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.

Books LGBTQ+

Stuck in the Middle with You is warm, wise and sad

I’ve written before about my admiration for the writer Jenny Boylan, aka Jennifer Finney Boylan: her memoir, She’s Not There, is warm, witty and often desperately sad. I didn’t realise she’d written another memoir, but when I found out about it I suspected it might also be warm, witty and desperately sad. It is.

Stuck In The Middle With You is “a memoir of parenting in three genders” and focuses on parenthood before, during and after transition as a father of babies becomes a mother of teenagers. Like She’s Not There it’s a powerful and often difficult book to read if you’ve experienced similar upheavals, and it’s very honest about the doubts and darkness that are part and parcel of being a trans parent.

I thought this, on trans people who marry before they work out who they are, was very true.


In addition to her memoir, Boylan also interviews a range of other people about parenthood. I found those sections a mixed bag; while the people Boylan interviews are all interesting in different ways, I felt the interviews detracted from the momentum of the memoir itself. Boylan’s own story and thoughts are interesting enough not to need the company, and Stuck In The Middle With You is a considered and often unbearably honest book about trying to be a good person and a good parent in often very difficult circumstances.


The Trauma Cleaner: an extraordinary book about an extraordinary woman

I’ve just finished reading The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein. It’s often a very hard read – it’s a biography of someone who cleans up crime scenes and the homes of deeply troubled people, and who’s experienced terrible things in her own life; it goes to some very dark places – but it’s an incredible piece of writing.

It was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize last year. Here’s what the awards site says about it.

The author charts the extraordinary Sandra Pankhurst bringing order and care to the living and the dead, in her role as a trauma cleaner. A compelling story of a fascinating life, and an affirmation that, as isolated as we may feel, we are all in this together.

Sandra Pankhurst started life as an abused adopted son in a working-class family. Following marriage, fatherhood and divorce, she made the transition to living as a woman. Now, as a trauma cleaner she helps those at life’s dark extremes. In telling Sandra’s extraordinary story, Sarah Krasnostein shines a light on the complex and lasting legacies of trauma.

As The Pool wrote in its review:

Krasnostein’s writing is warm and curious. And, carefully, it draws a portrait of Pankhurst you’ll remember long after you’ve finished reading – a woman who is quietly, wonderfully triumphant while standing at the middle and centre of despair.


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.

Books Music

I’m a fan of Fangirls

There are two kinds of music. There is music for boys, which is good music. And there is music for girls, which is bad music.

It’s not true, of course. But it’s a sadly common belief.

When teen girls get upset at the breakup of their favourite band, we mock them. When the boys mourned Bowie, we devoted entire arts sections to their emotional pain. Kurt Cobain is deified and his widow, who wrote one of the greatest rock albums of their era, is damned. One Direction fans are silly little girls; Radiohead fans are cerebral music mavens.

This is not reserved for corners of the internet. Friends of mine have been told by supposed grown-ups that their musical taste is stupid and rubbish because they like pop. It’s music for girls! Ewwww!

I listen to a lot of music and go to a lot of gigs, and the greatest musical experiences of my life have involved listening to music for girls in the company of ecstatic female fans. There is an incredible joy to sharing a concert by The 1975 with ten thousand teenagers, dancing to Bananarama with two thousand middle-aged mums or having a soulless shed made magic by a few thousand glittery girls and a farewell show by Girls Aloud.

All of this probably explains why Hannah Ewens’ Fangirls is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in years. It’s about female fans of rock, of pop and of dance music, and it’s one of the warmest, most empathetic and fascinating books about any kind of music that you’ll read.

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

From Beatlemania in the early 1960s to the Directioners and Beyhive of today, female music fans have long driven the objects of their affection to the dizzying heights of life-changing fame. But marginalized fan groups are never given appropriate credit. Frequently derided, their worlds and communities are self-contained and rarely investigated by cultural historians and commentators.

Yet without these people, in the past, records would have gathered dust on shelves, unsold and forgotten. Now, concerts wouldn’t sell out and revenue streams from merchandising would disappear, changing the face of the music industry as we know it.

In Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture, journalist Hannah Ewens is on a mission to give these individuals their rightful due.

What I liked about Fangirls is that it doesn’t patronise its subjects. It doesn’t make value judgements about the music the young women and non-binary people listen to; it’s about the euphoria, the camaraderie and sometimes the sadness of being a music fan.

Fandom is a powerful, extraordinary thing. It can be all-consuming, something we discover just at the time of our lives when we need to feel part of something bigger and accepting. It can help us define who we are – to this day there are particular T-shirts I can see complete strangers wearing and think, “oh yeah. One of us.” – and it can help us find friendship and connection when we’re struggling to do either in the rest of our lives. It’s a joyous and often profound thing, and Fangirls treats it as such.