Tag Archives: Education

Setting up LGBT+ Networks

It seems to be an LGBT+ week at Hope Counselling and Training. I’m running a basic awareness session at Sheffield Hallam University tomorrow, and I have just come back from my regular slot as facilitator of the LGBT Network at EMFEC.

Today at the Network we reflected on the hows and whys of setting LGBT+ networks up, sharing resources and good practice to make them sustainable, intersectional, and successful in their aim of increasing support for LGBT+ people. I thought I would blog about some of the good practice discussed today. Although we were looking at education, much of this resonates with the community work I have done in many places.

The Benefits

LGBT+ people are at least 5% of the population, and when we take into account their siblings, children, friends and partners the figure of people who may need support around LGBT+ issues is much higher. As more people come out due to increased awareness, we may see these figures rise.

That’s perhaps around 10 per cent of the population who will feel safer and happier if they have support. Safer happier people who are able to be open and feel supported are more likely to achieve, are more likely to stay with their course or in their job, be more productive, be more able to participate in a team.

Happy, included people is not just good for morale, it’s good for business. 

Why “LGBT+”?

wordcloudThe graphic to the right demonstrates just a fragment of the global diversity of terms used for people who diverge from common experience in terms of gender or romantic and sexual orientation.

It’s impossible to pin down an umbrella term that truly covers this diversity, and all these words tell unique stories of individual experiences. Even when we use one term, it can mean different things to different people – to one person, lesbian might simply mean “attracted to women” – to another, it may tell a complicated story about politics, sexuality and relationship with gender.

At one time we kept adding more letters, and ended up with terms like LGBTIQA, or QUILTBAG, but no term will ever encompass everything, and so we seem to have settled on LGBT+. I hope that we can be expansive in our approach, and consider, for instance, bi people, asexual people, intersex people (who want to be included), and people who come from other cultures and use other terms and approaches.

It’s no good just saying LGBT+ and then talking about same sex relationships and that’s it. We need to think about the full diversity of relationships people can have with each other, and with gender itself.

Why “Intersectional”?

Hopefully, the word intersectional, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, is catching on. If you’re new to it, here is Kimberlé’s TED talk on the subject. Essentially, she is saying that our multiple identities cannot be separated out but are woven through us in ways that complicate each other. sabahSabah Choudrey (pictured left), queer and trans, British South Asian, and a practising Muslim, talks about this in their superb TED talk.

When we try to separate out different “diversity strands” people often feel alienated, unable to bring all of themselves into a space, or unclear whether they quite fit the label on the door. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, an amazing writer and thinker (who has also, sadly, said some problematic things about trans people), calls this “The Danger of a Single Story”. Her own mistakes reflect rather well the problem that even when someone is a wise champion of diversity and difference, it’s still possible to make mistakes about groups they have less connection to.

The Issues with LGBT+ Groups and Networks

Groups will take on a life that revolves around a few naturally dominant people or be propelled forward based on a couple of “doers”. Groups ebb and flow in membership as people leave and arrive. The longer they go on, the more cliquey they can become, and the harder it is for new people to feel a sense of belonging. Groups can stagnate and begin to fizzle as people move on.

And, of course, groups often reflect the hierarchies that exist in society, so that the people who are most in the centre or in control of what’s happening are often a reflection of, for instance, the kinds of faces most likely to show up in parliament or senior management.

The images below show some of the many other challenges our Network considered.

challenges.jpg

Building in Intersectionality & Sustainability Principles

Often groups just “happen” because a (usually very put upon) LGBT+ staff member has been asked to or wants to “do something” for LGBT+ students, or because an LGBT+ student with a bit of personal resource wants a group to happen. This organic approach is good in that it isn’t too rigid, but it has its pitfalls, if some thought doesn’t go into the design from day 1.

In my training I use a “web model” to talk about the hidden threads of social support some people get in life and others miss out on. We all have some threads holding us (hopefully) but in other ways some of us may find ourselves dangling precariously. For instance, if a trans student finds their identity constantly undermined through deadnaming and misgendering, no matter how unintentional that is, they will find themself feeling much less socially supported than somebody not experiencing this.

My “web model” is a way of looking at the psychological impact of this lack of social support for some individuals where their life on the margins removes a lot of the supports many of us take for granted. Consciously building new threads to marginalised people is the best remedy, and for this to work, it takes both awareness and creativity.

Follow these steps for success

You’ve got the will to do something? Fabulous! But let’s take some steps to make a structure that works for everyone. This list is not prescriptive, but it might help get things right from the start

1. Anonymous survey

First, consult. And given how hard LGBT+ people are to locate, this probably means doing an anonymous survey.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to survey your staff and/or student population via email, social media, and survey cards. You can find out; who would like support but is scared of coming to a group; what kind of support do they need; what are the specific issues they face; what access needs do they have; how many LGBT+ students, or relatives of LGBT+ people, there are (great for justifying time and budgets to the bean counters); what other demographics these students belong to; and which of them would be interested in coming forward as peer mentors and volunteers.

NB: I cannot stress this enough – make sure you are competent about LGBT+ monitoring questions and language before proceeding, and get a second, knowledgeable person to check the survey’s wording.

2. Create an inclusion policy and some ground rules/constitution

Use a sample document from another organisation and allow members to influence and develop it. Make sure that if a resource is going to be created, it is designed from the very start to be fully inclusive. Our local Trans Space Notts and Notts Trans Hub guidelines are one example of a co-created set of guidelines for inclusive working.

Make it people’s job to action inclusion, by welcoming new members, by learning about access needs they may not have themselves, by actively promoting the importance of difference over sameness.

Stress a compassionate approach which is continually learning – it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s vital to learn from them.

3. We are all allies

There is often some discussion about whether to include allies in these networks, but it is essential to include them somehow for two reasons. The first is that allies can often be not yet out LGBT people testing the water, and these can be people at their most vulnerable.

The second is that we cannot have a fully “safe space” where everyone within “understands” just because they are LGBT+ because the community is just too diverse. We need to make spaces as safe as we can through policy and ground rules.

Everyone will have stuff to learn, and everyone is a potential ally to other members of the community as well as a person in need of allies. Staff members and older students, by virtue of being older, are no longer subject to the specific issues affecting LGBT+ young people, so they too can act as allies even if they are LGBT+ themselves.

A fantastic young person friendly video on the ground rules of allyship can be found here.

So, we need to recruit allies and encourage them to take on some of the heavy lifting involved in making the world a better place for LGBT+ people. Things they can do? Challenge stuff, make the effort to learn more about sections of the community, raise support and awareness through actions.

One ally might do fundraising for badges that read “Support Trans Students” or “LGBT Allies” and encourage people to wear them and engage with what it takes to be an ally (just wearing a badge isn’t enough, but little things can spark bigger things!). Another ally might make a point of learning about disability inclusion, or to understand more about trans people. Another might support a campaign for gender neutral toilets, and do some of the admin and legwork for this (in full consultation with those most affected, of course!).

This doesn’t mean LGBT+ people should never be able to meet alone without straight allies present. It’s important they have that option and that their needs are always centred if LGBT+ is the support issue in that space.

4. Diversify your approach

This is why networks are better than groups; because a one size fits all solution is never going to work for everyone. A “web approach” of creating supportive resources that can reach as many individuals directly as possible is what is needed, preferably a web that helps create supportive threads from each person to others, rather than top-down processes that all rely on the same thread.

Hopefully your institution will have the following:

  • An anonymous contacting system for people to reach out for the first time.
  • Staff and students with rainbow lanyards or badges signalling “you can talk to me about LGBT+ issues” – only useful, though, if they have done some basic awareness training on LGBT+ diversity, and have listening skills.
  • Visible signs of LGBT+ friendliness in the form of flags, posters etc.
  • Contact emails for meet ups.
  • Some sort of social media presence
  • A varied approach to setting up spaces, so that we don’t get one, crystallised group that not everyone accesses – for instance, you could have meets with and without allies, inter-year meets and year meets, meets for trans and non-binary students, meets for BAME LGBT+ people and so on as needed.
  • Available resources – a good LGBT+ page on the website that signposts to local community resources and those within the college, including a clearly marked and well stocked library LGBT+ section and links to online resources for those not brave enough to pick up a book or leaflet in person.
  • Communication lines with local community groups and services, and with university LGBT+ societies.
  • Well consulted and visible policies and initiatives to tackle LGBT+ discrimination and hate.
  • Ally recruitment initiatives and promotions such as Stonewall’s No Bystanders pledge

5. Safety First

Sadly, we still live in a world where LGBT+ people are at risk of violence, where they can be estranged from family and community, where they are more vulnerable to exploitation, where there is still an enhanced risk of suicide due to stigma and marginalisation. Acceptance is highly variable and cannot be predicted based on class, religion, ethnicity, or other generalised assumptions but varies from family to family, community to community and postcode to postcode.

Good support is proven to help with these issues, however it’s important to consider the following:

  • A public or publicised venue may “out” students or deter attendance.
  • Ensure confidentiality among members and peer supporters but be clear this has limits if someone is at risk.
  • Remember communicating risk issues to family or accidentally outing a student may in fact increase the risk.
  • Accept a young person is more likely to disclose risk to a peer. While it may be tempting to block peer relationships for fear of safeguarding issues going undetected, removal of peer support does not make talking to staff more likely (in fact, the opposite is true – people who talk to one person about an issue are more likely to then tell someone else). Instead, ensure peer mentors have an appropriate understanding of safeguarding, and someone to talk to in confidence themselves.
  • Be aware that in some tighter knit communities there may be more risk of a student being “outed” to relatives.

 

This is just a snapshot of the today’s discussion at the EMFEC LGBT+ Network. To be part of the ongoing conversation, email EMFEC  or give me a call to discuss cost effective, tailor made training for your organisation.

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Working with trans students – top tips

Much of the trans awareness/cultural competence training I do is in educational settings – schools, colleges and universities. Last week I found myself at EMFEC training staff from a number of institutions alongside the impressive and trans-famous Lee Gale. My job was to take the afternoon slot and help the assembled professionals think about best practice.

My background as a school and university counsellor gives unique insight into the impact of structures and practices on trans students.

I promised the attendees I would pull together what we had learned into a “10 tips” document for education similar to the one I did for the workplace. Here is that document in handy pdf poster format, and below I give a more in-depth look at these recommendations:

10 tips - students10 tips for working with trans students

Thanks to all the professionals present who got involved in the exercise to consider the needs of trans students , and to Lee for live Tweeting the whole thing. Here are my 10 tips in full:

1. Education, Education, Education

Or more precisely, training. Cultural competence takes work, and without cultural competence, people will either blunder badly (unconscious incompetence) or walk on eggshells (conscious incompetence). Trans lives are not well known about and there is a lot of misinformation out there. As always, go to credible sources and promote knowledge in any way you can. Remember, harm can be done through well meaning ignorance. But even trans people know we can never know everything – we are all still learning.

See my website for some signposts to resources.

The Gender Unicorn from TSER is a good way to start a conversation
The Gender Unicorn from TSER is a good way to start a conversation

Recommendation 1: Mandatory training for all staff (because not all trans students will be known to you) and governors. Gender variance talked about competently and in a non-pathologising way in classes such as PHSE, psychology and sociology. Intersex conditions learned in biology. Trans people visible – on posters, in the curriculum, books in the library.

2. Celebrate trans people and gender variance

A celebratory culture challenges all its assumptions about gender and applauds those who see things differently.  It makes space for people to be different. Trans people are only a “problem” if we don’t accommodate them, and trans kids only have a frighteningly high suicide rate because of the way society treats them.

Lee Gale Tweets: "'Some kids aren't suicidal because they're trans. They're suicidal because it's hard to be trans in this society.' @Sam_R_Hope @emfec_team"
Lee Live Tweeted my talk

Recommendation 2: 

Celebrate anything that challenges gender stereotypes and remember to talk about the trans community during LGBT History month. Share words and images of how gender and gender variance is expressed differently in different cultures across the world.

[Image: 3 Indian Hijiras in traditional female attire]
In India, Hijiras lost many rights after colonisation, but they have fought to regain them
3. Reduce gender segregation

[image: a person stagd in front of gender segregated toilet doors. The sign on the gents reads "get beat up", the sign on the ladies reads "get yelled at"]Trans girls, (assigned male at birth but living as girls), should be allowed to use girls toilets (and vice versa) if they want to, and it would be discriminatory to prevent them. However, gender segregation remains a headache for trans people, causing untold anxiety – particularly for non-binary trans people, but not only for them. Research also shows that emphasising sex differe[image: a gender neutral restroom sign with picture of a toilet]nces can lead to girls under-performing.

Recommendation 3: Reduce segregation as much as possible. With sports, toilets, dress codes and roles there are often ways around the traditional way of doing things. Don’t wait for a trans or non-binary student to show up before you make those changes, because they will benefit everyone and undermine sexism.

4. Be conscious of what story your language tells

The papers tell stories of trans women who “used to be men”, of “sex change” and “having the op”. People often fixate on what is between trans people’s legs and possible medical changes we might make, rather than who we are and how we experience the world. Medicine and psychology treat being trans like an illness that has to be cured. For most trans people, these are narrow and inaccurate stories about a complex and varied experience.

It’s important to allow people to use different words to express their experience of gender without recoiling from “all these labels”. The more stories we hear, the more nuance we allow, the better we will understand.

Lee Gale Tweets: Labels can be important - 'they are the way we tell our stories.' @Sam_R_Hope @emfec_team

Recommendation 4: Be aware of the diversity of language, stories and experience that exist within the trans community. Learn what language hurts or fails to describe trans people. Gender neutral language is a must; find alternatives to expressions like “boys and girls”. Assume nothing about the gender of the person/group you are addressing. Here’s my handy trans language guide.

5. Don’t “out” trans people

Never assume that a trans person wants their trans status to be shared, and that “outing” them may cause harm, as well as contravening legislation. Students may be “out” in some parts of their life but not in others – to family but not to school, or vice versa.

Recommendation 5: Be clear with a trans student exactly what they want shared and with whom. Consider ways in which they could be accidentally outed – e.g. in letters home. Ensure historic name changes and other details do not resurface to expose transitioned students. Know your duties under equality and data protection law.

6. Use inclusive admin systems

Some admin systems are the bane of trans peoples lives: Boxes that ask us sex rather than gender; options that are limited to male or female; insistence on titles (even though these are not legally necessary); and systems that make it difficult or impossible to change our names. These are not small issues because they continually invalidate who we are.

[example of bad practice: options to selct one of the following: male, female, transgender]
Click on the image to find out why this is bad practice
6. Recommendation: Use best practice guidance from Scottish Transgender Alliance on monitoring forms and where gender needs to be asked. If a student cannot legally change their name yet, make sure their “known as” name is what is used. If they have a deed poll, this is a legal document and should be accepted. Alert students to potential issues with exams and certificates – think ahead, and draw up protocols.

7. Rethink Safeguarding

Trans young people are extremely vulnerable to bullying and abuse, including sexual abuse. One of the main reasons for this is that social isolation makes it easier for trans people to be victimised – they are less likely to have people looking out for them, less likely to be listened to, more likely to be seen as attention seeking if they try to speak up about something that has happened.

Because of this, it is essential to re-orientate your thinking – stop thinking of trans people as risky, think of them as at risk and centre them. Support, inclusion, and open lines of communication are far better tools for keeping young people safe than mere vigilance.

7. Recommendation: Don’t isolate trans people – encourage them to form peer support groups and have people to talk to, allow trans kids to be accommodated with their identified gender as much as possible. Focus on the known safeguarding risk (high risk of abuse and suicide for the trans person) rather than imagined risk (trans person somehow overcoming their social stigma and marginalisation enough to have the power to harm other students).

8. Zero tolerence for misgendering and transphobia

Transphobia comes in subtle and blatant forms and is sometimes overlooked by people who see being trans as a choice (hint: it’s not). Trans students who get ridiculed, bullied or excluded are not “asking for it”, and are not somehow extra brave and able to cope with stares, slights, insults and violence.[a trans woman being bombarded with misgendering words]

Misgendering can do a lot of harm, even though it is mostly unintended. Examples are referring to a group that includes a trans boy as “girls”, using incorrect pronouns and gendered words about a person. Though it may seem harmless, it indicates to the trans person the way someone else is thinking about them is at odds with the way they see themself. This undermines the trans person’s sense of self, particularly for non-binary people who have little recognition. As it happens time after time, it can be very damaging.

Recommendation 8: Set a continuous tone of accepting and including trans people, even if trans students are not visible. Act swiftly in response to any transphobia, don’t let it slide. Actively correct any misnaming or misgendering – if it’s you, apologise and move on quickly. Don’t make a big deal about it.

9. Use a person-centred approach

It’s all too easy to make assumptions about what is right for someone else, but really we are all the experts on our own lives, and trans people are no exception. When we think we know better than trans people we make the fatal mistake of thinking our lack of understanding is caused by a flaw in their thinking rather than a flaw in our understanding.

Remember also that trans people may be dealing with multiple issues – a higher incidence of autism, a higher incidence of mental health issues due to trauma, isolation and abuse, as well as all the other things people have to deal with in life. To misquote Dr Stephen Shore, if you’ve met one trans person, you’ve met one trans person.

Lee Gale Tweets: Best practice 11. Person centred approach - include trans people in decisions and solutions to best support them @Sam_R_Hope @emfec_team

Recommendation 9: Listen. Take the time to find out what feels safe and comfortable to the trans person. Don’t make assumptions, and don’t assume you know better.

10. No Gatekeeping

It is unbelievably hard to get treatment as a trans person, despite the fact that overwhelmingly the evidence indicates treatment for those that want it (not all do) is beneficial. This is particularly true for trans children.

Once a trans person gets to a gender clinic, they will still have a very long wait and face a lot of “gatekeeping”. During this wait, some may be suffering as their hormones change their body in ways they don’t want. Extra delays can cause real harm.

Let trans people, including kids, do their thing; it is likely to be harmful to put extra barriers in their way, or be resistant, disbelieving or disapproving. Some trans people experiment with identity before hitting the right formula – that’s okay too, there should be room for diverse self-expression and exploration. It’s healthy.

Lee Gale Tweets: Best practice 12. Most important if you ask me - Respect that trans people know their own minds & identities @Sam_R_Hope @emfec_team

Recommendation 10 : Just allow the trans person to live as they want to live, and make the necessary referrals as quickly as possible. Unless you’re a highly qualified expert on trans people, it is probably best not to make your own judgement about them or try to intervene in the process they are undergoing.