Ryan Woollard was bullied the whole way through school, but he wants you to know that you are not alone and things do get better

It all started at primary school…

First came the odd, flippant remark about my physical appearance, then came the name-calling and the homo-hate because my mum is married to another woman. It seemed childish at first, but it started to happen on a regular basis and every time it did, my confidence diminished that little bit more. It got to the point where I didn’t have any self-belief; I hated my appearance and I constantly doubted my abilities. My school work began to suffer because I couldn’t concentrate – the stress constantly distracted me.

I had hoped it might be different, but at secondary school things got even worse. In my first year, a boy that had bullied me in primary school came up to me and told me that a teacher would like to see me in the cabins where our classes took place. The cabins were at the top of a hill. As I started walking up there I noticed there were a few boys loitering near the top but I thought nothing of it. I guessed they were just hanging out.

As I approached, one of them stepped in front of me and said, ‘Let’s forget what’s happened between us and shake hands’. I had never met him before in my life, but I thought if I just shook his hand he might let me carry on walking. He didn’t. As I reached out, he punched me, and as I fell to the ground he got on top of me and continued punching.
Luckily a girl saw this happening and managed to intervene, but I was so embarrassed by what had happened, and that I had fallen for their trick – I couldn’t bring myself to tell anybody.

“The stress constantly distracted me”

 

As I was leaving school, two boys taunted me about how I had got beaten up earlier that day. I didn’t understand how they knew? I hadn’t told anyone. I thought maybe the boys who had done it had boasted about it to their friends, but later that night I discovered the incident had actually been filmed, and posted on YouTube for everyone to see.

I didn’t go to school for the following three months as I was too afraid of what might happen. The boys that attacked me barely got reprimanded for their actions. There were days when I considered ending it all, but I knew I couldn’t do that to my family, it just wouldn’t have been fair on them.

I eventually went back to school, but because I was so scared of rejoining my classes, the head of year decided to keep me in isolation for a while. It was just me and a few textbooks in an empty classroom.

It wouldn’t be the last time I was physically attacked at school.

I felt so alone, like no one understood or cared. Dealing with bullying is something no one should have to go through. The people doing the bullying just don’t see the long-term consequences and how it affects those they target. I used to bottle a lot of my feelings up, but now I write songs and poetry as a way of dealing with what happened to me. I was lucky that I had a supportive family around me in my time of need, but I know that some people don’t have that support network and that’s why I want to share my story, so you know that you are not alone. No matter how dark some days may seem, there will always be someone there to believe in you so please, never give up hope – the future will get better.

I am slowly rebuilding my confidence and learning to believe in myself again.

Written by Ryan Woollard

If you are being bullied don’t hesitate to contact Ditch the Label.

Lauren Rose on living with anxiety and agoraphobia

If you had told me at the age of 22 that I’d spend the next three years incredibly anxious and housebound, I wouldn’t have believed you.

My issues with anxiety seemed to come completely out of left field – one day I was a normal twenty-something; enjoying life, working part-time and travelling abroad multiple times a year, and then a few short months later I was too afraid to leave my house.

What happened?

I started having panic attacks. My first one was not triggered by anything in particular; I didn’t even know what was happening to me when it occurred. I was at work and suddenly I felt faint. My heart started beating faster, and I thought I was going to be sick. I went to the bathroom, looked at my face in the mirror and I actually watched as the colour drained from my face. I figured I must have eaten something bad, so I wrote it off as no big deal. But the next day, it happened again. I felt so unwell all of a sudden, and so nervous because of the attacks. What was happening to me? Why did I keep feeling so faint and weird? Panic attacks are tricky things, and the more you fear them happening, the more they happen – that can start the vicious cycle of a panic disorder.

I would freak myself out so much at the idea of having another ‘attack’ that I’d have them daily, sometimes multiple times a day. I started to associate having panic attacks with leaving the house – as that was when I seemed to have them – so I figured the logical thing to do was to stop leaving the house. I didn’t realise at the time, but this was the beginnings of agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is a condition whereby the sufferer avoids being in places or situations where there appears to be no escape. For many, including myself, it leaves us unable to leave our ‘safe place’, which is usually our homes, or in more extreme cases, even one’s bedroom. Maybe you’ve seen agoraphobics depicted on TV or in movies, where the agoraphobic is perfectly OK inside, but then as soon as they open the front door, the world starts spinning. Unfortunately for sufferers, agoraphobia is a lot more than a bit of wonky vision.

I would wake up anxious. Before I’d even opened my eyes, the anxious thoughts in my head would be on loop. ‘What if this happens? What if that happens?’ I would think about going out that day, only to have the thought immediately shut down by both my physical and mental self. My hands would shake. My gut would churn. My mind would start visualising every possible bad outcome. You can’t go out, I’d think. You might panic. You might get sick. You might not be able to get home. You might embarrass yourself. And then I’d spend the rest of the day feeling resigned, failed, and trapped. Because that’s the problem with agoraphobia – you spend all of your time desperately trying to feel safe, and yet the more you isolate yourself, the more fearful you become.

“I would wake up anxious. Before I’d even opened my eyes, the anxious thoughts in my head would be on loop.”

 

After agoraphobia took hold, my life changed dramatically. I stopped working. I stopped going out. I missed going to birthday parties, I missed weddings, baby showers, holiday parties. I missed going on dates, I missed socialising with friends and family, I missed out on every single thing that happened beyond my front door. I said no to absolutely everything, because I was too scared of what might happen if I said yes. My anxiety became so bad in 2014 that I became too anxious to eat, too anxious to be awake, too anxious about any sensation in my body in case it meant something terrible. I was so afraid of the outside world that opening the door to my house seemed terrifying. The worst part was when people would tell me I just needed to calm down, or relax. Panic disorder and agoraphobia is irrational. Have you ever tried arguing with someone that cannot see logic? That’s what it is like having someone tell you to calm down during a panic attack. The body goes into fight or flight mode, a physiological response which sends adrenaline coursing through your bloodstream. It is survival mode at the most instinctual level. Agoraphobics know that their fear is irrational, but the body has already become trained to respond to the imagined threat.

In 2015, I gave birth to my daughter. The hardest part about it was getting myself to the hospital! After we brought her home, something changed in me. I knew I couldn’t continue living the way I had been. I didn’t want my daughter to grow up saying ‘Mummy is too scared to go outside’. I started to work on exposure sessions, which is where I would go outside and ‘expose’ myself to the fear, until I began to feel less afraid. At first I could only make it outside the front of my house. After a week I could walk a few houses away. After a couple of months, I was able to go to my first mothers group, which was a five minute drive from my house.

“Agoraphobia is an extremely difficult and uncomfortable disorder, but it isn’t a life sentence”

 

In the last year I have made huge progress with my agoraphobia – I was even able to spend Christmas away from home, with my family. In a lot of ways it has gotten much easier over time to face my fears, although I still have bad days. The most important thing that I’ve learned is to be consistent, because if I let myself believe that ‘I can’t’ enough, then I begin to struggle. The trick is to surround yourself with people who believe in you and support you, and to realise that it’s okay to be human. It’s perfectly okay to be afraid, but you cannot let that stop you from moving forward. Shutting yourself off from the world doesn’t keep you safe, it only keeps you locked inside your own fear.

If you are struggling with agoraphobia, be gentle with yourself. The idea of recovery may completely overwhelm you at first, but there is still progress in baby steps, just like there is in leaps and bounds – you just need to believe at some level that you are capable of much more than you give yourself credit for. Agoraphobia is an extremely difficult and uncomfortable disorder, but it isn’t a life sentence. You can and will recover.

Written by Lauren Rose
http://anxietymamma.com

Rufaro Mazarura lists 6 things she is tired of hearing as a black girl

1. Is that your real hair?

Okay, my hair, whether it be natural, relaxed, extensions, a weave, braids or even a wig does in fact, belong to me. I’ve paid a lot of money, dealt with a whole-lotta nonsense to get products that work for me, and spent hours pushing through the pain barrier while someone pushes and pulls at my hair to get it the way that I like. So, whether it is synthetic, styled, or just naturally growin’ out of my scalp – yes, this is and always will be, my hair.

2. We are not all ‘rude girls’, and not all of us hail from the ‘ghetto’

Similarly: Not all Asians are clever, not all Indian people have arranged marriages and not all Muslims are terrorists. Let’s ditch the stereotypes.

3. Not everything is about race.

If somebody feels confident enough to talk about race and the part it plays in their life, which is actually really difficult to do, maybe try and listen. Race affects us all, even if you don’t see it, or haven’t personally experienced the negative side of things, try not to devalue the experiences of others and the stories they are brave enough to share.

4. You’re so strong and independent! *shocked face emoji*

I know this is meant to be a compliment but this is a line rarely (if ever?) said to men. It’s as if being ‘independent’ and being a ‘woman’ are mutually exclusive. If you haven’t already, it is probs time to Youtube ‘Destiny’s Child – Independent Women’. Amen.

5. You’re really pretty, for a black girl.

Just no. There are so many things wrong with this sentence. #Checkyourself

6. I don’t want to sound racist but…

If you think that what you’re about to say is going to sound racist, it probably is. Saying that you’re not racist at the beginning of a sentence, or trying to convince me that what you’re saying isn’t racist by precursing it with some sort of disclaimer, is not going to make what you’re about to say any less racist. In fact, it’s going to make whatever you say sound worse, because now I know that you intentionally said something that you understood to sound racist…to conclude, it’s probably better left unsaid.

Written by Rufaro Mazarura
Twitter @rufarofaithh

Paralympic Footballer Matt Crossen on suffering a stroke at 23 years of age, qualifying for Rio 2016 and masculinity in sports

I was just a typical 23 year old man.

I played football semi-professionally for Marske United in the northern league division, I went to the gym, enjoyed going out with my mates and was regarded as very fit and healthy. On the morning of my incident I left the house as usual for work, and expected the day ahead to be just like any other.

I was at a college nearby, talking about my work to students, when at 1.23pm I felt a tingle on the side of my head, above my ear. My eyesight started to blur, until I could only see out of the corners of them, and then my left side went completely numb. It was at this point I turned to my friend and said “I think I’m having a stroke”. That was the last sentence I was able to get out, because the weakness on my left side had taken over.

You’d think, considering the circumstances, that I would have felt panicked and worried but, as much as I was in shock that this was happening, I remained totally relaxed. I don’t know why this was the case, it could be down to the area of my brain that was being affected by the stroke.

I was rushed to James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough where they performed a thrombectomy. I awoke to my family around me, and the doctors confirmed I had suffered a stroke. To this day I owe my life to Dr. Bergen and Dr. Padmanaban, and all of the nurses on the ward that helped get me back on the go again.

The stroke has left me with limited mobility and sensation on the left side of my body, but I absolutely refused to let that stop me from playing football. It’s my passion, it’s who I am – I couldn’t give that up. After rehabilitation, I managed to get back to training, and it was there that I was spotted by talent scouts from the England Cerebral Palsy squad.

Success is more important to me now, than ever before. I wholeheartedly believe positivity breeds success; if you put 100% effort and commitment into what you want to achieve, and never give up, you have a great chance of achieving your dreams. Everyone faces challenges along the way; as well as the stroke, I have also suffered other injuries whilst playing for England, but I believe you learn from these hardships. You just have to use what you have been given to the best of your ability. That is all I have done.

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The best thing about playing CP football is that I get to encourage people with disabilities to keep going. I get to reassure them that a disability does not mark the end of a dream – I wouldn’t be playing for England now, if I hadn’t of suffered a stroke! It is so rewarding when people tell you they have been inspired by you, or the sport, and have tried something new because of it.

I know Ditch the Label’s Annual Bullying Survey revealed that people with disability were at high risk of bullying, and sadly, I have seen examples of this first-hand. However, I have also seen people with a disability turn these negative experiences into a positive – I have seen them grow stronger in the face of adversity. If you have a disability and doubt yourself, or feel like you don’t fit in, my advice would be to try and not overthink it; everyone, at some point or another, disabled or not, feels this way.

There are a lot of stereotypes associated with sport, and men in sport, but masculinity to me, is just a phrase. I’m not the biggest or the strongest, and I don’t mind showing my emotions – there is nothing wrong with being honest about how you are feeling, whoever you are! Maleness and ideas of masculinity have always plagued the sports industry – football in particular, but I feel this is improving.

I honestly can’t put into words how amazing it is to know I will be playing at the Paralympics in Rio this year. From having my stroke, to being told I was definitely going to Brazil – I am really proud of what I have achieved. I am getting goosebumps thinking about it now!

Never give up and never regret! You can turn almost anything into a positive if you want to!

Thanks to Ditch the Label for allowing me to share my story.

 

 

After an accident left her disabled, Fuchsia Carter turned to life modelling (posing nude for artists) to help her learn to love her body again

I’ve always loved to perform. When I was between the ages of 16 -18, I belonged to a drama school. At the time, I was very overweight, and as a result of this, I was incredibly shy. I started life modelling (posing nude for artists while they draw you) to try and overcome my insecurities and build my confidence levels.

To begin with I modelled fully clothed, and although I wasn’t yet ‘baring all’, I found it really helped me to accept my body. When I became disabled at 26 years of age, I lost myself completely and became trapped – not only in the chair, but also inside my own head. I began to hate my body, and all that it represented. I would change in the dark and never in front of people, I would close my eyes when my carers washed or showered me. I couldn’t bare to acknowledge my physical state.

In 2015, after loosing a significant amount of weight, I had a bad fall which kept me in hospital over Christmas. During this period I thought long and hard about my life, and the role I had to play in this world. I felt like a drain on society, I felt like it wasn’t fair for people to have to look after me, just because of this one incident that had changed my life forever!

But then it dawned on me; I had to get out of the negative headspace I was in, and start to view and use my body positively. A friend of mine told me I looked beautiful and that I should go back to life modelling. I laughed at her when she said it, but after thinking about it long and hard, I decided she was right.

Fuchsia, photographed by Chris Dee
Fuchsia, photographed by Chris Dee

When I got out of hospital I started to exercise my legs in bed, naked. I watched all my muscles working, and felt really proud that I had not given up. I started to appreciate my naked body; I began to like my curves and ‘wobbly’ bits. I’m not perfect but damn, I’ve been through hell and survived! My body is definitely stronger because of it.

Six months on, I am slowly reentering the world of life-modelling. It isn’t easy, but I’m giving it a good go – I won’t let it defeat me! The first time I took my clothes off in front of all of those strangers I wasn’t nervous at all! I felt euphoric and liberated. I was beaming inside. The fact that a wheelchair user was naked, and being drawn by so many people felt empowering. I felt free for the first time in my life.

However, I have lost out on many modelling jobs because of my disability. Once employers find out the chair is a permanent thing and not a prop, it changes their perception of me. It is like I am not ‘allowed’ to be naked, because I do not fit the normative mold. I blame the media for perpetuating and promoting this one-dimensional representation of the body. In reality, we are all different and that is what makes us beautiful. 

Written by Fuchsia Carter

We interviewed DJ Matt Howes

Matt Howes is an unofficial world record holder, charity ambassador and, amputee. In 2011, he was in Greece when his moped was hit by a car; he survived the accident but lost his right arm in surgery. Just two weeks after the accident, Matt was back behind the decks, despite having no practise. He puts his speedy recovery down to his love for music and performing.

DtL: What motivates you?

Matt: I am very lucky to be alive; if my accident taught me anything – it’s to appreciate life. Something I read recently, rung true, and it stayed with me: ‘If you are anxious you are living in the future and if you are depressed you are living in the past’. My advice to anyone who is feeling down, would be to always try the best you can to live in the moment – the here and now. Don’t worry about what tomorrow might bring, you have no control over that.

DtL: What has been your recipe for success?

Matt: I’m a big believer in positive thinking and the Law of Attraction – if you focus and harness your energy into thinking positively, things begin to change for the better. I noticed my own life start to completely transform when I began to think optimistically about things.

If you are struggling to rid yourself of negative thoughts, a good way to start is to write down everything you have to be thankful for, such as a roof over your head, health, food, water, good friends, family etc. It’s a simple and easy reminder that there are numerous things to appreciate, and things aren’t as bad as they might seem.

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DtL: Ditch the Label research found that 63% of those with a physical disability are likely to experience extreme bullying and social exclusion. What advice would you give to those experiencing bullying or feel like they don’t fit in/doubt themselves because of attitudes towards a disability?

Matt: Remember that you are not alone. We are all in this together, and no matter how dark some days may seem, things do get better.

I was bullied throughout high school, and in reflection, I think it is important not to suffer in silence; speak to someone, tell them what you are going through – you need a support network during difficult times. People that bully are obviously projecting their own stress and trauma onto others. Everyone deals with their issues in different ways, and it is natural to want to vent your emotions, but inflicting the same pain and misery onto someone else doesn’t do anything to solve your own problems.

DtL: What is it like to have a disability in 2016? Have you faced any challenges/ prejudice?

Matt:I think we are heading into one of the most exciting times for disabled people, with opportunities opening up across the board. Important events like the Paralympics, are helping to raise awareness about all types of disability, and this has opened up a lot of avenues to people who would have perhaps otherwise, been ignored. In particular Rebekah Marine in the US & Alex Brooker in the UK are both friends of mine who inspire me on a daily basis.

Of course there are challenges – I can’t recall a time before my accident, when I was told I ‘shouldn’t’ or, ‘couldn’t’ do something, but since losing my arm I tend to hear this quite a lot. I have also received negative feedback, but I try my best to take this in my stride – criticism is an inevitable part of life as a performer, it’s what you do with the criticism that will make or break you. I choose to learn from it; every day I learn something new about music, performing or production. I believe with hard work, dedication and practise you can achieve anything you want to.

DtL: If you could go back in time, what one thing would you tell your younger self?

Matt: Don’t worry, the best is yet to come.

You can listen to Matt Howes’s mix for the Ditch the Label Mixtape here!

Viviana Gomez-Morales is a member of Nefarious; an all-female skate crew based in London, who are defying gender stereotypes

I grew up rollerblading and had always wanted to try skateboarding. I remember being 8 years old and begging my mum for a board, but it wasn’t until last year that I decided to buy one and give it a go.

I’m a freelance photographer and member of Nefarious, an all-female skate crew based in London, who are fuelled on pizza and caffeine. Some of the girls have been skating for a few years, while some of us have only been skating less than a year. The group came together after my friend Celine and I first met at the skate park. I remember feeling really shy and nervous about being there as I had just started, but she held my hand and taught me how to go down banks. As the weeks went on, we started meeting more and more girl skaters, and from there 3 girls turned into a crew of almost 20.

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The skateboarding scene is very heavily male-dominated, so it’s important to show people that we’re here trying to break down the barriers and gender stereotypes that come with being a female skater. I don’t think skateboarding is masculine, I just think that, for whatever reason, it’s become more of a boys club.

When skateboarding first started out, it was actually girls that were dominating the sport. Brands quickly picked up on the popularity of the sport, and started to pitch the scene more towards boys, and so girls were kind of pushed out. However, the female skate scene is starting to grow, and there are brands such a Rogue, Meow and Hoopla that are shining a light on the scene and helping to change people’s perceptions and attitudes towards female skaters. 

I hope that as the scene continues to grow, more women are inspired to get out there and try it. I find it so annoying that as women, we get asked about our reasons for skating in a way that men never would. And yes, unfortunately sometimes we do get the odd stupid, sexist remark, but most of the time these comments are coming from men outside of the the skate community. We ignore any remarks made and just continue to skate. Guys I’ve met at the skate park are usually really supportive and encouraging, and are stoked to see that the girl skate scene is growing.

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To me skateboarding is freedom. There’s no better feeling than skating down the street with my girls. Every time I’m out skating, I forget about everything; all my stresses and any worries, they all just go away. I’ve met some amazing people through skating and have definitely made some friends for life.

If I could go back in time I would tell myself to not be scared about what other people think; there were so many activities I wanted to try out when I was younger, but I let my lack of confidence and insecurities get the better of me. It wasn’t until I reached my late teens/early twenties that I realised that if I wanted to do something I had to go out there and do it myself. Don’t ever be afraid to do the things you love; just because a career or a hobby appears to be male dominated, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any girls out there doing it. Take a sibling or a buddy with you if it makes you feel more confident, or take the chance and go alone. You will always connect with people that share the same passion as you. Don’t let your insecurities stop you in your tracks. Go out there and give it a go.

Written by Viviana Gomez-Morales

Social Activist and gay Muslim Ejel Khan on reconciling his religion and sexuality, cyberbullying and making a difference through activism.

I describe myself as ‘culturally muslim’; in that, I am not so concerned for the dogma that is tied to religion, but I still have faith, regardless of my sexuality. Reconciling my religion and sexuality was something I did for myself and no one else. I wholeheartedly understand that there will be people out there who do not like me, or agree with me – and some will have opinions I cannot change but, I can only be myself. My true authentic self.  

Next month I turn forty-two years old. I only came out ‘officially’, twelve years ago to my friends and family, and I did so, in order to obtain inner peace. The reaction from my family was muted; sexuality, both hetero and homo, is not openly discussed in the Muslim community and my parents spoke only to express concern for my safety and how other people might perceive me. Essentially, I am their child, and unless your parents are right-wing extremists, they will accept you, no matter the circumstance.

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I was born and bred in Luton, and have lived here most of my life. My parents are from the Indian subcontinent, and thanks to them, I have travelled widely there. What both places have in common, despite their difference in location, is that there are communities living in both, that feel marginalised and repressed. I constantly experience prejudice because of attitudes towards my sexuality; from physical altercations to trolling on my social media accounts. ‘You gay bastard’ and ‘I wish you were dead’, are just a couple of examples of things complete strangers have felt compelled (without provocation) to message me. I choose to ignore it, for fear of exacerbating any nasty sentiment and, to a point I can handle it – although I shouldn’t have to. In the end I removed myself from the firing line, and deleted my social media accounts. Through my activism I am actively engaged with people who may harbour such opinions, but the omnipresence of the internet has led me to permanently dissociate myself from social media. I would not promote myself online again, the backlash is just not worth it.

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Conversely, social media does serve to help marginalised communities; you can be anywhere in the world and yet, still have the ability to access support with a simple click of a button. Growing up without the privilege of the internet, my very limited knowledge of homosexuality came from the media; the newspaper or the television. I realise now, how little I knew about myself and the LGBT+ community. I didn’t have anyone to reach out to at the time, and had to make sense of myself and the situation I was in, by going to therapy.

When you reach adulthood, you realise that maybe there is opportunity to make a difference –  even if I impact on one person’s life – that’s enough for me. If I can shed my anonymity and speak out about my experiences, well, maybe someone will find comfort in that. Maybe my voice, will help them find their own.

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Ejel Khan is a social activist and is involved with the Peter Tatchell Foundation’s LGBT-Muslim Solidarity campaign: http://www.petertatchellfoundation.org/advocacy/lgbt-muslim-solidarity

 

We spoke to Charan Singh about photographing members of the Indian LGBT+ community

DTL: What is it like for members of the LGBT+ Community living in India today?

Charan: Homosexuality is still punishable by law in India, which means that corruption and homophobic abuse are rampant. Because of these attitudes, the LGBT+ community are subject to discrimination, harassment, rape, beatings and forced marriages. A consequence of this denial of freedom, is suicide.

Although there is a strong lobby for change, and there are very healthy conversations happening in India and other parts of South Asia regarding sexuality, we still have a very long battle ahead of us. It goes beyond a government overturning a ruling; we need to unlearn the phobia engrained in our society.

from the series "Kothis, Hijras, Giriyas and Others", Delhi, India, 2013 onwards

DTL: What inspired this series?

Charan: My photographic practice is informed by HIV/AIDS work and community activism in India, along with a formal study of the history of art and photography. I made this series because the LGBT+ sub-culture in India, is very rarely seen outside of its disempowered, HIV/AIDS victim narratives. So often, this community is reduced to data; they are pie-charts, tables and graphs. I wanted to move away from this one-dimensional conversation and explore their gendered and sexual life as a whole. I wanted to explore the human behind the statistic – the complexity of the person – and cover a range of emotions, anxieties, concerns, dilemmas and dreams, to give the subjects an importance, which contradicts the popular image of people from these social backgrounds.

from the series "Kothis, Hijras, Giriyas and Others", Delhi, India, 2013 onwards

DTL: Can you explain the title of the series?

Charan: The title of the project, ‘Kothis (effeminate, underprivileged, homosexual men), Hijras (eunuchs or transgender), Giriyas (partners of kothis and hijras) and Others (those born male whose sexuality cannot be categorised)’ are indigenous terms used by queer, working class and transgendered men in their own dialect, to define their different and particular sexual identities. Around 1994, UN funding for the AIDS epidemic bought all these identities into one umbrella term, “MSM” (Men who have Sex with Men.) This term was conceived to overcome the variety of local cultural differences from Morocco to Indonesia. Although it may have fulfilled its purpose to describe a category of behaviour, however, it failed to provide dignity to the affected communities it refers to, even after its recent inclusion of the term “TG” referring to transgender communities.

from the series "Kothis, Hijras, Giriyas and Others", Delhi, India, 2013 onwards

DTL: Do you know the people in the photographs?

Charan: I made the portraits of my sitters in their community centre and have known some of them for as long as sixteen years. For this reason, I feel they were comfortable posing for me in front of the lens. I am one of them. I am not appropriating their story. I am no threat. I want to represent them as they wish to be seen.

DTL: What inspired their poses? Did you tell them what to do?

Charan: As models they are greatly influenced by Bollywood cinema and television soaps, perhaps because they are primarily Hindi speaking people and their main source of visual reference is popular media. Art galleries, museums and the internet in India are not easily accessible to people who are not from the English speaking middle and upper-middle classes. Consequently, many of my sitters have adopted poses from heroines of popular television serials, whilst others have modelled themselves on famous courtesans’ characters in classic Bollywood films from the 1950s and 1960s.

from the series "Kothis, Hijras, Giriyas and Others", Delhi, India, 2013 onwards

DTL: What is your main objective as a photographer? 

Charan: When I make photographs, I want to make something queer but also want to challenge stereotypes. Many of my subjects have never had a studio portrait made in their life-time. Therefore, I attempted to create a space where people could feel comfortable regardless of their class, caste, identity, gender, sexuality, performance; these are individual human beings each with their own nuances.

http://www.charansingh.net/

Life as a transwoman of colour can be a very challenging and solitary existence

In the patriarchal and gender-biased world we live in, it is extremely challenging for someone assigned ‘male’ at birth, to assume their femininity. Society makes it very hard, almost impossible. A transwoman’s journey to womanhood is one ridden with one challenge after another – which worsen when one is from a visible minority, and with roots in the global South.

My earliest memories are that of asking for things that I found interesting, and being told that they were for girls, and not for me. It is something I never understood, and I would on occasion cry and protest to have my way, just like any other child. My preference for things society classified as being meant for ‘girls’ soon became a problem, a reason for anger and disappointment. My parents put me in an all-boys school, which, in retrospect, turned out to be the toughest part of my life so far. All I wanted was to get away, which I did soon after high school.

Arriving in France for my higher studies, I was initially relieved to find myself at last in a place where I could be myself, without the pressure of conservative attitudes. However, I soon discovered that this was all but a mirage. I ended up in quite a conservative country, where certain privileges of open-minded attitudes were not extended to me. I was catalogued for my ethnicity and national origin – not just by cis-gender heterosexuals, but also on the so-called, ‘gay scene’. I was completely out of place. I would feel very uneasy and unwelcome in both circles, and I was left wondering what on earth was going on.

At a young age, you don’t really have answers to all the questions you are faced with. Exploring responses, finding who I was and what I liked, was a tremendous struggle that took a lot longer. It has been a long and painstaking effort to unlearn what I was told and taught, and to find my true self, the real person within that I always knew I was, but had next to no means of affirming, of being. It was a story of being forced to conform, strictly, to the dictates of a world in which the gender binary had the final say. A life beyond gender assigned at birth was clearly impossible.

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The undergraduate years spent in France often involved bouts of anxiety and plunges into depression. I quickly closed up around myself, with my voice subdued and little prospect of moving forward. What was most challenging and painful was not the discrimination, insults and micro-aggressions from cis people, but the difficulty, if not the impossibility of being part of the LGBTQI community, where being a person of colour who was questioning their gender identity happened to be far from welcome. I did what I could, to move around, to surround myself with a lot of material on gender politics, ethnic and racial studies, and activism against racially and socio-economically motivated forms of oppression of people, especially people of colour. This is what eventually made me take stock of the reality that in my struggle, I was not alone.

I subsequently ended up, in a totally unexpected way, in a place called Northern Ireland. To someone with major concerns about their gender identity, sexuality, and as a person of colour with a citizenship from the global South, it is hard to think of a more challenging place to find oneself in Western Europe. The metropolis in Northern Ireland, Belfast, has been changing dramatically since the time I first landed on these shores some ten years ago, but life as a transwoman of colour can be a very challenging and solitary existence.

One of my biggest challenges over the past few years, has been that of reconciling my gender identity with the academic and professional work I am engaged in. Working on a PhD in International Politics in a very conservative university, I found it highly challenging to assume my transwomanhood in the academic sphere. At one point, I seriously considered changing track, abandoning my PhD, and moving over to a ‘gender studies’ department in a different university. There was a time when I couldn’t help seeing things in the eyes of heteronormative society – thinking that my gender identity was going to impede my professional success. It took a great deal of time, effort and energy for me to convince myself that this was in fact not the case, being transgender does not, and should not be seen as an obstacle to career development. After taking some time to pull myself together, I began to see things in a different light. When you land in a place, out of whatever circumstances, where you do not have much space, all it means is that you have to create your own space. I chose this tiresome path of building spaces, a continuing struggle, with its own milestones, successes and indeed, many setbacks.

I generally despise the term ‘transition’, as it does not render justice to this complex process of self-affirmation that trans people undergo. It is a process of affirming, despite the dictates of a society obsessed with the gender binary, who you are. It is much more appropriate to describe it as a process of gender self-determination, which, like any struggle for self-determination, is not straightforward, and marred by one hurdle after another.

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I also despise the resolve of healthcare authorities in the United Kingdom to systematically ‘pathologize’ trans identities. It is as if being ‘trans’, or not being comfortable in the ‘cis’ identity you were assigned at birth, is a sickness, a disorder of some sort. I take issue with the way in which trans people are dealt with in the UK health system, which forces people to go through compulsory psychiatrist appointments, perpetuating the view that trans people somehow need to be ‘diagnosed’, and are ‘mentally unwell’. Some trans people, just like cis people at varying stages of life, may indeed require psychological support services, and I certainly appreciate the work done by healthcare professionals in gender identity clinics across the country. However, the system needs to begin to take stock of the fact that quite a few trans people, who have reached clear conclusions about their gender identities, should not be forced to go through the metal health red tape – a process in which trans people are brought to explain and justify their very existence.

I dare say the ailment, or mental disorder, is not in trans people but in a society that revolves around the gender binary. It is society that likes the [thoroughly false and unsustainable] ‘uniformity’ that the gender binary seeks to enforce. Biology, on the other hand, loves difference and diversity. Take any ancient culture and civilisation, and you’ll see the important presence of people of a rich array of gender identities, who upheld traditions and structures of wisdom that the gender binary could never accommodate. Trans identities are not a recent innovation. From where I stand, as someone who moved westwards from South Asia, I also reiterate that trans identities are by no means a ‘Western’ development or some form of ‘trend’.

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The former argument is common among anti-trans individuals and groups in the global South, and the latter is often voiced by anti-trans folk in the West. Both groups, in fact, are all but two sides of the same coin of hatred. In the UK, many LGBTQI support groups uphold a strategy for ‘diversity’ which includes providing occasional spaces for people of colour to express themselves. This, in my view, is somewhat inadequate, and is a form of domination in which someone in a position of power gets to determine the parameters of diversity – thereby perpetuating racial and cultural hierarchies in the LGBTQI community.

In a country with such a great deal of diversity in all its forms, it is very important to raise critical questions in LGBTQI circles on anti-oppression, multiple forms of micro-aggression, and the interplay of race, ethnicity and gender plurality. It would be beneficial to everyone to take an approach that centres around the concept of ‘queer liberation’, in which marginalised individuals and groups become the very motors of constructive change, on a platform of equality.

ChamindaDr Chaminda Weerawardhana (www.chamindaweerawardhana.com) is a Belfast-based transwoman, academic and parent, by way of Sri Lanka, France and Germany. Chaminda is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the School of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, and is the first transwoman to hold a research title in the university. She is a tireless advocate of gender justice, decolonising gender politics, transfeminism, and indeed, queer liberation. Chaminda blogs at www.chamidefremancourt.wordpress.com
Twitter @fremancourt.