Transphobia, Part 7: Moral Panic

A moral panic is a “feeling of fear spread among many people that some evil threatens the well-being of society…It is the process of arousing social concern over an issue – usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media.” (Wikipedia).

A moral panic is a common political tactic used to unite otherwise disparate groups into undermining the equality and rights of a minority and/or oppressed group, such as women, Catholics, gay men, lesbians, socialists, people with HIV/AIDS, Muslims, people of colour, travellers and Jewish people. The groups are targeted by a more powerful group (e.g. men, Protestants, straight people, capitalists, white people), which feels threatened by the prospect of the oppressed group gaining more political power and equality. The oppressors use moral panic to stir up widespread prejudices within a populous to encourage them to act against the oppressed.

In the UK a moral panic is currently being stirred to undermine the rights of trans people. Certain political actors (e.g. politicians, journalists) are capitalising on the large amount of transphobia already present in the country as well as provoking more of it. The key aim of a moral panic is to incite fear, to make the broader population feel threatened by trans people, so they act against them. Many people I know are being caught in this moral panic and being encouraged to act on their transphobia rather than question, explore and change it. Many of these people consider themselves liberal and tolerant but their empathy and compassion is being replaced by prejudice and hostility. The fear mongering and stereotyping is working as trans people are routinely being dehumanised and discriminated against. Here are some ways to discover if you are being caught up in the moral panic.

Threat to the safety of children and women

  • Are you being encouraged to think of trans people as a threat to children? For example, you might read media that associates trans people with paedophilia or calls them predators, or describes trans people as recruiters, i.e. wanting to recruit young people and force them to transition against their will. This is an old tactic in the book of moral panic and just replace trans people with black people or Jews and you realise how abhorrent it is (if you don’t already).
  • Are trans people, especially trans women, being presented as a threat to cis women? For example, that they want to enter female spaces so they can assault and rape women.
  • Are trans identities being ignored and trans women being presented as ‘men in dresses’ to further bolster the idea that they are dangerous and threatening to women?

A threat to feminism and women’s rights

  • Are women’s rights being presented as incompatible with trans rights, especially the rights of trans women? For example, women’s rights might be presented as a zero sum game, meaning that any effort to support trans women’s rights undermines the rights of cis women – of course, the term ‘cis’ won’t be used (it may well be ridiculed instead) because the proponents of this view don’t believe in trans identities and, therefore, don’t believe in cis identities either.
  • Are efforts to increase inclusion – e.g. recognising that many non-binary and trans men menstruate – being presented as an effort to undermine women’s rights?
  • The above is an example of scaremongering. Another one would be presenting dystopic scenarios, for example, that trans people are wilfully ignoring the rights of women and may even want to erase the category of women entirely. Here, hyperbole and escalation are being used to make you afraid of trans people.

Medical transition as mutilation and dangerous

  • Are you learning of medical transition through examples of medical malpractice, i.e. the times when doctors have harmed patients? If so, it’s likely these instances of medical malpractice are being presented as proof that surgical transition is dangerous and extreme, often described as mutilation rather than surgery. By not focussing on the majority of successful instances of surgical transition, which have transformed people’s lives for the better, you are being encouraged to associate surgery with pain, suffering and even torture, so you are prejudiced against it.
  • Against this backdrop of medical malpractice and mutilation are you being made to believe that the safety of young people is threatened by surgery and transgender identities? Again, the focus is pulled away from all the trans people who want and need surgery, many of whom are young people.
  • Are you being made to believe that young people are being forced to medically transition? For example, that counselling and other forms of care and education don’t form part of the process of transition.
  • Are you being made to believe that being transgender requires medical surgery, when actually it doesn’t?
  • Are you learning of transgender lives through examples of medical detransition – when someone has stopped or reversed a medical gender transition? Are these examples being used to discredit the broader identity of transgender – thereby dehumanising trans people more generally as well as appropriating that individual’s experience of detransition for transphobic ends?

The ‘trans orthodoxy’

  • Do you regularly see phrases such as ‘trans orthodoxy’, ‘trans agenda’, ‘trans ideology’ and ‘trans dogma’, as if all transgender people form part of a powerful political unit or group rather than an oppressed minority made up of many, many individual people who lack political power as a collective? How would you feel if you read of the ‘Jewish agenda’ or the ‘black agenda’?
  • Are trans people being associated with fascism – e.g. called Nazis for ‘demanding’ equality and calling out transphobia; or referred to as part of the Rainbow Reich? Associating trans people with fascism is designed to make them sound extremist and dangerous.
  • Are examples of harmful behaviour (e.g. someone tweeting a death threat to J. K. Rowling) being used to further essentialise trans people and present them as dangerous? To be clear, I stand against the issuing of death threats but, here, they are being used as a tool in a political effort to undermine trans rights, rather than as a call for more nuanced and empathetic discussions around equality.
  • Are instances of transphobia being downplayed and rejected as transphobic by cisgender people? A bit like a white person telling a black person they haven’t experienced racism when they just have.
  • Are instances of a transphobe being called out on their transphobia being represented as an attack on the transphobic person? A bit like a sexist man getting angry he has been called sexist. This is a distracting tactic used to make people ignore the transphobia and focus their ire back on the person being discriminated against.

Stereotyping and dehumanising

  • Are trans stereotypes being used to further dehumanise trans people?
  • For example, trans women with features often typically associated with masculinity are often dehumanised and stereotyped. We may be encouraged to laugh at them and think of them as ridiculous, threatening and/or disgusting.
  • Another form of stereotyping concerns ‘snowflakes’ and ‘generation woke’, i.e. presenting people who want trans liberation as overly-sensitive, unreasonable and/or threatening, in a bid to undermine their demands/requests for trans equality.
  • Or perhaps efforts to make trans people lives safer and happier are being ridiculed – e.g. mocking people’s pronouns; mocking other forms of gender identity such as genderqueer and non-binary. Or they are being held up as unreasonable and unsafe – e.g. deriding medical practitioner’s efforts to use more inclusive language as bowing down to ‘trans orthodoxy’.
  • The aim of this stereotyping is to dehumanise trans people – to make them appear less than human – which makes it easier for others to act against them.

Your identity

  • Is your gender and/or biology being weaponised to make you less sympathetic to trans people? For example, you might be made to imagine your genitals being ‘mutilated’ to make you less supportive of medical surgery.
  • Or perhaps because you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, you are encouraged to imagine anything else as invalid.
  • Or someone being trans is presented as a threat to your own gender. For example, the existence of trans women somehow being a threat to cis women and an effort to undermine the category of womanhood.
  • Or someone being non-binary is presented as a ‘loss’ to your gender. For example, a non-binary person who was designated female at birth might be presented as a loss to women and somehow responsible for further undermining women’s rights.
  • This narrative of loss is a pervasive one and often used against people of minority genders (e.g. trans and non-binary). Look out for the phrase “it’s such a shame”, for example, “it’s such a shame that X is non-binary now” – this invalidates their gender and incorrectly assumes that the gender they were assigned at birth is their ‘true’ gender.
  • I’ve also heard this used in the context of protecting young people. For example, “I’m worried that young women seeing ‘older women’ come out as non-binary will feel that’s their only option.” This both invalidates the non-binary person’s gender and makes it seem that not being cisgender is somehow a bad thing turned to out of desperation and unhappiness.

As the moral panic sets in so transphobic prejudice and hostility increase, as does indifference to the suffering and lived experiences of trans people. You might be experiencing this. For example, do you baulk at the idea of gender inclusive toilets because you think trans women are dangerous men in dresses? Or do you think medical surgery shouldn’t be allowed for transgender people because you think of it as mutilation? Or you think transgender people shouldn’t be allowed to self-identify? Or that trans people receiving counselling and therapy is the equivalent of undergoing conversion therapy (a type of torture that is still legal in the US and UK, as well as many other places)? All of these views undermine trans equality and in having/expressing them you are part of the process of making society more hostile to trans people. You encourage transphobia. This makes it easier for transphobic politicians to enact transphobic changes to the law because there will be more support for them. It also makes it easier for violent transphobes to attack and/or kill transgender people. You might decry violence but societies in which transphobia is more widespread have higher anti-trans crime rates. Meanwhile, widespread indifference and hostility makes it harder for trans people to access the support services they need. This endangers their well-being and mental health and results in higher homelessness and suicide rates. You might not want trans people to be made homeless or to take their own lives but your transphobia contributes to a process that makes these things happen.

There is a causal chain that connects all transphobic beliefs to the violence experienced by trans people, which includes verbal abuse, physical assault, corrective rape, murder, mental health decline, suicide, homelessness, economic instability, unemployment and unhappiness. Prejudice facilitates the suffering of others. Ignorance and indifference exacerbate it.

The antidote to moral panic and its consequences is to inform ourselves, empathise and take political action to enshrine trans rights and equality. Look to trans people and learn about their experiences and stories. Read up on what it means to be transgender (rather than assuming what you read in that one article written by a cis person is true). Acknowledge your prejudices – we all have them and that’s (sadly) just a fact of being alive today; challenge your prejudices by exploring their origins and learning new information; change them by becoming a trans ally rather than a transphobe. A moral panic depends on fear and fear depends on ignorance. The more we learn the less afraid we have to be and the harder it will be to manipulate us. To summarise, transgender people are not the problem, transphobia is the problem. A moral panic cannot take hold in a society free from ignorance and prejudice. We can and must create that society.

 

Trans flag

Just To Clarify, It Is Your Fault

Spoilers for It’s A Sin

There is a beautiful moment at the end of It’s A Sin, Russell T. Davies’ new series exploring the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, when Jill Baxter confronts Valerie Tozer, mother of her best friend Ritchie, who died the day before from AIDS. As well as not telling Jill when it happened, Valerie also made it impossible for her to see Ritchie and say goodbye. In response, Jill tells Valerie that it’s all her fault – the lack of support Ritchie had around his sexuality throughout his life, the shame he lived with about his sexuality, how that shame kept him sleeping with other men and passing on the virus. “Actually it is your fault, Mrs Tozer. All of this is your fault.”

I agree.

I shall not specify who the you of this blog post is because I hope you know if you’re the sort of person who does not champion and support the LGBTQ+ community and makes our lives harder be it through ignorance, indifference, antipathy, prejudice, bigotry and/or violence. Whether you are the sort of person who espouses transphobic views or shames men who have anal sex. Whether you think non-binary people are simply confused about their gender or that bisexual people don’t exist. Whether you think queer people deserve to burn in hell or are welcome in your congregation so long as they tone it down. For these things and more you form part of a long legacy of queerphobia that has killed thousands and thousands and thousands of LGBTQ+ people.

The suicide statistics. The self-loathing. The homelessness. The depression. Loneliness. Anxiety. Fear. Shame. Trauma. Isolation. Self-harm. It is your fault. You make us hate ourselves or you simply ignore us so we think we are invisible and worthless. You tokenise and stereotype us. You feign largesse by letting a few of the ‘not so bad’ ones have a seat at your table. You take pride that there aren’t any gays in your family. You silence transgender voices with your transphobia. You still say bad stuff’s gay. You steal our stories and tell them badly. You turn the homophobia of the 1980s into the transphobia of today. You say we are a threat to children.  You make the quest for Queertopia next to impossible by decimating, over and over again, the efforts we LGBTQ+ people make to build community. Some of you don’t. Some of you are beautiful & brilliant and I couldn’t live without you but this post isn’t for you.

I don’t want to exchange the shame you give for more shame. I don’t want you to feel worthless and miserable but I want you to stop killing us, literally and metaphorically. I need you to take responsibility for your actions and inactions and I need you to learn. It’s too late – for so many – but there is still time. It’s too late – fascism is alive and well – but there is still time. Take the blame, then turn it into something better. Make this blog post redundant. You can start by watching It’s A Sin.

The Culture Wars: This Snowflake Will Not Fall

Wikipedia says that a culture war “is a cultural conflict between social groups and the struggle for dominance of their values, beliefs, and practices. It commonly refers to topics on which there is general societal disagreement and polarization in societal values is seen.” One such culture war taking place is that between Generation Woke and the Anti-PC Brigade. On one side are the unreasonable Millennials and Gen-Zers who demand trigger warnings and don’t like homophobic slurs in their Christmas songs. On the other are the fusty defenders of common sense who’ll regularly be heard saying that political correctness has gone mad and defending their right to say or sing faggot. But the trouble with labelling this conflict a culture war is the implication that both sides are meeting on a level playing field.

But there’s nothing level about the battlefield of the culture war. A prominent example from 2020 would be J.K. Rowling’s transphobic comments. What could have necessitated an important discussion on transphobia and the amount of hostility transgender people experience on a daily basis instead became a battle between those defending Rowling’s right to make transphobic comments and those on the receiving end of that transphobia. Likewise, the option to listen to the Fairy Tale of New York without having to hear the homophobic slur faggot became a battle between those defending the right to use the slur (often straight people who never professed to be LGBTQ+ allies) and those who have been on the receiving end of that slur for decades, such as myself. The conversation was predictably diverted from the discussion of homophobia and how it affects people to one decrying over-sensitivity and Planet Woke. Think also of Black Lives Matter and how the Conservative party was so quick to label them as “political”, as noted in a great gal-dem article: “we have seen [the Tories] try to frame anti-racism as a partisan issue; a calculated move intended to divide the population and distract from the reality that structural injustice exists in all facets of life – including at both ends of the political spectrum.” It’s that sleight of hand again, distracting us from the deeper, systemic issues and making us think it’s just that lot making unreasonable demands.

Those standing up against transphobia, homophobia and racism are stereotyped as the “woke brigade”. We’re called overly sensitive and ridiculed for it. But I think that’s just it – it’s not that we’re overly sensitive it’s that we’re sensitive. We aren’t divorced from our feelings and have the ability to translate them into empathetic acts of resistance and solidarity. Meanwhile, our detractors hate this because not only are their various privileges being threatened – namely the “privilege” to be transphobic, homophobic and racist and, boy, do people hate it when they get called out – but in demonstrating compassion the so-called snowflakes are revealing a faculty that their oppressors struggle to access. As well as prejudiced, oppressors are also traumatised, but rather than seek support and healing, they weaponise their pain and project it at others – those they have been taught to hate and who they think are a threat. The irony is that while these oppressors are so quick to decry and ridicule the sensitivities of those they oppress they are themselves hugely sensitive and just as quick to act defensively if they perceive they are being threatened. But a gay man asking for less homophobia isn’t actually a threat – he’s just someone who wants a bit more peace in the world, for everyone (even his oppressors!). Sadly though, the oppressors do not see this and, deeply ashamed of their own feelings and many, many aspects of their own identities (founded on a bunch of misperceptions, stereotypes and contradictions), they take it out on those around them. And they’ve been doing it for a long, long time.

What the culture war narrative does so successfully is distract us from a far larger war waged for centuries, on many fronts, against women, people of colour, indigenous people, queer people, transgender people, disabled people, neurodivergent people, people of oppressed religions, to name but a few. This war has long been fought by colonisers, fascists, misogynists, and queerphobes, amongst others. The history of this war is a violent legacy of genocide, colonisation, displacement, torture, abuse and terror. The culture war narrative elides this greater truth and trivialises larger pleas for justice and peace. And I call bullshit. I am proud to be a snowflake – to be sensitive to injustices, ones I experience and ones others experience. Nor am I ashamed of the multiplicity of feelings in my heart, vital for allowing me to listen, empathise, act and learn from my mistakes. So even though it’s (nearly) Christmas, this snowflake will not fall.

Transphobia, Part 4 – Cisgender Privilege

Instead of taking the time to learn about what it is and means to be transgender, many people fall back on prejudiced and/or under-informed thinking. Rather than listen to trans people they shout them down. Rather than defend trans people against transphobia they defend the people making the transphobic comments. Rather than acknowledge that their own views might be transphobic they double down on the same transphobic views. There are many reasons for this including people’s refusal to accept that transgender people exist. A further reason is that the existence of transgender people may challenge the views and beliefs we have around our own gender, not least that we may be cisgender – a term for people whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth.

Many people recoil at the thought of being cisgender and ridicule the concept entirely when actually it is very simple to understand and also very common. Loads of people are cisgender and that’s totally ok! The cisgender identity does not undermine someone’s existence, it simply acknowledges that their gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. Simple. It also makes clear that a person is not transgender and, therefore, does not have to experience the sort of violence and prejudice a transgender person experiences because they are transgender – including verbal abuse, economic disadvantages, ridicule in much cultural media, physical assault and murder. That’s not to say a cisgender person will not suffer from these experiences but it will not be because they are transgender. Nor does it imply that cisgender people have an easy life full of luxury (privilege here doesn’t mean riches), it just means they are not transgender and won’t be faced with the issues transgender people face for being transgender.

However, all of the above depends on our ability to acknowledge that transgender people exist and, therefore, so do cisgender people. A comparison might be white people denying that they are afforded certain privileges because they are white rather than black or brown. Or that black or brown people don’t exist. Another comparison could be men refusing to acknowledge male privilege. Or refusing to acknowledge the existence of women (they might instead see women as objects or lesser forms of men). If any of these possible views strike you as ridiculous, please know that it is just as ridiculous to not believe in transgender people and to deny cisgender privilege. For more information on cisgender privilege take a look at this useful website. To be continued…

Transphobia, Part 3 – A Broader Conception of Gender

Broadening our understandings of gender will allow us to be better trans allies and, thus, lessen the amount of transphobia there is in the world (of which there is so much). However, many of us do not do this and view the world through a binary lens – that the only genders that exist are male and female and these genders are synonymous with assigned biological sex. This view may be able to incorporate, to an extent, people who are perceived to transition from one binary gender/sex to another but this can still prove difficult to understand/accept, not to mention the existence of other genders. This view is the root of a lot of transphobia and one I used to hold.

Returning to my first post on transphobia, I described my 19 year-old self holding transphobic views towards a gender-nonconforming person who I assumed to be a man dressing up as a woman. I took certain physical characteristics and assumed this meant the person was male and made particular assumptions about the gender of the clothing they wore. I see it differently now. Firstly, an item of clothing cannot have a gender. It can, however, be generally worn by a particular gender (e.g. like how trousers used to be mainly worn by men) but this still doesn’t mean I can make any assumptions about a person’s gender based on their clothes. Remember, also, that the reasons certain items of clothing are associated with a particular gender often have to do with societal expectations, norms and/or prejudices (e.g. that women shouldn’t wear trousers). Furthermore, I cannot assume someone’s gender based on their physical appearance. Instead, I could ask someone for their pronouns and/or talk to them about their gender identity, if it felt appropriate to do so. Otherwise, I could just refrain from making assumptions and wait until I acquire further information or, perhaps, just not know those details about that person.

Another example would be my experience of being a cisgender male – i.e. being gendered in the same way as my birth sex was assigned (based on my genitalia). For a long time I believed that to be a man one must have testicles and a penis and be able to produce sperm. Now, my view has changed – I do not believe having certain genitalia and the ability to produce motile gametes are the hallmarks of the male gender. My view of the category of man includes people who have vaginas and can give birth, e.g. people who might call themselves trans men. I will not police the category of man, instead, I will welcome my trans brothers. Many, many people struggle with ideas such as these and the question remains the same – can we broaden our understandings of gender to embrace greater diversity or will we hold on to our current beliefs? As someone who identifies partly as genderqueer and who is also a trans ally I, of course, seek to enlarge my understanding and hope you will do so as well. It can seem confusing and difficult but I think going on this journey of learning is totally worth it and will lessen violence and increase love – my central aim (one many people are opposed to or claim to support until they double down on their prejudices). To be continued…

As an important caveat – many of the explanations and definitions I offer are not universally shared, which is a reminder of how important it is to not make assumptions and to spend time trying to understand other people’s beliefs and worldviews.

Trans, Transgender, Flag, Pride

Hogwarts School of Gender Abundance

I was born into a world of gender scarcity and binary. The doctor saw a penis between my legs and sorted me into male. If I’d had a vagina it would have been female. That was it, apparently. This decision to gender me as male fundamentally changed my life and the expectations people had for me and meant I was sent to all-boys’ schools from the age of eight. Ten years later and I arrived at university with a bunch of unresolved anger issues, an inability to process my feelings, shame around even having feelings and a legacy of bullying/being bullied. Given the nature of my schooling (private in the south of England) I was also encouraged to be racist, sexist, and classist, amongst other things. It wasn’t until my first trip to Embercombe, at the age of 25, that I was asked to express my emotions in a vulnerable and open manner. It was really hard. That was when I realised just how thick the armour of day/boarding school really was. An armour that I put in place to protect me from the system I was being schooled through, which ultimately became a straightjacket and hindered my emotional growth and ability to form functional relationships (both platonic and romantic). It was also during my mid-twenties that queerness, for me, became something embodied as well as intellectual. When I looked beyond my gonads, my assumed Y chromosome and my particular hormonal balance, I didn’t find a man (a Slytherin!), I just found me, Robert. At heart I believe myself to be genderqueer even though I still present as cis-male in most of my day-to-day life. It is only in certain spaces, where I feel safe, do I say I use the pronouns they/them as well as he/him. I am not as vocal about this as I could be and, in part, this is me cashing in on my privilege, it’s also protection from the endless ignorance and prejudice I encounter from people I know (not that they would necessarily consider themselves ignorant or prejudiced). It’s been a long old journey, sometimes heart-crushingly lonely, other times euphorically connected, and it isn’t ending it. I am absolutely committed to building Queertopia, rainbow brick by rainbow brick.

But things would have been so different if I’d gone to Hogwarts School of Gender Abundance…

Here there are not just two houses, male or female, in fact, there aren’t any houses at all, not because identities don’t exist but because we are all united in allowing one another to express our myriad identities. We make space for that, so much space. There’s the whole LGBTQQIAAPP2S community and more besides. There are transgender women, non-binary folx, genderqueer kidz, cisgender men and a whole rainbow panoply of fantastic people. We don’t get sorted into boys-are-blue, girls-are-pink, but if a boy likes blue and a girl likes pink then that’s absolutely wonderful. Meanwhile, all of us get to do DIY and cooking and all of us are shown how to process and share our emotions. Being strong, compassionate, kind, brave, fun, caring and adventurous are traits we all get to enjoy (without being forced to!) because we know that these traits are human traits and not limited to particular genders. We also recognise the fluidity and flux inherent in identity and create space for change and exploration, throughout our lives, yup, right up until the end. At this Hogwarts the repressive binary of a gender scarce world has been transcended as we revel in gender abundance, respecting and encouraging all our myriad identities. There’s so much less bullying here than there was at my private schools because here life’s about collaboration and building something wonderful together. Sure, we compete in the odd Quidditch match but factionalism beyond the pitch is not encouraged and there’s no stupid house cup because everyone wins at Hogwarts School of Gender Abundance. The irony is that at my all-boys’ schools I was trained to win and for so long in my life I feared being a ‘loser’. It was shameful. Until a number of breakdowns and identity crises taught me just how much I had really lost by trying so desperately to win. If anything, my prize was alienation from my own soul (a word I use to refer to the entirety of one’s unique, embodied self). Finding it again transcends the very concept of victory (and it feels fab!).

If you’d like to build Queertopia with me or know anyone that might, please do get in touch, hello@robertholtom.co.uk

Frankenstein At The National

Content note: discussion of rape, racism, ableism, oppression, violence towards women of colour.

I remember watching Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre back in 2011. Those heady days when I could sit in close proximity to lots of people in a darkened room and watch other humans move about on a raised platform, I’m talking about theatre darrling. One of the production’s clever tricks was to have the two lead actors, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, interchange the roles of Dr Victor Frankenstein and the Creature on different nights. I took my seat not knowing who I’d get and as one hundred light bulbs glared and fizzed there appeared before me a very naked Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature. I had a whale of a time.

Nearly ten years later and last week I decided to watch Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and was once again impressed by the production, especially the quality of acting and the versatility of the staging as we were taken from busy steam trains to the Orkneys and way off into the Arctic. However, what I noted this time round is despite the supposed universality of the Frankenstein myth – when man plays God he does it very badly and lots of people get hurt (yup, pretty accurate) – the play’s protagonists lacked contextualisation. We are never asked to spend much time exploring Dr Frankenstein’s identity as a wealthy, white, able-bodied man who has the luxury to spend time building a human from bits of corpses and then immediately do a runner once things don’t go quite to plan (namely, he finds the Creature too ugly). Hmm, a man making a mess and not taking responsibility for it, sound familiar?

Another central theme of the Frankenstein story is how the monsters which haunt us are often of our own making. The Creature can very much be seen as parts of Victor’s psyche made manifest, some of which transcend his own capacity for morality while others turn to murder and rape (as implied in the book, as depicted on stage). And again, the Creature as a projection of Victor, a contextless man, also lacks context, he is an embodiment of feelings, sensations and impulses concocted in a laboratory. Whereas in our everyday world we create contextualised monsters all the time, for example, in the way racist white people treat black people, bigoted men treat women, prejudiced able-bodied people treat people with disabilities. Oppression often involves the projection of things we hate or do not understand about ourselves onto others. Yet watching Victor and the Creature clash on stage I felt they were robbed of any ability to offer a more nuanced take on oppression precisely because they lacked context. This relates to the diverse casting of the play with a brilliant Naomie Harris trying to get some mileage out of the brief stage time given to Elizabeth Lavenza before she is graphically killed by the monster. However, just as with the parts played by George Harris and Jared Richard, I would argue the production doesn’t ask us to think about race. The fact a black woman is raped and murdered on stage is less significant than the fact that Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s fiancé, is raped and murdered on stage because it’s his story after all (even though we’re never asked to explore much of who he really is).

Despite oppression, sexism and ableism being key themes of the story, the play fails to adequately explore them because it never really bothers to explore the contexts and privileges of the protagonists. In Victor we could see the embodiment of white, able-bodied, male, privilege writ large, outsourcing his violent desires to his reviled white, male Creature constantly facing violence for being “ugly” and “different”, but instead we just see Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller duking it out on stage. Frankenstein is an amazing novel which had much to say in 1818 and still has much to say today but Frankenstein, Danny Boyle’s production, while repeating many of the original messages didn’t say much more for 2011/20. Perhaps what the play inadvertently reminds us is that within supposed ‘universal’ stories lies an awful lot of unspoken privilege and injustice.

Queer Medicine

“Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.”

This tweet from Alexander Leon recently went viral and is testimony to the many, many struggles queer people face in claiming their identities in the face of prejudice, ignorance and violence. He went on to say:

“It’s massive and existential and difficult. But I’m convinced that being confronted with the need for profound self-discovery so explicitly (and often early in life!) is a gift in disguise. We come out the other end wiser & truer to ourselves. Some cis/het people never get there.”

And that last sentence, “Some cis/het people never get there”, really stands out for me as many cis/het people never get the chance to profoundly explore their identities beyond the aggressive and shaming narratives of patriarchal heternormativity telling them the sort of lives they should be living, the sort of salaries they should be earning, houses they should be buying, gender roles they should be conforming to etc. Whereas, for the queers who make it through the many dark nights of their souls and experience this “profound self-discovery” the results really can be liberating as the bonds that bind us snap and we gain one of the greatest gifts, freedom. We may well still be alone, trying to make it in a world that isn’t ready for us, but our souls are a little less bound and much more free.

I call this queer medicine. It might be bitter to taste (and that’s not even the half of it) but the results are healing. And the irony is that as the heteronorm excludes, kills and ridicules us, queer medicine is an elixir anyone can take, whatever their sexualities and genders. Because we are all capable of profoundly discovering ourselves and that wisdom and truth on the other side of unconditioning is available to us all. Queer medicine does not discriminate, it’s for the taking for everyone, bottoms up.

 

Freedom And The Divine Right Of Kings

“We live in capitalism. It’s power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of Kings.”

So said Ursula Le Guin in her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards back in 2014. And, as ever, she was right. Capitalism, as the prioritising of money over everything else, and the toxic cultures it creates has resulted in the deaths of millions of people, pushed countless people into poverty, sent countries to war, corrupted democracies, eradicated species and destroyed so much of the earth. Hand in hand with authoritarianism, racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, imperialism, aristocracy and a whole host of other unjust power structures the grip of capitalism is agonising. But beyond despair Le Guin believed in the possibility of change.

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

However, as the UK endures another Conservative majority government so change is harder to imagine but, for those of us that can, we must do our best to try. We must imagine a time beyond systemic racism, beyond rape culture, beyond the devastation of public services, and beyond capitalism. We must imagine a time where the leading values aren’t selfishness, greed, prejudice and violence but compassion, empathy, kindness and resilience, the exact values we’ll need as we build the worlds we want. And if you need any tips on how to exercise and expand your imagination, Le Guin has more advice to offer:

“Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling.”

Taken from her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, this quote reminds us that however sure we are of our truths – that all people are equal, that everyone has a right to free healthcare, that no one should face violence – we still have to communicate them well. Whilst the facts are vital and telling them is crucial so too is transforming those facts into stories which will engage people’s imaginations and emotions, allowing them to see and feel the change we care so passionately about. Stories are the bedrock of empathy, which facilitates our ability to care about others.

And the more of us that care the more of us there will be to take action and challenge the racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism and other forms of discrimination that are on the rise. The more of us there will be to question our privileges and redistribute them so as to increase equality. The more of us there will be to actively resist the oppressive and dangerous policies of this bigoted government. Change and resistance are possible, we must never forget. Indeed, for many who lived during the reign of King Charles I of England and Scotland it might have seemed impossible to imagine a time when this divinely appointed despot wouldn’t have so much power over their lives. And today, it might seem impossible to imagine a time when Borish Johnson, who rules with all the arrogance of someone who has been divinely appointed, doesn’t have so much power over our lives. But, following two civil wars, Charles I was found guilty of high treason as “tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy” and beheaded on 30th January 1649. And I don’t think it will be long before Johnson is metaphorically beheaded (probably by his own party) as he fails to deliver on the lies he promised. In the meantime, we must keep imagining, keep hoping and keep doing the work that needs to be done so we, like Le Guin, can be the recipients of that most beautiful of rewards: freedom.

Will Elsa Ever Be Gay?

Elsa’s journey to lesbianism has been a long one. It began in the subtext of the first movie (I mean, the metaphor speaks pretty loudly and Let It Go did become an LGBTQ+ anthem) and became a rallying call in the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend dating back to 2016. Over the years those at Disney regularly alluded to Elsa’s possible homosexuality without ever  committing to it in what is a classic case of queer baiting as the fans did the imaginative labour (and spent their rainbow dollars) while Disney never had to come out for LGBT+ equality and representation. Then an unknown female figure was spotted in the sequel’s trailer and we’d finally been given a glimpse of Elsa’s future girlfriend! Alas not, as it’s now been made clear Elsa isn’t going to fall in love with a woman (or a person of any gender for that matter).

“Like the first movie,” said Kiristen Anderson-Lopez, the film’s songwriter, “Elsa is not just defined by a romantic interest. There are so many movies that define a woman by her romantic interest. That’s not a story that we wanted to tell at this point in time. What we really wanted to tell was if you have these powers, how do you grow and change and find your place in the world and find answers that haven’t been found before?” And Anderson-Lopez is right, there are so many movies that define a woman by her romantic interest. But there are zero Disney movies that allow a protagonist to be defined by their romantic interest in someone of the same gender.

Furthermore, being defined by a same-gender romance doesn’t mean a character has to be reduced to a stereotype or trope. In fact, given how Elsa’s society treated her for having ice powers it wouldn’t be surprising if they shunned and shamed her for being gay, thus traumatising her and forcing her on a lone quest for healing and self-empowerment. Being Elsa and being fab she would find resilience in the face of hostility and liberation in the face of ignorance and if along the way she found love then, my God, she would deserve it and the audience would celebrate it. To clarify, the problem with reducing LGBTQ+ characters to their romantic interest has nothing to do with LGBTQ+ people or characters but everything to do with the ignorance, prejudice and lack of creativity of the heterosexuals who contribute to oppressive cultures of heteronormativy and benefit from its privileges and violent policing of binaries. Tokenism and stereotyping are perpetrated by oppressors, not the oppressed. In the wrong hands Elsa would be reduced to a trope but in the right ones she would be shown for the multi-faceted and brilliant gay character she could be in the face of a world of hostile bigotry and callous indifference. But something tells me that the courage and bravery so prevalent in the hearts of all queer people who have to fight simply to exist is not to be found in the offices of the billion-dollar company that is Disney. I guess I should just let it go.