My girlfriend and I camped recently in South Wales on the beautiful Gower. Despite the windy weather we had a lovely time. The views were amazing and the facilities were spot on. As well as having heated floors (wow!) the toilet and shower block was all-genders. I’ve done a lot of camping in my time, and don’t recall a campsite ever doing this.
The physical experience of it made me realise what a relief it was to me. My look is somewhat androgynous, and I have been accused of being in the “wrong toilet” on more than one occasion. More common is women checking the door sign as you walk out and they walk in. Or simply receiving long hard stares. My favourite is when kids ask their mum whether I’m a boy or a girl. I didn’t experience any of this on this campsite; it was liberating not bracing myself for anxious looks from others.
My gender identity is somewhat fluid, it doesn’t bother me if a someone in a pub or shop calls me sir. The more common experience is that it bothers them. Recently on a train a ticket conductor thought I was a guy. But when he decided I was a woman he started apologizing, and moved from calling me ‘mate’ to ‘madam’ or something like that. I said I was fine with either – I really am. He couldn’t accept what I was saying. He eventually said “blame it on the glasses” and walked off. I’m not sure whether it was my glasses or his, he was blaming. Either way, as far as I could see (with, or without glasses) the main cause of the discomfort stemmed from the insistence on gender binary.
Gender binary is about the classification of gender into two distinct, opposite forms of masculine and feminine, whether by social system, cultural belief, or both simultaneously (Wiki). However, gender identity and expression for many is not a binary matter. When I turned 30 I decided to shave all my hair off. I spent that day hanging out with my sister. She found me a barber’s in Wimbledon, followed by a make-over in Selfridges. Her line of thinking was that to “retain a bit of a feminine look” some make-up would help. I liked the idea but I’m officially rubbish with make up; mostly it irritates me. The woman doing the make-over got so frustrated and had to give up because my eyes kept watering away her artistic efforts. I was not to be made-over!
Refusing to acknowledge that gender can be more expansive than just man – or just woman – is where the problems can start to arise. Those who don’t conform, can be met by a binary blockade! The morning of my dad’s funeral, I put on my trouser suit and decided I wanted my haircut sharpened up to do the suit justice. My hairstyle at the time was long on top and shaved at the sides. But the sides had grown out a little. I wanted to look my best for my dad, and feel ready for an emotional day. I was staying at my mum’s, and wondered up to the same barbers in Wimbledon who shaved my hair some thirteen years earlier. They took one look at me and refused to cut my hair because it was “men only”. It made me so upset and angry! Why would they not cut my hair?!
Once I’d recovered myself I ventured down to the woman who used to cut my dad’s hair. She thought dad was brilliant and he’d been going to her salon for years. When I told her what I wanted she looked horrified! Women don’t have a grade one! But to her credit, she reluctantly fulfilled my request and refused to take payment in acknowledgement of my Pops. I felt smart and ready to send him off. Along with my brother, brothers in law and cousin I was a pallbearer – fortunately no-one in my family insists on enforcing traditional gender roles.
My stories of rejecting societal expectations of gender, and not conforming, aren’t exactly tragedies, but I do have a lot of them that have caused distress. More worryingly, if you take a moment to look at research about trans experiences such as Stonewall’s LGBT in Britain – Work Report, you will find that one in eight trans people (12 per cent) have been physically attacked by customers or colleagues in the last year because of being trans.
This weekend in Brighton where I live, and am easily able to find someone to shave my hair, it is Trans Pride. Trans Pride Brighton is the first and the largest Trans Pride event outside of America. Putting the T first, by spending a day celebrating trans people. Whilst the UK may often lead the way in LGBTQ+ matters, it is important to know that 15 countries criminalise the gender identity and/or expression of transgender people, using so-called ‘cross-dressing’, ‘impersonation’ and ‘disguise’ laws. In many more countries transgender people are targeted by a range of laws that criminalise same-sex activity and vagrancy, hooliganism and public order offences. The vast majority of these laws originate from British colonial penal codes (Human Dignity Trust).
What can we do to influence our society to make it safer and more inclusive for everyone? Well we can support events such as Trans Pride (in London last weekend, and Brighton this weekend). Even if you don’t attend you can post about it on your social media. You can also make efforts to be trans inclusive in your workplace. You may think you don’t know any trans people, but half of trans people (51 per cent) have hidden their identity at work for fear of discrimination. There are plenty of charities that offer advice, Stonewall has a wealth of resources.
We can also be open and curious to the different way people live their lives and express themselves. I use the term “quirky queer” to encapsulate my gender, my sexuality and neurodiverse tendencies. Try opening up a safe conversation with your friends or work colleagues about identity and see what emerges!