Queer Service Design
This is a talk I gave during the Service Design fringe of the London Design Festival on Queer Service Design. It is very personal and I read it, unlike my usual ad-hoc on the spot presentations and opinion, almost word for word.
Any *are additional comments to add context or updates and please be aware, there are some expletives in here.
This is my address transcript.
I think they are.
So what does your boyfriend do?
That will be exciting, a new husband!
What’s his job?
Does he live with you?
I bet you he never does the dishes.
Every day, I meet new people who are in our client portfolio. I believe in bringing myself to work, as a designer I find it difficult to separate much of who I am with how I think about the world, particularly as I run a company built on mission and values.
I try to talk about my life and share the details around me being a keen cyclist, or the fact I play football on the weekend, it helps break down barriers, removes the quasi-consultant bullshit and helps me connect more deeply with the person I’m working with.
But there’s always a presumption.
That I’m straight and in a heterosexual relationship.
For a long time, I never came out to clients.
I didn’t have the guts to correct them.
What does he do?
Oh, they are a designer too.
Quick caveat: I’ve since learned gender is a whole other story but I know Lou is going to talk about that later.
(* Lou is another speaker at the event who talks about gender pronouns and names)
My old closeted self-came out in force, thinking that if they knew I was queer, and they maybe had an issue with it, I’d lose the job, or they might not be able to ‘relate to me’ or think it was maybe ‘exotic’ but perhaps not ‘normal’.
As a child of the 80s and thanks to section 28 I never really received training or information about LGTBQIA spectrums, and with dial-up internet to boot, the access to queer spaces and content, even in a large city, were slim to none.
For those who don’t know, Section 28 stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. It was only abolished in the whole of the UK in 2003 by section 122 of the Local Government Act 2003.
My own personal journey is closeted until my early 20s. I used to follow people around my school I fancied, except it wasn’t always boys, it was girls too.
I wouldn’t dare tell anyone. In fact, I over blushed once at a game of truth or dare when asked which girl I thought was the hottest in school and I was teased by the girls that I was hiding something, maybe I was gay.
I was totally and utterly mortified.
I eventually came out to close friends after meeting someone through work aged 18. My first gay encounter drove me to recognize that the idea I could squash my feelings inside my stomach and somehow they’d go away was nonsense.
Back to clients, I see them every day.
I had this ‘professional’ veneer. Part a youthful thing when you’re pretending to be a grown-up. I started Snook at the age of 22/23 so we were learning on the job (don’t tell our early clients that, I think most of them are happy!)
But this professional veneer kept me from being my true self. Squashed into weird pencil skirts and kitten heels with a suit jacket, using business words I didn’t really understand, pretending we had a bigger team than we actually had. Oh yeah, and being straight. Oh so very straight.
Until one day, 18 months ago, my partner and I were homophobically attacked on a train going to Alloa. A small town in the center of Scotland.
It had taken me so long until I met them to feel totally comfortable in public. To know it was ok to hold their hand and not worry anyone would look and whisper to their friend. To kiss without quickly checking over my shoulder. What they brought to me was a new sense of freedom to be myself in public, not hidden away behind closed doors.
Imagine, finally feeling this full freedom, kissing my partner on a train with my head on their shoulders, when I suddenly notice the loud and still drunk hen party from the evening before begin to go quiet.
We’ve been spotted.
This is my worst fear of being noticed in public.
I hear the words lesbian, disgusting, look at them, that’s minging (a delightful Scottish phrase), would you look at them, oh that’s disgusting repeated over and over. There is one ringleader and she’s pushing them all on to look at us.
Her voice gets louder and she starts to shout, I look over and she’s terrifying, rising out of her seat. She starts asking them to get all their phones out and take pictures.
By this point I’m looking straight forward, my hand is sweaty holding my partner’s hand and I’m starting to cry. It feels like a schoolyard and everything I was afraid of in my early years about coming out was true.
I was being made to feel like a pinprick, that I was weird, like a lesser human being. That I was disgusting, and I’m thinking, come on Sarah, you’re 30 fucking years old.
I couldn’t take it anymore, I got up, grabbed my things and left for the next carriage. My partner followed and had the courage to say to the woman, ‘I hope you’re proud of yourself’, to which she replied, ‘I’m proud of who we are.’
After moving to another carriage, and trying to find the train manager and contact Scotrail — who in the moment wasn’t ready to respond to this kind of situation or have the correct crisis information online, I had a panic attack. I’d never had one before.
Importantly, and in the eyes of the law, during the ordeal I felt threatened, I didn’t know if this was a crime or not, but I did feel threatened by the potential for it to get worse which my partner also testified to.
Just in case you didn’t know, according to the police definition, a hate crime is any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hostility or prejudice toward someone’s actual or perceived race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or transgender identity. It, therefore, includes crimes that are motivated by homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.
In a criminal trial involving a potential homophobic, biphobic or transphobic hate crime, the court first decides if the accused person is guilty of a criminal offence, such as assault. Then it must ask whether the accused person’s actions demonstrated or were motivated by hostility towards someone’s sexual orientation or transgender identity. If so, the court must increase the sentence that person receives above what it would have been if it was not a hate crime. Courts do this by applying section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. For verbal abuse, we go to section 4 of the Public Order Act of 1986. And there are some other laws in-between.
In short — under the eyes of a law, just don’t be an asshole.
I’ll fast forward, but we reported it that evening, after deciding it was the right thing to do. We gave statements in Edinburgh and were generally treated brilliantly by the British Transport Police who listened, checked we were ok and took it very seriously. They confirmed they believed it to be a crime.
It hit BBC headlines in Scotland, and the woman handed herself in, not before two of her ‘associates’ online sent me a screen grab of her mocking us on Facebook. Bingo, evidence and a backup to our statements.
People really need to check their privacy statements!
10 months later we faced her in court, both giving statements, which we were duly underprepared for.
There’s a whole other talk on the criminal justice system and supporting victims with this process but hey, we’ve got a short amount of time tonight.
It wasn’t easy, we had to relive it and go through her defence lawyer accusations attempting to portray us as activists who set out on a mission to cause a fuss and make headlines, by undertaking lewd behaviour in public that would offend children. Apparently, the group felt the need to call it out — somewhat aggressively. As I sat on the stand, I thought why not just have a quiet word with us than brand us disgusting queers.
Needless to say, we both shed lots of tears that day, it was almost like going through the same process yet with more people watching and the local paper reporting it word for word.
But it was worth it, she was found guilty and handed a fine. If I’m honest neither of us was focused on her being found guilty, we just wanted her to hear what it felt like to be a victim of hate crime.
The reason I’m telling this story and I feel honoured that Jenni asked me to share it with you tonight, is because, at the time of it happening, I wrote a blog post about it. I don’t really get the chance to write much these days with workloads and generally wanting to be far away from a computer as possible at the weekend. But, I knew I just couldn’t let this go.
When I’d written it, I re-read and re-read it, anxious as to whether I should put it out or not. It wasn’t that I thought my opinion was wrong, or that I would come across as angry but the thing that crossed my mind was that my clients are going to see this if I put this on twitter to my professional world and they will see this personal side of me. I’ve never really put myself out there to stand up for LGBTQIA rights, but somehow this experience jolted me into wanting to express what it feels like, in the hope others could identify with it and stand with us.
What I didn’t realise was it would be a mass coming out, for the third time in my life. After posting it around 11.30 in the evening, I woke up to about 20 or 30 RTs and messages. People reaching out from my network. ‘You must read this today’, ‘If you want to know what it’s like to be victimised read this’, ‘A wonderful read reminding us that we need to stand up for equal rights’.
It picked up pace and I started receiving messages from around the globe. People I’d met through workshops, teaching, consultancy saying they’d struggled to come out and their parents had disowned them, or their child was transgender and they hold parties for them and all the trans kids in their community so they’ve got somewhere safe to stay, someone who hadn’t stuck up for their friend who was Jewish and got bullied, others who had bullied themselves and told me how much they had regretted it.
CEOs of gay charities, police departments, activist groups, Stonewall, Terrence Higgins, pride organisers all sharing it and reaching out to support.
It kept going for a few weeks. I was invited onto several different boards and panels to talk to organisations from train companies to the police.
*I’m still interested in helping panels or boards or companies that want to consider issues related to this experience, I said no at the time as I was overwhelmed but please get in touch.
They wanted to know, from my perspective, how they could redesign elements of their services to cope better in these situations and the provision of the information they had.
What it led to was the representatives from these institutions asking if I could join their panels to diversify them and provide input on what they are designing and how.
I’ve since found out the blog has been used by police in training, used to instigate conferences on LGBTQIA police issues (and as a good case study) and I still get emails from time to time saying people had read it and how affected they’d felt from all communities. Next year, I’m apparently featuring in some film.
Ultimately, I think this mass public coming out has led me to build more confidence and ultimately more closeness with my clients.
Some, who I had worked with for a while started asking me how my partner and I were using their name, when we were getting married, how we met, they’d read the blog and knew.
It was like, opening up this side of me allowed me to relax with people. I had somehow, unknowingly over the years even after being, what I’d call ‘fairly out’, built up a shield, and it is unbelievably tiring to have this defensive process running alongside your normal thought process when trying to perform at your best.
You see, for me, identifying as queer is being part of a minority, a counter-culture that still is not accepted as the ‘norm’.
LGBTQ relationships are still illegal in 74 countries around the world, there has been an 80% increase in attacks against LGBTQ people in the last 4 years with 1 in 5 people verbally or physically attacked due to their sexual orientation, 8 states in the U.S restrict teachers and staff from talking about LGBTQ issues at school, but let’s not even get started on the United States and the Trump administration.
We are still a minority and we have to continue to fight for what is right — equality.
I consider it a privilege to be part of this community and express myself among my friends both from the LGBTQIA family and beyond to pure love.
The ask to be involved on service panels as a ‘Queer designer’ as a result of what happened did strike some interesting questions for me.
Does being gay make me a better designer or researcher?
No, not really. I can tell you what a service should feel like from the perspective of someone who is queer — but I could equally ask another minority from their perspective how they feel about a service and design it accordingly to meet their needs and human rights to the best of my ability.
Perhaps it does give me another vantage point and helps me to be more compassionate to understand minority positions and know not everything has to be a ‘certain way’.
It might, and I say might very carefully here help me to ask questions around similar areas where I understand the privileged (where an individual behaviour and identity matches the dominant culture of a geography or tribe) may not. But I’m still not 100% sure about that.
For me, being gay means I check my privileges, and I recognise them. I know what I don’t have or haven’t had from our LGBTQIA family in the past. Legal marriage, freedom to be with the person I love, the feeling of safety to be affectionate in public. We’re still fighting today across the world for these rights.
Tonight I’m looking forward to the discussion to stimulate and perhaps surface some of what I do believe on this topic. I definitely straddle two worlds now of hidden me and one who feels more confident now to speak out, forgive me tonight as I answer questions from both these perspectives.
Writing this tonight has been a labour of love and certainly, I’m grateful that you’ve all listened to such a personal story.
To finish I just wanted to say to 15 year old Sarah who would never believe this day would come. Holy fuck, you just came out on stage for the 4th time in front of your peers and look, it’s all OK.