Today, May 17th, is the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOTB) and this week is also Mental Health Awareness Week. Yet there’s too little awareness of the impact that discrimination, prejudice and hate crime have on the mental health of LGBTQIA+ people, and even less understanding of what can be done to support people in these situations.
The battle against homophobia is far from over, with same-sex relationships still illegal in 72 countries and punishable by the death penalty in eight of those, according to the 2017 annual report of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). Shockingly, in October 2017, the United States voted against a UN resolution to condemn the use of the death penalty for consensual same-sex relationships between adults, although the resolution still passed with a majority of 27 to 13 (Death Penalty Information Center, 2017). Biphobia, too, remains prevalent even within the LGBT+ community itself – with bisexual people often reporting erasure and finding it difficult to convince people that their sexuality is valid. So, too, do asexual people, demisexual people, and those who identify as `queer’. Though the UK has achieved great strides in addressing homophobia and biphobia, transphobia persists and continues to be tacitly accepted in mainstream circles
Transgender people are frequently bullied on social media, seen as fair game for comedians, and ridiculed in tabloid newspapers for doing nothing more controversial than getting married or continuing a career after transition. Our right to exist continues to be ‘debated’ in the newspapers and on live TV - in ways that would be unthinkable for gay men or lesbians, or indeed any other minority group with legal protection under the Equality Act. Most of this so-called debate is based on unproven and unjustified assertions, such as the idea that trans women are sexual predators who assault women in public toilets or refuges, or that men `pose’ as trans women in order to gain access to these women-only spaces. Meanwhile, trans, intersex and non-binary people experience discrimination, verbal harassment, death threats and even physical violence far in excess of the general population. This can have a devastating impact on wellbeing: research by the LGBT+ rights charity Stonewall shows that almost half of trans people in Britain have attempted suicide at least once, and 84% have thought about it. In the last year alone, 65% of trans people have been discriminated against or harassed for being perceived as trans, while 41% have been attacked or threatened with violence in the past five years.
In the face of transphobia, it’s easy to be a silent bystander. Many people, afraid of causing offence by saying the wrong thing, end up saying nothing at all. This, however, only adds to the deep sense of isolation and loneliness felt by so many trans people. Having supportive allies really can be life-saving, which is why our social enterprise, Reconnecting Rainbows, is launching the #LIFEsavingAllies campaign (with the support of the RSA, Solent Showcase Gallery, LGBT Switchboard, and the Hampshire Police Lesbian and Gay Liaison Officers). The campaign is based on four simple actions, summarised by the acronym LIFE, that people can take to become better allies to their trans and non-binary friends, relatives or colleagues:
L = Look at us as people. We’re all individuals, with our own particular talents, passions, ambitions and life journeys. Our transition isn’t the only interesting thing about us: it probably isn’t even the most interesting thing. Most of us aren’t averse to talking about it, but often we’d much rather talk about our work, our families or our hobbies.
I = Identify us by the right name and pronouns. Imagine how you’d feel if everyone started calling you by the wrong name and referring to you as ‘he’ (if you’re a woman) or ‘she’ (if you’re a man). Misgendering can really hurt trans people, and may even put us at risk of violence, and if it’s deliberate it’s a form of harassment. However, when someone gets our pronouns right, it can make our day! If you know someone who’s just come out as trans or non-binary, practice their chosen name and pronouns in private until you get used to them, and correct others if they get it wrong. Even if you don’t personally feel comfortable with the pronouns that your friend or colleague has chosen – e.g. singular ‘they/them’, or a new gender-neutral pronoun like ‘ze/hir’ or ‘xe/xem’ – it’s not up to you to criticise their choice. But if you slip up, don’t panic – we won’t get upset if we know that you’re trying, and you’ve just made an honest mistake.
F = Find out what support we need. For some trans people, a listening ear is enough. Others might want support with practical things, like choosing new clothes, getting a referral to a professional counsellor or a Gender Identity Clinic, changing their name by deed poll, or even just watching the door while they go to the loo if they’re nervous using the Ladies or Gents for the first time. The only way to find out is to ask. If you’re in a context where someone’s likely to be misgendered or deadnamed, you might agree on a gesture or signal that they can use to tell you when they’re happy to handle it themselves, and another that says, ‘I’m feeling overwhelmed, please help me out.’
E = Empower yourself to help end transphobia. Knowledge is power, and by learning the facts about gender diversity and what transition really means, you can help us to fight back against the lies and misunderstandings that fuel transphobia. Don’t believe everything you read on social media: stick to reports produced by reputable LGBT+ organisations with trans board members, and blogs written by trans and non-binary people themselves. Healthline’s Transgender Resources page also has a good collection of unbiased resources about transgender issues, written and reviewed by members of the trans community.
This blog post is non-copyright: please share it freely on social media. We’d like as many people as possible to understand why becoming an ally is important, and how to get started!
Ashley Jay Brockwell MSc FRSA is a management consultant with specialist expertise in values-centred project design, strategic planning and evaluation. He lives in Southampton and is currently working towards his PhD in Education for Sustainability. Since coming out as transgender earlier this year, Ash has launched a new social enterprise, Reconnecting Rainbows – offering bespoke training and consultancy packages for organisations in all sectors, as well as life coaching and online courses for individuals, which focus on diversity, inclusion and LGBTQIA+ wellbeing.