How I Learned To Time Travel

It’s time to make magic again! Dumbledore Is So Gay is available on demand until 17th October. With five stars from Boyz Magazine and the Daily Express, this isn’t one to miss! “A beautiful coming-of-age story for a Harry Potter generation” said Mugglenet.

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In this post I want to discuss one element of the plot (spoilers), namely, time travel. At the end of Act 1 the play’s protagonist, Jack, whips out his Time Turner and zooms back from age 18 to 12 to live his adolescence again. It’s an idea that chimed with audiences; that desire to go back and make things better. Second time around Jack does get some of what he wants but it wouldn’t be theatre if there weren’t plenty of surprises. He has another go in Act 3. One night after the show I was chatting with an audience member who said how bittersweet it was given that those of us in the Muggle world don’t have access to Time Turners. We are left with our losses, regrets and missed opportunities.

This sentiment was reflected in the MuggleNet review of the show: “It’s funny, and it’s heart-breaking. It makes you want to wrap the characters up in a hug and tell them it’s going to be okay – even when you’re not sure it is.” In a way, this is what I was doing when I wrote the script. I was going back in my own timeline and trying to make sense of the things that happened to me and the things I did. Except I was going back as someone with more age and wisdom, and an ability to see things differently. To my mistakes I could bring understanding, for my losses I could grieve, and to all my experiences I could contextualise them within the abuses and neglect of cisheteronormativity. In effect, I could go back and wrap little me up in a big hug and tell them it’s going to be okay – because here I am, and I wouldn’t be here without them. That doesn’t mean I know what’s coming next but I’m still here, and that counts.

This process wasn’t quite as simple as writing a script and healing my wounds, other vital elements of this process include having therapy, reading Brene Brown books, exploring my emotional and spiritual growth at Embercombe, building relationships with people who see me and care about me, all of which I’ve written about on this blog. These things have taken years and I don’t regret any of them. They have given me new distance from which to view my past. Older and wiser I can see the young, queer me striving to survive and thrive in a world that often wanted me to fail. Kudos to little me. Storytelling forms a vital part of this process and is a tool I often use to make sense of my life, regardless of whether that writing ends up as a staged script. So, as it transpires, I can time travel. With memory, wisdom, storytelling and kindness, I can travel back and save me from the past that so often took so much away. Tickets!

The epic cast of Dumbledore Is So Gay: Max Percy, Charlotte Dowding and Alex Britt. Photo Alex Brenner

Dumbledore Is So Gay (Yes, He Is)

It’s showtime…tomorrow! After a long 18 months, sell-out success Dumbledore Is So Gay is back onstage, at the Pleasance Theatre from 21st – 26th September, get your tickets here! And it’ll be available online from 27th Sept – 11th October. Below are a few paragraphs from me that will be included in our online programme.

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Early 2019, I was doing the Pottermore Sorting Hat test. I got Gryffindor. I had mixed feelings because some of the Gryffindors can be pretty self-righteous (here’s looking at you Percy Weasley) but gold and red are great colours. Then one of my friends got Hufflepuff and, I’m ashamed to say, I made fun of them for it.

Early 2019, I’d been at a school in North London helping run a workshop on LGBTQ+ issues. I shared a real life story about a particularly bad experience of being bullied at school when I was a teenager. After I’d told my story some of the students wrote questions on post-it notes and one asked whether someone had helped me through the bullying. The answer was no, I had been completely alone. The student also wrote that they would have helped me through it, which kind of broke my heart. A lot of my life caught up with me then and so began a very acute and difficult period of depression.

Early 2019, a few months after the workshop and with the Sorting Hat on my mind, I started writing a script. The character of Jack quickly emerged, a Harry Potter super fan who struggles with getting sorted into Hufflepuff just as much as he struggles with his sexuality. The early drafts were written for me, more an exercise in figuring out and reclaiming my story. I’d read the book Straightjacket by Matthew Todd during the summer of 2016, which predominantly focuses on the experiences of gay men in contemporary society and the absolute minefield of issues they face, including prejudice, isolation and suicide. Over the following years I was able to locate my own experiences in this minefield. It was a tough reckoning that I never saw coming and absolutely no one had prepared me for. Towards the end of an early draft Jack wishes he has a Time Turner, so he can go back and transform his life for the better. Wait a second, I thought, maybe that could become part of the plot…

Early 2020 and rehearsals were underway for the first run of the show at the VAULT Festival. It was no longer my story but Jack’s and with lots of help from the cast and crew, especially director Tom, the script was well polished and stage-ready. The final week in February was a dream come true and we had an absolute blast staging the show. As a queer child and teen I lacked agency and power. I was told the wrong stories and experienced too much pain and indifference. It’s only as an adult that I can look back and better understand what it was I went through. It’s only now I can appreciate why so many queer folks don’t make it, including people I knew. I want this to change. So older queers like me can heal and younger ones won’t get hurt in the first place. For this, we’ll need good stories, which is why Jack’s back to take centre stage. His story is a testimony to the strength and resilience of LGBTQ+ folks, and a celebration of the endless immensity of the queer spirit.

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Don’t forget those tickets, Pleasance Theatre and  online!

The Trouble With WandaVision (Spoilers)

WandaVision was great. Elizabeth Olsen is a star. But it’s time for some queer, intersectional, feminist analysis. As a disclaimer, I’m a big MCU fan and I hope my facts are right but there may well be plot points and nuances I’ve missed, having only watched the show once.

Here’s (some of) the story in a nutshell (spoilers) – super hero Wanda Maximoff and her super powered robot husband, Vision, are living their best lives in Westview, a quirky, little American town. They end up having two sons together and couldn’t be happier. Each episode is in the style of a classic TV series such as Bewitched, Arrested Development and Malcolm In The Middle. But didn’t Vision die in the Avengers: Infinity War movie? And what’s with the TV shows theme? Plot twist – Vision is dead and Wanda, with her super magic, has created a giant force field around Westview, brainwashed all the inhabitants and created a fantasy life based on TV shows she liked watching as a kid to escape the grim realities of growing up in Sokovia, a dreary, Eastern European cliche country. Turns out super heroes super grieve. A further twist is that Wanda’s neighbour, Agnes, is actually the super witch, Agatha Harkness, who zoomed on over to Westview because she was so fascinated by the powerful Chaos Magic Wanda was inadvertently using to power the whole shebang…but we’ll get to her later.

It’s a unique premise for a Marvel show and made for very entertaining and frequently hilarious viewing. It’s also great to have a female protagonist – of the 23 movies up to Spider-Man: Far From Home there has been precisely one with a female lead, Captain Marvel. But here’s the thing – Marvel has a history of reducing its female characters to stereotypes, primarily focussing on their reproductive and romantic possibilities (asides Captain Marvel who gets a typical-ish hero’s journey). And much of Wanda’s story is very domestic – doing household chores and raising children. I’d argue the earlier episodes encourage us to critique and laugh at this sexism because it’s so obvious in the dated nature of the TV shows, such as Bewitched, but come the finale and the narrative breaks down and Wanda must unleash her super powers to fight Agatha, fight Tyler Hayward (a human bad guy in charge of an intelligence agency called S.W.O.R.D who secretly wants to power up a new Vision to kill Wanda…it’s a long story), save her kids and end her brainwashing of Westview. Now we’re firmly in the MCU genre in which Wanda is contractually obligated to fight the Big Bad and save the day. This is progress for female characters in the MCU. Like Captain Marvel she is the protagonist and not playing second fiddle to a man. Unlike Black Widow (played brilliantly and regularly by Scarlett Johansson), she isn’t often little more than a plot device in men’s stories who occasionally gets to scissor kick villains. But underlying all this drama is a trope common to the super hero world – that when a woman gains too much power she goes off the rails and usually kills loads of people (even if accidentally), such as Jean Grey in the X-Men and the Invisible Woman in Fantastic Four. Incidentally, Wanda has already done this when she killed a load of people at the start of Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m all for equal opportunities and, of course, Wanda can have a partner, raise kids, do domestic chores (Vision does his share of domestic stuff too), be a full-time super hero and go off the rails in a big way…but something tells me that this is all she can do in the MCU. Wanda may have trapped a bunch of people in Westview but she, herself, is trapped in the limited imaginations of her creators.

Even Agatha gets a rum deal because when we get her few minutes of back story we learn she was also super powerful but the other witches in her Salem coven didn’t like it and tried to kill her. Agatha managed to kill them first and drain them of their powers. It seems powerful women in the MCU sure have a thing for trying to kill other powerful women. This is especially problematic because the actual story of witchcraft is one of women being subjected to torture and murder. The Salem witch trials were femicide committed by (predominantly) men who feared powerful women and Christians who feared other worldviews and used slurs of witchcraft to justify the hunting and executions. WandaVision didn’t even touch on this history even though the comics did. Yes, we have a female lead and a female baddy but a lot of nuance got left behind.

However, I think one of the biggest problems with WandaVision is it’s failure to acknowledge that alongside Agatha and Tyler Hayward, Wanda is the third Big Bad. Brainwashing is a form of psychological torture and it’s happened before in the MCU. In the first Avengers movie, Hawkeye is brainwashed by the evil Loki to a do a bunch of bad things. He’s saved by Black Widow and when he wakes up he says: “Have you ever had someone take your brain and play? Pull you out and stuff something else in? Do you know what it’s like to be unmade?” To which, she replies, “You know that I do.” She says this because she was a former KGB assassin brutally sterilised and brainwashed by them to become a super spy. So the MCU does take brainwashing seriously when it’s expedient to the plot (and when committed by a baddy) but when it’s a goody whose done it to hundreds of adults and children, who literally plead with her for it to stop, it can be glossed over. Indeed, in the finale, Wanda talks with Captain Monica Rambeau (played by the brilliant Teyonah Parris), another agent of S.W.O.R.D who always believed Wanda meant good. Monica says, “They’ll [the inhabitants of Westview] never know what you sacrificed for them”, i.e. that she lost Vision and then had to lose her imaginary Vision and children – but this clearly cannot justify the immense pain she has caused. Wanda replies, “It wouldn’t change how they see me. And you, you don’t hate me?” – weirdly only concerned with Monica’s view rather than everyone else in Westview. Monica replies, “Given the chance and given your power, I’d bring my Mom back. I know I would” – fine, but that still doesn’t justify the behaviour. Wanda: “I’m sorry for all the pain I caused” – maybe she could repeat that apology to everyone else. “I don’t understand this power. But I will.” Yes, it must be a lot to be filled with Chaos Magic and it’s probably terrifying but it’s pretty clear she knew what she was doing when she created a giant, magic Hex around Westfield. As for Wanda’s fate – she gets to fly off to a boojy hut on a mountain rather than, say, go to prison and/or therapy.

It’s exciting to see more female characters take centre stage in MCU films and series. I cannot wait for the Black Widow film (finally!) in which Scarlett Johansson describes her character as “a woman who has come into her own and is making independent and active choices for herself.” More of this please (and why did it take so bloody long)! And hopefully Captain Rambeau will get more screen time as the first black, super powered female character. But, as the MCU diversifies so its limitations are further tested as we’re forced to ask if being an MCU super hero is all it’s cracked up to be what with its legacy of sexism and racism and its imaginative limitations. Ultimately, an MCU hero gains heroism through violence (they’re basically soldiers), they exist in a world of binary morals with Big Goods v. Big Bads, and their character development is limited by the requirements of the Hero’s Journey plot structure and the mandatory explosive finale in the third act. This doesn’t work out particularly well for the male heroes either who often suffer from PTSD/PTSI, depression and/or alcoholism. Perhaps we need a new genre entirely. In the meantime, here’s Agatha’s theme song – she’s the purple-wearing, super camp, super villain I’ve been waiting for and she deserves a spin-off (I listened to this thing on repeat for days).

Marvel’s Gay Super Hero

His name is Phastos and he’s one of the Eternals, a group of super beings who’ve lived on earth for yonks and will be blasting into cinemas this November (hopefully). Played by actor Brian Tyree Henry, Phastos is going to have a husband, a kid and an on-screen kiss. This is big news. Marvel’s previous LGBTQ+ representation included one of the films’ producers, Joe Russo, playing a nameless, grieving gay man opening up about his loss in a support group with Captain America in the film Avengers: Endgame. Yup, the first vaguely gay character is significant because a man he loved had died – eye roll. And then (spoilers) when all the people who turned to dust come back do we see the nameless gay guy be reunited with his now reincarnated lover, do we get an onscreen kiss, maybe even a hug? Do we bullshit. Not to mention Valkyrie from the third Thor film who, after the movie aired, we were told was bisexual, it’s just that any scenes that indicated this were left on the cutting room floor. So we didn’t get LGBTQ+ representation but we did get queerbaited. Again.

So, Phastos is progress – men kissing, men of colour kissing, men raising kids together, men loving one another. Hurrah. My concern though is with the larger morality of the MCU and how it’s dictated by the hero’s journey – it’s all about men following their punches with punchlines. Heroism is violence and quipping. There’s Iron Man, insufferably arrogant Tony Stark who likes nothing better than patronising women and making billions off selling weapons. Captain America, who used to be a scrawny guy but got injected with super-steroids so he could go beat up Nazis, living the American dream, right? Doctor Strange is a less funny, more arrogant version of Iron Man but with magic instead of a metal suit. Thor is the bro-God of Asgard who’s a violent mess with a big hammer but he is kinda funny. The Hulk is the personification of anger in giant, green blob form. The aforementioned are all white but fortunately Black Panther is black and also gets to beat people up in the name of good (although at least his movie has some nuance). Not forgetting Captain Marvel, a woman who’s a fighter pilot turned superbeing capable of inflicting super violence. Oh, and she’s great with those one-liners. So who is Phastos going to be? The violent, funny and gay one, who’ll do whatever he can to defend the simplistic and binary values of whichever side we’re being told is good? Kinda like gay soldiers being allowed to fight for Queen and country. It’s a certain sort of progress predicated on opening up opportunities for killing bad guys.

As for the portrayal of Phastos’ sexuality in the film, my gut feeling is that it will be ‘normal’ – the “hey, we don’t have a problem that you like boning guys” kinda reaction from straight people, “as long as you don’t rub it in our faces” etc. It’ll just be normal that he’s got a husband and kid because, y’know, gay people are normal. But normal in the MCU is patriarchal and violent which, spoiler alert, is a reflection of wider American society. Will we see any of the struggles that Phastos has had to face for his sexuality – the bullying, exclusion, poor mental health, loneliness – or will the Eternals be conveniently OK with diversity despite having delivered only one movie with a black lead and one with a female lead? Because it seems with a lot of movies these days, diversity is copying and pasting LGBTQ+ people into previously cishetero roles, rather than questioning the patriarchal plot lines and actually delivering something novel.

But queer isn’t just a word for describing gender and/or sexuality, it’s also a type of politics and, for me, that politics challenges the constraints and violences of the world so championed by the MCU – one which has so regularly seen women reduced to their reproductive capacity (or incapacity in the case of Black Widow) and romantic possibilities; and also one that so often kills off people of colour because they’re usually secondary characters (see Captain America: Civil War and the first Thor film as examples). Meanwhile, the baddies in the Eternals are known as the Deviants, which is a word often used to describe LGBTQ+ people but I’m guessing they’ll be a group of people as equally OK with diversity as the eternals but just the nasty version who want to commit some sort of simplistic evil so the audience will know to boo at them (in the MCU this usually means committing genocide and/or harming children). In conclusion, while there is progress in diversifying the MCU, I can’t wait to see Valkyrie actually get to be bisexual (and maybe get a name as well), until the underlying structures are transformed (i.e. truly queered) it’s just a fresh paint job on patriarchy. I could be wrong, though, and The Eternals could be the queer, intersectional feminist extravaganza we’ve been waiting for but I won’t get my hopes up.

P.s. and one quick aside about Valkyrie: when the director of Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi, was asked if Valkyrie would be explicitly queer in the next movie he said: “I think so…The IP is not mine. But with the actors, I feel whatever makes them comfortable — whether they feel like there’s a natural choice, or a natural way for that character to go — then I’m pretty supportive. If Tessa wanted to do that, I’m in.” But why does a queer plot line require a “natural choice” and a “natural way”? Heterosexual relationships never have to jump this bar and get endless, unquestioned screen time, while queer relationships have so much more ‘work’ to do to ‘earn’ their place on screen. Yawn.

The Eternals

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