Trans youth are real

by Dr Jay Stewart, CEO Gendered Intelligence

 

Following the broadcast of  Who knows best? documentary by John Conroy on BBC 2 last week, there has been a lot of rich discussion, debate and thoughtful insight online by members of our trans, queer and LGB communities and beyond.

Part of me feels there isn’t anything constructive that I can add, so much has been said. I’ve been reflecting and some time has passed. However, I’ve been thinking about the impact of this programme on our young members and their families, and wanted to address it.

The young people at Gendered Intelligence often tell me of their general sense of not being listened to and also of not being taken seriously. Sadly, that’s their norm. Sometimes what young people want isn’t deemed important, or they are told that it’s not ‘doable’ or even ‘sensible’.

Well intentioned teachers, parents, carers, nurses, GPs, social workers, youth workers, therapists and counsellors can feel nervous about the best thing to do when working with a young trans person.  Sometimes they miss out the most important question: what does the young person want? I think professionals do this because they lack support and guidance from the institutions and services that they work for.

Mainstream programmes that purposely undermine what trans children and young people are saying about themselves, their feelings and what they would like to happen are a backwards step for everyone. It’s disappointing that the BBC posited the idea that it is not children and young people, but experts, who know best about their own gender-related feelings and emerging identities.

At Gendered Intelligence, we have critiqued the notion of the ‘expert’ or sought to problematise it. From our inaugural Sci:dentity Project in 2005 where we asked ‘What’s the science of sex and gender?’, we learnt quite quickly that in fact there is very little ‘science’ when it comes to sex/gender and what is out there is subjective, even partisan – arguably heteronormative and reinforcing of gender norms. What’s more, by the time any scientific findings reach us (the general public) via journalists and documentary makers, they have been so reduced and oversimplified, all nuance is lost and meanings twisted.

But, what if we gave young people more of a platform rather than less of one? I believe we would all gain. At Gendered Intelligence, we learn from our young members. That’s where we got our name – trans and gender diverse young people are very intelligent when it comes to gender and it is their insight and experience that should steer services, not vice versa.

The 400 young people who attend our groups each year come from a wide range of backgrounds and have very diverse experiences, senses of self and use different words to describe their identity and their expressions.

When we use the word trans we mean it in its very broadest sense and work hard to ensure that those who identify as, for instance, non-binary, agender or a person with a trans history are all included. It’s important to state that we also welcome young people who are questioning their gender at our groups. We can’t expect young people (or anyone really) to have it all worked out.

Some members might think, ‘It feels right for me to express my gender in ways that people don’t expect, but I’m not sure trans is the right word for me just now and might never be’. We value these diverse feelings, experiences, identities and expressions. If such diversity was more visible and valued in society, the world would be a better place.

The BBC documentary reiterated a common belief that any exploration of gender identity or expression during the childhood or adolescence of a person who turns out not to identify as trans in adulthood is inauthentic and even dangerous.

I want to make the argument that we shift through life, we can change and we can take on different words to describe our sense of selfhood as we go along. Some things stay the same, some things don’t. Who we are is not ever entirely fixed – there is a lot that’s fluid. I think there is a lot of pressure for trans people (and young trans people in particular) to prove to everyone around them that who they are is entirely fixed in order to be taken seriously.

Thomas Kuhn wrote a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). In it he tells us that what we know through science, comes to us through a paradigm shift. A new piece of scientific knowledge will look to prove the old one wrong – it’s a fundamental shift, a revolution, rather than a gentle evolution.

In 2015 I did a Ted talk, stating ‘We are on the cusp of a gender revolution‘. Today I picked up a copy of National Geographic and on the front features a photograph of 7 young people with different gender identities. In big letters it says: ‘Gender Revolution’.

It looks like that revolution has started.

national-geographic-2

National Geographic

The idea of two distinct categories of gender identity based on genitalia presented at birth is (or will be) no longer tenable. Gender is more complex, nuanced, political and interesting than that.

I’m reading a book at the moment called Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly by Judith Butler. In it she talks about the importance of coming together, to ‘call for justice’, to say ‘”we are not disposable”… “we are still here, persisting, demanding greater justice, a release from precarity, a possibility of a livable life”‘.

Now is the time to come together and get behind gender diversity, get behind the right to express ourselves, get behind Gendered Intelligence and other organisations like us because this affects lives.

Butler states:

‘The political aspiration is to… let the lives of gender and sexual minorities become more possible and more lovable, for bodies that are gender nonconforming as well as those that conform too well (and at a high cost) to be able to breathe and move more freely in public and private spaces…’

To breathe and to move more freely – that is what trans, gender diverse and gender questioning people need – to breathe, to expand our lungs, our bodies, our selves – let us feel what’s right, let us do what’s right – right now.

Transacting Project Workshop

10 things we learnt from the Transform panel at #Flare30

Two weeks ago the Transform panel at BFI’s Flare brought together film maker Campbell X and author and journalist Juliet Jacques, chaired by  Gendered Intelligence’s director Jay Stewart. They were set the task of discussing how far trans representation has come in film and TV.

Before the discussion began, Campbell offered a libation to the space, to honour our predecessors and those trans people who are no longer with us.  This ritual set the tone for what was a powerful discussion about power, community and visibility.

Over the past couple of years, trans actors and story lines have finally gained prominence – Rebecca Root starred in a BBC sitcomOrange is the New Black is a phenomenon, and Transparent was Amazon’s flagship show.  We can celebrate this success, but it is representative of gains being made across the industry, behind the scenes?  Are we now in the position to tell our own stories?

Here are some of the powerful points that we learnt (or were reminded of) during the panel:

  1. Visibility can be hollow

The presence of trans people on television – in fiction or documentaries – can give the impression that mainstream media is really invested in our communities.

We should ask how many trans people work behind the scenes – who is being paid to write, produce and commission our stories? It was argued that the media is structured to preserve white, cis male and upper class dominance.  Trans visibility will be tokenistic until that changes. Trans people on-screen have to be matched by trans people at executive level.

  1. There are real barriers to trans people making media

Getting on in the industry as an actor, producer or writer means you have to network.  Networking relies on self-confidence and making use of contacts who help you out – basically exploiting your social capital.  Existing inequality means that trans people, especially trans people of colour, aren’t present in the media in sufficient numbers to help out other trans people.

Gendered Intelligence’s TransActing project aims to create a network for trans and non-binary actors that connects them to industry professionals.

  1. Money talk$

Making web series and film is expensive.  Many marginalised film makers are not in the position to self-fund their work. We have to work towards more resources and funding for aspiring film makers.

  1. Finding a diverse cast/crew is not that hard

Campbell X’s feature film Stud Life had trans people working both in front of and behind the camera. Upcoming LGBTQ web series Spectrum East includes actors with a broad range of backgrounds and identities.  If small-budget productions can achieve this, can’t we expect more from big production houses and studios? Jill Solloway’s Amazon series Transparent has led the way by hiring trans director Silas Howard, as well as trans producers and writers.

  1. Trans actors can play any role

It would be fabulous to see more trans actors in non-trans roles in the future.  Trans actors are brilliant and can bring something special to any role.

  1. Look backwards as well as forwards

Trans people are not a 21st century invention. The mainstream interest in the “first trans person to x” erases our past and the people who made modern trans life possible.  The panel said we should celebrate our cultural legacy – film makers like Kristine Clark who was making ground-breaking trans documentaries in the 80s.

  1. Progress is not a given

Juliet Jacques commented that we expect progress to be followed by more progress, but it is not linear.  It isn’t the case that things will continue to improve just because we have already made some gains – we can go backwards.

Indeed, going backwards is a real risk when people outside our communities continue to dictate how much, and what sort, of mainstream trans visibility is desirable.

  1. Don’t wait for mainstream media to represent you

Campbell X told the audience that we have to stop waiting for recognition from mainstream media  – fundamentally we have to recognise ourselves and appreciate that our stories are real without that external validation.

  1. Lean on your community

We heard from one 26 year-old trans audience member and aspiring film maker who felt despondent because he isn’t getting on in the industry.  He finds networking difficult and feels he is not being taken seriously. The panel advised him to keep going with the work he loves and reach out to other trans film makers for more advice and support.

Juliet Jacques shared advice that a friend gave her when she contemplated abandoning her dream of becoming a writer – “You’re only a loser when you give up!”.

  1. Let’s support trans creators

If you want to see more work from trans film makers, actors and writers, especially those who are the most marginalised, we have to put in the effort to support their work, go to their shows/screenings and encourage our friends to do the same.

As independent film makers and producers, trans people are in position to tell new, nuanced and experimental stories about our lives that will never make the mainstream cut. Trans people of colour and non-binary (trans) people are especially erased from dominant narratives. By supporting work within our own communities, we can amplify more voices.