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 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.


More “reasonable concerns”

This is what happens when a trans woman takes a mirror selfie.


LGBTQ+ Media

Victim shaming

This is disgusting.

The Yorkshire Evening Post:

Robber carried out ‘humiliating’ sex assault on victim after discovering he had targeted transgender victim

Awful, right? It’s something most trans women live in fear of: the violence of straight men who discover we’re trans, the subject of so many “trans panic” defences in courts. But while the crime is despicable, my disgust is also about the way this has been reported in the linked article.

Here’s the subheading.

A violent street robber sexually assaulted a student after discovering his victim was a man who identifies as a woman.

We’re not even into the article and it’s already called the victim a man.

First paragraph:

Luke Anderson was jailed for more than four years after a court heard he humiliated and taunted the victim when he realised he had targeted a male dressed in women’s clothing.

So let’s humiliate the victim again by calling her “a male”.

The barrister said: “It was never intended to be a sexual assault. It has caused him considerable embarrassment.”


This isn’t a social faux pas. He has a record of attacking lone women, he was off his face on crack cocaine and he grabbed a young woman, threatened her, punched her in the face hard enough to make her bleed and forced her to the ground. None of that, apparently, would be cause for embarrassment. That’s just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill violent attack on a young woman. Who’d be embarrassed about doing that?

No, he was embarrassed because it then became a sexual assault. When he discovered she had male genitalia – not guessed, or deduced, but discovered – he sexually assaulted her and didn’t stop even when the terrified woman, in fear for her life, stuck her thumbs into his fucking eyes. 

Anderson continued the attack, saying: “You are a feisty one.”

He was caught because he left his DNA on her clothing.

Is that what he’s embarrassed about?

The judge told the defendant he believed the sexual assault was based on hostility towards the victim’s gender identity. He said “You realised it was a man dressed as a woman and you began to humiliate her.”

Misgendering again, and then an extra bit of dehumanisation by referring to her as “it”.

Maybe this report is just demonstrating how a barrister, a judge, a journalist and a sub-editor need to go on more diversity workshops. Maybe the judge didn’t mean to misgender the victim, let alone refer to her as “it”. Maybe the barrister meant that the attacker was remorseful, not embarrassed.

But it doesn’t read like that. It reads as if the barrister was trying to frame this as a “trans panic” case where the victim’s trans status should be considered an excuse for the assault rather than the entire motivation for it. In other words, victim blaming – and by repeatedly misgendering her in its report, the paper has added some victim shaming too.



This made me laugh, because I am easily amused.


Who knew I had such power?

LGBTQ+ Media

Vexatious complaints

Anti-LGBT+ activists try very hard to censor anything they disapprove of. So of course, they’ve complained en masse about a same-sex kiss in a BBC programme.

Gay Times:

In their statement, the BBC dismissed accusations that the kiss was inappropriate, saying: “The decision to include this moment, as part of a longer storyline throughout series 7 which has been tracking the development of a romantic relationship between two of the characters, Jude and Cleo, was taken very carefully and with much consideration, and came about after CBBC and Boatrocker (the production company who make the show) acknowledged that the series could and should do more to reflect the lives of LGBTQ+ young people.

“This is an important part of our mission to make sure that every child feels like they belong, that they are safe, and that they can be who they want to be.”

Which is, of course, the correct response. So it’s all the more puzzling that when similar vexatious complaints were made about linking to charities that offer information to help trans people, the BBC pulled the links.


The heads of Britain’s biggest LGBT+ groups have united to demand the BBC reinstate trans-support charities onto its Action Line website and explain why they were removed.

All trans-specific charities for England, Scotland and Wales have been removed from the BBC’s Action Line page, which the leading LGBT+ groups slammed as “deeply troubling”.

…This move, which members of the BBC’s internal LGBT+ Pride network were told this week was because of “audience complaints”, has already seen the public-service broadcaster condemned for “bowing down to deliberate and orchestrated hate campaigns” against trans people.

Imagine the outcry if the BBC removed links to charities offering advice on abortion or contraception because of audience complaints from forced birthers.

The BBC in this context means the BBC in England. But of course many of its programmes, and services such as Action Line, are provided to the whole of the UK, so if there’s something rotten in the English operation it has an effect nationally.

Here’s journalist Jane Fae:

A couple of years back, anti-trans campaigners tried to set up a group within the BBC. Their aim was to roll back what they perceived as “too much trans rights”.

Since then there have been numerous instances of what looks like an active network of staff members intervening to skew reporting of stories relating to trans people.

I’m not privy to the inner workings of the BBC in England; I just talk about technology once a week as a guest of BBC Radio Scotland. But the picture emerging from the English operation is deeply worrying.


Snap. Happy

There’s a comic strip I really love in which a trans woman travels back in time to talk to her younger self. It makes me cry every time. Here’s a page:

I occasionally daydream about doing the same for the younger, sadder, pre-transition me, but I know it’s a waste of time. Not just because time travel isn’t a thing, but because even if I could, young-me wouldn’t believe a word I told her.

But I wish I could tell her about days like today. That one sunny day she’d be bouncing around her favourite part of her favourite city with a photographer in tow, laughing as he did the professional-photographer thing of constantly throwing out compliments and telling her she was beautiful, not feeling self-conscious or scared of others’ attention, feeling like a famous musician or a model or a movie star before going home to the beautiful, hilarious humans who make her feel like the most loved woman in the world.

But as I’ve said, young-me wouldn’t believe me. And that makes me sad. Sad that she won’t know about such joy for such a long time, and sad that her shame and her fear won’t even let her imagine the possibility.

I’m thankful she stuck around long enough to finally get us here. I’m sorry it took me so long.


Celebrities’ fears are not news

Here’s the New York Times last year: Who Cares What Celebrities Think?

Last week, just ahead of back-to-school season, New York State health officials issued emergency regulations limiting medical exemptions from vaccination requirements for kids attending schools or day care centers.

What do celebrities think about this development? Hopefully, the public won’t find out — because it doesn’t matter. But unfortunately, when it comes to opinions about vaccination, we in the media typically make two big mistakes. We treat celebrities’ opposition to or fears about vaccines as news. And in the rare cases in which their beliefs do deserve coverage because they could potentially affect public health, we too often amplify unfounded or misleading talking points without sufficiently correcting the misinformation.

Ill-informed, scaremongering celebrities have been a key part of the anti-vaccination movement as this paper notes:

Persuasion from entertainment and pop culture figures can influence health behavior and decision-making about vaccinations (eg, Tiedje et al). Celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, Alicia Silverstone, Rob Schneider, and Robert De Niro used fear-based messaging to influence parents to avoid vaccination, particularly in claiming a false link between vaccinations and autism. Political leaders also play a role in spreading misinformation. Donald Trump shared anti-vaxx messages on social media, although in recent months he encouraged vaccinations. More recently, vocal representative Jonathan Strickland in Texas described vaccinations as “sorcery.”

The paper also talks about the problem of ill-informed sharing on social media.

Skeptics also use online platforms to advocate vaccine refusal; as many as 50% of tweets about vaccination contain anti-vaccine beliefs. Research suggests that it only takes 5 to 10 minutes on an anti-vaccine site to increase perceptions of vaccination risks and decrease perceptions of the risks of vaccine omission.

Among these social media influencers are parents who attribute the deaths of their children or illnesses they contract to “vaccine injury,” and they often take to the Internet to discuss their experiences and warn other parents. Indeed, a substantial part of the vaccine discussion takes place on anti-vaccine website discussion boards such as Age of Autism, Say No to Vaccines, and Even on mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, anti-vaccine discussions are flourishing as these groups have closed their forums to anyone who describes themselves as “pro-vaccine.” According to Shelby and Ernst, these parents and other anti-vaccine activists “have relied on the profound power of storytelling to infect an entire generation of parents with fear and doubt”.

Perhaps the most common trope told by this group is the “overnight autism” narrative, in which a parent takes their child in to get the MMR vaccine only to watch them digress cognitively almost immediately after.

The parallels with the celebrity- and social media-driven scaremongering about trans kids are considerable.

Here’s Jack Turban writing in Psychology Today about the supposedly scientific paper shared by everybody’s favourite author.

For “overnight autism”, here’s “rapid onset gender dysphoria”:

This term comes from a paper published in the journal PLoS One, in which the author anonymously surveyed parents recruited from websites that focus on the theory that trans youth identify as transgender due to “social contagion” and online influences. Unfortunately, the paper did not survey any of the youth themselves or their clinicians. The only thing the paper established is that some people online believe that youth rapidly become transgender as a result of watching trans-related content on Youtube and Reddit… [it claims] that “a substantial proportion” of referrals to gender clinics are for youth with this “rapid onset gender dysphoria.” It provides no citation for this claim. There are no data showing that this is true.

Then there’s simply ignoring evidence that says your theory is wrong:

The paper contains a section entitled “research” in which the author quotes a number of people regarding their thoughts on medical interventions for transgender youth. However, it fails to cite any of the many papers that show medical interventions for transgender youth result in favorable mental health outcomes.

There’s ignorance about what current procedures actually are:

The watchful waiting approach is irrelevant to the discussion of medical interventions for transgender youth. Under existing guidelines, these interventions are never offered before the onset of puberty.

And there are false assertions presented as fact.

The paper claims that gender affirmative models do not allow providers to explore with patients their “underlying belief systems and motivations,” or else they will be accused of conversion therapy. This is not true. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry’s policy statement on conversion therapy clearly states providers should engage in open exploration of identity with youth. An approach is only conversion therapy if it has the pre-defined goal of a specific gender identity.

Back to the anti-vaccination paper.

In addition, it was determined that “93% of tweets about vaccines are generated by accounts whose provenance can be verified as neither bots nor human users yet who exhibit malicious behaviors.” This amplifies the misinformation that parents are exposed to, and it fuels the belief that the science behind vaccine efficacy and safety is still debatable.

Exactly the same thing is happening with discussion about trans people and trans kids in particular. The conversation is dominated by multiple “sock puppet” accounts, trolls and bots.

ideas about neoliberalism and skewed perceptions of feminist concepts of bodily autonomy and parental decision-making trumps medical expertise. Reich’s data and findings suggest that upper-class women may adopt anti-vaxx sentiments as a means for expressing independence—while tragically undermining the value and science behind herd immunity.

As with anti-vaccination, people are trying to undermine health provision that is proven to be safe, proven to have positive health outcomes and that follows internationally agreed standards – provision that is already desperately underfunded and overstretched.

In England, there is only one clinic for trans youth; the waiting list for a first appointment there is currently 27 months and there are serious concerns about the quality of care and support being offered. And adult services are in crisis. I was talking to a trans woman yesterday who wanted to know the procedure and time frame for hormone therapy on the NHS; in England you can realistically expect to wait around four years, possibly longer. In Northern Ireland you can’t even join a waiting list.

While people, trolls and bots rail against things that are not happening, the current system is failing people in need.

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.

Bullshit LGBTQ+

Taylor Swift is trans

According to some people on the internet, that is.

Owl Stefania in Metro:

On this occasion, the conversation that caught my eye involved discussions and videos about celebrities who are allegedly ‘secretly transgender’.

This included names like Taylor Swift, Meghan Markle, Holly Willoughby, Jodie Whittaker, David and Victoria Beckham, Keira Knightley, and all of Prince Harry’s ex-girlfriends.

The site in question is a UK one, or it would also have included Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and pretty much any other Black female celebrity or athlete too. I saw a post today that roped in Marilyn Monroe because she clearly had a “male spine”.

The people posting this shite are the same people who want to police who can and can’t use public toilets.


We cannot be what we cannot see

If it wasn’t for the internet, I don’t think I’d ever have come out. Not because I was somehow talked into being trans; forced feminisation is something that only happens in niche pornography and in the lurid fantasies of anti-trans bigots. The internet helped me come out because it finally let me see that there were other people just like me.

We cannot be what we cannot see.

Which is why Allie Crewe’s You Brought Your Own Light is so good to see. It’s a collection of 26 photos of trans people; one of them, Grace, was last year’s Portrait of Britain award winner.

Grace, by Allie Crewe

I love these photographs. I love them because they’re great portraits, and because there’s a real power to them.

Olivia, by Allie Crewe

The endless photos I looked at before I came out, the photos I looked at as I started to consider hormonal transition, weren’t as good as these. But they were powerful too. Ordinary women, trans women, publicly documenting their transitions.

I wrote this some time ago:

I spent endless hours looking at trans women’s HRT transition timelines, the photographic evidence of the cumulative effects of hormone treatment and improving make-up skills. I actively searched for timelines of middle-aged trans women, trying to see what was the result of HRT and what was just better lighting, good makeup and a cute smile.

Looking at such images wasn’t new, nor was the strong yearning I felt to be one of the people in the pictures. I’ve had those things since I’ve had internet access. But something was different now. I no longer saw the photos as pictures of transformations that, for me, would be impossible and unattainable.

I started to see them as maps of the possible.

What struck me wasn’t the physical transformation; it was the difference in the way they looked at the camera, the smiles reaching their eyes. Even relatively minor physical transformations looked spectacular because of the difference in the way people held themselves and looked at the camera.

Each timeline was the same story: unhappy people finally becoming happy in their own skin.

I wanted that too.

I have that now. I took a photo the other night during some daft family fun and it struck me how different I looked. It wasn’t makeup or good lighting – my makeup was half-arsed and the light wasn’t flattering. I look different now. Happier.

Nobody’s going to look at a timeline of me and go “wow! I never knew such beauty was possible!” But I do think that the more of us that people get to know, the more prejudices we’ll shatter.

I’m reading a powerful and sad book just now, How To Survive A Plague by David France. It’s about the AIDS epidemic, and I’ll write about it a lot more when I’ve finished it. But in the pages describing the early years of the disease, the parallels between public attitudes to gay men then and to trans women now are really striking.

As the book notes, at the beginning of the AIDS crisis some 80% of Americans said they didn’t know any gay people. They did, of course, but those people weren’t going to tell anybody they were gay: it was far too dangerous for their careers, for their social lives, for their safety. As a result it was easy for the press and religious groups to demonise gay men as perverts, predators, a danger to children. Which they did, endlessly and viciously. The way the media treated gay men during this period and for many years afterwards was despicable and undoubtedly cost lives.

Today, 89% of Americans say they don’t know any trans people. As a result…

Visibility and representation don’t just help us understand ourselves. They also help you understand us.

When you have gay friends, colleagues and family members it’s hard to be homophobic. Likewise with trans people and transphobia.

If you plot the change in social attitudes towards equal rights, equal marriage, same-sex adoption and similar issues over the years you’ll see that as more people come out, as more people get to know those people, attitudes change. Familiarity, understanding and empathy don’t leave much room for bigotry.

The bigots will still wave their banners and push their malevolent fantasies. But fewer and fewer people will be buying what they’re selling.