Transphobia, Part 5 – Feminism

There is a common misconception that the existence of transgender people is a threat to feminism. Much transphobia is levelled at trans women, who are considered to be threats to cis women (not that a transphobic person would call themselves cisgender because they question the existence of transgender people, as outlined in my previous posts). We saw this form of transphobia come up a lot last year, most notably by J.K. Rowling. In response, many people defended the comments made, defensively proclaiming that someone like Rowling isn’t and can’t be transphobic. But. Transphobia is interwoven into the fabric of our society and its norms, and regularly appears in our actions and beliefs. And rather than defend and double down on our prejudices we can acknowledge, challenge and change them.

I believe the origin of this form of transphobia lies in the widespread belief that men are threatening and violent. This view is underpinned by the huge amount of violence perpetrated by men towards women. However, this is a concern regarding cisgender men, not transgender women. But because many people do not believe or fully believe in transgender people, it is assumed that transgender women are actually just men dressing up as women and are, therefore, devious and a threat to other people, especially women and children. This is why they shouldn’t be allowed to use women’s toilets or changing rooms and why something like the Gender Recognition Act (which allows people to legally change their gender) should be questioned – because cisgender men will use it to pretend to be women so they can continue to commit acts of violence. This belief – that transgender women are actually just men – is both inaccurate and prejudiced, as are the resulting beliefs it produces, not to mention the huge amount of pain and suffering these beliefs cause. The truth is that transgender women are women.

Unfortunately, many people do not believe this and continue to dehumanise trans women while scapegoating them for the violence of cisgender men. Furthermore, even if a cis man were to pretend to be a woman so he could enter an all-female space to commit violence that still says nothing about trans women (or trans people in general) but everything about this particular cisgender man’s violence. I find it genuinely heart breaking to see trans people demonised and dehumanised in this way (just as gay men were once and still are regularly called paedophiles and perverts to justify undermining their human rights). The existence of transgender people really shouldn’t be up for debate just as we don’t question whether bisexual people exist or black people or cis women. I believe it is possible to articulate a form of feminism that champions all women, including cis and trans, and protects the reproductive rights of all women. Broadening our conception of womanhood does not dilute it but diversifies and strengthens it. This isn’t about trying to limit any women’s rights or limiting her access to spaces and resources. This is about enshrining more rights and creating more spaces and providing more resources. It’s about recognising the Patriarchy Pie is inherently unjust and causes minorities and oppressed groups to fight one another, rather than make a new pie together. As someone assumed to be male, amongst other things, the patriarchy pie affords me many privileges. But rather than cash in on them and turn my back on others I say, bullshit! I want a better pie, that’s fairer and tastier, for everyone, and that absolutely includes trans people.

I make these comments as someone who was raised a cisgender man and who now identifies as genderqueer. I will absolutely not speak for women and whilst I wish for a world of equality I cannot force anyone to suddenly feel comfortable with change. There may well be discomfort on the road to change as assumptions we long held about gender are challenged and dislodged. But I believe the discomfort felt by cisgender people as they are made to question the gender binary is so much less than the discomfort and pain they create by being transphobic. The former, I believe, is necessary for positive change while the latter is totally unjustifiable and inhumane.

Federal judge allows transgender discrimination lawsuit against North Carolina officials and universities to proceed

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

Transphobia, Part 2 – What Does Transgender Mean?

For a long time I assumed if someone was transgender it meant they used to identify as either male or female and now they identified as the opposite gender. I believed this because I assumed gender to be a binary – either male or female. Add to this my belief that the prefix trans- only meant across, i.e. a transgender person crosses from one gender to another. However, a deeper dive into the etymological origins of the prefix reveals that as well as across, through and on the other side of, it can also mean beyond. Add to this the realisation that gender is not a binary and there are many genders beyond female and male. And finally, an actual definition of the adjective transgender: denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.

All along transgender had a broader definition than I originally knew – while it definitely encapsulates those who transition from one gender to another, e.g. male-to-female, it also includes people who do not identify as either male or female, including non-binary, genderqueer, and neutrois. So trans can be seen as an umbrella term covering a wide range of gender identities, including one of my own. This is easily forgotten when we assume all that exists is the gender binary. Furthermore, deeper into the etymology and we come to the Proto-Indo-European (super old language) *tra-, a variant of the root *tere-, meaning cross over, pass through, overcome. As well as the idea of movement there is also the idea of overcoming, which (accidentally or not) relates to the huge challenge of being a transgender person in today’s world. Such prejudice and violence must be overcome so transgender folks can simply survive, let alone live the flourishing and brilliant lives they deserve.

2020 is asking a lot of us and one of the things I think it asks is that we broaden our conceptions of gender (and biological sex for that matter). I can’t see a way forward without this. Failing to understand the nuances and abundances of gender means we fail all the folks whose sense of personal identity and gender do not correspond with their birth sex, of whom there are millions, myself included. By informing ourselves and changing our behaviours accordingly we will be able to remove some of the many challenges that trans people are forced to overcome on a daily basis. To be continued…

transgender flags

Transphobia, Part 1

There was one gay night a week when I was at university in the late noughties. Me and my friends would don our glad rags, have our prelash and pile into this tiny bar with a sweaty dance floor in the basement. I was nineteen years of age and a regular and pretty much always requested Candyman by Christina Aguilera. I remember one of the other regulars – long eyelashes, fabulous hair, glitter, make-up on point (as we say nowadays), feminine clothes and an array of body hair. I found this person equal parts captivating to repelling. I assumed they were male and used he/him pronouns (not that I spent much time thinking about people’s pronouns back then). I often found myself wondering why a guy would want to dress up like that. To my nineteen-year-old self this ‘guy’ was just weird.

Looking back I see my thoughts for what they were – transphobic. I was repelled by this gender non-conforming person and they evoked in me a whole host of internalised queerphobia, transphobia and misogyny. Why couldn’t they act like a normal man? Why did they dress so weirdly? What sort of guy would want to wear that much make-up (wasn’t guyliner enough)? Something else I also didn’t understand at the time was that I was deeply attracted to this person. But my mindscape was a shitshow of boarding school prejudices and conservatism with a big dose of toxic masculinity that I would have to battle for years to come. It wouldn’t be until the January sales of 2016 that I bought my first dress and not until the summer of 2018 that I wore a dress in public for a prolonged period of time. How sad that it took me so long when all those years ago that fellow regular at the weekly gay night (I don’t think it was called a queer or an LGBTQ+ night back then) was showing me how it’s done.

*

I share this here as an instance of transphobia in my own life. It would be a much better world if I had not been transphobic in the first place and had treated my contemporary with the love and respect they deserved. Sadly that wasn’t how it worked out and it took me a long time to learn my lessons. So I share this post, now, so we can learn our lessons quicker and more compassionately because transphobia is on the rise and so many trans people are suffering – whether it’s their mental and/or physical health, personal safety and/or their life.

One thing I wish I knew back then was that biological sex and gender are different. The former, also known as assigned sex, relates to medical factors including chromosomes, hormones and genitals. There are at least five sexes, if not more, and the two most common we label female and male. Someone’s sex tells us very important things about that person, their biology and the sorts of care they might require in their lives. Meanwhile, gender relates to someone’s identity and behaviours, which relate to larger social practices/norms/pressures/expectations of what it means to be a certain gender. Often the birth sexes of male and female are used to denote gender based on genitals (and presumed chromosomes), however, as I know now, there’s so much more to gender than a binary.

I shall leave you with a very simple online definition of the adjective transgender: denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex. I wish my younger self  had this knowledge and understanding. I wish my younger self had sought it out. Instead, I was spending much too long analysing Descartes’ mind-body dualism (another binary we can do without) and sleeping off my various Wednesday morning hangovers. To be continued…

Uh-Oh, I’m A Millenial In My 30s (During A Pandemic)

For a certain sort of middle class Millenial such as myself there was a particular path laid out for me as I became an adult. In my 20s this path was to involve getting a job with a decent salary and slowly working my way up the office hierarchy. I would also meet my future life-partner, preferably of the opposite gender, with whom I would enter into an exclusive, monogamous relationship. At some point, possibly our mid-to-late 20s, we would enshrine this relationship in marital law, expecting it to last until we died. After marriage we would combine our financial assets and purchase our first flat (maybe even house!) and start to build a home. By the time we hit thirty we would have a child on the way, with plans for at least one more. It’s seems like a fairy tale life and, a few years into my thirties, I can assure you that I have achieved none of these things!

Regarding the job, I initially decided to pursue a path of environmental activism followed by one of writing and narrative coaching. Neither of these have landed me big bucks but it was a compromise I chose to make to pursue things I was passionate about. I also used the financial privilege I did have to support me in this. As for that life partner, well, I’ve blogged about the challenges facing gay and queer men a number of times. While a Conservative government may have made the tokenistic offering of marriage the mental health struggles, suicide statistics, loneliness epidemic and widespread unhappiness paint a very different picture. It’s not that we can simply translate our lives onto the blueprint offered by cisheteropatriarchy. And the older I get the more I realise I don’t want to do that, even if I could.

Because there are problems in monogamous relationships and nuclear families that rarely get discussed but often get felt acutely by and taken out on queer people. Some of us our thrown out of the very homes and families we were born into while most of us have to struggle through childhood, adolescence and adulthood with hardly any support at all in understanding who we are and how to build strength to face societal prejudice and indifference. It’s often not until we’re a bit older that we meet others like us and by that time it’s too late – we’re already carrying trauma and unhappiness, yet somehow are expected to cohere into a seemingly functional group of hetero-almosts who fit in and don’t cause too much of a fuss. If we’re lucky, we’ll find a group of like-minded folks who want to talk about our emotional experiences and identities in a supportive environment. I’m part of such a gay men’s group as we struggle through decades of piled up problems we could all really do without. But again, we’re having to take the initiative to protect ourselves with very few straight people stepping up to support us or showing a great willingness to hear our stories and help be the change (a phrase I hear a lot of cishet people bandy around). Somehow in and amongst this and all the other woes of neoliberal, consumer capitalism that further isolate and fracture we’re expected to be happy and make home. That’s a task I’m not even sure Hercules could accomplish. And now with the pandemic, multiply all these problems by a very high number and then add 100.

I want to be clear. I am not against monogamous relationships, life partnerships, heterosexuality, healthy celebrations of love and/or families. But, as ever, I want to speak a word for queerness and the myriad ways we are excluded from all of the above and how they are made exceptionally difficult for us. It is also when these things combine to create a culture of cisheteronormativity that actively excludes, tokenises, exoticises and, often, murders queer people, that I just have to call bullshit. The intersections of our struggles are unique and cannot be qualified with “it’s not that bad” or “it’s better than it used to be” or “it could be worse” or “but I don’t have a problem with the fact you’re gay”. I also want to be clear that the heterosexual people who benefit from the privileges of this system also face huge struggles. Domestic abuse, dysfunctional partnerships and family units, financial inequality, sexism, toxic masculinity, loneliness, are just some of the ways this system crushes those within it as well as those it ostracizes. I am not trying to pit heterosexuals against queer people but I am suggesting that there are alternatives to how we live and love that could benefit us all.

But the thing is, if we want these alternatives, which queer people have been busy building for years, it will take self-reflection and a willingness to let go of the privileges of heterosexuality and being cisgendered (this does not equate to relinquishing those identities if they are important to you). Privileges that often don’t make for happy lives but do make the lives of queers even unhappier. To be continued…

I Reserve The Right To Cancel You

Cancelling is when someone withdraws support from someone else, often a public figure, due to offensive things they have said and/or done. Like unfollowing J.K. Rowling on Twitter after she made her transphobic comments. Very sensible if you don’t want to be exposed to transphobia. However, lots of people decry cancel culture like the many people who share J.K. Rowling’s transphobic views and would rather defend them than understand why they are transphobic and, therefore, dangerous. It’s as if the detractors of cancel culture think unfollowing someone on Twitter is worse than experiencing transphobia and others should endure prejudice so we can continue the “debate” and “discussion” around whether trans people exist or not (N.B. they do). Furthermore, cancel culture has long pre-dated the likes of Twitter and Instagram, it’s just gone under many different names.

Patriarchy is a form of cancel culture in which women are cancelled. Racism, one in which people of colour are cancelled. Heteronormativity, one in which queer people are cancelled. The English class system is another classic – lots of rich, white men going to posh schools and posh universities and then getting top jobs in key sectors and industries. It’s called the old boys’ club. Technically I’m a part of it due to my educational background and it’s fab for getting a leg up in the world (if that’s what you really want). Although maybe these aren’t examples of cancel culture because someone has to be allowed in before they can be cancelled, maybe they should just be called exclusion culture. So, before you’re tempted to decry cancel culture, maybe check your privilege and explore the ways you haven’t experienced exclusion in your life before you call out a transgender person or trans ally for unfollowing J.K. on Twitter.

It’s curious though, isn’t it, all this defensiveness around cancel culture, as if the detractors want to push shame and responsibility elsewhere rather than examine their own beliefs and prejudices and the beliefs and prejudices of public figures they admire. Wilful and persistent ignorance, an inability to empathise and listen, maintained prejudices (however seemingly “minor”), an inability to take responsibility for one’s in/actions, defensiveness around being called out, passive aggressively pushing back at the oppressed person and/or group. These are some of the problems, not unfollowing someone on Twitter because they are prejudiced. I appreciate cancelling is not always done well but that’s not the point here. We can’t seriously always expect someone on the receiving end of prejudice to cancel someone well given the oppressor is often trying to cancel the very identity of those they oppress. So, yes, I reserve the right to cancel you because I like my boundaries and mental health, and I want to defend equality, not my prejudices.

Cancel, Stop, Culture, Subscription, Warning, Delete

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

Homophobia In Twelfth Night At The National Theatre

Twelfth Night, it’s a Shakespeare rom-com classic: twins, ribaldry, much confusion and a bunch of marriages. The National Theatre very kindly shared their brilliant live version online, which I watched again last night. For the second time I was blown away by Tamsin Grieg’s show stopping performance as not Malvolio – the uptight steward – but Malvolia, the female version, who is tricked via a forged letter into believing that her mistress, Countess Olivia, loves her. Malvolia is over the moon, she even starts dancing in a fountain. “I thank my stars,” she shouts grimly, trying to smile, “I am happy.” She’s quick to don yellow, cross-gartered stockings (all things the Countess hates) and it’s not long before Olivia has her locked away only to be further bullied by her tormentors. Thus, thanks to the NT’s gender switch it transpires that the fate of a woman who loves another woman is…torture. Damn.

As Tamsin Grieg said in a recent interview, “I was very nervous of making Malvolio a woman and therefore a lesbian, considering what happens to the character in the play, which is monstrous.” And it’s true. For all Malvolia’s arrogance and her nastiness towards some of the other characters, her fate is one of torture at the hands of a bunch of sadistic homophobes. Grieg also said that, “Malvolia is a deeply wounded human being who becomes OCD and bullies the other people in the household in order to cope.” So we’re also seeing violence towards someone with a mental health condition. It’s no surprise that the play ends with a distraught Malvolia crying bitter tears in the rain swearing revenge on those who have bullied her, while most of the other characters are busily getting married. Damn.

As for the marriages, they need some explaining. Remember the twins – Viola and Sebastian. They were separated in a shipwreck, both thinking the other dead. Viola disguises herself as a man called Cesario and starts working for Duke Orsino who gets her to woe the love of his life Countess Olivia. Trouble is Olivia falls for Cesario/Viola while Viola/Cesario falls for Orsino, who keeps finding himself oddly attracted to Cesario/Viola. And then Sebastian turns up at the end and all manner of confusion/hilarity ensues. Olivia quickly marries Sebastian thinking he’s Cesario while Duke Orsino is over the moon to discover that Cesario is actually a woman, Viola, who he promptly marries. Even Sir Toby Belch and Maria get married (two of the characters instrumental in Malvolia’s torture). As for Antonio the friendly pirate who rescued and fell in love with Sebastian (they even share an early onstage kiss)…he’s left to watch Sebastian get married to Olivia. So it’s happy ends all round for the heterosexuals (who didn’t turn out to be queer after all, phew), while the people who openly love people of the same gender end up bullied and alone. Damn.

So I was left wondering if this was an appropriative queering of a classic by a group of well-meaning (but perhaps slightly ignorant) creative types or if it was a searing indictment of the ridiculousness that is heteronormativity and its associated rituals – I mean, Sebastian marries Olivia within five minutes of meeting her, which is incredibly problematic given she can’t consent to marry Sebastian because she thinks she’s marrying Cesario; Orsino is so utterly repressed he can’t let himself fall in love with a man, inappropriately persuing Olivia instead who has already made her disinterest clear. And there’s the brief scene at The Elephant, a queer-ish bar, with a drag performer who ends up getting punched by Sebastian, along with a number of the other patrons (a needless bit of queer bashing methinks). Not forgetting the queerphobic abuse that poor Malvolia suffers and it’s almost as if the moral of this production is that it’s shit being queer.

File:Johann Heinrich Ramberg - Olivia, Maria and Malvolio from "Twelfth Night," Act III, Scene iv - Google Art Project.jpg
Check out those yellow, cross-gartered stockings! By Johann Heinrich Ramberg