The capital-T truth is about life before death

In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech to students at Kenyon College. It’s one of my very favourite things, and I keep meaning to post a link to it here.

David Foster Wallace: This is Water (PDF)

For the young people who apparently want everything as video, the YouTube version is here.

Sometimes you come across a piece that manages to express something in a way that pierces your soul. It could be a song, or a painting, a throwaway line or a speech given by a writer to a bunch of teenagers. This, for me, is one of those. I’ve read it more times than I’ve listened to Joe Le Taxi, and I’ve listened to Joe Le Taxi a lot.

I don’t want to spoil it — it’s beautifully crafted, terribly sad and incredibly empowering. But I’ll admit that Wallace’s death hit me very hard: I think he succumbed to the very demons his piece helped free me from.

I hope you find it as powerful as I did, and still do.

This is water.

This is water.

The sexual harassment Santa Claus

The news that Time Magazine made the sexual harassment “silence breakers” their Person of the Year (instead of giving it to the Harasser-in-Chief, who clearly thought the accolade should be his) has resulted in pretty much what you’d expect: cries of “not all men”, whataboutery and barely disguised victim blaming.

The reaction to the topic on the Facebook page of BBC Scotland’s Kaye Adams programme this morning was pretty typical. I’ll give you a flavour. See if you can guess which gender the commenters are.

Females“.

No nice people say “females” instead of “women”.

Women can’t be trusted. They just make this stuff up to ruin men’s careers.

A woman co-worker told me I had a nice bum, and I do, but it’s not fair.

Male models are objectified too but you don’t hear anybody complaining.

“Is it still okay to say hello to a woman or is that sexual harassment?”

Ooh, let’s think. Is saying hello to somebody exactly the same as, say, forcing them to watch you wank onto a potted plant?

“What about the female teachers that have sex with young lads at school?”

We can all play this game. What about sunrise? What about rain? Fucking magnets, how do they work?

I’m not claiming the moral high ground here or claiming to be different from the other guys (although of course I am. There aren’t many Carries out there in guy land). But arguing against people speaking out about harassment is like claiming kiddie-fiddling is the fault of sexy kids. That is not the side of the argument you want to be on.

Not the real Santa.

No, it isn’t all men, but it’s a hell of a lot of them. There’s no sexual harassment Santa Claus, travelling the world abusing all the women all by himself.

If it isn’t you, then it’s somebody you know. Maybe your colleague, your guitar player, your golf pal.

This isn’t just the occasional guy making an awkward but good hearted attempt at wooing (shut up, Morrissey. You’re the indie Katie Hopkins). It’s the lived experience of almost every woman you know. Men, even male models and men in lycra cycling shorts, do not experience the crap that women do.

This isn’t women suddenly speaking up. This is women finally being listened to. If you’re telling them to be quiet, you’re part of the problem.

Dad / daughter music maths

 

My musical career

Age: 45

Years playing gigs: 25

Gigs played: 100s

Disastrous gigs played: 100s

Gigs that ended in ignominy, in financial disaster, with chairs being thrown into ponds, with destruction or theft of equipment, with credible threats of physical violence or with severe chafing: too many to count

Most prestigious venues: Glasgow Barrowlands (opening for Mansun), T in the Park (unsigned stage)

Biggest crowd: Barrowlands, 1,000ish (probably a lot less)

My daughter’s musical career

Age: 10

Years playing gigs: <1

Gigs played: 2

Disastrous gigs played: 0

Gigs that ended in ignominy, in financial disaster, with chairs being thrown into ponds, with destruction or theft of equipment, with credible threats of physical violence or with severe chafing: 0

Most prestigious venues: Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow School of Art

Biggest crowd: Concert Hall, c. 2,475

I always knew she’d outshine me, but I didn’t think it’d happen quite so quickly.

Broadcast me a joyful noise

 

I was at the Royal Concert Hall tonight for my daughter’s latest on-stage adventure, this time being in the East Dunbartonshire Children’s Choir as part of the Glasgow schools’ Christmas concert.

As you’d expect, it was too long. There were too many people being thanked. The supposed finale was — surprise! — false hope, the calm before a medley that was longer than many wars. By the end many of the parents had gone feral, avoiding dehydration by making the smaller children cry and harvesting their tears.

And yet.

My daughter grinning when her choir’s first song ended in loud applause;

The extraordinary sound of human voices in harmony, of an orchestra ebbing and flowing, of many pipers piping;

Tearing up at tiny kids in kilts doing a very beautiful version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, a beautiful song made even more so by being sung in Gaelic, a very beautiful and musical language;

The joy of special needs kids doing a gloriously ramshackle version of I’m A Believer, every single cantankerous old bastard in the place (hello!) forgetting their cynicism and basking in the sheer happiness of those beaming faces as they lost themselves in the music, in the moment.

We forget sometimes, I think. We live in a world of “fake news” and vicious social media trolling and people trying to divide us, to isolate us from others, to amplify the tiny differences between us and to minimise the many things that we all share. And that sometimes makes us forget that we’re all people who are capable of songs and symphonies and anthems and laments, people who can be thousands of perfect strangers but be made fast friends through the power of violins and voices and woodwinds and whispers and pianos and pipes.

“I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand”

Dig, if you will, the picture. It’s 1987. You’re fifteen, trans — although you don’t know that’s what it’s called yet — and you live in Scotland, home of anodyne pop singers such as Sheena Easton.

You turn on the TV, and there’s bona fide musical genius Prince. And there’s… Sheena Easton?

But it’s Sheena Easton as you’ve never seen her before. Her face was, as Prince put it, jammin’. Her body was, as he also put it, heck a-slammin’. Ever coy, Prince suggested they should get together for some, ahem, rammin’.

 

I’m scared to rewatch it in case time hasn’t been kind, but I remember it as one of the most astonishingly sexual pop videos to make it onto prime time TV. It sounded astonishingly sexual too, the grinding, stabbing synths and distorted guitar blending in a way I can’t describe without sounding like a pretentious arse.

Not only that, but there was role reversal too. Prince was going through his androgynous Camille phase, and in U Got The Look it was clear that he was (at least role-playing as) submissive with Easton very much in charge. And when Easton hit the ecstatic high note of “bay-behhhhhhhh!”…

Oh. My. God.

Feminine man with gorgeous woman? The bit of my brain responsible for identity and sexuality must have looked like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise when under alien attack.

I don’t know if Prince was trans, although he famously sang “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand” and wrote the astonishingly beautiful “If I was your girlfriend” — a song where he fantasises not about getting close to her for some “rammin’”,  but washing her hair and just hanging out. Obviously it’s Prince so he does end up naked by the end, but it doesn’t come across as predatory or macho. It’s sexy as hell.

Trans or not, Prince was an extraordinarily feminine man. As his own song put it, he was a sexy MF — and he was a sexy MF in a period where that was very weird indeed.

Writing in Fusion magazine, director Dodai Stewart writes⁠1:

The year is 1980. Many states still have sodomy laws. The radio is playing feel-good ear candy like Captain and Tennille and KC and the Sunshine Band. TV hits include the sunny, toothy blond shows Three’s Company and Happy Days. There’s no real word for “gender non-conforming.” But here’s what you see: A man. Clearly a man. Hairy, mostly naked body, cock bulging beneath a satiny bikini bottom. But those eyes. Rimmed in black, like a fantasy belly dancer. The full, pouty lips of a pin-up girl. Long hair. A tiny, svelte thing. Ethnically ambiguous, radiating lust. What is this? A man. Clearly a man. No. Not just a man. A Prince.

[On MTV] A man. Clearly a man. A black man. Slight of stature, narrow of hip. Rising to global popularity in the 1980s, at the same time as another major American export: Hip-hop. A genre in which many black male artists releasing music on shelves alongside Prince’s albums—Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Ice Cube—projected an urban toughness. Leather jackets thick as armor, heavy gold chains, bold aggression. But Prince was a flirtatious, peacock pastiche made of diamonds and pearls, a dandy in paisley and lace. Some rappers’ personas aligned with the age-old oversexed, “primitive,” mandingo stereotype invented by white slaveowners. Prince defied stereotypes, period.

…Black men don’t wear makeup. Straight black men don’t wear makeup. And women aren’t attracted to a straight black man in makeup. But he did. They were.

Oh, Prince. You sexy motherfucker.

 

Some of Prince’s femininity was for shock value — the trenchcoat, stockings and heels of his early career were primarily about pissing off the prudes, something Prince took great delight in doing: his “Darling Nikki”, in which he described the eponymous Nikki as a “sex fiend… in a hotel lobby, masturbating with a magazine”, prompted the wife of a US Senator to create the Parents Music Resource Center, whose “Parental Advisory” stickers would appear on records until people no longer made records; more importantly, it’s a hilarious, cheeky, sexy and wonderful piece of perfect pop music — and his heels were handy for a man who was famously petite.

 

Nevertheless, Prince blurred gender roles, preached sexual freedom (let’s skip over the opposition to gay marriage after he became a Jehovah’s Witness) and nurtured the careers of many extraordinarily talented women. All that and writing Nothing Compares 2 U for Sinead O’Connor.

I never saw him live — bastard touts robbed me of that opportunity when he played Glasgow in 2014 — and regret that deeply.

When he died aged just 57, it felt like the universe had lost a colour.

Guys? Be more like Prince.

1 https://splinternews.com/on-prince-blackness-and-sexuality-1793856349

A quick word about words

Gendered language is weird sometimes. The comedian Frankie Boyle does a hilarious and uncharacteristically safe routine about the early French deciding which gender various inanimate objects were, so for example a lemon was clearly male⁠1 because a lemon is a little yellow man.  And some language is unnecessarily gendered, such as “firemen” when “firefighters” would work just as well.

Sometimes requests for inclusive language are hailed as examples of “political correctness gone mad”, but I can’t see what’s wrong with wanting language to be inclusive rather than exclusive. If the gender of the person isn’t relevant, why do we need to know it?

 

Airline stewards and stewardesses, police men and women, actors and actresses, hunters and huntresses, waiters and waitresses, chairmen and chairwomen, comedians and comediennes… it’s the same job whether they’re male or female. The configuration of their genitals has no impact on how they help passengers, fight crime, pretend to be other people, track creatures, serve coffee, run meetings or tell jokes⁠2.

Imagine if every time we mentioned a person we had to add “…who is a man”, “…who is a woman” or “…who is trans” immediately afterwards. We’d quickly get sick of it: the ugliness of it, the unnecessariness of it. We’d stop doing it fairly quickly. We should do the same with gendered words when the gender is completely irrelevant.

Titles are pretty straightforward for people who aren’t trans. If you’re a man, you’re a Mr. If you’re a woman, you’re generally expected to indicate whether you’re the property of a man or sexually available at this point, because the world is often stupid and terrible. But it’s even more stupid for some trans people.

Some trans people are fine with Mr or Ms, or even Miss and Mrs. But others aren’t, and would like to use a title that’s gender neutral. So for example you might be Mr Don or Ms George, but I might not be either.

We have a word for that: Mx, pronounced “mix”.

 

No, not that little Mx.

Some people have a real problem with Mx and related titles.

When HSBC announced that it would let its trans customers choose from ten titles⁠3 on their bank statements, cards and apps, people were appalled. Commenting on the story in a newspaper I don’t need to name, the why oh why brigade were out in force.

Here’s Mr Simmons, who clearly thinks grammar is his mum’s mum:

There’s two genders, male and female, that is it so none of this nonsense just Mr, Mrs, Miss or Master.

Cookie Cat, who is a cat:

I’ve got a title for the dweebs who come up with this nonsense….Prat.

Dolly Duck, who is a duck:

the world has now totally gone mad, who needs a title whats wrong with just stating your name this is absolute nonsense

Doing It Tuff, who is of course the son of Dave and Irene Tuff:

OMG. I would choose all of them just to hear some idiot try and get their tongue round it. HSBC should have more important things to worry about.

Mariama Deep, who seems to think the new titles are compulsory for everyone and doesn’t bank there anyway:

I want to be called by title which is, Mrs. If I had an account with this bank, I would leave.

Carine 88, daughter of Olivia and Brian 88:

oh please , ffs

(Incidentally, 88 is often used in the user names of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in a kind of secret handshake kind of way: it’s shorthand for Heil Hitler. I suspect here it’s a year of birth, but that’s not going to stop me posting my go-to GIF:)

I use this a lot.

Lakesider, who identifies as something that is next to a lake:

As a shareholder in HSBC, I shall be letting them know that I object to this shocking waste of money pandering to the whims of a tiny number of PC obsessed fools.

And last but not least, Julian And Sandy, who thinks he is two people.

World’s gone mad.

Is the the world that’s mad, Julian and Sandy, or is you? Maybe it’s one of you, or maybe it’s the other one. Maybe it’s both!

It’s not just HSBC either. The Royal Opera House⁠4 uses Mx too, as well as many other silly, probably made-up titles such as:

Advocate, Ambassador, Baron, Baroness, Brigadier, Canon, Chaplain, Chancellor, Chief, Col, Comdr, Commodore, Councillor, Count…

 

…Countess, Dame, Dr, Duke of, Earl, Earl of, Father, General, Group Captain, H R H The Duchess of, H R H The Duke of, H R H The Princess, HE Mr, HE Senora, HE The French Ambassador M, His Highness, His Hon, His Hon Judge, Hon, Hon Ambassador, Hon Dr, Hon Lady, Hon Mrs, HRH, HRH Sultan Shah…

We’re not even at M yet, where the trans people who think they’re too good for Mr and Mrs like to hang out, possibly in bathrooms.

HRH The, HRH The Prince, HRH The Princess, HSH Princess, HSH The Prince, Judge, King, Lady, Lord, Lord and Lady, Lord Justice, Lt Cdr, Lt Col, Madam, Madame, Maj, Maj Gen, Major, Marchesa, Marchese, Marchioness…

Am I labouring the point like Stewart Lee does, taking the joke so far it stops being funny but might become funny again if I stick with it?

 

…Marchioness of, Marquess, Marquess of, Marquis, Marquise, Master, Mr and Mrs, Mr and The Hon Mrs, President, Prince…

 

Of course, he preferred to use a symbol.

…Princess, Princessin, Prof, Prof  Emeritus, Prof Dame, Professor, Queen…

But strangely not “Flash! Ah-ahhh!

Is it my imagination, or is this Scots comedian Gary Little's doppelganger?

…Rabbi, Representative, Rev Canon, Rev Dr, Rev Mgr, Rev Preb, Reverend, Reverend Father, Right Rev, Rt Hon, Rt Hon Baroness, Rt Hon Lord, Rt Hon Sir, Rt Hon The Earl, Rt Hon Viscount, Senator, Sir, Sister, Sultan, The Baroness, The Countess, The Countess of, The Dowager Marchioness of…

That one sounds like someone Sherlock Holmes would visit.

…The Duchess, The Duchess of, The Duke of, The Earl of, The Hon, The Hon Mr, The Hon Mrs, The Hon Ms, The Hon Sir, The Lady, The Lord, The Marchioness of, The Princess, The Reverend, The Rt Hon, The Rt Hon Lord, The Rt Hon Sir, The Rt Hon The Lord, The Rt Hon the Viscount…

We’re in the home stretch now. Be strong!

…The Rt Hon Viscount, The Venerable, The Very Rev Dr, Very Reverend, Viscondessa, Viscount, Viscount and Viscountess, Viscountess, W Baron, W/Cdr.

The Aristocrats!

 

1 Of course I looked it up. He’s right. It is.

2 Women aren’t underrepresented in comedy because “women aren’t funny”. It’s because comedy is still quite sexist, with women being told they can’t be added to the bill because the venue already has its token woman in the line-up. Count the female faces on TV comedy panel shows or comedy showcases and you’ll see it’s endemic.

3 Mx, M, Misc, Mre (pronounced “mistery” – excellent!), Msr (“miser” – rubbish!), Myr, Pr (short for person), Sai (used in Asia) and Ser (used in Latin America). And another one I can’t remember.

4 https://www.roh.org.uk/register – current as of 1 December 2017

Don’t expect wisdom from a baby

 

I’ve belatedly realised that the time when the media really wants to talk to trans people – the “baby trans” phase when they’ve just come out – is both the easiest and the worst possible time to talk to them.

That’s certainly true in my own case. I was interviewed by a few different people when I first came out, and I was so pleased of the attention that I didn’t bother to check whether I was spouting a load of nonsense. With hindsight, I was.

Everything I knew about trans people was based largely on the opinions of non-trans people and a handful of unrepresentative but visible people I’d encountered on the internet. I’d spent many years being told that a handful of extremists and idiots were representative of all trans people, and when I came out I was keen to distance myself from them.

Please like me! I’m not like those other ones! I’m Audrey Hepburn, not Waynetta Slob!

In the many months since I did those interviews I’ve come to realise that when I talked about anybody who wasn’t me, I was talking out of my arse.

As I’ve read more and listened more I’ve discovered how distorted a picture I’d been seeing and how few voices I’d been hearing. My opinions weren’t based on hearing the experiences of trans people; they were based on the opinions of the people who wrote about trans people in newspapers and magazines or talked about them on radio and TV.

As I’ve since discovered, many of those people are biased or even bigoted against trans people; others just don’t do their homework and regurgitate long-discredited arguments. And some just have bad opinions for money.

I thought I knew it all, but now I realise I didn’t know a damn thing.

Swimming in poisoned water

This week is both anti-bullying week and transgender awareness week, so some newspapers have chosen to celebrate both by, er, bullying transgender people (see my previous post). I’m not going to get into the arguments or unpick the bullshit — Alex Sharpe does a superb job of that here.

I’m just going to share a trans person’s tweet I saw yesterday.

So I’m sat on the train and there are four people reading The Sun and two with the Daily Fail in my eyeline… I’ve moved seats! No wonder trans people feel bombarded. #caniliveonthemoon?

Imagine starting your day by seeing six people in the same carriage as you holding newspapers that are doing their damnedest to stir up prejudice against you.

LGB people, muslims and non-EU citizens will recognise the feeling.

And the supposedly grown-up papers aren’t any better: The Times appears to be obsessed with trans people of late, often taking the side of religious evangelicals, while the Telegraph gives space to people like Norman Tebbit, who claimed that gay marriage would lead to him marrying his son.

It’s disproportionate, it’s relentless and it’s causing a great deal of distress for no good reason. And it’s getting worse.

To be trans in the current media climate is to constantly swim in poisoned water. No wonder so many of us end up feeling sick.

It’s about time we all stood up to defend, er, bullying

There’s something very strange happening in the UK media. It’s defending the bullying of children.

Last month, Peter Hitchens claimed in the Mail that banning smacking would “come back and slap us in the face.” The state has too much power, he said, noting that “Fathers, once kings (or despots) in their own homes, have been declared officially unnecessary.” As he explained, mistaking correlation for causation:

In the days of smacking, police walked around alone in tunics with no visible weapons. Now they make their rare public appearances in pairs or squads, clad in stab vests, clubs, pepper sprays and handcuffs.

Because of course absolutely nothing else in the world has changed politically, socially, culturally or economically.

They also roped in Jan Moir to opine, after detailing the barbaric discipline that used to be commonplace in schools and telling the hilarious story of her mum using a kettle “to ding my brother on the bonce”:

we all lived through an age of crime and home-grown or class-based punishment. And it didn’t do us any harm.

Imagine! Some people think whacking a child with a kettle is bad!

Today, to mark anti-bullying week, the Church of England has updated its anti-bullying guidelines for nurseries and primary schools. If a three-year-old wants to play with toys or clothes associated with the other gender,the guidance says, they shouldn’t be told not to or mocked for it.

Here’s the key phrase:

‘A child may choose the tutu, princess’s tiara and heels and/or the fireman’s helmet, tool belt and superhero cloak without expectation or comment’

The Daily Mail’s front page headline? No, of course it isn’t “let girls wear hard hats”. It’s “Church: let little boys wear tiaras,” because while nobody’s bothered about girls playing with boy stuff a wee boy in a tiara is clearly Satan’s work.

The article notes with disdain that “Schools are also told they cannot use the Christian faith or Bible teachings to justify behaviour that is considered to amount to bullying – for example, identifying a transgender pupil by a sex other than the one they have chosen.”

“Behaviour that is considered to amount to bullying”. So, bullying.

In an interesting coincidence, over the weekend the Mail on Sunday described how a teacher was suspended over allegations about, ahem, behaviour that is considered to amount to bullying.

“I called a trans boy a girl by mistake… and it may cost me my job as a teacher: Maths tutor suspended after praising pupil using the wrong gender,” the headline says.

He’s an evangelical pastor and the complaint against him alleged ongoing inappropriate behaviour, such as trying to shoehorn his religious beliefs into his maths lessons, and concern that he was picking on a trans child by deliberately and frequently misgendering him as well as detaining him unnecessarily. He denies “inappropriately” talking about religion in maths lessons. The word “inappropriately” is doing a lot of work there.

From the article:

He added, however, that he did not feel that he should be made to use the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘him’ and that to force him to do so was a breach of his human rights.

Like many people who find themselves represented by the Christian Legal Centre, whose dread hand is behind this story, the tutor in this story appears to be an arsehole.

The Mail on Sunday – and today, the Sun – has also dragged up (pun fully intended) a story from back in June:

Drag queens are being brought into taxpayer-funded nursery schools so that children as young as two can learn about transgender issues.

The cross-dressers are reading nursery rhymes and singing specially adapted songs ‘to teach children about LGBT tolerance’.

The performances, which are being trialled in a grand total of one nursery, are so newsworthy that the Sun has made them its front page story.

There’s a really horrible final sentence to the Mail’s version, too. Noting that the nursery in question decided to trial the performances in response to increasing hate crimes, it says:

Reported hate crimes rose 29 per cent in the last year, Home Office figures show, although only one in six was considered serious enough for a suspect to be charged.

If you find yourself defending the beating of children and campaigning against anti-bullying initiatives, this video may resonate.