Moon Music

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As I was leaving a five-year-old student’s house after her lesson last week, she presented me with a sheet of paper divided into nine squares with the instructions “make a story with pictures on this side and words on the back”, a sort of part-comic, part-prose piece. I agreed and said I would bring the result to her lesson next week.

I set off for home pondering what sort of story to write: here was an opportunity to create something bespoke for my student. It had to be child-friendly, so I began by considering topics suitable for children and hit on space travel: how about a trip to the moon? Next, to my protagonist: an adult…? No, this is for a child, it should be a child, a girl like my student… It should be my student. So, my student goes to the moon. Why? This had me stuck for a bit, but then it suddenly hit me: she goes to the moon to play the cello, obviously, because this is story is by me for her, and what we do is play the cello together. Throw in a female NASA scientist for good gender stereotype-busting measure, and here is the result* (as you can see, I’m no artist but I hope the text below makes up for that):

Moon Music

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1) A scientist was walking through London when she heard beautiful music coming from a nearby house. “This could be just the thing for our next space programme,” she thought.

2) She knocked at the door and was answered by a young girl. “Who was playing that lovely music please?”
“That was me.” was the reply.

3) “I have a proposition for you,” said the scientist, “I work for NASA and we are looking for a musician to give the first ever concert on the moon. The training will be hard, but if you can do it your name will go down in history”.

4) Jasmine accepted the scientist’s offer. She underwent exhausting training six hours a day for two whole years as well as making sure she played her cello daily so that when the big day came she would play her best ever in the moon concert.

5) One month before the concert, Mum, Dad, Anisa and Milo waved Jasmine and her cello off on a flight to Washington DC to meet the other astronauts on her mission and complete final training exercises before blasting off for the moon.

6) On the morning of the concert, Jasmine and the other astronauts woke early. They did a final safety inspection of the shuttle, strapped Jasmine’s cello securely inside, and donned their space suits before giving the crowd a final wave goodbye and preparing the shuttle for take-off.

7) The countdown seemed to last for hours, but at last they were off. The G-force was like nothing she had ever experienced before and Jasmine thought she might melt through her space suit, the seat and the floor of the shuttle before crashing back to Earth.

8) They landed safely on the moon and Jasmine unpacked her cello while the other astronauts set up the cameras and microphones for the live TV link back to Earth. Meanwhile, in London the Smith family switched on their TV in eager anticipation…

9) The moment had come: millions were glued to their TVs back on Earth. Jasmine took a deep, calming breath, put her bow to the strings, closed her eyes, and began the first lunar concert ever.

So, now my student has a bespoke story about an adventure with her cello, and I have a useful pedagogical tool to pull out the bag when she’s tired and can’t be bothered of being able to say “play your best because a scientist might be listening”. Everyone wins :)

*Names and location have been changed.

An Open Letter to the National Diversity Awards

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Dear Diversity Group,

It is with great concern that I write to draw your attention to statements made by Tara Hewitt, who is listed as a Diversity Group Award nominee. They suggest strongly that, far from encouraging diversity, she encourages diversity in a few areas but also has strong views that other diversities have no legitimacy and should be rejected. Her personal statements seem grossly inappropriate for anyone in a position of standing, much less someone suitable for consideration as a face of UK diversity.

I ask that you examine whether this behaviour makes Tara a suitable candidate for a Diversity Award, would showcase diversity work, or would reflect well on the work you yourselves do.
The comments are from her Twitter account (@Tara_Hewitt) over the last week. They relate to people who are not in traditional monogamous relationships – for example people who live in a three-way relationship, or have committed long term outside partners with their partners’ agreement. Such relationships, their parenting, their social welfare, and their needs and care, are known as “polyamory”, and are long-established although often tacitly and without fanfare. [Note: Wikipedia defines polyamory as "the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved".] Relationships like this are surprisingly common, especially in the LGBT communities, and are what Tara Hewitt directly states are illegitimate, and uses grotesque parenting stereotypes to smear and to declare she does not consider acceptable. With them, she delegitimises a great many diverse relationships across a great many communities.

The Tweets are attached as a separate document of screenshots, all from her account (@Tara_Hewitt), and were all posted between 24 – 27 April 2014.

In her Tweets, Tara states that people who wish to have children in the context of a polyamorous relationship, are “selfish” and “part of societies [sic] obsession with doing something because we can regardless of if we should” (24/04/14 at 22:49). She disregards that people may wish for children for far more profound reasons than just “what they can do”.

Tara next asserts that to her, polyamory isn’t a valid relationship “identity” (24/04/14 at 23:35) – although hers is by no means the view of many polyamorous people themselves. She states that the view of the people themselves whose personal sense of identity is discussed, is illegitimate (if they see polyamory as an identity) and that her blunt denial of their sense of identity is what is correct. Telling a person in any minority that they are wrong about their identity is grossly disrespectful and damaging.

Tara in effect tacitly marginalises all such relationships as illegitimate even while stating she “ha[s] no judgment” (24/04/14 at 23:49). For example, she claims that her only concern is parenting (24/04/14 at 23:49), but then almost immediately she states elsewhere “I do not support the new emerging “polyamorous” rights campaign” whether or not children are involved at all (24/04/14 at 23:25) and generally attacks all polyamorous relationships indiscriminately even if those without children (“You choose to be in a polyamorous relationship”: 24/04/14 at 23:20).

There is a legitimate discussion to be had about parenting in any minority. But this is not that legitimate discussion; it is a disenfranchising, narrow, rigid, prejudicial view, unrelated to legitimate research or personal experience.

I feel these Tweets are at odds with the aims of the Diversity Awards, as set out on your website, especially the aim to honour “outstanding devotion to enhancing equality, diversity and inclusion; thus embracing the excellence of all our citizens, irrespective of race, faith, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability and culture“, and the purpose of the specific award, the Positive Role Model Award, she has been nominated for, which is to “know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and [...] understand all the threads of the tapestry are of equal value“.

Tara’s comments made me, a polyamorous person, feel that my thread in the tapestry was not of equal value, in comparison to, for example, the “gay” thread (her Tweet: “gay people are gay they dont [sic] choose to be gay. You choose to be in a polyamorous relationship” 24/04/14 at 23:20).

As someone who identifies as polyamorous, I feel hurt, erased and alienated by Tara’s comments. I feel like she has made a judgement, having never met me, nor spoken with me on the topic of how I live my life, about my suitability to parent based solely on who I am intimate with and how. I feel she has erased my polyamorous identity, treating me as a second-class citizen whose rights are unimportant compared to those of other minority groups, and assumed my ability to function in society is somehow impaired by this identity.

I was also concerned by Tara’s Tweet stating “[i]t would appear I have developed some lib dem [sic] stalkers” (27/04/14 at 11:59). This was in response to Liberal Democrat Twitter users expressing their concern to her about her Tweets regarding polyamorous parenting. It concerns me greatly that someone holding the position of Diversity Consultant, who is nominated for a Diversity Award should casually throw around words like “stalker”, much less use it to discuss people who object to her asserting their lives are not valid. I feel this trivialises the seriousness of the experience of victims of genuine stalking, shows her disregard for concerns that should, rightly, be addressed, and her unwillingness to enter dialogue about those concerns.

As a Diversity Consultant, Tara advocates on behalf of vulnerable groups, and I feel her use of language such as this erases with disturbing lack of conscience, the lives of the very people she is supposed to advocate for. I would hope that the Diversity Awards expects its nominees to be demonstrably inclusive and thoughtful, to measure their speech carefully when discussing experiences outside their own, to have private views that match their public stances, and to walk their talk in dialogue about diversity.

I am concerned that in her eagerness to strengthen the rights of certain minority groups, Tara’s behaviour, rather than creating a level playing field where all are judged on their merits, is reinforcing the current two-tier system where some groups are recognised as full members of society, and granted rights accordingly, and others are not. Who falls into which if these two categories may change, but the categories themselves, and the unfair way people are placed in one or the other based on prejudiced assumptions, remain. I would hope that the Diversity Awards seek to level the playing field rather than perpetuate the current two-tier system.

I am not raising this concern out of malice, vindictiveness, or a desire for party-political point-scoring (I am not affiliated to any political party), but because I am genuinely concerned that Tara’s nomination may undermine the credibility of the Diversity Awards, and signal that even within diversity, it’s permissible to delegitimise an entire diverse group on spurious grounds.

I look forward to your confirmation that this is taken with utmost seriousness, and your reply.

Regards,

Sally R***

Selected Tweets from account @Tara_Hewitt:

“Polyamorous lovers having a child is selfish and part of societies obsession with doing something because we can regardless of if we should” 24/04/14 at 22:49

“@stealthmunchkin because simply choosing to have lots of partners is not a identity” 24/04/14 at 23:35

“.@pseudomonas not at all I have no judgement about people in poly relationships. Its when that impacts on a child I have an issue with it” 24/04/14 at 23:49

“@AaronLSpense polyamorous is a relasionship choice and will create confusion and impact on a childs development…” 24/04/14 at 23:16

“@AaronLSpense gay people are gay they dont choose to be gay. You choose to be in a polyamorous relationship” 24/04/14 at 23:20

“I do not support the new emerging “polyamorous” rights campaign that seems to be emerging” 24/04/14 at 23:25

“It would appear I have developed some lib dem stalkers. Its nice they’re taking an interest in the Conservative party our doors are always open” 27/04/14 at 11:59

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Tara has been made aware of this post and has been offered the right to reply either here or elsewhere.

Dear Cis Dude: You Don’t Get to Define Other People

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On Friday I had the distressing experience of being told by a Cis Dude I was socialising with that I’m not really queer. I was contemplating if, and how, to call him out, when he sent me an email asking if I thought he was queer, which gave the opportunity to call him out whilst explaining why it’s not my place to answer his question. Here is my (slightly edited, to anonymise Cis Dude, correct some typos that I really should have attended to before pressing ‘send’, and make a hyperlink look less clunky) reply:

Dear Cis Dude,

Thank you for your email.

Firstly, I would like to point out that I am queer, not a queer. I find the addition of the article ‘a’ problematic for two reasons:

1) the label ‘a queer’ feels like one that attempts to entirely defines me, as in I am ‘a queer’ and only ‘a queer’, to the exclusion of everything else, and there is no room for being a person, or any other labels;

2) ‘a queer’, or phrases like ‘he is a queer’ others and homogenises queers in a way that ‘a person who is queer’ or ‘he is queer’ don’t. It’s similar to phrases like ‘the gays’, ‘the blacks’, ‘the immigrants’ or ‘the unemployed’. In the same way that my aunt made a blanket statement that ‘the gays don’t want gay marriage anyway’ because she feels ‘the gays’ are all of one mind, and that she, a straight person, can speak for all of them, ‘a queer’ is too easily used to lump all queers into a homogenous group with the same needs and opinions, for whom others can speak.

Secondly, you ask whether I think you are queer. Your response when I mentioned the queer hairdresser on Friday was to tell me that I’m not queer. This doesn’t change the fact that I am queer. It is a label that we get to choose for ourselves, that is not imposed or removed from outside. I found it hurtful that, on just our second meeting, you felt you knew more about who and what I am than I know from an entire lifetime of knowing myself, and that you are in a better position to judge my queerness than I am. You know nothing about the path that led me to espouse the label ‘queer’, or what ‘queer’ means to me, and yet you casually erased that identity with your ‘no, you’re not’ before you’d even bothered to find out more. In the same way that it was inappropriate for you to erase my queerness on Friday, it would be inappropriate for me to pass comment on whether you are queer or not. It is for you, and only you, to decide.

You may find this video helpful for thinking about queerness.

The hairdresser (actually, they use the term ‘barber’ and we talked about the differences between ‘hairdresser’ and ‘barber’ and how that line is policed, so I should probably say ‘barber’) was lovely and I’m pleased with the cut, thank you.

I hope you enjoyed the rest of your weekend.

~arthurstodgyn

Note: the barber I went to is indeed lovely, and are non-judgemental and LGBT friendly. If you would like to know more about them, they are called Open Barbers and are based in Finsbury Park.

What is the Point of this Music Education Lark Anyway: Ofsted’s Music in Schools Report and Intersecting Oppressions in the Music Industry

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Paul Gauguin’s The Cellist, reproduced under Creative Commons license.

Earlier this month Ofsted published its Music in Schools: What Hubs Must Do report which found that Music Education Hubs (instigated in 2012 to distribute music education funding previously given directly to local authority music services via the Arts Council) are failing to challenge schools to provide access to music across a wide enough demographic range or to provide proper progression routes for young musicians.

This report comes at a time when I find myself questioning my role in the lives of the young musicians I teach, the prevalent attitudes and elitism of the sectors of the music industry in which I work, and asking if I really am achieving what I hope to in terms of the impact my teaching has, whether I want to be part of oppressive sectors of the industry, and if I can make a difference in making them less oppressive.

In east London I teach a young cellist, we’ll call him “David”, through his primary school’s contract with the local music service, which is also the lead organisation for the area Music Hub. I understand from concerned teachers at his school that David’s home life is chaotic: his older sister was recently excluded from school, and his behaviour in class is deteriorating. He shines at football and music but is disengaged in academic subjects. David’s cello lessons take place before the start of the school day, and it is not unusual for him to be half an hour early, arriving at school at 8am, asking about how to become really good at playing the instrument and watch videos of cellists on YouTube. That school and hanging round the music room is preferable to home early in the morning may be a symptom of home not being a good place to be for him, but he wouldn’t be coming so early if he didn’t see something valuable to him there. He has been asking recently about music colleges and which secondary schools have good music departments (he is currently in his final year of primary school), and applied to attend the music service’s Saturday Music Centre.

I feel it’s vitally important for David to attend the Saturday Music Centre if he is to have a chance of fulfilling his ambition of getting a place at a conservatoire, as access to a music degree course isn’t just about working hard: David needs high level ensemble playing to push his abilities, space at home to play an instrument, and people around him who encourage rather than discourage his music-making. The Saturday Music Centre would provide much of this. He has completed and returned the application form, set off with his mum to attend on the first week of term, got lost and didn’t make it, was given a map by his school’s Music Coordinator, and had a phone call from the head of the Centre to encourage him to attend. That was nine weeks ago, and he hasn’t made it there yet.

I started teaching at David’s school during the ‘wider opps’ era of free entitlement to instrumental tuition for every child at primary school. Most of this was delivered through whole class tuition. The funding and the obligation for provision has since disappeared but many schools have kept the free, compulsory for one or two years, whole class tuition model. David’s school is one of these, and takes the musical education of its students very seriously. He started off in whole class tuition, moved to a half class lesson, then was put forward by an engaged and concerned Music Coordinator for funding for an additional small group lesson.

I was a naïve undergraduate when the wider opps initiative was announced in the mid-2000s. In the final years of my degree I started working in the music industry and came into contact with musicians who had been recruited to teach on those very first wider opps programmes and gigged regularly with a musician who worked part-time as a researcher on the Sistema Scotland programme, documenting its impact on the families of the town of Raploch. Their enthusiasm for wider opps was infectious: they talked about how mass instrumental teaching would change lives, open up the doors of conservatoires to those from less-privileged backgrounds and demystify classical music for a whole generation. They spoke of the challenges of catering to a range of learning styles in one lesson, and the need for precise and careful use of language to get across the meaning, and I fantasised about what challenges I might face teaching a wider opps class and how I would overcome them.

Fast forward a year or so and I was skint, having just completed a Masters degree, and looking for work in London. I sent speculative applications to every music service in and around the city, applied for countless music teaching jobs, administration work, low-paid positions advertised as “early years music leader” that required marketing experience but no teaching experience and, upon closer inspection of the job description, seemed to be more about selling a product than delivering a high-quality, engaging musical experience; and unknowingly landed on my feet when the first organisation to offer me a job was a music service based in east London. They take wider opps and the legacy of Sheila Nelson’s Tower Hamlets Strings Project very seriously. They expect progression opportunities to match up with reality, strive to provide those opportunities, and make it known to their tutors that the “they’re just [name of impoverished east London borough] kids” attitude won’t cut it.

At present I’ve been teaching music in schools in two east London boroughs for several years, but it’s only over the last year that it has begun to dawn on me how disadvantaged some of my east London kids are, as I now have the middle class families at a Saturday music school I teach at in an affluent area of north London to compare them to. These families have the means and motivation to bring them to the Saturday school, support their music-making at home, pay for lessons and instrument hire, and take them to extra activities, such a recent performance of Britten’s opera for adult and child singers and instrumentalists Noyes Fludde they were involved in.

I don’t want you to get the impression I assume all middle class children are without challenges (as I write this I am sitting in a classroom filled with the glaring absence of a young cellist who has just been whisked off by a parent to a football match, or chess tournament, or some other high-pressure expectation activity instead of coming to the cello lesson they pay for weekly and rarely attend. The challenge here is to make playing the cello make sense for him when he attends lessons sporadically, having left the instrument in the case gathering dust for a month), but I find I can usually see a way to sort out their challenges, whereas in east London, I’m often left thinking “that’s just the way it is and I can’t fix it”.

To bring this back to David: boys’ GCSE results are way behind girls’ and they’re less likely to go to university. Black children are at higher risk of school exclusion than other groups. I feel like David’s ambition to attend music college has failed before he’s even started.

A certain colleague has intimated to me that they have lower expectations of the children they teach in east London compared to the children they teach elsewhere and I could say to myself “well that’s nice that David would like to go to music college but it isn’t going to happen for him so there’s no point putting the effort in”. I really hope this is bullshit but the odds are so stacked against him.

Several years ago two other colleagues returned from a strings teachers’ conference fuming at being patronised by a private school Head of Strings who, upon hearing that they taught in east London, said “oh, I always think that what you do is like being an aid worker”. This particular comment may not have any direct effect on David and other east London young musicians, but if and when they enter the wider classical music world, they will find entitled, patronising arseholes like this guy, and his students who have learned entitled, patronising arsehole behaviour from his example.

Recently I played in a pit where all of the 16 musicians were white and two thirds were men. This is appalling in such a racially diverse city as London but perfectly normal. During the week’s work, I counted two incidents of casual racism and one rape joke. A few years ago I witnessed two male colleagues discussing the suitability of the various Musical Directors they knew for a job: one was dismissed as unsuitable because “her tits are so big she won’t be able to reach the piano”. In the three years I’ve been playing in London pits I have done just one single performance with a musician of colour. On every other show (and they’re in their hundreds) the pit has been 100% white.

Say David does “make it” despite all the odds and get place at a conservatoire. what happens when he starts gigging in his third or fourth year? When he encounters racist colleagues and over and over is the only person of colour on the job? When he is patronised and passed over for work by middle class entitled arseholes? Will he tough it out? Will he find enough work to earn a living from?

What about the young musicians with even fewer opportunities than David? Those with a difficult home life, plus an instrumental teacher who has low expectations and sees challenging behaviour as a burden they could do without, in a school with an uncaring Music Coordinator or no Music Coordinator at all?

Am I dangling a prize in front of David that he has no hope of ever winning? Am I only providing him with yet another opportunity to feel an inadequate failure? We called it ‘wider opportunities’ but if the opportunities are only new ways to fail should we be offering these opportunities at all? Is the teaching I do really doing more good than harm? Should I be doing it differently? Should I be doing it at all? Should I be taking jobs in pits where I’m the only woman* amongst a sea of white men? If, when a fixer books me for a show, I ask how many women and people of colour they’re booking, and whether they’ll support me if I call out oppressive behaviour amongst my colleagues, will they book me at all? Can I earn a living whilst doing what’s right?

Ofsted’s requirements for Music Hubs to challenge music education in schools don’t go far enough: in the sectors of the music industry one is likely to enter if one learns an orchestral instrument such as the cello, racism, sexism and classism are pervasive. Ofsted, Music Education Hubs, the Government, music charities, and those within the industry must challenge sectors such as classical orchestras and musical theatre to take steps to ensure their pits and concert platforms are less male-and-pale, set clear expectations for appropriate behaviour, and ensure their workplaces are safe spaces for challenging racism, sexism and classism when it occurs. All the progression opportunities we can throw at young musicians at school will amount to nothing if the wider culture of elitism doesn’t change fast.

*I actually identify as genderqueer rather than female, but have used the term “woman” here because I am mostly read as female and am writing about the barriers my students will face to working as musicians. Whilst trans* people, along with LGB people (with the possible exception of gay men, but I digress…), are marginalised in the sectors of the music industry I’m discussing, I feel transphobia, homophobia and bi-erasure are barriers that will only affect a small minority of my students, if at all, compared to issues of gender, class and race, and that writing about them in this piece would re-focus the discussion from their issues to mine. It would be the equivalent of a man shouting “MEN GET RAPED TOO! WHAY AREN’T YOU TALKING ABOUT THAT?” over a woman recounting her sexual assault. It’s just not appropriate.

I Thought I was Just Sharing Some Songs: My Experience of Facilitating and Ad-Hoc Workshop at OpenCon 2013

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This piece originally appeared on the Polytical website on 1/11/2013.

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I came to OpenCon for the third year running, having participated in workshops and cabaret in previous years but never having facilitated a session. I didn’t intend to facilitate this year, but during the opening welcome session where the un-conference model was laid out, and I found I was asking myself “what can I contribute?” and the germ of an idea of leading an inclusive, non-threatening, non-judgemental singing session began. (***picture of timetable here***)

I wrote a list of warm-up activities and appropriate songs of varying levels of difficulty from my repertoire, and decided to wing it and be informed by the mood/desire of the group, inviting members to contribute a song they’d like to share if they felt comfortable.

I was nervous no-one would come, or that the people who came would be so shy about singing that it would be a tortuous hour-and-a-bit together. I was anxious that whoever came would feel positive about the session and that it wouldn’t be a bad experience for anyone.

Around eight people showed up: a mix of a couple of confident singers, some in the middle, and two who really lacked confidence in their ability to sing (although I was only aware beforehand that this was the case for one of the participants, and found out after from the other that this was so).

We broke into the session gently with some breathing exercises and movement, leading onto pitched singing activities that encouraged listening to the sounds we made in relation to the sounds the rest of the group were making, without requirement to sing at a specific pitch or sing the same thing as anyone else, finishing with a simple two-note song.

I had a range of songs from fairly simple to more complicated, thinking I had more material up my sleeve than we needed to fill the allotted time. We ended up signing all of my songs, some of them in two- and three-part canon, and a pagan chant led by one of the participants. It was great: the session flowed really well and everyone looked like they were having a good time.

What really amazed me was the comments afterwards from two participants who had had bad experiences at school of being told they couldn’t sing. In the lunch queue later that day, one participant told me “this was the first singing lesson I actually enjoyed because no-one told me I couldn’t sing”. They talked about not being able to change the pitch of their voice when they sing karaoke, and hearing that it was wrong but not being able to do anything about it. Interestingly, during the workshop, they had been singing a range of pitches just fine and I pointed this out to them.

The following morning I had a conversation with another participant who said they had been told to mime during a school carol service, as their singing had been perceived by the head teacher as being terrible. They told me their speaking voice had changed recently due to an illness and explained how singing has been something they had wanted to try for the last 10 years or so. They said that for them, the session had been a “healing” experience and it dawned on me that what I thought was going to be just sharing some songs might have been something really amazing and I’m very grateful for that.

Meditation and Queer Discrimination

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*****TRIGGER WARNING FOR DISCUSSION OF DISCRIMINATION BASED ON GENDER AND SEXUAL ORIENTATION*****

As some of you I know from Twitter will be aware, I recently applied to attend a meditation course, was honest about my genderqueer identity on the application form, and had a rather traumatic phone conversation with someone from the course in which they made various hurtful assumptions and raised various irrelevant concerns about my suitability to be around other attendees. Because of this I decided not to do attend the course and to reply to their email offering me a place on the course with an outline of why I would not be attending and a request that they address my concerns about their discrimination. Below is an edited version with identifying information redacted. As this is an ongoing complaint, I will not be publicly identifying the organisation or anyone involved with it, so please don’t ask for their name.

Dear [T*****],

Thank you for your email confirming my place on the course at [Centre A] starting on [date] and ending on [date]. I regret to inform you that I do not feel safe accepting the place and wish for you to treat this email as a formal complaint.

On 9 October 2013 I received a voicemail message from one [R*****] who works at [Centre B] asking me to phone her back to discuss my application. I assumed she had questions about my mental health history which I had outlined on my original application and on the form I was sent requesting further information, so was taken aback when she proceeded to conflate my gender with sexual orientation and question my suitability to be accommodated with the women on the course. I am especially concerned by this behaviour, given that you ([T*****]) had previously requested more information on my genderqueer identity and I had provided you with the “101″ page http://queersunited.blogspot.co.uk/2008/04/diversity-lesson-101.html?m=1 which specifically states that gender and sexual orientation are discreet traits which should not be conflated, and that R***** said it was you had had referred my application on to her. I felt that the information I had provided at your request had either not been read or had not been taken seriously.

During our conversation R***** explained that she wanted us to talk about my genderqueer identity and that she didn’t know where to accommodate me on the course. She explained that if the organisation knows “a gay person” is attending they put them in a single room but that there are no single rooms at [Centre A]. She asked if I would attend a course [at Centre B] instead where there are single rooms available. She said that women on the course may feel uncomfortable sharing accommodation with me. Upon hearing this, I volunteered the information that my sexual orientation is bisexual. We talked about the fact that a partner of mine also applied to attend the same course and she asked that as my “boyfriend” (her label, not mine, I described this person on the initial application form as a “partner”) is attending can I promise not to be attracted to women on the course? I said that my being attracted to anyone, whatever their gender, was unlikely as I’d be in a meditation headspace, not a sexual activity/sexual attraction headspace. She said that she would recommend I could be accepted on the course this time but in future she would want me to attend [Centre B].

As I have said above, this conversation took me by surprise, as I was expecting to be asked about my mental health, and not to have my trustworthiness questioned based on assumptions made about perceived my sexual orientation conflated with my gender identity. By the time the conversation ended I felt extremely hurt and vulnerable, and that I was being treated as a pariah who must be kept away from the other participants because I cannot be trusted not to behave or think in an inappropriately sexual manner whilst on the course. I had already indicated on the original application form that I have read and agree to the code of conduct which states I will behave appropriately and keep my mind on meditation. [R*****]‘s asking for a further promise made me feel that my gender identity makes me untrustworthy.

[R*****]‘s agreement that I could attend [Centre A] on this one occasion but that in future I must attend [Centre B] made me feel that the welcome on the course would be a grudging one, that the organisation and staff would prefer I did to attend, and that I would be under suspicion from the organisation during the course.

I am also concerned that during our conversation R***** asked if she could take the attendance of a partner of mine on the course as a reassurance that I would not be attracted to the women on the course. I found this hurtful and feel that treating someone as more trustworthy based in their relationship status is problematic as: many people are contentedly single and are not looking for sexual contact despite not having (a) partner(s) and I felt that if I was one of these people I would have been perceived as less trustworthy; it assumes monogamy; and it privileges couples over single people. I felt extremely uneasy at my couple privilege being used as an indicator of my trustworthiness.

I feel that the organisation has made erroneous and hurtful assumptions about me based in prejudice and ignorance and these informed her fears about my inability, compared to a heterosexual cisgendered person, to keep my mind on meditation, and that others on the course may feel unsafe in my presence.

I would like the organisation to consider the following questions:

-Since this is a silent meditation course, where contact between attendees is kept to a minimum, how would other attendees become aware of my genderqueer status? (I have not volunteered this information previously since you did not ask and it would have been inappropriately intrusive for you to do so, and I feel it is no one of your business, but I now feel it is relevant: [text redacted as it mentions personal details about my gender presentation and my body. It boils down to "I 'pass' as female"]).

-If a complaint was made against an attendee who was behaving completely appropriately, would the organisation ask the subject of the complaint to change their behaviour or ask the person who complained to keep their mind on themselves and their meditation?

-Would the organisation ask a visibly disabled person or a Person of Colour attending the course to occupy a single room in order to avoid other attendees potentially feeling uncomfortable in their presence? if so, how would the organisation justify different treatment of a person based on their race or disability? If not, how would the organisation justify different treatment of a person based on their gender and (perceived) sexual orientation, when it would not treat a person differently based on a their race or disability?

Under the Equalities Act 2010 the organisation has an obligation not to discriminate against people based on certain protected characteristics. Gender and sexual orientation are two of these characteristics. The entire Act can be found at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/contents and I have listed the clauses I believe are relevant to this incident below:

29 Provision of services, etc.
(1) A person (a “service-provider”) concerned with the provision of a service to the public or a section of the public (for payment or not) must not discriminate against a person requiring the service by not providing the person with the service.
(2)A service-provider (A) must not, in providing the service, discriminate against a person (B)—
(a)as to the terms on which A provides the service to B;
(b)by terminating the provision of the service to B;
(c)by subjecting B to any other detriment.
(3)A service-provider must not, in relation to the provision of the service, harass—
(a)a person requiring the service, or
(b)a person to whom the service-provider provides the service.
[...]
(5)A service-provider (A) must not, in providing the service, victimise a person (B)—
as to the terms on which A provides the service to B;
(a)as to the terms on which A provides the service to B;
(b)by terminating the provision of the service to B;
(c)by subjecting B to any other detriment.

Schedule 23 outlines “general Exceptions” to the Act, and I wish to draw your attention to these specific clauses:

2(1)This paragraph applies to an organisation the purpose of which is—
(a)to practise a religion or belief,
(b)to advance a religion or belief,
(c)to teach the practice or principles of a religion or belief,
(d)to enable persons of a religion or belief to receive any benefit, or to engage in any activity, within the framework of that religion or belief, or
(e)to foster or maintain good relations between persons of different religions or beliefs.
(3)The organisation does not contravene Part 3, 4 or 7, so far as relating to religion or belief or sexual orientation, only by restricting—
(a)membership of the organisation;
(b)participation in activities undertaken by the organisation or on its behalf or under its auspices;
(c)the provision of goods, facilities or services in the course of activities undertaken by the organisation or on its behalf or under its auspices;
(d)the use or disposal of premises owned or controlled by the organisation.

In the case of this organisation, I feel these exceptions do not apply because the following statements made on your website that show the organisation does not consider itself a religious organisation:

[Text redacted as it identifies the organisation. It was two quotes from their website that explain that the mediation practise they teach is not a religion.]

I feel the organisation has discriminated against me based on my gender and on my perceived and actual sexual orientation and that this is in breach of the Equalities Act 2010.

The application process for the course is necessarily intrusive and, encouraged by the request that I do not withhold any information, I trusted the organisation with extremely sensitive and personal information. I feel this information was then used to attack me.

I could have just ticked the “female” box in the “male”/”female” gender choice on the initial application form and not provided more information. The organisation and other participants would have been none the wiser, but I would have felt like I was pretending to be something I was not for the whole 10 days and this would have made it difficult to focus on my quiet sitting and my breath.

As a society, we have come a long way from the perception that non-heterosexual/non-cisgender people are more likely to behave in a sexually inappropriate manner that heterosexual/cisgender people, but your organisation seems to be lagging behind in this area. This treatment has made me feel like a pariah who cannot be trusted not to molest others. I am an adult who is perfectly capable of behaving as such and of reading, understanding and abiding by rules, just like the invisible LGBT people who have not volunteered information on their gender or sexual orientation and have stayed in shared accommodation on courses in the past, and those who will do so in the future, and just like the straight cisgender people who have behaved appropriately too. Your treatment of me was, and still is, extremely hurtful.

Because of this treatment I will not be attending the course, as I feel there is nothing the organisation can do or say that will reassure me I will not be watched more closely than other attendees in case I break the rules, that if another attendee did make a complaint about me that it would not be considered fairly, and that I would be genuinely welcomed on the course. This incident has done a great deal of damage and I would find it extremely difficult to rebuild my trust in the organisation. I would find it difficult to focus on my breath and quiet sitting in a situation where I feel I am mistrusted.

In order for me to feel this has been resolved in a satisfactory manner where I can put this incident behind me and take no further action, I would like the organisation to make a sincere personal apology to me, and to show me that it has written and implemented an inclusion policy for LGBT people to ensure future trans* or LGB applicants are treated fairly and without discrimination. I suggest the organisation seeks help from trans* and LGB organisations in writing this policy. At this point in my email I would like to remind you of your duties under the Equalities Act 2010.

I sincerely hope this matter can be resolved satisfactorily and that the organisation will engage seriously with the concerns I have raised.

Please conduct all future correspondence with me by email or post and please note that I will not engage in telephone conversations with representatives from the organisation. I am setting this boundary as I need to control when and where I engage with a matter that causes me a great deal of distress. Thank you.

Regards,

[full name redacted]

Looking Back at My Childhood: Minor Adjustments in Language Help Us to Treat Others with Respect

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I’ve been mulling over an incident from my childhood recently and thinking about how it fits into a wider theme of tolerance, making adjustments for people’s needs, and being a decent person who makes the effort to help others feel included, and minimise the chances of them feeling stupid or unwanted. It has parallels with the issue of misgendering trans* people and refusing to use our preferred pronouns, in that refusing to make minor adjustments to our language and behaviour alienates the trans* person who requests that we use certain pronouns.

In my pre-teen childhood my dad ran a business from outbuildings at the end of our garden making printing plates and brass casting moulds. One of his clients was a man I will call “Ed”. Ed would show up at unpredictable times, be very late or very early for appointments, and stay for hours talking to my dad, my mum and me about anything and everything: music, his car, his daughter, whatever folk festival he’d been at recently, motorbikes, someone he’d met at the pub… It was obvious to me that he tried the patience of my parents because he’d just talk until he’d talked himself out of conversation topics regardless of whatever else was going on that he was interrupting, and they’d breath a sigh of relief when he left. I thought Ed was wonderful: he was generous with his time, his knowledge, his attention; he made me complicated origami ping pong balls; brought musical instruments with him and sung and played for me; offered to take me to folk festivals. Later, when I was proficient enough on the cello, he wrote out folk tunes and songs for me using note names as he didn’t read stave notation, listened to me play, and tried to jam with me, accommodating the limitations of my classical training and terrible aural skills without judgement. I still have the violin he’d restored and gave to me when I was 10.

After one visit when I was aged about eight my dad was really pissed off. He’d given Ed a particular time for the appointment, some time during the afternoon, and he’d shown up in the evening when we were having dinner. My dad was rude to him, and hustled him out the door quickly after their business was done. He vented to my mum about how Ed had interrupted our dinner and was unreliable and said he was going to tell Ed he had to be better with his time-keeping. My mum said that she thought Ed couldn’t tell the time and that that was why he was so unpredictable. Looking back, I think that was probably the case. My dad dismissed this and I suspect he gave Ed an earful.

I’ve been thinking about the small changes my dad could have made in how he interacted with Ed that would mitigate the impact on our lives of his inability to tell the time whilst still valuing him as a person and avoiding him feeling inadequate:

*Changing the language he used to talk about time with Ed would give Ed instructions he could understand, instead of giving instructions that were meaningless to him so that he would have to take a guess, hope he’s right, and expose his inability to tell the time to public scrutiny. Instead of “Come at 2″, “Come early afternoon” or “Come at lunchtime” would reduce a 12 hour window of possibility for Ed to show up to roughly three hours;

*Asking Ed to phone just before he left his house would have given my dad a clue about when he was going to show up before he appeared on the doorstep.

To my knowledge, my dad didn’t make any efforts to accommodate Ed’s probable inability to tell the time, he just carried on using language that set traps for him to fall into, and carried on getting angry when he fell into those traps. I feel sad that he didn’t make a few small efforts to accommodate Ed’s needs. It can’t have been much fun for Ed to repeatedly go into a situation where he probably felt stupid when he was just trying to do his job.

Campaign 4 Consent: Make Teaching Consent a Mandatory Part of the National Curriculum

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The Twitter Youth Feminist Army (@_TYFA), an online collective of young feminists, has launched a campaign to make teaching consent compulsory in secondary schools, which I fully support. They’ve written to the Department of Education asking for consent to be added to the national Curriculum, outlining how they want “consent” to be defined for the purposes of secondary school sex education, and asking for teachers to receive mandatory training to deliver education on consent. They are also collecting submissions from adults, parents, teachers and pupils on their experiences of consent education in schools and how they think it could be improved. I encourage you to read them and to submit your own experience and views.

Below is my submission which you can also read on Campaign 4 Consent’s website. [Note: I reluctantly use "vagina" instead of "cunt" as I didn't want my repeated use of a word that is generally perceived as obscene to cause problems for Campaign 4 Consent].

As a peripatetic music teacher and someone whose secondary school sex education in the second half of the 1990s was woefully inadequate regarding consent, I support Campaign 4 Consent’s campaign for the mandatory teaching of consent in schools and appropriate training for teachers.

My four years’ experience of teaching in primary schools has shown me that primary schools generally get it right when it comes to teaching their students that their bodies are their own and if someone does or says something that makes them feel uncomfortable, or asks then to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable, they can speak up and expect to be listened to. From talking to current and recent secondary school students, and from my own experience, I have observed that this good work done in primary schools is not being consistently built on by secondary schools–where it is, it is only because pupils at a particular school have won some opaque lottery by happening to attend a school with a head teacher who understands the importance of teaching consent and provides appropriate training for teachers delivering sex education–and this perpetuates generation after generation of people who habitually violate each others’ consent and don’t know what to do when their consent is violated.

Making consent a mandatory part of the secondary National Curriculum alongside compulsory training for teachers delivering sex education needs to be coupled with a shift from a the view of sex as *only* penis-in-vagina (PiV) sex in the National Curriculum, as this PiV-centric model excludes all but a small minority of heterosexual, cisgendered people who never take part in, for example, oral or anal sex, manual sex, or cyber sex. If we don’t label oral sex as sex, then we can’t explain that oral sex without consent is rape. Another problem with teaching a PiV-centric definition of sex is that students who have or want to have sex that doesn’t involve one penis and one vagina will think that consent doesn’t apply to them. That’s queer, transgender, non-binary gender, kinky, polyamorous, gay, intersex, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, swinger, and other groups of students to whom the message of PiV-centric consent may not be relevant. In fact, a sex-centric model of consent is problematic and irrelevant to, for example, asexual students who engage or wish to engage in non-sexual intimate touch with others, and any student who ever wants to touch another human being or enter their personal space.

As it stands, the current National Curriculum is failing students when it comes to teaching consent and contributing to a culture where rape and sexual assault is treated as par for the course of being a (female, black, bisexual, transexual, or any group that isn’t a white, cisgendered, straight, monogamous man) human being. This isn’t good enough and it needs to be fixed urgently.

More of This, Please: A Positive Image of Young Women on a Poster Advertising Work in Fashion

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Image credit: Apprentices at Fashion Enter

Last week, on holiday with my mum in Pembrokeshire, Wales, I spotted this poster advertising Creative Skill Set Cymru’s fashion and textiles apprenticeships, in the window of a woollen mill. The image on the poster struck me as a refreshingly positive portrayal of and for young women in a world where young women are bombarded with images perpetuating an unrealistic ideal of thin, white, sexy, conventionally attractive, teen-and-twenties women and girls especially in the fashion industry. I was really impressed, so took the photo above, and tweeted @SkillsetSSC to congratulate them on the poster and ask if I could publish it here. They said yes, so here it is, with an explanation of why I find it so brilliant.

There are four girls in the image, two are white and two are of colour. This balance of racial representation is particularly impressive in an area where, over the course of a six day visit, I saw just one non-white person (and they were a tourist).

As well as the racial mix, there is also a mix of body shapes and sizes: from left to right, the first girl is thin and petite; the second thin and taller; the third is big — fat, even — (and, oh, she looks good!); and the fourth is taller and slender. None of them are thin to the point of unhealthiness, a rare thing in fashion and the media.

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Image credit: Howard Miller, reproduced under Creative Commons license

Their clothing and stance is reminiscent of the classic 1940s “We Can Do It!” poster adopted by ’80s feminists. Their stance is strong and defiant, and their clothing is refreshingly un-revealing and baggy.

Contrast this image of young women taking pride in their strength and bodies with (TRIGGER WARNING FOR EATING DISORDERS) Tesco’s recent advertising campaign featuring a lifeless, underweight young woman, where her skinny arms hang lifelessly at the sides of her skeletal frame and her vacant expression models the passivity the Patriarchy expects of women (“ah”, says the girl or woman seeing that image, “I’m supposed to be stupid and emaciated”).

Crap like Tesco’s campaign is being shoved down our throats everywhere. I’d love to see more images of young women like Creative Skill Set Cymru’s poster. Their message is “join our apprenticeship scheme and you can be strong, beautiful and proud without compromising your body”. More of this please.

My Experiences of Queer (In)Visibility in Conservative Rural England

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I’m currently visiting my parents’ house where I spent a big chunk of my teenage years and did a lot of my “what the fuck am I?” angst in the pre-internet extremely conservative rural environment of Smalltown where my queer role models were non-existent.

A few days ago, I was sitting in the garden reading and watching the bees in the honeysuckle. Later, my mum’s next door neighbour commented to her that she had seen me in the garden, saying “you can tell she’s from London: they can look however they like and no-one bats an eyelid” (she’s right: in London few people are rude enough to comment on my appearance to my friends or family, whereas a few miles down the road from Smalltown the carers at my grandma’s nursing home make no attempt to hide their staring and muttering when they see me).

Ah yes, that distancing word: “they”. “They, The Queers”, “They, The Youth”, “They, The Disabled”, “They, Those People Who Are Not Like Us”. What’s so remarkable about how I was looking anyway? I was wearing knee-length cut-down jeans, sandals, a t-shirt, glasses, no make-up, no jewellery apart from a wristwatch, and it’s unlikely she’d have spotted my tattoos at such a distance. I do have very short (undyed at the time) hair, so it must be that.

I just buzz my hair, it’s not like I have a tattoo covering my entire face and a whale penis grafted onto my right arm. It’s not like she even knows the things about me I’d expect her to think are weird: that I’m poly, kinky and genderqueer (I hope she’d think of bisexuality as “normal” but I’m not holding my breath). As a queer, even as a non-queer, I’m not that remarkable to look at (this is a privilege), so if I’m feeling the oppression in small-minded Smalltown, what must it be like for less-privileged queers here and in similar places? An MtF or FtM transsexual, for example; a queer person of colour; a queer person with a same-sex partner: a queer guide dog user: or a poly person who is visiting along with two or more partners, or with partners and metamours (I’m yet to visit Smalltown with any partners other than one particular partner who I’ve been with for nine years).

The disconnect I find I experience increasingly regularly between what I see as everyday and unremarkable and what the outside world sees as everyday and unremarkable, and the position of the line across which someone is worthy of comment as weird or unusual — take, for example, the recent debate on same-sex marriage in Parliament, where MPs arguing against the Bill threw around dire predictions about how, if it passed, the flood-gates would open to (shock, horror!) opportunities to “marry your son” or “marry your pet”, “polygamy”, and a future “lesbian Queen” as our Head of State, to which I thought “yeah, and these are dire or even remarkable because…? — is heightened here in Smalltown.

Growing up here, I was acutely aware that I was somehow different from those around me but had no visibly queer role models or even an understanding of the term “queer” to begin to unpack and examine what was behind my feelings of not fitting in. Lévi-Strauss‘s famous quote about Amerindians putting animals on their totem poles not because they are “good to eat” but because they are “good to think” is relevant here: the concept of an animal is a tool for us to think about things that may or may not have something to do with the animal itself, they give us metaphors, “they followed her like sheep” or “he crept silently like a panther”, for example. If I had had role models and information that had expanded my concept of “queer” beyond “gay” (I knew I wasn’t this), “weird” (I assumed that I must be this, as I was told so so regularly), “someone who is disgusting and untrustworthy who should be avoided” (I wished I didn’t feel like I was this), and a playground insult, I would have had a better chance of unscrambling my queer identity earlier, reducing my teenage and early-adulthood angst, and it would have given me the language to explain myself to my peers, and given them a greater range of models of how humans can be and, perhaps, reduced their prejudice and persecution of me (undergoing my schooling under Section 28 probably exacerbated this).

Last night I attended one of my oldest friends’ birthday party and met a few ghosts from my past whom I was glad to leave behind when I left Smalltown at the age of 16, and who are in a that rare group I don’t come across very often of People I’m Not Comfortable Being Out To. Queerness in Smalltown is still difficult, some 15-20 years after my school days, which leads me to the question ” Do the queers who leave small-town places like this do a disservice to the next generation of queers by not remaining and being visible?”. The answer is an uncomfortable and guilty “yes, but it’s too damn difficult to stay and it’s too damn difficult to be out when I do come back”.

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