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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No gays in Tennessee. Really?

So Tennessee have just passed their ridiculous and archaic ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill (http://nydn.us/mdYLIC), which bans the mention of anything other than heterosexuality in schools. Teachers are only allowed to talk about ‘natural human reproduction science’. The senate argue that homosexuality should be introduced by parents when they are ready to talk about it. Yeah right. My parents did pretty well to cover the basics of heterosexuality without any of us melting into a puddle of embarrassment on the floor, but homosexuality barely warranted a mention. They didn’t expect to have a gay child. Most parents don’t. And only the most liberal and comfortable will talk about LGBT issues with their children. Even they get a shock if one of their kids actually turns out to be one. I have a suspicion that Tennessee, as a state, hasn’t produced a generation of parents that will introduce the topic in a gentle and accepting manner.

Fifteen years ago, only 25% of Americans supported the right to marry for gays and lesbians. Just this month, latest statistics from CNN show that 53% are now ok with it (although that popular left wing response springs to mind; if you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married). Tennessee, unsurprisingly, are the 6th least supportive state on a score of 31%. Even so, in amongst a backlash against some high profile LGBT youth suicides in the United States, the Tennessee senate still find it more important to preserve the delicate heterosexual sensibilities of their young, than to provide safety and education for those who are most at risk. This makes sense though, as Tennessee are the same state who, after a flurry of school shootings a couple of years ago, relaxed their laws to allow people to take their guns to the pub. You read that correctly, to the pub. Perhaps there is something we have yet to learn about the Tennessee government; maybe back in the day when the politicos were all fooling about at Politician School, doing lines (not written ones…) with George Dubya, the school board conspired to send the bottom 5th percentile to Tennessee. Apologies to any respectable politicians from this state, but I would suggest you get the hell out of there before they tar and feather you for using words like ‘progress’ and ‘social accountability’ in public.

Talking about the presence of LGBT people in society doesn’t stop us from existing. If this were the case, we would have been extinct centuries ago as it was the love that ‘dare not speak its name’. I’m not a big fan of cancer, but I reckon if we ban the word, it’s not going to slink off into the seedy underworld of disease with rejection in its eyes. Gay people have been around through all cultures and in all time; we ain’t goin’ nowhere. All that happens when you legislate against a natural characteristic, is a fallout that costs the state a lot of money; all this self harm,  inability-to-learn-at-school-due-to-bullying, homelessness, mental health issues – they cost money. Taxpayers’ money. So bottom 5th percentile, consider this, if you guide your communities towards being socially intelligent (probably an oxymoron for people who take their .38s down the boozer), empathetic and above all, respectful of human life, you might see a less aggressive society and save a couple of bucks while you’re at it.

And to Senator Stacey Campfield who pushed the bill through with such passion, congratulations Sir, your six year fight has paid off. The flip side, of course, is that pretty much the entire world is now wondering whether there is something slightly ‘latent’ about your passion. Never mind though, you’ve done your job. I’m pretty sure there will be no gays in Tennessee once the House passes it. Maybe we could ban the word ‘tax’ next?

If anyone wants to drop Senator Campfield a line to commend him on his foresight in clearing the state of tiresome gays, here is his email address:

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Why don’t you fancy me?

I was 19 when I ‘came out’ to my friends (not that I was in the closet, I just happened to get a girlfriend at that age). My greatest concern was that they would think I’d been secretly desiring them for years, so I was tripping over myself to explain that I was ‘only attracted to this one particular woman’ and that I was ‘probably bisexual’ (important to make them, and me, think that this wasn’t a life long disability, merely a virus that would pass through my system and leave me a ‘normal girl’, or at least still tempted by men). There is some research to suggest that the inner ears of lesbians are different to heterosexual women. I wish those differences were external, like our ears were rotated slightly clockwise or something, so our sexual orientation was obvious and there was NO MORE COMING OUT!

I don’t want to have to explain, every time I start a new job, to my drunk and inquisitive colleagues in the pub that no, I don’t find them attractive. Not even a little bit. Nope, not even with their eyeliner permanently tattooed on. And I don’t want to deal with their hurt questions; ‘well, WHY don’t you find me attractive?’. I stutter ‘It’s not you, I mean, you are attractive, it’s just that I don’t happen to…’ God, give me strength! You can’t win. I have NEVER fancied one of my straight friends – scout’s honour (lesbians are allowed to use that. It’s in our guide book). I’m not saying that people aren’t drawn to those who have a different sexual orientation, I just haven’t been. Not that I’m owning up to in this blog anyway.

A high percentage of kids I talk to say that they would ditch their mate if they came out to them. When asked why, inevitably a boy will exclaim, ‘cos what if he likes me?!’. After pointing out that I haven’t noticed any need to physically restrain any of the straight girls in the room who are unable to contain their desire for him, I espouse the ‘rules of engagement’:

– If someone comes onto you, regardless of sexual orientation or gender, and you don’t like them, say ‘no thanks’.

– If someone continues to come onto you, regardless of sexual orientation or gender, say ‘no thanks’ more firmly and remove yourself from the situation.

– If this goes on, you’re looking at a situation of sexual assault and you need to seek help. Again, regardless of this person’s sexual orientation or gender.

– If someone comes onto you and you do fancy them, proceed with extreme caution.

It would be an unfortunate and cruel genetic mixture if we were not only born into the delightful and wacky LGBT community, but we were bestowed with an uncontrollable attraction to absolutely everybody of the same sex. Not only that, but we had ‘desire tourettes’, which meant that we raced around the streets/playground/office touching everybody with the same body parts as us with carte blanche. Kids, and bizarrely, some adults, seem to think this is the case. You have to slowly and carefully explain to them that we are not only just as restrained as anybody else, but even more so, as we might be cautious of a homophobic response.

I tell young people that if a man comes onto me, I just say thanks, but no thanks. It’s simple. I don’t hit him because he is challenging my lesbianism. I’m not going to find the presence of his heterosexuality so overpowering that I swoon, fall into his arms and become the next Mills & Boon cover. And I’m not going to catch it via other means. Sexuality is nothing to fear. It is something to discuss with humour, honesty, and if with teenagers, an unconquerable ability to keep a straight face.

NB: be aware that young people might find their way to our blog. I’m not a fan of censorship but please take care with your language if you make comment. Thanks!

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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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Voice of a Role Model

Enough from me lately. Today’s post is from one of our young role models, Lucy Hill. Here’s her perspective on school, bullying and how effective role modelling can give young people hope:

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School is tough for most kids; the pressures of fitting in, getting good grades (but not so good that you are considered a geek), wearing the right clothes, liking the right music…the list is endless. The turmoil is even greater for LGBT kids who are struggling with their own feelings about sexual or gender identity; they don’t need everybody else’s views piled upon them too. It is very hard to be ‘different’ in an environment that often stamps out individuality for the sake of an easy life and for LGBT kids this can prove catastrophic.

We all know of the much publicised tragic and enraging stories of gay school children ending their lives due to torment from homophobic bullies; Asher Brown, a 13-year-old Texan who shot himself in the head after being ‘bullied to death’, another 13-year-old, Seth Walsh, who hung himself after yet another attack from his tormenters and 15-year-old Billy Lucas whose school did nothing to prevent his bullies driving him to suicide, despite pleas for help. These heartbreaking stories are all too common and send a clear message that far too little is being done.

Diversity Role Models are taking a brilliant step in tackling this pandemic problem. Really, it is only by changing the minds of the young that homophobia, and homophobic bullying, can be erased once and for all. By sending successful, and above all happy, LGBT role models into schools to discuss the topic and their experiences, Diversity Role Models are not only helping to remove the fear around homosexuality, but they are showing that anybody can go on to achieve their dreams. Above all, what this organization is giving young LGBT school kids, is hope. An escape from the bullying and relief that there are other people out there just like them who lead happy, successful and untroubled lives. If I were a teenager struggling with my sexuality and experiencing ridicule and even beatings, I know seeing an adult who had come through this, and achieved everything they wanted and more, would be incredibly freeing.

Lucy Hill

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‘Gay’ is not an insult!

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We are family

Not so long ago, ‘family friendly’ was a coded allusion to ‘gays not welcome’. Family was what straight people had and LGBT folk were left to the outer circles of these; sometimes invited to family events (sans partner of course), often not, and the isolation and hurt caused by this exclusion commonly created an unrepairable rift within families. Many older LGBT people never managed to heal the damage caused by this, and passed away without the love and support that families should provide, simply because they happened to be gay.

Fortunately, this is changing. Our families tend to be more accepting; after the initial wringing-of-hands-what-will-I-tell-your-grandfather, they work hard on trying to accept that we will not be following exactly in their footsteps (little do they know, we still take on their annoying traits, we just subject our same-sex partner to them instead) and some parents even force extended family to challenge their own prejudice by proudly dragging us and our partners to all family events and loudly announcing our presence whilst looking triumphantly around for praise/negativity/any reaction at all.

However, there is still a lingering, exclusionary ring around this concept of family. Pride events are still hailed in some parts of the western world as being ‘not family-friendly’. The images of scantily-clad people dancing to Kylie Minogue with pink poms-poms are what fill the minds of the decision makers on local councils; in my mind, these images are no more offensive than a typical H & M bikini advertisement on a bus stop. Unless…hang on…perhaps the offence relates to the pink dancers potentially being men and this of course, will throw little Benny’s concept of gender out the window, he will demand nail polish and tiaras and refuse to answer to any name but Delilah-Rose on the car ride home. Seeing people kiss or dance or wear the same amount of clothes they do on the beach, is NOT offensive, nor is it going to change the sexual orientation/gender identity of a child. Overt sexual behaviour isn’t appropriate for children, however any Pride march I’ve been to has been verging on sex-LESS; lesbian Mums, gay Dads, trans people with partners and children, drag queens slinking along the street (much to the delight of the kids), colourful floats, desperate-to-be-seen-but-slightly-uncomfortable politicians and supportive grandmothers complaining about sore feet. In fact, the least family friendly aspect of Pride is the cohort of religious extremists standing behind their police cordon preaching non-acceptance and hate.

LGBT people have children. We are family. We are Mums, Dads, Auntys, Uncles and Grandparents. How we perform these roles is dependent on our morals, our patience, our dedication and our responsibility, NOT on our gender or sexual identity. And to Senor Fernando Gómez (the Tourism alderman of Spanish Democratic Party of Blanes) who says “It is inconsistent to promote gay tourism along with family tourism and sporting events”, I’m sorry sir, but I have a family, I am an athlete and I am a pretty big fan of holidays. Now let’s get together and talk about inconsistency.

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‘Gay’ is not an insult!

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What do the kids say?

‘Please come to my school because I am the only gay one and everybody hates me. I am just the same as them’

‘Could you bring a role model to our school, people are too scared to come out…all the kids say horrible things about gay people’

‘My son’s school needs a visit from you; he is too scared to walk home because other boys will ‘jump’ him’

These are just a few of the cries for help we’ve had via twitter and email since we went live. It simply reinforces how important it is to do this for our young people. If you are LGBT, just imagine that somebody had visited your class when you were young and spoken of their sexual orientation in a factual, honest and at times, humorous manner. Maybe you would’ve followed the example of many of the young people I have spoken to; eyes downcast, not drawing attention to themselves by asking questions and even feigning disinterest. These are the kids I believe with all of my heart, are being affected by my words. It’s not that I’m saying anything particularly special, or that I stand out for any particular reason, I’m simply saying that I am the same as everyone else, even though I’m gay. Many of these young people have never heard anything positive said about LGBT people. At best, they’ve heard nothing, but many of the students I’ve worked with come from backgrounds where parents are battling unsuccessfully with their own prejudice on this topic. A group of straight 15 year old boys fell about laughing when one reported that his mum said she would ‘cut his dick off’ if he ever ‘turned gay’. I waited until they’d recovered before asking them how funny that would be if they really were gay, or how I might have felt if one of my parents had responded to me in such a violent and un-parent like way. Their grins disappeared rapidly. They’d never met a ‘real gay’ before I came out to them in that lesson and they didn’t want me, someone they liked as a teacher and person, to suffer.

So what do the kids say to me? This is the question I get asked most in the course of my work. Bearing in mind I used to do this on a casual basis, my approach varied. Mostly, however, I didn’t tell a class I am a lesbian until half way through a workshop; the mere introduction of the ‘gay’ topic produced delightful and almost compulsory utterances: ‘they all belong in hell…put them on an island and blow them up…I’d knock one out if I saw him’. Most of this venom came from boys.*  I’m so used to this response that I consider it the equivalent of putting on a t shirt reading ‘I’m 100% straight’ – it’s just compulsory ‘proof of heterosexuality’ from young men who consider being gay ultimately the worst thing on earth. So once they’ve detoxed a bit, and I tell them that I am indeed one of those people they want to blow up/shank/pop/insert street violence of choice here, what do they say then? Admittedly, I used to sweat a bit at this point. One 15 year old who was sitting within a few feet of me got up and moved to the back of the room muttering something about ‘catching it’. A move that prompted cries of ‘dickhead’ and motivated one of the most initially homophobic boys to move to his seat: ‘I’ll sit you with you Miss, there’s nothing wrong with you’. Sometimes I don’t need to say anything – they teach each other. That boy later apologised and told me his religion taught him it was contagious.

* I will cover the gender response difference in another blog. Along with lesbians versus gay men in the minds of the young!

For the most part, they laugh a bit, they whisper ‘I TOLD you’ to each other and then they settle down (one pair had actually bet money on whether I was gay or not. Managed to tick the cross curricular links box by discussing the mathematics of betting on something so unpredictable these days). I am very honest and I tell them that it isn’t easy for me to face all of them as strangers and tell them personal information about myself. I tell them it is upsetting when they say they want to hurt people like me (almost always to responses like ‘we wouldn’t hurt you…we don’t mean you’) and when they tell me it isn’t natural or right to be gay, I ask directly for their help: ‘what should I do then; should I marry someone I am not attracted to and pretend? Would you try to hide your skin colour if people around you didn’t like it?’. The debate is endless but it really gets them thinking. Most kids have empathy. A lot of it. And if you appeal to them as a ‘real person’ (a term I hear often as somehow they can’t imagine us as being such) they want to help. By the end of the class, 95% agree that I shouldn’t change and that I should have the same rights as everyone else. Obviously, the responses depend greatly on class, religion and gender. Underneath it all however, the belief is the same: being LGBT must be the worst thing. Ever. Until they meet somebody who is happy, successful and not at all ashamed of their sexual orientation. At this point, the seeds of tolerance are implanted…maybe, just maybe it isn’t worth getting so worked up about. And for the couple of kids squirming in their seats, desperate for this to end as it’s just too close to home, these young people spend the rest of the day, and perhaps their time at school, knowing that it really does get better.

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‘Gay’ is not an insult!

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