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Got Coaching Confusion?

It’s time to get some perspective and see clearly why coaching without niche focus is in need of close examining. With an increasing trend for getting a coach / becoming a coach, it?s hard to cut the wheat from the chaff. It?s not surprising as ?ambiguity? plays a growing role in what is increasingly a sales business (and not a coaching business).

Genuine Coaching

Genuine coaches have niche skills, expertise and real experience to share. Such individuals can be a one-time boon, an ongoing asset, or even a life changer to the corresponding individuals who seek/require it. Broadly speaking, there are two ?directions? of coaching: skills and mindset (and some coaches can offer a personal blend of the two). For example, some will coach a specific skillset e.g. product photography, bookkeeping for small businesses, vocal performance, personal styling, better gym technique, weight loss, financial planning, nutrition or how to un-bugger-up your Macbook. Others will offer mindset coaching, e.g. making and managing money, communing with nature, expanding creativity, improving business motivation, focus in athletic performance,  heightening self-worth in relationships, enhancing mind-body wellbeing, how to not bugger-up your Macbook in the first place. It is often a balance of guiding ‘how to do’ and ‘what to do’.

Coaches also typically focus their services to particular industries (or interest communities) like sports, business, theatre arts, publishing, wellbeing and so on. Some are very niche (I know someone who coaches on multiple orgasm and another who specifically coaches couples on ‘surviving their business and marriage’ ? and maybe these two should hold a retreat together ūüėõ ). Some veteran coaches will have a variety of niches they can cover – usually with a congruent message across them all and only after tremendous demonstrable experience.

Some coaches will blend their skills and mindset together and, really great coaches will take their clients on ?journeys? of personal development with measurable goals. Such coaches are definitely worthy of investing in if/when right for you – and you have a specific project in mind like getting in to sports competitions, writing that book, getting on stage, finding appropriate romance, starting or growing a business. Coaches also invest in themselves too – often collaborating with other coaches on complementary niches. This means that a good coach is always offering the best and the most they can to their clients. Self-esteem and client-esteem must be on a parity of esteem. Good coaches also invest their own money in good personal coaching – as continued professional development to improve their service (not just their sales!).  

Now, crucially, these coaches are a million miles away from the sales of what I?m calling ?conceptual coaching?.

What?s the Problem?

Every day on social media I see pushy ads for a plethora of personal coaching services that look and sound curiously like carbon copies of each other. Many of them actually suggest ?become a coach to become rich/ solve all your problems?. They appear to be merging as though spaghettifying in a black hole toward a singular point of sales. Where the advert is selling the concept of coaching itself as a business or lifestyle opportunity, I call this ?conceptual coaching?.

Furthermore, some (not all of course!) of the ads are looking a lot like multi-level marketing (MLM), showing excited people posing poolside, loudly quoting massive figure incomes, working from home as their own boss, urging us all to urgently sign up for a free something-or-other to kick start our ?dream? careers. They remind me of the 1990s Herbalife promotions of a smug guy leaning on a Porsche, who apparently sold milkshakes to his neighbours (something the teenage me dabbled in for about 5 minutes and got bored).

Caveat Emptor! The Problems of ?Conceptual Coaching?

What this means is that there is an increasing trend for people to ?buy coaching to become coaches? – and thus offer a rather opaque or confused service. What are they then going to coach? Coaching! and so on…

Lack of Niche Experience: The result is that there are business coaches who sell their coaching based on their current experience of running their business coaching business (they do not have a prior history of business success). There are life coaches who sell their coaching based on their recent experience of quitting the 9-5 and becoming a life coach.

Because there is often a lack of specific skills or knowledge, there is a real danger of a coach being ?a bit of everything?. I?ve heard of life coaches giving unsound advice on serious issues that require specialist training such as mental health disorders, family law and bankruptcy. Here lies the inherent problem where coaches sell their personal experiences and opinion* or their ?brand? as adequate and sufficient grounding for being a coach. It is important to acknowledge that coaches are not therapists nor financial advisors although they may be able to discuss such matters, spot a need and recommend appropriately.

*(I?d also hate to see a world where no one had any friends anymore and instead we paid strangers to talk to us and share their stories, life experience and opinions.)  

Life Coaching is definitely on the rise and in particular, leaves me with questions. It?s proponents state that Life Coaching ?is not therapy because, therapists deal with past trauma or experiences and by contrast, Life Coaching deals with the present  – in identifying and clearing obstacles  for future goals?. But this description is essentially what Cognitive Behavioural Therapy does. CBT identifies and breaks cycles and bad habits in the present and encourages good ones to facilitate future goals. It is also the most commonly prescribed therapy on the NHS. Furthermore, from what I?ve read (quite a lot), the basic starting point of a Life Coaching session is to discuss the ?origins of beliefs about the self? looking back in our pasts as early as infancy.

So… anyway… The service itself (coaching content, method and material) is ambiguous and often seems confused, increasingly so with each iteration down the line. Furthermore, if it is also MLM, then instead of physically selling diet shakes, essential oils or a wrinkle cream, it?s almost completely intangible. Because it is ?conceptual? it is increasingly easy for anyone to get on board without the need to buy and hold stock, provide clear services nor, appear to have/ need any credentials or experience in any particular field.

The encouragement for ?personal branding? also adds to the confusion because each may look ?unique? – and I?m sure the coaches believe it is too (after all everyone?s life story is unique) – but the iterative re-branding is possibly part of the sales process. A bit like buying bottled water, putting a new label on it then selling it on for the next person not to drink (because the bottle is actually empty, it?s ?conceptual water?) but to put another new label on it and sell it on. Ironically, no one is really drinking any water and any ?solution? will be diluted each time. Similarly, no-one is really gaining any personal coaching and is instead selling on a sales technique.

I have also noticed that Life Coaching and the newly emerging alternative, ‘Success Coaching’ is often presented like a watered-down version of (or mash up of) other disciplines such as the aforementioned Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). 

Because I like metaphors, here is another: Many coaching businesses are like a row of quirky shops that turn out to be multiple doors to one big wall. Here is where the depth of the problem becomes very clear ? that it?s also a two-way financial ?funnel? and is an increasing problem for those who have their backs to the wall, thinking their shopfront is special.

Vulnerable People are Targeted: Whilst the shopfronts of my previous metaphor are trying to engage new buyers (Business to Customer, ‘B2C’), there is another level of sales also going on behind these quirky doors (Business to Business, ‘B2B’). Real people are being persuaded to part with real money and real hope, in becoming coaches. Here, target audiences are those who are vulnerable from personal crisis such as redundancy, single parenting, mid-life ennui, heartbreak, illness, injury and other forms of loss. This is ground zero of the sales/recruitment. Ironically, hardship stories are often used as ?rags to riches? sales tactics suggesting overnight success is just a download away. Caveat Emptor. 

Those who have earnestly invested in their shopfront (their ?unique coaching business?) are increasingly paying for more bricks to hide the real business behind it all. When their businesses don?t attract the 5+ figure incomes nor queues of rich exciting clients (many are at a loss without hope of any return on investment) and so they are persuaded to invest in? you guessed it! More Coaching! If your own coaching business isn?t ?attracting? paying clients, you need to be coached on ?how to attract paying clients?? and so on. Sales of B2C and BTB simultaneously.

In this case, the real money is being made from selling business coaching as a business; and life coaching as a lifestyle. There is some deep irony here. Once you have invested several thousands to ?become a coach?, you are more likely to keep spending than cut your losses. This is the classic cognitive bias for ?loss aversion? that marketers have used since wo/man could shop. This is why coupons and ?limited time offers? work so well ? you get FOMO. This ambiguity of promised potential gains hides the reality of actual loss and encourages this aversive behaviour. This is also why there is always an urgency to signing up for a free seminar or download. 

Why is this trend emerging?

I think that people are genuinely seeking revenue and/or meaningful work through enhanced personal identity. In an increasingly impersonal world of ?celebrity salespeople? (social media influencers, reality stars – those who are generally famous for being paid to endorse big brands), it is easy to be become seduced by social media as a platform for personal income, psychological and emotional validation. Unlike investment eras of the past, online personal coaching disbands with the need for an office, social permission, academic credibility, experience or stock.

About 10 years ago I noticed the rising trend for everyone to have a personal trainer or ?PT? and be showing off their results and lifestyle changes online (including the need to post photos of angled or mood-related salad portraits) and I predicted that the next thing would be for that same proverbial ?everyone? to want a business/life coach so that they felt they were investing in their own psychology and wellbeing beyond tighter butt-cheeks. Furthermore, that a large proportion of this ?everyone? would come to see themselves as being ?qualified? to be those very coaches. Why not? With the increasing flexibility for working at home, on the go, in the car/caf?/gym, via ready-made platforms of social media and without the need to carry any product or stock and without the hours of academic training or hard physical graft of becoming a PT in a gym (which had probably crossed their mind at one point), it?s easy to see why ?becoming a coach? is very appealing. There is no personal investment needed – just all your available money.

Outlaw of Attraction – My Own Experience

Forever the professional ‘maverick’ or so I’m told, I celebrate the diversity and atypical of body and mind. From burlesque bodies to paranormal minds, my specialism is probably best summed up in the field of transpersonal psychology (where we holistically explore human experience and development through mind-body connections and consciousness work). I work mostly with people who find themselves to be ‘atypical’ in some way.

As someone who has been involved with psychology, the arts and wellbeing for 20 years it has been interesting although frustrating to watch this sales trend emerge. In the past year or so, I have also been approached by a few life coaches (one still in ?training?). They asked me to explain:

  • ?how? I come up with my material,
  • ?how? I get my experiences
  • and ?how? I attract clients.

Truth is… that there is no ?how?, I just ?do?.

I?m curious by nature and I take positive risks in life, then reflect and take insight from the experiences. I then have the compulsion to share. Some people love the atypical (and even potentially trend-setting) work that I have done (including being a leader of the burlesque movement, creating a kind of ?cat yoga?, presenting snakes in schools as social learning guides, investigating alleged paranormal activity and developing techniques for increased sensory perception? and so on), and as a result, want me to be involved personally with their own creative development. They pay me for my time and insight and thus I am a ?coach?. 

However, I didn’t became a coach by design nor even desire. Instead I began coaching 10 years ago because someone requested that I be their mentor in burlesque. The thought of being a coach at that time was very daunting to me as I never felt ‘qualified’ – until it became apparent that I was wanted because I had a lot to share.

I still experience self-doubt like everyone else but I am eternally grateful to that first coachee for having faith in me, as I found my ‘calling’. I am someone who creates and delivers new unorthodox materials to support personal development. To also work one to one with others is so special, sacred even.

I also didn?t choose or ‘find a niche’, I have sort of defined my own niche: ‘creative personal development’  and this has been achieved through subverting the mind-body norms of our culture over the course of my life. I believe that new work needs to be created by each individual in order for transpersonal progress to occur.  

On a one to one coaching level, I therefore help others express themselves authentically from a holistic conscious perspective. We explore and present their ideas and identities in new ways. From stage performers, coaches, speakers and content creators to people transitioning in their private life e.g. gender, spirituality or career. I help my clients ?find their light?. (This reference to ‘light’ is key as it brings us back to the idea of trans-cendence and trans-personal work.) 

For me, the success of this concept is highlighted in nurturing self-expression of personal ideas, values and identity. This has occurred gradually over years, through experimenting on myself, being radically honest in reflection and the act of creating of the aforementioned materials, that people want and are willing to buy.  I still deliver my ?branded? material myself and have taught others to deliver it in their studios, schools etc too. I intend to make these courses available online soon too.

>>Pitch Alert!<<

Perhaps you have something to say but can?t find the words, or it?s your time to shine but feel stuck in the dark, or maybe? you too want to be a coach and lead others in your unique way but can?t find your direction. I call this Creative Personal Development and it?s a process of self-discovery, creative output and self-determination.

There is no template or formula for this that can bought and sold – because it is genuinely individual. You can read more here about one to one personal coaching with me.

My Totally Free Coaching Advice! LOL

Finding a coach: Look at old school coaches and think… would I pay for my child to have a football coach who hasn?t played football? Would I see a therapeutic coach who downloaded their (very interesting I?m sure) course but has zero hours of supervised practice? Would I take business advice from someone who spends their time touting for business?

Don?t fall for it – look for credibility not the long emotional sales pitch about overcoming hardship to Ferraris and dream homes, perfect lifestyles and ?abundance?. Beware of anyone who calls them self a legend or guru – these are terms other people apply to their mentors. They are by definition earned over time and not an egoic # for sales effect.

Becoming a coach: It may seem like a lucrative opportunity but ultimately, the conceptual coaching bubble will burst. It will burst because quite simply those involved in this iterative coaching sales business, are creating their own competitors, with nowhere to climb. Furthermore, because the sales are based on outlandish claims of wealth, status and success that very few actually enjoy, a sense of ennui and failure will take over and lead the backlash just as it has done many times over for MLM.

Remember whilst there are huge amounts of money being made through the selling of coaching, this is where the trap is.  It is easy to be seduced thinking you can be one of the makers. The reality is that you are very likely the buyer. You only make money if you make something that people want to buy. No one buys a theatre ticket and expects a role in the show or a cut of the box office. No casino has ever gone bankrupt because the gamblers were too good at gambling.

OK… now moving on to the exciting bit.

Doing it for real is so rewarding. I know loads of people who would make exceptional coaches in their niche areas of expertise and interest. So if the idea of sharing and helping others excites you then I think that coaching probably is a realistic option for you too.  I’d be excited to hear all about it.

So let?s have a think? here are some things to ponder and ask for help on.

Do you have a niche? Do you have direction? Can you communicate your expertise and personal story? Can you create and develop your OWN content? Are you willing to share your true and honest self with others?

If you are thinking of becoming a coach, first of all you need to know why and what it is you are coaching specifically. Otherwise it?s a bit like when a youngling states that they want to grow up to be a celebrity. A celebrity what? Sadly, there is a cross over here too where some become online coaches that simply sell their ?brand? – a personal brand with nothing tangible behind it. It?s another way to validate wanting to be an ?influencer? without having anything to offer other than sales influence. 

Content is key and if you don?t have it, you need to create it ? not buy, borrow, or rebrand what you bought from the last guy in the chain. Share good material from others of course, but with appropriate credit given. When you honour the minds of others you honour your own, and those of your audience.

If you can?t (yet!) create any content off your own experience, then train in some niche area of interest and work on yourself from there first. If you need help establishing this, get a bona fide coach to guide you. The primary question anyone should be asking themselves is ?how can I genuinely help others?? rather than ?how can I sell my brand??. Any genuine brand will sell itself, and you have to build it first. Additionally, it is so important to learn how to coach not just what topics and there are endless techniques, theories and methods to explore. It’s a matter of exploring across as many areas of interest as you can and see what you enjoy using and what you find effective. It doesn’t matter what someone else advocates, it is a matter of personal niche, personal service and personality. 

I?d further suggest that those interested in coaching examine and enhance their individual creativity so that they might ?come up with? their own adventures then take it from there. The ?secret? to my experiences and material and clients? It?s simple – follow your own nose in life, not a carrot dangled in front of it. If there is one being dangled, notice it and look to see who is dangling it – then avoid those people and return to your own path. Certainly don?t then let them sell you carrots and sticks to dangle in front of others.

Be curious, take risks and try new things beyond your comfort zone. Reflect. Share. Share for free. Share because you can. When someone asks you to share with them, you become a coach or a friend.

Or both.

 

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Not Lost in Translation… insight from transgender and non-binary voices

If we want to pursue individual happiness and a fair society, we all need to be allies to those whose voices are diminished beneath the roar of controversy. When I took part in a panel discussion on trans for the Church of England last year, I decided to interview as many transpeeps as I could – so as to represent their voices and not just my own. These were read out and a video shown of UK gender-non binary artist Mark Anthony, in addition to my address, which I have blogged over here.

In order to share perspective and gain insight from those who feel they go unheard, here are my contributors, in their own words.

1. What does it mean to be trans?

DH: Being trans, is just who I am, it basically means that I dont have to pretend to be something I am not any more, forcing myself to hide away. 

JP: To be trans means to me that I can just be who/what I want to be. I don’t feel like a different person just in my eyes, an enhanced version of myself.¬†

JM: Being a criminal, hiding, lying, being not what you are, having to be two characters not one. Separated from society, shunned.

MA: In its most basic sense being trans means to not identify as the gender you were assigned at birth based on your body. Ie, how you feel about your gender doesn’t match with the way others see you and try to teach you to be and act.¬†

RR: To be trans is to not identify with the gender you are assigned at birth. This includes people who medically transition (male to female or female to male), but medical intervention is not essential. People who are non-binary, and don’t identify as either gender, also fall under the trans umbrella.

RJ: In simple terms it’s knowing that the gender people thought you were isn’t right for you, but in practice being trans is being brave and choosing to remake yourself to match what you really are, rather than what you are presumed to be.

  1. How would you define differences (if any) between transgender and transsexual? Is this a useful distinction? 

DH: I dont, I’m not hung up on labels but the difference is due to generations more than anything. Most Trans people are just themselves and not sum of their labels.¬†

JP:¬†Transgender is the umbrella term, I do sort of disagree with the wording because in my eyes a crossdresser isn’t the same thing , although for many it does lead to becoming a transsexual. I just feel that it’s unfair to group us when they just dress for example for sex or …. sex while people like me go through daily life how we are. Job interviews, busses , Morrison’s, where they might only have the happy time. Transsexual is the final destination I guess.

JM: Transsexuals are disphoric, they require surgery to make them what they think they are, think limb disphoria here. Trans have a choice and choose to feminise or be masculine.

MA:¬†As far as I know transsexual is just an outdated term for transgender, and it carries the weight of trans people being seen as freakish or mentally ill. In my experience most trans people find the word very insulting.¬†Apart from the associations, it’s just an incorrect way of describing trans people – it’s about gender not sex. Sex is body parts, gender is the way you feel and the way you are socialised to behave.¬†

RR: Transsexual describes someone who has had gender reassignment surgery, although not all people who have had the procedure may identify as transsexual. Many people find this term outdated, but it is important to note that many, notably a lot of the older generation of trans people, identify as transsexual, making it as valid as any other term. Transgender is more of an open ended term, describing people who fall anywhere within the trans umbrella.

RJ: Transsexual implies a person who is trans and who has undergone surgery to change their physical sex. Transgender encompasses trans people who haven’t, can’t, or don’t want to surgically transition, and is more inclusive for non-binary and gender fluid identities for that reason.

  1. If any, what misconceptions annoy/upset you the most?

DH: That we are all perverts, abominations or some how an affront to humanity. 

JP:¬†That we are these sexual beings just gagging always and wanting to dress like tarts . I always cringe when I see trans in media that are overtly sexual. I don’t mind sexy but I like decorum and cheeky rather then full on. I’d love to be known and to show different.

JM: Pre-judging, thinking it’s just sexual.

MA:¬†That trans people are somehow just trying to get special treatment, like the bathroom ‘debates’. This mainly applies to trans women but the media uses a very small number of cases of sexual violence to create a climate of fear and associations of deviancy around trans people, when the absolute vast majority of us just want to pee!¬†

It also upsets me that as a result of the high levels of very negative attention given to trans women, the existence of trans men is often ignored completely. In some ways it’s better to be ignored, however we’re very underrepresented and therefore things that we need specifically are often overlooked. For example, healthcare such as hormone treatments and surgeries is much more advanced, varied and well-tested for trans women.

That being trans is easy/people do it on a whim. I’ve been waiting for two years, with possibly another one to go, to even get a first appointment at a Gender Identity Clinic. That’s before any hormone treatments or surgeries which have both lengthy waiting times and long recoveries. So if I wanted to transition fully it would take me in total the best part of seven years. When you’re on hormones or other treatments there’s little to no support – you can have appointments max once every three months and even phone calls are limited because the clinics are so overwhelmed. GPs are not trained in trans healthcare so a lot of it is trial and error, and they have been known to refuse to treat trans people based on their own prejudices.

RR: Perhaps not a misconception, but the fetishisation of trans people is still a huge problem, as we are still seen as a taboo and some sort of sex object to so many.

RJ: I hate that people think trans people are confused or mentally ill for not fitting neatly into the socially constructed box that is gender. I also get very upset when someone suggests that trans people, particularly nonbinary people, are doing it for attention.

4. When you were growing up did you feel that you wanted to be a different gender or did you always know you were the gender you are now?

DH: Since i was able to articulate this. Which was about the age of 4. DH

JP: I always knew I was different just didn’t know how or what it was full about 4 years ago and then it all just clicked.

JM: Wanting to be a different gender.

MA:¬†I always knew something wasn’t right, and that I felt extremely uncomfortable in my body, but I wasn’t able to fully understand or accept what that meant until I was in University.¬†

RR: Since coming out, my mother told me that as a young child I had told her I felt like a girl inside. Growing up, although I felt different and certainly more feminine than my male peers, growing up in the North East of England, these feelings were somewhat pushed down, perhaps for my safety.   

RJ: I have always been in a grey area and been enamoured with the idea of androgyny. I didn’t necessarily want to be a boy, but I really didn’t like being a girl either. If I had known about gender fluidity, nonbinary identities when I was younger I think it would have saved a lot of confusion.

5. What do you want see change or improve in your local community?

DH: More acceptance and tolerance of everyone no matter what religious or trans or race or whatever.

JP:¬† Especially alot of trans seem to be focussed on just trans, I like to mix with all people , if we get along we get along and we can work together, but there’s so much hate and jealously, jealousy is such an ugly colour of lipstick.

JM: Freedom to be myself, dress however, be able to express who I am, not pre judged all the time. Acceptance. Eg in hospital, be who I am not catagorised.

MA: I would like to see changes to assumptions of who or what people are. More asking of pronouns, more respecting of pronouns, more standard use of gender-neutral titles and pronouns. Also more inclusive services that recognise the differing needs of trans people. 

RR: Living in Brighton, my community is pretty great and I feel very happy and safe here.    

RJ: Gender neutral toilets as standard, a general move towards gender neutral language (e.g. not using ladies and gentlemen etc)

6. What do you want to see change or improve in the wider world?

DH: End of Homelessness, Peace and tolerance, rather than hate.

JP: Understanding and kindness.

JM: Better education. Be able to integrate, we are capable people, just let us be useful as we are. The way we dress – and behave, should be an individuals decision not imposed! Don’t bring genders up separately and throw them back together later in life. Grow up together whoever you are. Less lonely and more productive.

MA: Much the same as the previous question, but also to end the media scapegoating of trans people, the general persecution and oppression of trans people in many places (see the changes happening in the USA where Trump is trying to write trans people out of existence). 

RR: The media as a whole needs to change its damaging attitude to trans people. The last few months have been pretty horrific in response to the reformation of the GRA 2004, with even publications like The Guardian posting transphobic nonsense. I would like to see us normalised, just another member of society. So many see us as a threat, which is quite frankly ridiculous.   

RJ: Same as in my community, as well as removing gender divisions in clothing and accessories, generally shaking off the misconceptions we have about what defines woman, man, masculine and feminine, and also better education about gender neutral identities and language.

7. Can you share any insightful or funny stories or anecdotes about your experiences?

DH: Being a stand out means that you become a beacon for advice. Not all trans people are as confident or self assured¬† about the way they are and who they want to be. This leads to¬† people to seek those who do stand out for a myriad of reasons but doesn’t always mean that they are the greatest of all people to be ‘leaders’.

RR:¬†I’m not sure this is exactly what you mean, but this film really helped me come to terms with my gender identity.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNmEqgK-eCs

RJ: As I am not the only member of my family that has come out as trans, my mum has had to learn a lot about pronouns and language in a short amount of time. I’ve started making the family fortunes “not an answer” buzzer noise (“errrk”) whenever she misgenders someone. My boyfriend has picked up on this so now we use it regularly, and out of habit sometimes buzz other people when they misgender someone, even if they have no clue about any of this. It definitely makes people careful not to misgender.

  1. Can you supply images and/or video that expresses how you think and feel about being transgender? How easy/difficult is it to express? 

DH: Pretty sums everything up around transition.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6HaVYg6kB4

JM: It should be easier with the technology, use it, you can have all of mine! ?

RR: My message is to stay strong, positive and putting good energy into the world. To those who are not in the trans community, know that we exist, that we are valid, we are not a threat, and we have always been here.

RJ: https://youtu.be/JacrjnVP7gI ¬† This is an act I perform under my drag king alter ego, Roddy Jodphurs. It summarizes how I feel as a gender fluid person and how harmful and limiting the socially enforced binary can be, but also how unique and liberating it is to be happily, proudly trans. It can be difficult to explain how it feels to be trans, especially non-binary, to cisgender people because it’s like trying to describe a flavour to someone who’s never tasted it.

  1. Tell me about your message to the trans community and also to those who are’t involved? Is it the same message or different? How?

DH: Be you,  dont hide, and dont believe all you read and hear. Your life, your rules and not everyone elses expectations. 

JM: ¬†Be who you are, we don’t live forever, and that’s everyone, do it now, don’t hold off for later.

MA:¬†To the trans community I have a message of solidarity and respect. We’ve all struggled to make it this far (a quick look at the statistics on suicide in young trans people shows quite how much of an achievement it is) and things happening in the world are making it seem like things are going backwards, and what we’ve fought for might actually be taken away.¬†

To cis people my message is a plea to educate themselves and to be allies. Trans people aren’t rare but we are a minority, and unfortunately our voices aren’t enough – we need cis people to speak up and fight for us. All of our systems and institutions are based on the assumption that everyone is cis and straight and in order for that to change, the people in charge of the systems and who benefit from them need to choose to let other people in. ¬†

RJ: My message to everyone is that we see everything as a set of opposites because it helps us make sense of the world. On and off, night and day, men and women. Sometimes people are on one side but they should really be on the other – they are the moon you see in the daytime, the standby light. But this idea of everything being one or the other is something we made up, at the cost of ignoring the beautiful figures who don’t fit in those boxes. Some of us are dawn and dusk. If we really want to make the world a better place, we have to stop blinkering ourselves and others and see what is outside those boxes.

10. Anything you would like to add?

JM: ¬†Only that it is stereotypical, and people’s behaviour is predictable depending on how you present yourself, don’t assume. It’s all forgivable given the ‘brain washing’ we receive from birth.

I would like to think everyone who got involved for their time and input. Please do share this and encourage more to take part and add to the bank of answers or suggest more questions too! Let’s ensure that nothing is ever lost in translation! It is all our responsibility, regardless of gender, politics or gender-politics…

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Preaching to the Subverted

Last Winter I was invited to speak as part of a panel discussion on the topic of transgender, hosted by Rev. Michael Hampson of the Church of England, at St. Margaret’s Church in Hornby. My contributions were drawn from my long experience in both burlesque theatre and in advocating psychological wellbeing.

My ‘angle’ overall was on the positive lineage of¬†gender satire¬†in theatre and my aim was to advocate the burlesque world being an ally to those trans people whose voices are often diminished beneath controversy and misunderstanding.

Here are some thoughts from my address. Parallels between church and theatre are drawn with a call to all to practice what they preach.

Gender-blending in Burlesque:

Like gender itself, burlesque is subject to a lot of myths.

Burlesque theatre is not a recent trend (although there is a resurgence of enthusiasm) and it is not an American form per se. It is also not¬†equivalent¬†to striptease nor even ‚Äėposh stripping‚Äô as some lazy newspapers (and even producers!) have expounded over the years. In fact,¬†in equivocating burlesque to ‚Äėstripping off‚Äô for the sake of stripping off, they misrepresent a joyful sparkling jewel of historic satirical theatre. Besides,¬†striptease¬†is an artform in its own right, too!

Historically and in its contemporary form, burlesque is a multi-faceted genre of diversity one that includes and challenges societally perceived gender and body norms Рalthough I feel today it has more room to grow than ever. Burlesque actually has a 2500 year history going back to Aristophanes in 500BC and just as it was then, true burlesque theatre still rocks the status quo through the very powerful medium of satirical humour. Essentially, performers work in detail to set up, present and then subvert perceptions of propriety/normality. It most often targets gender norms and seeks to question notions of acceptable behaviour e.g. how we ought to conduct ourselves according to our assigned gender identities.

In particular over the millennia, burlesque has dealt with how WOMEN ought to behave, in any given era, often throwing out anachronistic absurdities and double standards that still dictate today. Here is where stripping does fit perfectly Рboth historically and with modern relevance Рbecause any amount of public nudity is still taboo for women, but not for men.

Double Double Toil and Trouble:

There is a prevailing, undeniable double standard that shames women‚Äôs bodies.¬†E.g.¬†On a hot day men can be publicly topless (regarded as distasteful at worst) yet women quietly and even discretely breastfeeding their babies, remains controversial and an ‚Äėoutrage‚Äô to many resulting in women having to actually determine official ‚Äėbreast feeding friendly zones‚Äô. There’s an app for that.

Women are subject to staggering expectations of grooming, weight and genetically determined body proportions that men are not. There is an automatic sexualisation of women‚Äôs bodies that encourages shaming – both for the nature of being sexual and for their ‚Äėadequacy‚Äô of sexual attractiveness, whatever that means at any one given moment. Furthermore for the trans community, they also have to contest with a new form of critique – that of being regarded as ‚Äėpassable‚Äô (whether or not they could, would or do ‚Äėpass‚Äô as a believable man or woman), which kind of be implies a default status of ‚Äėfailure‚Äô as an identifiable being. The fear ignited by the ambiguity of such subjective impressions is where anxiety and self-loathing blossom. In theatre, the three graces (of the classical era) became a trio of ugly and necessarily ‘evil’ witches – an idea that prevails in our modern ‘culture’ where women are admonished over the unattractiveness of ageing or wisdom. There is too, an increasing concern for young men today who are also being emotionally targeted over body shame (typically for commercial financial gain, e.g. grooming, weight and muscle building products and services) in a similar way, but the long term prevalence of women‚Äôs oppression is undeniable.

As the Western marketplace for health and beauty has been directed by white straight male privilege for as far back as advertising has existed, the resulting notions of ‚Äėappropriate‚Äô gender roles and bodily ideals have been perpetuated by a communal participation – to the point of perceived ‚Äėfact?‚Äô. Of course, like many ‚Äėfacts‚Äô, gender and body norms are entirely subjective and are in-fact subject to a changing landscape of belief.

As liberal as the world of arts is considered to be, it too is not without such biases of its own or as enforced by the status quo; there are often venue rules that only apply to female anatomy e.g. no nipples to be seen on stage (but male nips are fine). An irony is now raised in asking whether such rules apply to¬†women¬†or only to those with assumed XX chromosome pairings, per se. What of transgender women’s nipples? What of transgender men’s nipples? Or are these nips in some sort of policy limbo? As a producer I have yet to get a straight answer on this from venues.

Gaze, Gays and a new Craze:

Our cultur‚Äôs backdrop too, has the eponymous ‚Äėmale gaze‚Äô in paintings, the arrests of Victorian music hall performers, the imprisonment of homosexual writers and the selective recording of¬†history that has relegated¬†herstory to bit-parts and supporting roles at best. The theatre was also constrained by male privilege for so very long (arguably still is), yet interestingly at the same time it was a¬†relatively¬†safe place to be subversive. Such subverting artists gradually affected change because there was a costume department and stage with a fourth-wall that permitted the suspension of belief and a sense of separation from audience participation. Here there were thinkers and risk-takers ready to write or perform and to sneak their ‚Äėdangerous‚Äô ideas in the stage-door (which is usually the back-door) and on to the public platform for consumption.

Burlesque theatre in itself is actually where we see the first women take up lead roles on stage Рbut they did so, in the male lead roles (let’s face it, all lead parts were male parts and you needed well, male parts to be allowed to play any part even if you were pretending to have female parts). Crucially however, these male roles came with an almighty opportunity for women to be heard and not just seen Рfor the first time, women had speaking parts with which to address a captive and willing audience. Dressed as feminised male icons, villains and heroes (e.g. Don Giovanni, Henry VIII, Robinson Crusoe, Bluebeard…), led the shows mocking the patriarchy of their day with their ribald speech, song and gender-blending figure-hugging modus-operandi. See Eliza Vestries and Lydia Thompson for some 19th Century gender-blending fun.

Burlesque was (and when authentic) still is essentially, a kind of adult pantomime with a socio-political undertone. In my opinion, what was really shocking about burlesque in Victorian Britain was not the fact that ladies had ankles (two by Jove!) and were in fact bipedal like their male counterparts, but more so that they were literally wearing the trousers and these garments symbolised power. They had for the first time, a public voice and they used it for derision. Whatever would be next? Opinions on things? Financial independence? The vote?

Not a far cry of ‚Äúhe‚Äôs (or perhaps she‚Äôs?) behind you!?‚ÄĚ or even a gender neutral? ‚Äúthey‚Äôre behind you!!?‚ÄĚ that we still see in pantomime today where young women play feminised lead males known as the principle boy (think Buttons, Peter Pan or Prince Charming) and in contrast to everyone‚Äôs favourite the outrageous Panto Dame – usually the local vicar or policeman. Again the subversion of gender and societal norms is clear: On stage we are allowed,¬†permitted, to empower those without male privilege whilst we emasculate those who traditionally hold all the male-dominated community power. Underneath all the twinkling tat and titillation, lies a rather potent inverted power-dynamic.

Transpiration!

Burlesque was and is a playful form of exploring¬†transitions¬†– often we see performers transition in character and/or costume as their backing music and lighting jump dramatically between styles –¬†from fully clothed to nude, from male to female and vice versa, from timid to bold, from repressed to liberated. Always in the positive direction of freedom.

Now more than ever, we see the same stages hold space for transgender expression but the stage is an oasis of relative safety amidst the real world of gender-driven power dynamics, fear and redundant social conventions. Through performance art we begin to really appreciate that our notion of ‚Äėmale or female‚Äô gender itself is arguably a complex performance with no one defining aspect – a performance that each and every one of us is playing out, right now. We do it every day, from the moment of birth, as we learn and play, at home, school, work, and online. Whether ever on stage or off, it is one life-long personal interpretative dance sequence.

The trick is in learning to play and perform together, not as segregated by conceptual differences. We must share our props and costumes Рand to not only allow all people to move and adapt the roles they were randomly assigned as babies, to encourage play, develop and perhaps even to move to an entirely new role that is more suited to their unique being. In the school play of life, some of us get the part of the prince and others the princess but most of us are cast as generic genderless, mute townspeople or background trees. The roles assigned may seem important at the time Рbut in reality they are all equal starting points for our individual progress because they don’t ever define us as people.

In Other Frocks:

When I first received Rev. Hampson round for tea and cake as a new resident of his parish, I was concerned that he might not embrace some of my ideals as exemplified in my decor choices; namely the multitude of pagan icons on the walls, the pet pythons, the morbid collections of Victoriana and our Holy Toilet of Wonder. This is the tiniest room in the house – a downstairs loo festooned with rosary beads, crosses, reclaimed church apparel, dancing 3D religious images, Buddy Christ (from the film Dogma) resting on the toilet brush, choral music playing from a light up nativity scene and portraits of myself as ‚ÄúMary Dragdalen‚ÄĚ, my other half as ‚ÄúJon the Baptist‚ÄĚ and our friend smoking a roll-up as the ‚ÄúThe Virgin‚ÄĚ. ¬†I was delighted to hear him laugh heartily from the confines of this unusual confessional and I knew I was on to a different breed of cleric. After much discussion about art, humour, comparative religion, gender, metaphor and the power of provocation, I was excited to become involved in his Peace and Justice Week of panel events and to learn of his own story of controversy within the CofE itself – where he has tirelessly championed for the inclusion of gay marriage services.

From having participated in the Peace and Justice Week it is a breath of fresh air to be able to see that there are many such enlightened clergy today challenging their own institutional status quo, their direct contemporaries and congregants in order to support the inclusion of all, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. This is no mean feat considering the staggering history of church-led persecution and its mercurial (often ironic) interpretation of scripture to exclude, punish and create a culture of fear and intolerance of various groups of people. Colossal mistakes of the past are to be learned from and clerics today have more autonomy to lead effectively and in line with the core message of their faith – one of universal love. For example, Rev. Chris Newlands (Lancaster Priory) went all the way to the General Synod to pose a motion for services to recognise gender transition. The result was that the Church of England has created new liturgy meaning that trans people (who had been baptised or Christened in their former gender and name), are able to ‚Äėre-introduce themselves‚Äô to their community and to God.

Regardless of how absurd it may seem to some (in either camp) to draw parallels between burlesque theatre and the Church, if we can all put our trendy or moralistic prejudices aside and see the people, there is hope for ever more celebration of our collective and individual being, regardless of whether you believe in creation or cabaret.

In in the spirit of moving forward together, we need direction. We must let go of misdirected anger, grudges and prejudices that we often levy at aspects of the perceived patriarchy Рperhaps the church, the government or even society itself. Yes, there is history (and herstory) and it is to be learned from. We all could practice what we preach and it seems that burlesque theatre and the church might just be singing from the same sheets Рalbeit if it’s in a cat’s choir.

A further theatrical parallel is clear when contemplating the whole point of the church is in being a host to and also representative of Jesus, often described as ‚Äėthe Host‚Äô that ministers to the community. Successful variety shows rely on a great host¬† – one with commanding skills of influence, through grace of wit they offer the audience ‚Äėthe way‚Äô to engage on both sides of that invisible 4th¬†wall or ‘realm’ .

Hosts with the Most:

As¬†In the variety show that is the church (it’s not always a media shit-show), some churches have ditched the dogma and where Jesus is referred to as ‘the Host’ – he is still regarded as a renegade going against the status quo of his society… and from what I’ve read in wider terms, he seems to be all for pan-sexuality and gender equality. Perhaps now, ¬†the church, can introduce people to one other as souls beyond gender and encourage more gracious support for each other, applauding each other’s performances, however uncertain, and with however much room still to improve; both there in the theatre of the church, and out here in the world.

Our burlesque show hosts always encourage the audience to give in to rapturous applause and to make as much noise as they can – to whoop, cheer, encourage and ultimately to show Love. We often joke that we need the applause because performers are rather needy people.

Big laugh… but there is truth in this.

Keeping the Faith:

It is important to recognise that needing a show of support is not a sign of weakness. It is in fact a request for solidarity because to get on stage in front of strangers (especially those who have paid hard earned money) takes guts. In fact, it takes more than guts – it takes a special kind of Faith. Faith in others to understand or at least, to listen. Like all people secretly do, performers openly crave acceptance and praise – but they know the risks and are willing to take them to be heard. Even in acts who do not use their audible voice, being heard is about the sharing of ideas, a fundamental truth about the self – an encoded message sent out in to the dark in the hope of some kind of response.

Extending the theatre as a metaphor for life, by virtue of their own courage, transgender people are exposed on the world stage. Every day in the media, at their workplaces and schools, at home and in play. They cannot escape to the green room – because they are not actors. They have emerged beyond performance, the masks are off and they are the authentic jewels.

It’s time that burlesque theatre reminded itself of where it came from, so that it might continue toward a more inclusive future. One without the body and gender shame for all. Striptease, pinup glamour and political whimsy are entertaining but hardly addresses the patriarchy, the pound or the potential for change with any power. It is time to revel once again in the taboo and play dangerously with those matches and mismatches – that just might ignite a revolution.

Enlightenment:

The Church of England are, rather ironically, making like an ecdysiast ‚Äď the serpent and the stripper. They are shedding their skins. Peeling off their once oppressive robes and stepping out into the light. We can all take inspiration to lose our dogmas and be bold in the simplicity of individual freedom. As ecdysiasts with a sense of humour, we need to scale up our operation.

Whether we go to church in the morning or cabarets at night, we all stand together in our vulnerability. Just as a performer can be naked and fierce in public they are yet gently bathed under a lighting rig’s colours to flatter or augment their realities. ¬†Stained glass images can be beautiful to behold, we must not forget to go outside and see the source that makes them possible – that one true light that shines on all of us equally.

As a producer I am calling for more trans performers to get in touch Рfor both stage and/or for coaching.  Visit or apply to join the Ministry of Burlesque mission here.