The arts offer a safe haven to discover gender identity

Catherine McNamara, co-founder of Gendered Intelligenceon the challenges facing young trans people, and how the arts can help

At Gendered Intelligence we encourage our young participants to be the people that they feel themselves to be, and to pursue what they wish to become, whether that’s in terms of their gender expression or their life aspirations.

We’re committed to an idea that everyone can be intelligent about gender, and we are committed to taking an active role in supporting people – all people – as they develop that intelligence, or understanding of what gender is, in all its forms. Through our arts projects and our trans youth group, people engage in structured creative work in an environment that values and respects diversity and difference.

Whether we’re making a film, doing life-drawing workshops, devising a piece of theatre to tour to schools, learning different forms of dance, hacking into the Science Museum, or collaborating with Brook, the Institute of Physics, London Drawing, the Roundhouse or Boldface Productions, we afford young people the respect they deserve.

Gendered Intelligence - Anatomy exhibition © Angella Dee
Gendered Intelligence’s Anatomy exhibition © Angella Dee

Many of the members of the Gendered Intelligence youth group tell us that they’ve had negative experiences related to their gender expression in their employment settings or in social environments. They tell us they were bullied throughout much of their school years.

Often nothing was done about it when they spoke out, with some people even made to feel that they’d brought the abuse on themselves. This discrimination or bullying can take many forms, and when young trans people tell us that they feel consistently frightened and anxious about what people in various situations and settings might say or do to them, we know there is more work to be done.

Read: Could poetry and word combat bullying?

Don’t get me wrong – there are lots of organisations doing their utmost to ensure that transgender and gender variant people feel safe to learn and confident to participate. At Gendered Intelligence we know this because we regularly work with them. We support organisations to ensure they are trans inclusive – from checking a venue’s box office staff are greeting trans people confidently and with respect, right up to ensuring policy makers understand gender diversity, and that youth and education services are supporting their participants who are coming out as trans or gender queer, undergoing their transition or disclosing their trans or gender queer status.

But quite frankly, we need to do more. Lots more.

Gendered Intelligence's Anatomy exhibition © Angella Dee
Gendered Intelligence’s Anatomy exhibition © Angella Dee

We’re not sure if we can claim that the arts are a better vehicle through which to explore gender diversity than any other. It’s just our way. We feel very strongly that participation in the arts – creating meaning, expressing experiences and viewpoints through creativity – is life-affirming. Participation in the arts has massive potential to get people talking in reflective, thoughtful and new ways.

Read: South Africa’s new political theatremakers

We work with a wide range of arts practices and collaborators because we enjoy being involved in and creating different experiences. So far our work has spanned films, web-comics, plays and performances, 2D and 3D art, drawings, zines, music, photographs, museum exhibits – the list is long and we plan for it to keep growing for many years to come. We will also continue to support more organisations to become more aware and more inclusive of trans people that access their services.