Still Waiting at the VAULT

Beneath Waterloo station lie the vaults. They are long, cavernous rooms made of brick and stone. They are dank and smell a little of damp. They are also the site of Great Gatsby themed parties, plays about starships, masked balls and for only two more days – Still Waiting. As the blurb promised this is an event “about the hundred handshakes you experience in the Calais Refugee Camp, volountourism and packets of pasta, and our relationship with Europe’s refugee crisis.” And as the trains rumbled overhead so I was transported into a very different world. Actually, no, I wasn’t transported because Still Waiting is about this world and the problems it is facing. Perhaps, instead, rather than being taken away on an escapist adventure I was more deeply immersed in the real world. I was made to feel.

Still Waiting - at the VAULT theatre, 1st - 5th February
Still Waiting – at the VAULT theatre, 1st – 5th February

Three cast members/musicians took us through the refugee crisis via songs, statistics, jokes, laments and thoughtful interludes. The title comes from the name of a report released by Refugee Rights Data Project on the situation in Calais. It is the “largest research effort around refugees and displaced people in the region to-date” and it is called Still Waiting because so many people are doing just that, waiting and waiting for a chance to find a new home, to be reunited with family and friends, to escape the persecution of their homelands and/or for better education opportunities. And these are people who are waiting, not just photographs in a newspaper, or numbers on a spreadsheet, or stereotyped ‘masses’. They are people like us.

And that is what Still Waiting achieved – it turned the numbers into stories and the stories made me feel. Whether it was listening to the recording of Ramia’s story, a young woman who escaped Aleppo in Syria and is now living in Goumenissa in Greece. Or hearing the cast discuss their own experiences of going to (or not going to) Calais to help the refugees and the charities supporting them (they also sang a song about it called Humblebrag and it’s worth going to the show just for that!). The show costs £9 and in going you help fund Crew for Calais, one of the charities doing vital work to support refugees. Go also to be moved and to be drawn into a humanitarian crisis in a way that no broadsheet or head of government seems capable of doing. Go because this matters, it really does matter, and we are running out of excuses not to. Because the world won’t get better by itself, the world needs the cast of Still Waiting, it needs Crew for Calais and it needs the resilience and fortitude of the endless refugees forced to leave their homes.

The world needs us too and it’s events like this that remind me of that.

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Calling All Queer Warriors

Last summer I spent a week in the Welsh countryside. I slept in a big yurt and under a tarp, I did some fasting and I met a bunch of great people. The landscape was beautiful – we were staying in a rewilding valley, meaning that nature was slowly reclaiming the space that would previously have been farmed (although some pesky sheep did manage to break in to do some casual grazing). The land was fantastical and it reminded me of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and also the world of the Legend of Zelda (an ace computer game I loved playing when I was younger). However, as I thought about these stories I realised they are often about straight men fighting orcs and/or rescuing Princesses. So, there, deep in the Welsh wilderness a new character was born: the Queer Warrior.

Skip forward to yesterday and I just ran my first ever Queer Warriors workshop at ActivateLDN – a whole day event to equip young people with the skills and resources to make social change. The subtitle for my session was Resourcing and Supporting the LGBTQIA+ Community and for 90 minutes that is what I and eleven others got up to. We unpacked the acronym and explored what the different letters mean. We also spoke about our own experiences of gender and sexuality. We then got a bit fictional and invented our own characters, giving them names, appearances, genders, sexualities, fears and much more. We confronted our characters with their fears and had them overcome them in novel ways. In essence, we honed our storytelling and communication skills which I think are vital for the queer community because we have so many stories to tell, whether we consider ourselves a member of the community or an ally of it. We also need to be able to combat the stereotyping and prejudice that tries to sideline the queer community, often inciting and resulting in violence. Our stories matter and the more empowered we feel to tell them then, hopefully, the more others will listen.

Another metaphor of the Queer Warrior workshop is the idea that the queer community offers a huge umbrella of protection to those underneath. Furthermore, all are invited to shelter from the storm whether you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, asexual, queer, trans, cis, intersex, questioning, genderqueer, non-binary or curious. It is also an intersectional umbrella that recognises prejudice and discrimination affect different people in different ways including along lines of race, ability, mental health, class and religion. In essence, the one thing I would hate for the queer community to be is a clique. There are enough cliques out there (and, trust me, I’ve got a post or two on this for later) but in the world of the Queer Warrior all are invited – you don’t have to be x enough or more y or less z, you can just be you, whoever that is and you’ll be welcome. You don’t even have to be a Queer Warrior, that’s just a name I like!

If you’re interested in a Queer Warriors workshop please get in touch at hello@robertholtom.co.uk. And you can find out more about my work in storytelling and narrative skills here – www.robertholtom.co.uk

Video Game - The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Link Wallpaper
The Queer Warrior surveys their domain (actually it’s Link from the next Legend of Zelda game!)

The Trouble With Trans People, Is Cis People

The BBC’s recent documentary Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? makes one thing abundantly clear – that the BBC does not know best when it comes to how trans kids should live their lives. Before I go on I want you to pause and reflect on how much you know about the experience of being transgender. Nope. Don’t read on, take a moment. I’ll put a paragraph break here to facilitate that process…

Ok, before you get irritated with me for being patronising that exercise was intended more for the people who know very little. Because I’ve had far too many conversations with people who are largely ignorant of trans experiences yet often attempt to speak for and over them. I believe the BBC’s documentary adds to this problem, which is why I want to challenge it. Yup, in essence, it’s another post in which I call bullshit.

“Here’s one of the things that’s lovely about being transgender, we mess with everyone’s theories of gender,” says Hershall Russell, a psychotherapist and activist, with a huge smile on his face. And it’s true. It was only in 2014 that I realised I was cisgendered: that I had always identified with the gender I was assigned at birth. I had never spent particularly long exploring my gender for myself and had always accepted that because a doctor assigned me male at birth, because they saw a penis between my legs, then I must be male. It’s 2017 now and I no longer consider myself cisgender and without going into the details the point I am making is that I have now taken the time to explore my gender for myself. This is something many of us will not do as we remain cisgendered and unquestioningly slot into the readymade binary of masculine and feminine that mainstream society offers us. Of course, as Russell says, everything gets messed with as soon as we realise it’s far less simple than the binary would have us believe and no one makes this more abundantly clear than transgender folk.

So, it’s tough to watch a BBC documentary in which much air time is given to Ken Zucker who, yes, was allegedly the world expert on gender dysphoria as the voiceover keeps reminding us but also an advocate of gender-reparative therapy, which encourages gender non-conforming kids to stop behaving in non-conforming manners. To put it bluntly (and somewhat crudely) this might involve stopping a boy from playing with Barbies or a girl wearing camo (and, once upon a time, may have involved electroshock therapy). There are a few problems here. Firstly, these are issues of gender expression and not gender identity, which the majority of trans activists would acknowledge are different, and don’t necessarily have anything to do with the experience of being transgender. Secondly, this is clearly a value-laden process that encourages/forces kids to conform so they can ‘fit-in’ because Zucker and the like think that will make them happier. However, the documentary gets even lighter on nuance at this point and given the lack of trans education available to the general public, can anyone really be expected to form a balanced opinion when the documentary isn’t even focussing on what’s in the title?

We need better documentaries than this and one reason for that is because I am bored of having the same conversations with ignorant cis folk. We have access to google, Ecosia and wikipedia – please use them. Everyone’s experience of gender is different including every transgender person – it is not up to anyone to make crass, reductive statements on behalf of anyone else. If you just can’t imagine what it might be like to be a different gender to the one you were assigned at birth, or if the thought of sex reassignment therapy ‘weirds’ you out, or if you do think we should all conform to the genders we were assigned at birth, then you’ve got lots of work to do. But I am afraid watching the latest BBC documentary isn’t going to be much help. The best place to start would be seeking out the lived experiences of trans folk by watching interviews or reading blogs. Begin to figure out how to empathise with lives that might be very different to your own and when it comes to gender, why not explore your own rather than dictating to others how they should explore and experience theirs. You could also watch the ace TV series Transparent.

Matilda The Musical And Why We’re Never Growing Up

I was very lucky to be able to watch Matilda The Musical the other day. Not only did it get me in the festive mood but I also thought it was a brilliant production. Lots of dedicated kids and adults singing their hearts out and weaving a fantastic and rather timeless story. It’s based on the Roald Dahl book, which was made into an ace movie, and now it’s on in the West End. A few spoilers on the way but I am guessing you probably already know the story: Matilda, a young girl, is bullied by her horrible parents who try and stifle her blossoming genius by threatening to ban reading. Then off to school where she is bullied by the awful (but brilliant) headmistress Miss Trunchbull who has a habit of putting naughty children in Chokey – a small and spiky cage (yup, Roald Dahl was dark). However, Matilda meets Miss Honey, a passionate teacher who is very shy and timid, and very scared of Miss Trunchbull. Miss Honey spots Matilda’s genius and tries to help foster it as any good teacher should. The rest involves giant chocolate cakes, telekinesis and floating chalk. Like many stories about children this one is about growing up and there’s a great song that is all about doing just that (see video below, starts around 42 seconds in) but there’s one bit in particular that is just spot on.

The woman in the pink cardigan is Miss Honey and it’s funny that an adult should be singing about growing up. Her words are these: “When I grow up, I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown up.” And it takes a super-genius, telekinetic girl with an immense capacity for bravery to help Miss Honey grow up and fight the creatures that have been plaguing her often lonely and frightened life. Yet, it’s us adults who have a habit of telling children to just grow up whilst simultaneously telling them that things will be better once they have grown up. But I reckon us adults have an awful lot of growing up to do as well and really we’re using ‘adulthood’ as a facade to exercise undue authority. Yes, adults can be frightened, lonely, scared, mean and nasty too but until we can be honest about our vulnerability we’ll keep on missing those chances to grow up, chances that come from all directions, including (and maybe espeically) from those younger than us. Only then can the world we promise our children really come true.

Matilda also has another great point to make, which is that to make a difference you don’t have to do huge things, the little things you’re capable of can also make a huge difference. Whether it’s offering a helping hand or a listening ear or even just a smile, the little things do add up and they do have an impact. Matilda is also big on challenging authority and fighting injustice, and thanks to her ‘little’ actions, which are huge for others, so much change happens. So yes, 2016 has been quite a year and 2017 has an awful lot of work to do but I reckon it’ll be a much better year if, like Matilda, we do the little things we can and, together, help each other grow up.

I’m Voting For Trump Because…

I’m voting for Trump because over the last few decades I have seen my local community decimated. After the factory closed down there weren’t that many jobs going around and more and more folk got into money troubles. People got in debt, people got depressed and some people started taking drugs. I was told America was the land of the great but I ain’t seeing much greatness around. I voted for Obama because he promised change but there’s been jack all change over the past few years. If anything, things are getting worse and I don’t trust Hillary Clinton, she’s part of the elite just like all the others. America needs to sort things out again and I just want a decent job.

I’m voting for Trump because I’ve been a proud Republican my whole life and I believe in the free market. It worked for me. I set up my own business back in the 80s and now I’m a millionaire. Ronald Reagan was a godsend, freeing the market and letting business take the stage. I’ve put my kids through top college educations and now one is an actress, another is a banker and one’s run off to join a hippy circus (we tend not to invite her over for Christmas, she doesn’t eat Turkey). Trump’s controversial, of course, but he’s a Republican and that’s where my heart lies. God bless America. I’m voting for Trump because I don’t like blacks and Jews. I’ve never had much respect for women and I hate those Femi-nazis who get all angry and red in the face. Women need to know when to speak and when to shut up. I mean, a black president is bad enough but now they want a woman president. I do not condone this and nor does Trump, that’s why he’s my man and he’s got my vote. I’m voting for Trump because I was going to vote for Bernie and I do not trust Hillary Clinton. I’m voting for Trump because it’s high time America had a revolution. I’m voting for Trump because Muslims should be banned. I’m voting for Trump because I’m a passionate Muslim businessman and I quite like the guy.

These may or may not be some of the reasons why people are voting for Donald Trump but having watched this Jeremy Paxman film and read this article I know not all of the above sentiments are too far off the mark. And the point I’m trying to make is just as there’s no such thing as an ‘average Brexit voter’ so there is no such thing as an ‘average Trump voter’. There are so many different reasons for why people are voting Trump and whilst some may be contradictory, confused or misguided and others just are bigoted, racist and sexist there are many that are concerned, earnest and hopeful. However, one thing I thing I think might be true across the spectrum of Trump voters is that they don’t want to be patronised. It’s all well and good for Paxman to call Trump voters “mad” to their face and to emphasise just how much of a loon Trump is but for every cutting and sarky ‘Trump voters are morons’ type comment there is someone getting insulted on the receiving end. This sarcastic and condescending tone just adds fuel to an anti-establishment fire that is already burning strong. Of course, many would want to contest that Trump is actually a genuine leader of such an anti-establishment movement (just as Farage clearly wasn’t) but that requires a more nuanced conversation not just labelling someone moronic. It’s not that all Trump voters are deplorable it’s that the system that routinely ignores and scapegoats them is deplorable.

And, yes, I am well aware of the sort of person Trump is – he’s bigoted, he condones and trivialises sexual assault and he’s an arch hypocrite. And, of course, I am not voting for him because I’m not a US citizen but I did think that title was more attention grabbing than ‘The Bourgeoise Left-Wing Metropolitan Elite Need To Brush Up On Their Empathy Skills’. But there’s far more to the American election than a single vote happening tomorrow. The divisions we see boiling to the surface are symptomatic of a vicious and unfair class war that has been waging for decades, which many of us benefit from without thinking much of those who miss out. This will continue to be the case regardless of who becomes the next president. Until we get to the bottom of this mess and learn how to listen to each other we’re going to keep seeing the same feuds play themselves out over and over again.  To be continued…

Turns Out We’re All Insecure

We have a habit of projecting success onto others. We see our facebook friends’ holiday pics and assume their lives are just fantastic – they have the best holidays, they have the most fun friends and they have a monopoly on the sun. We see attractive people walking down the street and assume their lives are great – with a face like that they must get invited to all the best parties, have no self-esteem issues and have great sex. We see our hyper-successful boss and assume they’ve got it all sorted – a big salary, a big house with equally big happiness to boot. And all the while as we project success we internalise failure, telling ourselves our lives aren’t busy enough, we haven’t got enough friends and we’re just not good enough (or whatever our hook-ups are). But the thing is, it turns out we all do this because everyone’s insecure.

It’s not that we’re the only ones failing to find that abundant happiness we assume everyone else thrives in, it’s actually that we are all subject to the same slings and arrows of consumer capitalism. It makes us all feel inadequate, even those at the ‘top’ because there’s always more to buy, more money to make, the possibility of looking a bit better, having more friends, the list goes on. It’s a zero-sum game and there are only a few seats at the top table. But no one really wins and the very idea that society is predicated on the concept of winning, that it’s a competition, makes its inherent madness all the more obvious.

However, insecurity goes much deeper than the effects of living under capitalism, it goes right to the heart of the human condition. Regardless of how many holidays we go on, how often we shop and how ‘good’ we look, there are things universal to being human, namely ageing, illness and grief. We all get old, we all get ill and we all lose people we love. All of these are perfectly normal and natural but that does not make them easy. It’s not just that advertising campaigns make ageing a sin it’s also that losing things you once enjoyed is tough. Meanwhile, illness can knock us for six and, depending on its severity, change our lives forever. And loss. That empty feeling that can overwhelm our hearts when we lose a loved one and struggle to comprehend what death actually is, that is also very, very tough. Living, whilst often flipping fantastic, can also be devastating and difficult. Thus, interwoven into the very fabric of our being is the fragility and vulnerability of being alive. Our insecurity is part of who we are (not to mention the fact that we all die but that’s another blog, or book).

We are all insecure and for so many reasons. We all have different histories, no two experiences of grief will be the same, just as ageing and illness will affect us all differently. As will enduring and attempting to thrive in the zero-sum world of competitive capitalism. And why is it useful to know this? It’s not to make us feel better by luxuriating in the suffering of others instead it’s to let us all off the hook a bit. We can stop pretending everything’s ‘fine’ when it’s not and ask for help instead. We can also be a little more compassionate towards others recognising that no matter how irritating they are they will have their issues and sufferings too. So if I am going to make any categorical statement about the human condition on this blog it will be this: that, on the surface and in our deepest depths, we are all insecure.

Oxford’s Vigil For Orlando

Oxford, England. Thunder boomed, lightning flashed and the rain came tumbling down. The English summer is never one for predictably and climate change just makes that all worse. A brief cycle home and I was drenched, my second shower for the day. It was five o’ clock in the afternoon and there was going to be a vigil in Radcliffe Square for the victims of the homophobic terrorist attack in Orlando. More thunder, more lightning, more rain. The Orlando attack was deeply distressing. It is sad to see people robbed of their lives by atrocious acts of violence and it is sad to see the queer community targeted simply because people want to be free to love whoever they wish. However, I’d seen photos of the vigil in Soho, London, and there had been thousands of people standing in silence, in tears and in solidarity, and this gave me hope.

A few hours later I put my waterproof jacket on, jumped back on my bike and head into town. But the jacket was unnecessary because the clouds were breaking and beyond, even at half past seven, the sun was shining. The view of the changing sky was staggering punctured by the sandstone spires of Oxford University. I arrived at Radcliffe Square where hundreds of people had gathered outside the Radcliffe Camera (the only building in Oxford’s skyline that looks more like a booby than a penis). So many people. Like any community, the queer one can be both brilliant and difficult. Great friendships can be forged but so can cliques. Certain groups come to identify themselves apart from others and ‘politics’ can arise. However, that evening we were gathered for something so much greater than ourselves, we were gathered in solidarity for the victims of Orlando and for queer people all over the world.

Vigil for OrlandoA quote from the facebook event reads as this: “LGBTQ people have long been and continue to be the victims of violence and hatred in the places where we try to seek safety. The fact that this attack happened on Latinx night, and that so many of the victims were Latinx reminds us that queer people of colour are disproportionately at risk of violent hate crimes. On Wednesday evening we will come together outside the Radcliffe Camera to remember the lives of the victims of this attack; we will mourn the violence that seeks to destroy our communities. There is no space at this vigil for Islamophobia or racism. We will not be silent in the face of hatred, we will stand together and support one another as we have always done in times of crisis.”

People gave speeches, the names of the victims were read out and a two-minute silence was held. Someone in front of me began to cry and someone next to them gave them a hug – I don’t think they knew each other. There were families there too and heterosexual people, distressed at the attack and supporting their queer friends. Then a beautifully voiced choir sang Seasons of Love from the musical Rent and Somewhere Over The Rainbow. What ace songs. It’s such a shame that it sometimes takes tragedy to bring us together but those moments of unity are exceptionally powerful, and even though I went by myself to the vigil I did not feel alone. Humans have always lived in difficult times and this remains true today. My hope is that the sentiment of belonging to something so much bigger than ourselves – a community of fighters, lovers, queers and allies that runs back throughout history and will run always into the future – will continue to bring us closer together in a time when division is not an option.