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

I Got Sorted Into Gryffindor…Ugh

I had mixed feelings when I finished the Pottermore Sorting Hat test because it put me in Gryffindor. I’d always associated the house of the lion with arrogant upstarts like prefect Percy Weasley who takes far too much pride in his factionalism and being better than others. And, yeah, bravery and daring are great but not when they go hand in hand with a giant ego and even greater arrogance to boot. As for chivalry, I thought that was dead or at least extremtly unfashionable.  But the funny thing is, after a Slytheriny experience at boarding school and much Ravenclawing at university, I ended up getting involved in a bit of campaigning and activism. Sure, I was trying to make a difference but boy does the life of a “Social Justice Warrior” come with all the Gryffindor traits and not just the good ones.

As an SJW I cast myself as exceptionally brave and daring, taking on a corrupt and immoral system that gobbles most of us up. I talked about the environment a lot, went vegan for a while and met lots of ace people. Together we laughed in the face of the right-wing media as it labelled us ‘lefty loons’ and ‘deranged socialists’, whilst the Alt-Right and fans of Milo Yiannopoulos had even worse things to say. In response, we prided ourselves on being better than those greedy right-wing Slytherins, they were just a basket of deplorables after all who’d trade their grandma for a promotion. But the irony was that as us SWJs got a little too comfortable on our high horses so we inspired our opponents to do exactly the same. It was a war of attrition as each side tried to out-meme and insult the other. As for some sort of dialogue in the middle, nah, we were Gryffindor, the best, and of course our movement/campaign/action/protest/saving-the-planet-thingy was the most important one of all.

But I’ve never been much of a fan of cliques, recognising they’re just a tool to quell collective insecurities and blunt nuanced thinking. Cliqueiness sucks, whichever side of the political divide it falls on. And I think that’s part of the problem too,  just as the Sorting Hat ensures nice children become nasty factionalists, so splitting ourselves into simplistic political boxes such as ‘left’ and ‘right’ means we too easily ignore the things that we might have in common with others. Yet it is precisely these commonalities, be it a love of nature, a thirst for adventure, a passion for teaching, that transcend the political divide, reminding us that we are humans before we are SJWs, Alt-Righters, Gryffindors or Slytherins. The Harry Potter novels prove that the housing system is inherently flawed (why let a fricking hat decide childrens’ fates after all!?) and while we are still living through divided and hateful times I think it worth taking a moment to imagine a future without factions, houses and Sorting Hats (so many spoilers in the video below).

Why I Left Ravenclaw

Having worked super hard at boarding school (and I mean making extra revision notes from text books sort of super hard) I got a place at Oxford University to study Philosophy and Psychology. Hurrah! Off I went to the city of dreaming spires to spend way too long in libraries reading up on the likes of Descartes, Spinoza and Derrida. It was a world of books and my philosophically inclined chums and I enjoyed spending many an hour weaving up elaborate arguments about why Mill’s Utilitarianism was better than Aristotle’s virtue ethics. If we sound like super-nerds, well, no, we just loved books, like, really loved them. We were living out our Ravenclaw fantasies and that was absolutely fine…until we graduated.

It was a little bit of a shock to discover that being able to cite Aristotle wasn’t useful for navigating office politics and/or working the photocopier. But worse than my lack of practical skills was a severe lack of humility. Spending lots of time with ancient Greek philosophers may have led me to believe I was the sh*t (at least in my own warped world where essays on Plato were the benchmark for worthiness), especially when surrounded by plenty of other Type A personalities who believed the same thing. And Oxford University itself has a brand of ‘being the sh*t’ to maintain, so it’s kind of a collective delusion based on pro-plus, overwork, low self-esteem, self-loathing and plenty of mental health problems (ok, there’s a bit of world-class research that goes on there too, apparently). So it came as a nasty surprise to learn that lots of people didn’t actually give two hoots (of a screech owl) about Aristotle, Plato or any other random man with a beard that I’d spent far too long studying. Sure, those guys get their heads put on pedestals in museums but if there’s one thing us overly heady Ravenclaws need to do, it’s climb down off our self-styled pedestals before we’re knocked off.

So I graduated, made the mistake of going back for a Masters, finally learned my lesson, and left the shadow of the dreaming spires to do other things like write blogs and stories. Yes, my time at Ravenclaw was both brilliant and bonkers, filled with insight, fun, depression and various identity crises, but I think the trick to a happier life is to try and take the wisdom acquired from learning and turn it into something practical and accessible that can change the world we’re living in. Knowledge is for everyone and it’s not for the academy to hoard it and look snobbishly down on everyone who didn’t get a place at high table. Witty, wise and clever sounds like an ace personality combo but it’s what you do that counts not how many books you’ve read. Now, can you solve the riddle?

Why Slytherin Deserves A Rebrand

When I was a teenagar I went to a boarding school in the south of England. Picture tall sandstone buildings and large quadrangles of well-cut grass. Picture hundreds of boys in grey uniforms singing the national anthem, tackling each other to the ground on rugby pitches and sharing a common disdain for the local ‘chavs’. Picture, also, rampant masculinity, repressed emotions and a punishment system that involved either an early morning run or copying an article from The Times by hand. Yes, at my boarding school I was taught all the qualities a true man should have: ambition, cunning, resourcefulness, pride (in the British class system) and an unceasing desire to win at all costs. Sound familiar? Yup, I basically went to Slytherin.

Slytherin gets all the bad rep because it’s the house that attracts most aspiring fascists. Its founder, Salazar Slytherin, was a famed racial purist who despied m*dbloods and desired only the breeding of pure-bloods. In other words, a eugenicist, Social Darwinist and sociopath. This is categorically the last person who should be put in charge of the education of minors but then maybe the same could be said for some of the teachers at my school. OK, they weren’t Neo-Nazis but sexism, racism and homophobia were often popular. Yet despite the fact that it appears Slytherin has no redeeming features whatsoever why do I think it deserves a rebrand?

Because on paper lots of the qualities a Slytherin possesses are great, it’s just the fascist bit that’s problematic. If we take ambition, resourcefulness and pride whilst maybe dropping the cunning (unless it’s the non-evil sort) and unceasing desire to win (replacing it with a healthy competitiveness), then I reckon that’s a pretty good combo. Add to them Dumbledore’s observation that Slytherins also possess “a certain disregard for the rules” then it’s clear that these snakey folk are more than capable of answering for themselves. Of course, the other key is to not put a fascist in charge. Maybe have some inspiring role models like Merlin (he went to Slytherin!), Ghandi and Brene Brown and these ambitious folks might not end up heading the Tory party, burning money in front of homeless people and/or burning money on trading floors but could form a vital part of the movement to build a just, sustainable and loving future. Don’t worry, I can hear you snorting, how could a bunch of Slytherins become nice people!? Well, I actually think this question is quite important because it’s clear we Slytherins cannot manage our own emotions and aren’t taught how, only to end up taking them out on the people around us. Furthermore, if we’re ignored or under the tutorship of fascists it’s highly likely we’ll grow up to become dysfunctional, angry people. Not only that but we’ll take over the banking system, the political system and any other hierarchical institution that promises wealth and status. And that’s not a threat, it’s just kinda true. So get us while we’re young and please, please don’t leave it to the likes of Salazar Psychopath.

Why I Hated Hufflepuff

Since I was little one of my big fears was being a loser. To avoid such a terrible fate I spent much of my youth trying to ingratiate myself with the ‘cool kids’, whether it was hanging out in the woods with the eight-year-old rebels or trying to pretend I enjoyed drinking alcohol at age sixteen. Higher education wasn’t too dissimilar as Oxford University provided all sorts of cliques to hang out with: the ‘rahs’ who wore Jack Wills and drank champagne, the ‘thesps’ who were terribly dramatic, the ‘journos’ who hacked about trying to get the best scoop and many more. Yet at age twenty-two my fear finally caught up with me and things came to a rather climactic head (to be blogged about anon). I was forced to consider that maybe I wasn’t so cool after all and was just one giant loser. Despite my best efforts it seemed the sorting hat had decided to put me in Hufflepuff.

Because isn’t that what a Hufflepuff is, a loser? I mean, their defining characteristics are being just, loyal, patient, true and unafraid of toil. They sound a little like hard-working sheep or maybe even lemmings, depending on how the mood takes them. And what even does patient mean? Do they hang around waiting for something interesting to happen whilst all the Gryffindors and Slytherins take the bull by the horns and have a fun time? And isn’t ‘unafraid of toil’ just a synonym for uber-geek? No, Hufflepuff is definitely not the house for me, I’m cool after all, aren’t I?

Well, no, as I was forced to learn the hard way, because there is nothing less cool than trying to be cool. Those self-professed ‘cool kids’ who fashion a large part of their identity on being cool and get a kick out of being cooler than others are clearly something and it ain’t cool. What they are is insecure, forming little cliques from which they can take potshots at others, regularly consoling themselves that they’re OK as long as they’re not like those dreaded losers over there. But what a sad life to live when someone spends so much time trying not to be like others rather than getting down to the hard task of being themself. Like me, I imagine they fear what’s waiting for them on the inside. Meanwhile, a true Hufflepuff doesn’t have time for trying to be cool, instead they seem pretty chill with just being themselves whilst also knowing that this is no easy task hence the patience, hard work and loyalty. So, after all this time, as I busily projected my insecurities at Hufflepuff I’ve come to realise that when those narratives of superiority and coolness die it’s clear that the Hufflepuffs are no losers. Maybe they’re the real winners because they realise being true to oneself is not a competition. Now here’s J.K telling it how it is (and not giving away any spoilers about the last book which, incidentally I still haven’t read…eek).