Confessions Of A Public Schoolboy

It’s time like this, when a general election looms and the likelihood of another Tory government seems all too (but a little less) possible that I think back to my boarding school days. From 13 to 18 I was a boarder at a public (i.e. private) school in Kent. Amongst other things I played a bit of rugby and a lot of fives (a game with padded gloves and a ball that they invented at Eton, another public school), I studied far too much (I was better in the classroom than on the sports pitch, which ultimately counted for very little back then), I wrote a few articles for the school magazine (long before the time of blogs), I got involved in a lot of pillow fights (they were fun), I organised and participated in a naked calendar shoot (that was a highlight) and when it came to our mock general election I voted…Liberal Democrat.

You see, even then, when I was being groomed to become another privately educated dickhead I knew there was something wrong. Most of the teachers, nearly all male, just weren’t very good role models. They were the sort of men who expressed themselves through shouting and anger, who bullied the ‘stupid’ students in their classes and had red-faced tantrums. Some of them  tried to be our ‘mates’ as they vicariously lived their ‘laddish’ dreams through their teenage pupils. Others took their religion very seriously but skipped the whole empathy thing, some were doddery old men who didn’t have a clue while others were aspiring autocrats on a power trip (I think one was also done for possessing child porn and another for assaulting a student). But don’t get me wrong, I also had a load of epic teachers who helped me get to where I am today – admittedly lots of them were weird but weird in a nice, friendly way. Unfortunately, some of the less awesome ones even had loco parentus – they effectively became my legal parents in absence of my actual parents. You might recognise that loco also means mad in Spanish. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t help but feel that none of these men were the sort of man I wanted to become.

As for myself and the other boys at my school, we were a mixed bunch. We were bullies, racists, homophobes, sexists, classists and a whole raft of other prejudices. We were also friends, partners in crime, mates, pranksters and, sometimes, loving – although love for a public schoolboy is a difficult thing especially as we didn’t get taught emotions and were bullied for having them. Meanwhile, the explicit message of our schooling was that we would become life’s winners. If we could win on the sports pitch, in the classroom and even in the music room (although music was really for losers) then we would win at life. We would grow up to become those winning men who did manly things such as make lots of money, have dysfunctional relationships, despise chavs and, of course, vote Conservative. During my school’s mock election three boys were selected to represent the Tory, Lib Dem and Labour party leaders. There was a bit of campaigning and, naturally, the Tories went down a storm and won most of the votes. I, on the other hand, had a bit of a problem with aspiring to be a posh, entitled tosspot. I remember printing off posters which read “I vote Conservative because Mummy and Daddy do” and sticking them up around my boarding house (a bit like Hogwarts but with Conservatism instead of magic). That was my rather dismal attempt at teenage rebellion, which also manifested as a vote for the Liberal Democrats. I didn’t have the guts to go all the way and vote Labour.

Now, as another general election looms I can imagine lots of the boys who went to my school will be readying themselves to vote Tory again. Lots of boys who, in many ways, are ace people and fun to hang out with but also, like me, were forced to grow up in a bizarre education system that stifled growth and fostered prejudice. Boys who, if they’ve bothered to read this far, will either be feeling angry, patronised, indignant or humourously aloof – the four emotions available to the likes of us. Ultimately though the thing with public school boys is that we’re still boys. Like Peter Pan, we never grew up, except rather than fight the evil pirates we tried to become them. But who knows, as June 8th approaches maybe, just maybe, us boys will finally ‘man up’, ‘grow a pair’ and vote for a party that gives a shit about other people. Or not and we’ll carry on living out our weird Oedipal complexes by voting for a woman who looks a bit like our Mums.

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The Trouble With Trans People, Is Cis People

The BBC’s recent documentary Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? makes one thing abundantly clear – that the BBC does not know best when it comes to how trans kids should live their lives. Before I go on I want you to pause and reflect on how much you know about the experience of being transgender. Nope. Don’t read on, take a moment. I’ll put a paragraph break here to facilitate that process…

Ok, before you get irritated with me for being patronising that exercise was intended more for the people who know very little. Because I’ve had far too many conversations with people who are largely ignorant of trans experiences yet often attempt to speak for and over them. I believe the BBC’s documentary adds to this problem, which is why I want to challenge it. Yup, in essence, it’s another post in which I call bullshit.

“Here’s one of the things that’s lovely about being transgender, we mess with everyone’s theories of gender,” says Hershall Russell, a psychotherapist and activist, with a huge smile on his face. And it’s true. It was only in 2014 that I realised I was cisgendered: that I had always identified with the gender I was assigned at birth. I had never spent particularly long exploring my gender for myself and had always accepted that because a doctor assigned me male at birth, because they saw a penis between my legs, then I must be male. It’s 2017 now and I no longer consider myself cisgender and without going into the details the point I am making is that I have now taken the time to explore my gender for myself. This is something many of us will not do as we remain cisgendered and unquestioningly slot into the readymade binary of masculine and feminine that mainstream society offers us. Of course, as Russell says, everything gets messed with as soon as we realise it’s far less simple than the binary would have us believe and no one makes this more abundantly clear than transgender folk.

So, it’s tough to watch a BBC documentary in which much air time is given to Ken Zucker who, yes, was allegedly the world expert on gender dysphoria as the voiceover keeps reminding us but also an advocate of gender-reparative therapy, which encourages gender non-conforming kids to stop behaving in non-conforming manners. To put it bluntly (and somewhat crudely) this might involve stopping a boy from playing with Barbies or a girl wearing camo (and, once upon a time, may have involved electroshock therapy). There are a few problems here. Firstly, these are issues of gender expression and not gender identity, which the majority of trans activists would acknowledge are different, and don’t necessarily have anything to do with the experience of being transgender. Secondly, this is clearly a value-laden process that encourages/forces kids to conform so they can ‘fit-in’ because Zucker and the like think that will make them happier. However, the documentary gets even lighter on nuance at this point and given the lack of trans education available to the general public, can anyone really be expected to form a balanced opinion when the documentary isn’t even focussing on what’s in the title?

We need better documentaries than this and one reason for that is because I am bored of having the same conversations with ignorant cis folk. We have access to google, Ecosia and wikipedia – please use them. Everyone’s experience of gender is different including every transgender person – it is not up to anyone to make crass, reductive statements on behalf of anyone else. If you just can’t imagine what it might be like to be a different gender to the one you were assigned at birth, or if the thought of sex reassignment therapy ‘weirds’ you out, or if you do think we should all conform to the genders we were assigned at birth, then you’ve got lots of work to do. But I am afraid watching the latest BBC documentary isn’t going to be much help. The best place to start would be seeking out the lived experiences of trans folk by watching interviews or reading blogs. Begin to figure out how to empathise with lives that might be very different to your own and when it comes to gender, why not explore your own rather than dictating to others how they should explore and experience theirs. You could also watch the ace TV series Transparent.

Matilda The Musical And Why We’re Never Growing Up

I was very lucky to be able to watch Matilda The Musical the other day. Not only did it get me in the festive mood but I also thought it was a brilliant production. Lots of dedicated kids and adults singing their hearts out and weaving a fantastic and rather timeless story. It’s based on the Roald Dahl book, which was made into an ace movie, and now it’s on in the West End. A few spoilers on the way but I am guessing you probably already know the story: Matilda, a young girl, is bullied by her horrible parents who try and stifle her blossoming genius by threatening to ban reading. Then off to school where she is bullied by the awful (but brilliant) headmistress Miss Trunchbull who has a habit of putting naughty children in Chokey – a small and spiky cage (yup, Roald Dahl was dark). However, Matilda meets Miss Honey, a passionate teacher who is very shy and timid, and very scared of Miss Trunchbull. Miss Honey spots Matilda’s genius and tries to help foster it as any good teacher should. The rest involves giant chocolate cakes, telekinesis and floating chalk. Like many stories about children this one is about growing up and there’s a great song that is all about doing just that (see video below, starts around 42 seconds in) but there’s one bit in particular that is just spot on.

The woman in the pink cardigan is Miss Honey and it’s funny that an adult should be singing about growing up. Her words are these: “When I grow up, I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown up.” And it takes a super-genius, telekinetic girl with an immense capacity for bravery to help Miss Honey grow up and fight the creatures that have been plaguing her often lonely and frightened life. Yet, it’s us adults who have a habit of telling children to just grow up whilst simultaneously telling them that things will be better once they have grown up. But I reckon us adults have an awful lot of growing up to do as well and really we’re using ‘adulthood’ as a facade to exercise undue authority. Yes, adults can be frightened, lonely, scared, mean and nasty too but until we can be honest about our vulnerability we’ll keep on missing those chances to grow up, chances that come from all directions, including (and maybe espeically) from those younger than us. Only then can the world we promise our children really come true.

Matilda also has another great point to make, which is that to make a difference you don’t have to do huge things, the little things you’re capable of can also make a huge difference. Whether it’s offering a helping hand or a listening ear or even just a smile, the little things do add up and they do have an impact. Matilda is also big on challenging authority and fighting injustice, and thanks to her ‘little’ actions, which are huge for others, so much change happens. So yes, 2016 has been quite a year and 2017 has an awful lot of work to do but I reckon it’ll be a much better year if, like Matilda, we do the little things we can and, together, help each other grow up.