Out of the tick box and into the grey…move over darlings we’re 50 shades of gay – celebrating LGBT month, diversity, sexuality and pondering the consequences of silence.

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Lucy Meadows a primary school teacher from Lancashire underwent gender transition in the latter half of last year. Regardless of the fact that she was supported by her employer, she was the subject of vigorous press interest after a letter written by the headteacher of St Mary Magdalen’s C of E primary school in Accrington just before Christmas was leaked to the media. Her case had been the subject of great press attention most notably from Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn who authored the since been edited  but none the less still vile article which personally attacks Ms Meadows citing ‘’He’s not only in the wrong body … he’s in the wrong job” in an attempt to suggest that LGBT are a poor example to children.

On the 19th of March Lucy Meadows was found dead after an apparent suicide, three months after starting to live and work as a woman. Lucy was 32 years old when she died.

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I really don’t enjoy having to define my sexuality to other people.  Why?  because I’ve often found it hard to define myself. I hated having to tick a box, to say I was definitely this or that when I had an idea that sexuality like many other things in life could fluctuate. That it changed over the life course.  I could never find the manual that would specifically tell me what was exactly heterosexual or bi-sexual or lesbian. If I kissed a girl or was intimate did it mean I was a lesbian? Or bi-sexual? or experimental? or drunk? How many would it take to fulfil any of these categories? How recent would they need to be? Would it make a difference if it was love or just sex? And why the need for definitions anyway – isn’t being happy in your relationship the measure? Then I got to thinking about male partners. If I went out with a guy who wore eyeliner, nail varnish and tights would I be fooling myself because he was actually gay? Or maybe he was just experimental? Or simply had a deep appreciation for quality cosmetics and hosiery? Was there something wrong with me if I decided I was not uncomfortable with this anyhow? Surely a lot of our underlying views on sexuality and gender are every much socially constructed anyway? Right?

I thought I was alone with this and didn’t really make any efforts to define myself or think about it until recently a few things made me change my mind.  I watched this brilliant video by artist and photographer Tillett Wright whose work to photograph the gay community in New York ran into problems when she found that many others like herself found it hard to define precisely her changing sexual and gender identity, as she experienced tendencies for girls and boys and has lived as both a girl and a boy. Her TED talk sets out some great evidence as to why many of us are actually ‘50 shades of gay’ or situated somewhere on this huge spectrum which is complex and changing.

Soon after, during February it was LGBT month in Bristol and being a person who loves to hear stories I toddled along to Mshed – who were presenting a ‘groundbreaking exhibition by Outstories Bristol, revealing the hidden histories of Bristol’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities through images, artworks, oral history and memorabilia’ from this I learnt the terrific struggle that those in the LGBT community in Bristol had previously had, the stories were warm and human but also illustrated the persecution and exclusion that many people had to face even as recently as 15-20 years ago. Ujima radio also had a feature during the run up to the LGBT month where I met prolific Bristolian transgender sci-fi writer Cheryl Morgan who discussed her experiences as well as her favourite books.

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However the most affecting experience and the one that will stay in my mind was in fact a theatrical one. Except that the stories being performed were real stories. Not fictional.  Tom Marshman is an artist based in Bristol. He actively encourages a dialogue with audiences and participants aiming to create a safe space to share their thoughts and experiences. The results give very evocative authentic glimpses into everyday things. His recently performed work ‘Move over darling’ was made ‘through a process of engagement with participants from Bristol and the surrounding area. The performance had a direct relationship to participants’ personal accounts. The project allows an under-represented community to tell their social history which is often ignored due to political or social constraints and legislation. This enables this community to tell their story that has been previously unavailable to them and explore the diversity of their community The project aims to locate this work within the Bristol area’s familiar and everyday locations helps to transform and create multi-layered signifiers [emotional and historic] of building and places to the participants. For example bars where liaisons took place. Courts cases for acts of ‘indecency’ and pilgrimages to Greenham Common’

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The experience started with a gesture and a selection of small objects  on the staircase at Bristol Old Vic then took us on a journey around the streets breathing life back into the old city as  buildings seem to once again glow with the vibrancy and richness of human experience from days gone by. The storytelling was  warm, engaging, full of strength, vulnerability, sincerity and sherry infused elegance whilst revealing how the social context has changed for the older LGBT community, how prejudice and ignorance was experienced and also the impact of HIV and the sadness of loss.

At the final location The Milk Bar we were transported through time and space through a number of now seemingly blurred stories, music from different eras, a song, as we heard tales of love, laughter, sexual experiences, secrets and confessions. Previously invisible triumphs, struggles and experiences of the older LGBT community were made visible through the performance. A lampshade stands at the end of a bar, tables that seemed to float, the sound of a hammer struck 5 times, a flying brick, a song, a face turned away from a wall. Denim.

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The stories certainly opened my eyes and mind to the experiences of the older LGBT community. It also illustrated how art and performance is a great medium for overcoming preconceptions and general lack of awareness about certain social issues. Given all of these experiences collectively I felt that I was perhaps less afraid than I was to approach the issue of LGBT culture and identity or even to think about the context.  To give consideration to different or new experiences and gain an appreciation of multiplicities and complexities. To honour the bravery of those who had shared such experiences and were often subject to negative treatment throughout their lives. To gain an understanding, or as Tillet Wright suggests to ‘spark empathy’.

So I could have skipped over the whole sexuality issue. Just ignored it on principle, but seeing such articles in the press from journalists such as those involved in the tragic case of Lucy Meadows and thinking about the evidence I’ve heard through the performance I changed my mind. I now think that anyone, no matter how ‘grey’ they think they may be – if they could they should say so.  Only by broadening out the tick boxes, abolishing the categories and revealing the true honesty and depth of human experience we will be able to begin to make moves towards a truly equal society. By taking away the certainty and letting go of definitions and preconceptions we will be able to make sexuality and gender a place for play, discovery, union, celebration and ultimately a better understanding of ourselves and others regardless of pursuit or persuasion.  With the case of Lucy Meadows in mind, it becomes essential we ask the question – who is responsible for equality? But the implications of the answer is even greater – because we all are.

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2 responses to “Out of the tick box and into the grey…move over darlings we’re 50 shades of gay – celebrating LGBT month, diversity, sexuality and pondering the consequences of silence.

  1. Again, Miss Webber, you make me think….

    When I was at university one of the ‘gay bars’ or as I prefer to call them, bars, I used to frequent was run by a lovely couple in their 60s. Two lovely ladies who had been together for what seemed to be an eternity and were an inspiration. The difficulties they faced in the past paved the way to making my life easier today and for that I will always be truly thankful.

    Box ticking and employment…well, you got me thinking….the only job I have been truly happy in is one where there was no box ticking when I went for the job. I was selling cars, a job I wasn’t really sure of but took because the mortgage needed to be paid. It is the only job where I have been truly me. Every member of staff I worked with knew I was a lesbian and for that 18 months I was just myself and was so happy. Ironically this was also in an environment where political correctness was a word of make believe. Yes, 99% of people accepted my sexuality, but 1% took the mick – fine, I can give as good as I get.

    Sensible head took a step back behind a desk, to do a job I had trained for, now only one person knows about my sexuality despite me feeling happy enough to tick lesbian on an HR form. With every new job there is the hurdle of having to come out all over again. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of who I am, but I still feel uncomfortable in the awkwardness of outing myself in an office based environment and I just don’t know why. In environments which are supposed to be ‘PC’ and everybody is tripping themselves up not to offend each other I feel most uncomfortable.

    I have now just been offered another job. This time there were no boxes to tick on the equality form, just a section at the bottom offering whether I would like to add anything about my sexual orientation etc and I did. If I left it blank would there be the presumption that I am straight? If I left it blank is it just going against what people for years have fought for? If I filled it in then at least I was being open with them from the start just in case I experienced any problems. I put myself in a box! That’s just it, I shouldn’t feel the need to declare my sexuality on forms, and I should just be able to be ‘out’ in an office environment with everybody.

    I am leaving a stuffy environment to start work at one of the top 50 UK employers for women and I am looking forward to it. Yes, I will also be looking to mimic my car selling days where everybody knows me for who I am and what I stand for. I could sit here for hours and type stories of discrimination and hate that I have experienced in my life but the fact is that I am what I am and the people and experiences I value most in my life appreciate me regardless.

  2. A great article and a superb video clip.

    For years I have tried to make the case for a an orientation free society. One where the gender of those with whom you choose to be intimate is of no consequence.

    I feel uncomfortable with the notion that my heterosexuality defines me in some way. I have often said that I am only heterosexual because I have not yet found another man attractive enough – leaving alone my teenage arousal during those wrestling matches with male friends, with which I never had a problem, although they never knew about it.

    You would think, given my age, that my teen years were full of oppression and prejudices. Yet, my school friends were more open about their experimentation than any teens would dare to be now. No, I didn’t go to a public school.

    Yes, I think it is important that those who choose to sleep with their own gender or those who change sex should stand up and fight for their right to be treated equal and the rest society should fight with hem. My contention is that they (or should I say WE) shouldn’t have to.

    Well done, again, for a great blog. Keep it up, Amy.

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