A Respectful Conversation About Gender
Norwich Arts Centre
Sunday 3rd February 2019
Presented by NAC and LJ Hope Productions
Last Sunday night I attended a respectful conversation about gender.
The evening was hosted by Katy Jon Went who introduced all the other speakers as her friends - a full list of speakers and their bios are at the end of this article.
I’ve seen Katy before but I didn’t know her - as much as this article is about the discussions around gender, I think it is worth noting her warmth and humour, which in my opinion is what kept this event respectful and enjoyable, so bravo Katy!
The discussion was kicked off by Tori Cann who told us that she believed gender was a performance and discussed society’s expectations of gender norms. This swiftly moved on to Linda Bellos, who gave us examples of personal experiences where she had been accused of using the wrong toilet and been called Sir when she was 6 months pregnant due to the way she looked. Everyone agreed that people should always be treated equally regardless of their gender - whether or not everyone meant the gender assigned at birth or how they identify as is another matter!)
Linda went on to talk about how she is perceived as transphobic and passionately said she felt “lesbians are being erased”. Personally I really don’t really understand the comment, but I think it is fair to say here I am not a lesbian so therefore can’t speak from that perspective but still, I don’t understand it. Linda continued to tell us how she had been attacked online for being transphobic, it was clear that no one from the panel agreed with anyone being abused for their opinions. Alison Heather Smith interjected that as a lesbian she didn’t agree with the comments made, and said she believed Linda was not viewed in a favourable way due to her political viewpoints not her sexuality. I agree with this.
Katy moved the conversation onto the LGBT+ community and how there is conflict and ‘phobias’ within the community, with different groups believing they are more oppressed than others. This was an interesting topic and something most of the panel were in agreement about; why should there be a hierarchy within a community which is already marginalised?
We then heard from Sarah Corke who is intersex, who spoke about how internal hierarchy had affected her and the effects of hormones in intersex people. Katy at this point introduced Esther Lemmens, who summed up the way I feel: that she thinks she has it figured out with what gender is and then she is back to being confused. Tori interjected here with a statement which I’m sure anyone reading this will agree with: “gender roles hurt everyone”. Something that I had been discussing over a very small wine the night before is that basically the patriarchy is to blame.
The discussion moved onto cis-gender and trans-gender identities, something I was expecting to spark some passion. There was agreement that society has gender expectations, but this led to a slightly heated debate between Charlie Caine and Linda, where Charlie spoke of a sense of identity and how trans-men have experienced ‘male privilege’. Charlie was a great, passionate speaker.
Looking at my notes I’m unsure as to at what point the discussion finished and the questions from the audience began … and for the sake of my wordcount, let’s move onto the questions.
Sadly there was only time for four and the stand out for me was from Julie Bremner who asked how we could be better allies to the trans community, who are amongst the most oppressed? Charlie answered this by suggesting people donate to www.mermaidsuk.org, a charity supporting young people and their parents who are experiencing gender nonconformity. Linda seemed aghast at the suggestion of this, but my opinion is that the organisation does a great job!
Until this point, I have really focused on what was said and not really given my opinion; so here you go… As a cis-gendered woman I will never claim to be able to understand what anyone who experiences gender nonconformity goes through, however what I will do is aim to be the best ally I can be; by standing up for and educating myself. Fierce Babes is an intersectional feminist group and for me and my peers, radical feminism has no place in society. I did speak to some members of the Norwich Radical Feminist group and asked them why they held their opinions, I listened and held my anger (difficult) as one of them basically told me how she didn’t feel safe going to the toilet if there is a trans woman in there. When I relayed what she had said back I was told I was missing the point, although it didn’t sound like it to me. I then said as it was a discussion around gender, I felt it was heavily focused on transwomen and questioned their views on transmen, the answer was shocking… essentially, it’s not so bad because they pass better due to the strength of testosterone. At this point our conversation ended.
In conclusion, I would have liked at least 12 more hours of discussion, perhaps even a whole week! Would we have got any more answers? Are there answers to be had? I was really pleased that it was actually a very respectful evening and I truly believe that people can think what they want, but if you don’t have anything nice to say then perhaps keep it to yourself and away from stickers, websites and social media.
Thanks to Katy and friends.
Katy Jon Went (host), founder of GenderAgenda, coordinates Human Library UK, appeared on BBC 'Queer Britain', BBC 'Who, or what, defines you as a woman?', Norwich WOW Festival Linda Bellos, first black woman to join the Spare Rib collective, former leader of Lambeth Borough Council, co-founder of UK Black History Month, BBC 'Who, or what, defines you as a woman?' Charlie Caine, music teacher & composer, Sing with Pride director, appeared on Norwich WOW Festival, BBC 'Who, or what, defines you as a woman?' Tori Cann, UEA Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Humanities and Gender Studies and author of Girls Like This, Boys Like That: The Reproduction of Gender in Contemporary Youth Cultures Sarah Corke, appeared on BBC 'Queer Britain', Norwich WOW Festival Esther Lemmens, editor of Fifty Shades of Gender project Alison Heather Smith, Lesbian feminist teacher and queer ballroom dancer, with many years' experience working with gender-variant teens
Images © Taryn Everdeen