Interview on Gender & Sexual Diversity

I recently did an interview on gender and sexual diversity with the excellent folk at Sheffield Central Counselling.

This seems even more timely now that it’s been published because of the current debates that are going on about whether guidance against gay conversion therapy should be extended to encompass bisexual, trans, and asexual people. I find it very frightening that some people in the therapy profession are arguing against this extension, as if there are circumstances in which it might be appropriate for a therapist to try to change a bi, trans, or asexual person’s sexuality or gender. There is clear evidence both that conversion therapy is far more common in these contexts, and that it is incredibly damaging. I hope that they will see sense and extend the guidance to encompass everyone, not just gay people.

Here’s my interview and a link to where you can read more…

You are a writer, academic, psychotherapist and campaigner for rights in the area of sexual minorities and, especially, gender diversity. Many people have heard of transgender, but can you explain a bit more about gender diversity?

Sure. I guess I like the term ‘Gender and Sexual Diversity’ (GSD) because it gets at the fact that there are a whole range of genders and sexualities beyond the ‘sexual and gender minorities’ that we tend to hear about: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT).

That range includes all the people who are attracted to the same gender who don’t necessarily identify as bisexual or gay (around 50% of young people according to a recent YouGov poll). It also includes all those who are into kink or BDSM, and asexual people who don’t experience sexual attraction. And, as well as trans people (whose gender is different to the one they were assigned at birth), GSD gets at all the people who experience themselves as something other than 100% male or 100% female. That’s around a third of us according to one recent study.

GSD also reminds us that everybody has a gender and a sexuality – not just those of us who are somehow outside of the cultural ‘norm’. In the books that I write about these topics I always make a point of including heterosexuality and cisgender (people who aren’t trans) because those things can also have a big impact on people’s experiences of life. For example, some heterosexual and cisgender people struggle because they feel such a pressure to conform to social expectations of what it means to be a straight guy, or a straight woman, in our culture.

Sometimes people fail to distinguish between gender and sexuality. How can this be problematic? 

Read more…

 

Non-Binary Feminism: The personal is still political

Content Note: There’s mention in this article of the heated debates around feminism and trans, of societal gender inequalities, and of gender-related bullying in schools. I’m using non-binary and genderqueer interchangeably here to mean genders outside of the male/female binary.

PP

Tensions between trans and feminism rarely seem to be out of the news these days. The so-called TERF wars (where TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist) smolder on and on, flaring up again every so often, as with the latest spate of articles about Germaine Greer’s inflammatory comments about trans women. The TERF wars fit well into the tired old media trope of feminist infighting, where conflict between feminists tends to be reported far more than, for example, areas of agreement between feminists, key developments in feminist thought, or campaigns about continued societal gender inequality. Unfortunately this kind of reporting seems to be a rather good way of discrediting feminism and keeping people’s eye off the ball of social injustice more broadly.

Over the last couple of weeks attention has turned to non-binary trans with Laurie Penny’s article on being a genderqueer feminist and Suzanne Moore’s response. This is interesting/challenging timing for me as I agreed to speak to my feminist reading group at work about non-binary gender this week. I had already been wondering what wider debates were likely to be swirling around us as we had our discussion, and how I could articulate my own thoughts clearly through all of that. I decided – as I often do – that blogging about it first might help me to figure out what I wanted to say.

What’s at stake here?

Reading Laurie Penny and Suzanne Moore’s articles helps to get to the heart of some of the deep feeling that’s in play in these discussions. This can aid us in understanding why they become so fraught, and why there can be such a temptation to polarise into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘them’ and ‘us’ – mapping those onto other perceived divisions (e.g. older and younger, authentic and inauthentic, natural and unnatural, etc.)

As I’ve said before, I think it’s useful to recognise the ways in which these kinds of tensions echo and reverberate up and down our multiple levels of experience: in our wider culture, in our communities and organisations, in our interpersonal relationships, and in our internal conversations. I’m struck by the looming, potentially explosive, cloud of emotion which seemed to be present as I read the social media responses to these two articles, and which has also been there each time I’ve been at a feminist event where these kinds of tensions have played out in person. I feel the same roiling, sparking thunderhead settling over one-on-one conversations when these issues come up. Also – like Laurie and Suzanne I suspect – I feel it inside myself as I try to make sense of my own experience of these matters, and to articulate it. This fact was underlined for me by the fact that I just spent 30 minutes staring at my computer screen wondering how to begin the next paragraph!

I think that one of the main things at stake here is the concern that non-binary people – particularly those who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) – are somehow betraying women and/or feminism in their rejection of the category of woman. Laurie explicitly addresses this in their own retaining of the political identity of woman, in additional to her identity as genderqueer (whilst acknowledging that any genderqueer folks who don’t do this are equally legitimate). Jack Monroe – who also recently came out as non-binary – reports that they have been called a ‘traitor to women’. Suzanne hints at the sense of betrayal with her concerns over young ‘sexual tourists’ adopting ‘pick and mix’ and ‘hall of mirrors’ identities. She questions why AFAB genderqueer people could not use identity terms that retain their womanhood (e.g. butch dyke) or recognise that no women feel ‘at one’ with all of what being a woman entails (physically and socially).

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Coming out day: Non-binary gender Q&A

Today is international coming out day. I wasn’t planning to write anything for the occasion because I’m in the extremely fortunate position of already being out about everything about myself that matters. It’s a real privilege that I don’t face any threats to my employment, relationships, or physical or mental well-being for being out about my sexuality, gender, relationships, and emotional struggles.

image

That hasn’t always been the case for me, and it’s also vital to remember that it very much isn’t the case for everyone. Part of the reason that it’s important that people are out about their experiences in these areas (and others) is that it helps to create the circumstances in which it is safer for other people to be open about all that they are too. Nobody should ever be pressured to be out when it doesn’t feel safe enough for them.

However, I have noticed recently that – despite me being open about it – some people seem to struggle to remember, and to understand, my non-binary gender. So here’s a Q&A to make it clearer.

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The future of gender

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here are my thoughts when asked about the future of gender.

I think we’re at a really complex time in relation to that question. The future I would like to see – and there is some evidence of movement towards it – is one where:

  • Gender isn’t such a defining feature (i.e. we’re only interested in it when it’s actually relevant rather than being the first thing we ask or notice about someone);
  • There is a lot more flexibility in what we regard as being male/masculine or female/feminine – as well as realising that many people don’t fit well into either box;
  • There is an understanding that gender is fluid and can be – and is – expressed differently throughout life (e.g. think about how femininity is expressed by a toddler, a teenager, a middle aged woman and and old woman);
  • We get that gender is complexly biopsychosocial – it has all those elements running through it and woven together – so we stop asking about nature vs. nurture and start respecting people’s experience of their own gender as well as acknowledging just what a major part our social rules about gender roles have on people’s bodies and brains.

However, there seem to be constant pushbacks to more rigid and limited ideas of gender, where women and men are seen as being from different planets, and where masculinity and femninity are narrowly defined in specific ways and there is no room for anything between or beyond these two.

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Will gay rights and feminist movements please return to your assumptions

Pride season is upon us and I’ve been struck by the tension that still exists across various Pride events around the B and T parts of the LGBT acronym (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans).

Pride

Two friends attended EuroPride to be on a panel about bisexuality. They reported back how they were faced with the usual stereotypes about ‘making your mind up’ and scepticism about the existence of bisexuality. Another friend attended a Pride London event where the words ‘gay’ and ‘homophobia’ were used throughout by speakers, despite Pride London claiming to be an LGBT+ event.

Other friends attended the London DykeMarch, the week before London Pride, and were met with a protest by a group of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) who shouted transphobic abuse at one of the speakers. The speaker in question has written about this here. Whilst we may well have reached a transgender tipping point – and media representation has certainly improved dramatically in the last few years – trans remains a serious point of contention in some feminist movements, and there is also a good deal of scepticism around non-binary genders now that these are receiving media attention.

I think that this trouble around bisexuality for gay/LGBT+ movements, and around trans and non-binary genders for feminist movements, stems from the same place. Recognising this provides a way forward that will not only be more inclusive for B and T people, but will be better for everybody, if we’re brave enough to do it.

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Non-binary genders

Here’s a talk about non-binary genders that I did at the excellent Pink Therapy conference on trans* earlier this year. Thanks so much to Alex Drummond for her great editing and for getting it up on youtube.

Here are links to the other blog posts I’ve written on this topic:

DIVA article on non-binary gender

Facebook gender explosion

Here is Trans Media Watch’s guide for media on non-binary gender:

TMWNon-Binary

There’s now a great set of resources on non-binary gender over at:

beyondthebinary.co.uk

Including me being interviewed about my own experiences here.

57 genders (and none for me)? Reflections on the new facebook gender categories

February is a pretty busy time for somebody who writes about sex, gender and relationships what with the coinciding of LGBT history month and Valentine’s Day. This year, however, I thought I could rest up a bit on February 14th given that I said everything I wanted to say about the celebration of romantic love last Valentine.

I was wrong. Facebook chose February 14th 2014 to do one of the most exciting things that has happened in the area of gender and social media for a long time. It changed its gender option so that, instead of choosing from ‘male’ and ‘female’, users could pick from a range of over 50 gender terms (listed at the end of this post), as well as choosing to be referred to as ‘they’ if they didn’t want a gendered pronoun (‘he’ or ‘she’).

FacebookOptions

As usual, rather than getting into whether this is a good move or a bad move by Facebook, I am going to ask a different couple of questions which I think are more helpful: What does this change open up, and what does it close down? As with most shifts, what Facebook has done achieves something which is important and useful, but in other ways it is problematic and limited. Reframing the question to what is opened up and closed down gets away from polarised ideas of right and wrong, good and bad. Instead it acknowledges the complexity of the situation and the fact that something can simultaneously expand understanding in some ways and constrain it in others.

If you want to know how to go about changing your own Facebook gender I’ve included a brief guide at the end of this post.

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Pink List – Thank-you

Yesterday I found out that I was included on this year’s Independent on Sunday Pink List. This is a list of the 101 LGBT people who judges considered to ‘make a difference’. I was listed at number 36 for my work with BiUK and The Bisexuality Report in particular.

It was wonderful to be listed alongside other mental health professionals, like Dominic Davies, who have been working in this field so much longer than I have. I’m hoping that my new book – written with Christina Richards – will have a positive impact in this area. It gives therapists, psychologists, counsellors and health professionals good practice guidance about all the diverse genders and sexualities which they are likely to come across in their work, in order to make them more informed and aware.

It was also amazing to be included on a year when so many more trans* and gender non-binary people were included in the list than ever before, including Paris Lees at number 1.

Thanks so much to the people who nominated me and who judged the Pink List this year, and to all the others – who weren’t listed but who deserve it every bit as much as I do – who have worked on all these projects with me.

PinkList

Same Sex Marriage: Opening Up and Closing Down

This year I was invited to 10 Downing Street for a reception celebrating the same-sex marriage act which passed into UK law recently. I felt truly ambivalent about attending the event because I see both highly positive and very negative aspects to this change in the law. So here I want to offer some reflections about possibilities that this shift has the potential to open up, as well as what it risks closing down.

MegJenNo10

Me and Jen Yockney (of BCN) at No.10

Opening up

Clearly the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act does something extremely important in legally accepting that relationships between two people of the same gender are as legitimate as those between two people of different genders. Whilst civil partnerships brought us some way towards this, marriage is the way in which our society currently recognises relationship commitment, so the cultural impact of this on people who love people of the same gender cannot be underestimated.

As David Cameron rightly remarked in his Downing Street address, the potential impact of this on people’s everyday lives is immense. Whilst many lesbian, gay and bisexual people currently experience painful responses from family members when they come out, and even total exclusion from families, the message that same gender romantic relationships are as real and valuable as different gender ones may well help matters a great deal. Parents at such times often express concerns that they have lost the opportunity to see children reach the important social milestones in life such as getting married and having children, and clearly now this is not the case.

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Becoming a woman

This post is also published over on Society Matters, along with another important post: Does feminism still have something to offer.

March 8th marks International Women’s Day with the theme ‘Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures’. I would like to take the opportunity here to celebrate my own favourite feminist, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). I will look back to the past to see if what she had to say about gender still holds today, and what her theories might mean for the kinds of futures that we want to inspire – for girls and for everyone.

One is not born, but rather one becomes, a woman.

Perhaps the most famous quote from de Beauvoir’s writing on gender, The Second Sex, is this one. Here she is arguing, from autobiographical experience and from the available evidence at the time, that the things associated with womenhood (such as being passive, concerned with appearance, childlike and in need of protection, and wanting to care for others) are imposed upon women by society rather than being innate characteristics they are born with.

Current understandings of gender view it – like so much of human behaviour – as a complex biopsychosocial interweaving rather than something that can be simplistically put down to ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’. Gender theory alerts us to the diversity of possible gendered identities and roles available, whilst emphasising the limited patterns of masculinity and femininity which we are pushed to repeat and repeat until they feel ‘natural’. Biological findings on neuroplasticity reveal that the likely underlying brain processes are neural pathways which are strengthened by such repetitions. So we could say that gendered identity is a process of narrowing down from the possibilities which are available at birth.

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