The tedious mediocrity of the “anti-woke”

Novelist and journalist Huw Lemmey asks why the UK media is so obsessed with demonising the “woke”.

The English media is in the middle of a full-throated culture war, from bendy bananas to woke snowflakes, Stormzy to burqas, trans rights to free speech on campus. It seems like over the past decade the intensification of that journalism, combined with the exaggerating effect of social media on editorial choice, has created a print and TV comment culture dedicated to creating a popular spook or ogre, then to ripping it apart. The English press has developed into a unique combination of bullying and blackmail, where a relentlessly vicious tone of mockery and enforced conformity is policed with the justification that either the enemy is at the school gates, or that their furious mockery is “only banter”. In the process, from sheer incuriosity, a whole generation of journalists have confused disagreement with taking offence, criticism with trolling.

…if you want to know what “woke” means, and why a “woke elite” are trying to shut down all criticism, why not read Andrew Doyle’s new book, ‘Woke’, in character as Titania McGrath, with glowing reviews from Rod Liddle, Sarah Vine and Ricky Gervais? Why not read Brendan O’Neill’s spiked editorial on Markle, “A woke Wallis Simpson”? Why not read Rod Liddle’s latest on the “wokeplace romance”? Why not check out Toby Young on how the Labour Party got woke and broke? Why not see what Sarah Vine likes so much about Ricky Gervais, “the Wokefinder General”? Why not read Helen Lewis on the superwoke elite, or listen to Helen Lewis on the News Quiz, supposedly the country’s leading news satire radio programme, where the assassination of Soleimani revolved around a joke that the Left wouldn’t have criticised the attack if the Iranian general had misgendered someone.

As Lemmey points out, the attack lines and tropes are so lazy that last week, Rod Liddle and Giles Coren wrote almost identical articles with almost identically unfunny jokes. I guess it makes a change from using pseudonymous social media accounts to post racist or antisemitic messages.

I thought this bit was interesting.

We are reaching the culture war singularity. To all intents and purposes, in terms of England, the right have won the culture war on most fronts. But now they’re left with a problem — they need an enemy. After we leave, and Francois has had his bongs, what replaces the narrative of EU tyranny that has driven English Euroscepticism?

We’re starting to see the answer to that. It’s the blacks, and the gays, and the trans, and the young, and the feminists, and anyone else who can be dismissed as “woke”. It’s no coincidence that the people spearheading this backlash are white, straight, cisgender, middle-aged and largely male; the people who applaud them on social media are from the same demographic.

The thing about being “woke” is that being woke is a good thing. It means being aware of injustice in society, particularly racism.

The Guardian:

Criticising “woke culture” has become a way of claiming victim status for yourself rather than acknowledging that more deserving others hold that status. It has gone from a virtue signal to a dog whistle.

What we’re seeing here is exactly what happened with political correctness: the perversion of a term by right-wingers in an attempt to claim that the real victims are the people who have all the power.

Comedian Stewart Lee skewered that one a decade ago.

The only time you ever see PC mentioned is when people are complaining about PC. For money. And usually on the very publicly funded radio stations that these dicks believe are involved in a politically correct conspiracy to silence them.

At home with the Hitlers

This week, the BBC introduced people to the “tradwife” movement – “a growing movement of women who promote ultra-traditional gender roles”. The tone of the piece is warm and fluffy, and says that people who claim “tradwives” are connected with the far right are mistaken.

The BBC is very wrong on this. “Tradwife” is yet another example of neo-Nazi signifiers moving into the mainstream because organisations such as the BBC don’t do sufficient research.

This information is hardly difficult to find; for example, the New York Times covered the phenomenon in 2018.

Enter the tradwives.

Over the past few years, dozens of YouTube and social media accounts have sprung up showcasing soft-spoken young white women who extol the virtues of staying at home, submitting to male leadership and bearing lots of children — being “traditional wives.” These accounts pepper their messages with scrapbook-style collections of 1950s advertising images showing glamorous mothers in lipstick and heels with happy families and beautiful, opulent homes. They give their videos titles like “Female Nature and Advice for Young Ladies,” “How I Homeschool” and “You Might be a Millennial Housewife If….”

But running alongside what could be mistaken for a peculiar style of mommy-vlogging is a virulent strain of white nationalism.

Nicolette Michelle, writing on Medium:

By mobilizing sites like Twitter, the #tradwife, as they label themselves, are utilizing their social platforms to spread white nationalist ideologies, all under the domestic guise of be a perfect wife, and you’ll live a perfect life, but as long as it’s also a white life… their way of life and thinking is almost eerily cult-like, especially with their emphasis on preserving the European race and disdain towards anyone that is non-white.

TradwivesSeyward Darby, writing on about the women activists in the far-right movement:

On her website, [Ayla] Stewart promotes #tradlife—traditionalist homemaking and white culture—and the “white baby challenge,” in which she encourages “white people to have children to combat demographic decline.”

…Once in the fold, women are potent disseminators of racist ideology, palatable voices who provide the Far Right with a thin, dangerous veneer of feminine domesticity and normalcy.

As the NYT writer Annie Kelly noted two years ago:

Tradwives may seem like a lunatic fringe at present, but they may not stay one for long.

Especially not if organisations such as the BBC whitewash – pun fully intended – where the movement comes from.

“On Jan. 6, 2000, I did it.”

Jennifer Finney Boylan writes in the New York Times about her 20th anniversary of coming out as trans.

So much has changed since then. In some ways, this country has become safer, as more and more of us step forward to proclaim our realness.

In other ways, we’re more threatened than ever.

When I came out, no one had yet been schooled on the finer points of hating me; most bigots in this country didn’t know a trans woman from the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Because my existence was so far off their radar, few people had bothered to come up with laws to make my life worse.

She asks herself a question that I’ve been asked too: if you had known what you know now, if you had known the hatred and ignorance that would become part of your everyday reality simply for existing, would you still have come out?

Would it have deterred me, if I had known for certain that the world would also contain truly heartless and terrible people, at least one of whom would eventually become the president? It would not.

I would still have gone about the business of becoming myself.

That would be my answer too.

From the reading list

I’ve made a conscious effort to stay off Twitter outside of working hours, partly because it’s full of terrible people and primarily because it’s a waste of time I could be putting to much better use by making music and reading books. Here are a few things I’ve read in the last few weeks that I’d heartily recommend.

This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else, Jon Savage

An oral history of Joy Division, one of the UK’s most important bands. I thought I’d heard it all before – I’ve read lots of books about Joy Division and by members of Joy Division – but it turns out I hadn’t. The book’s a little pretentious in places, but that tends to happen with this band.

Here’s a fascinating pop anecdote: I once met the late Tony Wilson, Joy Division’s label boss and indie music legend. He told me he didn’t like my T-shirt.

The Bi-Ble, various contributors

A collection of personal essays about bisexuality. I found this absolutely fascinating, and not just because I know and admire some of the contributors.

Queer Intentions, Amelia Abraham

Part memoir, part travelogue, Queer Intentions is compelling and fascinating: Abraham travels the world to discover how LGBT+ people live and love. The book covers everything from the sass of drag conventions to the brave souls marching for Pride in very anti-LGBT+ parts of Eastern Europe. I bought this one from Category Is books, Glasgow’s very best bookshop.

Hotel World, Ali Smith

There are huge gaps in my knowledge of Scots writers – for example, I haven’t read Alastair Gray’s famous Lanark; it’s currently in the to-read pile next to the sofa – and that means Ali Smith is new to me. A friend gave me There But For The, which I loved, and then loaned me Hotel World, which I loved even more. I was in bits at the end.

Since We Fell, Dennis Lehane

It’s been a while since I devoured a big daft thriller, and this is very big and very daft. Lehane is a fantastic writer and the first half of Since We Fell is superb; the second half, while fast and gripping, gets very silly indeed. This is a gourmet cheeseburger of a book: it might be a cheeseburger, but it’s a very good cheeseburger.

The people who matter

Three years ago today, I came out to most of my friends and colleagues. I don’t know what I expected, but I definitely didn’t expect the outpouring of love and support – both of which are still very much evident now.

I know some people who read this blog are in the place I was in a few years ago: trying to make sense of it all and scared shitless by the prospect of coming out, which will surely mean public humiliation at the hands of angry mobs. But my experience, and the experience of many trans and non-binary people I know, is that the pitchfork-wielding mobs you imagine don’t exist in the real world. Even online, where they appear to be everywhere, they’re a very small minority.

There’s an old phrase I found pretty helpful and pretty accurate: “the people who matter don’t mind; the people who mind don’t matter”. That’s probably an understatement: the support I’ve had from some of my friends and family goes far beyond “don’t mind”.

I’m not going to pretend that coming out is easy or that you’ll get through it with all your current relationships intact. It’s not the easiest road to walk. But I found, and I think you’ll find too, that there are many good people who will walk at least some of it with you.

This is why we change our birth certificates


Interesting news from Northern Ireland, where Ava Moore (pictured) has reached a £9,000 settlement with Debenhams over its refusal to hire her because she is transgender.

I’ve written before about how Gender Recognition Certificates, which enable trans people to change the gender marker on their birth certificates, are designed to protect trans people from discrimination. While this case took place in Northern Ireland where anti-discrimination legislation is slightly different from the rest of the UK, it’s a good example of why it can be important for trans people’s documentation to match their lived gender.

ITV News:

Ava said: “This job was exactly what I’d been looking for and I thought that I’d be really good at it. However, during the course of the interview I felt a change in the atmosphere after I provided my birth certificate which discloses my gender history and the fact that I am a transgender woman.”

After being formally informed of the decision by Debenhams not to employ her, Ava received an anonymous email which alleged that she had been unsuccessful in her job application because she is a transgender woman.

I know a woman who experienced something similar: when she was invited to a job interview for a position she was eminently qualified for, she was asked to bring her birth certificate to demonstrate her eligibility to work in the UK. As she was not then eligible to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate to change the gender on her birth certificate, her paperwork revealed her trans history to her potential employer. She didn’t get the job.

While fantasists fill endless column inches with invented scares about the supposed dangers of gender recognition reform, dangers that have not materialised in any other country with more flexible gender recognition legislation, the unnecessary difficulty and expense of getting a Gender Recognition Certificate means there will be other men and women like her and like Ava Moore.

Nobody has to produce their birth certificate to go to the toilet, but many people have to bring their birth certificates to job interviews.

Travelling while trans

Owl Stefania writes in Metro about her experiences travelling as a trans person.

‘Are you sure this is your passport, ma’am?’ the passport controller asked me while writing something down on her computer. With a large amount of anxiety about what was to come, I nodded and said yes, it certainly was my passport. She frowned a little in confusion, then said, while staring intently at me: ‘This passport says “male” but you’re obviously female’.

I don’t travel much these days but when I do, the ID thing is a major source of stress: like Stefania I’ve been the one holding up the queue while desk agents (loudly) try to decide whether I’m trans or a terrorist. It’s excruciatingly embarrassing and you don’t relax until the plane’s actually taken off: until then you’re convinced security is going to come looking for you and prevent you from flying.

It’s a good example of how trans people’s lives are often easier the closer they conform to gender stereotypes (stereotypes they’re then criticised for upholding by anti-trans activists): my passport has a big F on it, and the more stereotypically female I present the less confusion there is at the airport and the less likely I am to be the person holding you up. This is one reason why many countries now offer an X for non-binary people: it eliminates the confusion that can occur when the passport says A but the presentation is neither A nor B.

The stress doesn’t stop when you’re checked in. There’s airport security scanning and pat downs, which is a whole other world of fun – although to be fair we’re relatively good at this in the UK. In the US, many trans people have been treated appallingly by airport security staff.

Given the choice, I’d rather take the train than fly. Train travel is hardly perfect but it’s a more relaxed experience if you’re travelling while trans (assuming your carriage doesn’t contain any arseholes, of course. That’s a whole other set of fears. And of course train travel has many other problems compared to flying).

Being LGBT+ doesn’t just affect how you travel. It affects where you can travel to. Stefania:

Every time I go somewhere overseas I have to consider whether I am going to be safe as transgender person. There are countries that I wouldn’t even consider traveling to due to hostile attitudes towards people like me and with good reason.

That’s something I do too. If you’re cisgender and/or straight it’s something you don’t have to think about, but if you aren’t then something as simple as planning a family holiday involves a whole extra level of research because some countries are actively hostile to LGBT+ people. For some of us, the key criteria in choosing a city break isn’t the price or what’s on; it’s whether those streets are safe for us to walk down.

Nobody should be forced to come out

Popular YouTube beauty blogger Nikkie de Jager, aka NikkieTutorials, has come out to her many millions of followers as transgender.

It wasn’t her choice: as Stylist magazine points out, she came out because unnamed persons were threatening to “out” her to the press.

That isn’t just a gross invasion of privacy, although of course it is: somebody’s decision about when (or if) to come out and who to come out to is entirely their business, and being outed or forced to come out can mean having to deal with a lot of really big stuff before the person is ready or able to deal with it. Coming out is hard even if you are ready and do have support; it’s harder still if you aren’t and don’t.

Outing somebody is also very dangerous.

As Stylist notes:

Online harassment and abuse of transgender people has been on the increase in recent years, and it has been especially prevalent on YouTube.

While the initial reaction to de Jager’s announcement has been positive, she’ll now receive transphobic abuse on every YouTube clip she posts – and she may experience worse. High profile trans women are often on the receiving end of terrible online abuse, some of it orchestrated by even higher profile Twitter users who send the mob after anyone they disapprove of. The abuse some LGBT+ people experience online has led them to take their own lives; the fear of it has led others to do the same.

As Harron Walker writes on Vice, outing trans women is nothing new: it happened to Bond actress Caroline Cossey, effectively ending her modelling career.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, Cossey recalled:

the tabloids were able to destroy my professional career and even my personal life, fueled by the ignorant thinking about transgender people in mainstream society and the laws of those times.

It was a similar story for Tracey Africa and April Ashley, who were also outed by the tabloids. Vice:

De Jager might have been the one to release her coming out video, but only after her would-be blackmailers forced her hand. Four decades after a hairdresser’s assistant outed Tracey Africa on the set of an Essence shoot and News of the World published Caroline Cossey’s backstory without her consent, transness remains a liability to a woman’s career, one that can be weaponized against her even if she chooses not to make it known.

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons we have the Gender Recognition Act in the UK: under Section 22 of the Act it’s an offence for someone in an official capacity to disclose that the possessor of a Gender Recognition Certificate has a trans history, for example by selling the story to a tabloid newspaper (although here’s a fun fact: the number of prosecutions brought under Section 22 in the 16 years since the law was introduced is zero).

Of course, the threat of outing by the tabloids has long been used not just against trans women, but against LGBT+ people more generally. Just this month Lib Dem MP Layla Moran was forced to come out as pansexual because the newspapers were about to out her.

over the last couple of months journalists have been sniffing around this story. They’ve asked friends, made indirect approaches, and more recently, very direct approaches to people I know, asking for information about my personal life.

One of the newspapers that was about to out her, the Mail on Sunday, then accused her of “weaponising” her sexuality to “look woke” and quoted the usual rabble of Mumsnet trolls saying awful things. Hell hath no fury like a tabloid deprived of its salacious scoop.

And salacious is all that it is. What kind of people Layla Moran loves, what genitals Nikkie de Jager was born with, are none of our damn business. Moran isn’t hypocritically pushing an anti-LGBT+ agenda in her politics; de Jager’s history is not relevant to her celebrity. And yet the tabloids and their demonic helpers will happily expose and potentially damage their private lives for a fast buck because web clicks matter more than ethics.

Many of us will look back at the 80s outing of Caroline Cossey and consider it a despicable invasion of privacy, but in 2020 the tabloids are still doing it. Not only that, but they’re approaching LGBT+ people with Hobson’s choice: try to stay closeted and we’ll out you; spoil our scoop and we’ll do our best to destroy you.

As Moran wrote:

It’s possible that to some journalists and readers this is a jolly jape where they get one over me, but to me, this is my life.

Stewart Lee on Ricky Gervais

My favourite comedian isn’t pulling any punches.

[Jeremy Clarkson’s and Boris Johnson’s] careers have flourished by exploiting the notion that they are lone voices of sanity against a politically correct snowflake cabal intent on silencing normal blokes like them. Their comedy counterpart Ricky Gervais has managed to monetise this notion spectacularly, saying the things that he is apparently not allowed to say, on a variety of global media platforms, for millions of dollars, with the full co-operation and approval of the legal representatives of the institutions on which, and about which, he says the things he is not allowed to say, his functionally adequate standup act having been overpromoted worldwide off the back of his pitch-perfect contribution to the ground-breaking Office sitcom two decades ago.