This is a timely project – as a group trans people are at a similar stage now to that reached by gay people in the late 1960s and early 1970s – on the brink of being accepted by wider society, so that people can look beyond the issue of gender identity and learn to value the talents, and the contribution, that trans people can give to the world. (Quote from volunteer)
This report aims to describe a number of the key processes and outcomes of the Brighton Trans*formed project. It draws on feedback from participants and the project team – in italics – observance of the project, meetings with volunteers and others, and attendance at events.
Before the project began – the context
It is worth quoting at length an excerpt from the rationale behind the project, as outlined in the application for Heritage Lottery Fund support:
‘Recently, the need for the project was crystallised by a story in the Brighton Argus – and picked up by the BBC – about a proposal to make council forms ‘gender neutral’ following a recommendation from the Councils Trans Scrutiny Committee. Its reader comments support the claim that Trans people are still excluded from mainstream society in a way that Lesbian & Gay people generally aren’t nowadays. The comments show that any attempt to support equality for Trans people is subject to ridicule and disbelief:
‘So yet again the Transgender/gay community getting their own way! What about what the straight people want? What happens if the married people want to be Mr & Mrs? I like being called Mr and my Wife likes to be called MRS. Why should I be known by another title because some transgender can’t make up their mind if they want to be a woman or man? I think an opposition group might be needed here! But we are straight so any comments we may have against this will probably fall on deaf ears!’
‘why cant the “normal” people of brighton be left alone,as brightonions we have allways been exepted community to all walks of life,the pc loooony melons are now taking the preverble urine. if you want to change your self from a martin into a mary”thats fine your choice” but also “your problem”why do hetrosexual’s have to bow down to being all pc so you dont get upset.all you here now is i cant get on in life becuase im black,disabled,gay etc what about the
“normal people”.’ [original spelling and punctuation retained]
In response to these viewpoints, a project that seeks to explore and explain the history of Trans people, and to use a number of platforms to disseminate the outcomes, is the only way to counter this prejudice – as the Co-ordinator of the Trans Comedy Project outlines: ‘Trans representation in the media has not been brilliant: often clumsy and at best mawkish. For a long time now the ownership of the trans community’s identity has been by the media. People often take their social cues from the media about how to react to minorities, and to see trans people being directly involved in projects rather than being talked about, sends a powerful signal, and this will create
better acceptance. This project will encourage other trans who do not wish to remain hidden to step up and get involved. While we may have right on our side it“s rare for people to come knocking on our door so we have to be part of the solution’.’
Before QueenSpark applied for funding from Heritage Lottery Fund, we consulted with a number of organisations in the city, and received support from them. The number was not exhaustive; we discreetly canvassed support rather than going public with our intention, as we were worried about creating a too-exhaustive process that might a) complicate the application itself, with individuals from organisations (including ours) having to extensively consult and agree on the text, with the possibility that the application would be unsuccessful, and b) raise false expectations. However – and because we had been discreet – when it became public knowledge that QueenSpark had received just under £80,000 funding, there were those who were involved with other groups – already engaged for some years in trans support work, and who had for many years been marginalised, misrepresented, exploited and misunderstood when having done so – who felt that it was an affront to them that we received the funding: ‘You’re not a trans organisation’; ‘there’s no way that trans people will trust you’; ‘that money should have gone to us’; ‘this is another example of outsiders using trans people and their experiences to get money’.
They were reasonable points, and meetings were held with individuals and organisations in an effort to try and reassure them that QueenSaprk’s modus operandi, developed over many years, was to work with groups that we weren’t necessarily ‘a part of’ – and that as ‘Brighton & Hove’s community publisher’ our aim was to provide a platform to allow people to speak ‘in their own voice’, a process and outcome which we would manage sensitively. In addition, to counter claims of appropriation, we assured people that, although we couldn’t guarantee that all paid posts would be filled by trans people, we would ensure that a) special effort would be made to advertise and promote such posts via trans networks, and b) that a central aim of the project was to train trans people – in oral history interviewing, editing, sound recording and editing, book design and book editing, and radio broadcast – in order that they would be able to lead on such work in the future, should they want to.
Although not all individuals and organisations could initially be said to be ‘on board’ – sharing their antipathy via social networks – sufficient goodwill and trust was generated in order to widely advertise the Project Manager post. The subsequent appointment of somebody who was not trans – although the interview candidate list including trans people – was generally accepted, as the successful candidate was locally well-known as a promoter of equality issues.
The first stage of the project was to recruit local trans people who might be interested in interviewing and/or being interviewed by other trans people, as the central outcomes – in whatever media – were going to be life stories. Here, local networks were key:
(I found out about the project) from a post to Clare Project Facebook Page.
I found about it through emails from LGBT HIP, and also from (the Project Manager).
I moved to Brighton in February and got involved with people that are part of the project. They told me about it.
I found out about it through the Clare Project.
To QueenSpark’s, and some trans activists’, surprise, many more people – from all age ranges and cultures – than expected came forward to take part in the different aspects of the project – the desire to ‘tell our story’ was immediately apparent. At this point it was important that everybody knew what the aims and parameters of the project were, what their role might entail, and, indeed, how they could influence the process and outcomes, so there were a number of group and individual meetings undertaken, led by the Project Co-ordinator:
(I understood) just that it was about giving people the chance to express their thoughts about themselves in their own way, not to have the realities of their lives defined by others. It was very clear what we were being asked to do, although the scope of the project seemed to expand (blossom) over time.
‘I was hoping we could contribute to building up a trans history; so often LGBT history month focuses on the L and G and ignores B and T. The prospect of a book was exciting. Even if it just turned out to be very low key, (and worst case – no book) I believed it would be really valuable – everything was carefully explained from the outset, and everything unfolded as I was expecting.’
‘(I understood) there would be recorded interviews with trans people in Brighton, an exhibition and a book. I was at early discussions in which we talked about the importance of transgender people being widely involved in the development of the project.’
‘It was clear. All our tasks were relatively independent from each other, but it was a big project with lots of smaller parts.’
It was a very complex process:
Due to the particular needs of the group we were working with, their distrust of the media and the importance of them making creative and editorial decisions it became an extremely demanding project.
Separate workgroups were formed in order to train in the use and practice of the respective media and to collaboratively make the creative decisions, with guidance from QueenSpark (for example, the book design group studied many of the books from QueenSpark’s archive in order to decide on aspects such as the size and shape of the finished book, how photographs and text could be represented, what sort of paper and cover would be used).
The process was done with great patience, goodwill and careful consideration for the complexities of the subject.
I learned to conduct and record interviews, to edit transcripts and do some audio editing. Personally I gained a great feeling of involvement in a community project, a sense of achievement and belonging.
I really do think that those who were drawn in to this project were given a great sense of empowerment and dignity. And that sense of dignity has spread throughout the trans community. It is really extremely powerful.
There were 536 volunteer hours logged across the project, which included 44 group and one to one meetings. However, the process was so wide-ranging – for example, many volunteers were involved in this process whilst also being involved in organising Europe’s first Trans Pride march and event, and sometimes the roles were indistinguishable; individuals within specific workgroups often discussed/e-mailed each other outside of set sessions; all workers reported that the demands of the project were much more than they were contracted for; the proof reading of the book went through multiple individuals from QueenSpark’s Management Committee – that this is a considerable underestimate of the time volunteered.
Many of the individuals involved were profoundly aware of the importance of the project – hence their commitment to offering so much of their time – and are thoughtful about how their involvement impacted upon them, and how the process challenged them.
I’ve worked on many community and arts projects over the last fifteen years, but Brighton Trans*formed has been unique in the scope and ambition of the project, but also by placing the community it seeks to represent at the heart of the heritage and creative process.
Due to the specific needs of the community we were working with, there were many demands on time in terms of reassurance, consultation, and making sure that people felt they were fairly and genuinely represented. This placed a big time and personal demand, especially over the last couple of months of the project. The process triggered a lot of deep emotion for many people and they needed a lot of one to one support – which I was happy to give as I believed so strongly in the project.
(I gained) the opportunity to re-examine my own experience and gain better understanding of myself. Then developing an appreciation and empathy for the often very different life experiences of others. The benefits for me personally- and I feel certain the community- have gone way beyond my original expectations.
(I gained) experience in working with so-called vulnerable people, managing schedules of 6 people, letting go of things I don’t have control over.
(I gained) confirmation of the hugely varied experiences and outlook of trans people – this is an area where people are involved in the most profound upheaval in their lives, involving the deepest relationships with family, partners and friends, and defining their very identity.
As mentioned, the project coincided with Brighton’s Trans* Pride march and event. This became a major focus of our Spring/Summer activity, culminating in a multi-site exhibition – including photographs, listening posts, trans paraphenalia, creative expressions of trans identities – across the city, and a large-scale projection of photographs of our trans interviewees in a major thoroughfare of the city on a Saturday night.
It should be acknowledged that, given that the project expanded in ways beyond our initial expectations – the number of interviewees; the number of volunteers; the complexity of ensuring that all volunteers felt that their opinion and experience was valued, and acted upon; the Trans* Pride event – some aspects weren’t completed as planned: whilst a sound editing and radio training group was formed, whose members edited the first round of interviews, later interviews had to be completed by professionals due to time constraints; as it was decided that the website should tie in with the look of the book, work on the former was not able to begin until the book was published – again, meaning that time ran out to fully manage a volunteer process in that regard.
However, when asked what could have been done to improve the project, volunteers were not unduly concerned:
Not much (could be improved) to be honest, given that Brighton Transformed developed into something far better than I could possibly have imagined
I’m not sure. I do think it took time to gain traction, maybe because there’s no one “noticeboard” for the T community about upcoming events.
Better arrangement / division of tasks; the person being in charge had too much stuff going on and I think it would have helped if we had shared specific tasks a bit more to make the whole process more transparent
The book was published and launched on the 24th September, receiving coverage from local, national and international media and websites; 50% of the profit from the sales will be donated in perpetuity to the Trans* Pride Alliance. Since its publication, it is being sold via QueenSpark’s website to such diverse place as trans clinics in Romania and South Africa, police forces across the UK, stores such as Waterstones and many local outlets, and individuals from around the world. It was mentioned as part of the Independent on Sunday’s Rainbow List 2014, and the project has forged links with, and/or been publicised on, BBC Pride, InterMedia, Lesbian Lives, Polari, The Gay Directory, LGBT History Month, Trans Agenda UK and Gires UK. The website will be launched mid-November, and will include full transcripts of interviews, audio recordings and photographs.
For QueenSpark, it is apparent that Brighton Trans*formed has been the most challenging, time-consuming, and important project that we have worked on, for at least a decade; as generous as the funding from HLF was, it was not enough to fully support the individual time and effort of those involved – as mentioned, all workers devoted much more than their paid-for time, and volunteers worked way beyond any other project that we’ve recently undertaken.
As the reach of the project expands, it becomes more apparent that the impact has been profound, both on those involved and, potentially, on wider society – as described by the participants:
(The project raised) awareness of the REAL lives of trans people, in that we are people first and foremost, and as much a part of Brighton as anyone else.
This is the most important thing that’s happened in my life since the birth of my son.
A neglected group of people have begun to find their voice, gain confidence and explain themselves to a wider world in their own words, setting the agenda rather than responding to outside questions which can be ill-considered and ill-informed.
(There is a) wider awareness by Brighton residents of the T community in the city (not just among the LGBT community); also empowerment of T people; for too long have these stories remained untold – now other T people will feel that they too can have a voice and thereby feel stronger and less isolated.
I think BT has sent out ( and will continue to send) a message that says “ We’re here, and we are o.k.” And I believe the wider community is receiving that message, embracing it and us. And replying “ Yes you are.” I think this is the start of a demystification process that will have enormous benefits for our community.
AMAZING! Ground-breaking and so important.
I think that Brighton Trans*formed has resulted in a book that will be of historical importance in times to come. The project has helped bring the community together, has seriously empowered many of the participants, making them feel they have a choice, a voice, and that their opinions and contributions are valid. It’s a beautiful book – a million miles away from so many dry oral histories – it’s a lasting testament.
Click on the links in the top right to read/hear the stories.