Thursday, 23 February 2017

LGBTHM17: 7 Trans Muslim Activists Everyone Should Know About

A common argument made by those on the far-right is that the entire religion of Islam is anti-LGBTQIA+. The likes of *45, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen love to spread their fearmongering ideology because it allows them to control the narrative. Why on earth do you think their followers online keep telling gay men that they will be thrown off buildings if the UK becomes "Islamified" and keep telling bisexual women that they'll be forcibly raped to try and "cure" them of their sexuality? One way of combating such rhetoric is to remind these Alt-Righters that there are open, progressive Muslim activists who identify as LGBTQIA+ and who are actively trying to change hearts and minds within their own communities with regards to LGBTQIA+ people. I feel for LGBT History month 2017 (LGBTHM17) it's time to highlight a few of my favourite trans Muslim activists based in Muslim-majority countries and the wonderful work they have done and continue to do.
  1. Sally Mursi openly declared her desire to transition from male to female in 1988 in Egypt. Egyptian Muslims were so divided on the issue that the Grand Mufti, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy was asked to rule on whether transgender status should be spiritually legal. He decided that trans people could spiritually change their gender in a legal way (through releasing a fatwa). Mursi was studying as a medic at the time (in her 4th year) but unfortunately the medical school rejected her after her transition, even though a court ruled in her favour twice. Mursi is now a dancer but she's still trying fighting to return to medical school as a point of principle to allow other trans students to enter the medical profession in the future.
  2. Yasmene Jabar is an American trans woman activist who married a Jordanian Muslim. Jabar helped organise the first transgender conference to be held in the Middle East in 2005 and now hopes to become an actor, using her experience to help give authenticity to her performance and increase empathy for trans people across the board.
  3. Fatemah Javaheri is an Iranian professor of sociology who has written for journals about trans issues all across the world. Javaheri did a study of Iranian trans rights in 2010 for the Iranian Studies journal and notes that even though rights for Iranian trans people exist (and have done since the early 1980's) they still face challenges with regards to finding long term employment in the professions....there are no openly trans judges or lawyers in Iran, for example.
  4. Demet Demir is a Turkish trans female politician who has faced arrest, assault, harassment over the years. Demir was first arrested after a military coup in 1980, again in 1982 and was arrested and tortured in 1991.  Demir had to work as a prostitute to support herself and her experience convinced her to establish the first sexual minorities commission within the Turkish Human Rights Organisation, where she helped campaign successfully against Article 159, which prevented women from working without their husband's consent and Article 438, which allowed punishment to be decreased by 1/3 in cases of violence against prostitutes. Demir was the first trans woman and the first person to be considered a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International due to her "sexual orientation". Demir completed her transition in 1996 and ran for office in 1999. Demir also fought for her right to change her gender on legal documentation.
  5. Bindiya Rana is a transgender female activist and social worker from Karachi who founded the Gender Interactive Alliance Pakistan which aims to support trans people by educating them about health risks (including getting HIV/AIDS through unprotected sex) and providing access to employment advice and counselling programmes. Rana ran for public office along with a handful of hijras in 2013. Rana has recently helped to campaign for same-sex trans marriages to be legally recognised in Pakistan. Clerics in Pakistan have recognised the right for trans people to enter heterosexual marriage but that's still discriminatory against lesbian or gay trans people.
  6. Alex Mamytov is a Kyrgyzstani trans male activist who was subjected to forms of local "conversion therapies" (moldo voodoo priests and shamans) by his mother after being kicked out of university for having a perceived lesbian relationship. Mamytov and Anna Kirey and Anna Dovgopal of Labrys help develop workshops which help to inspire self confidence amongst  trans people. Mamytov is now a Project Coordinator at the Youth Human Rights Group, which works with orphans and young activists as well as developing human rights initiatives in Kyrgyzstan. Mamytov notes the example of old trans men who have raped and who never got to transition but also states that it's much more acceptable to be a passing trans person than a lesbian or gay person because they say trans people are "mistakes of nature". It's quite interesting to read from Mamytov's blog that trans people in Kyrgyzstan can be homophobic because of their lack of understanding regarding the relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation. Some don't understand why a trans man would want to be with another man, for example. Mamytov wants to challenge these assumptions within the trans community whilst working to get legal recognition of gender identity and easier access to Gender Reassignment Surgery.
  7. Nadeem Kashish is a Pakistani trans male activist who helps to run the Shemale Association for Fundamental Rights (Safar) which helps to advance the rights of the "hijra" community (which includes transgender, transsexual, transvestites and other groups who are recognised as "third sex"- neither male nor female). Safar have campaigned for the building of a new mosque in Islamabad to welcome Muslims regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Kashish knows of 2,700 trans people in Islamabad even though only 2,500 are registered in the whole of Pakistan. 
Sally, Yasmene, Fatemah, Demet, Bindiya, Alex and Nadeem are all part of a movement towards a progressive, trans inclusive form of Islam. Yes they have faced crushing physical and emotional prejudice and discrimination within their respective countries but they have managed to rise above the abuse shown to them to speak out in a positive way to help enact social change. I can't speak for them or own their narrative or exploit it for my own ends. Nobody who has not faced the oppression they have faced can really do that. The key thing is to recognise their contribution to trans activism, to amplify their stories using the platforms that even I as a white trans Christian woman in the West am  lucky to have access to. If their stories have interested you, you should definitely search them on Google or try to find their Twitter accounts. Give them a shoutout when you have access to a political or social platform and challenge the stereotypical views of Islam as "incapable of reform from the inside" or "not for LGBTQIA+ people to practice". With knowledge comes power; the power to open minds and hearts not just to benefit ourselves but to benefit others too. Trans people certainly do not agree on everything and I know there will be some who may be reticent to talk about trans Muslims having similar wishes for acceptance and respect as they do because they don't want to offend friends who may disagree with Islam in general. However, empathy is something that can be demonstrated universally, across religious, political and cultural boundaries. You don't have to be a trans Muslim to empathise with their experience. Be brave enough to use your platform to amplify voices who may seem initially different from yours this LGBTHM17.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Alt-Righters Writing Off Liberal and Left Wing Protestors and Protests As Useless Are Just Plain Wrong

Alt-Right Vs Realism & Intersectional Feminism: One Reason Why I Protest
Isn't it nice being bombarded on Twitter by people (usually white, male Alt-Right leaning conservatives)  who believe that your gender identity is invalid or claim that you have never experienced abuse/hate rhetoric due to your gender identity or sexuality? What about race or nationality? Or even Disability? The Alt-Right movement seems to be one that exists to provoke people rather than discuss political, cultural and social issues in a constructive manner. Look at the recent example of Paul John Watson, an Alt-Right commentator who "offered" to pay journalists to visit Sweden to see how "culturally enriched" and dangerous the country had become as a result of immigration (especially "Muslims from the Middle East"). I've been to Malmö and I've never felt fearful for my own safety whilst walking in the streets. Isn't it rather ironic when I checked the Swedish website http://www.bra.se/bra/brott-och-statistik/statistik/utsatta-omraden/malmo.html I saw that crime figures had generally fallen in the last few years. Yes murder rates had increased but there were only 12 murders in the city in 2016, compared to 7 in 2014 and it's mostly related to drug gang warfare. Such gangs exist in most cities around the world. Hardly new. Malmö is not the "culturally enriched" hellhole Monsieur Watson tried to portray, is it?

The Alt-Right feed off interpreting situations in an extremist, often irrational way. So no wonder I had a Pepe meme Islamophobic Brexiteer Twitter account call me a racist for pointing out the Alt-Right movement is predominately white supremacist based and one key idea seems to be that immigration should be stopped from countries where Islam is the main religion "to stop rape of women from happening." He (I'm assuming it was a he) offered no qualification for this statement other than to quote the now completely debunked Frankfurt New Years Eve attack on women by 900 migrants fabricated by two people which ended up being in German tabloid Bild and then quoted by the Alt-Right media outlet, Breitbart. One of the people interviewed wasn't even in Frankfurt on NYE yet this Alt-Righter took the Breitbart/Bild articles as gospel like truth. Honestly, if Breitbart reported that Queen Elizabeth II had a bisexual lover called Esmeralda this guy would have believed it to be true without bothering to check other sources. When you think Breitbart employs people like crude Milo Yiannopoulous as its "senior technology editor" and had Steven "I wanna destroy the Republican Party for the sheer hell of it" Bannon as its executive chair you know that media outlet's going to spread fake news (with alternative facts) like wildfire. That's without the deplorable Pizzagate smear against Hillary Clinton's campaign (that alleged they knowingly took part in a child sex ring). Anyways, back to crazy Pepe meme guy who thought that rape was primarily the fault of immigrants.  Don't guys like him know that rape can be perpetrated by white Christian men too? Mind you, a study by Edwards et al (2014) "found that a third of university male students didn't know what rape was and would even go as far as to rape a woman if they know nobody would find out" (thanks to Elena Guthrie and Sidonie Bertrand-Shelton of the Kicking the Kyriarchy podcast for that nugget!) If male uni students really do believe this, what about those who haven't been to uni? Super scary!

As I've talked/blogged about before, I was orally raped on my way home from a nightclub in December 2009 by a white man wearing a cross...he may have been a heterosexual Christian for all I know but my story and that of countless rape victims, including men who had been sexually abused and raped as boys by Catholic priests demonstrates that eliminating immigration from Muslim majority countries (whether illegal or not) won't eliminate rape as the Alt-Righter had suggested. Eliminating immigration won't eliminate sexual assaults or domestic violence either, whether the victim identifies as female, male or non-binary or any other identity they choose to ascribe to themselves. Alt-Righters who never bother to donate or help out at a Domestic Violence and Domestic Abuse (DVA) survivor shelter or Rape survivor charity can't get on their high horse and talk about "being the best people" or "electing the best people" to protect us all from rape, sexual assault or DVA. It's usually their "dreaded foe", us intersectional feminists, radical feminists, self-defining feminists, egalitarians or just amazing, warm hearted folks who donate and help out on a regular basis. I'm #SorryNotSorry to keep on reiterating that. Women's Aid under Polly Neate has done far more to help domestic violence survivors than the arch anti-feminist cray-cray gun-toting Milo will ever do for male survivors of domestic abuse and domestic violence, let alone female or non-binary survivors. Yes I want to see domestic abuse and domestic violence services better tailored towards helping LGBTQIA survivors, elderly survivors, disabled survivors..in fact any survivor regardless of gender identity or sexuality but Milo and his gang have never mentioned such a desire once. Then again, what do you expect from a guy that intentionally misgenders a trans woman activist on live TV whilst wearing the fakest looking pearls available on the open market (yes I'm talking about that bizarre Bill Maher appearance last week!!)

When Alt-Righter men say that feminism reduces men's rights, I'll ask whether they're aware of feminists and egalitarians who strive to improve rights for all survivors of domestic violence and abuse that they should be interested as men in participating in. Because if you don't give a flying fig for male survivors of domestic violence and abuse or male survivors of rape but you hark on about feminism being a danger to masculinity because it'll erase "real" men, you've got your priorities wrong, mate. Start advocating for better service provision for survivors and you might, just might, get positive comments from the feminists you seek to decry who have been involved in projects to help survivors and to reduce instances of rape. Care about projects such as #AskForAngela (a project designed to help women and men and non-binary people to protect themselves from dangerous dates by getting the bar manager to call a taxi for them without the date trying to follow them home). We should all care about reducing instances of rape that occur on university/college campuses and if the #AskForAngela campaign helps to do this, that's great. Only those that believe they'll never be in danger of rape because they are "strong enough" to resist do not advocate for a reduction in rates of rape, including those that are committed by a friend or family member. Remember: it's not just an issue confined to one race, one gender identity or one type of sexuality. It affects us all.

The age-old attack against a general sense of feminism repeatedly surfaces among the Alt-Right commentators. Of course there are some feminist ideas that are perhaps unpalatable to many; Jill Johnston's 1974 book Lesbian Nation: the Feminist Solution, for example posits that there should be a separation of men and women and that sex amongst women should be seen as a political statement to undermine the domination and power of man. As a trans intersectional feminist who identifies as asexual, Johnston's suggestion wouldn't really cover me particularly well. Such radical feminist thinking doesn't reflect the whole feminist movement, even if Milo seems to think it does. In fact, it's almost in the lifeblood of the Alt-Right movement to be against anyone who voices any remotely positive comment that may have originated from a self-defining feminist. Alt-Right commentators lie when they proclaim that feminists are not talking about Female Genital Mutilation- FGM (we do - e.g. Somalian anti FGM activist Nimco Ali who co-founded and is Director of the Daughters of Eve not-for-profit organisation that provides support to girls and women living in FGM communities to try and prevent FGM and look after those who have gone through FGM). Alt-Righters talk about feminists not being interested in making sure white working class boys get a decent education (we are but what's stopping male MPs in helping us to come up with solutions-e.g. getting more Dads to read stories to their boys on a nightly basis to get them interested in reading for themselves) and they talk about feminists wanting to reduce men to a state of servitude (we really don't want to do that). It's quite funny really but I bet the majority of Alt-Right commentators have never heard about transfeminists like Julia Serano  or black queer feminists such as Kimberlé Crenshaw who coined the term intersectionality in 1989 to highlight the need for academic feminists to talk about empowerment for all women, not just middle class white ones like Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston. It's almost as if Alt-Right tweeters do not value the importance of education or finding out such facts or views on one's own...they rely on Breitbart and Info Wars to feed facts and views to them. That might explain why they snarl at successful working class graduates and say that university is no place for those who hold conservative values because they can't help but end up being "indoctrinated" by left wing professors who believe in same sex marriage...or even worse....feminism! If being given the impetus to seek out articles, reviews or books on one's own when an English and Philosophy student is now seen as "indoctrination", then there's a definite attempt to stifle critical thinking. If potential working class students should be shamed into dropping out of unis because they are "liberal paradises" then social mobility improvements might stall further and we won't get lawyers, doctors, teachers or MPs from working class backgrounds acting as great role models for others and helping to make society even more equal. That'd be a great shame!

Is the Alt-Right really "constrained" Freedom of Speech wise?
On campuses across the West, Alt-Right (usually white men) proclaim that feminists, trans activists, migrants and environmental protestors are "stifling" their freedom of speech. Well forgive me if I don't sound that impressed with Milo sycophants constantly comparing any idea or concept that they see as liberal, progressive or left as equivalent to a disgusting, painful disease like cancer. "Feminism is Cancer", "Islam is Cancer", "Transgender is Cancer"...what's next...."Elderly War Veterans asking for more social care funding is Cancer"?? It's rather a slippery slope philosophically to keep comparing an idea to something every people wants to see eradicated from the world and yet still demand that everyone respect their right to free speech. Demonstrations of free speech come in different forms. These days you can create your own platform through tweeting, Facebook messaging/posting, podcasting, vlogging, blogging and letter writing and all are valid forms of free speech. If you're lucky enough to get noticed, you end up attending debating societies, taking part in lectures and talks and appearing on talk shows or political shows. Yet whenever Alt-Righters manage to gain access to such platforms that they've constantly demanded to be included on, they use it to proclaim silly things like "Feminism Is Cancer" and "Feminazis are curtailing my right to free speech." Not strictly true if you've managed to gain enough notoriety/acclaim to get on a prime time/ late night show. Alt-Right commentators don't seem to do anything productive or positive with the platform. They use the platform to whine about how they are being perceived by the mainstream media despite those media outlets now helping to give them a national or international platform. Alt-Righters moan about hard working migrants taking agricultural jobs away from "indigenous" white folks like themselves without understanding those migrants are prepared to do the back-breaking, tough jobs to help make ends meet and create a better life for themselves. As for the  moralisation over trans and non-binary people, claiming they are "in total denial" with a majority "being a real threat" to women and girls in bathrooms when they've never bothered advocating for stronger jail terms for rapists or sexual predators....that's just fearmongering to the max. No wonder there's little time for mainstream news anchors, journalists and activists to try and foster discussions about economic inequality, hospital bed shortages or rural bus services with Milo et al. Issues that actually matter to the public at large. The Alt-Right whinge a lot about political activists and protestors but they never seem to come up with valid solutions to genuine issues and concerns. Perhaps Alt-Righters only care about their own self-promotion after all!

So yes, Alt-Righters constantly moan about not being able to express their views freely. Notwithstanding, they should know this: freedom of speech does not mean freedom of speech without there being consequences. Remember that quote formally attributed to Voltaire but turned out to have actually been written by his female biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her Friends of Voltaire (1906): "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." Alt-Righters may have the right to say "Feminism Is Cancer" on their own platform but feminists have the right to dispute, mock and critique that sentence on our platforms too. When Milo states that trans women are not women, he should expect to be challenged by trans activists and their allies.  I'm not a Milo sycophant so do not expect me to sit there and deny my own gender identity just to please Milo and make him feel superiorly safe in his own identity. Milo seems to indulge in actively displaying his self loathing, trying to make other LGBTQIA+ people question their own identities at the same time. Questioning of identity leads to doubt which can create fear of those who may seem more confident in their own identity than yourself. Don't fall for it. You should love who you are.

Privilege and White Genocide and Islamophobia: The absurdity of it all...
I'm very lucky to have been born in a relatively democratic country with working class parents who toiled to make a better life for me and my brother. My Norwegian-Swedish Mum found life hard in the UK after growing up under the apartheid regime in South Africa. Being called racist just because of the country she grew up in knocked her confidence. Yet she persisted and ended up working in the care sector for over 17 years helping to look after the elderly in a care home. I know I am less oppressed than my Mum has been and I certainly know I'm less oppressed than someone who has the same educational history as me but comes from a British BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) background. My parents have liberal views so at least I'm not oppressed for my gender identity at home.

Alt-Righters on Twitter seem to get viscerally offended if white people state that they are less oppressed or more privileged than other groups. "Why are you a traitor to your race you liberal cuck?" was one particular tweet I remember being posted on a hashtag last week. Alt-Righters love accusing liberal protestors of  perpetuating "White Genocide" and being prejudiced towards white working class people. As a white working class person who bothered to get themselves an education by working hard at school and university and reading around widely, I resent the assumption that we white working class people are victims of any genocide. When I think of the term genocide I primarily think of the Holocaust (by the way a Polish Jew called Raphael Lemkin coined the term in 1943 having escaped the Nazis after managing to get permission to enter the US in 1941; he lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust) but there are others, including the 1994 Rwanda genocide where an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered.  Now there is a lot of debate over how genocide should be defined-e.g. whether the UN Convention on Genocide definition created in December 1948 is too broad to be applied but one thing is clear to me: white people in the West are currently not being systematically wiped out on the basis of their race or even their nationality or religious belief. We may have terrorist atrocities being committed by Islamic Fundamentalists who want to spread fear and hatred but such attacks remain rare. When Alt-Righters apply the term "White Genocide" to the result of increasing migration or birth rates as a result of that migration or the increasing amount of refugees from the Middle East who happen to be Muslim, they are being even more inane. Alt-Righters can't keep going around tweeting/telling people to fear an entire group of people based on their religion and/or nationality. Yes, Islamic Fundamentalist terrorists go round throwing homosexuals off buildings and yes they have stoned people to death for committing adultery. But do Alt-Righters really think the majority of refugees or migrants from the Middle East, especially Syria are here to throw trans people like me off buildings or stone love cheats to death on our streets? They come to Europe in search of peace of mind, safety and freedom. They've escaped the oppressive conservative regime of ISIS. You think they really want to help replicate that regime here? If you do, you need to go and talk to refugees and migrants from Syria or listen or read their stories online. But then I doubt Alt-Righters would bother to try and demonstrate this basic kind of empathy. They're too busy stereotyping trans people and bashing the press. What a pity.

To deny LGBTQIA+ Muslims exist in the Middle East and in the West is out and out ridiculousness. They are trying to change hearts and minds. Arsham Parsi is an Iranian who founded the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR) after years of working to help gay Iranians secretly connect with each other. Baron Waheed Alli, a Labour life peer helped to advocate for the lowering of the age of consent in the UK for homosexual acts from 18 to 16, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000. Yes Alt-Righters in the UK who happen to be gay...a gay Muslim Labour peer helped to reduce the age of consent. What do you think about that?

There are trans Muslim activists across the Middle East who are speaking out against regressive fundamentalist Islamic practices. Activists like Demet Demir, a Turkish trans female politician who fought for the right to amend her gender legally and Yasmene Jabar, a US born trans woman who married a Jordanian Muslim and organised the Middle East's first conference on trans issues in 2005. Do you think Demet and Yasmene share the same religious beliefs as ISIS terrorists? No. Progressive Muslims are ashamed of seeing terrorists appropriate their religious beliefs to murder innocent people because they don't agree with fundamentalist practices. Why punish progressives based purely on their religious identity? That's crazy. LGBTQIA+ Muslims are not going to kill you for being LGBTQIA+ because they've seen what ISIS terrorists and fundamentalists (e.g. Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia)  have done to them. They're more than willing to join in with actions to defeat the terrorists but not at the cost of electing a man who wants to ban progressive, peaceful Muslims from entering the US or being given asylum just because a few have used the asylum seeker level as cover to undertake terrorist activists. Why demonise a whole religion for the actions of a few reckless souls who fear change?

A common type of insult that protestors now routinely see on their Twitter accounts and Facebook mentions is that their act of protesting is helping to amplify or even legitimise "radical Islamist terrorist voices". "Do you want Sharia Law to become dominant in the UK?" or "Don't you know that your liberal views are making us less safe" they tweet. I don't know about you dear reader but I didn't see any placards at the Women's Marches calling for homosexuality to be punishable by death or all women being forced to wear hijab to protect their modesty. In the UK wearing hijab is a personal choice, with the right to choose guaranteed by Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (Freedom of Expression). Face veils or full burqa dress are still rarely seen on UK streets; in Lincoln I've only seen a handful of Muslim woman wearing burqas and they were going about their business perfectly normally. Why should I automatically assume they are the wife of a terrorist or a terrorist themselves? The Women's Marches included progressive Muslim voices although the only person cited by conservative and Alt-Right commentators is Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist and executive director of the Arab American Association of New York who served as co-chair of the 2017 Women's March and endorsed progressive Bernie Sanders in the 2016 US Democratic Primary season. Candice Morgan of the Toronto Sun states that Sarsour defends Sharia Law in Saudi Arabia by "speaking positively about their maternity leave being compared to the US and dismissing concerns about the ban on female drivers and forced head coverings for Muslim women." Yet there were and are other progressive Muslim activists involved in the protests who reject Sharia Law, who want to see an end to FGM and to see a more compassionate approach to LGBTQIA+ people. What's so wrong with human rights activists marching in solidarity with those liberal/reformist Muslims?

The Power of Protest Compels You:
In the age of the rise of the populist far right, aided by the proliferation of Alt-Right platforms, empowering forms of liberal and left protest are beginning to become the norm. Nobody expected the Women's March on Washington planned for the day after *45's (Trump's) inauguration to have as large as it turned out to be (500,000 people attended) or that such a march would be replicated around the world (673 marches across all 7 continents, including 1 in Antarctica with an estimated 5 million people having marched in solidarity against *45). Working class, salt of the earth women who never expected to find themselves marching at the front of a huge demonstration are now embrace the liberating feeling of making "their voice heard", with some continuing to brandish their phenomenally witty placards with pride. It seems funny to me that Alt-Righters now seem hell-bent on writing off the Women's March or subsequent marches being attended by liberal or left wing protestors as "not having anything valuable to say". They seem to forget that in the UK or US or Europe that protesting can be seen as a form of freedom of expression that includes speech. Our right to freedom of speech in the UK is enshrined in Article 10 of the HRA based on the articles contained within the EU Convention on Human Rights. Anyone can use the HRA, whether they are a UK national or not. In the UK you have the right to attend a protest as it is guaranteed by Article 11 of the HRA. It states that anyone can attend a protest (freedom of assembly) provided it is peaceful and conducted legally (this means the organiser of a protest march has to notify the police at least 6 days before the march takes place but doesn't need to if the protest will be static). So no matter how much Alt-Righters might complain at those who organise and attend protests, they can't stop peaceful ones from taking place. If you attend a protest, know that you can't be arrested for simply carrying a placard or for wearing a t-shirt but if you get into conversation with an opponent, debate them civilly.

Alt Righters In Doubt Create Controversies To Tarnish The Validity of Liberal & Left Protests & Protestors:
Alt-Righters think they can slander their way towards reducing the size of protests against the populist far right leaders like *45, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. Really, Alt-Righters are just populist far-right supporters who prefer the term "Alt-Right" because it makes them seem cool and hip and "happening". Milo, Paul John Watson, Alex Jones...they're all part of a vanguard of hate designed to instil a sense of fear in the younger generation. Fear of strong women, fear of trans people, fear of refugees/migrants and fear of Muslims. Protestors have seen through their lies. That's why when all is said and done the only tactic Alt-Right commentators have left is to create conspiracy theories which through shade on protest organisers but more importantly, protestors themselves. "Oh every liberal contest is funded by "commie" billionaire (George) Soros and former President Barack Obama cos they hate *45". If only Soros and Obama were that omniscient and omnipotent to sponsor every protest going! Unlike *45, people like Soros and President Obama don't need to claim they are either omniscient or omnipotent to support the right to protest. They don't try to control the narrative. Such a blasé comment engineered by Alt-Right commentators is incredibly insulting to the thousands of working class activists who have paid out of their own pocket to travel to attend marches. Yes cleaners, nurses, retail workers, waitresses, administrative and accounts assistants will have attended the marches in London, Stockholm, Washington and all over the world. Some of them will never have attended a protest before. Some of them will have saved up for over a month to afford the cost of staying over in a hotel just to be part of a movement that touched their hearts. It was their free choice to decide to attend and I dare Alt-Righters to try and take away the valuable validity of their contributions by telling them face to face.

Supporting protests doesn't make you a liberal victim as Alt-Righters would have you believe. You're not a victim for choosing to speak out about the need to protect and respect fundamental rights that have been put in place over the last few decades. When people think you're a victim for speaking out for the need for all of us to unite to protect fundamental rights that are at risk of being taken away by those who think they are "special privileges", then that's exactly the time to consider protest as a first course of action. You're equally not a victim for believing that a person has a duty to care about the situation of vulnerable people around the world, especially refugees from Syria. Alt-Righters may label you a "globalist" and accuse you of not being a patriot but you don't have to be proud of your country's cultural heritage and be insular and fearful of others not born in your country. Proclaiming you're a "Citizen of the World" on a placard indicates that you care about others, regardless of their nationality. You're not a victim for showing compassion towards those who differ from you in terms of gender identity, sexuality, belief/faith, even political views. It's a basic tenet of compassion to show concern and love for your neighbour, something regularly mentioned in The Bible by a certain young man with long hair wearing brown sandals who came from the Middle East.

Supporting protests that uphold our human rights, including the rights of refugees, migrants, LGBTQIA+ people and specific women's rights such as being able to have access to a legal, safe abortion matters greatly. Yet protest can also be a great way of meeting like-minded folks who want to change the world to make it a more understanding, compassionate place. Protesting lets the "powers that be" know that we care about our rights and some protestors use their placards/voices to say that they want to increase the rights/protections we have if possible. Social change happens when we come together and decide that the government we have isn't good enough and we want to do something lawful about it. Protests can help signal this desire, especially as most of the protestors are young Millennials, the group the Alt-Right accuse of being "workshy lazy bums" the most often. The young voters you see protesting in the streets who are 16/17 years old now. They will be 20/21 when the next big elections take place in the US and UK. Don't think that they'll forget marching as part of a huge movement against a man who espouses inward nationalistic protectionist discourse. What voters like them need isn't a strongman who promises the earth and petulantly insults people who disagree with him using Twitter as his vehicle for heated rhetoric. They want someone who is willing to address economic inequality, including asset and wealth inequality without denigrating minority groups to achieve their goals. They want to know that when they do eventually get a job they won't be treated as second class citizens because they happen to be transgender or Muslim or have a facial disfigurement.  If you don't think that protestors in the UK or Norway or Sweden don't have a valid reason to protest, remember that they are protesting in solidarity with those who feel marginalised/vulnerable or feel they may be marginalised/be made vulnerable as a consequence of decisions made by their government. If that doesn't persuade you, it doesn't really matter because the protests will continue to happen anyways. Not just against *45 but against the ideals leaders such as *45 want to espouse. Ideas they share in common with the Alt-Right aka populist far-right who defend transphobic incoherent babblers like Milo and anti-Swedish Islamophobic thin-skinned Paul Watson. These ideas must be confronted head-on. Protesting is just one form of freedom of expression we can use to signal and voice our opposition...a start, rather than an end to political and social discourse, the discourse Alt-Righters crave yet bemoan.
 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

A Liberal Lutheran Christian Pro Choice Approach To The Issue of Abortion

I've been lucky enough to study Religious Studies and Philosophy throughout my educational career. Thanks to having a variety of different tutors, each with their own contrasting, sometimes controversial viewpoints I've been able to learn how to apply an essence of Critical Thinking to my understanding of my own Christian faith. Now one interesting offshoot that has resulted from engaging in a Critical thinking approach is that I've noticed that liberal Christians often get accused of having a "vague conception" of their faith by conservative evangelical Christians. For example, in a recent discussion on the need for all Christians to apply the virtue of Compassion towards trans young people by allowing them to freely choose their gender identity and to decide how they wish to be perceived/labelled by others, a conservative Christian commentator said that I as a liberal Christian did not understand the virtue of compassion because my version of compassion (which is that we should be sympathetic towards those who may lead different lives but do so as to not harm others) was "too vague to stand up to critique" because it would mean that I would end up "approving" of anything anyone ever did...e.g. I'd have to approve of child rape or murder. Now, I believe that our ability to discern compassion is a mixture between following the dictates of one's own personal conscience and interpreting aspects of the Bible that discuss compassionate acts, especially those carry out by Jesus..e.g. his feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew 14: 13-21) or his healing of the blind (Matthew 20:14).

Since the Bible was written 2,000 years ago I can see that it could be quite difficult to discern what Jesus/God/Christians thought specifically about gender identity. However, if you do a bit of digging, you can find Biblical passages that inform a view that as Christians we should show love and respect towards trans young people unconditionally . Such Christians can follow the dictates of their conscience in accordance with an understanding of gender identity as interpreted from the Bible and experiences they've had with trans young people themselves. I've already done the blogpost on Transgender Identity and Bible verses, which you can read here: http://sassysvensknorsk.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/god-made-us-all-in-his-image-get-over.html. I do understand liberal Biblical interpretation can lead to the age old charge that any Christian cherrypicks passages of the Bible to suit their own agendas but as I know conservative evangelical Christians do that as much as us liberal ones, that argument's kinda mooted for me. I prefer an interpretation of the Bible which places emphasis on progress towards true equality, not interpretations that want to root us back in a paternalistic, misogynistic, restrictive past. Christians have to embrace change!  Remember when Jesus threw the moneylenders out of the Temple (Matthew 21:12)? That was seen by followers of Christ as a positive progressive act 2,000 years ago!

Anyways, whilst having aforementioned debate with the conservative Christian commentator, I decided to mention the topic of abortion as an example of where Christians should demonstrate unlimited compassion. I understand that abortion can be an extremely controversial topic for some and I must say that I've wrestled with my view on abortion over the years. At first glance, abortion might seem a "barbaric" practice, against any Christian conception of compassion and certainly not an act to be encouraged. An early Christian text, the Didache written around 150 AD decrees :"do not murder a child by abortion or kill a new born infant". Notice the emphasis on "child" here. Most people would believe it would be wrong to smother an infant in their cot or forcibly remove a foetus from a mother against her will. But is a foetus automatically a child? Is abortion always an act of murder? Can abortion be seen as any part of God's plan in that it could help save the life of the mother or may be appropriate in cases of foetal abnormalities? Can abortion be seen as a positive freely chosen act in any case? I'm going to try and give my answer to these questions below.

Abortion and the Bible:
Firstly it is important to note that abortion has been part of our human experience for thousands of years, even before the birth of Jesus or the writing of the books that make up the Bible.  In early cultures, abortion was brought on through non-surgical methods such as bloodletting, weightlifting, diving or eating irritant leaves. In Ancient Greece, midwives were performing early-term abortions (evidenced in Plato's Theaetetus,) using the herbs silphium or birthwort. Soranus, a 2nd century Greek physician, gave examples of inducing an abortion as enemas, diuretics and jumping so that a woman's heels touched her buttocks-the so-called "Lacedaemonian Leap".

Clearly some of those who were helping to write the Bible would have been aware that abortion existed at least in some form. However, the Bible is vague when it comes to abortion. Abortion practices are not specifically mentioned but there is a passage in Exodus (21:22-24) that describes an incident where two men are fighting and one accidentally punches a pregnant woman in her stomach which makes her give birth prematurely. Such an act is said to be a "non capital offence" unless it results in murder. In the end it's decided that the man who punched the pregnant woman should only be "required to pay a fine" as reparation for the incident. Now we have to be careful and distinguish between a deliberate miscarriage, an accident that causes a miscarriage, an abortion that has to take place to protect the health of the mother and an abortion for reasons other than medical emergency. Someone deliberately causing a miscarriage is deserving of punishment but someone accidentally causing a miscarriage cannot be said to have murdered a foetus because they had no intention of causing harm. A woman who has to make a heart retching decision to prioritise her own health has no intention of causing her baby harm and is therefore not causing an offence punishable by God. In fact, she is deserving of our compassion. I'd also argue that any woman who has to make the decision to have a termination in the first place would be deserving of our understanding and perhaps even our sympathy...i.e. compassion.

Let's go one step further: is there any mention in the Bible about the process of conception, pregnancy or birth? Is it explained in detail so that an alien lifeform who had no knowledge of the human species would only be able to pick up the Bible and gleam from it how life comes into being? The answer is no. Genesis 2:7 for example explains the specific, unique event in which God gave life to Adam- "God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being" but there's no mention of how Adam and Eve procreated and produced their children afterwards. As there's no mention of an abortion event in the Bible, how can conservative Christians definitively claim to know how we should treat those women who have been through one?

Foetuses and the Sanctity of Life Argument:
A common argument that's used against Liberal Christians who defend the practice of abortion (on most levels) is that the foetus has a guaranteed right to life because they become human at the point they are conceived in the womb- i.e. when the sperm meets the egg. The mainstream adherents of the Roman Catholic Church teach that each fertilised sperm life is individual, unique and independent of the father and mother with different features determined by a special genetic code. There are a number of Biblical quotes that refer to the sanctity of life, including Isaiah 44:24: "Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: "I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread" and Jeremiah 1:5: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." These quotes do not distinguish between a fertilised sperm or foetus which means that any deliberate attempt to end the life of a fertilised sperm or foetus would be considered a "grave moral wrong". In fact Pope John Paul II called abortion "the deliberate killing of an innocent human being" in his Evangelium Vitae, 1995. Now I don't disagree with the idea that all life should be seen as sacred. How could I as a Christian? Genesis 1:27-28 tells us that we humans are all made in God's image but that means we have a responsibility for "every living thing that moves upon the earth".  When I was a teenager studying GCSE and A Level Religious Studies, I really did believe that life began at conception and that abortion was always wrong. However, as I began reading differing interpretations of the sanctity of life argument, I began to ask the questions: "is a foetus a person at the moment of conception?" and "is abortion always a morally grave wrong?"

Bruce Waltke, a reformed evangelical professor, argues that the Exodus passage mentioned above shows that God doesn't believe a foetus has a soul because its death hasn't been regarded as murder.  Now I'd argue such a conclusions is tenuous but it does raise questions over whether conservative Christians are right to assert the Bible defines all abortions as murderous acts that have to be harshly condemned.

Arguments over whether a foetus has a soul at conception or whether the soul develops as the foetus develops are age old. If you look at the view of the Ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle, for example, you notice that he believed that abortion was acceptable when the foetus was less than 40 days old if male or 90 days if female, because foetuses didn't have human souls prior to these dates. Interestingly, the early Christian theologian Saint Augustine believed in this sort of distinction but he couldn't definitively say whether partially formed foetuses would be resurrected at the Second Coming of Christ (i.e. the Day of Judgement). However, Saint Augustine did restate the fact that he believed fully formed foetuses could not be aborted as they are fetus animalus - they've developed human limbs and have a human soul. I guess in the Early Dark Ages, if they saw what they thought was an almost fully formed dead foetus being delivered from an mother, they may have automatically assumed they had a soul and they needed to make sure the foetus was baptised, so that he/she could ascend to Heaven. When an earlier stage foetus had been delivered from the mother, they'd have assumed it was a miscarriage unless they saw the woman in question attempting abortion techniques. Nevertheless such incidences are not recorded because many monastic officials in the Roman Catholic Church had little to no experience of every day life, having been educated away from the poorer folk so they could be interpreted as fairly judgemental in their writing whilst not really exercising a reasonable level of compassion.

I don't believe legal personhood begins at conception (the moment the sperm meets the egg) or agree with a kind of Christian Aristotelian approach (minus the inappropriate sexism). Instead, I follow the legal guidance provided to me by the Government that has been created following advice given by scientific consensus. In the UK, this means that any woman can legally have an abortion up to the 24th week of her pregnancy as defined by the Human Embryology and Human Fertilisation Act 1990 (which lowered the limit from 28 weeks that had been set by the Abortion Act, 1967). The limit is set at 24 weeks because this is soon after the common diagnostic sonogram has been conducted (between 18 and 20 weeks) which can detect foetal abnormalities....e.g. if the mother realises the baby will never be able to breathe unaided, she can choose to have an abortion to help prevent emotional distress. After 24 weeks, the foetus is deemed capable of surviving outside the womb, which is why a woman is expected to carry her foetus to full term after this date.
Abortions can be given those aged 12 or older with treatment provided by organisations such as Marie Stopes International but those between the age of 12 and 16 are encouraged to have counselling so they can talk through their decision (this is because the age of consent for sexual activity is currently set in the UK at 16). The law also allows for under 16s to keep the abortion process secret and GPs don't usually need to tell parents about the procedure. GPs are required to ask a woman her reasons for having an abortion and 2 doctors must consent to providing the treatment, usually the GP and a doctor who works at the hospital or clinic where the abortion will take place with a certificate being produced to validate the abortion. Abortion information doesn't go on a patient's medical record either, meaning that the abortion will not be mentioned by any health professional unless the patient raises it herself. UK Legislation also allows for abortions at any time in cases where there is a substantial risk to a woman's life- e.g. if she has developed terminal cancer and requires chemotherapy treatment to prolong her own life, or when there are foetal abnormalities- e.g. anencephaly (lack of brain formation) where the baby dies within a few hours or days of birth. Such abnormalities only occur in 2% of pregnancies and in these circumstances I can perfectly accept a woman's right to choose to have a late term abortion and not to berate her or shame her for making that choice. When it comes to foetuses with Down's Syndrome or Spina Bifida it is up to the mother to decide whether to go through with an abortion but I do acknowledge there are disability groups who continue to be worried that screening may have led to women making a decision to have an abortion because they are too scared to bring up a baby with Down's Syndrome.

Tertullian, a 2nd century Christian theologian, did mention abortion specifically in his writings. He talked about surgical implements that were used to help with dilatation and evacuation-e.g. "a blunt hook" and a "copper needle or spike". Tertullian argued that surgical abortion could be performed in cases where the abnormal positioning of the foetus could endanger the life of a woman" which is similar to the view espoused by the Church of England. If you read the statement from the General Synod of 1983, the CofE argues "that in situations where the continuance of a pregnancy threatens the life of a mother a termination may be justified and that there must be adequate and safe provision in our society for such situations." That being said, the CofE did claim in 1997 that the number of abortions under the Abortion Act was "unacceptably high" whereas I'd argue that women have the right to decide under the law whether to have an abortion or not without being vilified for making that decision.

Then of course there are commentators who would disagree with foetuses having a right to life at all. Feminist Mary Anne Warren for example, contends that "birth marks the beginning of true moral status" and that if conservative Christians argue that "foetuses are persons, then sperm and eggs must be persons too who have a sacred right to life" which seems rather a slippery slope argument. I don't believe that every sperm and every egg is sacred and I don't believe that masturbation or contraception leads to the "murder" of potential persons. I rather take Jonathan Glover's line: if you say that foetuses are persons from the point of conception is to "stretch the term beyond normal boundaries" and that abiding by a legal understanding based on scientific evidence is sufficient. That being said, I'm 100% behind Warren stating that women should have access to medical treatment to ensure their abortion is carried out safely and agree with the UK's current practice which allows abortion to be freely available on the NHS. No woman should be forced to bear children in 2017, whether her sexual partner/husband wants her to. No woman should be forced to carry a foetus to full term that was a consequence of a traumatic rape, regardless of who raped her. If her husband raped her and she fell pregnant, she should not have to take his thoughts into consideration because the act of procreation was not borne out of love. Also, no woman should be forced to have a child soon after having given birth if she doesn't want to. Stating such sentiments doesn't automatically lead to me advocating "abortion on demand". Abortion is, after all, an extremely distressing decision for a woman to make and it really is not made "on the spur of the moment" as some conservatives may suggest. A young woman who finds out she's pregnant as a result of a one night stand doesn't routinely automatically go "oh I'm going to go down the clinic and get a termination" in the afternoon following the news. Hopefully she talks through the decision with friends, family or if they are not available, she talks through the decision herself, laying out the advantages and disadvantages of going ahead with her pregnancy- e.g. whether she'll be able to cope emotionally, physically and financially. She may even talk about adoption. When she hopefully makes that free choice to go to the abortion clinic, she makes it in accordance with the "dictates of her conscience", in a rational manner. Remember that Christians who support abortion aren't arguing that young women should be coerced into having an abortion by a partner, her parents or even health professionals.

What Conscience and Freedom of Choice mean to me:
It's rather interesting to note that the conservative Christian agreed that abortion, alongside sexuality or gender identity was a matter of "free choice". Our individual consciences help us to make key decisions such as whether to enter a same sex marriage, legally change ones gender identity or whether to have an abortion or not. As Joseph Butler posited in his 1726 collection of 15 Sermons, our conscience is the "final moral decision maker"-i.e." a natural guide, the guide assigned to us by the Author of our nature (God)." God gave us freedom of will to take responsibility for ourselves and I believe to choose to embrace the virtue of compassion, regardless of the consequence it may have on our own lives. The Bible mentions God as "the father of compassion" in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 and Jesus talked about the need to be merciful in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:7: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy").  Butler believed there were 2 basic principles governing humans: self-love and benevolence. These principles exist in our minds regardless of our religious faith and a conscience helps us to make decisions adhering to these 2 principles. Our conscience of course may be informed through religious instruction, parental instruction, reading literature or debating with our friends or peers but the Bible seems to tell us that good people make good decisions regardless of how much instruction they may have received if they follow their conscience. Look at the example of Job. God tested him by taking away his sense of security (his children, his home etc) but Job continued to place his faith in God without expecting a reward. Just because I'm a liberal Lutheran Christian and want to help those who need compassion even if they may not want it from someone such as myself, doesn't mean I expect any sanctimonious reward. We should do the right thing regardless of what awaits us in this life or the next. For me, following my conscience means allowing women to make an informed decision about abortion if they are having abortions for any reason within the legal limit.

Conclusion:
It seems to me that conservative Christians now see abortion as "a morally grave evil" to be avoided at all costs. Although they may claim to love women who end up going through an abortion because of their essence of humanity, they are unwilling to accept that abortion itself may be carried out as an act of love or mercy. I do not believe that Christians could be so cruel as to force rape victims to carry a foetus to full term against their will, causing the mother untold mental stress and I do not believe that rape victims should be ashamed for asking for an abortion. If a rape victim wants to carry her child to full term, that is her own decision to make. She should never be coerced one way or the other.

I also believe that women have a free right to choose whether they have an abortion for reasons other than as a result of  preventing a risk to their own health, foetal abnormalities or as a result of rape/incest. Allowing women to access abortion services that are properly funded and properly staffed means that abortions can be carried out legally (in accordance with the Abortion Act in the UK) and safely so as to not unnecessarily endanger the life of the woman going through the abortion. There are risks, such as womb infections or some of the pregnancy remaining in the womb but such complications are relatively rare- e.g. an infection of the womb occurs in up to 1 in 10 abortions. (See the NHS choices page for more information about possible complications: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Abortion/Pages/Introduction.aspx) As EG Raymond stated in The comparative safety of legal induced abortion and childbirth (2012): "a woman's risk of dying from having an abortion is 0.6 in 100,000, while the risk of dying from giving birth is around 14 times higher (8.8 in 100,000)". If a woman freely consents to an abortion having been informed of potential risks, she does not need to have her decision questioned by conservative Christian men who will never fully understand what it is like to be in that situation.

I can embrace scientific progress and that means being thankful that nearly all abortion procedures are safe and carried out by qualified practitioners in the UK. God developed abortion practices in the same way that he helped to develop contraception to make life safer for women. Imagine if we were as dismissive of Mr Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1928 as some Christians are about contraception or abortion. We wouldn't have the range of antibiotics which now help to fight serious bacterial infections. I have to believe that God brought Mr Fleming into the world to help humanity to progress in the same way he brought midwives and GPs into the world to help make safe abortions accessible to all.

Being a Pro Choice liberal Lutheran Christian means understanding the true pluralistic nature of our society without choosing to pass unnecessary judgement. Instead, I accept free choice, I sympathise with how stressful the decision might have been for the women who chose to have an abortion or had to have one and I then continue to advocate for freedom of choice so that conservative Governments can't take the right to have a safe, accessible abortion taken away from women because they suddenly rule it to be illegal as it's against their own religious practices. Pro-Choice allows the individual woman to make her own decision, free from government control. That means the government should not attack national abortion programmes just because the leader or members of the cabinet happen to disagree with the act of abortion themselves. Remember the example of Romania. In 1966 the government ruled abortion illegal and over 15 years over 9,000 women died as a result of undergoing an unsafe abortion with countless other women ending up physically and emotionally scarred for life. When that policy was finally reversed in 1980, the maternal mortality rate was reduced to 1/8th of what it was whilst the no-abortion policy was in place. This shows that banning legal abortions does nothing to reduce abortion rates as some conservative Christians may like to claim.

In all likelihood, it'll take a long time to reform opinions within certain Christian denominations to accept a woman's free right to choose to have an abortion. For starters, it means challenging the idea that legal personhood begins at conception, ironic given the fact that early Christians didn't have this as a fundamental belief.  In any case, having more women bishops and clerics may help to change this mindset. As Gloria Feldt, former President of Planned Parenthood says: "If you think about the underlying misogyny in the history of most major religions, it’s not surprising we’ve been dealing with these issues (reproductive rights) in those terms...I do believe that the ascent of more women in the clergy, at least in the mainstream religions at this point, is going to make a huge difference. They simply see the world through a different lens." Maybe then abortion may be viewed through a more compassionate, Pro Choice Christian lens.
 

Thursday, 9 February 2017

LGBTQIA+ Sex and Relationships Education is NOT a radical left idea. Time to implement it.

"Young people end up in toxic unhealthy relationships because they can't communicate about sex- #SRE at year 11 is just too late". Lara Thornton-Berry. WEP Leeds SRE Panel, 8th February 2017.

Sex and Relationships education (SRE) should be an incredibly important part of the National Curriculum. I believe that SRE should be taught in primary school, from Key Stage 1 in an age, appropriate way, talking about love, family relationships, which areas of the body which shouldn't be touched etc. It's therefore very depressing for me to read that SRE provision remains sketchy at best and almost non-existent at its worst, despite the fact that all schools must provide a comprehensive policy on sex education. SRE may currently be mandatory after the age of 11 in comprehensive, state run schools (40% of schools) but these schools can decide on an individual basis what to teach beyond reproduction, taught in Science lessons. The advice provided by the Department of Education with a focus on self-esteem is outdated and does not reflect the impact of the Internet and Social Media on sex and relationships, having last been updated in 2000. That means secondary school students are still receiving pretty much the same advice I got as a 12 year old. When it comes to academies, free schools, faith schools or private schools, it's not compulsory at all. At the moment parents can opt to take their children out of SRE, which means that some students are leaving school with very little knowledge of sexual intercourse or contraception. That's bad enough.

SRE should not just be about learning which biological body part supposedly belongs to which sex or how to put a slippery Durex condom on a ripe banana to simulate an erect penis or about the act of sexual intercourse being the primary way to make a baby. It's not enough to learn about the mechanics behind sexual acts so as to try and allay the fears of first-time teenage nerves. Yet at times it seems that even SRE basics are not being taught effectively.

Teachers often get nervous when it comes to putting on a video showing real-life genitals, let alone talking about the act of "love making" in any great depth. Biology teachers have to teach reproduction to their students but I remember just being shown a 1/2 hour video and expecting to learn the rest from a textbook, answering exam style questions as I went along with the teacher looking to see if we were taking in the information properly. PSHE teachers (usually form tutors) try and focus on repeating the information received from Science lessons so as to not offend any student who may be tempted to go and tell tales on them to the Head of Year for broaching "inappropriate subjects". According to joint research undertaken by Durex, NAHT, NCPTA and NGA in 2010, 4 out of every 5 teachers said they did not feel sufficiently trained and confident in delivering SRE. No wonder there is such variation of the quality of SRE across the UK. Some faith schools do not even talk about access to decent contraception; for example free condoms that may be available from (GUM) sexual health clinics or the pill from about the age of 13 (which I believe should be available without prescription).

Very few teachers will mention the proliferation of sex aids that are available on the market even though some of their LGBTQIA+ students may have had access to them, especially dildos and vibrators. What's even more embarrassing is that there is very little conversation about same sex contact, little acknowledgement that having feelings about the boy next door are perfectly normal if you happen to be a boy too. According to Stonewall, more than half of gay young people haven't been taught anything about LGB issues and 85% aren't taught about the biological or physical aspects of same-sex relationships. That leads to a tentative reluctance by some students to see same- sex relationships and acts as perfectly healthy provided the relevant precautions are taken; for example, emphasising the fact that guys should wear condoms to reduce the risk of contracting HIV through penetrative sex.

LGBTQIA+ specific SRE would have a positive impact in classrooms. It's not a "radical leftie" idea to want to tell students that the feelings they may be experiencing are perfectly normal. It should be acceptable to be able to feel safe and secure in coming out in a school environment to friends. Being gay or lesbian or bisexual or pansexual isn't shameful nor illegal, so why should teachers feel the need to shy away from discussing coming out experiences in the classroom, even if it involves putting on a video or inviting LGB people into the classroom to help facilitate this? By allowing students to ask the difficult questions regarding sexuality to those who have been through a similar experience, it may help build their self-confidence. LGBTQIA+ SRE would also go some way to reducing homophobic or biphobic bullying; Stonewall reported in 2014 that 1 in 4 gay young people had experienced some form of cyberbullying and if that bullying is being done by their peers due to ignorance, it wouldn't be inappropriate to argue that SRE discussions are needed to reduce this figure. Teachers have to play their part in counteracting negative gendered and sexual stereotypes and encouraging a compassionate, tolerant approach in the classroom.

In fact, students should know that experiencing little or no sexual desire or appetite is perfectly normal too; asexuality has been relegated to the back of the Sex Education discussion for decades and I feel it's time to discuss it openly and honestly with students. My lack of knowledge about asexuality was one reason why I went and researched it for a blogpost way back in July 2016 (you can read it here: http://sassysvensknorsk.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/awks-sre-moment-no-2-we-deffo-need-to.html).

SRE is more than just talking about the mechanics of sex....

Students need to be fully away of UK legislation regarding consent and how it affects LGBTQIA relationships or sexual experiences. The Dare 2 Care Action plan, created by Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, Sarah Champion states that "40% of child sex abuse is carried out by other (usually older) children or young people" and 39,813 sexual offences were recorded between April 2015 and March 2016, with a proportion of those offences having been committed by children or young people. This shows there is a need for comprehensive lessons on consent. I believe there is no excuse for a teenage boy to rape another teenage boy if they know that lack of oral consent or attempts to block the body means they are committing rape, whether that boy happened to have consumed alcohol, drugs or was mainly asleep whilst the act took place. Unwanted groping of the testicles or breasts is sexual assault; it's not "funny" to grope spontaneously. Kissing someone forcibly on the lips could be construed as assault and unwanted excessive sexting or mobile phone calls could be construed as stalking.  Rape or sexual assault can happen whether you happen to be in a relationship with the person or not; just because you may have consented 10 times previously does not mean that a person has licence to force themselves on your body in an attempt to coerce you into performing a sexual act. Saying "No", blocking elements of your body should indicate to your bf or gf or partner that you do not want to have sexual contact at that time and every student should learn how to read such signs to prevent themselves from getting into trouble. "Respect your partner by respecting their personal space. Do not assume anything" should be a slogan drummed into every pupil.

Students deserve to know that they have legal protections against those who want to harass them, stalk them, assault them or rape them. Students should know the basics behind the Sexual Offences Act, 2003 which states this: "Someone consents to vaginal, anal or oral penetration only if s/he agrees by choice to that penetration and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice. Consent to sexual activity may be given to one sort of sexual activity but not another, e.g.to vaginal but not anal sex or penetration with conditions, such as wearing a condom. Consent can be withdrawn at any time during sexual activity and each time activity occurs." You can learn more about consent in the UK from this Crown Prosecution Service factsheet:https://www.cps.gov.uk/publications/equality/vaw/what_is_consent_v2.pdf.

Students should know who they can contact to get advice and support if they become a victim of a predator or stalker, whether it be by talking to their teacher, parent, the police, the NSPCC or Childline. Also, students must also learn that such activities are unacceptable regardless of gender identity, sexuality, disability or religious faith. Some parents may be unwilling to deliver such advice because of their cultural background, which is why SRE dealing with consent legislation must be available to all secondary school students.

Unfortunately, it can be very difficult for teenagers to understand the difference between love and abuse. The Dare 2 Care Action plan identifies a startling statistic: 53% of children in schools have not learned how to recognise grooming or sexual exploitation. If grooming has occurred, either through online social media engagement or through physical interaction as a result of joining a particular group to undertake a leisure activity, a young person can form a deep emotional attachment to a predatory adult or peer which could result in sexual acts which could lead to pregnancy, sexual infections or forced alienation from their peer group through sustained emotional or physical abuse. SRE can help give students some helpful advice to stop themselves falling victim to groomers. This includes telling students to report any suspicious social media activity to their parents, the social media provider and/or the police at first occurrence and to report unwarranted behaviour to parents/ school teachers /leisure activity directors if an adult or peer is trying to pressure them into sexual activity.

SRE isn't just about teaching consent. Healthy relationship models should be actively promoted, including as mentioned earlier, allowing students to ask difficult questions regarding LGBTQIA+ based relationships, including talking about cohabitation, civil partnerships and same sex marriage. Trans and non-binary issues can be approached sensitively at Key Stage 3, with discussions about gender identity, gender stereotyping and why gender identity and sexuality are separate constructs. Students should know that being transgender doesn't automatically make you homosexual and that non-binary people have the choice to live an authentic life their way. Exploring the sociological, philosophical and psychological elements of relationships can help students to empathise with those different from themselves which is an important skill to develop to be employable, since intolerant attitudes can lead young people falling foul of the Equality Act.

Make LGBTQIA+ SRE Fully Accessible:

SRE must be delivered in an accessible, impartial manner. That means understanding potential nuances (differentiation) that need to be factored in to individual lesson plans. As Sophie Running mentioned yesterday at the SRE discussion with the WEP Leeds Branch, SRE must be taught to disabled students if there is any indication of them becoming sexually active. Brainstorming, listing, using key images, reiterating key messages on a weekly basis can help get across basic messages such as "No Means No" or that two men or two women kissing is perfectly OK. What's more, SRE needs to seek to break down established stereotypes about disabled people: "Desexualisation of disabled people makes them more likely to be victims of abuse-don't ignore us", proclaimed an amazing contributor. Disabled students need to feel empowered to speak out if their assistants, parents, teachers, social workers etc. make inappropriate advances towards them and teachers need to show that students would be believed when they do disclose information to them. We need to get away from the engrained idea that disabled people aren't "sexy enough" to be raped or sexually assaulted; it's rather evident that disabled students can be seen as "easy targets" by groomers and paedophiles because they believe they are much less likely to speak out.

LGBTQIA+ SRE is NOT a Radical Left Concept:
There are some who are quick to dismiss the importance of making SRE a mandatory part of the curriculum for all schools. "Oh it'll indoctrinate our kids and make them consider having sex before they are 16", "it's just an attempt to push left-wing ideology onto boys to make them feel scared about asking girls out", "you'll confuse students into thinking they are transgender when they might just like to wear earrings" etc etc. These opinions come from usual lot who seem incredibly resistant to the idea of equipping students so they know how to protect themselves from being groomed, stalked or exploited by adults or their peers, regardless of their gender, sexuality, disability or religious faith. From reading the Dare2Care figures, it's not an exaggeration to say that current SRE taught as part of PSHE is failing to equip students properly to combat cyberstalkers, groomers or abusers. Every student should know they shouldn't be pressured into sending explicit pictures to strangers or even to their peers in the hope of receiving an affirmative response about their body/genitals from them. Every student should know that it's OK to report offensive social media messages to the social media provider straight away. Every student should know that unwanted groping or sexual contact is unacceptable, whether they happen to be in a relationship or not. It's not a left or right wing concept to help students protect themselves wherever possible from harm. I also believe that SRE has to be LGBTQIA+ inclusive to help students to protect themselves because rape, sexual assault, unwanted sexual contact, stalking and abuse doesn't have a gender or a sexual orientation. It can happen to any child, at any time no matter what kind of school they are attending. SRE should also be positive, helping students to feel empowered to talk about their feelings, whether sexual or not. Being LGBTQIA+ is NOT against the law and having a different gender identity or sexuality from someone else isn't  "strange". By discussing differences openly and honestly with students, we can reduce instances of bullying, help students come out if they want to in a safe and secure environment and equip them for sexual experiences and loving relationships that are not born out of violent, abusive desires. There's nothing manipulative or seedy or particularly "left" about that. Some faith schools may not like talking about contraception or LGBTQIA+ issues but I say, tough. We live in 2017 and in a country which is tolerant and accepting of differences and I believe it is wholly irresponsible for any school to deny appropriate LGBTQIA+ SRE to students to equip them for life beyond the faith classrooms. It's time to back the SRE proposals and to make sure they are LGBT inclusive at the very least. I'll be battling hard to raise more awareness of asexuality and it's a battle I'm more than willing to take to those who dispute the veracity of asexual identity. A battle of compassion that even centre-left and left leaning people like me can engage in with pride.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Dyspraxia and the workplace: Some handy personal tips from a HR perspective

Those who have dyspraxia can find the prospect of entering the workplace extremely daunting, especially if you've not been given tailored, appropriate careers advice at secondary school or at university to help give you the initial pointers needed to jumpstart your search. I believe it should be mandatory to give disabled secondary school students at least 3 hours worth of careers advice when they are choosing their GCSEs, again when they are choosing whether to study A Levels at sixth form or go to college or into an apprenticeship and there should be programmes offered by university careers advice services that are delivered to disabled students prior to their graduation. Job Centres do sometimes have Disability advisors that can help motivate and guide disabled jobseekers as they try and find their first position but they may not be allocated one straight away when they sign on and the advice given may not be tailored enough due to lack of familiarity with the disability. This definitely seems to be the case when it comes to dyspraxia. When I met my Job centre advisor for the first time after my graduation in July 2010, I had to explain dyspraxia to him and how it might affect my ability to do certain types of work. Luckily I knew that I wanted to work in an office environment and over the next few months and years of job searching I developed my core IT/administrative skills as well as learning about Accountancy (through AAT) and HR (Level 3 CIPD Certificate in HR Practice) as well as volunteering to put these skills into practice and I did eventually get some paid work in an accounts office after a horrendously stressful period as a call centre agent (even though the accounts position was culled some time later through no fault of my own). However, some dyspraxic people may not know exactly what kind of work they wish to do or may not be familiar with any physical limitations that may exist as a result of their specific condition and may not be given any pointers as to how to get themselves ready for entry into the workplace.

 So I wanted to offer a few of my own tips on job searching, the interview and what to do when you do get the job you want. I also provide some pointers as someone with an interest in HR as to how the HR department should help you whilst you are employed in the organisation.

Job searching:
  • First of all, think about what kind of job you want to end up doing and whether that job should be full time or part time to begin with. If you want to continue studying whilst working at the same time or you feel you need to build up your employment skills and confidence, a part time job would be a good idea. If you've been diagnosed with dyspraxia as an adult or had a recent psychological assessment, then there will be advice given at the back of your report as to what effect your dyspraxia might have on your work and what types of jobs would suit you. For example, I wanted to work in an office, because I knew I had the English language and IT skills needed to fulfill basic administrative duties and because it'd involve no manual/physical graft, other than possibly transporting boxes from one area of the office to another. I thought I'd be suitable for a graduate position, so I applied for loads of them in the first year after graduation but unfortunately I only received one interview, for a copywriter position based in Nottingham and I was unsuccessful with them because they thought I wouldn't cope with the distance from my home in Lincoln to Nottingham (they said it'd take me too long in the morning to walk from the train station to the office). After this, I applied more for entry level admin positions whilst volunteering but it seemed to no avail. Good job I was studying the AAT whilst this was all happening or my self-confidence would have been severely dented. So be prepared to apply for non-graduate as well as graduate positions to try and get a foot in the door.
  • Having a regular plan for your job search is a very good idea. I found that aiming to search for 3 jobs a day during the week and 2 jobs at the weekend kept me in check and having a list of websites, newspapers and local agencies printed or on screen helps focus that search. Knowing where to find suitable jobs wins half the battle at least and it also means that your Job Centre advisor will be pleased that you have a suitable strategy in place.
  • I regularly do a skills/qualifications check for each vacancy I consider applying for. It's vital that you look at the Job Description and/or Personal Specification so you know what types of skills the employer is looking for. If the majority of skills/qualifications match your profile, then you should apply for the job straightaway. If not, consider what you might need to do to improve your chances within your chosen job sectors; if you need to increase your typing speed to go for a secretarial vacancy, why not set yourself some time to do some typing exercises online: https://www.keybr.com/ or http://www.typeonline.co.uk/copypractice.php will help. Alternatively, if you feel your IT skills in general need developing, you can ask your Job Centre advisor or your local college whether you can attend an IT course, such as the ECDL.
  • Make use of any careers advice that is given to you whether that be from your Job Centre advisor, local voluntary organisations or even your friends. Letting your friend check your CV every once in a while can be very enlightening and they can spot mistakes or omissions quite easily! If they think you're not promoting your skills enough in your CV for your chosen sector, it might be one reason why your CV isn't getting through the screening process. Also, if you have issues with organising text when you need to be succinct, it's good to let someone edit it for you to get rid of any unnecessary bumf.
  • Typing up applications always beats handwriting them for me. If you have a scrawly hand or "doctor's hand" you don't want the HR assistant to bin your application just because they cannot decipher key information. Plus most administrative jobs require typing skills as standard, so it's not uncommon to ask for an electronic version to be emailed to you...in fact the employer might deem that as evidence of problem solving skills.
  • Think about turning your hobby into a career opportunity. I didn't take my writing skills very seriously over the past few years, yet after starting this blog and using social media more rigorously over the past year, I have been given a chance to contribute an essay to a book about trans and non-binary experiences (due to be finished next year) and several other people have approached me to write articles on politics that might lead to paid work in the future. Never dismiss anything out of hand!

The Interview:
  • Mock interviews are the way to go. Honestly. I always feel more confident when I know I've thought about the types of questions that might be asked by a manager or HR assistant and with plenty of mock interview questions provided online by agencies and university careers advice services, there is no excuse for not finding out what you could be potentially asked. If you want to work in an office environment, whether as an admin assistant, accounts assistant, HR assistant or civil servant, the questions tend to follow a similar pattern - why do you want to work for this company?/ what kind of software packages have you used in the past?/can you give an example of when you provided exceptional customer service?/how do you deal with authority etc etc. Write down your answers or tape them and refer back to them each time you are preparing for an interview within that specific job sector, amending them where necessary. Get your friend/family member to give you a mock interview a day or so beforehand so you can get their honest feedback.
  • Always make sure you do your research on the company/organisation so that if the manager asks whether you've checked out the company website you can demonstrate clear evidence of this; for example look at the latest company news for developments concerning funding/collaboration with local firms/charity events/financial news.
  • Go into the interview room in a positive, optimistic mood. That means avoiding potentially stressful situations. I remember the night before my first interview I didn't bother choosing my interview clothes or getting the documentation together, which meant in the morning I was rushing around like a headless chicken trying to find my qualifications folder and having to try and buff up my shoes to make them look presentable for an office position. If you have your clothes and documentation organised and you've made sure you know where the interview will be taking place and have researched ways of getting there the night before the interview, all you have to do in the morning is get washed and dressed, have something to eat and drink, practice one or two interview answers and then travel to the interview address. Preferably aim to get there 15 minutes early so that the receptionist has time to notify the manager/HR of your arrival and so that you can get yourself calm and collected and you'll be raring to go!
  • I would only disclose your dyspraxia if you feel that it could have a substantial or long-term impact on your ability to do certain aspects of the job that you've applied to do. Under the Equality Act 2010, it is illegal for an employer to ask you whether you suffer from a disability unless:
    • "there are necessary requirements of the job that can't be met with reasonable adjustments"
    • you've told them you require help during the selection test/interview
    • or if the employer is using "positive action" -e.g. the two tick symbol on job adverts to actively encourage recruiting a disabled person. https://www.gov.uk/employer-preventing-discrimination/recruitment.
  • In administration sector jobs, it may be appropriate to say you have moderate dyspraxia which could affect your ability to lift heavy boxes but then explain how it won't affect your ability to multitask or to type up figures by pointing out the coping strategies you have developed. HR may only have a vague understanding of dyspraxia so it is important to be clear with them about how the dyspraxia affects you. This means being prepared to give them access to educational materials such as those offered by The Dyspraxia Foundation or maybe asking them to get in touch with them to discuss the condition in more depth. If any reasonable adjustments need to be made by the employer to help you perform your job role better- e.g. installing editing software or putting you in a quieter area of the office or making sure you are seated at the same desk every day to reduce disorientation, these can be discussed post-interview should you be successful for the job. It can take some time for the need for reasonable adjustments to arise, especially if it is your first job or you're in a new type of job that is different from a previous one which require new skills and processes to be developed. On the surface at the interview stage you may be deemed to be able to do the job without any adjustments being needed or your dyspraxia hasn't been deemed an issue but that can change once you're doing the job full time. I remember when I was at the call centre that I found being on the phones for 8 hours actually disorientated me and that I performed better when the call centre was quieter, especially at weekends. I also found out I needed very intensive coaching to remember the call procedure, which did tend to annoy my line manager. In the end I had to leave the call centre because the reasonable adjustments weren't being given to me and they wouldn't reduce my hours down to weekend working but at least I know what I'm not particularly good at...I'm sure there are some dyspraxic folks who would be great at call centre work and are already doing well...just not me!
At work:
  • Remember it is entirely up to you who you tell when it comes to your dyspraxia. Your manager or the HR department cannot disclose information without your expressed consent to your peers and they still have to work on reasonable adjustments for you even when you ask them to keep your dyspraxia private.
  • Ask for help whenever you feel you haven't understood instructions given to you by your line manager; sitting in silence for long periods may be taken as an attempt to avoid teamworking. Line managers have a duty of care to make sure work is completed accurately and if you need more help in learning procedure and processes, they should offer it without accusing you of being a slacker. Unfortunately you do get the odd manager who shouts at you even if they know you have dyspraxia because they don't understand it may take a few times to fully digest the instructions.
  • Think about your workwear. I always wore slip on shoes and Velcro fastening shoes rather than tie-up ones to work. This meant I didn't have to fiddle about continually doing them up and I felt secure in the knowledge that I wouldn't trip over unnecessarily. Most employers will be fine with this, especially if they are aware of your dyspraxia and how the shoe type might affect your balance whilst in the workplace.
  • Try and get to know your colleagues during break and lunchtimes. You may have to work separately from them but that doesn't mean you want to avoid being part of a team. This could also mean finding out about social events, charity days or suggesting social events and charity events for the future.

How HR can help dyspraxic employees:
  • In terms of the recruitment process, HR must ensure that dyspraxic applicants feel supported, whether that be offering an electronic copy of an application form, allowing additional time for tests/interviews or making sure questions asked are concise and repeated when necessary. Most of all, it is important that HR understands that the general training they may have had RE Recruitment and Selection may have to be applied flexibly. For example, there could be dyspraxic applicants who answer questions in a very literal, very honest manner which may sound abrupt with an unnecessary amount of detail. This can be a feature of dyspraxic speech, so must be taken with a pinch of salt. Think about whether the candidate has given sufficient detail and ask for clarification from the candidate where necessary.
  • Training line managers up about learning disabilities I feel is a must these days. HR assistants must ensure they are fully informed themselves before creating and delivering the training, so I'd advise them to go on a course or contact disability organisations for information. HR assistants can then use this information and make it accessible by creating a PowerPoint presentation or bullet pointed list and deliver it hopefully before a dyspraxic employee joins the organisation. Information and advice can be found by accessing the Dyspraxia Foundation website: https://dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk/about-dyspraxia/ or if you are in Scotland: http://www.dyspraxiascotland.org.uk/ or if you're reading this and you're in the US: http://www.dyspraxiausa.org/.
  • There should also be information sessions on the company's Equality and Diversity policy for all employees on a regular basis regardless of whether there are any employees with a learning disability within the firm.
  • A procedure/process manual is a good idea, especially for new starters. If not, managers must be told to make sure managers must be told to make sure instructions and information provided to dyspraxic employees is concise. Use bullet points, mind maps and mnemonics as possible ways of delivering instructions and provide timetables or send email reminders to help with prioritising of duties. Getting the employee themselves to write down the instructions helps aid short term memory and can act as a reminder.
  • Appointing a mentor/buddy for a dyspraxic employee when they start at the organisation can really help to boost self-confidence. When I was employed at the job centre I did have a mentor who helped me gain a basic understanding of call etiquette and product knowledge and without that I would have barely lasted a fortnight let alone the 3 month probationary period.
  • Operating instructions for all administrative equipment should be displaced next to them; it can be stressful for a dyspraxic person if they've never been shown how to use a fax machine or photocopying machine before and they have no instructions to follow.
  • Putting a clock in view of the desk, encouraging employees to take control over their own schedules helps to develop time management skills.
  • Make sure that managers allow for regular breaks, especially away from the computer will help in an office environment. It's generally advised to have a break every 2 hours, but some dyspraxic people, like myself, can forget this advice and therefore do not have a break until lunchtime, resulting in headaches or disorientation. HR assistants or line managers should monitor the break pattern to make sure they are being taken.
  • Managers must point out to dyspraxic employees the templates that are available for administrative purposes so that they are fully aware of company policy. I remember that in the call centre there were templates but we were not shown how to use them so I ended up making my own, only to be told not to use mine but the company ones. Any packages that can help with the report editing process should be considered- HR should research these packages for cost-effectiveness and whether they would help improve report accuracy.
  • Flexible working hours should be considered by HR, especially if the employee is being easily distracted or finds it difficult to concentrate on work where there is a lot of noise. This could include coming in earlier or finishing later or working from home (teleworking). Putting the employee in their own room, partitioning the desk or even allowing them the opportunity to use earphones can also help.
  • HR and line managers must make sure they motivate a dyspraxic employee by being positive and encouraging the employee to approach each task in a calm manner. Talk about time restrictions but don't berate them when they don't reach their target first time round. Instead, work on strategies to help them achieve their target next time. Coaching works by building up self-confidence. Constructive criticism is fine but solutions must always be offered, even if that means repeating instructions more than twice to make sure the employee understands them fully.
  • HR must be prepared to resolve issues that may arise in the workplace as a result of bullying, harassment or mismanagement. The organisation should not tolerate any name-calling, emotional or physical abuse or any attempt to alienate a dyspraxic employee. If a dyspraxic employee is being bullied by a manager, it would be best for HR to try and assign a new manager to them whilst the case is being investigated. If a dyspraxic employee feels they are being discriminated against when it comes to being turned down for promotional opportunities, HR assistants must be prepared to listen to the employee.