Sunday, 28 July 2013

Joanna Darrell-- Beaumont Society Vice President

In a previous post, I wrote of my somewhat unsatisfactory relationship with The Beaumont Society, the oldest transgender-support society in the world. Founded in London in 1966, the Society is run as a charity, and caters for "the transgender, transvestite, transsexual and cross-dressing community".

The Vice President of the Beaumont Society is Joanna Darrell, who happened on my blog post and was kind enough to post a short comment on it. I contacted her to ask if she would be willing to answer some questions about the Beaumont Society, and she generously agreed. I have made some explanatory comments in italics, but otherwise these are Joanna's words.

Please tell us a bit of background information about yourself.

Not really so sure what you want to know here really? I'm 44, married and live in Bristol where I work as an engineer.

How long have you been a crossdresser? How did you get started? I assume from your prominent position within the Beaumont Society that you are "out". Do you dress freely in public?

Joanna Darrell
I've been dressing for 16 years (I guess in trans terms, I'm still a teenager). My introduction was unusual in that I was initially introduced to "the scene" by a friend rather than a longing caused by any sense of dysphoria. After going out a few times and meeting some really great people, I came to realise it was something missing from who I was and chose to embrace it rather than second guess it, or judge myself unfavourably because of it. Although I did consider transitioning about 10 years ago, I came to realise through my RLE [Real Life Experience- a period of living full time as a woman] that it wasn't the right thing for me at that time and I was happy as I am.

Within my life I'm lucky to have the support of my wife and some friends which gives me the freedom to express myself as I want to be when I want to be. I'm not sure this is what you mean by being "out" but I regularly go out dressed and shop, for example.

When did your relationship with the Beaumont Society start?

About 1997. The first meetings I went to were organised by Diana Aitchison at the Town and Gown [a pub] in Cambridge. Diana is also still very active with the T community there.

What first got you interested in the Society? How did you get involved?

The Society has always been there as an outlet throughout my life. Although when I was experimenting with finding myself, I wasn't very close to it (apart from the Cambridge meetings) When I returned to England [after some time abroad], I noticed the Central Regional Organiser position had been vacant for a while so I emailed Shirley Keel and asked if I could help. After a chat about what was involved, I took it on for a short while in a probationary capacity, before taking the role officially in late 2010.

How long before you became Vice President? How does that work? Is there some sort of ballot?

Following Bella's decision to stand down last year, all members of the Society were canvassed via the March 2013 magazine and additionally via the website, Facebook and social media feeds . Following nominations from a number of people, I was elected unopposed in June 2013, which will be ratified in our November AGM.

What is the infrastructure of the Society like? (I envisage some plush office lined with velvet drapes and a golden telephone!) Is there a permanent office with an office staff?

It would be great if that was the case !!

I think it's important to realise there are actually three Beaumont organisations, the Society, Trust and WoBs [Women of the Beaumont Society]. Each group has a different focus in the trans community. The Society supports the trans individual, the Trust supports education and training of organisations, while WoBs and the partners group support the partners and families of trans people.

Although the Society and the Trust are registered UK charities, all three organisations are run by the most dedicated team of volunteers you could wish to meet. Although we do have an address in London, we're not able to accept visitors at this location and only respond to postal mail here. Because we receive no funding other than the membership donation and sales of research material, we rely on these volunteers to support all our activities, including the helplines and other support services we offer.

Both the Society and Trust have national organisational teams, which meet twice a year to discuss medium or long term needs and issues as well as reflect on our activities to date. These meetings form the basis of each organisation's submission to the Charity Commission. Short term needs and issues are discussed via group teleconferences as and when needed, with minutes recorded for discussion at the AGM held in November.

I can see that, for a very long time, the Beaumont Society was the only refuge for transgendered people in Britain, and as such it was probably a lifeline for some. However, with the growth of the Internet it has become a lot easier for us to contact one another and find out more about crossdressing. Is the Beaumont Society still relevant today?

I strongly believe all three organisations are very much relevant today. Although the vision of the Society has stayed very consistent over its history, how it acts on this vision tends to be constantly developing in line with the needs and expectations of the community it supports. Currently, there's a tremendous amount of interest and printed material on trans issues, not just because of the Gender Recognition and Marriage Equality Acts, but also through debates on diversity and transphobic hate crime.

While it's certainly true to say that social media, internet forums and in particular outlets like Facebook have made it easier for trans people to find one another and seek confidence by sharing experiences, this only works for people on those social media feeds, which strange as it may seem to some, not everyone is at the moment. Further, if you consider the whole trans journey, this initial contact is only part of the support trans people need. After this contact, some are looking for places to go, support meetings, services they can use etc., as part of their first steps into the big wide world and beyond.

Then there's the families and partners of these people, who will often need support and have questions when introduced to a trans person for the first time. They also need places and people to be understanding and accepting as well as companies to recognise their diversity so they can get meaningful employment.

Lastly, the subject of care for elderly trans people is beginning to attract some attention, which while it may not be trendy, is still an area which requires research and support. I think it's in these wider areas that the Beaumont Organisations (and others like us) can and still do play a significant meaningful part.

My impression of the Society is that most of the members are senior citizens. I expect this is probably unfair. But if the Society doesn't attract new members, it will eventually collapse. It seems that some young people today freely engage in crossdressing activities without recognising the label "transvestite". How can Beaumont reach out to those people? And how will its voice be heard amid "steampunk" and "cosplay" and other activities where crossdressing is condoned?

I'm never really sure what point people are trying to make when they say these types of things. It seems to me that they're trying to infer "we're out of touch" or worse still "we're a bunch of guys with beards and pipes in dresses". Both of these always seem prejudicial and something which, if the situation was reversed, would almost certainly be labelled as ageist, possibly even transphobic. While labels like "transvestite" and "transexual" can be useful for medical diagnoses, beyond that, they tend to become badges which people focus a lot of derision or hatred onto, so I prefer not to use them myself, if you want to label me - "just call me Joanna".

Although we do have our fair share of older members, I've never seen this as the issue . They have tremendous experience, maturity and often a different outlook on life, which can be useful when considering the issues of a younger generation. They've lived and walked that path !!! Some will also be blazing a trail on issues like care of elderly trans people, so they have real valuable lessons to draw on.

Concerning things like Steampunk, Cosplay and even Anime, I think these are great artistic expressions and creative outlets and it's really encouraging to see aspects of trans culture and lifestyles be embodied into these. One of the great things about these outlets is that they can raise issues and discussions in an informal, thought-provoking way which is sometimes impossible through other avenues. For this reason, we're looking at producing some material later in the year to help get the message of trans awareness out there. Social media groups like Facebook and Twitter are other ways we reach out to these people, also via our video log via Skype. Interestingly the demographics of people in touch with us via these is significantly younger than what people who label us as "the blue rinse and pearls brigade" would imagine !!!

Although the mission statement for the Society includes all transgendered people, it's my impression that the overwhelming majority of members are straight men who crossdress. Are there many transsexuals? Are there any female to male members? If so, what can the Society offer them?

We don’t keep personal records of our members, or collect data about their trans status, so there isn't a definitive way of answering this question. I do know of several members who have or are in the process of transitioning, however, who also play significant roles in the organisation.

Would we like more ? Yes, of course, and also we encourage intersex, gender neutral and FTM people to apply and join in too. Our most recent magazine featured a number of articles from a female to male trans perspective and it’s a subject that will return and be explored in future editions.

What role do genetic women play in the Society, if any?

Generally, Genetic Women tend to be members of the WoBs organisation or the Trust. Where the Society is supported by genetic women, it tends to be in the form of service providers who advertise via the website and magazine for things like clothes or make-overs.

As a crossdresser myself, I accept that there is a sexual element to the drive to crossdress. Yet Beaumont seems to insist that crossdressing is (basically) a neutral and harmless hobby, like stamp-collecting or birdwatching. Is that a lie? No sex please, we're British?

I'm not sure how you've formed this opinion, but it's essentially a mis-interpetation of our values and vision of ourselves. To clarify :- "The society is not available for sexual liaisons". This means that at any of our meetings we do not encourage sexual acts, or sell our membership list for adult dating purposes as some groups do for revenue, it's just not what we're about. We're not so na├»ve as to think that for some, cross-dressing isn't an arousing, sexual act and if that’s the case, good for you, but we won't facilitate this through our organisation and would steer you elsewhere. You are still welcome to be a member, just for the other things about being trans!!! This is something a lot of our members partners are particularly grateful for, as the sexual aspect and their partners faithfulness are among their most common fears when they find out about their partner's trans personality.

Does the Society still consider itself the "official" voice of the crossdressing community in Britain? If so, what form does this voice take?

I don't believe any one organisation can consider itself to be "the voice" of the community and would strongly argue against one trying to present itself as such. Like many organisations, we have a role to play which I've outlined above.

This year alone, we have provided training to the police, NHS, counselling groups, Relate and two private companies. We are also just in the process of engaging with the prison service about trans issues. This is probably one of the most unsung things about all three organisations that often goes un-noticed but which is made possible through the membership fee which we are eternally grateful to our members for.

What relationship, if any, does Beaumont have with similar organisations in other countries?

We enjoy relationships with an organisation in Australia and one in America. These have come about through development of our internet site and social media feeds, which reflect changes in how people find us. We have featured news from the USA in our most recent magazines and Facebook pages, as this is something we occasionally receive emails about.

If there is nothing in New Zealand, why not start something? We'd love to help and play a part.

Can you tell me a little bit about the magazine? What is the editorial policy? Is there a deliberate tone or direction that you aim for?

Traditionally, the editorial policy was set by the magazine editor, who tended to write the whole magazine herself. As times have changed however, this approach has changed drastically and the most recent magazines have been more collaborative. These feature articles from a number of sources which are a cross section of news, views, fashion and issues which are pertinent to the trans community. With this new magazine format, we're trying to make it less of a special interest magazine, presenting it in a more modern way which makes it more mainstream.

Joanna was kind enough to send me an electronic copy of the new magazine format, and she is right: the production values are hugely improved; the quality of the articles is substantially better; the balance between fiction and feature articles is much better; the covergirl is gorgeous. Overall, a spectacular improvement.

How has the Society changed over the last decade? Where do you see the Society going in the future? Is there some sort of ultimate goal?

Kay West
From my personal viewpoint the society has changed massively in the last three years or so, building on the organisation Janett Scott [former President] gave her, Shirley Keel [past President] put more of an organisation in place to move forward with the challenges we were facing and Kay West [current President] has busied herself with getting good people into the organisation and modernising it. We're not finished with this journey yet and have things we can always improve on. Maybe the easiest way to answer that is to invite people who think they knew us to come and take another look, maybe even join in!!

As for our goal, its simply "acceptance".

Will there ever come a time when we have no need of societies like Beaumont, because we will all be able to dress however we like?

I hope so, I really do. Although I think we're moving towards that ideal, these things take time and a sustained effort , both from organisations like ourselves and the people we support. I have no doubt we will get there though!

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My thanks to Joanna for taking the time to answer my questions. I deliberately posed some challenging questions, and she answered these in a very balanced way. I suppose my questions were partly a reflection of my own disappointment with the Beaumont Society's apparent inability to meet my own needs at the time I was a member.

On the other hand, everything Joanna has said (and everything I see on its website) counters my concerns: the Beaumont Society is evolving, it is changing to reflect society, it is trying to keep up with the times and use new forms of communication to its advantage (social media and the Internet), and it is reaching out to younger members. Like any long-lasting organisation, it has to slightly rebrand itself from time to time, while keeping true to its core values. I wish Joanna and the Beaumont Society every success.

If you want to contact the Beaumont Society, their contact page is here.

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