Wednesday, August 6, 2014

PIPPA's STORY

Name: Pippa
Years in Girl Scouting: 19 years
Roles in Girl Scouting: girl member; adult member; involvement on regional, national, global levels
Location: UK

I self-identify as queer. I find it difficult to separate out my gender identity and my sexual orientation as I believe they are interlinked and relational. Queer is the word I feel like I can claim to mean what I want it to. I don't believe in any binary system and other labels would just be too restrictive in their accepted definitions.

 

I have been a member of Girlguiding since I was 5 years old, making that nearly 19 years in total now. In the UK you move through the sections of Rainbow, Brownie, Guide and Senior Section, the last of which I will remain a member of until my 26th birthday. I have been volunteering to help run sessions for younger members since I was 12 and I organised games and activities for the Rainbows and Brownies who met in the same church hall. Since I was 14, I've enjoyed the international scope of Guiding and Scouting and I'm proud to say it has taken me on travels across four continents and enabled me to see the diversity of the world around me.
I've taken on roles at the regional and national levels, as well as with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. A lot of my roles and activities have focused on getting young peoples' views heard in decision making.


My most pivotal relationship would have to be the one with my wife -- and ironically Guiding was more of a hindrance than a help in this case! Come the end of my bachelor’s degree, I was volunteering the majority of weekends and took on a full time internship for three months in our Regional Girlguiding Office.  It's safe to say that summer I lived and breathed Girlguiding; I guess it's perhaps the closest thing I could have done in the UK to a US Girl Scout summer camp, where it fills almost every moment of every day. In September, I literally went straight from the office to my university. Little did I know it at the time but my future partner, an American, and I were paired up in one of our first university class sessions to interview each other and subsequently do introductions to the rest of the class. Mango will forever have to be my favourite food, as it was the first thing that came to my mind during my interview.

Apparently after the session she tried to catch up with me, but I was oblivious as I hurried off to the sports fair to sign up for the ladies rugby team (a decision I did regret later in the year). Between Guiding and the fellowship that was paying for my studies, I had very little time to socialise with my course mates until May of the following year at the end of the rugby season.

In November of my MA year, a friend I had known for just a couple of months (not from uni) killed himself. He was trans and bisexual and we had met at a leadership course for LGBT young people. He was fiercely intelligent, studying for a doctorate in chemistry at Cambridge, and should have had a bright future ahead. It hit me hard. I should have known then that I was not relying on the right people for friendship and support. It wasn't until I mentioned the loss of my friend in a seminar that anybody asked if I was ok. Only one particular person did. I began talking to her more, but it was a few more months until she grew so impatient with me that she asked me out for a drink and I finally took a hint.

We had dinner as a group of course mates, drank a lot of wine and I walked her home. We talked until sunrise and I think it's safe to say that we've been almost inseparable ever since. In the little over two years of our relationship so far, we've negotiated a transatlantic relationship, tried to understand the US and UK visa systems, lived in the US, brought our dog to live with us in the UK, held a civil partnership ceremony and are currently planning a wedding in the US next year. I think the lesson from this for me has to be one that is a quote from [founder of the Scout Movement] Baden Powell: "Look wide. And when you are looking wide, look wider still!"

Restricting our view to just one thing, to one area, even when that thing is Girlguiding or Girl Scouting itself, will mean we miss things and that we don't embrace the full diversity of the world around us. In my case, it was nearly missing out on meeting the single most positive influence in my life.

Girlguiding did transform me. I have always been told I was a quiet, shy child, and Girlguiding was the key influence that turned me from that to the leader I am today. At the age of 13, I dropped out of school to be home educated after becoming suicidal due to bullying. I swapped the formal curricula of school for the non-formal frameworks of Girlguiding.

This wasn't an overnight transformation, but being a young leader with younger girls helped to build up my confidence. I started going to a Senior Section group, too, and discovered international opportunities. Being presented with an award for commitment to youth participation at one of the large scale events I organised was one of the proudest moments of my Girlguiding career. (My other proudest moment includes speaking at the United Nations). Without Girlguiding, I do not know where I would be or what may have happened in my life. But I do know I wouldn't be here: planning my future with my incredible wife, preparing to embark on a PhD studying museums, hoping to bring education outside of schools (Guiding/Scouting, museums, arts and heritage) to more people.

I have spent many an hour contemplating how I can rectify my gender identity with my membership in a movement which (at least at the UK level) seemingly reinforces a binary of gender identities. How can I honestly be part of something which at its core says, “We are “only for girls”? It's a largely linguistic internal argument -- only sometimes do I come across the situation where I feel like I don't fit in the same gender category as those around me in a Girlguiding situation. And that's because there's still a fair amount of homophobia about.

I feel like an outsider as people freely speak about boyfriends and husbands helping with events or preparations for activities. When I talk about my girlfriend/partner/wife, some (usually older) fellow volunteers back away from me slowly, as though my queerness is somehow contagious. I've seen horrified looks, I've had people refuse to sit near me for meals.

I am particularly excited that Girlguiding is taking promotional activities to “pride” events this summer. For years there's been this collective fear hanging over the organisation that somehow, by admitting that some members are LGBTQI etc, that we all are. It's the Victorian notion that single sex institutions somehow create homosexuality. Several of my friends will be donning their uniforms and walking in parades this summer, and it's about time, too!

My dream is that we will one day have a society with true gender equality, where the binary is no longer hegemonic, and the notion of GIRL Guides and GIRL Scouts will no longer seem necessary.
I know, particularly as a teenager, that I needed a space where I wasn't required to behave “like a girl should,” and so I value what Girlguiding creates for girls, young women and especially queer young people who are still exploring where they belong. I just hope that one day soon we can make ourselves redundant.