TAGS (Trans and Gender non-conforming Swimming group) meet weekly at Glass Mill leisure centre in Lewisham. HuffPost UK joined the class and found out how it is changing people’s lives.
There’s an oasis in south-east London. It happens once a week.
A group of trans and non-gender conforming people meet here to swim, relax and feel free.
It is a safe space where there is no judgement. It has changed the lives of some of its members, for whom leaving the house can be difficult.
The simple act of swimming is fraught with problems for some trans people. Changing facilities and social stigma make it hard for them to be accepted in public spaces.
“You could be 6ft 2 and trans and still look like you’re in your previous gender role,” Roberta Francis, founder of TAGS, told HuffPost UK.
“I mean you can imagine if someone is on their trans journey and they don’t always look, conform to the image of what a person should look like,” Francis continued.
While Megan Faulkner, the secretary of TAGS, said it’s other people’s reactions to trans swimmers which is problematic.
“There are people here who haven’t been swimming for 10 years, who have felt so uncomfortable in their body and really what happens is people’s reactions. Other people’s reactions, to them using changing facilities. Swimming with them,” Faulkner said.
The grassroots group, which has been running for two years, was set up to support trans people in the local community.
Francis stressed the need for an inclusive activity.
“People they say to me, ‘oh why a swimming group?’ and I say but a swimming group, it’s a place where you can go to relax and swim and socialise. Trans people have been pushed into underground spaces for years. Into clubs where it is so easy to get access to drugs and alcohol. This is a different type of thing,” Francis said.
But the space for trans swimmers doesn’t just provide a place for trans people to do exercise - it has also helped many of its members find friends.
Faulkner, who met her fiance at the group, says it has given her the courage to live a full life.
“It has very much changed my life, everything is better, I am living the life I deserve,” Faulkner said.
Stephenie Robinson, who has been a member of the group since the beginning, is keen for it to be a launchpad for more trans-inclusive activities.
“I actually love it because you just don’t feel you’re being got at by anybody and you’re just accepted by everybody. It is a safe space to do sports. The world is your oyster but you need a safe space to do it,” Robinson said.
“It is like an oasis for many of us,” Robinson added.
Transphobia is rife across the UK. In 2015 a freedom of information request by the Independent revealed 26 of the UK’s 45 police forces, transphobic hate crime reports rose from 215 in 2011 to 582 in 2015.
Sexual assaults, other kinds of violence, threatening behaviour and harassment were all part of a 170 per cent rise in crime reports among trans people.
But the true number of transphobic incidents is much higher, Robinson, who works with police forces to tackle transphobic hate crime, said.
Many people are scared of going to the police for fear of not being taken seriously, Robinson added.
The reported numbers ring true to Francis, who told HuffPost UK she faced a transphobic incident just a week prior.
“On [the bus] on the way to the pool somebody referred to me in the wrong gender. This is London, this is one of the biggest places, most multicultural places in the world. And you come on the way on the bus and someone misgenders me.”
Francis, concluding, said the trans community were not taken seriously as a community for many years so turning it around to create a safe space has been an incredible achievement, but there is still work to be done.
TAGS is currently working with Sport England to expand to other locations across the UK. It hopes every trans person can have access to safe spaces to do sport.
To find out more about TAGS swimming group, or to join a session visit click here. The group also runs sessions in Birmingham and north London.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.