Asking about gender – inclusivity and trying to get it “right”

The young person sat in front of me is noticeably androgynous in a loose tunic, with elfin features, the sharp cheekbones of a male-model, and an overgrown pixie-cut. My assessment form demands a tick in the box, are they male or female? I wonder if they fall somewhere outside of this binary, if maybe they define themselves as genderqueer, or somewhere else on the gender spectrum. Maybe they don’t use any label for how they see themselves. I’d like think of myself as reasonably open-minded and something of an ally for LGBT rights and gender diversity, so I want to make an effort, to get it “right”. But I’m also conscious of causing offence – what if they do identify as male, will they be insulted by my asking? Maybe they’ve had a lifetime of being mislabelled as feminine. Will this break down our relationship before it’s even begun?

“What would you like me to put down for gender?”

(pause, confused expression) “Um…male”

“Okay… I only ask because some people identify as genders different from “male” or “female””

“Oh yeah… I know some people like that”

“Okay, what shall I put for your ethnicity?”

And so we move on.

This encounter made me think about how I ask questions about demographics and diversity. In healthcare often the forms we use as restricted – used to generate statistics and leaving little room for greyer areas. But there are many aspects of personhood that aren’t immediately obvious. I have no difficulty asking someone their age, but somehow checking in with someone about issues such as gender and sexual orientation feels more difficult – my concern is that others will think I have made assumptions about them, “What makes you think I’m gay?”.

One way of making diversity questions less personal is to ask them routinely, even when the answer may appear “obvious”. Guesses at ethnicity and sexual orientation are also open to error without checking in (for example: someone who appears caucasian but is actually of mixed heritage). It is time-consuming to run through these kinds of questions but when I have the chance I do find it helpful. Most of the clients I work with have “majority” characteristics but they are rarely offended when I ask anyway. Often the form can be a starting point for these conversations “It’s something we ask everyone” and can reveal difference that isn’t immediately obvious in a relatively safe manner. Giving people assessment forms to complete themselves may also be another route, and including “other” boxes alongside diversity checklists. I also wonder, for those who sit in the majority groups, whether being asked the question provokes some thinking about diversity and brings a degree of normalisation.

NB – I don’t consider myself an expert on these topics, this is merely a reflection on my own experience. I recommend anyone interested in informing themselves about being sensitive and inclusive towards gender diverse individuals do some research – e.g. BPS, genderbread  , Christine Richards

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“Just a phase”? Freedom to be a little sexually flexible

Queer women’s sexuality appears to be having something of a media ‘moment’. The new series of Orange is the New Black has got many heterosexual women claiming they’d “go gay” for genderfluid star Ruby Rose and supermodel face-of-everywhere Cara Delevigne is on the cover of Vogue describing her loving relationship with singer Annie Clarke. A comment from journalist Rob Haskell has drawn particular anger “Her parents seem to think girls are just a phase for Cara, and they may be correct.” Having their same-sex attraction written-off as “experimentation” is an experience many queer people can relate to. Photos of Kirsten Stewart sharing intimate moments with her partner Alicia are often naively captioned as “Kirsten and friend”. Bisexuality is often treated as invisible when the individual is in an opposite-sex relationship, as though their past relationships, attractions, preferences and sexual experiences are no longer a part of their identity. People of non-heterosexual identity are keen to stand up and proclaim that their sexuality is not a “phase”, that it’s who they are and it’s here to stay.

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But what’s wrong with having a “phase”? Tastes and preferences vary throughout our lives and experimentation is a way in which we can work out what we like, what we want. The phrase has become imbued with negativity – connotations of inauthenticity. Ideas that sexual experimentation is motivated by ideas of what is “cool”, what is expected at a certain age, being a part of a peer group where such a thing is “expected”. Sexuality is treated as a trend, a fashion. Implicit is the notion that the experience, and any feelings attached to it, is not genuine. In cold hindsight it is rewritten as meaningless.

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Trans Visiblity: Rallying, allying and minding your own business

NB – I am open to suggestions and making edits to this piece if anyone feels the language used is inappropriate or inaccurate. Please drop me a message and let me know556cd6644ae56e586e4588d8_caitlyn-jenner-bruce-jenner-july-2015-vf

Here is an extract from a recent conversation I had:

“But the first Matrix is definitely the best Wachowski Brothers’ film”

“They’re actually not called the Wachowski Brothers anymore, as one of them has since transitioned”

“Ah okay, didn’t know that! Good pub quiz knowledge!”

And then the conversation moved on. Transgender people are arguably more visible now than ever before, and words and phrases such as “transition”, “non-binary”, “female-to-male” and “gender identity” are far more commonplace in general vocabulary and seem to not need the level of explanation that they once did. That isn’t to say that it’s fully entrenched in common knowledge, and many people still don’t know the difference between terms such as “transgender”, “transvestite” and “hermaphrodite” (and think “cis” is some kind of infection), (the BBC published a helpful glossary this week). Awareness is rising, and that’s never been more true than this week, with Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, quickly becoming the most visible trans person in the world.

Transvisibility has certainly increased in the last couple of years. Openly trans actress and activist Laverne Cox rose to prominence in Orange is the New Black, later gracing the cover of Time magazine and posing nude for Allure. Trans models such as Lea T and Andeja Pejic have been very visible in fashion and beauty campaigns. Popular television shows such as Transparent and Louis Theroux’s “Transgender Kids” have been educational to audiences. Journalist and presenter Paris Lees, once voted top of the “pink list” of influential UK LGBT people, has brought a lot of attention to trans issues. Trans men continue to be less visible, although statistics suggest that they are similar in number.

Prior to this week I was only vaguely aware of Ms Jenner (I’ve never watched her reality shows) but lately my social media has been awash with images of her, celebrating her bravery, openness and the inspiration she gives. But you only need to read the comments posted on this article (or indeed from some celebrities) to see how far we have to go in terms to increasing awareness, acceptance and equality for the transgender and minority gender identity community.

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Trans people experience significant discrimination and abuse. Many trans people, particularly women of colour, are murdered each year. They are rejected by their families, bullyied and the list of those who turn to suicide increases. The stories of Leelah Alcorn and Lucy Meadows are two recent tragic examples that have been publicised. Trans rights were largely ignored in the equal marriage debates, and the issue of “spousal veto” remains – in which a married person applying for a gender recognition certificate must have the approval of their spouse. The UK’s most prominent gay rights charity Stonewall has only recently begun to represent trans people, after lengthy lobbying. Transphobia is pervasive and often slips under the radar, as though seem as a fair topic for fun rather than an undercurrent of prejudice that impacts on the lives of trans people continually. Trans people are often the subject of jokes in the media and derogatory terms such as “tr*nny” are used without thought. If you look out for it you might be surprised the level of offensive language commonly used that refers negatively to trans communities, often slipping in subtly. Trans people are overrepresented in mental health populations, and with a lifetime of discrimination and high incidences of trauma it’s little wonder why. In order to access gender identity services people must jump through considerable hoops that include extensive psychiatric evaluation. The past hashtag #transdocfail exhibited just how uninformed health professionals are about trans issues. Any one of these instances is shocking, but together it’s a pretty horrifying picture of how we treat human beings we see as “different”.

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Bisexuality in the UK

On February 15th a report was published bringing together research and information on the UK’s bisexual population. In particular the paper highlights the discrimination bisexuals face, often related to misconceptions, negative stereotypes and ‘invisibility’ within the community. It seems amazing that it’s taken this long for us to have a paper of this kind, but hopefully it is a step towards greater public and professional awareness of this often unseen group. It has been produced by BiUK in conjunction with the Open University, Bi Community News and the Bisexual Index. You can read it here.

Twice as nice? Or double the discrimination?

The paper offers some definitions of bisexuality, explaining that many different forms of identity may come under the umbrella of the term. Bisexuality includes individuals who are not attracted exclusively to one gender (regardless of whether they engage in sex or relationships with individuals of more than one gender), people of fluid and changeable sexuality, individuals who do not see gender as an important factor in attraction and those who dispute the concept of a gender binary in sexual attraction. A bisexual need not actively engage in relationships with people of different genders or have an equal preference for different genders. Not all individuals who fit with the used definitions may actually use the term ‘bisexual’ to describe themselves, picking a more precise term or preferring not to label themselves.

Biphobia is a term used to describe discimination against bisexuals on the basis of their sexuality. Distinct from homophobia, bisexuals may experience discrimination both within the heterosexual and homosexual community. This can often centre on beliefs that bisexuals are confused, promiscuous, greedy or not acknowledging that bisexuality truly exists. Presentations of bisexuals in the media have often conformed to stereotypes and further perpetuated myths. Female bisexuals are often presented as people who break up relationships, tease and generally exist for the fantasies of heterosexual men. Bisexual men are an even lesser spotted species, often considered to be an insecure individual’s ‘stepping stone’ before fully coming out as gay. Much progress has been made in recent years about tackling homophobia, but prejudices against bisexuals are rife and even seen in the communities that seek to promote gay rights. This can lead to bisexuals feeling alienated and having to conform to either a ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ identity in order to be accepted.

Bisexuals can often seem invisible when judgements about sexuality are often made based on a person’s current relationship, their involvement in the gay community and even their appearance. A bisexual does not cease to be a bisexual if they marry an opposite sex partner, or same sex partner, or even if they choose to not be in a relationship at all! LGBT campaigning and activism often makes very little mention of the ‘B’, such are in recent discussion over same-sex marriages, and LGBT groups and events (such as Pride) may have little visible represenation for the bisexual community. The difficulties faced by bisexuals can be undermined as people erroneously think that they ‘have it easy’ compared to homosexuals, and some how their struggle is halved by having ‘one leg in the straight community’. Statistics on bisexuals are often lumped together with the other LGBT groups, rather than examined in their own right as a separate sexuality.

One of the most attention-grabbing and upsetting details of the report is the statistics that Bisexuals have poorer mental health than both homosexuals and transsexuals. This is something difficult to publicise without unintentionally feeding into stereotypes of bisexuals as ‘tragic’, ‘dramatic’ or ‘confused’. Indeed, much of the distress experienced by bisexuals has been linked to hostile and unhelpful reactions from others, rather than the sexuality itself. Coming out, an already difficult process, may be more marked for bisexuals who may need to come out when they choose a same sex partner, then again when they choose an opposite sex partner. There has been quite some media attention about depression and suicide in the gay community but similar issues in the bi community seem to have been overlooked. The evidence suggests that Bisexuals are more likely to suffer distress and to have a diagnosed mental health problem. Medical and mental health professionals are often uninformed about bisexual issues and may even make remarks suggesting that the individual’s illness has something to do with their sexuality. This kind of treatment can make it challenging for bisexuals to access mental health treatment and get appropriate care. Manchester group BiPhoria have created a fantastic and informative document for mental health professionals to guide them on working with bisexual clients, I’d really recommend it. Can be read here.

Quotes from BiPhoria

Much of the reccomendations in the report, and from other Bi media sources, amounts to not making assumptions about Bisexuals and considering them separately from homosexual groups. The mental health statistics are worrying and if we’re going to do anything to solve this problem, we need to be sensitive to individuals’ needs and be open-minded to different perspectives. Bisexuality may present in a wide variety of ways so it’s difficult to predict exactly how a bisexual may live their life, or what their experiences will be. As with working with other individuals, an individualised, person-centred approach and a genuine curiosity to learn about and understand another’s view point, can help us to support Bisexuals and help them to become a more visible part of the UK’s community.