What a lovely evening we had at our recent 11-15s trans youth group session. 7 young people came to the session, mostly from London or just outside, but one young person came down from Warwick!
We played a name game with juggling balls which ended up involving a lot of running about the room to fetch dropped balls… Er, from bad throws – nothing to do with anyone’s catching skills…! 😉
Then we worked on our working agreement and had some wonderful discussions about including and welcoming people into the group and during sessions, as well as respecting each other, listening, being sensitive around pronouns and opinions shared etc.
After a relaxed break and lots of biscuits and juice, we took some reflective time to draw our own ‘gender timeline’. Here is mine to give you an idea of what I mean.
The young people drew, wrote, discussed with friends to produce their own. Then they shared their stories in pairs and small groups. The room filled with more chatting and lots of laughter at the silly names that other young people have called them at school or incidents when people have got things very wrong even when trying to help! It was a great atmosphere and good to hear the young people share their similarities and find humour in moments that when you are alone can cause more distress.
At the end we closed with a circle of what people had enjoyed in the session as well as thinking of more ideas for sessions going forward. We are going to have a chilled out socialising music and games session as our last session on the 18th of December so looking forward to seeing all 11-15 year olds who identify as trans, non-binary or are questioning their gender identity there!
Having come out in my first year of studying an undergraduate degree in English Literature, I am about to start a new university for the second time – this time as postgraduate student, below are some things I learnt from the first time at university.
You are not alone
While it seems statistically unlikely, there are other trans people at university. I might have been extremely lucky, but I had a small support-cluster of trans friends on campus. There is, of course, no way to find out if you have a potential trans comrade without being very rude (asking if someone is trans is rude, and does not help with making friends). This extends into professional academia as well. I’ve found, especially when dealing with queer theory, you will start using more and more texts by trans academics; it isn’t just my generation of trans people in higher education, others have walked this path before. This also isn’t just confined to the arts; I particularly recommend Evolution’s Rainbow, by Joan Roughgarden, who is a biologist and a trans woman. For me, it’s comforting to know that if you do get to the higher circles of academia there will be others there who too have had to go through explaining things like ‘my pronouns are actually…’ and ‘the gender is wrong on my passport because…’ which brings me on to…
People will surprise you
It’s nice to have other trans people to talk to, but it’s also good to bear in mind that people outside of the community will surprise you. If you do choose to disclose your trans status, I’ve found that you can never assume who will be understanding and who won’t. Some of the most supportive people of my experience as a trans student have been people who I would never have guessed before coming to university would be. I especially remember one member of staff was extremely passionate about the injustice of me not feeling comfortable taking part in a conference because it would mean being put in single-sex accommodation. The overwhelming majority of people, especially proper-adult people who have had more years or more life experience or both in order to become educated on trans issues, were understanding and used the correct pronouns after having been corrected a minimum of once. That being said, doesn’t just apply to people already informed on trans issues. During my time at university I found myself explaining my trans status to a hall full of boisterous high-school students – after having clumsily explained in what I thought were the simplest terms possible, the reply came back from one of the particularly loud members of the pre-pubescent audience; ‘fair enough.’
You will study texts that completely ignore your existence
You can explain the existence of trans people to an IRL (IRL = In Real Life, for any non-digital natives reading) person, no amount of careful explaining to a hardbound copy of Freud’s essays on sexuality will change its mind about the development of gender. As soon as you go into any reading about gender a trans person will find many texts that ignore or misunderstand their existence; erasing it or using it as an ‘extreme example’ of gender variance or worse, by implying that the existence of trans people infringes upon women’s rights. There is no easy solution for this, the only partial remedy I can offer is to write your own opinions, challenge tutors who portray outdated theories in a positive light and try to use any salvageable elements of texts like this. It is unfortunate that it’s almost impossible not to encounter academic articles and books that have no understanding, consideration or a negative view of the trans community and it’s important to bear in mind that this does not represent the view of most people. Especially now, and especially after someone has undergone a little education on trans issues – most people have prejudices based on misunderstanding and not on hate.
It is Okay to challenge the institution
Bearing this in mind, this goes not just for trans issues, and is definitely something that all students should be made aware of ; it’s okay to challenge the institution (the institution being academia, the university system and established knowledge). Being at university means you’re part of the academic community now – and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise, to imply that your opinion is less valued based on your age or position as an undergraduate, is a self-aggrandising moron. It’s perfectly okay to point out when a text ignores or contradicts your existence or when you disagree for any other reason. And it’s certainly perfectly okay to point out when a staff member makes a mistake when talking about gender, either as a general concept and especially when they’re talking about your own gender. One of the problems I regularly encountered on a course made almost entirely of women was seminar leaders jovially pointing out ‘there’s only X amount of boys in the class!’ – the tally was always one short and a lot of apologies were made. Just because someone is an authority figure does not mean they won’t concede when they are wrong, and any member of staff who doesn’t should not be involved in teaching, or in academia. University is about broadening horizons and collective knowledge, not an established knowledge being passed down from on high by the doctors and professors of the university. (Although one piece of information I would like them to pass down is what actually is the difference between a professor and a doctor except that one makes me think of the bird from Bagpuss). It is often difficult to be assertive when you know or suspect authority figures to be wrong, but you should challenge them whenever you are able.
There will be bad days
And lastly this one almost goes without saying – there will be bad days. There will be days when you feel entirely alone, when you feel like there is no one in the institution who would even scrape the tip of the iceberg of understanding trans experience and as if every piece of study was designed without you in mind. The best thing to remember is that this is natural, and this is okay. I haven’t met a single student, trans or otherwise, who hasn’t had bad days. It doesn’t mean you’re not strong enough to get through a degree, and it doesn’t mean there aren’t good days to come – and this is the most valuable piece of information I learnt as an undergraduate and if I was to choose one thing to pass down to my first-year self it would be that bad days are okay. So okay in fact that despite the bad days I chose to start it all over again within few months of graduating.
Jesse is an English literature graduate and aquatic snail enthusiast from Essex. He graduated from Queen Mary, University of London and is currently studying for an MA in Sexual Dissidence at the University of Sussex.
Let me introduce you to TAGS – London trans and gender non-conforming swimming group. I started this group a couple of weeks ago, not initially as a follow up to any other trans* swimming group. But thanks to Brighton and Hove swimmers from Trans Swimming Brighton for your support in giving me ideas. The initiative came about after I was misgendered by council staff in south London and requested information on facilities provided to our community. I posted on Facebook to gauge interest and was quite pleased with the response I got. With the support of Chryssy D Hunter and Alec Scott Rook, we quickly set up a Facebook Page and started to post our idea. I then made contact with Fusion (who run leisure centres in Lewisham) and Lewisham Council and eventually got agreement to a meeting. Well, I have to say what we have been offered is fantastic. We couldn’t ask for better facilities. Please check out London Trans and Gender Non-conforming Swimming Group. You will be bowled over by what TAGS has been offered. The space will not only provide a safe space to swim but a meeting place to share ideas and network and gain support. Please come along and support us. We are on a three month trial but if we can get the numbers the trial will be extended. The facilities are amazing, the only thing were short of is a slide. But you never know. Check out our FB page for information on the event. The first night is Friday October the 3rd at 8.30 pm at Glassmill Leisure Centre, Lewisham.
Roberta Francis – Gendered Intelligence volunteer and founder of TAGS
In 2010, with a very small budget, we had the idea of going away on a residential trip with the GI youth group. With camping being the cheapest option and something that I enjoyed doing, we took 8 young trans people and 3 volunteers to Debden Campsite in Epping Forest for 2 nights. As money was tight, we travelled by tube to Debden and walked 30 minutes to the campsite with heavy packs on our back!
Since then things have developed, grown and changed somewhat. We changed our campsite. We took 11 young people for 2 nights. Still not being able to afford a minibus, we got cabs from the station with all the bags in and the group had a 20 minute walk, back pack- free, to the site. In the third year, we graduated to 16 young people, 2 nights and a minibus!
That being said, the minibus was quite small and most people had to sit for the half-hour journey with lots of luggage on their laps.
This year, our 4th time camping in 5 years (we didn’t go in 2013), we took a massive 25 young people and 6 workers – for 3 nights! We hired a coach with a driver and had ample room for luggage, sleeping bags and excitement.
The idea behind camping is that we can disappear off to a field somewhere and create a little ‘gender haven’ where people’s gender expression is accepted without question, respected and best of all appreciated. It means that we can literally forget the difficulties of being trans in a cis-gendered world, for a few days at least.
Camping Weekend Log: August 8th – 11th 2014
Before we go away, the staff meet up on various occasions to plan, troubleshoot, go through as many ‘eventualities’ as they can think of and get to know each other a bit better.
Then with all paperwork completed, risk assessment done and the needs of the individual young people considered, we set about packing for the weekend!
Thursday night at Finn’s house, almost ready to go:
First aid kit ✔
Kitchen equipment ✔
Cool boxes ✔
Other camp gear ✔
Storage crates ✔
Random bag of circus equipment and whirly plastic tubes ✔
After an awful weather report for the whole of the Friday, we actually had a very sunny Friday afternoon.
Everyone met us on time at Walthamstow Central, apart from the coach! After calling the company we realised that it was at Walthamstow Central, but on the other side of the station. The driver apparently couldn’t get into the car park through the road works, so everyone picked up their stuff and we trekked around the corner to the coach.
Our driver was lovely and very soon the coach was packed up and we were on our way with music playing, excitement brewing and good spirits.
When we arrived at site, the campsite staff were busy setting up our marquee tent and we set about laying out our tents and beginning to build our camp. The field was smaller than we’ve had in previous years and we had more people and tents to fit in. So we had to plan it out and get people working together in their tent teams but also helping each other to set up camp.
The weather held out until we finished building all the tents, then as it got wetter we all took shelter in our marquee kitchen tent.
We spent some time before dinner going over our working agreement for the weekend, which after a few days of rain, even though it as inside the marquee, ended up looking like this.
Nonetheless, the agreement was stuck to and re-discussed throughout the trip.
After a discussion about working together, we managed to organise the kitchen, cook dinner, reorganise the pitching of some dodgily pitched tents and settle down for a candle lit, soggy pasta dinner.
We didn’t get to have our first night campfire because of the rain, but everyone seemed not to mind too much and was keen to get to bed anyway what with a very tiring first day. It rained most of the night, very heavily, to the extent that a few people gave up on their leaking tents outside and we set up ‘tentception’. For those of you that haven’t seen the film Inception, it refers to ‘a dream within a dream’ or in our case…
Saturday 9th August: Day two or our first full day!
Saturday morning started in a relaxed manner, everyone getting up after a rainy night and helping themselves to breakfast and hot drinks.
By 10am we had assembled in the main tent again and touched base as a whole group. Everyone went off to get ready for their activities and by 10.30 am we were headed to meet our instructors. Saturday morning, one group took part in Jacobs Ladder, another raft building and the third archery, all in the sunshine!
When we got back to camp, the rafters had a well needed shower after falling in! Apparently their raft stayed together through all of the challenges that the instructors set them, until it came to 10 minutes of free time, when it fell apart and everyone fell in the lake! The Jacobs Ladder climbers did really well, with 6 of the participants reaching the top bar and standing up, 12 metres from the ground! The archers reported on a fun and friendly competitive atmosphere reaching the target, and the two teams had great fun.
Then lunch makers got started with preparing salad, sandwich ingredients, fruit and juice. The sun stayed with us so we had a sunny outdoor lunch.
We had a chilled out afternoon and by 3pm we were ready for our early evening swim. The sun was still strong and everyone was really looking forward to our exclusive swimming session. We had an hour and a half in the pool on the sunny Saturday afternoon. We played water polo, catch and generally floated about in our chosen swimming costumes with the only worry being not getting hit by the ball during the enthusiastic game of water polo!
Saturday afternoon after the swim, everyone was hungry, and we got started on setting up the evening barbecue,
Chicken, burgers, sausages, veggie variations and pepper kebabs galore, we ate our way into the late evening.
After tidying up we got to have our first campfire, eating chocolate bananas, chatting and sharing thoughts on the day.
Saturday night was considerably drier and after a morning re-pitching and adjusting some of the tents that had let in the rain from Friday night, everyone slept well and, importantly, in dry tents!
Sunday 10th August: Third day on camp
Sunday morning was a similarly relaxed morning of everyone getting up by 9.30am and after breakfast getting ready for more morning activities. Unfortunately by about 10am the rain was getting heavier and some of the young people asked if they would still have to do their activities in the rain. We phoned reception and asked at what point did the activities get called off due to weather? They said not until thunder and lightning was overhead, but that the activities could go ahead in any amount of rain. They assured me that it was safe, so we insisted on the young people getting all their waterproofs on and attempting to give it a go. We assembled in the main tent looking like we were about to go sailing in an Atlantic storm:
By 10.30, just as we were about to leave the marquee the thunder cracked about our heads and the lightning streaked across the sky, everyone looked at Finn… “Well, they haven’t called me to cancel, so I guess it’s still on?!”
We left the marquee, some more reluctantly and confused than others and headed to meet our instructors. Sure enough, when we arrived at the meeting point, the weather had gotten too hairy for the activities to be safe, so they changed our proposed activities to some indoor ones: gauntlet and indoor archery. Everyone was happy, and the Gilwell staff told us if the weather got better later on they could put on a Kayaking session that we had missed in the morning because of the weather.
After the activities and drying off from the morning’s storm, we had lunch in the marquee, and fortuitously Sunday afternoon brightened up completely for the Kayaking session and our 2nd swimming session that evening!
Sunday afternoon on the way to swimming: the weather windy yet sunny & happy campers!
After swimming and showers, we made two massive pots of vegetable and potato stew to eat with our bread rolls and prepared to eat dinner around the now slightly dried out campfire, for our final evening.
After lots of sharing and discussions about what people had thought of camp, some ukulele playing, singing and more chocolate we went to bed for our final night’s sleep.
Monday 11th August: Packing up and going home day.
After everyone was up, slightly earlier than the previous two days, we showered and ate breakfast. The group were amazing at cleaning up as they went and generally helping out. We got them to pack their bags and be ready for a group meeting mid-morning for instructions on dismantling our tents and communal kitchen area. The group set to work as a big team, helping each other to dismantle all the sleeping tents and arrange them in an organised manner for the Gilwell workers to find later.
Staff set to work on organising and packing away everything from the kitchen tent, except for any lunch foods and the kettle. We ate a leisurely lunch and drank lots of tea and coffee. After lunch and the lunch clean-up, we had time for a ‘go-round’ on how people were feeling before dismantling the last of the kitchen set up and general camp stuff, tidying and packing Andolie’s car with the staff bags and camping equipment.
Before we took everything to the coach meeting point we had time for one last closing circle where everyone sat round, in the sun and we were joined in the middle by one of our friends from the weekend.
No sooner we had got everything packed onto the coach and most people sat down, the heavens opened again and an almighty downpour of rain accompanied us off site with everyone safely dry in the coach. We arrived at our drop-off point in Walthamstow slightly late due to bad traffic, but pulled in to see some parents and carers waiting to take their tired young people home. Before leaving though, lots of hugs and phone numbers were exchanged, not to mention a few tears!
Those that weren’t being picked up headed off to the Tube for their heroic onwards journey home until just the staff were left for a group hug and a quick snack…
A MASSIVE thanks to my INCREDIBLE, hard working and ever enthusiastic camping team:
– Lisa, Chigozie, Greygory, Andolie and Jake
– Keishaun the night worker, our ‘silent’ team member who stayed awake from midnight until 7am, every night keeping everything safe and our marquee from blowing away!
– Jay Stewart and Catherine McNamara for preparation support and for being on the end of the phone over the weekend for extra support.
But most of all… ALL 25 of the amazing young people for being fun, funny, enthusiastic, caring, thoughtful, kind, strong, willing, experimental, honest, skilled, memorable, curious, sensitive, brave, clever, patient, innovative, prepared and WONDERFUL!
Finn Greig – camping enthusiast, GI youth worker and eternal optimist.