Photo A Day – November 15: In my bag #FMSphotoaday

THREE THINGS go everywhere with me in my satchel – a diary, my phone charger, and perhaps the least interesting yet most useful gift I have ever received.

The black leather conference folder was a gift from a former housemate one Christmas – I remember being unimpressed and underwhelmed at the time. What could I possibly want with that?

But I kept hold of it anyway when I moved out of that house the following year. Then my career began to pick up again after the gap caused by leaving the seminary where I was training for Roman Catholic priesthood.

Soon this humble folder became a constant companion, in meetings, workshops, presentations, training sessions, supervision, conferences and at my desk for the humbling but vital to-do list.

This Christmas it will be fourteen years since my face fell when I unwrapped this apparently uninspired item. With hindsight maybe it was inspired – an insight from a friend who could see the professional future I could not.

It’s a little worn, but it’s not time to let it go. Each time I think of the unseen potential of this gift, I remember to be grateful for the gifts I receive, and know that the giver may see something in me that I cannot.

For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here.

Photo A Day – November 14: Man-made? #FMSphotoaday

Click on the graphic to visit the source website

AS IT IS Transgender Awareness Week, it seems appropriate to explore ‘man made’ labels about gender and identity.

Meet the Genderbread Person – not an original image of mine but one I find helpful in my work with the UK’s longest running LGBT youth group.

I have used this resource with the youth group this week to help them understand how much (or how little) they conform to our society’s concepts of gender, and how much the prejudice of transphobia and homophobia are based on traditional gender stereotypes.

Gender is a tough subject to tackle.  We have all been conditioned in such a way that our first impressions may be lacking.  Here to help is The Genderbread Person!

The Genderbread Person is an easy to understand visual that breaks the social construction of gender into four strands to promote awareness of diversity and acceptance of those of us who don’t conform to traditional gender norms. These are:

  • gender identity = who you think you are
  • gender expression = how you demonstrate who you are
  • biological sex = what’s ‘under your bonnet’
  • sexual orientation = who you are attracted to.

Each is shown as a continuum to indicate that there is more to gender than the ‘opposites’ suggested by traditional gender roles. People tend to assume someone has to be on either the left end or the right end of the continuums above e.g. born female, becomes a woman, behaves in a feminine way, and is attracted to men.

In fact, the four lines are not connected. Here’s how they work:

Gender Identity:

Gender identity is about how you think about yourself.  Do you think you fit better into the societal role of ‘woman’, or ‘man’, or does neither ring true for you?  Are you somewhere in-between the two, or do you consider your gender to fall outside the continuum completely?  The answer is your gender identity.

It is believed we form our gender identities around the age of three, after which it is incredibly difficult to change them.  Formation of identity is affected by hormones and environment just as much as biological sex. Problems can arise when someone is assigned a gender based on their biological sex at birth that doesn’t align with how they come to identify.  See ‘Biological Sex’ below.

On the left we have ‘woman’ and on the right we have ‘man’.  In the middle, we have the term ‘genderqueer’ which some people use for an identity that is somewhere between woman and man. Some prefer the term ‘transgender’ to describe how their gender identity differs from the social expectations for the biological sex with which they were identified at birth. Often, society conflates sex and gender, viewing them as the same thing. But gender and sex are not the same thing, as those who identify as transgender demostrate.

Gender Expression:

Gender expression is about how you talk, walk, dress, and interact – consciously or unconsciously. It’s about how the way you express yourself aligns or doesn’t with traditional forms of gender expression. Gender expression is interpreted by others perceiving your gender based on traditional gender roles (e.g. men wear trousers, women wear dresses).  Like gender identity, there is flexibility – gender expression may change, depending on the situation. Many of us move along this continuum without even thinking about it.

On the left we have ‘feminine’ and on the right we have ‘masculine’, the two terms normally associated with ‘woman’ and ‘man’.  In the middle, we have ‘androgynous’ which describes an ambiguous or mixed form of expressing gender.

Biological Sex:

Biological sex refers to organs, hormones, and chromosomes.  Being female means having a vagina, ovaries, two X chromosomes, predominant oestrogen, and the potential to become pregnant.  Being male means having testes, a penis, an X and a Y chromosome, predominant testosterone, and the potential to fertilise a female’s egg to produce a baby.

More commonly than most of us realise, some people have varying combinations of the above. For example, someone can be born with the appearance of being male (external organs), but have a functional female reproductive system inside, just one of the ways in which a person may be ‘intersex’. Statistics from the Intersex Society of North America which describe the frequency of intersex births suggest that the proportion of people whose bodies differ from standard male or female is one in every 100 births.

So, on the left of the continuum is ‘female’ and on the right is ‘male’, the two biological sexes we all grew up knowing about.  The middle term, ‘intersex’, describes someone whose sexual organs are not strictly male or female.  The term ‘hermaphrodite’, which you may have heard used to describe an intersex individual, is stigmatizing as ‘hermaphrodite’ means someone who is entirely male and female, a biological impossibility.

Sexual Orientation:

Sexual orientation is about who you are physically and emotionally attracted to.  If you are male and you’re attracted to females, you’re straight.  If you’re a male who is attracted to males and females, you’re bisexual.  And if you’re a male who is attracted to males, you’re gay.  This is the one most of us know most about, right?  Maybe.

Pioneering research by Dr. Alfred Kinsey uncovered that most people aren’t absolutely ‘straight’ or ‘gay’. He asked people to report their fantasies, dreams, thoughts, emotional investments in others, and frequency of sexual contact.  Based on his findings, he broke sexuality down into a seven point scale (see below), and reported that most people who identify as straight are actually somewhere between 1 – 3 on the scale, and most people who identify as lesbian/gay are 3-5:

0 – Exclusively Heterosexual
1 – Predominantly heterosexual, incidentally homosexual
2 – Predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual
3 – Equally heterosexual and homosexual
4 – Predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual
5 – Predominantly homosexual, incidentally heterosexual
6 – Exclusively Homosexual

On the left of the continuum is ‘heterosexual’, attracted to people of the ‘opposite sex’ or ‘straight’.  On the right is ‘homosexual’, attracted to people of the same sex, ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’.  In the middle is ‘bisexual’, meaning attracted to people of ‘both’ sexes. However, the above evidence about the diversity of biological sex suggests ‘bisexual’ may be an inadequate term as ‘bi’ means ‘two’. The term ‘pansexual’ is gaining ground among people confident enough to identify themselves with gender diversity, as ‘pan’ means ‘all’.


While considering gender and sexual orientation as a continuum can be helpful, it is also limiting for those who do not identify with any of the above terms. For example, there is no place on the sexual orientation scale for someone who is ‘asexual’,  experiencing a lack of sexual attraction to others. Similarly, some  people consider their gender identity to fall outside of the traditional (and limited) woman to man continnum. These identities may be called ‘agender’, ‘third-gender’, ‘bigender’, or ‘two spirit’, among others. The lesson is not to make assumptions but to allow an individual to define themselves.

Interrelation versus Interconnection

So, although the four continuums are  interrelated, they are not connected. Gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation are independent of one another. Sexual orientation doesn’t determine gender expression; gender expression isn’t determined by gender identity; gender identity isn’t determined by biological sex, and every other combination of the four strands.  They are certainly related, but they do not determine one another.

If someone is born with male reproductive organs and genitalia, he is very likely to be raised as a boy, identify as a man, and express himself in a masculine way.  We call this identity ‘cisgender’, when your biological sex aligns with how you identify, as opposed to ‘transgender’ where it does not. Being ‘cisgender’ i.e. in the majority, grants a lot of privileges).  It’s something most of us who are cisgender don’t appreciate nearly as much as we should. Many of those who are transgender are reminded regularly that they are not in the privileged majority, which is why Transgender Awareness Week ends with Transgender Day of Remembrance, when the LGBT community is invited to remember those who have died due to transphobia, through murder or suicide.

Adapted from the website. Click the link to read the full text.

In the youth groups this week we introduced this model, then each youth worker took a representation of themselves as a gingerbread person and placed themselves on each of the four lines to indicate how we identify ourselves. The aim was to model the gender diversity of the workers and enable young people to have confidence to identify themselves.


Each young person was invited to use the template above to represent themselves in their own way, then photocopy it three times and place one on each line according to where on the continuums they see themselves. As teenagers and young adults how they define themselves becomes increasingly important, and that includes gender identity and sexual orientation.

So gender is not simply about ‘opposites’ – a lot of us don’t sit comfortably on one or other end of the continuum. Since this diversity is more common than most people realise, our society needs to be more open to those who don’t conform to the ‘man-made’ labels it gives us.

For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here.

Photo A Day – November 13: Sleep #FMSphotoaday

THIS IS the dream catcher that hangs over the bed where I sleep. Last night it seemed to be faulty.

‘To sleep, perchance to dream’ – Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 3 Scene 1

I woke in the early hours, tired after a long day, worried about work and another busy week.

Some native American tribes believed dream catchers filter dreams. Fashioned to look like a spider’s web, they were intended to catch any harm that might be in the air, as a spider’s web catches and holds whatever comes in contact with it. Bad dreams would stay in the net, disappearing in daylight, while the feathers served as a soft ladder for the good dreams to glide down and gently enter the dreamer’s mind.

I don’t actually believe the dream catcher is capable of this – it is just a beautiful, handmade decoration. But on nights like this it would be lovely to think so.

I was awake for quite a while, finally weary enough to sleep again, only to sleep through my alarm and rise much later than usual, so I had no time for the Morning Pages exercise of The Artist’s Way, for the first time in ten weeks. Though not always easy, I have found keeping the discipline of writing three A4 pages a day very helpful. Having missed it I felt more anxious and ungrounded, and I recognised that I felt that way more often before I began the twelve week creativity course.

Sometimes sleep can help with creativity, sometimes hinder it. Dreams can bring inspiration – I have experienced waking in the early hours to write a fully formed poem or realise a solution to a problem. Rest can promote more creative energy.

Yet I recognise that sometimes it can also be a block. Most Fridays I ‘work from home’ (sometimes literally, sometimes euphemistically). I run an LGBT youth group on Monday to Thursday, working between 7 and 12 hours a day. On Fridays I plan to work on other projects but the work of the week can catch up with me and leave me tired. I have at times been tempted to have a siesta for an hour or two when a walk around the nearby park might be more effective in re-energising me to continue. Sometimes it’s hard to know if it’s what my body really needs, or if it’s a subtle form of resistance or procrastination.

Unlike Hamlet in his famous soliloquy, I am not contemplating what dreams may come in the afterlife. I want to dream more of what motivates and inspires me here and now, and less of what disturbs my sleep with worry about what’s past or yet to come.

For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here.

Photo A Day – November 12: Drink! #FMSphotoaday

TONIGHT WE HAVE cleared the kitchen to make way for the decorator tomorrow. As I cleared the room I discovered these fine beverages.

When we catered the reception for our civil partnership in May, we had wine left over, and received some alcohol as gifts too, so for a while we had an unprecedented and indecent amount of booze in the house!

Now, through a combination of consumption, hospitality and redistribution, just a few bottles remain.

The 12-year-old malt whisky on the right was a civil partnership gift, and a very fine one too!

The 16-year-old malt was a gift from my partner’s former boss when he left to start a new job just a month before the civil partnership!

The bottle of rum was a gift from an elderly Jamaican woman we know from church.

And the exotic pink liqueur on the left is ‘a traditional blend of prickly pear, honey and herbs, long savoured by the Knights of Malta‘, a souvenir from a friend’s holiday which we have not yet dared to open.

Alcohol is one of The Deadlies’ I mentioned yesterday in The Artist’s Way tasks for this week. It has never been a big issue for me – apart from some youthful excess as a student I have never been a big drinker. I now drink moderately and infrequently. When I do, I enjoy it at the time, but I am often left with a low mood the following day. Despite relaxing our inhibitions the night before, alcohol is a depressant, and I have really begun to notice it can have that effect on me. As I can be susceptible to depression anyway, this is an unwelcome side effect, and an inhibitor to my creativity. I haven’t yet decided to give it up completely – more careful moderation may be enough. But if the inhibiting side effect of post-alcohol depression the day after outweighs the disinhibition of enjoying alcohol the night before, then perhaps it is time to stop.

L-R: Fathers Dougal, Ted and Jack, and the relentlessly hospitable housekeeper Mrs Doyle

The headline ‘Drink!’ is a catchphrase of Father Jack, the elderly alcoholic priest from the Irish sitcom Father Ted. When I was a seminarian (training for ministry in the Roman Catholic Church for three years in my twenties), a school friend suggested I would go through three phases of priesthood – the Dougal phase (after the idiot curate in the sitcom), the Ted phase (after the extravagant main character who is sent to an island parish after absconding to Las Vegas with money raised to send a sick child to Lourdes), and the Jack phase (a drunken retirement).

As I only spent three of the usual six years training for priesthood, I barely entered my Dougal phase, and never saw a Ted phase. And you can be sure that these bottles would not have lasted six months in the kitchen if I had entered my Jack phase!

For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here.

Photo A Day – November 11: Sunday night #FMSphotoaday

SUNDAY NIGHTS have a new routine for me – we usually have a hearty soup and fresh bread, then I retreat to my desk and work on the next chapter of The Artist’s Way, ‘a course in discovering and recovering your creative self”.

Sunday night reading

Author Julia Cameron suggests taking an hour or so to read the next week’s chapter of this 12 week course then speed-write through the exercises on the week’s theme.

There are also suggested weekly tasks – she recommends selecting around half, based on ‘those that appeal to you and those you strongly resist’ – where there is most resistance, there may be most growth.

This week is about going deeper into what blocks the expression of creativity, into owning the most self-sabotaging parts of ourselves. The week’s tasks include ‘The Deadlies’, which involve looking at seven areas which may be good or neutral in themselves, but which may be used or abused, consciously or unconsciously, to dull pain, avoid facing fears or hold ourselves back and block our creative self-expression.

The idea is to take seven strips of paper and write a theme on each one as follows:

  • family
  • friends
  • work
  • sex
  • food
  • alcohol
  • drugs

Then place all seven strips in an envelope, randomly select one and write five ways in which we use that topic to block our creativity or prevent ourselves from fulfilling our potential.

Then return the paper to the envelope and repeat the exercise seven times, selecting from all seven topics each time. If a topic seems irrelevant, or it is drawn more than once, it may reveal some resistance to looking at blocks in this area.

I did the exercise and randomly drew: Alcohol, Work, Food, Work, Food, Drugs, Work – sounds like a typical day!

Seriously, though, it did lead me to reflect on areas where I need to exercise greater self-care, especially around food (always a big issue for me; so-called ‘comfort eating’ which is no comfort at all) and workaholism (too busy to care for myself, for significant relationships, and to prioritise my creativity because it seems ‘selfish’ when in fact it gives me hope and energy to be better at everything else I do for others).

An interesting night – promising to be a revealing week!

For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here.

Photo A Day – November 10: Can’t live without #FMSphotoaday

TONIGHT I HAD the privilege of attending a ‘Celebration of Freedom’ for a young man I have supported who has won the right to remain in the UK following a successful appeal against a decision to deny him asylum and return him to a country where being gay can mean imprisonment and even death.

A young gay man is proud to stand freely in his new home city after fleeing persecution in his family’s home country

His courage has been amazing and he is an inspiration. It helps to appreciate the freedom we enjoy in the UK to be ourselves and love as we desire, and to remember that many people in many places do not have that freedom. Having struggled to find the freedom to be ourselves and get legal recognition for our rights as a same-sex couple, my partner and I would find it hard to live without this freedom.

The picture above is not mine, and it was not taken today – it is from Liverpool Pride in August 2011. The young man has taken a new name, Zac, and is careful about revealing his identity for fear of unwelcome consequences for himself and his family, hence he stands with his back to the camera. But to see him expressing himself so freely in spite of all he has been through is a joy to behold. And to have walked alongside him for part of his journey is a source of great pride.

At the party tonight I shared a short film showing how much he has grown and changed.

I first met him in January 2010. A few weeks later one of the funders of the LGBT youth group I run asked to interview me and one young person on the difference our service makes. Zac agreed to tell his story, but not to appear on camera.

Six months later another film was made for an anti-homophobia campaign website. Zac agreed to be interviewed again, this time speaking more clearly, openly, bravely, and appearing on camera, though not showing his face. The contrast between the two interviews is impressive.

If you would like to watch the film (4 mins 30 secs) you can view it here:

If you think the fight for LGBT rights is won, remember Zac and millions like him. Don’t take freedom for granted. Remember the words of Martin Luther King:

‘No one is free, until everyone is free.’

For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here.

Photo A Day – November 9: Small #FMSphotoaday

‘IF YOU THINK you’re too small to make a difference,

try spending the night with a mosquito.’

— African proverb.


I’m cheating again as this is not my own photo, but it has been a busy week, and this is the most interesting response I could think of for the ‘Small’ theme.

It also reminds me of the inspirational text incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela‘s inaugural speech as President of South Africa:

‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.’

– From A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles by Marianne Williamson

If I am ‘playing small’ it is usually because I doubt my potential to make a difference. Or I know I have the potential, but feel afraid of the responsibility and consequences if I accept that I can make a difference. Either way, I am wrong.

Today I led a workshop to motivate colleagues to support vulnerable young adults to achieve their potential. I believe I made a difference.

What difference did you make today? Or did you wish your potential, like the mosquito, would just ‘buzz off’?

For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here.

Photo A Day – November 8: Every day #FMSphotoaday

EVERY MORNING for the last nine weeks I have sat at the dining table, lit a candle, played some reflective music and written three sides of A4, know as ‘Morning Pages’.

Inspired by The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a 12 week self-help programme for ‘creative recovery’, Morning Pages clear the mind at the start of the day. Julia explains how they are intended to work here.

Here’s how they are working for me:

The daily discipline has given me space for reflection which I have found difficult in the past. It seems to be helping – my partner tells me I seem less pressured and more passionate about my work. Stretching my writing muscles has helped me to make more time for my writing – I am blogging regularly and taking a ‘Life Lines’ course in how to tell your life story. I am enjoying both very much, though I feel frustrated in busy weeks like this when there  isn’t much space for creativity. Yet I find it so enjoyable and energising that I no longer consider it selfish to make the time, as it helps me to feel more inspired and motivated, and less preoccupied with worries and daily grind. Getting them out of my head and onto the page is making space for greater positivity and creativity to flourish.

Long may it continue!

For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here.

Photo A Day – November 7: Reflection #FMSphotoaday

AFTER AN 11 hour day in work I have come home to review the personal statement on a job application form that needs to be submitted tomorrow, and the text looks something like this. Summing up a career and why I want a new job is an interesting and challenging means of reflection.

I love my work with the LGBT youth group, and I am fortunate to be employed in these uncertain times. However, the job is vulnerable since it is funded by the city council which has to find £32 million of savings in 2013/14, on top of the £141 million of cuts in the last two years, despite having some of the worst urban deprivation in Europe.  Over the next four years, the Mayor of Liverpool has to find £143million of savings from a total spend of £480m – a huge challenge for the city. In time all youth services will be provided by commissioned agencies in the private or voluntary sector instead of the Council.

In the meantime we try to maintain a quality service on a shoestring and wonder how much we will have to run it with next year. I may be facing reduced hours in April, and the loss of colleagues who help me to run the groups. We are likely to get 90 days notice that our jobs are at risk when we return to work after the Christmas holiday, and not for the first time.

So I am left with a dilemma – do I hold my nerve and fight on for another year in the hope of a breakthrough in securing new funding, or do I look around for other opportunities – and can I somehow do both? Bizarrely, finding funding to sustain existing projects is much harder than getting funding for new initiatives, and securing the resources to prevent young people from getting into mental health or criminal justice services is very hard to come by, even though early intervention with young people is much less expensive than specialist crisis services.

I really don’t know the answer, so I suppose I will keep looking both ways and see which way the traffic flows.

For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here.

Photo A Day – November 6: My favourite #FMSphotoaday

An owl delivers our wedding rings

SINCE TODAY WAS our ‘demiversary’ (six months since our civil partnership) I am cheating by sharing my favourite photo taken on that day instead of today.

As my friend Sean catches the owl that flew the length of the church aisle carrying our rings, our family and friends looked on amazed, as we had kept this moment secret.

This was a gathering of as many as possible of our favourite people, to witness us making promises to one another to be ‘favourites’ for life.

The first words I spoke in the service (which caused me to well up with emotion on the day) sum it up beautifully:

We stand here today in the presence of people
from so many parts of our journey.
You are the people who have been family for us.

We spent a lot of time planning the day, but there were only a few things I felt really strongly about. One was that we wanted a blessing in church (and I firmly believe we did not just ask for one, but received one, abundantly).

Another was the owl. We went to a civil partnership fair in Manchester, just like any other wedding fair except specifically for same sex couples. Most of what we saw was too fussy, tacky or expensive. But when I turned and saw a beautiful snowy white barn owl on the arm of a flame haired woman, my inner child leapt up and down inside me, saying: ‘I want that one!’ So, with a bit of jiggling the budget, we did.

Thanks to Flying the Knot for providing the magnificent barn owls on the day. And to Simply Perfection for the amazing photographs, especially this one!

For the background to the Photo A Day challenge, please read the intro to Day 1 here.

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