The Pastel Project Talk LGBTQ+ Activism, the Trans Community and Aims to Make Nottingham the UK's First Trans Sanctuary City

Words: Beth Green
Illustrations: Ilinca Sivoglo
Saturday 17 February 2024
reading time: min, words

The Pastel Project is a grassroots activism group seeking to establish Nottingham as the UK's first Trans Sanctuary City. With aims including to improve trans healthcare and improve LGBTQ+ education in schools, this project works towards solidarity and support for the trans community and making Nottingham a safe haven for all trans and gender non-conforming people...


The Pastel Project started when Sam (he/him), one of the founding members, approached a few other members of the LGBTQ+ community with the idea. Sam is no stranger to activism, currently working for Stonewall, and having been active in various groups around Nottingham. Emma (they/them), another of the founders spoke about Sam’s initial idea; “he wanted to create the first Trans sanctuary city, which was inspired by the sanctuary cities in the US for immigrants.” The thinking behind it is to build a safe space for marginalised groups, whether that be immigrants, or in this case trans and gender non-conforming people. “It would make Nottingham a place where trans people can feel safe and supported, to be exactly who they are.” 

Sam came to Yasmin (she/they), another founder, and a few other friends in the trans community with his idea. Making Nottingham a ‘sanctuary city’ was always a crucial part of plans. “For us, having that level of commitment from our councillors would outwardly say that this is a safe and welcoming place for trans people,” Yasmin shares. For the Pastel Project, this would be the first step to allow them to grow and do more things with greater ease. There could be funding potential, as well as further internal development if this was to gain enough traction. The Pastel Project are trailblazers right now, but they are hopeful that if they achieve sanctuary status, other cities will be inspired and follow suit. “We ultimately want Nottingham to be the best place to be transgender, gender nonconforming or non-binary.”  

How did this group grow into what it is now? “We definitely played the chain of, I know a guy,” Yasmin laughs. It’s no surprise that when you’re part of a strong community, you will have a lot of similar connections, which in this case, works highly in your favour. For them, they had access to a wide array of people, with many different skill sets, to help kickstart the Pastel Project. Alongside this, they have been very active on social media, sharing their cause and interacting with comments and messages regularly to get more people onboard. It’s clearly paying off. “What has been the most heartwarming for us, is the amount of people that have reached out and said they’d love to be involved with it – it's been super positive.”   

If you’ve kept in touch with the news and media in recent times, you’ll be aware of the appalling injustice the trans community is being subjected to. In a world that in many ways appears to be becoming more ‘woke’ by the day, it’s saddening to learn of the repeated harm that the community faces. Despite the progressive attitude in the Western world, Yasmin, who tells us they loves statistics, explains how they discovered that “the best time to be trans was around 10 years ago.” Whether it’s from the media enforcing propaganda, or the continuation of devastating hate crimes, the consensus of the public is shifting negatively. The figures don’t lie; in 2019 the support for trans people being allowed to change their sex on their birth certificate was 53%. Now it stands at thirty percent, a huge drop highlighting how important The Pastel Project is.

Both Emma and Yasmin spoke of how they’ve seen attitudes change in a way that affects them personally. “When I came out, nobody cared,” says Emma, who came out as non-binary around four years ago. “Now I get a lot more backlash. It’s really intrusive, they want to know why I’m doing this, and what’s in my pants.” Whilst the overall statistics of hate crimes are going down, hate crimes with a motivating factor of transgender identity have failed to. “There’s a lot of misinformation from people who are very anti-trans,” which in turn leads to a societal distrust of trans people. The real question here is are we really becoming a more tolerant and accepting society, or is the target being shifted?

It’s clear, now, more than ever, there is a need for joy, the trans community deserve to feel and know that they can be happy. For Yasmin, making Nottingham a trans sanctuary city “isn’t a token gesture, because it means so much to the people who have seen the tides turn.” All the hate can cloud the fact that there is still a lot of love and beauty out there, which is what the Pastel Project is aiming to showcase.

Why Nottingham? Yasmin lets the numbers do the talking. In the 2021 census, 9.45% of people in Nottingham City Local Authority identified as a gender different to their sex assigned at birth. To compare that across all the local authority districts in the UK, “we’re the sixteenth most gender diverse, and the seventh outside of London… That’s more than Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.” It’s a huge proportion of people which, without a dedicated area, may feel unseen. “We end up looking at other cities, such as Manchester, that have a huge level of support. There’s no reason why Nottingham couldn’t replicate some of those positives. We have the numbers, so why doesn’t anybody say Nottingham is a fantastic city to be queer? Manchester champions their gay village, it’s a part of their identity.” Currently there is no dedicated queer space in Nottingham, in fact most of the queer venues that once existed have now gone. 

There is no question that when Nottingham Pride is happening, there is that sense of community, love, and belonging. However, it is often combined with bitterness knowing that once Monday comes around, everything stops, there is no longer a safe space and you’re left feeling alone once more. Emma’s take is clear, “being proud of your identity isn’t always rainbows and celebrations, it’s also the mundane everyday life.” 

The Pastel Project has written a letter to local councillors asking for a call to action to put measures in place that will create a more inclusive city. The two of them were unable to share all the details, but did disclose that they’ve had a lot of positive responses already, with a plan to set up meetings and discuss the points laid out. “It’s really exciting to know that there are already people who have been waiting for somebody to bring this,” says Emma. “It’s given us a lot of confidence.”

For now, they are putting their energy into a series of focus groups. They previously put an open call out on social media for people to register their interest in attending and be able to share what their most pressing concerns are. Yasmin talks about the creation of the letter, “it was made in Sam’s flat, between the founders, but we need to know what is most important to the wider community. That’s so when we sit down in the council, we know where the red lines are. We want people to be very open and honest, whether that is them disagreeing with certain points, despite signing the overall petition.” They both emphasise how grateful they are for everyone's interactions with everything they’re doing, though are open to any further help. Whether that be from testimonials, likes and shares or attending their focus groups - all is welcome.

Click here to sign The Pastel Project petition or to get involved in their focus groups please click here


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