a familiar biologically based reinscription of gender binaries.

I’ve never been a fan of confrontation (seriously, who is?) and I’ve always been one to enjoy trying to understand others’ points of view, especially as part of lively debate. For me, I believe that there is no black and white with any issue, no ‘truth’ or explicit ‘right or wrong’ on either side. But as I tried to put forward my own point of view  which was in direct opposition to everyone else in the room — I realised it felt totally different and much, much harder than having a discussion in university with classmates, or a chat with friends in the pub. It was even harder than chipping in to a conversation in the office, where, as heated as they can get, there is a distance which acts as an emotional buffer.

It seems there is something acutely upsetting (surely I’m not alone here), about having such distinctly different views to those who you not only love, but also respect and look to for guidance and understanding in every other area of your life. Those with whom your other views in most other areas largely align, which is, by and large, why they are close to you.

And so while I, on the one hand, tried to argue my point as much as possible, I was also listening to a voice in my head saying that I didn’t want to cause a rupture within a group of people that I love and want to have the best possible relations with. This voice said that I had to close the debate down before it got any more heated; that I should not say everything that I wanted to say; that I should not ultimately try to ‘win’ the argument (perhaps unfair to me, since I’ve heard a lot more of the different standpoints on such topics, having studied it). I’ve always felt that convincing someone to agree with your point of view is not necessarily the goal of a heated discussion. Getting your view out there  even if just to make someone aware that this other point of view exists, even if they then choose to dismiss it  can still create a small shift in their consciousness. Maybe even, at some level, open them up to a wider perspective. But in this context the stakes seemed higher, heightened by emotion and the need for them to understand where I was coming from, which made it even more important to me. Realistically, I know that’s very unlikely to happen as they have not been exposed to the arguments that I have, and they are not as interested in exploring these issues — and that’s entirely their prerogative.

But as Kaammini outlined in her blog on why she decided to set up Gender and the City, there is a point at which each of us who want to do our bit to reduce any harm caused by how gender is constructed, feel like we can no longer stay quite on such issues. We know that the personal is political: it is the very stuff that makes up our day to day lives, in every situation, and at every moment. We know that gender is everywhere and we know that such debates and confrontation are inescapable as a result. If we don’t address it in our personal lives we are arguably doing as much harm as any far-reaching social policy.

There will always be disagreement  even within feminism and gender  as we all have different perspectives and positions. But how do we get over this stumbling block? How do we assert our point of view and attempt to challenge the status quo when our personal relationships may be at stake and the emotional fallout, from our perspective, too great? How do we discuss these issues without such negative emotions and frustrations holding us back or causing us too much damage?

I don’t want to fall out with anyone whom, on every other level, I love and respect. One of the things about gender is that, because it’s all around us, it often comes up in everyday conversation and appears to many as an easily resolvable issue (I’m sure if my Master’s had been in quantum physics, say, I would have less people offering me their opinion on the subject). And just because they haven’t thought about it as much as me doesn’t mean that their opinion is less relevant, but it does mean there is an imbalance between how much emotional investment they have in said subject compared to me. Mostly, they aren’t getting upset like me. I can only conclude that in order to continue to raise such issues I need to forcibly separate my emotions from the discussion. But it is a difficult line to tread and one I am still struggling with to the point that I often have stop conversations, go silent, or actively avoid such topics, in order to preserve relationships that are important to me. This often feels like a very uncomfortable position to be in.

In the situation described above, I will confess that I just told myself to stop talking, limit the damage, change the subject and go home. So I stepped outside thinking I just need to calm down; not get so worked up about such matters in these situations; not hold my family to account in terms of gender politics, and questioned whether is was worth it (to me) to spoil such occasions  “making” problems where there are none. So there I was standing waiting for the bus home, on a quiet, dark corner in south London, when a man appeared from around the corner and starts harassing me, saying he wants to talk to me, take me out sometime etc, even though I am completely ignoring him… Thankfully the bus arrived almost immediately. But it reminded me of exactly why such discussions are so important, and can’t be ignored and why we can’t give up and why we have to make these connections. No matter how hard it is. Perhaps a necessary part of putting gender in the centre of our lives is harnessing the emotion that it raises rather than ignoring it and channelling it in the right direction. Easier said than done.

Why We Should All Listen to Erasure – “A Little Respect”

By Elena Sabatini

A week ago, as I cursed the CityMapper app for lying to me about when my bus would arrive, a banal and yet pervasive intuition swept over me as I realised my frustrations with urban life.

Newsflash: there is very little that I am actually in control of.

It doesn’t matter that CityMapper has been saying that the 91 bus will arrive in 2 minutes for the past 15 – sometimes buses get stuck and I should deal with it.

It doesn’t matter that I tried, for hours, to force myself to be in a good mood before going to that party and, once I arrived, realised I would have much rather socialised with the tub of ice cream in my freezer. I cannot fully control my mood and state of mind on any given day – not even upon command.

It doesn’t matter if I always give evils to the “leering loiterers” close to my flat who were there when I returned from that party. No matter the amount of freezing stare-downs I give them, they always hang out in the same spot.

It was the kind of whooshing moment when all other nagging thoughts melted away, and all of a sudden, I was filled with an odd and pervading sense of serenity. We all spend so much time trying to control our surroundings; the environment we thrive in; the way the shopkeeper, our colleagues and the people we love think of us. Yet very little comes of our meddling.

Hold on though. Yes, the outside world is complex, unpredictable and sometimes near intractable. But Newsflash #2, there is one thing that is almost completely within our control: the way we choose to relate to others. And in my epiphany-inebriated mind, it occurred to me that the best way to go about that might be by adding a little human decency and empathy to our lives.

Hear me out for a second here: despite the cheesiness, the implications of this are fairly immense. I sometimes wonder what passes through the creepy guys’ heads when they are undressing a girl with their looks. What is it exactly that makes them think that she appreciates being looked at like an inanimate object? Those looks – and the obscene words on the street – only have the effect of stripping a human being of the feeling that they have a right to decide when, and with whom, they can have an interaction of any type. In other words, those looks and those words imply that the ‘hot’ girl is less worthy of dignity, or that she might even be regarded as a lesser human being.

Yet the optimist in me carries on believing that if we all started to actively control our interactions in a positive way, the issue of creepy stares – amongst others – would at least be alleviated. Granting someone the dignity they deserve is not a magical cure, but it certainly would improve the quality of life of many girls – and their evenings.

In the context of gender inequality, I do not think that advocating dignity should be a one-way street, merely from men to women. Quite the opposite: I am prone to believing that gender stereotypes disfavour both women and men. Most of us are quite wrapped up in our ‘socially constructed’ armour which, for women, often tends to translate into insecurity about appearance and intelligence but also about their physical safety. On the other hand, the macho and closed-off model is one that many men are confronted with.

In 2012, 4,590 men in the UK committed suicide. That is almost four times the number of women who took their own lives that same year. Now try and tell me that the fact that lots of men are discouraged from opening up is not a key factor behind these numbers. I believe that the simple action of granting others the dignity, respect and empathy they deserve could vastly improve our social situation: how comfortable we feel about opening up; how comfortable we feel walking down an empty street at night; how comfortable we feel in having a relationship with whomever we want, whenever we chose.

On a personal level, I believe that people exerting a positive control over how they relate to others would eventually allow me to feel comfortable when I’m out alone in the evenings – even on a night bus at 3am, and even if I choose to wear ‘that dress.’ Last, but by no means least, positive control over how we conduct ourselves would allow me (and many others, I’m sure) to feel comfortable to chose the tub of ice cream over the party every once in a while.

Despite my enthusiasm, I’m aware that the granting of dignity and empathy is not some ground-breaking epiphany or revolutionary gender theory. It’s just a question of basic humanity, really. But as far as I’m concerned, I shall carry on proclaiming my newsflashes with undying exuberance at least until I stop questioning whether or not I should wear ‘that dress’ before leaving my flat.

Get to Know thy Neighbour: Breaking Down the Gender Binary at the Local Level

By Daniel Oledzki

I awoke one morning to find myself shackled.
Not tied to something tangible, but bound by imaginative and yet definitive boundaries – like borders drawn on a map.

I think most people would call this puberty.

As I proceeded to navigate through the perils and pitfalls of adolescent development, I was made increasingly aware – by those looking out for my best interests – that what I was doing during this period of self-exploration and expression was just plain wrong.

Even now, as a straight, white, middle-class male (which, to be completely honest, is pretty much like winning the identity lottery) I find I am told what is or isn’t socially acceptable for me to do as a man just as often as I was as a girl.

Oh. Yeah. I’m transgender.
Did I forget to mention that?
Maybe because it’s actually not that big of a deal.

Though it certainly seems to be to other people.
To the extent that even strangers feel entitled to ask all about my genitals.
Are we going to have sex later? If not, you probably don’t need to know that in order to know me. And if that was your intention, your chances would be greatly improved by beginning the conversation with something like “Hey handsome, can I buy you a whiskey?” as opposed to something like “So, uh, how does it, like, work?”.

Oh very well thanks, but you’ll never find out first-hand: intrusive, arrogant, douchebags just aren’t my type – sorry.

Personally, I’m totally okay with answering questions about being transgender (after all, if you aren’t transgender yourself, you’d have no way of knowing what it is actually like), as long as you and your questions are respectful.

It is not a complicated concept.

In a similar way as if you were to ask me about the square footage of my igloo, I wouldn’t be super stoked to sit around and tell you all about growing up in Canada either.

In fact, some of my favourite conversations with new friends have involved them saying “I’m so glad to have met you – before I did, I didn’t know transgender people could be normal.”

This is because, in my experience, there is a fine line and a big difference between ignorance and unawareness. Unawareness is rooted in the narrow version of reality presented to us by mainstream consumer capitalist culture… whereas ignorance is usually rooted in assholes.

While I am fortunate enough to have always had a loving and supportive family and friends, I have also had my fair share of physical attacks and verbal venom spat in my face, simply because those people truly believed my very existence posed some kind of threat to their own.

The problem isn’t me – it is all of us and, more importantly, it is what we’ve been strongly conditioned to perceive as a threat to the very sanctity of social order.

That is, anything that extends beyond the arbitrary and yet somehow absolutely essential gender identities of male and female.

Nothing more, nothing less.

I have experienced having my identity reduced to a conceptual conundrum: the transgression of a seemingly impenetrable social boundary (from one gender to the other). I’ve also experienced the limitations placed upon both male and female people on either side of that binary – as well as the sincere fear in the eyes of people who didn’t know how to act towards me at a time when I appeared most androgynous.

I have also met far too many people – even those who are happy within “traditionally” defined gender roles – that find themselves restricted to their sense of self-identity and expression at various points in their lives.

If the majority of people feel this way, it can’t be natural.
So what happened?

I remember fondly the realm of playground politics, where nobody really cared who you were when you played house as long as you did not choose the character they wanted to be. Even then, you could easily accommodate gender switching: two moms or two dads to share and/or take turns.
I always opted to be the dog, in case you were wondering (budding psychoanalysts need not apply) but even that was totally acceptable!

This was all possible because of the classic kindergarten rule we all learned on day one: you stand in a circle with your arms outstretched and wave them around and as long as you don’t step into somebody else’s space and smack them with a flailing forearm it’s all good in the kinder hood.

Why isn’t that approach to sharing social space applicable to adults?

Because we are not supposed to be playing house anymore, we’re supposed to be buying them.

Simply put, the gender dichotomy supports the economy.
(I’m also ready to admit that it is not that simple: there are a myriad of other factors at play, but for the purposes of this particular post, I’m doing the whole “simply put” thing.)*

It is far easier for consumer capitalist culture to function if everybody is divided into two easily defined and identified opposing categories that can then be marketed and sold to each other.

Naturally occurring diversity has existed across time and space, but has been stifled, subverted, and swept under the historical rug for the sake of supporting power structures.

We can change that.

Us. All of us.

The pivotal linchpin of consumer capitalist culture also has the potential to become a very worrisome wrench in the works.

So let’s stop conforming and contorting ourselves into uncomfortable boxes at the bottom of the pyramid.

And hey, if you are among the fortunate few who are genuinely happy living your life within a “traditional” male or female identity, party on! Nobody is trying to take that away from you. The issue is that the same opportunity to identify and live a life of choice is not equally available to everybody.

Furthermore, this is not just about transgender individuals, or people who identify somewhere along the spectrum between male and female – this is about everyone and anyone who has ever felt restricted by “traditional” gender norms.

Fact: that is a lot of people.

What a shame! Naturally occurring diversity is the most excellent element of human existence and experience. Nobody likes hearing the same story told over and over and over again, so why do we keep paying for it?

To be fair, a lot of hard work by a lot of individuals throughout the years has led to mainstream media branching out into alternative representations.

That having been said, this means – for me at least – that I’m now faced with just as many presumptuous statements as I am questions.

“Hey! I know you! I saw something about you on [insert name of day-time talk show here].”

Well, no, actually, you don’t know me.
I’ve never been on a day-time talk show.

You know me about as well as I know astronomy based on the ability to name a few constellations.

But you could get to me know me.

About how I’m transgender, okay, sure, but also, how I’m right-handed.

Or about my unrequited love for various sports teams, or which Broadway musicals are in my personal top ten, or how much I know about dinosaurs – to name only a few examples.

Because I am so much more than just transgender.

We are all so much more than just our gender.

We don’t need to wait for mainstream media to offer us any alternatives.
We are the mainstream, and all of the alternatives therein.

We are the reality, not their representations.

So let’s leave the label making to the bureaucratic paper pushers and not let anybody else’s definitions define us anymore.

Let’s get to know our neighbours, in all of their wild and wonderful diversity, and support them in that (I’m not saying you have to love ‘em).

Get to know your neighbours for who they really are, regardless of what you have been told about them, and whether the facets of their gender identity and expression are socially acceptable or not. In the process, maybe even get to know yourself a little better, and learn how it is more than okay – in fact, it is our right – for all of us to live a life of choice.

Because, I support you wholeheartedly whoever you are, and whoever you want to be.

I just ask, in return, that you do the same.

 
*Encourage me to write another article on this, if you feel so inclined. Debate is healthy, and a true catalyst of change. I am more than happy to carry the conversation forward with you, I just ask that you bring an open mind. And whiskey.