Tomorrow evening, St John’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh will be the site of a panel discussion on the nature of sexual and gender identities. Beyond Binaries: LGBT Voices and the Freedom to Self Identify is part of the Just Festival and is focusing on questions around society’s tendency to categorise everything in binary groups: mean and women, gay and straight, and so on. This has been identified as a cause of mental health problems for some LGBT people. We spoke to Alison Wren, who will chair the discussion, to ask why she feels this is such an important discussion to be having.
“I was delighted to be asked to chair the event,” she says, “as it is about a subject that is not only core to the organisation I work for (LGBT Health and Wellbeing) but also important to me on a personal level as someone who identifies as part of the LGBT community.
“As someone who identifies as bisexual, I have frequently had to negotiate assumptions around the binaries of sexuality. I feel I’m lucky to be in a position of privilege to be asked to have my voice present at events like this. However I am also very aware of the many people who don’t have the freedom or confidence to self-identify in such public or celebratory ways so it feels important for me to have a presence at this event to in some small way to represent those who can’t.”
She also feels that these issues can be central to mental health and well-being.
“My work within LGBT Health focuses on the mental health needs of LGBT people. LGBT people are more likely to experience mental ill health compared to the general population. LGBT people also have a fraught history with their identities being pathologised in psychiatry. For example the World Health Organisation only declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1992 and trans people needing to access gender reassignment services still need a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
“Of course, just because LGBT people are more likely to experience higher rates of self-harm, alcohol misuse and suicidal thoughts, doesn’t mean that all LGBT people are a homogenised group that will all develop poor mental health. Both professionally and personally I have observed how one of the biggest factors impacting LGBT people’s ability to live fulfilling and flourishing lives is the extent to which they are able to be visible, but also genuinely accepted (not tolerated) in any given society. This can happen by seeing an option for your sexuality or gender on a form you need to fill out, but also in the language and behaviour that friends, family, colleagues and service providers use to address individuals’ identities.
“It can be the effect of living in a society not accepting of a diverse range of sexual and gender identities that can be the greatest catalyst of mental ill health in LGBT people, rather than being LGBT in itself. I think it would be naïve of us to not think that constantly having to correct assumptions around who you are and negotiating systems and services that aren’t set up to be inclusive of your identity has impact on a person’s sense of self-worth and subsequent mental wellbeing.
“I think there can be fear and misunderstandings around sexual orientations and gender identities that don’t neatly fit into the binary boxes that are so often presented to us as the ‘norm’. There is a genuine lack of understanding and confusion for some people when confronted with individuals or communities who neither identify themselves as straight or gay and/or male or female. I think events like this are important to provide a visible affirmative space for people to express who they are and for others to hear voices that are usually silenced or ignored.”
The discussion seems very timely, with attitudes beginning to change.
“Globally there have been a few this happening recently around gender that have particularly caught my attention,” Alison concurs. “The introduction of the inclusion of an ‘x’ option on Australian passports as an alternative to the binary male or female options. In addition, earlier this year Facebook updated their gender options to be more inclusive of a range of different ways people may define their gender and associated pronouns.
“At a more local level, in Scotland, within my peers, more than ever people I know are identifying their sexuality non-monosexually and their gender in non-binary ways. I’ve seen much more talk of fluidity within sexuality and gender. Sometimes people are using labels, other times not. I recently edited a book of creative writing to do with LGBT identities and mental wellbeing, Naked Among Thistles. We had an open call-out for submissions and a significant proportion of the participants and those attending the launch night identified their gender and/or sexuality as what could have been seen as ‘other’. To have these identities affirmed and warmly received was wonderful then and events like this Beyond Binaries conversation at the Just Festival help to continue conversations. I’d like to think that people who attend the event may leave considering what small (or big) action they could take to make the world a more inclusive place for people whose sexuality and gender identities do not fall into traditional binaries.”
These changes, Alison says, are also reflected in her day to day work.
“Whilst the name of the organisation I work for, LGBT is a collection of identities, our ethos has always been one of inclusiveness and none of our groups or activities are designed to encourage people to fit neatly into a definition that doesn’t work for them. We support community groups to have the same ethos, for example our ‘Bi & Beyond’ social group describes itself as a regular social gathering for ‘people who identify as bisexual and non-monosexual. Whatever your label or lack of label we welcome you’.”
The Just Festival event is open to anyone with an interest in the subject, she says, whether they have ideas to contribute or just want to find out more.
“I definitely think events like this one play a part in social change. It’s pretty difficult for people to start to think outside of the (binary) box when there aren’t accessible opportunities to have open and informed conversations. What I like about this event is that it is a conversation, and whilst the speakers are there to share their relevant thoughts and opinions, the floor is open to discuss a wide range of experiences, and you never know, we might hopefully get someone to think twice before they design a form or public toilets with only binary options!”