Trans representation and casting. Where are we at?

Jay Stewart, CEO of Gendered Intelligence

As a trans-led organisation, Gendered Intelligence wants to see more roles for trans actors as well as trans people represented in all aspects of the creative process of theatre and performance making (trans writers, trans directors, trans stage managers etc.) Trans people, including young trans people, need to see themselves positively represented on stage and elsewhere.

Trans people face significant barriers in their careers in the creative industries. These are often due to barriers of opportunity to learn and gain skills, as well as experiencing prejudice in the industry itself. In addition, trans people can experience internalised transphobia (the learnt shame of being trans) and consequently have feelings of low self-worth and confidence. We need to work together to remove these barriers in order that all trans and gender diverse people thrive and fulfil their potential.

Gendered Intelligence wants to be part of the change that needs to happen.

At Gendered Intelligence we deliver training and consultancy with organisations to support them in their understandings and in working towards their delivery of trans inclusive services. These services include working with theatres and drama schools. We want all trans people to feel welcomed and supported, whether they are employees, customers or students.

Some will know that Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival co-produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and in association with the Donmar Warehouse are working in collaboration on a musical theatre production of Breakfast On Pluto. The production is based on a book written in 1998 and is about a young Irish trans person in the 1970s.

On Monday 9th March they released a press release about the production, which included information that they had cast a cis actor to a trans role. 

Gendered Intelligence was not involved in the casting process of Breakfast on Pluto and suffice to say Gendered Intelligence does not endorse the casting of a cis actor to a trans role.

We did arrange to deliver consultancy and training for staff at the Donmar Warehouse who reached out to us in order to work with the team to ensure trans inclusive practices will be carried out in the run up to the production. Indeed, we have carried this out with a number of other theatres over the years.

In addition to GI delivering this work, there was discussion around recognising the difficulty and complexity of the task in casting for trans characters. The identity of the character Pussy Braden is both trans and Irish. We also discussed the skillset required in the mix with it being a musical.

Having already cast for the production, our discussions moved to considering those wider, ongoing aims mentioned earlier – to nurture trans talent in the theatre industry. So, a question we posed was:

What could the Donmar, their partners on ‘Breakfast on Pluto’ and the industry more generally, do in order to invest in trans actors and to ensure that things change for the better, so that we won’t see the casting of trans roles going to cis actors?

One idea we had was for the Donmar to donate space for a trans led show, that Gendered Intelligence is involved with. The show is written by trans artist, with a group of young trans people. The show will be directed by a trans person and performed by an all trans cast. The show will involve a short tour across different parts of the country, but this gave us an opportunity to showcase trans talent and tell trans stories at a large theatre space in London where we could offer low and no-cost tickets for a predominantly trans audience alongside our allies.

Another idea was to arrange a showcase later in the autumn period to, once again, showcase trans talent and create discussion and debate about the experiences, representation and politics of trans people in the industry.

Other actions taken by the production have been the employment of two people, who have shared their trans status, in the job roles of production consultant and Assistant Director, as well as a trans academic to curate a ‘wrap around programme’ in Galway and Dublin.

My view is that these actions were taken in good faith to further contribute to the ultimate aim of increasing opportunities for trans people in the theatre industry. I am not of the opinion that these efforts are cynical acts on the part of the Donmar, and their partners, as a way to legitimise decisions around the casting of a cis actor to a trans role.

Some people may feel that the casting decision far outweighs any other positive endeavour. It sends the wrong message and ultimately is highly inappropriate, especially given our current climate of increasing toxicity in the media. Some believe that there are talented trans people out there and more efforts needs to be made to cast them into these important high-profile roles. Others have highlighted how damaging it is to have cis performers playing trans roles. Whilst others still feel that it should be trans people telling trans stories. In short, a line needs to be drawn: no more cis actors for trans parts.

I want to say that I applaud these sentiments.

In 2015, GI began its Trans Acting project – a project that engages with trans and non-binary people’s place within the creative and cultural sector. Over the years we have engaged with over 200 people who have participated in a range of masterclasses, panel discussions and workshops. The Trans Acting project began as a collaboration with the My Genderation duo (Fox Fisher and Lewis Hancock) and Dr Catherine McNamara now Head of School (Art, Design & Performance), at University of Portsmouth. At Trans Acting we want to develop and deliver high quality trans-inclusive performer training with trans and non-binary participants, nurture the creativity and talent of trans and non-binary participants, give producers, directors and others involved in making TV, film, radio, theatre and other media access to that talent and share a model of practice that might be used by other practitioners and professionals.

Over the years, we’ve worked with a range of organisations including the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Bristol Old Vic, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Royal Court Theatre, Scottish Queer International Film Festival and BFI Flare. Partners in delivering the project include Outbox, an LGBT Theatre Company with a remit of making performance and doing outreach with young LGBT people.

Trans Acting, among others, are the initiatives needed to nurture talent and profile it in the West End and elsewhere.

Thinking back to 2015, I am reminded of an article I did about The Danish Girl – a Hollywood movie about trans woman Lily Elbe (played by Eddie Redmayne). I wrote:

Representing trans lives in films or elsewhere is a nightmare task for anyone and I applaud anyone who gives it a shot. But this film [The Danish Girl] made by cis (non-trans) people and performed by mostly cis people… will be mostly watched by cis people.

Claudia Rankine…  argued in The Guardian that “Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people” and I… want to make this parallel.

These films are not for ‘us’ trans people and yet ‘we’ view them nonetheless. What kind of politics emerges specifically from a trans perspective? We are living in very interesting political times right now when it comes to trans equality. We need to make films like The Danish Girl (and the public encounter that comes with it) count. The story of Lilly and Gerda is extraordinary, challenging and painful. So talk about it. Discuss with friends over dinner, colleagues at work, family members, in the classroom. And when you do this ask yourselves “What is the politic here?”, or to put it another way: “Who gets to say what about whom – to whom?”

In 2020, there is certainly more engagement with trans people when producing plays about trans people. But we are still a long way off from bridging the gap between the ways in which mainstream plays portray trans lives, with that of the amazing, rich, intelligent, nuanced, and often quite hilarious ways in which trans and queer people create art works that are by us and for us.

So, I’m still pondering: how can we utilise this debate of casting to progress the aim of getting trans talent nurtured and out there? What is a good way forward? I’m keen to hear your thoughts.

Gendered Intelligence is holding a roundtable ‘think tank’ space for trans people currently working in the industry. If you are keen to attend or can’t make it but want to contribute your thoughts email me: jay.stewart@genderedintelligence.co.uk.

International Women’s Day 2020

This #IWD2020 we’re all fighting for a more equal world, improving the material reality for women and fighting bias against anyone who experiences misogyny or sexism because of who they are.

With real term incomes stagnating, the globe entering an unprecedented climate disaster and authoritarian regimes stripping women’s and minorities’ rights to the bone, it’s more important than ever to mark International Women’s Day.

As always, the first to feel the squashing weight of heightened systemic oppression are women and other gender minorities, especially those who are poor or of colour. The global pushback against women’s – and trans – rights is alarming but not entirely unexpected. The simultaneous battles for equality must rage on then, together, if we’re to succeed.

It’s been over a century since IWD was first celebrated. IWD is a moment to remind ourselves of the strength in collective action. Of the strength in uplifting the work of incredible feminists who have fought tirelessly against patriarchy and of those women who dare people to think of a future where communities of care can be built.

One day of spotlight a year is hardly worthy of the acute crises facing women across the globe, who need us to all be united  in solidarity with them. More than that, they need us to open our wallets and donate to their community projects, to fight for migrant rights and to willingly be led by a strong, international community of galvanisers.

Liberation for all and for always.
Gendered Intelligence.

Judicial Review on GIDS

This case is about trying to draw a near-invisible line in the sand about what healthcare can and should be offered to young people and what should be denied. This is an arbitrary distinction: a child can be informed of any consequences and be expected to fully consent to any other life-saving treatment where possible, but we’re expected to believe this is magically untrue of treatment around gender dysphoria. At the heart of this case lies a mission to run roughshod over the legal precedent of Gillick competence.

With waiting times creeping into the years, gatekeeping of options for young people with gender dysphoria – whether intentional or not – is already causing acute distress to a population who deserve and demand robust and proper care. If our response to young people in distress is to compound these feelings, we are failing them. These people know themselves, know their bodies and know what it right for them individually. Where there exists Gillick competence, they consent in the fullest terms, after several consultations with the NHS’s only service for them, to the treatment which is right for them. Some young trans and non-binary people may choose to take puberty blockers until a time where they can safely and legally access medication which may help them feel more congruent in their gender.

Either a young person can consent to their medical treatment when presented with all known information about that treatment, or they cannot. These are highly individualised conversations which cannot be reduced to simple talking points or a reductive rolling back of enshrined rights through the courts. If we were, as a society, to allow for children to be stripped of their agency when choosing what’s right for them, we set off a dangerous domino effect of others deciding what is and isn’t right for all of us. If this case is successful in removing Mrs A’s child’s right to consent to medical treatment, the line in the sand is removed: A loss to trans youth is a loss to all.

All Gender Toilet Sign

World Toilet Day 2019

Everyone should have access to a toilet they are able to use safely.

However, according to Stonewall’s LGBT in Britain trans report – 48% of trans people do not feel comfortable using public toilets.

This means that many trans people, when outside their homes, are faced with a choice of using toilets where they don’t feel safe or welcome, or going home before they need to use the loo. Alternatively, they may not eat or drink all day so they don’t have to go. This situation has a huge impact on how trans, including non-binary people, navigate public space and how comfortable we feel out in the world.

In the UK, we might assume that access to basic sanitation is a given, but a UN statement on the right to sanitation on World Toilet Day reminds us that sanitation goes beyond merely access to a toilet, “Sanitation is not only about constructing toilets or sewerage. It is about understanding people’s needs and finding safe and sustainable solutions that ensure everyone’s dignity.”

It’s important to state that not all trans people have identical needs. While some people would rather use facilities designated male or female, others – particularly non-binary people – would feel far more comfortable with the option of gender-neutral facilities. Individuals whose gender expression does not conform to society’s expectations – whether trans or not – could also benefit from the option of a gender-neutral toilet.

It should go without saying that all men and women should be able to access facilities appropriate to their gender and the Equality Act 2010 gives trans women and trans men the right to do so. Employers and service providers should make sure that all employees, service users and customers are able to access appropriate facilities, without fear of harassment. The Equality Act does not explicitly mention non-binary people. Nonetheless, taking the needs of non-binary people into account is vital if you’re aiming to provide trans inclusive services in general.

The answer is architectural. We believe that a model for all new buildings should be purpose-built, single cubicle facilities that offer privacy and comfort for all, regardless of gender identity or gender expression.

We’re seeing more and more toilets designed as floor-to-ceiling cubicles, like small rooms in themselves, avoiding the potential awkwardness of partially enclosed cubicles that are standard in gendered facilities up and down the country.

However, it’s not always so easy to change older infrastructure to install these unless you’re having a general refurbishment.

A good second option is to make your accessible facilities explicitly gender neutral so that everyone knows it’s OK to use them.  It’s a family-friendly step as well as inclusive of people with non-binary identities and any trans people who may simply feel safer and more comfortable in a non-gendered space.

Doing this is just a matter of re-labelling.  There’s a range of gender neutral toilet signage available on the market, including braille versions.

If you are looking for a short-term solution to labelling or need to create a gender-neutral toilet for an event, you can download our printable toilet signs. We’ve seen them being used across the UK at events!

If you are going to have a refurbishment or new-build, make sure gender neutral facilities are part of the design! Thoughtful design can offer privacy, dignity and safety.

Links to useful resources

Gendered Intelligence Transforming Spaces podcast episode #1 – “Not another talk about toilets!”

Francis Ray White, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Westminster (they/them), Cara English, founder of Open Lavs and Policy Engagement Officer & Research Coordinator at Gendered Intelligence (she/her)  and Irina Korneychuk, FaulknerBrowns Architects (she/her) discuss the context of the fascination around trans people in toilets, and provide some community based and architectural solutions to the toilets challenge

Open Lavs –project mapping gender neutral toilets in the UK

Downloadable all-gender toilet signs from Gendered Intelligence.

Stalled – a US-based advocacy project working on the design, legal and educational barriers to inclusive bathrooms.

A huge leap for equality in Northern Ireland

Gendered Intelligence’s Policy lead, Cara English, grew up in Belfast, and reflects on what news laws on equal marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland mean to her and other LGBTQ people.

Time for Equality

Image from the Love Equality NI campaign

On the 21st October, the political parties in Northern Ireland failed to restart the Assembly (our devolved parliament), allowing for a cross-party Westminster bill on equal marriage and legalised abortion to come into place.

Despite certain Northern Ireland Assembly members’ last minute effort to sit in session and have the law fall at its final hurdle, the power-sharing agreement that is the bedrock of NI politics meant that – with Sinn Fein unwilling to act against its ostensible human rights agenda – Northern Ireland will soon have equal marriage and bodily autonomy laws.

This has been a very long time coming and as such it has been strangely difficult to navigate the apprehension and the jubilation. I decided to go home to celebrate, as I’d missed the chance to do so when the Republic of Ireland voted to equalise the law in 2015. When you grow up a little pudgy, working class child from the third most deprived constituency in the UK, you’re not expected to want for much. But the people of Northern Ireland wanted more, fought for more and got more.

As the countdown clock ticked down in Belfast’s gay village (more of a hamlet, really), everything felt electric, the start of something new. Apart from a flying, one-day visit, I hadn’t been home in years and wasn’t prepared for how much the city, and myself, had changed. North Belfast is a tough place to grow up as a queer person, so it seemed like a natural step for me to get out as soon as I could. But standing in the bar as the drag queen started shouting “ten! nine! ei—“, I felt a deep sense of awe at all of my queer siblings who had stayed, who had fought for a better Northern Ireland just by existing openly in a way I felt I couldn’t have. It makes me proud of the amazing organisations doing good work in Northern Ireland, such as Cara-FriendSAIL and our friends at TransgenderNI.

Now we will legally have equal marriage for same-sex couples and some of the least restrictive rights around bodily autonomy in Europe. This isn’t just a massive win for lesbian, bisexual, gay and queer people, but a win for women and others who can get pregnant which would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago.

Northern Ireland may still not have anything approaching the legal protections afforded to trans Britons under the Equality Act 2010, but we’re taking huge forward leaps. To the tireless campaigners who refused to kowtow to the push against their right to equality and to bodily autonomy, Gendered Intelligence stands in solidarity with you and wants to say – go raibh maith agat, thenks, thank you.

GI’s take on the LGB alliance: they will not divide us

On Tuesday evening, reports emerged that a new ‘LGB Alliance’ was being set up to campaign for the rights of lesbian, gay and bi people. The group excludes trans people on the grounds that gender is a social construct and LGB people are same-sex attracted not same-gender attracted. One person on Twitter announced that ‘gender extremism’ had met its match in the new group. It is also vehemently opposed to Stonewall, accusing the charity of discriminating against LGB people by becoming trans-inclusive. 

This is not the first time that LG(B) people have distanced themselves from trans people. It is a worrying step backwards that highlights the normalisation of anti-trans sentiment in society. Although trans people such as Martha P Johnson and Sylvia Riviera were key figures of the early Pride movement, trans liberation has historically been sidelined in favour of LGB equality.

Two somewhat contradictory philosophies emerged in regards to people’s goals for the new Pride movement. On one hand there were those pursuing an assimilationist view of equality where all the rights of straight people, such as marriage, were available to all. On the other, there were those pursuing radical queer liberation that involved dismantling the societal structures that oppress both cis and trans queer people. Queer liberation questioned the role of the nuclear family, its tendency to reinforce gender roles and the institutions attached to it such as marriage. 

Unfortunately, those pursuing an assimilationist goal came to the conclusion that it would be easier for LGB people to achieve equality if they distanced themselves from trans people, rather than standing with us in solidarity, as we were seen as too much of a ‘hard sell’. It is during this time in the 80s that we first see a clear split between increasingly discrete concepts of ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender identity’ becoming mainstream and the gap between LGB and T widens even further.

This divergence in thought and the practice of excluding trans people go hand in hand. We see it in the first 25 years of LGBT charity Stonewall’s existence. Before the organisation became trans-inclusive in 2015, we saw great advancement for the rights and inclusion of LGB people, but trans people were left far behind.

Following the ‘Transgender Tipping Point’, there was an acknowledgement of the role trans women and trans women of colour in particular played during the early Pride movement. People were talking about trans issues and Stonewall was now campaigning for trans equality. It seemed the days of trans people being sidelined were behind us.

But in the last couple of years there has been a resurgence of transphobia that echoes the darker days of the 1980s. Every day there is a new article in the media using the same hateful, vitriolic language as was used about gay people to stir up the same fear in the public. Not only has this sea of disinformation had the effect of stalling proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, but hate crimes against trans people have skyrocketed. People feel increasingly emboldened to deny us our rights to be treated fairly and with respect under the Equality Act, going as far as barring us from bathrooms and swimming pools.

Now is not the time for LGB people to turn their backs on us. Distancing themselves from the trans community to assimilate and hide will not work. The rise of fascism in all its guises does not end with the attacks on trans people and we need only look across the Atlantic to the US Supreme Court to see how closely a pushback on trans rights is followed by a pushback on LGB ones.

Thankfully, we do have incredible allies who have stood up with us and for us. We’ve seen campaigns like #LwiththeT, #GwiththeT and #BwiththeT that show us that as a community for all LGBTQIA+ people, we are more united than ever. Solidarity is necessary and appreciated, but we also need our LGB allies to stand with us publicly, push for greater representation of trans people and call out transphobia when and where they see it. Together we will continue making space for people of all gender identities, gender expressions and sexualities until everyone is free to safely and freely live their lives without judgement or fear.

Please donate here to support our work supporting and standing up for young trans people. You can also support our ‘Trans Writes!’ campaign by using our webtool to contact your MP and tell them about the need for fit and working gender recognition laws.

Gendered Intelligence responds to draft Census questions on sex and gender identity

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has recently launched its guidance about how it will ask about trans, including non-binary,  people’s gender in this year’s rehearsal for the 2021 Census in England and Wales.  We’re optimistic that the 2021 Census will deliver much-needed data on the trans and non-binary population in England and Wales.

The sex question, in place since 1801, will continue to be asked to help ensure robust equalities monitoring for the benefit of public services, such as health. Fortunately, the guidance asks that people respond using their lived sex, whether that corresponds to what is on their birth certificate or not.

This is good news for trans people who may otherwise have been concerned that – in the absence of a fitting system of legal gender recognition – there may have been an expectation to respond with sex as assigned at birth, regardless of the realities of their current, lived experience.

The Gender Recognition Act remains outdated and in urgent need of reform,  meaning many men and women have sexes marked on their birth certificate that do not match the realities of their lived experience.

The ONS guidance hopes to tackle any potential confusion and is welcomed by Gendered Intelligence for allowing trans people to clearly define their sex.

However, non-binary people will, unfortunately, continue to be obliged to respond to the sex question in the census rehearsal with a binary ‘male’ or ‘female’ answer.  The legal obligation to complete all mandatory questions in the Census – of which sex is one – will put some non-binary people in an uncomfortable position.

On a positive note, for the first time there will be a voluntary question on gender identity, offering a space where non-binary status and other aspects of gender identity can be defined.

Gendered Intelligence warmly welcomes the introduction of a gender identity question, allowing policymakers, government and charities to hopefully get a clearer snapshot of how many trans and non-binary people there are in the UK.

Whilst it is disappointing that the question will be asked only of those aged 16 and over – and will not offer any clarity as to what we believe is an acute crisis of under-resourcing for trans children and young people – we welcome the data that will emerge from the census as hopefully illuminating.

Quality of Life survey 2019

Survey on quality of life for trans and gender nonconforming adults in England returns for 4th year

On Monday, 2nd of September Gendered Intelligence is launching a survey asking trans and gender non-confirming adults in England about their quality of life. This is the 4th annual survey Gendered Intelligence and the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths University of London have run since 2016 as part of a multi-year Quality of Life study.

Take part in the survey.

The survey will run from today until the end of September. We are inviting all trans, including non-binary, and gender nonconforming people aged 18+ in England to take part. It’s important that we get participants from all over England and from a range of backgrounds so the results represent the diversity of experience in our communities. The survey looks at several factors including life satisfaction, mental health, self-esteem, social inclusion and cultural participation. We want to find out where is the best place in England to be trans or gender non-conforming and whether quality of life for trans and gender nonconforming people is improving over time.

We’re running this study because research on transgender and gender nonconforming people is incredibly sparse compared to other minority social groups. Secondly, the research which does exist has been disproportionally focussed on the distress, difficulties and disadvantages experienced by this group. Whilst such research is undoubtedly important for highlighting critical issues, an unswerving focus on the negative aspects of experience means that a more comprehensive understanding of people’s lives has not been achieved.

Our first survey of almost 900 people in 2016 revealed that relative to our cisgender comparison group, trans and gender non-conforming participants had statistically significantly higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression, and lower levels of life satisfaction, self-esteem and social inclusion. However, they also had statistically significantly higher levels of cultural participation.

Internalised transphobia, gender-related discrimination and not being able to be open about your trans status was linked to worse life satisfaction, self-esteem, mental health and social and cultural inclusion. Conversely,  identity pride related to higher levels of life satisfaction, self-esteem, social inclusion and cultural participation

The study is lead by Dr Jo Lloyd,  senior lecturer and researcher in work psychology at Goldsmiths’ Institute of Management Studies (IMS). Jo reflected on why this study is important and what it aims to do:

“In this ongoing project, we seek to advance current understanding of quality of life in transgender and gender nonconforming people in England. Designed in collaboration with Gendered Intelligence, we focus on individual, interpersonal and wider societal factors that may significantly impact several key quality of life indicators, such as health, happiness and connectedness. Using a large-scale, longitudinal data collection method, we hope to gain comprehensive and meaningful insights into the perspectives and experiences of this important social group.”

We know that trans, including non-binary, people face wide-spread discrimination and poor mental health, but there is a distinct lack of research into what is positive about the experience of being trans or gender non-conforming. Through our quality of life study we are building up a detailed picture of the factors that negatively affect trans and gender non-conforming adult in England but also discovering what factors lead to improved life satisfaction.

The survey takes around 20 minutes to complete, and you can take part here.

I cannot be non-binary without being queer and brown

Photo by Zaksheuskaya from Pexels

Rami Yasir is a writer, comic creator and musician. They also lead Gendered Intelligence’s Colours youth group for trans, non-binary and gender diverse people of colour aged 13-24. 

Their personal essay looks at the interaction between race, gender and sexuality. 

I was always told what it means to be a man, but being a man never sat comfortably with me.  First because of my queerness; the way I love doesn’t mould itself to any concept of masculinity I could lay claim to.  Next, my actions, my make-up and mincing, my limp wrist and elastic voice.  And finally, my race, my skin, my heritage.

Recently, I took part in a training exercise with Gendered Intelligence.  In it, participants were asked to describe their trans journeys, from childhood to the present day.  As I sat staring at a capped pen and a blank page, it occurred to me what a tangled mess that journey is; it hikes through different terrains – race, sexuality, and gender – all connected by the imprint of my feet.  To walk through my gender is to swim through my race; to understand what I am is to make sense of where I’ve been.

I cannot be non-binary without being queer and brown.  They are parts of a matrix, things which have influenced and informed each other.  And while I’m grateful for the exercise that allowed me to babble for ten minutes about who and where I was, ten minutes is not enough to shape those thoughts into something useful.  Even now, as I take the effort to think and digest, to pick apart the knots of my history and reshape them into a narrative that makes sense, I am almost at a loss.  But that’s okay, I think I’ll always be at a loss with gender, and right now the act of speaking matters more than being understood.

I was born in Jordan as a Sudani citizen and raised in England from the time I was nine months old.  My mother is a Palestinian-Jordanian woman and my father a Sudani man.  My birth certificate is in Arabic, a language I can only read with hours of work and access to Google, and my childhood took place on the border between cultures.  I was raised with tea and mint leaves, fish, chips and ful medames.

By eleven it was fairly clear to me that I would never marry a girl.  By twelve I hated myself for it.  Bombarded as we are with representations of queer hating Arabs and Africans it seemed my only course for salvation was to assimilate into the world of white tolerance.  I shied away from my parents and the heritage they represented, only to find myself still different, still brown, still carrying the weight of history in my skin.

But I was still a boy; effeminate, insecure, but still a boy.  At that point in my life I had yet to question my gender in any meaningful way, as I had yet to question my race and what it meant.  But it is not an accident that as I delved into one questions surfaced about the other.  For me, it was at Uni that I learned to worry the roots of my identity.  Having the safety net of my middle class allowed me to explore those questions in an institution designed for people like me, at least once I was living away from home and until my parent’s income took a hit during my dad’s battle with cancer.

Every trans journey is a personal one.  Gender is not only how the world understands you (or, for many trans people, how it does not) but how you interact with and understand the world.  I cannot sit here and say that my journey is typical for any group, only that I can use it to highlight how gender, race and sexuality feed off each other.

What I can say is that gender is a cultural construct, that much is no secret.  How you locate your gender or even what genders there are varies with time and place.  And the context we find ourselves in now is important, especially for black trans people and other trans people of colour.  When Shaadi Devereaux, a black trans writer, highlights how black women are only ever seen to imitate petite and white “true beauty,” she points out that any confrontation with gender is also a confrontation with whiteness.  Today, black women and men are hypermasculinised, East Asian men and women are hyperfeminised, Muslim women are denied respectable womanhood, and whatever non-white race or gender you are, you are hypersexualised.  In every case, when the context is here, now, in this country, in this language, gender is gatekept by whiteness.

So, in my experience, manhood has always been out of reach.  The discovery of my queerness caused a rift between myself and any version of masculinity I could claim.  I could not be a man by the standards of my parents, despite the long history of queer sexuality before the arrival of western colonialism, and neither could I be one by the standards of the country I grew up in, where the only wholesome masculinity is white.  The men who looked like those in my family were always the terrorists or the thieves, the abusers and patriarchs.  They were always, somehow, corrupt.

And besides, I was both African and Arab.  I was British but I was foreign.  I was not wholly anything.  Doesn’t it make sense, for someone who lives straddling those identities, to turn that questioning gaze inwards?  When older white people stare at me, wondering where I’m from and how I got here, how far of a leap is it to turn to myself and ask where I belong?  Not in Jordan, Palestine or Sudan, but neither completely in the Britain which has assured me of my otherness.  Not in the masculinity of my father, silent and reticent, or even in the subtle strength of my mother’s femininity.  And never, of course, as the white British man or woman I should aspire to be.  I am just as much adrift in gender’s seas as I am in the ones surrounding continents.

I have always said that gender never really made sense to me, but then again, how could it?  Nothing about my identity ever has done.  But it was nice to feel pretty; it felt good to do my nails.  I allowed myself a break from the expectations of masculinity and I liked it.  So my thoughts began to shift, I started to reassemble my identity from the bottom up.  And I’m still in the process, still working to pick away the detritus of life from the person I want to be, but I’m getting there.

How not to make trans people safer

Earlier this week we were alarmed to read Labour’s LGBT+ Advisor Anthony Watson advocate for the creation of seemingly separate “transgender zones” in UK cities, where trans people would allegedly be protected from hate crime. It is misguided to ask trans people to live separately from mainstream society for their own safety. We would ask for this policy to be reconsidered. 

Like anyone else, trans and non-binary people want to go to school, work and enjoy socialising among their friends, family and peers. It’s undeniable that there is a lot of work to be done before trans and non-binary people will no longer experience daily discrimination and bullying in education and the workplace. Indeed, it is unacceptable that anyone should have to be fearful of violence and harassment in public, which too many trans people –  41%, according to reporting – continue to experience. The answer to this problem is not for any political party to advocate for the ushering of trans people to designated, separate zones for their own safety. It should not be an acceptable choice to ask any group to segregate themselves for their own safety.

Historically, LGBT people have created spaces where they could be together and form communities. Our communities have always sprung from adversity. We believe there will be value in trans-only spaces, such as our youth groups and annual summer camp residential for trans youth, for as long as gender diverse people are misunderstood and punished by wider society.

As an organisation, we firmly believe that education and training is key to improving society’s understanding of diverse genders and sexualities. As trans-inclusive practices become more commonplace, public life is in turn becoming more straightforward and safe for trans and non-binary people. No one should have to avoid using a toilet or changing room because they are afraid of the reception they will receive. In the latest edition of our Transforming Spaces podcast, based on our 2018 conference, inclusive hairdressing space Open Barbers and cosmetics company Lush talk about how they are making the High Street safer and more welcoming for gender diverse customers and employees alike.

With the recent appointment of the Government’s LGBT Advisory Panel, we hope that the voices and ideas of trans people will be at the heart of all decisions made about our lives and livelihoods. It is heartening to see trans, LGB+ people and lifelong allies in this important group, as these are some of the people who can speak from real experience. It is imperative that the Government, The Opposition and all other decision makers include trans people and organisations in any and all decisions that affect us. To fail to do so will result in well-intentioned but ultimately harmful policies for all trans and non-binary people. Gendered Intelligence welcomes the opportunity for conversation with all parties. Our door is always open.

Nothing about us without us.