The Clare Project started in 2000 and the first meeting took place in October at the Shadi Danin clinic on New Church Road, Hove. Shadi Danin, who is a specialist in treatments for skin and hair, had a number of trans people going to her clinic and suggested they should meet up, get to know each other and offer mutual support. She offered a room at her salon for the first meetings of the new group.
One of the founder members was the Reverend Christina Beardsley, who was courageously going through gender transition while remaining an ordained minister of the Church of England. Here are her recollections of those early days.
In June 2000 I moved from Hampshire to live in Portslade and begin work as a hospital chaplain in Shoreham. I had been attending the Shadi Danin Clinic (mainly for hairdressing) in Hove for a number of years, and when I told Shadi that I would be moving into the area with a view to transitioning, she said that I must start a support group for local trans people, several of whom also attended the clinic.
That June Shadi introduced me to another of her clients, Melanie Cherriman, hoping that the two of us would collaborate in setting up such a support group. Michael, a psychotherapist, who used the clinic's gym, was interested in offering therapy, should the project get off the ground and it did, slowly, to begin with as we had hoped to hold our first meeting in August but the launch had to be delayed to October when the momentum began to gather.
August would have been appropriate because we had chosen the name the Clare Project after St Clare of Assisi, and Clare's feast day falls on August 11th, but we weren't ready then as we hadn't had time to publicise the project. Why St Clare? I'd been reading about some Franciscans in the US who were involved in outreach work among transgender Latinos - some of the most vulnerable trans people as we know - and discovered that these trans women had the image of St Clare in their dwelling and that she appeared to be their patron saint. That’s where the name came from.
St Clare definitely pushed the boundaries of gender in her day. She wanted to belong to St Francis's band of brothers, and although she and her female companions had to accept segregation from the men, it was Clare, far more than his male companions, who promoted and maintained his ideals after his death. Clare also means light and we were trying to shed light on our own situation.
There was tremendous synergy at the start of the project. The Gender Trust was based in Brighton then and publicised the project. More than one local LGBT organisation was also surprisingly supportive and Mel, who was treasurer, was able to secure funding from local sources, so that we soon had a therapy fund to assist those who needed this kind of support but were unable to afford it.
I was the group's Convenor and our first year ended with members taking part in the 2001 Brighton Pride procession in a double decker bus and we also had a stall in the park, but this was also an ending for me. My transition had proved problematic to the church authorities which had complicated my position at work so I was already looking for other work and moved to London in late August. I still attended Clare Project events for a while after that before life and work took over. It's wonderful to know that the Project Mel and I co-founded 15 years ago has not only continued but has become such a successful and valuable resource to the trans community in Brighton & Hove.
After a while the group grew and moved to Hove Town Hall for its monthly meetings. Meanwhile, at the Gender Trust, Rosemary, the Clare Project administrator, was talking to trans people from all over the country by phone and also face to face in the charity’s Brighton office, while psychotherapy student Lynne Lennox, in her final year of study and specialising in gender dysphoria, was seeing people introduced to her through the Gender Trust office.
In 2005 Rosemary and Lynne discussed setting up a regular drop-in space and were introduced to the Reverend Cynthia Park, who at that time was Minister at Dorset Gardens Methodist Church. She was immediately interested in the idea of a trans drop-in for Brighton and Hove and offered a weekly room – free of charge – just for a few weeks to see if people really wanted something like this. The drop-in was an immediate success and has continued to open weekly since September 2005, welcoming hundreds of people through its doors.
Cynthia sent the following message on the occasion of the Clare Project’s 15th anniversary in October 2015, and the drop-in’s 10th anniversary.
I send my very very best wishes. I am so proud of all the Clare Project has done - and the promise it holds for the future. So many people have found strength and hope from your encouragement and love and many types of practical support. I can even imagine that many lives have been saved because of all you do. For some the situation they are in has brought them such despair, they feel there is no way out. But you show them the way, walking with them with love and kindness, lifting their hearts and encouraging them into a life richer and more fulfilling than they ever thought possible. So congratulations to the Clare Project! And may your next 15 years bring just as much success.
The support of Dorset Gardens Church has been crucial to the existence and success of the drop-in, but so has the involvement of the Clare Project. When setting up the new drop-in, the Clare Project was approached and asked if they were prepared to take the project under their wing, making use of their constitution and their bank account to provide stability and accountability. Since then the drop-in has become the major activity of the Clare Project.
After a few years Lynne Lennox moved to Bournemouth with her family and the drop-in welcomed Virginia Cole as its resident psychotherapist. Since then many people have benefited from the Virginia's work, and the Clare Project is grateful to Dorset Gardens Methodist Church for continuing to support this vital psychotherapy project. When Cynthia Park retired as the church’s minister, Robin Selmes, the new minister, continued the great support the church provides and is a valued member of the committee which runs the Clare Project.
Rosemary is the Clare Project drop-in facilitator, and another important member of the team is Beth, a church member who turns up each week to run the reception desk and welcome people to the drop-in. Beth is also the Clare Project treasurer. In 2015 the Clare Project worked towards becoming a CIO (Charitable Incorporated Organisation) which will move the organisation forward as a real voice for the trans community of Brighton and Hove.