In this section, I talk about the structure of the workshops and the way that we planned the shape of the days in order to maximize the way people could learn new skills and participate in new experiences as a way to stimulate their thinking around the big concepts of gender, age and sexuality.
The sub-headings are structuring a gender-safe space and structured un-structure.
Structuring a gender-safe space
Young gender variant people testify to withdrawing from the learning process because they feel their lived experiences are not reflected or represented within the curriculum and they are therefore marginalised in the school environment (source). Trans young people articulate their perceptions of the limits of a curriculum that does not do justice to their experience and perpetuates ignorance about trans lives.
The INTERarts project offered a learning environment similar to a mainstream educational setting in some respects in that it was (in part) structured, with clear session aims and objectives. The arts ‘curriculum’ of this project directly engaged with the participants as learners in a way that enabled them to see themselves as part of the discourses explored. The younger and older people and the project, through the public exhibition of work, demonstrated that it is possible to represent and explore complex gendered identities and sexual orientations and that audiences are interested in debating and making sense of normativity as much as those who might identify as transgender, lesbian, gay or bisexual.
The staff team worked to ensure that the workshop space was one in which the participants could discuss and explore their experiences of gender identity, sexual orientation and age with safety and creativity from the outset. A main priority was that participants would be able to gather and work productively in an environment free from discrimination.
This was attended to in the first session when the group along with the practitioners established a working contract that set out the ground rules for the rest of the time spent as part of the project. We discussed, for example, pronouns and each member of the group stated their name and the pronoun they preferred the group to use. This is indicative of the preparatory structures employed to develop a gender-safe space. Some participants were using a name and pronoun in their preferred gender for the first time and some chose to change their name and choice of pronoun throughout the life of the project as they tried one thing and then another in a public domain. Rather than adhere to names and pronouns given at birth, this was an opportunity to claim the right to be treated respectfully as the gendered beings they felt themselves to be, even when that identity shifted.
This project and the other two that took place nationally as part of the overall Age UK/Pfizer-funded project, were perceived by many of the participants, not only as making a contribution to unifying disparate communities on the grounds of age, but also on the grounds of identity. In the report Celebrating Intergenerational Diversity An evaluation of three projects working with younger and older Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people (2011) the Kneale et al state that several project workers and participants from all three projects described initial reluctance to participate on the grounds of the inclusiveness of the projects, and older participants in particular welcomed the opportunity to mix beyond their own gender/orientation social groups (p.26)
Invisibility was a factor for these individuals as they lived their lives every day, and it manifested itself in another way as several of the participants commented that they had never a trans person before coming to this project. This included older participants who identified as gay or lesbian, as well as younger trans people. The fact of gathering people in relatively large numbers, in real space and time contributed to the creation of a gender-rich and therefore ‘safe’ environment:
I was quite pleased really because I usually only choose to socialise with women and lesbians. So I was quite pleased that I was doing this because I was just stretching myself a bit. I found it okay, because it’s not in your face because you’re both focussing on something you do and it’s not turned into a big thing or anything
Older lesbian Woman, INTERarts participant
I haven’t really spoken to older people in my life before, I have never had any contact aside from my grandparents,[…] and especially LGBT older people. So it’s really interesting to see what they thought about age and their own age and how that affects them.
Younger trans participant
I think I am more positive about growing older because I am seeing more people in the older LGBTQ community and I am realising that you don’t get old and decrepit and die…you become quite beautiful and you evolve as a person
Younger genderqueer participant
The main decision in terms of structuring each day-long workshop was to build in periods of free time which was not prescriptive, where participants could dictate their own pace, type of activity, extent of interaction with other participants and the level of support/ intervention they required from the project team.
We required participants to be pro-active and plan well, such that they could request resources, time in media edit suites or with other specific equipment, and time from a particular facilitator in a timely way so that we could then schedule sections of the day in a way that enabled us to support each individual or pair.
In the video clip below, I (Catherine) talk about the structured morning and un-structured afternoon of the second session as being ‘high-risk’ in terms of planning. The intention was that by lunch time on that second workshop, people would be sufficiently equipped and ready to work. I talk about the risk that actually, as a team of facilitators, you won’t have made that possible in reality. Jay thinks this approach to structure is ‘a bit scary’ as you’ll see!
The footage was taken by Michelle and Ursie as part of making their short film Talking age, sexuality and gender.
The participants’ also commented on their experience of the un/structured sessions. In this video clip, filmed on the same day as the one above, Michelle talks about embracing the day and doing activities she wasn’t sure of in the more structured morning (creative writing), and then feeling that writing was the best things she’d done so far. From the session plan for this day, you can see that we delivered three parallel sessions on photography, creative writing and spoken voice and participants were asked to attend one.
Mark speaks about the voice workshop and how he had enjoyed the sounds of words and the physical feeling of speaking words in that session, and the way it lead him to think about music, lyrics and the ways gender is bound up in those things for him.
 Current research carried out by Stephen Whittle et al. (2007) (Engendered Penalties: Transgendered Peoples Experience of Inequality and Discrimination) shows that young trans people are suffering high levels of violence and abuse. This report, which reviews existing research on trans peoples’ experiences, found that 48% of respondents had been victims of assault, including sexual assault and rape, and 78% had experienced verbal harassment. Whittle’s research shows that many of those people working with young trans people such as school teachers, school psychologists and social workers have not received training in trans awareness and perpetuate negative attitudes and transphobia.