A Bedford first as LGBTQ+ swimming programme launched

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An LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) community ‘safe space’ swimming programme has been launched in Bedford, the first of its kind in the region.

The NHS-backed programme aims to reduce social isolation, improve health and well-being, and allow LGBTQ+ people to socialise with other members of the community safely.

Its aim is to alleviate some of the anxiety trans and gender non-conforming people face using public facilities.

Interim Chief Medical Officer and ELFT LGBTQ+ Staff Network executive, Dr David Bridle, said: “This is an important project that promotes physical and mental wellbeing for members of the LGBTQ+ community and supports the Trust’s mission to improve the quality of life for all we serve.

“Everyone involved in making this programme a reality should be incredibly proud.”

Bedfordians Mack McLean and Pat Moyce came up with the idea when they saw a similar programme in Lewisham.

Mack explained: “We saw a video of a swim club in Lewisham called TAGS (Trans And Gender Non-Conforming Swimming group) and thought “this looks interesting”.

Getting support

Pat and Mack are both trans men and the Lewisham programme caught their eye.

Realising there were huge barriers to overcome personally and in society to make it happen they thought, “how can we get something going like that here? It would be a huge achievement, not only if we could push the idea forward but if we had the support of the NHS and local authorities to do that.”

They both work for the East London NHS Foundation Trust, which provides NHS mental health services in Bedfordshire and Luton.

They are also members of the steering group ‘Rainbow Bedfordshire’ which challenges stigma and loneliness by increasing visibility, social inclusion and building LGBTQ+/ally networks.

The swimming programme was launched with the support of both groups. Funding was also secured so that the programme is offered for free, making it accessible for people on low incomes.

It currently runs twice a month at Trinity Arts and Leisure in Bromham.

The hour-long swim is open to LGBTQ+ community, allies, and essential carers, meaning people will have the privacy and comfort to just be themselves and swim.

TAGS Lewisham. Image: TASGS/Glass Mill Leisure Centre/Facebook
TAGS Lewisham. Image: TASGS/Glass Mill Leisure Centre/Facebook

Understanding gender-diverse needs

A key player in the programme’s launch was Rob Lindsay, Sports Development Officer for Bedford Borough Council.

Mack said Rob’s “face lit up” when he saw the TAGs video. He understood what they were trying to do and was able to advise them on how to make it happen.

Rob got in touch with the Lewisham pool to find out how they’d set their programme up and what funding they had in place.

He also noticed that people were travelling from Peterborough to attend the Lewisham sessions, highlighting the huge demand for this kind of service in our area.

Mack expects the same to happen in Bedford. He said: “It’s not just something Bedford needs.

“There will be people in surrounding counties who will access it. We will find the demand without any trouble at all.”

Mack and Pat are grateful for Rob’s approach and input. Mack described him as “a great support” who really wanted to help.

They said it can be tricky explaining the needs of a gender-diverse group to a traditionally Cis-gendered (people whose gender identity and expression matches the biological sex they were assigned at birth) industry.

Barriers to taking part in sport

Trans and gender-diverse people often face huge barriers taking part in public sports programmes.

Pat described a ‘catch-22’ situation when trying to exercise.

Talking about experiences faced by trans men, he said: “Going to the gender identity clinic, one of the big things is going for top surgery. One of the requirements, especially being a big person, is they tell you you’ve got to lose weight.”

The natural thing would be to go to a gym or join an exercise class. However, people who are transitioning can feel huge barriers to doing this.

It’s something Pat has personal experience of. When he was trying to lose weight, prior to top surgery (a procedure to remove breast or chest tissue) he tried going to a men’s exercise class but felt on the outside of the conversations the other men were having.

Pat said: “they were talking about how the ‘wife’ was at home and things like that. It was very macho and very competitive.”

Assumptions about gender and sexuality

These conversations made him feel embarrassed to say he had a partner who wasn’t female.

He felt the assumption that everyone was heterosexual and Cis-gendered was automatic.

“Before you start, they will check your blood pressure to make sure that you’re fit enough to do it, but that question (about sexuality or gender diversity) never actually came up. I think it would have been nice to ask,” said Pat.

Adding, “surely there must be somebody else in this room who could be gay and might be having the same feelings as you.”

LGBTQ+ rainbow flag Image Paul2520, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
LGBTQ+ rainbow flag Image: Paul2520, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He didn’t feel comfortable telling the trainer or other participants he was transitioning. Neither did he feel comfortable saying he couldn’t keep up because he was wearing a binder, which can be dangerous to exercise in.

Binders are compression undergarments, worn by some trans and gender non-conforming people, to flatten breasts.

“The conversations that the men were having, I felt too embarrassed to say I had a partner at home that wasn’t female and, at the same time, I felt uncomfortable telling the staff that I was wearing a binder. So, in the end, I left.”

Trans and gender-diverse people often keep quiet about their identity, for fear of how groups will react.

It can feel dangerous to ‘out’ themselves (reveal they are LGBTQ+), particularly in a traditionally ‘macho’ sports environment.

“Why can’t we just go swimming?”

Not to be put off, Pat and Mack tried swimming but, doing so in a binder was incredibly difficult.

Pat said: “We bought these binders, but they were T-shirts and even that was really uncomfortable and so this is when we thought, well, why can’t we just go swimming?”

Mack added that some swimming pools won’t let you swim in a T-shirt which creates a further barrier for the trans community.

Sports environments/gyms can feel very binary, even for cis-gendered people. There’s often an unspoken rule about which sex does what and where.

Typically, you’ll find men dominating the weights room and women in the cardio and exercise classes.

It can be uncomfortable for a Cis-gendered woman entering the male-dominated weights room for example.

Or for a man taking part in something like an aerobics class. For trans and gender-diverse people it can feel totally inaccessible.

The gender-divide

Jay Worthington is a trans man who works with Mack and Pat at ELFT. A self-proclaimed non-swimmer, Jay recently attended his first session.

The social aspect particularly appealed to him. He described being able to, “relax a bit more” in activities involving other trans people.

He said: “It’s a feeling inside. It takes the pressure away. I relax a bit more.”

Although conversations don’t necessarily focus on being trans, Jay said: “[There is a] shared understanding. You’re on the same page and aren’t left feeling confused, left out or feeling awkward that you can’t say certain things.”

As a child, Jay played “all the sports”. However, things changed when the gender divide was introduced in P.E, where girls and boys are split up and practise different activities.

He had also started binding and couldn’t run anymore having passed out. “It stopped me doing all the sports, all at the same time, for multiple reasons,” he said.

As with many trans people, Jay was put off and felt excluded from sporting activities.

A keen dancer since childhood, Jay had a different experience within the dance/arts world. His teachers were, “very supportive”. Jay feels creative people are, “a lot more open-minded” than the sports world.

Communal changing rooms

Mack, Pat and Jay all agree that changing rooms are a barrier for trans and gender-diverse people, especially with swimming.

They all cite the need for more cubicles, not just for the LGBTQ+ community but to make everyone feel more comfortable. Many Cis-gendered people don’t feel comfortable changing in a more open-plan communal changing room.

Pat said: “Pre-transition, my barrier was going into the female toilets or female changing rooms because sometimes people would wonder if you should be in there.”

Mack described a negative experience he had that resulted in him not using a gym. He said the changing room “was communal apart from one cubicle.”

However, someone was using it so he couldn’t get changed.

LGBTQ+ Swimming session poster Rainbow Bedfordshire“I’m just standing there. I waited a few minutes but you’re in a male environment, standing there while men are getting changed. Which, in their books, is weird. You’re obviously a weirdo, you shouldn’t be there. So, I left because I couldn’t do anything.”

Jay hasn’t even attempted to use changing rooms outside of the LGBTQ+ swim programme.

He said the physical discomfort when binding and the fact people are going to see you are wearing a T-shirt, is a barrier. “A lot of pools don’t let you wear shirts. Everything’s just harder,” he said.

He also referred to the feeling of danger many trans people feel if their identity is discovered. “I don’t feel safe in a lot of places. I feel scared to go to a lot of places. I think that’s quite a universal experience, unfortunately. You hear stories.”

Making change

The Bedfordshire swim programme aims to change that. Mack said: “We are incredibly proud to be leading the way with this programme and hope it might encourage other areas to consider launching their own.

“Our message to anyone considering joining us is we are a welcoming, friendly bunch of like-minded people.

The swim sessions are a chance to get away from the pressures and expectations of the outside world, and to be free to be ourselves in a non-judgmental space.”

Safety and privacy are provided through a risk assessment and DBS checks completed for all team members. A lifeguard is on duty at all times and the team work closely with pool staff to maintain confidentiality.

Gendered, gender-neutral, communal and private changing spaces are available.

There is a plan to extend the sessions, so people have more time to change. Mack said: “That is a bit of an issue. If you swim in a binder, trying to get them off afterwards, they’re glued…”.

For more information including dates and times contact [email protected].

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