This afternoon I headed into Bristol for this event, billed at “Government’s Women’s Engagement Event for Lesbian, Bisexual & Trans* Women In the South West”.
It was part of a government initiative to gauge the views of the nation’s women on a variety of subjects. In other words, it was a sort of focus group. This, dear readers, is how the UK government consults with citizens these days.
I guess I should start by noting that Bristol was somewhat honored. You see, we were the only place in the country asked for our opinions on LGBT issues. Obviously the South West must be an exceptionally queer place. As we were the only such meeting, people came from a long way away. I met a couple from South Wales, and one woman who had come all of the way from Leeds.
There were around 30 of us I think, to represent all LB & T women in the UK. (And yes, similar groups must have represented other groups — the disabled, ethnic minorities and so on — elsewhere in the country.) Gee, I hope we were representative.
Well actually we weren’t, because around a third of the attendees were trans. That has to be more you would expect. Part of it, I am sure, is because so many of us are self-employed or unemployed, so have the time to attend such things. Part of it is that we have so much more to be worried about as far as public policy goes. And part of it is that most of the lesbian and bi- women will have jobs and won’t have the time to attend a Friday afternoon event.
There was only one obvious person of color, though I think two attendees identified as such. That’s a massive under-representation.
I can think of so many better ways to sample the views of the nation, starting with SurveyMonkey, but maybe that wasn’t the point.
We had just two hours, one hour of which was spent on speeches by the invited panel, and half an hour was given over to a refreshment break. Only half an hour was allowed for us to give opinions.
Baroness Jolly (LibDem, Health, House of Lords) chaired the session. For her speech she mostly read from something prepared by her staff. There was a lot of spin in it. In particular it glossed over the Spousal Veto, and the fact that the Governments trans equalities program ground to a shuddering halt when Lynne Featherstone was removed from responsibility for it. I may have had a few things to say. Baroness Jolly gracefully accepted that it is a politician’s duty to take the hit when her staff write fluff for her.
There were four other speeches. My colleague, Sarah-Louise Minter, from LGBT Bristol did a kickass job, making an impassioned plea for a proper diversity policy in schools. I was also impressed by Deborah Reed of Exeter College, who told an anecdote about a vacation to the USA and discovering that Coca Cola World really gets diversity, whereas UK institutions (including hers) are still very much white, cis and heteronormative. The other two speakers, including Carol Steel from Transfigurations, a Torbay-based trans support group, were clearly much less experienced at public speaking and lacked confidence as a result.
For out input we were divided into four groups focusing on Health, Safety, Access to Services and Education. I joined the latter. In theory we had five questions we were supposed to answer. In practice we managed two. When it came time for the groups to give feedback, what our moderator said seemed to me to bear little relation to what we had actually discussed. So here, for the record, are the two points that I made.
Firstly, I am sick to death of cis people doing training on behalf of trans people. We have got a little better over the past few years, in that “LGBT” training does now sometimes actually include T. However, the chances of it actually involving a trans person are low, particularly where education is concerned. That has two effects. Firstly it reinforces the view that trans people are unfortunates who are incapable of speaking for themselves; and second it means that what gets taught may well be ill-informed. Deborah Reed said that they had asked trans people to talk at Exeter College but it proved too expensive. Cue sound of a door being firmly shut in my face yet again.
Second, the only way we will solve any of this — sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, etc. — is if we teach kids about gender, and how gender stereotypes screw up society. I may write something about this for next month’s Bristol 24/7 column.
There were a few other good points raised. Briefly:
– Yes, we need more women governors in schools, and in particular more LBT women.
– Yes, teachers are only human, and can’t be expected to be experts on everything (which is one of many reasons why I love the folks at TIGER).
– And yes, sometimes the trans community it is own worst enemy, with the insistence of young activists on adherence to an ever-shifting set of language rules and terminology.
That was my experience of being asked my opinion by the government. If I sound a little cynical, well I guess I am. I have run focus groups before. I remember well one I did for a government organization in California at the end of which the civil servants complained about how the invited members of the public said all of the wrong things, and they had to find some way to make sure that the next focus group gave the answers they wanted.
The net result of this one will, I suspect, be that the Government ticks a box to say that it has consulted the LBT women of Britain, and that a report will be written that reflects what the civil servants in charge of the program want said.