Today is international trans day of visibility, and the excellent Overtake asked me to write a piece about what it’s like to go out in public as yourself for the first time. I hope you find it as funny as I did writing it.
Here’s a happy story: Jake and Hannah got married this week. Jake’s an actor, Hannah’s an army officer and the photos show a clearly delighted couple in love. I don’t know Hannah but I’m connected to Jake on Facebook and he strikes me as a thoroughly excellent human being, so it’s really lovely to see the wedding pics.
Even if they’re on the front page of the Sun.
Jake and Hannah are both trans, and their wedding’s made all the papers. The coverage is positive, the Sun’s astonishingly disrespectful headline aside, and while it falls for a lot of the clichés of trans coverage – such as “before and after” pictures and clunky language – it’s a ray of sunshine in an otherwise pretty toxic media environment.
I hope Jake and Hannah are very happy together, and that I’ll live to see the day when two people getting married isn’t newsworthy.
The thoroughly repellent Richard Littlejohn has written yet another anti-trans piece in the papers. It’s not significant in itself; it’s the usual bile from a man who rails against “vicious trolls” while being a vicious troll.
But it’s significant because it’s been published five years since another Littlejohn column was implicated in the death of a trans woman.
Lucy Meadows was 32. She taught year six, pupils aged 10-11, at the St Mary Magdalen’s Church of England Primary School in Accrington, in England. She had a young son.
And in March 2013 she killed herself.
Lucy left a note, which said:
“I try to do things the right way to make people feel more comfortable with it. I have simply had enough of living. I have no regrets other than leaving behind those who are dear to me and of causing them pain in doing so. I would like to thank everyone who has had an impact in my life.”
Lucy had left another note, this one at the front door. Warning, it said. The house is full of carbon monoxide. Don’t come in.
By all accounts, that was typical of her. Thoughtful. Caring about other people, even at the very end.
The coroner confirmed the cause of death: cardio respiratory failure due to carbon monoxide toxicity. But while he said that Lucy had taken her own life, he had another message to share.
“To the members of the press, I say shame,” Michael Singleton, the coroner, said. “Shame on all of you.”
Lucy hadn’t been born Lucy, and she transitioned to live as a woman full-time in Christmas 2012. Her school was very supportive. Head teacher Karen Hardman spoke to each primary school class about the change their teacher would be going through, and it was mentioned as an aside in the school’s Christmas newsletter: “[Name] has recently made a significant change in his life and will be transitioning to live as a woman.”
One parent wasn’t happy and contacted the local newspaper, the Accrington Observer. The story went national. Meadows’ transition was “inappropriate” and children were “too young” to be “dealing with that.”
What should have been a private matter was front page news. The press argued that because the school had written parents a letter, the story was in the public domain. And because of that, they made Meadows’ life hell.
The first and most visible consequence of “press interest” is the press pack turning up on your doorstep. They appeared, en masse, to besiege Lucy in her home. Reporters. Photographers. Camera crew. You name it.
…It might have been less bad if the press could have been relied on to report honestly. But as Lucy noted at the time, they weren’t interested in the many, many positive comments that parents gave out in her support. No: they cared only about the man with the confused child and his petition.
Nor was it just biased reporting. Some columnists – the Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn led the way – simply used their columns, read by millions of people to attack a woman who wanted only to live her life in peace.
Deliberately misgendering Meadows as “he” throughout the piece and “deadnaming” her — that is, using her given name rather than her female name — Littlejohn’s piece began with the headline “He’s not only in the wrong body… he’s in the wrong job” and became less tolerant as it went on.
“The school shouldn’t be allowed to elevate its ‘commitment to diversity and equality’ above its duty of care to its pupils and their parents,” Littlejohn wrote. “It should be protecting pupils from some of the more, er, challenging realities of adult life, not forcing them down their throats. These are primary school children, for heaven’s sake. Most them still believe in Father Christmas. Let them enjoy their childhood. They will lose their innocence soon enough.”
He continued: “[Deadname] is entitled to his gender reassignment surgery, but he isn’t entitled to project his personal problems on to impressionable young children. By insisting on returning to St Mary Magdalen’s, he is putting his own selfish needs ahead of the well-being of the children he has taught for the past few years.”
That’s not just a dog whistle. That’s a whole pet shop.
And in March 2013, Lucy Meadows was dead.
There were petitions to have Littlejohn fired and complaints to the press complaints commission, but the Daily Mail stood by its star columnist, as newspapers do unless the libel bills get too much. A spokesman said: “Richard Littlejohn’s column emphatically defended the rights of people to have sex change operations but echoed some parents’ concerns about whether it was right to for children to have to confront such complex gender problems at such a vulnerable young age.”1
The Mail is so proud of the article that it has quietly deleted it from its online archive.
The coroner didn’t agree that the coverage was fair. It “sought to humiliate and ridicule” Meadows, he said.
Lucy Meadows was not somebody who had thrust herself into the public limelight. She was not a celebrity. She had done nothing wrong. Her only crime was to be different. Not by choice but by some trick of nature. And yet the press saw fit to treat her in the way that they did.2
And it’s still happening.
1 If you’ve ever complained about newspaper articles to the regulator IPSO, you’ll know that their definitions of unacceptable behaviour are so narrow it seems that no publication is ever guilty of anything.
Following on from yesterday’s daft Sunday Times story, Owl Stefania writes in iNews in defence of using the correct pronouns.
It’s just the compassionate and right thing to do. Because in the end, why would anyone deliberately go out of their way to harm another human being?
There does appear to be a double standard in operation.
People seem fine calling drag queens “she” and “her”; for example, most of the coverage I’ve seen about Celebrity Big Brother winner Courtney Act calls her “Courtney” and uses “she/her”, even though Courtney is Shane offstage and doesn’t identify as female.
But if trans people ask for the same courtesy, they’re somehow wicked.
It can’t be authenticity we’re worried about. We don’t seem to have a problem with Bono, born Paul Hewson, even though he took his name from a hearing aid shop. Guitarist The Edge was born David Evans, and took his name from an imaginary character in an imaginary village.
Fish, formerly of Marillion, isn’t a fish.
Snoop Dogg isn’t a dog.
Ice-T isn’t made of ice or tea.
To the best of my knowledge, Sting doesn’t.
And that’s before we list the many women who’ve changed their name, from Miley Cyrus (Hope) and Jodie Foster (Alicia) to Whoopi Goldberg (Caryn Johnson), Shania Twain (Eilleen Edwards) and bell hooks (Gloria Watkins).
Of course, these are pseudonyms, noms de plume or stage names. But all the world’s a stage.
If you met any of the people I’ve mentioned in real life you wouldn’t insist on calling them by their birth names because that’d be rude and their people would probably have you thrown down the nearest staircase.
There’s no reason to call anybody by anything other than their preferred name: if you insist on doing otherwise, you’re an arse.
It’s Sunday, which means anti-trans pieces in The Mail on Sunday and in The Times. This week’s effort is pretty poor, even by The Times’ increasingly poor standards.
Oh my god! The TRANSGENDER EMAIL!
What horrors lie inside?
Students and academics are being encouraged to sign their emails with their names, titles, telephone numbers and whether they prefer to be known as he or she — or another option.
The addition of “he/him”, “she/her” or “they/them” to the end of emails is intended to “normalise the use of gender pronouns” — and prevent transgender students from being wrongly addressed.
Students at Oxford are also being invited to declare their preferred pronouns before speaking at union meetings.
The horror, the horror.
There’s a fascinating piece by philosopher Amia Srinivasan in the London Review of Books about sex, sexuality and entitlement.
It’s wide ranging and covers everything from “incels” – self-proclaimed “involuntary celibates” who believe they can’t get laid because women are evil – to LGBTQ people.
The core question is whether anybody is entitled to sex, and of course the answer to that is no.
But that doesn’t mean sex and sexual preferences don’t have a political element. Apologies in advance if I get any terminology wrong; I’m not well versed in the correct language to use in these topics.
Consider the supreme fuckability of ‘hot blonde sluts’ and East Asian women, the comparative unfuckability of black women and Asian men, the fetishisation and fear of black male sexuality, the sexual disgust expressed towards disabled, trans and fat bodies. These too are political facts, which a truly intersectional feminism should demand that we take seriously. But the sex-positive gaze, unmoored from Willis’s call to ambivalence, threatens to neutralise these facts, treating them as pre-political givens. In other words, the sex-positive gaze risks covering not only for misogyny, but for racism, ableism, transphobia, and every other oppressive system that makes its way into the bedroom through the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference’.
Srinivasan talks about the so-called “cotton ceiling”, an unfortunate term for the othering of trans women. It’s been wrongly and maliciously characterised as trans women demanding lesbians have sex with them.
The term was coined by trans porn star Drew DeVeax in 2012 to describe what she felt was a tendency in feminist and queer spaces to welcome trans women in theory, but to think of them as weird, icky and totally unfuckable in practice. Getting past the cotton ceiling, then, would mean women believing that trans women could be sexually attractive — that trans women were women, not things.
Similar discussions happen around ableism or fat shaming, where people who don’t conform to a particular societal norm may feel that they are tolerated but not considered desirable.
Nobody’s demanding anything when they talk about this stuff. They’re just pointing out that what you prefer in the bedroom may be shaped by what you experience outside the bedroom – and that what you prefer in the bedroom may also shape how you act outside the bedroom.
Whatever gets you through the night
Let’s say you aren’t attracted to fat women. That’s a preference. We all have preferences, because that’s how people work. My particular preference is funny, smart, beautiful women who don’t fancy me, because God has a sick sense of humour. I can’t say I’ve ever been attracted to a man, the odd pop star excepted (have you seen the band REM put through a gender swap? Michael Stipe would have made a beautiful woman, because he was and still is a beautiful man). But I don’t think guys are disgusting. They just don’t float my boat.
Let’s take another example: maybe you love big girls but not big trans girls. Again, a preference. But where does that preference come from? Is it just your personal thing, or is it because you’ve spent decades seeing men on screen vomiting after being “tricked” by a trans woman because trans women are disgusting?
Pass the sick bag
One of the most famous scenes in Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is when Carrey discovers he has kissed somebody who’s trans. This revelation causes him to throw up twice into the toilet bowl and then clean his teeth so vigorously he goes through an entire tube of toothpaste.
It happened in The Crying Game too, and in Naked Gun 33⅓. Horror at trans women is also played for laughs in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Hangover Part II and in a particularly repellent example, in the cartoon The Cleveland Show. The “trans as disgusting trickster” trope is widespread on social media.
Still, it makes a change from portraying trans people as murderers. For decades popular culture has treated trans people in a very negative way.
So it’s worth considering where preferences may come from. Are you just not into somebody, or have you been conditioned to believe that gay people, or trans people, or fat people are somehow lesser people or worthy of disgust?
This matters. There are many kinds of people I’m not usually attracted to, but I don’t think any of them are disgusting. They’re just not my type.
That’s the difference between preference and prejudice.
Guys not floating my boat is a preference. Thinking guys are disgusting, or that guys who like guys are disgusting, is a prejudice.
Not being into big women is a preference. Believing that big women are disgusting and lazy is prejudice.
Not wanting to sleep with a non-op trans woman is a preference. Believing nobody could want to sleep with a trans woman because trans women are disgusting is prejudice.
The politics of disgust
Being prejudiced doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll discriminate against a group of people, although it often does. But it does make it much more likely that you’ll support discrimination against that group. The politics of disgust – focusing on “dole scroungers” and single mums, promiscuous gay men and trans people – is widespread and keeps papers like the Daily Mail in business.
Disgust is a visceral, powerful, dangerous thing. If an entire class of people disgust you, that means you see them as lesser humans.
Here’s an example of disgust in action. The “gay panic” defence (and its successor, trans panic) has been used in court to justify murder: “it turned out he was gay. I was so disgusted that I panicked and stabbed him 37 times”. Such a defence has been used in around half of the states in the US, and only two states have explicitly prohibited it.
This isn’t ancient history. Just last week, a sex offender called Mark Lewis escaped prosecution for killing a young, black trans woman. He claims that they had been kissing, and when she grabbed his backside he panicked and pushed her into the river, where she drowned. He didn’t try to help her.
There’s no doubt that he did it. He said so, twice. But thanks to a bungled prosecution that focused not on his manslaughter charge but the much lesser crime of failing to register as a sex offender, he’s a free man who can’t be prosecuted over the death. The manslaughter of Kenne McFadden is a “terrible tragedy”. Just one of those things.
But it isn’t. Lewis’s lawyers claimed self defence, and they were confident that had the case been tried by jury they would have won in that arena too. As his attorney put it: “what my client actually did was push a person off of him who was touching him in an offensive manner.”
Call me cynical, but whenever somebody I’m kissing grabs my backside I don’t immediately panic, push them in a river and watch them die.
And this is where the personal becomes political. Would Lewis have been disgusted, would he have reacted the way he did, if Kenne McFadden had been white and cisgender, not black and transgender? Would the defence be so sure of victory? Would the prosecution have been allowed to make such boneheaded decisions? Would it still be just one of those things, a terrible tragedy in a country where such tragedies happen far too often?
Maybe. But I doubt it.
There is a long and noble tradition of giving people a right good kicking in print, but it’s rarely done as well as this.
Writing in Current Affairs magazine, Nathan J Robinson sharpens his stiletto and gets stuck into Jordan Peterson, a rabble-rouser who alternates between stating the bleeding obvious and making completely unhinged claims while hiding it all behind a veil of academic language.
I could quote all of it, but I’ll just quote one bit.
Having safely established that Jordan Peterson is an intellectual fraud who uses a lot of words to say almost nothing, we can now turn back to the original question: how can a man incapable of relaying the content of a children’s book become the most influential thinker of his moment?
I don’t find Ricky Gervais funny. I thought the US remake of The Office was much better than the original, largely because he wasn’t in it: I couldn’t shift the feeling that his portrayal of a boorish, charmless arsehole wasn’t acting. I’ve been proved right many times since.
Writing in Vulture.com, Matt Zoller Seitz takes issue with his latest stand-up special, Humanity, mainly because like Gervais’s previous stand-up shows large swathes of it are tedious and unfunny. But he also takes issue with the topic that dominates the show: Gervais’ belief that he’s being persecuted.
Gervais devotes much of this special — which lasts about an hour and 20 minutes — to complaining that the world keeps telling him what he can and can’t say.
That’s a man worth £55 million, on stage in front of devoted fans, being filmed for a Netflix special that’ll be shown worldwide.
Nobody is denying a platform for Gervais, Chappelle, Chris Rock, or even Louis C.K. (who had a Netflix special last year, a few months before his career imploded). They’re free to say whatever they want during their routines, and Netflix is free to give them time and space in which to say it. What seems to infuriate these comedians, however, is that audiences can talk back more easily now and say, “I don’t like that,” or “I didn’t find that funny,” or “That seemed cruel to me.
We’re back to misunderstanding free speech. Free speech says the government can’t put you in jail for having an opinion. It doesn’t say you should be free from criticism.
What comedians like Gervais object to is being made to think about what they’ve said, and potentially feel regret or guilt over having made a poor choice of material or words. That their initial impulse is to feel anger and resentment at the person raising an objection is telling.
…What these comedians are demanding is that we respect their feelings while they exercise their constitutionally safeguarded prerogative to hurt other people’s feelings. That’s not a level playing field. It’s the power dynamic preferred by a playground bully, in which all the discomfort flows in one direction: away from them.
There’s something particularly risible about a multi-millionaire picking on marginalised groups and then claiming to be a victim.
This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but an algorithm.
In the New York Times. Zeynep Tufekci describes YouTube’s radicalisation problem. No matter the starting point, it recommends increasingly extreme content.
YouTube has recently come under fire for recommending videos promoting the conspiracy theory that the outspoken survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., are “crisis actors” masquerading as victims. Jonathan Albright, a researcher at Columbia, recently “seeded” a YouTube account with a search for “crisis actor” and found that following the “up next” recommendations led to a network of some 9,000 videos promoting that and related conspiracy theories, including the claim that the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., was a hoax.
What we are witnessing is the computational exploitation of a natural human desire
We like conspiracies. We want to know the news THEY don’t want us to see, the products THEY tried to ban, the secrets THEY don’t want us to know. And such bullshit has been around for centuries.
What’s different is that previously, the bullshit wasn’t mainstream. The much-derided media “gatekeepers” ensured that this shit didn’t spread beyond very small groups of people. Extreme and unhinged voices were largely unable to get a platform.
Now, we don’t have gatekeepers. For younger people YouTube and Facebook are their BBC and CNN, and there’s often an assumption that if it’s on these sites it must be okay. And it’s not okay. It’s far from okay.
Extremist content isn’t just being uploaded; it’s staying up. Good luck reporting actual Nazis to Twitter, or actual Nazi propaganda to Facebook, or bigotry and hate speech on any social network.
Free speech über alles. Fuck the consequences.
The “if it’s outrageous it’s contagious” approach prioritises the worst of us. It has turned social media into a very dangerous weapon.
We’ll be reaping the whirlwind for a long time to come.
If you think we’ve got problems with fake news now, wait until deepfake is mainstream.
Show a neural network enough examples of faces from two celebrities and it’ll develop its own mental model of what they look like, capable of generating new faces with specific expressions.
Ask it to generate a set of expressions on one face that are mapped onto a second face, and you have the beginnings of a convincing, automatically generated, utterly fake video. And so, naturally, the internet created a lot of porn.
I haven’t seen the porn – I have no interest in seeing videos created without people’s consent – but I have seen what the technology can do in the hands of ethical people.
This is absolutely stunning: Sven Charleer replaces actors with his wife.
Beyond just pure fun, I can only imagine how people will start turning this tech into business ideas. Fashion will be huge (what would I look like with this kind of hair, this kind of dress…), fitness could be interesting (do I look good with muscles, will I really look better skinny), travel (this is you standing on a beach is going to be quite convincing). It’ll bring advertising to a whole new level. No need to imagine what if, they’ll tell you what your “better” life will look like! And it’ll be hard to get that picture out of your head…
This technology is in its infancy, but it’s getting smarter by the day. And the potential ramifications for everything from revenge porn to political propaganda are enormous and disturbing.
Back to The Guardian:
It’s grim. But it’s not going to go away. The technology is publicly available, extensively documented, and the subject of research around the globe. This is our world now. As Lucas warned MPs: “Please don’t spend too much time looking in the mirror at what Russia did to us; look through the windscreen at what’s coming down the road. That’s much more dangerous.”