In this fantastic speech at our 2018 conference, Rita*, a Shared Lives carer, describes her experience of supporting someone who has experienced gender transitions as part of our theme of equality and diversity.
"My name’s Rita, I’m a Shared Lives carer and I live in Kent. I am supported by Bettertogether, the Shared Lives scheme in Newham and Havering, and I support two young adults - Sean* and Josh* who live with me and have given me permission to share some of our experiences with you.
I’d like to share with you examples of what diversity and equality looks like within Shared Lives, in ‘real life'. I’d like you to consider the language we are taught about diversity and equality, and how our attitudes are tested in the real world of Shared Lives care.
Josh is now 20, fostered with me since age eight, and I became a Shared Lives carer when he was 18.
Imagine the scene; a young lad has lived with you since childhood, and is now age 16. You knock and enter his room to find him putting on a lacy black petticoat, you realise it’s yours.
What would your response be?
As you may guess, this happened in my world, four years ago. And often my responses surprise even me. I just said:
“Josh, you know you should ask before borrowing my things……… Supper’s ready”
I closed the door and went back downstairs. We ate and then I asked if he’d like a chat. All the stereotypes came into my mind; transvestite? Cross dresser? Gay? Does he like the feel of lace as part of a sor tof teenage sexual experimentation? Gender identity didn’t even cross my mind.
We chatted and when I asked about his response, he said he didn’t feel at all “awkward”….. but he thought that I did. It transpired he had been secretly wearing a variety of my underwear and clothes for quite a while and had always felt like a girl, since around age 6 yrs. To him my clothes just felt natural.
I will never forget when I said, “that’s ok, if that’s how you feel, I love you as you”. The smile on his face was indescribable - epecially given that he rarely shows emotion.
I asked his permission to seek advice and support him regarding his wish to outwardly portray as female.
Also, a note to self at this time, I have far too many clothes, so many that I didn’t even miss the ones he had stashed away from me!
So thinking about diversity - and I don’t mean Ashley Banjo and the dance group - how do we react to all that we come across in Shared Lives? Think back to the petticoat scenario. I’d like you to notice that I didn’t say to Josh:
“It’s ok with me, I accept your gender choice.”
Society asks us to ‘accept’ people’s differences: "I ‘accept’ your diverse needs, your disability, gender, sexual orientations..."
Personally I feel that this is actually quite patronising to people, who are placed in society as the minority. By the talking of ‘acceptance’ are we not saying that we the majority accept the minority? How condescending of us! Would we say (or think of) Joe Bloggs next door:
"I accept you"?
No! We just do, naturally. That’s how I think of Josh, he just is. In his gender identity journey he became Jenny for a year, back to Josh for a while, then chose to be Jade for about a year.
Currently he is Josh again -watch this space! Because within Shared Lives he has autonomy and empowerment of choice, including the freedom to change his mind. But struggles and faces prejudice from parents and even self in the need to fit in.
This brings me to equality. In all the training I have had over many years, the standard definition of equality in the workplace is to:
"Treat everyone the same regardless (or irrespective) of race, gender, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation and age."
For me, to ensure equality you need to be regardful and respective, of everyone, however different they are, because within all of us we have prejudice, we are judgemental and have stereotypical views which are nurtured since birth. If we deny our stereotypical views, change can’t happen. Hands up, I had stereotypical thoughts about the petticoat, (but didn’t show it.)
However, at the beginning when Josh portrayed herself as Jenny, I judged how she should look, behave, even feel like a girl and I voiced these thoughts to her. It was difficult and painful for both of us.
We sought advice at a gender identity clinic and we learnt from them, but mainly, I got immense support from the team at Bettertogether, my Shared Lives scheme in Newham and Havering.
We have been on Josh's journey together, during which he has expressed his feelings about himself through behaviours such as self harm, alcohol, drugs, stealing and seriously pushing other boundaries. That was difficult and painful to support him through too.
Through it all I kept my regard for his disabilities, striving to understand his perspective. In my view, I know instinctively inside he is female. Frustratingly, the gender clinic were quick to judge his “confusion” as being down to his disability, global development delay. They judged his ambivalence as him not having body dysphoria (a criteria for support)and they didn’t recognise his delayed emotional intelligence.
His voice was therefore not taken seriously and somewhat dismissed. The mental health service - the same, they didn’t show any ability to find the ways to communicate with Josh, thus support sessions stopped. It was really frustrating.
What is so great about working with Bettertogether, my Shared Lives scheme, is that Emma, my support officer and Sarah, the manager have a great ability in helping me to sound off, stand back a bit, and reflect. But through it all they believed me and Josh. This relieved my frustrations - they trusted my professionalism. They carried out a Mental Capacity Assessment which confirmed my instincts.
During difficult times with Josh, Sarah Havard, my Shared Lives scheme manager advised:
“You can’t always choose what happens, but you can choose how you react.”
This advice has been so useful for me in many contexts, thank you. When others have failed Josh, when society have judged him, my scheme - Bettertogether, (who may I add have recently been inspected as ‘Outstanding’) have been my go-to rock, my back bone to carry on advocating for Josh. They are my one step removed perspective of what I live 24/7.
To conclude - diversity and equality…whatever ‘label box’ our adults are put into, what’s paramount is that they are human beings and equally part of human kind, let’s not just accept them, let us behold, value, respect and especially learn from them. And on that note, I asked Sean, who’s been with me a year now:
“when explaining our relationship to others, how would he like to refer to me as, your carer or your host?”
His reply was:
Yes I care/support and host but he just wants, and views me to be, his equal. Another human being with whom he shares a home with.
Just a thought: this shows, we are Shared Lives.
*names changed for confidentiality