In this episode of our podcast, Lizzie Jordan, CEO and founder of Think2Speak, talks about her work and why an open and honest dialogue around challenging subject matters, such as gender variance, is so vital when it comes to educating younger generations.
Lizzie is our guest host for our event on March 31st, which will be streamed live on Facebook:
“If your child says they are transgender, they probably are.”
A discussion on the subject of gender affirmative healthcare for trans youth.
Marketing consultant. Award winning social entrepreneur. Mother. Widow. HIV positive. One person; a myriad of possible labels.
Think2Speak is a social enterprise which was set up to help tackle the ‘uncomfortable silences’ often felt by young people when discussing sensitive subjects with the professionals involved in their lives. Lizzie and her team work with people to empower them to have the skills to confidently handle sensitive conversations, to know who to speak to and where to go to access further support.
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Season 2. Episode 2. Lizzie Jordan, Think2Speak
Hello, this is Dr. Helen Webberley. Welcome to our Gender GP Podcast, where we will be discussing some of the issues affecting the trans and non-binary community in the world today, together with my co-host Marianne Oakes, a trans woman herself, and our head of therapy.
Dr. Helen Webberley: I am really delighted to welcome Lizzie Jordan today. She is the CEO and founder of Think2Speak, and she’s also going to be our host for the live-stream event which is taking place on the 31st of March. Hi Lizzie.
Lizzie Jordan: Hello.
Dr. Helen Webberley: I’ll let you introduce yourself. Tell us who you are, what you do. And welcome!
Lizzie Jordan: Thank you very much. I run an organization based in the east midlands. We have people cross-country. What we actually believe in is the empowering skills that conversation can enable. We do that mainly to support young people. So we work with them directly, we work with their families, and also with lots of professionals, so it might be in school or the setting around that that might need a bit of support. Usually, with those conversations, it’s stuff that adults would actually shy away from. There are a lot of things around gender identity, sexual health, and bereavement. The conversations that adults are often uncomfortable about.
Dr. Helen Webberley: We heard recently in the news that they’ve been talking about, again, whether LGBT issues should be discussed in school and what level of education we should be providing to children. Is that too much? Is that too little? And parents always stand very divided on that, don’t they? I guess you have lots of parental influences, do you?
Lizzie Jordan: Yes. Parents are a challenge, sometimes. But our biggest challenge, or should I say fear, comes from ignorance. Education and conversation is the best thing to counter that. School and home are a partnership. Education is a partnership. Families and schools together have such a dual role to play in that, in working together. So it’s always interesting when challenge occurs, but as you explore that, it can be very beneficial, far beyond than the person at the center of that. When families learn a little bit more, and that impacts on their wider family, and their wider networks, that always dispels ignorance and removes fear. For me, that is a good thing. Things came about from my own experience. In a nutshell, in 2005, I became a mum, a widow, and I was diagnosed with HIV. Those three things happened within an 18-month period. Because life literally was flipped upside down, it meant that through the professions that we met, we had to have a lot of conversations that professionals found really challenging. Then, when my child was in primary school, they came home and said that they had been asked to draw a family picture, and they had drawn themselves and me. This teacher asked, “Where is dad?” So they’d said, very matter-of-fact, at the time, “Well, my dad’s dead.” Because that was how it is. And the teacher just physically recoiled and walked off. When they came home from school, and we were talking about what happened in the day, and they told me what happened, I was horrified. For one, why on earth did they ask that question? But also, what concerned me more was that well, that if that’s what grownups do? And again, what do you mean, that’s what grownups do? I was thinking that this is not how it should be. That was the kind of seed that started me like, who is going to go into the school and help them how to explore how they can have these conversations a little bit better? It was missing more than that, than wanting to help that class. That was a good few years ago. I set up the organization in 2015. We’re a community interest company. Since then, we’ve had more and more conversations that people need help facilitating, or making happen. The education around removing fear from conversations, equipping people with the skills to have conversations, and now, we have an amazing team who all have different specialisms of what conversations they help tackle. We work across the east midlands and beyond to support lots of different people, and so, it was never this kind of master plan of this is what we are going to be, but in the way of saying, “This is great, we need more of this. Can you help us? Can you help this school?” that is what we’ve done, and it’s grown very organically to where we are at the moment.
Dr. Helen Webberley: I think it’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Often, good ideas come from identifying a real need, which is clearly what you’ve done. Your work reminds me of work I used to do with teaching doctors. I worked with the University of Birmingham teaching communication skills. And that very example that you gave there of your child with their teacher and that recoil, we see it a lot in the consulting room. When a patient with whatever problem, whether it be a gender problem or not –but I will use gender as an example- you have your doctor sitting there on a desk with an open façade and say, “Well how can I help you today?” and that person doesn’t know, they’re thinking, “I don’t know what to say”, “How am I going to say this?” but they are going to go ahead and say it. That reaction the doctor gives is so important. Does that doctor lean forward and say, “Tell me more” or does that doctor recoil and say, “Oh my goodness gracious,” and then go back to their computer and start typing? That reaction is so important. In Marianne’s world of counseling, it’ll be completely different, I am sure. Actually, when someone tells you something that is really important, you’ve got to go closer to that person, and not recoil.
Marianne Oakes: I have to say that the counseling profession, when we do the training, parts of it is to be able to take on what people are saying without panicking and to maintain a sense of calm. When people go in with gender, what we’ll hear is some of the horror stories, where they will be told “I don’t know anything about gender” and suddenly, all that professional façade crumbles. I think what you were saying about doctors; I don’t know what they do with doctor training. I know that with counsel training they try to prepare you to be able to be with the person whatever they are saying. The truth of the matter is I don’t think some people take it on board, they kind of read the textbooks, but don’t actually look at themselves and say, “what is my attitude on that subject matter?”
Lizzie Jordan: I do a lot of work with HIV advocacy stuff, and I am on the clinical reference group for HIV as a patient representative. That work has taken me all around the world, with pharmaceutical companies, health organizations, et cetera. There are so many similarities when you look at a scenario between someone sharing their HIV diagnosis with a professional, and their gender identity. The parallels are really quite remarkable sometimes. The same stumbling blocks happen, which are usually based on fear and ignorance and a morbid curiosity, I have to say. I’ve encountered a lot of that. I’m articulate, I’m intelligent, I’m able to counter those things and have those conversations, and I welcome them. But actually, again it puts that onus on the person having to be the educator, having to educate and having to carve your own path and take all that weight and responsibility.
Dr. Helen Webberley: Taking it to our kind of specialist interest, which is gender identity, we see a lot of fear. Marianne, you see lot of fear from people, those who support trans youngsters, and adults, and it does stem from ignorance. Lizzie, how do you begin to unpick that fear/ignorance balance?
Lizzie Jordan: For me, it is having a frank and open conversation, and enabling that to happen in a safe space where you set boundaries and being respectful and mindful of each other. We talk to young people about how it is okay to have an opinion, and it’s also okay to be challenged in that opinion and to consider having empathy and consider other people’s feelings in that. Those are the exact same things we would model with professionals or with parents when discussing any kind of conversation. For me, when we are talking specifically about gender, it’s removing the debate from this. For me, gender is not a debate. We sort of set that platform from the get-go in a very positive and empowering conversation rather than from a position of debate or safeguarding as it often gets thrown at us.
Dr. Helen Webberley: If we call it safeguarding then you’ve got to take it seriously. If you call it a debate, then you might not let me speak. It is interesting that you say that, Lizzie, because Marianne and I went to the conference on trans youth care in Los Angeles in January. The people who run that, Aydin, Joe, and Darlene, are coming over to do our live event which you’re hosting. What was so beautifully refreshing is that the starting position was not debating whether trans children exist or not; it was all about how best to support them. The debate should be finished. I find it quite insulting that that debate is still allowed to go on that whether the challenge of existence of trans people at all. That debate should be finished a long time ago, and it should be about how to support them and how to care for them to live their lives more easily. Marianne, I don’t know whether you have got anything you wanted to chip in there because it was really empowering, wasn’t it?
Marianne Oakes: It was. The thing which I keep repeating to everybody is that we were in this room full of health professionals who weren’t quite ignorant or naïve to trans healthcare at all. We didn’t hear anybody trying to debate what is being said. I won’t say they were completely accepting of it, but it wasn’t a debate, it was a discussion. The other thing I wanted to say, Lizzie, is that it feels like the discussions you have in the schools are filtering way beyond the school gates. I was just thinking about seeing your kid home from school, and how they had a lesson on something, and they bring it into the house, and now it educates me. You learn from their discussions in the classroom.
Lizzie Jordan: Very much so. I was talking yesterday to a member of staff, and she’s (unclear 11:54) so children and mental health services. She was telling me about one of her kids who had come home from school, and didn’t know what – they had been watching RuPaul, and they didn’t know the difference between what was a drag queen – I mean the child asked their parent what’s the difference between a drag queen, a transsexual, being trans, and all of these different words. The professor was saying to me, “I love the fact that they could turn to me and ask me these questions, but I was really embarrassed that I didn’t know, and we had to google it to find out.” And she said that she recognized that she didn’t know, and I could do something about that. And that is half the battle. Schools approach us when they are being very reactive, and usually, something’s happened, and they turn to us and ask “What do we do?” when it’s maybe all over the place, and there is such an urgency to it. And often that could be quite negative when they feel like they are up against the wire. The young person and the family often are not always a fan of that. They like to be ahead of it all. That always presents challenges. We always encourage them to talk about the 1% of the population or whatever that may be. But every single school should have a baseline of knowledge or be aware of gender and be proactively ready and prepared. A lot of it is going from the legal stuff and the policies and procedure. That’s where we always start. If you don’t have this kind of baseline in your setting, then you’re on a sticky wicket. Assessing where that kind of base knowledge is, what policies and procedures they have in place, and that kind of thing. It’s really technical stuff but is actually so crucial, before you then move on to the staff training and the education that happens. Quite rightly, that then filters through to the whole community. And these young people and students they are the future, they are the next generation, and they can teach us as much as anything. We need to equip them with skills, whether it is into their careers or wherever it may be, to be the kind of system that we want for our future. For me, why would we not do that?
Dr. Helen Webberley: We see that a lot. A child recognises that something is not quite right with their gender, but maybe they are not quite sure what that is all about. They may mention it and then get whatever reaction they do from their mum or their teacher or friend. They may go away and research it on their own. The realization then comes that they may be questioning their gender, that their gender may be different than what everyone else thinks it is. And then they have to go through the process of educating adults around them. They end up having to teach mum and dad about it, they have the specialists’ knowledge because mum and dad have never come across this before. Once mum and dad are on board, then they have to go start educating the school. “This is the pronoun that I would like you to call my child. You may have never come across this before, but this is what I would like you to do because this is important. And then this I don’t want my child to be undressing in the school staff toilet for games.” Education is triggered by the child, so we say should we be waiting for your first trans child in school, or should we be bringing it in and normalizing that before this one child has to bring in all this education?
Lizzie Jordan: There is so much in there if you put this with the whole lot of gender stereotypes, and actually the benefits for whole of society if we could kind of do away with those. I was in a school, and they were very proud that had these gender neutral toilets, and they were really proud of those toilets and having them redone. And then they said that the children had chosen what paint colour to have, so half the toilets were blue, and half the toilets were pink! Then I was face-palming; it was like one step forward and two steps backwards. They were learning and they were getting there. It is always interesting.
Dr. Helen Webberley: That blue and pink thing, where is the middle colour? Marianne, with the client work that you do, our toilets in schools – how much of a problem are they to the families and children that you talk to?
Marianne Oakes: It’s mixed; I have to say. Going back to what you said about when a child comes out as trans – even for adults in the workplace – suddenly everyone is saying, “Tell us what we can do to support you.” And when you say this to a child, it’s a bit like everybody crowds them and is trying to feed off them and it can be really disturbing for a child. They are not emotionally prepared to take charge of this situation, and they look for advocates instead of everybody trying to pour sympathy and be helpful. Does that make sense?
Dr. Helen Webberley: Yes.
Lizzie Jordan: Yes, we see that a lot with – we talk a lot about minority stress. Regardless of the age of a trans person, with their family, when they realize that they have to handle it around all those people, how they are constantly assumed that they have the information, that they know what they want, that they understand what they want to be put in place. A lot of people, and quite rightly so, don’t know, and they are exploring this journey. It is not a binary journey. It is not like I am doing this today and tomorrow I am done. It is a process. For a lot of us, it is getting professionals to check in, to see how things are going, and not assume that the person knows how they want everything to be. That it may change, and it is not set in stone. It is really difficult when you think that this person has been really hostile to us. When you unpick the amount of stuff that this person has had to fight for, just for respect and for the basics we all assume we will be afforded, when that hasn’t happened, yes you can be a little bit defensive. So how can we be meaningful in our support and in being there? I was at a school, and they had a young person wanting to transition, and their family aren’t supportive. This person was 17. They were asking to be referred to by different pronouns, and name. the school contacted home, and home said no chance it is happening. So they said to the person that they can’t do this. They rang me, and we started chatting about things, and I said if I started calling you by whatever name, and they looked at me really disgruntled, and I said that it wasn’t a very respectful relationship, is it? And they said, why would you do that? and I said, well that is exactly what you said to his young person, who is totally able to ask you respectfully to call them by their name, and yet you have chosen to use somebody else’s authority over that young person, thereby disrespecting them. And when I reframed it like that, they were like I get you, and this is just the basics of human relationships and respect. At school, they tell us, this is Mr. Smith or this is Mrs. Smith. If I start calling you Terry, then the young person would be in trouble.
Dr. Helen Webberley: It’s interesting, isn’t it, what we see such a lot, going back to that fear, there always seems to be a third person. If they say, well, mum, I need you to call me he instead of she, or Jack instead of Jill, then maybe mum would – but then mum is going to be scared of what other people are going to think. What is grandma going to think? What is the person in the shop down the road going to think? And then you’ve got school, who perhaps want to help, but they’ve got the external fear of what are the other parents going to think, or what are the governors going to think. Marianne and I in our own work, we want to support and do what we can to help in healthcare, psychologically and physically. But then we are scared what our professional bodies might think, or those that regulate us or educate us, those who have the rule book. That fear steps many generations away from that one person that is actually saying, “Please could you call me ‘he’ and ‘Jack’?” Do you know what I mean?
Lizzie Jordan: Yes, and I think we can learn a lot from this if we go back around 30 years and we look at gay rights and the fear around that and how that permeated into society and every kind of policy procedure and whatnot. How far we’ve come, but also how far this is still being debated and discussed in the news at the moment. I think that is why we are with the trans conversation, and how far we still have to go. Bit by bit, the more people who are having this conversation, and who enable people to have the awareness and the vocabulary to have those conversations. I do think young people can be leading the way in this. The general openness, and respect to each other, of exploring all the labels and stereotypes and stuff, seeing beyond that. young people are still able to do that, and I give them a lot of credit for that. So often that older generations who then kind of push whatever buttons for them and again triggers that fear of what if and what if? There are amazing people and amazing role models and successful people and by shining a spotlight on those stories and seeing those really positive stuff rather than the narrative that often falls into the negative stuff and the fear stuff and the sort of pointing out difference rather than altogether that we are very similar. That, to me, is where the media narrative doesn’t help. It continually sort of adds sounds and noise and mess to a very negative connotation, which is so far removed from the reality.
Marianne Oakes: I was just thinking, Lizzie, that I go to school once a year, I keep getting invited back, so I am doing something right I think! But the first time I went and I was really scared; as a trans women working in a school full of kids, it couldn’t have been a bigger nightmare for me growing up, and getting understanding of myself. I went in, and I was really surprised with how the kids were okay, nobody seemed phased at all. There were no invasive questions. We did a quiz and engaged with it. I came away thinking what good did it do? What impact did it have? I was talking to somebody a few weeks later and just explaining what I’ve done, and they looked at me and said, “Oh my god, if somebody like you had walked into my school, my life would have been so much different.” And I thought, you know just our presence, it doesn’t matter what we talk about, but just our presence in that school might just make a difference to one or two people.
Lizzie Jordan: So our patron is Claire Birkenshaw. Claire was the first UK headteacher to transition whilst in post. And now they’re back in uni and (unclear 24:24). They went into one of the schools we were working with, and actually, the kids were amazing. The feedback was phenomenal. The things that they said to her, and they wrote down, and they were heartwarming. She said that afterwards, the most interesting thing was in the staffroom. The number of the staff who said that they had never actually spoken to a trans person, and the conversations that then followed, like, “It’s been really great to talk to you and discuss all of these things.” And the visibility is huge, whether that is with young people in whatever organizational sector, visibility is so empowering. Not only for the person, but also for all the other people who you don’t necessarily know are going to benefit from just seeing the conversation.
Dr. Helen Webberley: One of the things I would like to pick up from that is going back to that place where you are talking about vocabulary. Bringing that fear in. For many people who feel that they haven’t met a trans person before, there is that fear of getting it wrong, of getting that labeling wrong, getting the names wrong, making a mistake or upsetting or offending. So how can we help people who don’t think they have ever met a trans person before, and they are going to meet somebody perhaps on the tube, or on a bus, or in a café, and they are ripped with fear of getting it wrong. You know, how can we, perhaps today, alleviate that fear and perhaps help those people who haven’t met trans people before?
Lizzie Jordan: Trans people are people. And I think that is the most important thing to know. When we meet other people, we afford them the respect, and that should happen with any person that we meet. We always try and get people to push for gender-neutral approaches to everything. Being respectful and being gender-neutral is that kind of baseline of using they and them pronouns, and never assuming somebody’s gender. And checking in. if you are having a conversation and that moves beyond where you ask somebody about their preferred pronouns, that’s often for someone else. It is for them to decide if they want to share that. if you continue to use gender-neutral language, it can be a very natural conversation. One of the biggest things for me and for organisations that we see is the non-verbal communication and how sensitive they can be picked up. We all know that if we are approaching – if you happen to have a conversation with someone and you don’t quite know how to do this, you kind of go into it. There is a barrier between you. Getting your words right and your language right and whatever, it’s a barrier. Humans are great. They will be able to pick up on stuff like that and perceive them. It’s okay to say that you are uncomfortable or that you are learning or that you are open to learning more and you want to do the right thing. Actually, mistakes do happen.
Dr. Helen Webberley: As a trans woman, Marianne, what would you say to someone who is scared of making a mistake or getting it wrong – but who wanted to talk to you and ask you about it – but they have got that fear inside them?
Marianne Oakes: It’s two-fold. Humans will just pick up on things. We start talking without much thought. People will make mistakes. It’s more about how they deal with that mistake that I think is important because if somebody starts getting irritated at me because they keep making a mistake, then I keep getting irritated. But you know, I mispronounce somebody’s name, I will apologize for it and then hopefully I will act decently and congruently and hope to repair the situation. I think it is that sense that people are frightened and then they get angry or irritate at me because they are struggling. Does that make sense? I think that is where the difficulty lies. The way you talk can be disrespectful. The words that people are using. That is what really irritates me. Like you said, Lizzie, people are people, and of course, we will make mistakes, but there is a way of dealing with those mistakes that is respectful to the other person.
Lizzie Jordan: I think that also the fear of not instigating the conversation is as bad as starting a conversation and having to apologize for getting something wrong. It’s about being ostracized for the look and then the not following through with the help or whatever it may be. So the curiosity of starting a conversation but then not doing so. It’s disrespectful, but a lot of that is people hanging up because they don’t want to get it wrong, so they end up not saying anything which is never really the right thing.
Marianne Oakes: For the younger people that come into the therapy room with me is having to deal with the awkwardness when somebody gets it wrong. The responsibility is put back on them to rescue the situation. You are uncomfortable in your own environment. So if it is parents getting it wrong, or people who are close to them, it is really difficult of having to deal with that awkwardness.
Lizzie Jordan: Second guessing of do I correct you or should let it go, kind of derails the conversation and where things might go. It is so frustrating when the mechanics of the conversation become clunky and stall everything and ruin a potential great opportunity for conversation.
Dr. Helen Webberley: SO I was doing GCSE chemistry with my daughter the other day, and she doesn’t come home and tell me about the reactivity of different chemicals – thank goodness – so maybe they don’t come home and tell you about the reactivity of different genders and different sexualities, maybe it is just part of their education. And then on the converse, it is interesting what you were saying, Lizzie, about the parents’ influence coming back into the classroom. Because if my daughter’s GCSE chemistry book says this element has a higher reactivity than that element, I am not going to argue with that. but if she came back and said this person’s rights are the same as that person’s rights to use that toilet, then maybe it is a discussion to have about that. it is interesting how some elements of education are up for debate, still, whereas other elements are taken for granted. It would be nice to think of a future where all of education is just accepted and written in stone, I guess.
Lizzie Jordan: Partly, yes, we need that kind of standardized stuff. I am also respectful that every school is different, and what they learn and what they teach will be different. But the debate angles on gender stuff, for me, is archaic. It needs to be parted with. I am all up for debate on gender stereotypes, and having those debates can be very empowering for people to explore. But I think that is very different to talking about gender identity and people in our community and our school who totally afforded the respect and rights as every other person in that community.
Dr. Helen Webberley: You have gender identity which belongs to that person and that person’s own right to their own gender identity. And then you have gender stereotypes, which is how it is portrayed in the media and the world outside which belongs to society in a way. So let us as a society debate on stereotypes and how helpful or unhelpful they might be. The gender identity of somebody is not up for our debate. That belongs to that person totally. And also, I love the way that you use “stuff”. You use that word a lot and I love it. It’s almost like that is stuff, and we’re going to leave it there. It belongs in a big bag of what have you. And then let’s have a more intelligent debate on education stereotypes and how to live more happily and healthily. I love that “stuff” idea.
Marianne Oakes: I am going to reflect as well with my experience of going into schools. The one thing I can say is that the teachers, they are the ones who are most likely to be inappropriate, and most likely to display ignorance, shall we say?
Lizzie Jordan: Yes, sometimes they are the ones who have the most to learn. They have to learn what they think they already know. Whereas children, they start from this sort of baseline. Teachers often have to unlearn first.
Dr. Helen Webberley: Going back to the doctor issue, when we were at the trans youth conference in LA, Johanna Olson Kennedy was telling a story of a mum who brought their child in with gender difficulties. Jo says, “How can I help you today?” and the child, straight away, says, “Mum, don’t you dare tell the doctor about my gender!” and this is the gender specialist. The child is terrified of what the doctor might think if it was to be disclosed. I am going to draw things to a close, talking about Joanna and her team, that we are meeting with at the live event on the 31st of March. I am so excited. We are going to have a panel event with myself and Joanna as two doctors. Aiden and Darlene who are both called clinical social workers, which is what, in the USA, refers to a broad version of a social worker than how we describe it in the UK. So it’s a broader psychotherapeutic counseling supportive type of role. Both of them are absolutely amazing, and blooming away with their work with young people, and how to support those young people to live their life more easily. I am really excited to have you host us and keep us all in order, to fill the discussions and provide the most help. And we are not debating gender identity and its existence; we are there to talk about the issues like stereotypes and what they are, how to support trans people of all ages throughout their lives, and the people that support and help trans people, and people who just want to know a little bit more about it. Maybe it is morbid curiosity, or whatever it is, but we welcome everyone with questions. We are really excited about it. I’ll see you there on the 31st of March, Lizzie, and thank you very much for joining us today. And thank you, Marianne.
Lizzie Jordan: Thank you.
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