Books Bullshit LGBTQ+

Irredeemable bullshit

Dianna Anderson reviews Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. The book is at the centre of yet another trumped-up free speech row because US retailer Target chose not to stock it and Amazon chose not to take adverts for it. Some trans people are unhappy that it’s number one in the Amazon transgender studies chart, because while it’s many things it certainly isn’t a study. It’s part of a moral panic.


Irreversible Damage is the Michelle Remembers of 2020. It is clearly designed to speak to parents of teenagers who have come out as trans, particularly to parents of children assigned female at birth. These teenagers, Shrier argues, are coping with their ongoing pain of being assigned female, of going through puberty, by deciding it would be easier to escape womanhood altogether and become a man. In true moral panic fashion, Shrier blames iPhones for isolation that causes teens to doubt themselves, Youtube stars for making transition seem like The Answer to everything, the Medical Establishment for making it far too easy for kids to access gender affirming treatments, and school districts for teaching “gender ideology” to kindergartners. This book has it ALL.

The one thing it does not have, however, is the voices of the young teens in question.

This is a “study” of teenagers that doesn’t study any teenagers, a book about trans people that doesn’t believe trans people are real.

Like the completely invented pseudoscience of “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” it’s based on interviews with parents; the book has very little understanding of or insight about the actual teenagers it talks about because Shrier didn’t talk to most of them. According to this review it also grossly misrepresents the treatment available to teenagers, telling readers that twelve-year-olds are being given surgeries. They aren’t. And at core it pushes a very stereotypical view of women: “Far from giving us explorations of what womanhood can be, Shrier narrows it back down to the biological function of breastfeeding and having babies, excluding women who choose not to engage in such activities from the banner of true womanhood.”

As Anderson points out, the book fails to support its central premise: that teenagers are being rushed by various sinister forces into making decisions they will regret.

Shrier’s panic is simply an invented, elaborate narrative, unsupported by the actual facts, that trans identity is somehow contagious – just as gay people were discriminated against in the 1970s because apparently we were going to teach it to your children.


Handsome is not a personality

Writing in the Independent, Ceri Radford has an interesting review of some gender-swapped fairy tales.

the co-authors used an algorithm to flip all gendered language (‘he’ becomes ‘she’, ‘daughter’ becomes ‘son’) in the classic Fairy Books, a series published in the late 19th century that collected and popularised many traditional folk tales. While fairy stories have been rewritten countless times to make them more palatable to changing tastes, this is the first experiment to revisit the originals with a purist gender reversal, leaving the text otherwise untouched.

Radford saw the title and thought it was a gimmick, but found that on reading the book it was “a strangely disconcerting experience”.

It’s one thing to know that misogynistic stereotypes exist, another to peer into the machine that creates them. After countless run-ins with scheming wizards, I started to find myself feeling hostile and suspicious towards any old man strolling across the pages. With the genders reversed, it became stark and ridiculous how almost every reference to a young guy concerned his appearance and his clothes.

…The thing I found most unnerving was that even after just half an hour of reading manufactured tales with a cynical hat on, I started to get sucked into the belittlement of young men, beginning to expect them to be nothing but weak window-dressing. In reality, when there are centuries of cultural norms combined with structures that encase real-world gender roles, it’s no wonder that the pace of change towards equality makes the average glacier look like Usain Bolt being pursued by a bear.

Books Technology

One writing app to rule them all

There’s been a fun discussion on Twitter about the various kinds of writers, how they organise their workflow and what apps they use. This image has made a lot of us laugh.

Journalist workflow alignment text

The last option, “write directly into the CMS”, is listed under Chaotic Evil. And it is. If you’re a working writer and you have any choice, and I know not everybody does, don’t write directly into a content management system.

There are several reasons for that. The first and most important one is that if the CMS crashes, or something on your computer crashes, you may need to start all over again and you don’t have a backup. Whereas if like me you write first and then copy it to the CMS, a crash is only a minor irritation.

I had a conversation once with a younger colleague who clearly thought I was daft for writing locally and then going into the CMS. Just do it directly, he said, before the CMS crashed and wiped out his day’s work.

The risk of that happening is particularly important if, like me, you’re paid by the word. If you have to write the same article twice because the CMS crashed, you’ve effectively cut your hourly rate in half. With so much freelance writing barely making minimum wage in the first place, that’s potentially disastrous. Many of us are barely paid enough to write a piece once, never mind twice.

It also has an opportunity cost. For the financial reasons I’ve just mentioned freelancing these days is often about achieving a certain volume of work to pay the rent. That means your days are often very packed. There’s very little wiggle room there, so if you get your work done and then have to do it again that can have a knock-on effect on the rest of the day. It might mean not hitting your next deadline, or having to cancel social plans so that you can.

Another key consideration for freelance writers is that if you don’t have a local copy of your work, a problem with the CMS or the closure of that particular publication can mean you end up without any copies of anything you’ve done. In recent months several publications I’ve written for have closed down, but everything I’ve written for them is right here on my Mac.

Last but not least, if you work for multiple clients the likelihood that they’ll all use the same platforms and software is very small. Even individual departments of the same company use different things, so for example today I’m doing work for a publisher that uses a CMS but for a department that uses Google Docs instead. In a typical week I’ll write for a half dozen different clients, none of whom have the same submission requirements.

For me at, least, the solution is to use the same writing app for everything. I write almost everything in Ulysses, which then enables me to copy and paste into CMSes, export to Word format, PDF or rich text, paste formatted copy into email… you get the idea.

There are many apps that do what Ulysses do; I just happen to like the way Ulysses does it.

The benefits of doing everything in Ulysses is that the actual writing process never changes. There are no different CMSes to learn, no different interfaces to remember, no apps to relearn. The app I’m writing in always looks the same, works the same, uses the same keyboard shortcuts, displays the same fonts.

That matters because it means I waste exactly zero time trying to remember how anything works. 100% of my writing time is spent writing. When I’m finished I can then export the document in whatever format the client wants.

It also means I have an archive of everything I write for absolutely everybody, and that archive is all stored in the most widely supported format of all: plain text.

That’s because Ulysses enables me to use a writing language called Markdown, which is plain text with a few additional tags for things like links and formatting.

Here’s an example of how that looks when I’m working.

I press the hash key for a title, press it twice for a subtitle, type numbers at the beginning of lines for a numbered list and so on.

Plain text means the system requirements are tiny, performance is blazingly fast and I can search my entire archive instantly. I can also synchronise that entire archive with my phone, iPad and laptop so I’ve always got access to all of it.

CMSes are useful things, I know. But if you’re freelancing for lots of different people I think it’s worth taking the extra time – and it isn’t much extra time – to do everything in your favourite text editor first and then put it into the appropriate format or publishing platform. It’s a lesson I’ve learnt the hard way. I hope you don’t learn it the same way.


Himpathy for the devils

I’ve just finished reading Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women by Kate Manne.

In nine chapters, Manne elaborates on the many spheres in which male entitlement hurts women and girls. The entitlement to admiration that some men demand, for example, has led to the phenomenon of “involuntary celibates” (or “incels”) targeting women in violent acts. The entitlement to bodily control has led to cis-gendered men legislating, often ignorant of basic facts, the bodily functions of pregnant and transgender people, Manne writes.

The entitlement to sex has led to a rape culture rife with what Manne terms “himpathy” – the sympathy extended to a male perpetrator rather than to his female victims. “Misogyny takes down women,” she writes, “and himpathy protects the agents of that take-down operation, partly by painting them as ‘good guys.’”

It’s a fierce and well argued book, and it doesn’t spare the women who participate in this: as Manne writes, women, especially privileged white women, can be complicit in perpetuating misogyny against other women.

Manne takes particular aim at the women who campaign to restrict other women’s bodily autonomy and reproductive choices, who exclude particular groups of women from their feminism, who provide the “himpathy” for predatory and wicked men.

There’s a lot here to be angry about, but despite this Entitled finishes on an optimistic note. The pages in which Manne describes the world she wants her child to grow up in made me want to cheer.

Books LGBTQ+

Understanding the “TERF wars”

There’s a new and important academic work about the current anti-trans moral panic: TERF Wars, The Fight For Transgender Futures.  TERF is an acronym used to describe people who identify as feminists but whose feminism explicitly excludes trans women and non-binary people.

The book exists because:

Analyses of trans-exclusionary rhetoric provide an important contribution to sociology. This is not only because they offer an insight into the production of ideologically ossified, anti-evidential politics (including within academic environments), but also because of what can be learned about power relations. Questions of whose voices are heard, who is found to be convincing, what is considered a ‘reasonable concern’ and by who, and how these discourses impact marginalised groups are key elements of sociological enquiry.

If you have institutional access to SAGE you can read it online for free; if not, the paperback is £10 (and at the time of writing, using the code UK20AUTHOR gets you another £2.50 off).

The introduction is online and free to read here. It provides a good overview of the very significant rise in anti-trans activism in the UK, identifies the key attack lines of those activists and makes their connections to religious evangelism and the far right very clear.

The language of ‘gender ideology’ originates in anti-feminist and anti-trans discourses among right-wing Christians, with the Catholic Church acting as a major nucleating agent (Careaga-Pérez, 2016; Kuhar & Paternotte, 2017). In the last decade the concept has been increasingly adopted by far-right organisations and politicians in numerous American, European and African states. They position gender egalitarianism, sexual liberation and LGBTQ+ rights as an attack on traditional values by ‘global elites’, as represented by multinational corporations and international bodies such as the United Nations (Korolczuk & Graff, 2018).

…Ultimately, the growing social acceptance of trans and non-binary people has challenged immutable, biologically derived conceptualisations of both ‘femaleness’ and ‘womanhood’. ‘Gender critical’ opposition to this can be understood as an emotionally loaded, reactionary response to reassert essentialism, resulting in interventions such as the ‘Declaration of Women’s Sex-Based Rights’ (see Hines, this collection) which effectively echo the demands of far-right, anti-feminist actors.

…a growing number of anti-trans campaigners associated with radical feminist movements have openly aligned themselves with anti-feminist organisations. For instance, from 2017 US group the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) have partnered with conservative organisations The Heritage Foundation and Family Policy Alliance, both known for supporting traditional gender roles and opposing abortion rights, comprehensive sex education and same-sex marriage.

Books Health LGBTQ+

Raging and mourning

I’ve just finished reading How To Survive A Plague by David French. It’s a book about the AIDS crisis and the activist groups, notably ACT UP!, who fought an incredible battle against prejudice, ignorance and inertia.

Many of the cover quotes describe the book as uplifting, but that’s not a word I’d use: it’s a deeply harrowing read, and while it has a happy ending of sorts – it finishes at the point where retroviral therapies mean that infection was no longer a death sentence – it’s a book about deaths on a truly horrific scale.

The US CDC reckons that 675,000 people in the US died during the epidemic, and that 13,000 more die from it every year. The World Health Organisation says that globally, AIDS has killed around 33 million people.

The book is an ensemble piece, and it’s not a spoiler to say that many of the key characters in it don’t make it to the end.

It’s instructive to read this book during another global health crisis, and inevitably there are strong parallels between AIDS and COVID-19 – not least the lack of action by particular governments, especially right-wing ones, and misinformation and ill-informed speculation in the press. But it wasn’t just incompetence in the case of AIDS. It was effectively manslaughter. One of the reasons the AIDS crisis was so devastating is that too many people in power simply didn’t care, even when the scale of the crisis was apparent.

A key statistic in the book notes that at the beginning of the crisis, 80% of Americans claimed they’d never met a gay person. That unfamiliarity bred contempt.

As far as many politicians, religious leaders and newspaper editors were concerned, gay men’s lives didn’t matter and weren’t worth saving. The book is about the US, but this was true of the UK too: our press, politicians and religious leaders were often just as hateful (and it’s jarring to see some of the most outspokenly anti-gay publications of the time, such as The Sunday Times, providing glowing quotes on the cover). That intolerance contributed to inaction, and even when sums were pledged to fight the disease they were far too little for far too long.

I have a lot of thoughts about the book and the story it told, but at the moment they’re too emotional for a blog post: How To Survive A Plague was a deeply upsetting read that’s left me angry as well as sad.

I was a teenager during the AIDS crisis, and I remember the public safety campaign: “AIDS. Don’t die of ignorance.” And people did die of ignorance; the ignorance and intolerance of the powerful. So many people have so much blood on their hands.

Books LGBTQ+

Fighting talk

Thomas Page McBee on the cover of The Observer magazine

Crossing gender lines is interesting. On the one hand you suddenly need to learn and live by rules and roles that other people have known their whole lives; on the other, you have to unpick and unlearn the rules and roles you internalised before your transition. Depending on your direction of travel you will either lose some of the privilege you’ve been accustomed to or gain privilege you previously didn’t have.

I think that’s particularly interesting because when you’re coming to this from the other team you’re seeing things fresh that other people may not. For example, trans men may be more keenly aware of, and questioning of, their masculinity than cisgender men.

Thomas Page McBee, a trans man, is a fascinating and wise writer whose books try to make sense of some of this. His memoir Man Alive is a gripping, insightful and sometimes harrowing document of his transition, and his second book, Amateur, is something else entirely.

It’s about how McBee became the first trans man to box in Madison Square Garden.

Boxing turns my stomach. At school I pretended otherwise as a fitting-in strategy: football was far too complicated for me to fake an interest in it, but I could bullshit my way through a conversation about who the greatest boxer would be (not least because back then, the only possible answer was Muhammad Ali). That would restore my man-credentials for a while.

Boxing’s a man thing, because violence is a man thing.

Isn’t it?

McBee’s book is an attempt to answer that, and it doesn’t go where you might expect. Here’s The Guardian in a profile of McBee from a few years ago:

It takes much of the book for McBee to comprehend the enigma of the boxing ring, where men are comfortable hugging, or swatting each other on the ass, showing affection. “With its cover of ‘realness’ and violence, it provides room for what so many men lack: tenderness and touch, and vulnerability,” McBee writes. It’s not violence that lies at the root of masculinity, he concludes – it’s shame.

It’s a very different book from Norman Mailer’s The Fight, that’s for sure.

Amateur‘s a really fascinating read. It’s not sports writing, although the fight is rendered in painful detail. It’s about identity and belonging and trying to work out not just who you are, but who you want to be.

Books LGBTQ+

Unaffected doesn’t mean objective

If you spend any time on social media you’ll know the power of the long quote printed on a photograph: the format is often used to elevate idiocy or to spread nonsense. A good example just now is of a Samuel Pepys diary entry about “gadabouts” in taverns spreading disease. It’s fake, and uses language that didn’t exist when he was alive.

It’s not all bad, though. I saw this one today.

When you debate a person about something that affects them more than it affects you, remember that it will take a much greater emotional toll on them than on you. For you it may feel like an academic exercise. For them it feels like revealing their pain only to have you dismiss their experience and sometimes their humanity. The fact that you might remain more calm under these circumstances is a consequence of your privilege, not increased objectivity on your part.

It’s a good point, but it’s also looking at it from a pretty unlikely perspective: that the person who says they want to debate you is (a) the first and only person who has ever had this conversation with you and (b) that this person genuinely wants to discuss the issues in good faith.

In the case of (a), that’s rarely true. Whether it’s structural racism, trans healthcare, women’s reproductive rights, poverty or anything else that directly affects specific and often vulnerable groups of people, it’s highly likely that people from those groups have heard – and answered – your questions many times before. In too many cases, they have heard and answered those questions many times for many years.

To the questioner the points may be new and exciting and ground-breaking, because this is an area they are not familiar with. But to the person they’re asking, it’s simply a sign that the questioner is too lazy (or privileged, or both) to do the simplest Google search or visit a library. In effect, they’re asking a member of a marginalised group to drop what they’re doing and provide them with a free education.

And in the case of (b), that’s rarely true either. Especially on the internet. Most of the people who come swarming with their “just asking questions” are not coming in good faith with a desire to have an open and honest discussion. They are well aware what the answers to their questions are, and they don’t care.

They are not coming for a lively discussion in which both sides go away with new insights and a wider perspective. They are coming to attack you, to wear you out, and ideally to make you really angry. Because if they can do that they can turn to others and use tone policing to dismiss your entire argument.

Tone policing means misogynists get to frame women as “hysterical” or “too emotional”; white supremacists and transphobes get to claim that their targets’ anger demonstrates their simmering, dangerous rage. Whereas all it really demonstrates is that people have been goaded to the point where they’ve lost patience with the same shit they’ve heard again and again and again.

There’s a great encapsulation of the problem in Reni Eddo-Lodge’s superb book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. The title has been used by people who haven’t read it to claim that it’s an attempt to shut down an important debate: how can you debate racism if you refuse to talk to white people?

You can tell they haven’t read it, because it says this on the very first page (and on Eddo-Lodge’s blog here).

I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates our experiences. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals like they can no longer hear us.

I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do. They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white- so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact; they interpret it as an affront.

…if I express frustration, anger, or exasperation at their refusal to understand, they will tap into their pre-subscribed racist tropes about angry black people who are a threat to them and their safety.  It’s very likely that they’ll then paint me as a bully or an abuser. It’s also likely that their white friends will rally round them, rewrite history and make the lies the truth. Trying to engage with them and navigate their racism is not worth that.

…The balance is too far swung in their favour. Their intent is often not to listen or learn, but to exert their power, to prove me wrong, to emotionally drain me, and to rebalance the status quo.

Members of marginalised communities face all kinds of obstacles every single day. They have no obligation to add to that burden by trying to educate people who have no desire to learn.


Get a big discount on my bundled books

How’s that for a headline?

The British Computer Society commissioned me to write some books about effective writing, and this month they’re offering them as the Writing In IT Bundle with a whopping great discount. They even made a video!

These books are designed to be practical and useful: you’ll discover how to optimise your words for maximum impact, which terrible traps to avoid and how to make your expertise and enthusiasm even more infectious.

There’s 50% off the bundle until the 30th of June 2020: just order from the BCS shop and quote the discount code BCSJUNE.

Books Health Hell in a handcart Media

Using coronavirus for a culture war

Rachel Shabi in The Guardian:

the key issue in the right’s current culture war is the lockdown, which is being presented as a freedom-sucking con – much like the EU. Mirroring the dynamics of climate denialism, those challenging the overwhelming consensus of global expertise cast themselves as lockdown “sceptics”. And cleaving to a rightwing populist script, these sceptics say their legitimate concerns are being silenced.