What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
Cool tiles below your feet. Lycra stretched across your hips. Towel in hand. The same sense of nervous anticipation greets many of us whenever we prepare to step out into the cacophony of a public pool. As confident as we may be in our bathing suits at home, all that stands between us and the moment of truth is a swinging door.
But imagine really not knowing what could lie beyond that door. Imagine not even getting to that door because walking to the counter, buying a day pass, and approaching a dressing room may already subject you to stares and whispers -- or worse.
This is the reality many transgender people face when they try to access public spaces, like leisure centres. And it’s something that Roberta Francis, who describes herself as an easygoing human who loves life, is trying hard to change. She’s been working with Lewisham Council in London to establish London’s first trans and gender non-conforming swimming group, or TAGS.
“I was fed up with being misgendered by leisure providers. I started the swimming group just to help myself and others access something that is a basic human right.”
It started as just an idea Roberta had discussed with her friend Chryssy Hunter. Working with Gendered Intelligence for initial support of the idea and volunteers, she was able to turn the idea into a reality.
The first step was simple. Starting a Facebook page and gathering support to see how many trans and gender non-conforming people wanted a safe space to swim.
While getting up to 100 Likes on their Facebook page, TAGS moved on the next largest and most difficult step -- finding space in London. In September 2014, Roberta confirmed a formal meeting with Lewisham Council and Fusion Leisure Centres. She reiterated to them the support TAGS found on social media, and the momentum built. They got a fully trained lifeguard to volunteer their services and the support of Delia Johnston, CEO of Transsexuals in Sport.
Galop and London Friend also threw in their best wishes and, after the official meeting with Lewisham Council, TAGS secured the space.
“I knew exactly what I wanted and I was quite confident about pulling it off,” Roberta says.
But TAGS got the space only temporarily -- TAGS is under a three-month trial with Lewisham Council. At only £3.20 per session, the swimming is affordable, but Roberta and the rest of the TAGS volunteers are under pressure to keep up the momentum.
The first session had over 21 swimmers, some choosing to take a dip and others just relaxing in the space. Roberta knew she was doing the right thing.
“The first night was wonderful. We got fantastic feedback from everyone who attended. The Fusion staff, reception, and lifeguards were helpful and friendly, which made everyone feel comfortable. Being the chatterbox I am, I talked my way around the pool most of the night.”
Roberta also found many people willing to share their support of what the swimming session meant to them. “I had an awesome night and did some proper swimming for the first time in a long time! It felt fantastic,” attendee Ben Wall said.
After some press coverage in LGBT media, TAGS gained more support. Lewisham Council added the swimming sessions to their official website along with Fusion Leisure centres. Becoming Karma donated swimming costumes, and Roberta has looked into getting Fusion Leisure to potentially provide another space in North London for TAGS swimmers.
Roberta isn’t stopping there. She’s starting a community interest company to fund TAGS in the long term. She’s found a business advisor to work with her for free and she wants to help the trans and gender non-conforming community access other sporting events like body and mind positive yoga. She also meeting in November with Swimming.org to get more support.
“I’ve worked extremely hard to get the group off of the ground and I know it’s gaining momentum. It’s become really popular very quickly.”
Some of the comments on mainstream LGBT media coverage of the event have included criticisms that TAGS is creating a separate space that some may not feel is needed. But, the popularity of TAGS and its support from trans people suggest otherwise.
There is also wider evidence that there is a lack of public spaces trans people can move through safely. According the Youth Chances survey results published in 2014, 90% of LGBTQ people sampled agreed that discrimination against transgender people is still common in the UK. Three quarters of those LGBTQ young people experienced name calling, 45% experienced harassment or threats and intimidation and 23% experienced physical assault.
Worldwide, transgender women and people of colour (and usually trans women of colour) are murdered at a larger rate that their white and LGB counterparts. In fact, murders of transgender people are 50% higher than gays and lesbians. According to a report on Transphobic Hate Crime in the EU, 79% of transgender respondents had received some form of harassment in public ranging from comment to physical or sexual abuse. The report also found that trans people may be three times more likely to experience a hate incident or crime than lesbians and gay men, with transgender women reporting far higher statistics of receiving harassment.
To add insult to injury, according to the EU hate crimes report, most trans people also do not feel confident reporting hate crimes to the police. In many instances, such as the most recent popular case in the US of CeCe McDonald who was arrested, charged and sentenced with murder for defending herself against a hate crime, the police can exacerbate the issue or not take reports seriously.
In one instance, a responder to the EU report wrote: "After an assault I reported I was not given the opportunity to make a statement or even given a crime number...so they did not treat the assault as a crime. I felt they either thought I deserved the attack because I am transsexual or I brought the assault on myself because I’m transsexual.”
The need for protected and understanding spaces in general for trans people, especially trans women, is great. This was what motivated Roberta to start TAGS.
“Having a safe space for trans people means everything. As a community, we are generally forced into spaces where the only options of socializing can be to dance and drink alcohol. This isn’t always a bad thing, but having a choice to do something else is very positive. I’m glad TAGS can show people what else can be done.”
Despite the odds, Roberta has found a network of support in fellow volunteers, in the Council, and in other organizations willing to lend a hand to provide a couple hours of safe leisure time for transgender people. Roberta wants all councils and all organizations across the UK to know how important it is for trans people to access sporting and leisure facilities.
Even though TAGS as grown in numbers, it still needs financial support. Roberta says she knows there are pots of money out there to support this safer space, and she is determined to get access to some type of funding.
“This needs to change and it will change."
It’s hard to imagine why something so simple as going for a swim can be so complex. But safe in the Glassmill Leisure centre on Friday nights at 8:30pm, for the past three weeks, trans and gender non-conforming people from across (and sometimes outside of) London have come for a late night swim or the solace of an area free from judgement and threat. With the help of her fellow volunteers Cryssy and Alec, Roberta has created an oasis in a cultural desert.
“I have seen members of TAGS come in feeling scared and unsure and then leaving with big smiles on their faces. That’s worth so much to all those involved in running the event.”
If you would like to support TAGS:
Like them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/London-Trans-And-Gender-non-conforming-Swimming-group
Follow them on Twitter: @TAGS_swimming
TAGS appreciates all donations of items, time, and space to help keep this event going.