Archive for category The Gender Agenda

School is a drag

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16 year old Jamie wanted to attend his school prom in a dress. Openly gay and quite flamboyant, not a day had passed that he’d not been called a freak or faced other verbal bullying in his small Northern mining town. The BBC filmed him in the three month lead up to his first public appearance as a drag queen and produced a surprisingly touching documentary in the form of Jamie: Drag Queen at 16. While the title is somewhat reminiscent of an episode of Jeremy Kyle, the actual show presented an interesting response to Jamie’s gender expression from parents, the school and his peers.

Jamie’s mother came across as the epitome of the accepting parent; she exhibits photos of him as a toddler playing in high heels and explains how the penny dropped when she caught him secretly playing with her dresses. Not unusual behaviour for a young boy, but she obviously had a sense that Jamie’s exploration of gender would be ongoing and not ‘just a phase’. Her parenting skills are clearly and somewhat comically displayed as Jamie rather dramatically complains about his inability to apply make-up successfully, to her stoic, silent, and non-judgmental response. She says about one word to his hundred, although each word is worth a thousand to a kid who is ‘different’: ‘he’s always been like this’ and ‘just be yourself pet’. She acknowledges that she is probably the only person who truly knows Jamie and there aren’t likely to be too many mums who feel the same about their teenage sons.

Unfortunately, Jamie’s dad struggles with accepting his son’s choice to wear a dress to the prom; not exactly surprising and although the ending was a little bleak, one would hope that his dad adjusts in the same manner that many of the community do and puts Jamie’s happiness first. That, along with the school’s refusal to admit Jamie-in-a-dress to the prom, are the most disappointing and sadly, realistic aspects of the show. The downsides are far outweighed by the highlights however, as Jamie’s mum and her friend steal the show with their unwavering acceptance and explosive response to one of the few examples of bigotry. Jamie’s male classmates are also a source of delight as they attend his debut drag show, tell him he makes a ‘good looking woman’ as they gather around him for photos, then argue with the school to allow him entry to the prom. My cynical side wonders whether the cheering, welcoming, completely accepting student body have had a change of heart after learning of the film crew, who would be hard to camouflage in a small town for three months. After all, Jamie had commented that part of his motivation for donning a dress at the prom was to ‘not let them win’, so one would assume there were students sauntering around who echoed the sentiments of a parent who spelt out his disgust to the school. Regardless of how or why these young people arrived at Acceptance Alley, they were there fighting for Jamie’s right to express gender in his own way and that is an achievement in itself.

The most interesting part for us, as a charity who tackle homophobic bullying, was the clear lack of equal opportunities policy at Jamie’s school. They bowed to a parent’s complaint of disgust and banned Jamie, then counter-wise, succumbed to students’ demands to allow him entry. Good senior management teams will respond not to the cries of those who yell the loudest, but to their own pre-defined policies which are in place to protect all students. The school’s reaction to Jamie’s desire to wear a dress was a tad bizarre: ‘we want equal attention for all students on prom night’. If I were a head teacher, how much attention each student received on prom night would be pretty low on my list of priorities. Making sure nobody vomits in front of the governors, loses their virginity on school property or spray paints a giant penis on the tennis courts would be of greater concern. Additionally, it would be my job to provide protection for any young people within the year group who might struggle with a very able bodied, very westernised and very heterosexual event, after all, aren’t we supposed to live in a multi-cultural and inclusive country these days? Instead of waiting for the issue to arise, schools need to be pro-active and ensure that difference is welcomed, by providing education for their students.

Find me one school in the country, where every student conforms to stereotypical expressions of male and female – there are many, many shades of grey when it comes to masculinity and femininity; wherever a student fits along the continuum and however they choose to express themselves shouldn’t allow opportunity for bullying, nor inhibit their learning opportunities. This doesn’t mean students can forgo school uniforms or break jewellery/hair/tattoo rules, this guidance should simply be adjusted to allow for greater levels of comfort for students who don’t conform to gender stereotypes. And to those who suggest it’s political correctness gone mad, please take the time to speak to a transgender person who was forced to wear clothing they dreaded with every ounce of their being for days, months, years on end whilst at school. I hated the flowery handmade dresses my mum forced me into when I was 7, however that was simply a matter of good taste (bless her), it never made my skin crawl nor contributed to a swamp of non-acceptance which made me want to sink slowly under and give up on life.

I questioned a primary head teacher as to what he would say to parents who balked at educating their children about LGBT issues: ‘all families are welcome here and all children must be able to learn. We prevent bullying by educating kids about difference. If the parents don’t like it, they can change schools’. Now that’s what I call leadership.

 

See some of the work we did with that primary school:

 

 

 

 

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Padded Bras? Just Say No.

Last month Nadine Dorries had an abstinence bill passed which asks for all 13 -16 year old girls to be given additional sex education on how to ‘say no’. We’ve all been lying awake at night trying to figure out how we can teach only girls to say no to underage sex, when clearly sex involves girls AND boys. Surely Mrs Dorries isn’t suggesting that boys are just pistol-pocketed demons who seek only to de-flower our innocent, rosy-cheeked maidens – mute maidens, who have little or no ability to articulate the word ‘no’?  Can it be possible that in 2011, people are still encouraging the view that sexual desire is owned by men and that poor, sexless women are on a backwards treadmill, trying to avoid their lecherous and uncontrollable advances. That if only teenage girls would say ‘no’ to pressure to put out, learn to dress appropriately and make sure they’re home in their floral nightgowns by 9pm, those nasty boys wouldn’t be able to impregnate them.

Are we not feeding the monster by continuing to tell young women, worse still, telling young men, that this is the case? Shouldn’t we be trying to break these stereotypes down and show a little more respect for teenagers’ sexuality? Boys feel pressure to have sex too. They are continuously fed a media stream (and at times, blokey comments from Dads) which perpetuate the idea that they are the hunters and women are there to be gathered. Teenage boys have admitted that they lie about their conquests to prove their manhood. And under pressure to actually score that notch on their belt, many of them probably do pester girls to have sex before either of them are ready. But failing to address the issues that boys face and leaving the decisions in the girls’ court, simply applies double the pressure to young women and renders young men as nothing more than grunting neanderthals, incapable of responsibility.

Even worse, on Channel 5’s Vanessa show, Nadine Dorries uttered these clangers:

“If a stronger ‘just say no’ message was given to children in school then there might be an impact on sex abuse … if we imbued this message in school we’d probably have less sex abuse.”

This is one of the most dangerous sentiments I have heard espoused by a person with a political platform. The idea that a child should take some responsibility for the sexual invasion of an adult is just plain vulgar. I feel for the victims of abuse out there who may still be battling with their inner child on this issue; people spend many years in therapy trying to come to terms with this fallacy. And what message does it give the abuser who happened to be listening in that day? A total denial of responsibility.

While ‘sexualisation’ and ‘padded bras’ are the words of the week after the Bailey Review was published, we are still not discussing the real issues. While I agree that padded bras (to enhance cleavage) for 11 year olds are an obscenity  and I wouldn’t want my child watching inappropriately sexual music videos, simply removing them from the shelves/television does not stop young people from, for example, finding misogynistic pornography on the internet. A group of 13 year old boys told me that while they had received no sex education at school, they knew everything they needed to about sex because they watched porn. This scares me. And to further prove that we need to alter our approach to dealing with young people’s sexuality, a study just published in the States shows that LGBT youth are far more likely to indulge in risky behaviour or consider suicide. No surprises there. By all means, let’s make adult images and products less accessible to children but let’s also do the other half of the job. We need to talk to them; discuss sexuality, respect for one’s self and others, the benefits of delaying sexual relationships, gender stereotypes and the fact that shops sell padded bras for girls, but not padded jocks for boys. Young people have critical, developing minds. Nadine Dorries wants to empower young women by teaching them to say no. Let’s empower our girls and boys with facts, relationship skills and the ability to say no, or yes, when they are ready.

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Ma Vie en Rose

Late night telly produced a gem recently: the incredible Belgian film, Ma Vie en Rose. It’s the poignant story of a little boy who announces his desire to be a girl and the emotional battles he and his family face as a result. After they are shunned by neighbours and the father loses his job, their initial bemused acceptance turns into anger and despair, much to the pain of 7 year old Ludovic who just wants to marry Jérome (who is, unfortunately, his Dad’s boss’s son – never a good scene). Ludovic tugs at your heart strings; the confusion and mistrust is visible in his eyes as he struggles to understand why his normally loving parents begin to unravel, snarling at him, being violent with each other and worst of all, cutting his long hair as swollen tears roll down his cheeks. He just wants to be a girl. He doesn’t want to be a boy who happens to like other boys, every part of his being wants to be a girl. After triumphantly coming to the conclusion that the additional ‘X’ chromosome accidentally fell to the floor during the Tic Tac Toe game his parents played to create him, he is even more delighted to wake up with a sore tummy, as he knows that sore tummy equals period, which equals being ‘a real lady now’. He is utterly beautiful and as you watch you are willing the parents, who you also feel for, to accept him and be on his side.

It is one of the best films I have seen in terms of transgender issues and would make an ideal film study at secondary school level as it achieves the key aim of the work DRM are doing; it invokes empathy. It doesn’t explain why Ludovic wants to be a girl and nor does the viewer care. We like him and we want him to be ok. If I pitch my workshops with young people accurately, they usually like me and want me to be ok. And when I challenge them even further, perhaps they start to understand that there are others like me, LGB or T, who they don’t understand, but they just might like or at least want to be ok. Children learn empathy at a young age, but if there is none floating around their homes, they harden up; there is no room for understanding or softness when none has been afforded you. However, if teachers and other significant adults can respect, care for and simultaneously push their students’ boundaries, empathy can develop in those who have been labelled ‘no hopers’ or symbolically placed in the ‘too hard basket’. I have seen the most vehemently homophobic student go from shouting abuse to claiming that nobody should have to hide themselves or change and that society needs to be more accepting. All in the space of an hour and all because he had some grease applied to the rusty cogs of empathy which resided within him.

It is too often seen that LGB people disassociate themselves from the transgender element of our community. They come lower in the pecking order, face far worse abuse and the last thing we want to do is have our starting-to-be-socially-accepted ‘gayness’ sullied by their even weirder behaviour. At least, this is what I understand the unspoken thoughts of transphobic homosexuals to be. This is a travesty. We can not expect to take our newly granted rights, our growing social acceptance and freedom to be ourselves, and shut the gate on people whose struggle for acceptance is often greater than ours. We’ve all floundered with identity and fitting in at some point; for transgender people, this is an even greater trial. We need to help and support each other, not turn our backs and scamper off with the emergency food package while others starve behind us.

Dealing with the transgender issue can be a prickly topic in schools. How do teachers talk about this when most of us don’t understand it ourselves? It’s like this: we don’t have to understand, we just have to tolerate each other’s differences. We have to make it clear that difference is fine, in fact it is interesting. We need to encourage students to think critically, to ask why such discrimination exists against people that above all, need understanding and respect. I have taken a transgender F to M rapper into a secondary school in London. A girls faith school in a very low socio-economic area with a wide cultural mix. Although we were more than a little nervous, the outcome could not have been better. He sat on the stage, told the girls his story, answered their questions with dignity and humour, then he rapped. Not my kind of music but the girls couldn’t contain themselves. Literally. After the performance, throngs of them rushed the stage trying to kiss his hands and face – I had to restrain some of them. This was music induced hysteria at its best, but it also provided me with one of the best and most unexpected moments of my career. These girls knew this person used to a be a woman and a lesbian, then became a man and was now heterosexual; a confusing notion for most, but they simply didn’t care. He was hot and he could sing. He was a person before he was a label.

So to those who struggle with the transgender thing; whether you’re straight or LGB, challenge yourselves a little on this topic. Watch Ma Vie en Rose and remember that the person you might disassociate yourself with, or make insensitive comments about to fit in with your mates, that person is just Ludovic, but grown up. Have some empathy.

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Let’s talk about sex

Today is International Day Against Homophobia. Perfect opportunity for a Big Question – why do some people hate us gayers? Why does my natural drive to create home and family with somebody of the same sex, rile some folk so much that they deny me the right to formalise my relationship through marriage, openly claim that me teaching their children will be harmful, and suggest there is some secret, perverted agenda behind my desire to live a life without discrimination. At first glance, we’d have to assume it’s to do with the kind of sex we have; this is what sets us aside by title and ‘lifestyle’ from our heterosexual friends. So let’s talk about sex…

What consenting adults of either gender do with their bodies is none of my business, nor anyone else’s. I have no more than a human curiosity about other people’s sex lives, however, some homophobes mention gay sex with such frequency that one has to question their underlying fascination. I’m more interested in how we relate to one another, than what we do to get off. But to stay on sex for a moment (I know it’s tough, hang in there), many LGBT people lead unadventurous, boring or even asexual lives together; many heterosexuals do the opposite. Above and beyond the biological implications of body parts, sexual behaviour is NOT defined by your orientation – most would agree that within a loving, respectful and consenting environment, people are free to explore whatever they like.

Homophobia is hardly about sexual behaviour at all. It’s about gender. Allow me to demonstrate.

What seems to offend homophobes most is that LGBT people are stepping outside of our gender roles; with our sexual activity, but mostly by our social behaviour. And there is directly proportional discrimination in response to the level of gender subversion. In fact, there is an unconscious ranking system at play.  Arguably, a glamorous lesbian couple are far more likely to be accepted (in fact ‘encouraged’ in many male minds…) than a butch lesbian couple. Why? They are both homosexual and should therefore suffer the same castigation. Effeminate men are more likely to be abused in the street, effeminate black men even more so; yes, race plays a part in the gender game, as does class.

I have asked young people to explain to me why I am ok and my gay brothers are not…we are both breaking the rules they impose, why the different punishments? ‘It’s what they do Miss, it’s disgusting’. And we all know what they’re getting at here. We’re talking about defying the natural order in the worst possible way. It is (drum roll please)…man taking the role of woman (feel free to take a break here to flinch and gasp…).

We are only just breaking free of a longstanding patriarchy, ladies and gentlemen, and the shackles, whilst looser and allowing movement, still weigh us down in the form of gender constructs. Historically, men have ruled and women have been submissive. While things are far more equal now (although the gender pay gap and the gender distribution of world leaders is still woeful), you need only to listen to young children playing to know that all things ‘girl’ are less than all things ‘boy’.  Girls hardly ever insult each other with ‘you’re such a boy’, whereas being called a girl is only one step higher than being called gay in the minds of young men. Anything feminine is to be shunned vociferously; ‘boys will be boys’ becomes ‘boys MUST be boys’.

A woman who challenges her gender role by being a lesbian, particularly a butch lesbian, usurps the position of man and might expect some reverberations from those who struggle with this concept (corrective rape in South Africa is an extreme example of these reverberations). And a man who might have feminine traits, hobbies or god forbid, takes the ‘role of a woman’ sexually, is the lowest of the low and provokes such anger in ‘real men’ that he can expect to face violence. This may not resonate with some of you, but ask yourself why we have such different reactions to gay men and lesbians? Isn’t the same norm being offended?

So here are the rules for those who missed the pamphlet in the post:

1.  Lesbians are mostly ok in public (if you look a bit manly though, watch out, you’re running the risk of watering down an insecure male’s masculinity and must be held accountable)
2. Feminine lesbians are ok to hold hands in public
3. Feminine lesbians are more-than-ok sexually

4. Gay men who look like Gareth Thomas (muscular & virile) are ok in public
5. Gay men are not ok to hold hands in public (unless they’re as big as Gareth Thomas or are indulging their perversion in a gay ghetto like Soho)
6. Gay men are never ok sexually (except, boys, secretly in your heads where you are confused, ashamed and angry at your perfectly normal curiosity)

I would wager a month’s salary on the latter confusion being what led to 17 year old Adam Ayres and three of his friends luring a gay man via a chat room to a park where they smashed his skull in with a baseball bat (http://bit.ly/ktW7A9). His lawyer claimed he wasn’t homophobic, he’d just been ‘trying to assert his masculinity’. This would be laughable if it weren’t so serious. I don’t hold people down and paint their nails to assert my femininity. We are letting our young people down in a serious way by not challenging society’s rather sad and unintelligent obsession with gender. Let our boys, girls, men and women be people first. Let them explore their natural talents and creativity without repercussion. And most importantly let them love who, and how, they want.

Quick disclaimer: Most of this is not subject matter for our school visits as role models. This is for you; our ‘mature’ reader.

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