An interview with Chris Timmins, president of GU Red Alert.
In the UK, about one in 10 young people with periods do not have access to menstrual products due to economic or social barriers. This issue is known as “period poverty”, and it creates significant challenges in the everyday lives of menstruators. Plan International has estimated that nearly 50% of young people who menstruate have missed a whole day of school because of their period, suggesting that an alarming number of university and college students are also having to miss important classes that the wealthier of those menstruating can still attend. In response to this injustice, an activist group was formed in 2015 at Glasgow University called Red Alert. A quick scroll through their Instagram feed (@guredalert) reveals exactly what their society is about; an end to period poverty, open conversations about periods, and making information about menstruation accessible. Thanks to their work, free menstrual products have been made available across campus as well as in the GUU and QMU – but their activism isn’t limited to within the University. Each year, they support homelessness charity Simon Community by fundraising and donating wash bags filled with menstrual products. In order to gain a full insight into Red Alert’s work, I spoke to their current president Chris Timmins about what it means to be an activist.
The Glasgow Guardian: To start, can you explain what activist work you partake in as part of Red Alert?
Chris Timmins: Red Alert is an activist group centred around period poverty. We campaign for the eradication of period poverty as well as a normalisation of menstruation and raising awareness of the fact that not everyone who menstruates is a woman. Our main activist event is our washbag appeal, which happens at the end of first semester. We fundraise and collect washbags full of menstrual products for people who access the charity Simon Community. Basically, it’s about not treating periods as this taboo, dirty little secret – menstruation is a normal part of life. We need to discuss it and realise that period poverty affects people so much more frequently than we realise! We also run events to raise funds throughout the year such as zine-making and quiz nights.
GG: I love Red Alert’s approach, it’s great to see such progressive activism being undertaken by students on and off-campus. You’re obviously committed to having discussions about and confronting issues which have been in the past, and unfortunately often still are, dismissed as taboo. Why, in particular, is period poverty and fully normalising menstruation important to you?
CT: I am a genderqueer person (he/him) who still gets periods, so I’m often left out of conversations surrounding menstruation. This is so frustrating, especially as the language is so easy to change. For example, addressing “menstruators” or “people who have periods” instead of just saying “women”. Before I came to uni, I met Monica Lennon MSP, who is leading the charge on legislation for free and equal access to period products in the Scottish parliament. I was really inspired by her work, as well as the activism of Eleanor Wilson, who founded Red Alert and has done a lot of work within the medical community regarding period poverty. I knew I had to get involved, it just feels like basic decency, to be honest. Everyone should have access to the things and care that they need – especially period products. Periods as a whole can be a bit traumatic and messy and we don’t talk about them enough or in a diverse way – that needs to change.
GG: It’s totally unacceptable that anyone who experiences periods should be left out of important discussions due to exclusive language. When I reflect on the media about periods I’ve consumed from a young age, it’s shameful that so many conversations – even those with the aim of normalising menstruating – only address the struggle of cis women. It’s really refreshing that groups like Red Alert are combating the spread of misinformation and the exclusionary language we encounter far too often. Everyday activism is crucial, so in what ways can we work to effectively eradicate this language and attitudes, should it crop up in class or more widely on campus?
CT: Definitely! It’s very much seen as an issue which affects women only, and period products are often very feminine, pink, and flowery. This isn’t bad but definitely does alienate a lot of people. Also, it’s not even like all cis women menstruate – so many cis women don’t experience periods due to health or age reasons and it shouldn’t be a defining factor of womanhood! In terms of everyday activism, I would say that it’s really important to affirm that bodies/bodily functions don’t define our identities. Using inclusive language when talking about periods is very important. It doesn’t exclude anyone, it just makes more people feel included. Talking about periods directly – calling them periods or menstruation – instead of ridiculous euphemisms like “time of the month” or “Aunt Flow” goes a long way to demystify periods. It recognises them as a natural bodily function that many people experience instead of a taboo secret. I would also encourage people to say “menstrual products” or just call them pads, tampons or cups instead of “hygiene products”. This really helps as again, it frames periods as a bodily function, instead of something dirty or unspeakable!
GG: What does this academic year hold for Red Alert? With typical campus life being disrupted, how can students get involved with Red Alert in the coming semester?
CT: We’re still working out all of the details of what we are going to be doing this year, but you’ll be able to find us at the Freshers’ Fair and talk with us about our activism. We have a mailing list, and you can take part in our washbag appeal at the end of first semester. Also, this year we’re looking to host some online events, including film screenings and open mic nights.
GG: That sounds amazing! Last year, your washbag appeal was a huge success, raising £400 for Simon Community. Have you collaborated with any other charities or activist organisations, and is this something you’re hoping to do in the future?
CT: Yeah, it was really great and so exciting to raise so much! We’ve worked with Amnesty International in the past and we are definitely excited to work with more societies this year, especially Coppafeel, Students for Choice, and the new Sexual and Reproductive Health Society as our goals closely align. Working with other societies is so lovely, it’s great to share ideas!
GG: We are so lucky at GU to have such a variety of activist societies to get involved with. It’s such a pleasure to be surrounded by so many passionate people! However, it goes without saying that being an activist isn’t always easy. What would you say your biggest challenge is?
CT: Activism definitely isn’t the easiest. It can be so frustrating and tiring at times. My biggest issue is definitely activism burnout – there are only so many hours in a day and you must make sure that you make enough time to look after yourself. In the past, I have definitely been guilty of trying to do everything myself and then getting overworked so quickly. It’s important to take breaks when you need to and know that it’s okay to rely on and work with others too.
GG: I think those wise words could apply to everyone – from budding activists to well-established ones. Especially at the moment, as we try to navigate a world so different from the one we knew in March. I think your answer will come as a comfort to many, including myself. Sometimes you have to take a step back to learn and gather your thoughts before you can throw yourself wholeheartedly back into activism. One last question – could you recommend something to watch, something to listen to, and something to read as an introduction to ending the stigma around menstruation and period poverty?
CT: Dazed’s short film on period poverty is a really good introduction, also Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake. It’s about poverty as a whole but was the first major piece of media to address period poverty. The YIKES podcast featuring activist Kenny Ethan Jones is also good to listen to with regards to trans periods and activism. For reading, Teen Vogue has an excellent article on the impact period poverty has on trans and gender non-conforming people, and another on the relationship between period poverty and homelessness.
After talking to Chris, I felt inspired. I have hope that having collectively experienced such a turbulent year so far and despite being away from uni for so long, students will return to campus even more eager to fight injustice at both a local and worldwide level. As well as Red Alert, GU is home to so many intersectional activist societies, if the topics discussed in this interview interest you, I would urge you to get involved.