None so blind

I was in the pub the other night, and two men were talking loudly about feminism. They were early thirties, clearly well educated – one was a teacher – and both parents of young girls. And they felt that feminism in general and the #metoo movement in particular had gone too far.

People like Harvey Weinstein were abominations, monsters, they said. But they were incredibly rare. And because of their monstrous behaviour, all men were being unfairly accused. Most men are not monsters. Most men are good men. Good boyfriends. Good dads. Good husbands. Good friends.

They were right, while also being dangerously wrong. People like Weinstein are rare, but it’s not because abusive men are rare. It’s that most abusive men with that kind of power and privilege aren’t usually stopped. One of them, you may have noticed, is in the White House.

And yes, most men are not monsters. But every day women are harassed, exploited, abused or controlled by people who are not monsters. Good boyfriends, good dads, good husbands, good friends. Every single woman I know has endless tales of abuse: some of it in the street, some of it at work, some of it in their homes. Often by people they thought they could trust.

The guys at the bar were essentially arguing that now the likes of Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Louis CK have been exposed (although not necessarily punished: CK is making tentative steps to return to his millionaire comedy career; many other people identified in the #metoo campaign don’t seem to have suffered anything beyond bad publicity) it was time for women to stop. The problem has been solved.

The problem hasn’t been solved.

In the UK, a nine month inquiry by a government select committee has confirmed what every woman already knows. Sexual harassment of women and girls is “relentless” in bars and clubs, in universities, in parks, on public transport, on the street and on the internet. The stories my girlfriends tell me would break your heart.

Men don’t see it because they don’t experience it. And because they don’t see it, otherwise intelligent men like our two bar patrons choose to believe what they have, or rather haven’t, experienced. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’ve never made a girl or woman feel uncomfortable, pressured someone to do something they didn’t want to do, had a sexual encounter where consent was murky. Because they aren’t bad guys, no guys are bad guys.

For as long as men won’t listen to women, for as long as women’s experiences are dismissed by men who think they know better, women will continue to feel unsafe. Because they are.

Update: there was a discussion about this very thing on Radio Scotland this morning shortly after I wrote this post. As contributor and retired policeman Graham Goulden put it, “some men are the problem, all men are the solution.”

This isn’t about demonising men. It’s about recognising that the world is different for men. Men are never told to walk without wearing headphones, as women are currently being told to do in London while a serial attacker remains free. Men are never told to stay home at night when there have been a series of attacks. Men don’t have to worry about people spiking their drinks. Men don’t generally get sexually harassed at work, or fear sexual violence.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell our daughters to be careful. But we should also teach our sons not to be, associate with or defend the kind of men our daughters need to be careful of.

Make America Think Again

Incredibly, you can still buy these from the Trump campaign’s online shop.

I have some other suggestions. Turkeys for Christmas, perhaps. Women For Weinstein. Gypsies for Hitler.

The extraordinary complexity of sex determination

I’ve posted this before, but Scientific American reposted it today in light of the Trump memo.

Determination of biological sex is staggeringly complex, involving not only anatomy but an intricate choreography of genetic and chemical factors that unfolds over time. Intersex individuals—those for whom sexual development follows an atypical trajectory—are characterized by a diverse range of conditions, such as 5-alpha reductase deficiency. A small cross section of these conditions and the pathways they follow is shown here. In an additional layer of complexity, the gender with which a person identifies does not always align with the sex they* are assigned at birth, and they may not be wholly male or female. The more we learn about sex and gender, the more these attributes appear to exist on a spectrum.

This is the way our world ends

The Gender Recognition Act consultation is now closed, thank God. In the short months since it began it’s been used by conservatives to mount a shockingly vicious campaign against trans people. Some 53,000 responses had been received by Friday. That isn’t a consultation. It’s a pile-on.

It’s yet more evidence that human rights shouldn’t be subject to referendums. 75% of Americans were against civil rights for black people. 75% of people in the UK thought homosexuality was an aberration just before Section 28 made gay people’s lives hell. I have no doubt that a similar proportion of GRA responses were anti-trans. In recent years, every single referendum on equality has been poisoned by money and activists from the religious right.

As in the US, the campaign used the invented spectre of trans people as dangerous predators to argue against human rights for trans people. And as in the US, it was suspiciously well funded and clearly linked to US evangelical conservatives, with supposedly liberal voices joining the worst conservative columnists in parroting religious groups’ fact-free propaganda.

I kept waiting for left-wing, liberal commentators to look around and realise that they were thinking what Rod Liddle was thinking, what Melanie Phillips was thinking, what Richard Littlejohn was thinking. But they never did.

And when anybody had the temerity to criticise them, or even point towards some actual facts, they yelled just like the conservatives: I’m being silenced! They were silenced in the Mail, and the Times, and the Sunday Times, and the Guardian, and the New Statesman, and The Spectator, and in Private Eye, and in the Herald, and in the Scotsman, and in The National, and on Radio 4, and on Radio Scotland, and on BBC1, and on Channel 4, and in the Economist, and on social media.


Here’s how that ends.

Over the weekend, a leaked memo detailed the Trump administration’s plan to remove human rights from trans people. Trans people are not deserving of human rights, and should have those rights removed.

Human rights are universal, but here we have a government arguing quite simply that some people are less human than others.

The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by The Times. Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.

We’re not the first. The Trump administration has targeted Latinx people and people of colour. Trans people are just next on the list, a convenient proxy for all of the people religious conservatives don’t like. Trans people, gay people, lesbian people, women who want birth control, women who have abortions.

I don’t like slippery slope arguments but this is an exception. As soon as you say that some humans are less human than others, you’re on the side of evil.

Here, we’re some way behind. But you can see the wheels turning. Groups that previously said they were against Gender Recognition Act reform now advocate repeal of the original 2004 Act, and of the 2010 Equality Act. They share anti-semitic memes and accept money from anti-abortionists. They’re finding approving ears in Parliament from the likes of David Davies, whose record on not just LGBT rights but women’s rights is shockingly poor.

The strategy is working. Over on Mumsnet, where much UK anti-trans activism is discussed, supposed radical left-wing feminists are praising Trump: a sexual abuser, a defender of rapists, a harasser of women, an enemy of women’s reproductive rights.

Writing in the NYT, Jenny Boylan is sickened and saddened.

I admit that I’m reluctant to react to this latest cruelty, which is obviously just one more cynical move clearly designed to stir the pot ahead of the election. Trans people are the latest conservative whipping girl, like African-Americans in the 1950s, or gay people in the 1990s and 2000s. Nothing is more dependable now than the passion the heartless display when trans people’s humanity is offered up for mockery.

The conservatives are on the wrong side of science, of medical knowledge and of history. As the National Center for Transgender Equality points out:

In the name of preempting some misinformation, let’s talk about what this proposed rule would not do. It would not eliminate the precedents set by dozens of federal courts over the last two decades affirming the full rights and identities of transgender people. It would not undo the consensus of the medical providers and scientists across the globe who see transgender people, know transgender people, and urge everyone to accept us for who we are. And no rule — no administration — can erase the experiences of transgender people and our families. While foolish, this proposed rule deflates itself in the face of the facts, and the facts don’t care how the Trump administration feels.

But like any act of vandalism, you can do a lot of damage in a very short time. And this could have a terrible effect on the lives of the estimated 1.4 million trans people in the USA.

The longer this continues, the worse it will get. If the religious right get the freedom to discriminate against us, they will want the freedom to discriminate to discriminate against gay people, lesbian people, women. The usual targets.

If you’re white, straight, middle-class, anti-abortion and cisgender, your rights are probably okay.

But if you aren’t all of those things, you should be very frightened of anything that enables bigots to decide that some groups of people are less deserving of human rights than others.

Because once they’re done with us, they’ll come for you.

I didn’t lie

Many trans people don’t come out until later in life. We have partners, sometimes children. Revealing our secret is devastating.

I’ve been asked the same question many times:

Why didn’t you tell them?

And sometimes the subtext to that is:

Why did you lie for so long?

The honest answer is that I didn’t lie. I didn’t tell them because I didn’t know.

Clara Barnhurst articulates it very well, I think.

I didn’t tell my ex because I didn’t know. Hindsight tells me this has been with me as long as I can remember, but those clues in my history didn’t add up to knowledge.

That’s exactly how I felt. There are so many things that, now I see them in the rear view mirror, elicit an “of COURSE!”. But at the time, they didn’t. All the pieces of the puzzle were there, but it took me a very long time to realise that they were all part of the same thing.

To some extent, it’s something you actually fight against. It’s a bit like thinking about death. If you think about it, if you really, really think about it and what it means, it’s like opening the door to a howling void of madness. So you take the things that are so obvious now in retrospect and you explain them away, justify them to yourself, refuse to see the connections that will one day become so, so clear.

Some trans people “always knew”. I’m not one of them. I grew up deeply ignorant about all this stuff, aware that there was something deeply wrong but unaware of what it was, let alone what to do about it.

As one of Barnhurst’s commenters put it:

I repressed for over twenty years because I couldn’t explain my thoughts and feelings. I didn’t know what I was, so I put it in a box and tried to forget about it. I beat myself as punishment whenever I had a thought or emotion that wasn’t “right”. I forced myself to be what I was told I had to be…

I didn’t feel “trapped in the wrong body” as the cliché goes. I was terribly, life-threateningly sad and I didn’t know why.

I didn’t lie. When the Earth shifted, when it all finally made sense, I didn’t keep it a secret for years, or even months. I spent a few weeks of staring into a howling void of madness and trying to make sense of it, something I’m still trying to do. As soon as I felt able to articulate at least some of it, I tried to explain it.

Barnhurst again:

Self preservation is not deceit, and while we might all be able to look back and see whatever signs there were, that doesn’t mean we noticed them at the time.

I didn’t lie because I didn’t know.

I didn’t lie because I didn’t know.

All I wanna say is that they don’t really care about us

Stephen Paton writes in The National about the mischaracterisation of gender reform as a “trans vs feminists” debate.

With the debate so heavily influenced by these groups, it’s no wonder that a narrative proclaiming trans rights must come at the cost of women’s has found mainstream attention, while sneaky facts that contradict it have been quietly relegated to the back room.

…the reality is that feminist organisations in Scotland support self-ID. A statement from Engender, which included Close the Gap, Equate Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Women 50:50 and Zero Tolerance, made that clear.

Over on Medium, Julia Serano is sick and tired of being asked to contribute to “trans rights vs feminism” pieces.

Virtually every single person that I know who is actively involved in feminist causes and organizations, Women’s and Gender Studies departments, and so on, are supportive of trans people and issues. And all of the trans people that I personally know are supportive of feminism and women’s issues.

…There is [a] small minority of feminists who call themselves “gender critical” or “radical feminists” (and who others sometimes call “trans-exclusionary radical feminists/TERFs”) who are vehemently anti-trans.

…social conservatives and other groups who are opposed to transgender rights and gender-affirming healthcare have increasingly taken to amplifying TERF voices and appropriating certain TERF talking points — particularly the argument that transgender people somehow constitute a threat to women. Their reason for doing this is quite simple: It is far more socially palatable to frame their anti-trans policies and positions as being “pro-woman” rather than “anti-transgender.”

What we’re seeing here is the US religious right working on a global scale. It meddled in the Irish anti-abortion referendum. It’s been funding rabid anti-trans groups in the UK. It’s shovelling money into anti-LGBT referenda across Europe. It’s active in Australia, which is particularly toxic towards LGBT people of late.

While trans people are the ones currently in the firing line, the same tactics are being used against other groups. For example, the Christian Right lost the battle on equal marriage – so their new tactic is to concentrate on “gay cake” cases and position gay people as a threat to good old straight folks just trying to make an honest buck.

It targets feminism and women’s rights with false arguments such as “The #MeToo movement is framing innocent men with rape allegations”, even though the facts demonstrate that a man is 230 times more likely to be raped than to be falsely accused of rape. And so on.

And sadly, it’s working. A new study of Trump voters published this week shows that the majority of Trump supporters believe that straight white men face more discrimination than women, people of colour or LGBT people.

Trans people are often the canaries in the coal mine: the groups that come for us first will come after other groups next.

The Gender Recognition Act consultation that the religious right has poisoned ends today at 11pm. If you haven’t already completed it, Stonewall has a good guide (and it also massively reduces the time required: it only takes a couple of minutes to complete). You’ll find it here.

Bullshit is not a precious and rare commodity

One big upside of being part of a demonised minority: it saves you a fortune.

I cancelled my decades-long subscription to Private Eye yesterday: the current issue has three news stories about trans things in which it unquestioningly parroted anti-trans bullshit, picked on a trans charity and an LGBT charity and vilified a young trans woman who’s endured unspeakable abuse from anti-trans bigots both online and in real life.

I’ve also cancelled my subscription to the Guardian, a paper I’ve bought since my teens, after days of intense coverage about the GRA reform consultation in which it didn’t feature a single voice in favour of trans people, let alone the voices of any actual trans people. Its editorial about the GRA reforms this week reads like a crib sheet of Christian Right anti-LGBT “talking points”. It and the Observer have repeatedly run open letters from anti-trans activists but ignore open letters that support trans people and that call out the open hostility of too much media coverage.

I no longer buy the Sunday Times any more (another paper I bought for a couple of decades) because it’s even worse than the Daily Mail in its coverage of trans issues: when your reports are being hailed with joy by right-wing US evangelicals on social media (and in many cases, apparently dictated by them) you’ve taken a terrible wrong turn somewhere. Neither the Spectator nor the New Statesman feature in my “buy to read on the bus” list any more for similar reasons. I no longer pay to access Glasgow’s Herald since its editorial swing to tired, right-wing “let’s trigger the snowflakes” clickbait.

Supportive advert in Metro UK

Trans allies generally don’t make it into the newspapers unless they pay for advertising, as they did with this Metro UK advert. Unlike the anti-trans activists, their open letters don’t get published.

This isn’t silencing debate, or refusing to hear different opinions.

It’s refusing to pay for bullshit.

Bullshit is not a precious and rare commodity. There’s tons of it online, completely free. I don’t need to pay to have someone put it through my letterbox too.

Refusing to pay is not the same as refusing to listen to differing opinions. It’s just refusing to support low quality content.

For many years I’ve paid to read The Guardian and The Observer, even though various news apps I use enable me to read their articles (legally) for free and often without ads. I paid because I believe that good journalism is something worth paying for. But recently, there has been an influx of journalism that is not good, and which is not worth paying for.

I’m not refusing to read Guardian articles. I’m just not willing to pay to read them any more.

I’m under no illusion that me cancelling anything makes the slightest difference to the organisations running biased and sometimes blatantly malicious content. Although you’ve got to wonder at the wisdom of alienating any customers when like The Guardian, you’re begging every website visitor to throw you some coins to try and stay in business. But generally speaking these businesses don’t need my money.

Others do, though. And what I can do – what I do do, and what I’d hope other LGBT people and their allies also do – is use the money I’d normally spend to do something positive: to help crowdfund or otherwise donate to content that isn’t hateful, to buy books by people who know what they’re talking about but who don’t get columns in newspapers, to donate to valuable charities that Private Eye calls activists while it approvingly quotes groups affiliated with the anti-abortion, anti-LGBT Christian Right.

You don’t even need to spend money. You can refuse to click on obvious hate-clickbait. You can point your browser (with ad-block disabled) to sites that don’t publish hateful content. You can signal boost positive voices on your social media.

None of these things will harm your bank balance, and none of them will harm your mental health either.

“My editors shouldn’t have to receive emails calling for my death”

Dawn Foster has written a brave, gut-wrenching, important piece about online misogyny and abuse.

The majority of men are not like this, but unbidden, I find myself more on guard than I ever was before. Too many men have proudly sent lengthy pen portraits of my imagined rape, murder or maiming, glutted with detail, and have expended plenty of energy on these dreams. These men aren’t easy to spot on public transport, and now I’m warier than I have been at any other point in my life.

I have only experienced a tiny fraction of what women like Foster have experienced. But even then I find myself thinking about online abusers when I’m on public transport, or in a crowd. Can I tell which of these people are hateful bastards just by looking at them? Is it him? Or him? Or her?

As Foster writes:

The internet is still seen as the Wild West – a consequence-free zone where normal social mores can be cast off as cumbersome shackles.

We’ve been played. The tech firms told us that we needed free speech, but what they really meant was they needed freedom from taking responsibility for the shit being pumped through their servers. YouTube has become a radicalisation machine. Facebook is implicated in genocide – genocide! – in Myanmar. Twitter has become a megaphone for bigots of all stripes.

Online spaces are no different from real world spaces. We decide what’s acceptable, and what isn’t. For too long we’ve been accepting the unacceptable. And the longer we shrug it off, the worse it will become.

Pronouns and elegance

My previous post about How To Write Good included some really inelegant pronoun use: I wrote about “she/he” in connection with an unnamed, entirely imaginary writer. That looked and read awfully, so I changed it to “s/he”. Which made it worse.

It turns out that it’s better to avoid gendering things that don’t need to be gendered. Instead of he or she, the singular pronoun “they” is much more elegant.

This is hardly a zany new thing. “They” has been an acceptable singular pronoun for the last 500 years or so, as the Grammarly blog points out:

Merriam-Webster includes usage examples of the singular they dating back to Shakespeare, with notable additions from the likes of Jane Austen and even the traditionalist W. H. Auden.

The blog also features this wonderful bit of trivia.

Unfortunately for prescriptivists, English is constantly changing—and always has been. Some words that grammar pedants scoff at as obnoxious neologisms were in fact coined as long ago as the nineteenth century. Take “dude” for example. Reviled by grammar trolls the world over, this term has provoked the ire of multiple generations of fuddy-duddies. But did you know that it has its roots in late nineteenth-century British dandyism?

One of the reasons we get so excised about gender-neutral pronouns is because of our old pal the patriarchy. Grammarly again:

Traditionally, he was the default pronoun for a person whose gender you didn’t know

He is the default because male is the default: you only need to specify otherwise if the person you’re talking to is not male. That’s just rude.

William Lily there, mansplaining in 1567.

…Using the singular they makes English a more efficient language, and it helps us to avoid awkward sentence constructions. More importantly, it allows you to avoid making assumptions about the gender of a person you don’t know.

It also makes my blog posts slightly better. Everybody wins!

Simplicity is good

The image is from an excellent blog post by Shane O’Leary, which you can read here.

[Update: My friend Chris Phin, who is an editor and therefore always right, has pointed out that I am of course describing practical writing here, not writing as an art form in its own right. I’d better clarify that before I get picketed by poets.]

Most writing exists for a reason, and that reason is usually to share information. The information might be a warning, or it might be advice, or it might be how to do something. The writer’s job is to share that information in the right way. The right way is usually to simplify it, simplify it, and then simplify some more.

Sometimes we get it wrong by accident. If you’re immersed in a particular world you may have a knowledge and a vocabulary that people outside that world don’t. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using jargon or relying on concepts that you understand but that your readers might not. It’s an honest mistake and we all do it.

Sometimes, though, it’s deliberate. It’s the writer deciding that the message they really need to communicate is “I am clever!” or “I have read a book!”

And that’s where terrible writing comes from.

I recently read a live review that said:

They have appeal and they appeal to us. Through the sociologically objective to the psychological subjectivism of introspection: Moving from the political protest to mind games of the self.

That’s not writing. That’s not even typing.

Writing is usually there to do a job, to answer a question: how do I make this work? What did the government decide today? What do you think about this topic? Should you see this band if they’re playing near you?

Answering those questions doesn’t mean you must write in a boring way. But it does mean that you must answer the question you were asked, not the question you wish you had been asked. For example, a live review is supposed to answer the question “what was the gig like?” and perhaps tell you if you should get tickets for the next date.

Good writing needn’t be dull writing. Here’s the late Douglas Adams describing spaceships.

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way bricks don’t.

That’s very simple writing, but it’s doing a ton of work. It’s a joke, of course. But it’s also a very effective description. These aren’t the sleek, silvery spaceships of most speculative fiction. These are bricks. Awful ships. Tedious ships. Ugly, utilitarian, unloveable ships. These are the sort of ships you get when you’re English, in England, in the 1980s. The kind of spaceships your local council would commission. Spaceships that probably close for no reason every third Wednesday. Spaceships full of traffic cones and No Ball Games signs.

All that in just 13 words.

And of course, there’s the famous probably-not-by-Hemingway six word story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

These are from fiction, of course. There isn’t as much room for humour or imagination in more everyday kinds of writing. But you can still say an awful lot without very many words. For example:

Signs are a great example, because their job is to impart information in the simplest possible way. This sign doesn’t have time for big words and lyrical flourishes. What is dangerous, and why should you keep out? We don’t have time for that! There is danger! You must keep out!

Alliterate by all means. Sprinkle metaphors like malt vinegar on the crinkle-cut chips that comprise your copy. Demonstrate your vocabulary with sesquipedalian style. But never forget that your words are there to do a job, and if they don’t do that job then you’re wasting everybody’s time.

As the Swedish popsters Roxette once put it: don’t bore us, get to the chorus!