What not to say to a transgender person

What not to say to a transgender person

Sometimes you think you’re going to handle a situation really well…and then you don’t. That pretty much sums up my first conversation with 26 year-old Sabah Choudrey, a British Muslim transgender activist who campaigns against racism in the LGBT community and creates networks and support groups for minority ethnic trans people. He was born and raised as a girl, and came out as transgender while at university. I didn’t realise at the time that there are inappropriate questions to ask a trans person…like asking about medical intervention and hormone therapy. Things that are basically quite personal and sensitive…things you’d never ask anyone else you were meeting over the phone for the first time. Ethnic minority transgender people are among the most vulnerable to discrimination. They face verbal abuse from people on the street, rejection from their families, discrimination in the workplace and the stigma of not conforming to the gender they were assigned at birth…so are often subject to ridicule. Many people don’t personally know many or any transgender people; so we rely upon the stereotypes and clichés we carry in our minds. Anyone I’ve spoken to who has come across someone trans – speaks about them as if they were the ‘star cross-dressing attraction’ of gossip at the family wedding…something highly unenviable. When I meet Sabah the following week for a coffee, he speaks candidly about his journey so far and touches on many insightful themes, including the idea that we all have femininity and masculinity within us. Though he dresses like a man, he doesn’t reject all his years growing up as a girl, and describes himself...
Salinger’s Spiritual Quest

Salinger’s Spiritual Quest

When you commit yourself to a spiritual or philosophical outlook, it’s hard for it not to influence every aspect of your life. Indeed it seems a little hypocritical for it not to. But it can often happen…where grand ideas remain confined to the walls of the room in which they were discussed. The Indian philosophy of Vedanta expresses the importance of internalising the ideas it extols such that it becomes a ‘lived’ rather than an ‘armchair philosophy’. From the way you interact with your family to the way you approach your work – its teachings are really rather pointless if they fail to take effect in your personal experience of and interactions with the world. Yet lifting ideas and philosophy from the pages of esoteric scripture into personal experience is not always easy. The spiritual path has been likened in one famous scriptural text to walking along ‘The Razor’s Edge’; an expression popularised by the book of the same name by renowned writer Somerset Maugham. In essence, putting your philosophy into practice is like walking a tightrope. You make countless mistakes and navigate your way through a quagmire of doubt, while desperately holding on to the principles in which you’re attempting to ground yourself. Vedanta is the philosophical aspect of the vast Hindu tradition that was brought to the west by Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th century. The way it explains the meaning of yoga is subtle yet powerful, and resonated with many great contemporary thinkers including Leo Tolstoy, William James and of course JD Salinger – detailed brilliantly by journalist Ann Louise Bardach in this Wall Street...
Caged and chained in the Philippines

Caged and chained in the Philippines

 Trapped in cages and chained by their families, the search for survivors of Typhoon Haiyan revealed the tragic conditions in which people displaying signs of mental illness are kept in remote parts of the Philippines. Working with documentary filmmaker Simon Rawles and photographer Peter Caton – we visited several cases.  “I placed him in a cage because he hurts people. For him to be secure, we used chains,” explains Lolita Becira who keeps her 34-year-old son Joel in a cage outside her home. Hers is a small and simple concrete house, just metres away from the idyllic yet severely storm-battered coastline of northern Cebu. The sight of a man in his mid thirties shackled in a small makeshift cage sits in stark contrast with the expanse of wild and beautiful natural landscape. Northern Cebu in the Philippines was hit hard by Typhoon Haiyan in November last year. Though the death toll was far less than Tacloban, there was 90% storm damage, and a huge number of people lost their homes and suffered injuries. The destruction in the immediate aftermath of the disaster prompted local disability rights organisation Gualandi Volunteer Service Programme (GVSP) to initiate a search for disabled typhoon survivors in the town of San Remigio. Among the physically disabled, deaf and blind typhoon survivors, they were shocked to find seven cases of people with mental illness kept in cages and left outside to die during the storm. “Haiyan opened a lot of things, a lot of realities that were kept hidden by the community themselves. It was like opening a Pandora’s box,” explains GVSP disability rights campaigner Jean...
Fast food nation

Fast food nation

 It didn’t take long before I was accosted as I patrolled the food court of Cebu City’s sprawling Ayala mall…a lone hungry foreign female in search of a nutritious lunch. “We have fried pork, chicken, fish, lamb or goat,” declared the keen restaurant host trying to lure me further inside. “Do you have anything with ONLY vegetables,” I asked – tired of hearing myself say this three times a day for at least week now.  I was getting rather exasperated at the extreme and slightly unexpected challenge the Philippines had confronted me with as a committed vegetarian of 25 years. My search for a healthy vegetarian lunch was set against a live soundtrack of karaoke pop, performed in the mall foyer by pre-adolescent Filipina girls. No one else seemed bothered by the extremely loud noise. I had recently learnt that this mall was one of the city’s key attractions, littered with American franchises and Filipino knock-offs of donut, pretzel and burger chains. It is said that on an average day, more than 85,000 people visit Ayala Centre. Whilst food options are clearly limited for the rare breed of vegetarians that must wander through Filipino malls, it was also a challenge to find anything that resembled healthy food. Of course shopping malls exist throughout Asia, mostly aimed at the emerging middle class and the wealthiest city dwellers; but Filipino malls appear to have a profoundly American flavour. I’m not referring to the diet-obsessed subculture within the States; rather it is the super-sized ‘burger and fries’ lifestyle that has firmly found a home for itself thousands of miles away from its...
New waves of migration

New waves of migration

“We asked for workers. We got people instead,” said the German novelist Max Frisch on immigration. Across the world economies thrive on the essential role of migrant workers, but as we all know, immigration imports not only workers, but also individuals together with their cultural, social, religious and linguistic complexity. A country with plenty of experience of this particular phenomenon is Brazil – a land where millions of European, indigenous Indian and African descendants have lived, married and procreated together for centuries. Brazil is also home to a huge number of Japanese (hence sushi bars are everywhere in the big cities) and Italians. There is undoubtedly a huge and lingering social divide on racial lines, but it is a rather wonderful thing about Brazil that its people who are ethnically and racially so varied in appearance remain firmly unified in their national identity. It was therefore a little surprising to learn of the negative feeling bubbling under the surface towards some of Brazil’s latest migrants – Haitians. Thanks to One World Media – I had the opportunity to visit the rather forgotten Amazonian region of Acre, Brazil in June. It was here, in this interior state that shares a border with Peru and Bolivia that I visited a new shelter that acts as a transit point for the thousands of Haitian migrants crossing the border through Acre. Acre is much poorer than the rest of Brazil. In 2010 its GDP per capita was less than 60% of the national average. When heavy flooding restricted fuel and food supplies a few months back, the state social services were unable to...