Updated: Aug 8
Welcome back to our series of panel events discussing how best to ensure safe and respectful spaces for all. Held on 15th July 2022, our panel explored gender-based approaches to safety as members of the LGBTQIA+ community. This month our panel promoted understanding and acceptance of gender, romantic, and sexual minorities with a particular emphasis on youth and trans people – currently the most vulnerable groups to prejudice, hate, and systemic persecution – and ensuring their safety.
Our panel included:
Elijah Austin Murray (he/they), a gay non-binary trans man and social media assistant at Mind Marvels
Maddie Reid (they/them), a non-binary PhD student
Debay DeLux (she/her), a pansexual cis woman and tattoo artist
Edward Reid (he/him), a gay cis man and happiness and well-being coach
Sheila Drysdale (she/her), a life coach who doesn’t attach herself to one specific label but is a woman who has relationships with women
Our hosts Heather Offord (she/her) and Laura Maginess (she/her), directors of One4Growth and Glasglow Girls Club respectively
The fight for bodily autonomy
Maddie first brought up this point in relation to recent political events in the United States, with the Supreme Court overturning of Roe vs Wade, legislation which guaranteed the constitutional right to have access to safe, legal abortion. Maddie tied this with the struggles that trans people are facing too in trying to secure the right to bodily autonomy within healthcare: ‘What’s making me feel unsafe is the fact that across the Atlantic in the US, our bodies are being legislated, regulated, and criminalised. And I think that structural oppression is what makes me feel unsafe psychologically, and it makes me worry about the future. It’s not just about reproductive rights, it’s about who has access to safe and inclusive healthcare, and healthcare that respects people’s bodily autonomy. […] We need to be forming alliances. Anyone who tries to pit “women’s rights” against trans rights are unfortunately misinformed. We all need our bodily autonomy to be respected and we rely on healthcare systems, and [so] we need them to be safe and inclusive’ (18:08-1906).
Elijah later spoke about their experience trying to access healthcare, who having been referred to an NHS gender clinic in May 2019, is yet to have a first appointment (~36:20). Attempts to dismantle free, safe, and inclusive healthcare will affect vulnerable groups the most, including pregnant people and trans people in need of gender-affirming treatment.
Each panellist spoke of their experiences feeling unsafe due to intolerance, discrimination, harassment, and hateful violence. Edward told his own story: ‘I didn’t feel safe if the word “gay” was mentioned in my company because I thought everyone was looking at me because they all knew. There was just a lot of shame attached to being gay when I was younger. […] I’ve always felt shame around the word “gay”, or if it was on television. […] I remember being in primary seven or primary six, and I saw two guys that I went to school with and I waved to them like that [Edward waves enthusiastically], and on Monday they were like, “You wave like a poof, what were you doing that for?” [… So] I’ve always tippy-toed around things. Even being at a party one night, and two guys must have sensed I was gay and asked me, and I said no I wasn’t, because I was scared in case I got beat up. So I was embarrassed, I was ashamed of myself for not speaking my truth, but in that moment, I had to do what I felt was right to keep myself safe.’ (20:37-21:53).
For Edward, however, he does feel the tide has turned for gay men in Scotland, but admits there is a long way to go in other countries and for other members of the LGBTQIA+ community: ‘I’m very lucky because the way gay men are represented in the media and television now is celebrated. I am a performer and I host events and it’s mainly straight couples that go to these events, and straight women. I feel completely safe to be as flamboyant and camp as possible, so I feel very safe now, whereas a few years ago I didn’t. […] The media is such a big influence on us, and if you’re watching something that’s happening in America [such as the overturning of Roe vs Wade], the way your brain works it’ll give you that fight or flight or freeze mode watching that, and you do have stress. […] When you hear about the way gay men are treated in Russia, that terrifies me. It’s not here but it’s scary to see that gay men don’t have any rights in Russia because it’s me, I identify with that’ (22:11-23:15). He later added: ‘we don’t see [non-binariness and transness] represented positively in the media’ (~42:00).
Sheila relayed her perspective coming from an older generation, and the atmosphere of illegality and silence that defined her experience as a gay woman in the 1980s: ‘Such was the atmosphere in the ‘80s with Section 28* with being out with a woman in my second relationship, and I was going out with somebody who was a minister’s daughter who hadn’t told her parents, and my first partner blackmailed me for money because she was going to tell her parents that she was gay and in order to protect her, I paid quite a lot of money. […] There was also a political agenda with Section 28 which affected me greatly at work. I do remember a physical thing of feeling unsafe, with a rather aggressive client in his own house, who put me up against the wall by my throat and called me “an effing lesbian”. I was quite pleased how I got out of that situation: he was a Rangers supporter, so I said “I thought you would be more bothered that I support Celtic”, and he let me go and took me off the wall, and I got out of there sharpish. But that was an environment I had to go into’ (23:51-25:07).
*Section 28 was legislation put in place by the Conservative Party that banned the “promotion” and, in reality, mere mention of homosexuality in public institutions. It was in place until 2003 in Scotland.
Sheila also spoke off working with young people, and how she was completely paranoid about being seen to “encourage” homosexuality because of Section 28, forcing her to be in the closet at work and having to create a more distanced relationship with the young people she worked with.
Interestingly, Sheila spoke about the discrimination that occurred within the gay community itself, with limited possibilities of gender expression for gay women which meant some lesbians were excluded for wearing lipstick of presenting femininely. ‘I think there’s more liberty to do that now, but before, even in my own community, it didn’t seem like there was that kind of freedom to make a choice [about how you presented]’ (27:54-28:04).
Safety for young LGBTQIA+ people
Elijah countered that although progress has been made, renewed fear and issues have cropped up acutely for trans people. ‘I still don’t feel safe and I feel like we’ve got so much more progress to make. Right now, in the UK, with trans rights, I don’t feel protected and I don’t feel safe. I think we’re going to continue to be targeted, particularly by exclusionists and TERFs [trans exclusive radical feminists] […] because of people like J. K. Rowling. She really attacks trans people for simply existing and saying we’re all predators and we’re trying to infringe on women’s rights. […] She has a lot of influence, and influence in government as well, who are not taking our issues seriously. I don’t feel safe. My mum worries for me whenever I walk out the door’ (30:14-31:43). ‘’
Further, the kinds of issues that Edward identified in his past is still happening to Elijah today. ‘There was a time where I was on a train home and there was a guy talking to me, and he misgendered me, but I wasn’t going to correct him. As Edward brought up, it’s about your own interest in safety. I wish I could have said, “actually, I go by he/him and he/they pronouns”, but because I didn’t know his views […]. He was being really nice, but it could have changed in an instant’ (31:45-32:14).
Debay agreed: ‘I feel safer now, but obviously I’m aware young people don’t, and it’s the same story. I have eighteen-year-olds coming in here and they’re going through the same stuff that we went through, so it’s not enough’ (40:12-25).
Elijah later noted the failure for the UK government to include trans people in legislation that banned conversion therapy. ‘How are we supposed to feel safe when the people who are supposed to keep us safe are actively not keeping us safe?’ (33:26-34). Maddie added that Boris Johnson’s excuse for doing so was because he was considering women’s safety ‘as if he’s ever given a single care about women’s safety before this point. I think that we need to be really sceptical of people who use that argument because they use “feminism” as a stick to beat trans people with. And we need to be weary, because they don’t have cis women’s interests at heart’ (33:45-34:06). Elijah agreed: ‘Feminism is about including everyone […] If we don’t feel safe, how can women feel safe? Because we’re fighting the same battle [against men in power]’ (~34:15 & ~34:50).
Elijah spoke of friends who had been egged in Edinburgh, and having to have a conversation with a friend across the Atlantic to discourage them from moving the UK, where they thought they would be more accepted. ‘I had someone say to me, a friend who lives in Texas who’s trans, “I might move to the UK” and I had to say, “Look, don’t. Because as one trans person to another, it’s not safe. […] I know it’s not safe where you are, but it’s not safe here either.” (35:30-50). Maddie supported Elijah’s assessment: ‘There’s been trans people who have managed to seek asylum – moving away from the UK – managed to seek asylum in other countries because they are trans, because they’ve been so discriminated against [in the UK]’ (35:58-36:09). (You can read that story here).
Elijah explained the generational difference: ‘We [trans people] symbolise progress and change, and a lot of people don’t like that’ (46:25-30). He speculated that this is why the older generation of panellists felt safer now, as they’ve been paved the way for certain forms of acceptance – such as for gay people – but trans people represent an even bigger shift in sexual and gender freedom.
Debay felt that because young people are so vulnerable, and often more aware of these issues thanks to the internet, that education would be best geared towards older generations, who missed out on the exposure to LGBTQIA+ issues: ‘Education for young people is fine, but those young people go home at night, and if the home environment is toxic or homophobic, then that’s going to unravel. When you’re very young, you listen to your parents. […] I think we should be talking about the experiences, how hard it’s been, how horrible it is, how upsetting it is to be treated this way. I think that needs to be brought into education, and I think parents [and caregivers] need to be included’ (50:58-51:36). Maddie fully agreed: ‘Having a gender-affirming household or a supportive household saves lives. I read a stat, from a 2016 study, and it showed that LGBTQ youth whose families affirm their gender identity or sexual orientation are more than 50% less likely to make an attempt to end their own life. Obviously this is a huge problem for young people who are LGBTQ+: suicide, addiction, and homelessness as well. In Scotland, 24% of young people who are homeless are LGBTQ. So if we can foster that acceptance, it will save lives’ (53:33-54:19).
The benefits and drawbacks of labels
Our panel had differing views to offer on the benefits and drawbacks of using labels to describe gender and sexuality. Sheila, who works for neuro-diverse young people, felt that labels could be used to describe difference in all its facets: ‘I respect those who want to take [those labels] forward and to promote awareness amongst people of all the differences [e.g., race, sexuality, gender, neurology] but I just think there are a lot of other areas where it would be useful too’ (12:39-55).
Elijah stood up for his own inclination towards using multiple labels to describe their identity: ‘I had a unique experience growing up being online, and there’s where all these labels accumulated […] because people were sharing their experiences and the language developed’ (13:42-14:06). They continued: ‘When I came out as trans, I didn’t quite know all these things, because I was never taught in school, I was never taught until I took the lead on educating myself […], never really realising that I could be transgender until I met another transgender person of my age. Labels are important because it brings people together and helps people understand each other’ (14:13-44). For Elijah, the word ‘trans’ helped him not only understand himself, but other people too.
Elijah promoted education as a solution to others’ confusion about what all these labels mean: ‘I’m a non-binary trans man, which is confusing for a lot of people just to say that, I understand. That’s why I usually say I’m a trans man for the most part, and go by he/they mostly, to appease other people who are confused. But I realised that’s not where I want to be. I want to be able to have my labels and do what I do without having to confuse other people, which is why education is important about these labels’ (15:39-16:06). Maddie agreed, noting their own difficulty explaining their own pansexuality, as well as their partner’s non-binariness, to their family, who are otherwise very supportive of gay rights. The result is that Maddie was forced to return to the closet, and is yet to come out to their parents about their own non-binariness. They explained: ‘It’s difficult when you’re in those almost in-between identities, or those identities that aren’t as well-known as gay or lesbian’ (~44:40).
Sheila agreed, thinking back on her experience of living in a world that silenced and erased the existence of LGBTQIA+ people: ‘I came out when there wasn’t internet, but also, I didn’t know what “gay” was. I knew I was attracted to women, […but] there were no role models, there were rumours about Joan Armatrading and Valerie Singleton on Blue Peter and that was about all. […] There was no mention in any published thing that was freely available of homosexuality’ (16:12-55).
Debay, who is pansexual, notes that she felt a lack of acceptance from both her own community and from heterosexual men, though they tended to take different forms: ‘If I met a man, or a boy at the time, they would sexualise that, and it was horrible, especially because I looked femme. There was a long time where I didn’t tell anybody anything, because I didn’t want sexualised. I didn’t want men to go, “prove it then”, other horrible things. I also found a lot of the same stuff that Sheila touched on in the LGBTQIA community; I was erased a lot by women. They would look at me and go, “you look straight”, because back then, it was like that. Men were laughing at me, women were laughing at me, so I shut down with it. But when I started to learn about pansexuality, I felt really comfortable with it again. I started to feel like a bad person because I was getting to live in the shadows by looking femme, and not being part of it. […] Maybe that’s why all the letters are important, because […] you can be gay or bi or pan, but you still also need to be an ally to everyone else. I feel like that’s important, and why I need to speak my truth to people’ (38:30-39:42). For Debay, labels helped her understand herself, but they provide the added benefit of helping people within the community understand and help each other in the fight to be free from discrimination and harassment.
Maddie added a final point on labels, saying: ‘I would like a culture where you can change your labels, and that’s fine. I, at one point, did identify as a lesbian. Now I don’t even identify as a woman! It’s taken me time to learn that about myself. I think it’s easier for cisgender heterosexual people to believe that gayness or non-binariness or our gender is innate; I’m not so convinced about that. I think we’re all born babies, we’re not born men and women, and we become who we are over time. Some of that will be our personality, some of that will be external factors, and about visibility for the LBGTQIA+ community and all of these factors. We need a bit more flexibility, a bit more understanding. Labels are important but they can change, and we shouldn’t say “well, I thought you were straight” or “I thought you were gay.” Just let people explore in a safe way. I would really like that culture to be more prevalent’ (44:54-46:00).
If you’d like to learn more about labels, you can find a helpful guide to LGBTQIA+ terminology here.
Safety remains a huge problem for the LGBTQIA+ community, and although discrimination can take different forms for different members of the community, the fight for autonomy, respect, sexual and gender freedom, and access to inclusive healthcare remains one and the same fight. Younger LGBTQIA+ people are more than thankful for the progress and trailblazing older generations have provided, but they also rightfully note that there is still a long way to go in terms of education, acceptance, and legal protections: especially for transgender people. A culture of inclusion is not just about tolerance, but about letting people explore their gender and sexuality in a safe and shameless way.
Thanks for tuning into this month’s panel event. Our next panel concerns sex workers’ rights (date TBC) so please check out our website or Thriving Survivors’ Instagram page (@thriving_survivors) for dates and links to the event.