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'It was difficult to get people to take part... but this is important': Transgender exhibition launches at Islington Museum

PUBLISHED: 15:07 15 February 2016 | UPDATED: 15:05 16 February 2016

Surat-Shaan Knan was one of 17 transgender and gender nonconformists to share their stories in the Islington Museum exhibition. Picture: Christa Holka

Surat-Shaan Knan was one of 17 transgender and gender nonconformists to share their stories in the Islington Museum exhibition. Picture: Christa Holka

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Islington is hosting the UK's first exhibition on transgender people of faith. Surat-Shaan Knan told James Morris why he chose our borough to host the show - and how he got his subjects to share their stories

The exhibition's picture of The Rev Sharon 'Shanon' Ferguson. Picture: Christa HolkaThe exhibition's picture of The Rev Sharon 'Shanon' Ferguson. Picture: Christa Holka

At the front of Islington Museum, 17 portraits hang defiantly on the walls of an exhibition suite.

They are defiant because each one features a transgender person, or gender nonconformist, telling their stories and tackling taboos within religious faiths.

“It’s so important that we fight this fight together,” says Surat-Shaan Knan.

He is the project manager of this exhibition, titled Twlight People, which will run in the St John Street museum until March 5.

Surat-Shaan, who features in one of the portraits himself, told the Gazette he had struggled to find his “authentic self” until he embraced his non-binary gender identity – not exclusively masculine or feminine, although he uses male pronouns.

Between 2012-2014, he was the brains behind the Liberal Judaism charity’s Rainbow Jews exhibition. This focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) history within the Jewish faith.

The exhibition's picture of The Rev Christina Beardsley. Picture: Christa HolkaThe exhibition's picture of The Rev Christina Beardsley. Picture: Christa Holka

Surat-Shaan came out as non-binary during this time.

But the only problem was, he found there were few other transgender voices.

It sent Surat-Shaan on a quest to find these people and tell their stories.

But unlike Rainbow Jews, Twilight People doesn’t just incorporate Jewish voices - but Muslims, Christians and Pagans as well.

“We all need to be more aware of each other,” Surat-Shaan says.

“Tolerance of non-conformity is something that varies between communities and this needs to be examined.

The exhibition's picture of trans activist Sabah. Picture: Christa HolkaThe exhibition's picture of trans activist Sabah. Picture: Christa Holka

“Many people of faith said Rainbow Jews was an amazing project so for Twilight People, I wanted to explore further faiths.”

Given the taboos, he admits it was difficult to persuade people to take part.

“We managed to draw people in for the exhibition from existing networks. It wasn’t easy as there is still a stigma attached to being transgender.

“Some people didn’t want to speak as it would put them at risk in their communities, or families.

“Also, not everyone was ready to go on a gigantic picture and share their intimate history!”

Twilight People, which also features artefacts and voice recordings, launched at the start of the month - and moved some of its guests to tears.

Cllr Osh Gantly speaks at the exhibition launch in Islington Museum. Picture: Em FitzgeraldCllr Osh Gantly speaks at the exhibition launch in Islington Museum. Picture: Em Fitzgerald

But Surat Shaan, of Camden, wants to make sure the exhibition to reach out to a broad church.

“Everyone should see this. At the moment, you would say it attracts the LGBT crowd in particular, but people of all ages and backgrounds should come and absorb this exhibition.”

Once its stay in Islington Museum comes to and end, the exhibition is to go on a tour around the country.

Surat Shaan adds: “We are hoping that the project won’t ever finish - we want it to live on in archives as a legacy.

“It could grow and grow and that’s my vision.”

‘Islington has a strong record on diversity issues’

Twilight People will begin a tour of the country next month. So why did it launch in Islington Museum?

For project manager Surat-Shaan, it was simple: “The museum was the first to come forward.

“Islington is already strong on diversity and LGBT relations, right up to its council [Highbury East councillor Osh Gantly, pictured above, was the UK’s first openly transgender politician], so it was appropriate.”

As for transgender relations in the country, Surat-Shaan is optimistic.

He points to the recent transgender equality inquiry, led by MP Maria Miller, which called on full equality for trans people and emphasised the need to update existing legislation, provide better services in the NHS and improve confidence in the criminal justice system.

“It’s quite topical at the moment when there is a lot of debate about equality,” he said.

“We are lucky to have a government, unlike others abroad, that does care about diversity. It’s something that needs to be discussed as people are still suffering, despite improvements in the UK.”

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