Monday 28 June 2010

In Which I Get Back on the Horse

Not an actual horse, mind. Given the state of my nether regions recently any actual equestrian activity would be a one-way ticket to a world of insufferable pain. I'm being metaphorical, here. And what I'm being metaphorical about is the business of gigging.

I've decided to do more gigs. There. I've said it. Regular readers of this blog will be aware that my attitude to performance and praise is somewhat complex, to say the least, but, following the reception I got for reading a single poem at the Ink Festival, I've decided to start going out and actually performing a bit more on the scene. This Thursday, I'm joining the excellent Steve Urwin and Jenni Pascoe at  a Poetry Jam at the Waddington Street Centre in Durham. I think this is one of the first poetry gigs they've done at this venue, so the nature of the gig is somewhat unpredictable: it could be a really big audience or the more traditional three people and a daschund called Colin. Either way, the important thing is to get more performing time in. Regular gigging for the performance poet is like regular fighting for a boxer (though I don't think poetry necessarily has to be a competitive activity, which is one reason I generally don't do my best work in slams - well, that and all the testosterone flying about...): you can overdo it, true, but the only way to increase your chances of bringing your A-game on any particular night is to ensure you're doing it as much as possible on any other night you can.

To that end, I will also be attending Jibba Jabba on the tenth of July, which event, taking place as it does in the most excellent Trent House, will probably be somewhat livelier than the Durham gig...which, again, is good, because I need to get some practice in performing in different environments and for different types of audience.

Further gigs are being set up for later in the year, and I'll have more on those on this blog closer to the time. As always, do come if you can. Apparently I'm quite good, or that's what people are saying, anyway.

Friday 25 June 2010

Bodies of Trust

I've been ill for the past two weeks, which is why my blogging has been minimal. The illness I've been dealing with was an infection. To be more specific, it was a gigantic boil on that area of my body which, in 'street' lingo is called 'the taint.' Said boil swelled up until it became painful for me to do, well, anything, really: I was given antibiotics and told to go away, then, when those antibiotics ran out, I was given more of the same, told the thing looked ready to burst but not yet ready to be surgically excised, and told to give it three days and, if the thing hadn't burst, to go to A&E and demand an excision.

It finally burst on Wednesday evening. And it was foul. Blood and pus and internal gunk completely destroyed my pants. It's been leaking out, at a steadily-slowing rate, since that night, though I've been minimising the effect on my underwear by inserting wadded-up kitchen roll between the draining infection and the cloth, and I've been taking extremely frequent showers to keep the area as clean as I can.

None of this is the worst of it, though. The worst bit was having to phone work and ring in sick. Because as soon as I had to do that - even though there was no way I was going to be able to get to work, even though the gunk was still staining my pants as I picked up the phone - I was a schoolkid again, telling the teacher I didn't feel too good and would like to be sent home, and afraid that I might be told not to be stupid and to go back to my seat. So there was this fear of being told I wasn't ill; but there was also this fear that if someone said I wasn't ill enough to stay off then maybe I wasn't, really. Despite all the evidence of my senses, the guilt over asking for time off because my body had failed and the fear that maybe I wasn't qualified to interpret those signals of failure had my stomach doing somersaults. They scarcely calmed down even after my team leader had told me that yes, they'd seen how much pain I was in on Wednesday, they understood, it was fine etc. Where does all this guilt and fear come from?

Well, to put it pretty bluntly - it's the kyriarchy, stupid. Or to be more specific, it goes back to an experience I'm sure most of us had as kids, which functions to keep us scared of and alienated from our bodies. Here's (one of) my version(s) of the experience, you probably have your own.

I'm at school, in a maths lesson. My stomach is feeling bad and I feel dizzy. I make my way, tentatively, to the front of the class and explain this to the teacher. 'Nonsense,' she barks, 'you're not ill at all. Sit down and get back to work.'

I'm sure that's happened to you countless times at school. It happened to me too. And sometimes, sure, I was trying it on. But there were a lot of occassions when I did feel ill, genuinely, but was told by an authority figure that I didn't. What effect does that have, cumulatively, over time? And what does this have to do with the kyriarchy?

Well, one of the ways the kyriarchy controls people is by estranging us from our bodies. If you want an example, consider how you probably felt reading the start of this blog. You probably felt a little disgusted, a little embarassed, and had a strong sense that these are not the kind of things we should be talking about. But why? Illness is a natural part of bodily experience, even illnesses which occur in 'personal' areas.  I'm not saying it's A-OK to have a giant pulsating pustule on your perineum (clearly it isn't, which is why I went to the doctor as soon as I found it, and why you should do the same should it happen to you), I'm just saying it falls within the normal gamut of human bodily experience.

The thing is, from an early age we're conditioned not to regard our bodies as normal or, rather, we aren't allowed the authority to define what is normal for our bodies. Right around the time I was learning that my maths teacher knew better than me what my state of health was, I was also going through puberty, and growing hairs on parts of my body which had previously been hairless. And I hated it. So I tried to fight back, at first by trying to cut the hairs back with scissors and, years later - when I looked old enough to smoke - burning the hairs away with a cigarette lighter. It never occurred to me that I could just get rid of the hair by, y'know, shaving - because shaving your body hair wasn't a man thing. Women shaved their legs, men didn't. Male bodies were hairy, womens' bodies were smooth. I surrendered my bodily autonomy to the gender police, and resigned myself to years of looking like George 'The Animal' Steele's gay cousin.

Of course around about the same time a lot of girls at school were facing up to exactly the opposite problem: the constant pressure to keep every inch of their bodies hair-free, and to stay thin, and to be desirable objects to the boys around them. All of us were learning that we didn't actually have any authority over our own bodies, that our experience of those bodies would be dictated by other people: teachers, fashion experts, diet gurus, athletes, magazine editors, TV stars and, perhaps most horribly of all, our own peers. When you feel like that, you can go a little crazy. I know I did. I developed anorexia in my late teens, and spent years struggling to develop a normal relationship with food. I can't help but wonder how many other people I was at school with went through similar issues. I knew a lot of people who were self-mutilating, in  one way or another. I can't speak for all those people, but I can speak for myself when I say that a lot of my problems stemmed from a feeling that the body I had, in some way, did not measure up to a thousand impossible standards.

The last paragraph of any piece like this is supposed to be the inspiring bit. This is supposed to be the bit about how I finally wrestled my bodily autonomy away from every other fucker who tried to limit it and became comfortable in my own skin. But, as my nervousness over speaking to my boss on the phone indicates, I'm not there yet. I'm getting there, though.

These days, I'm not anorexic. I'm also not as fat as I used to be either. I'm still quite fat, it's true; but I work out and I'm steadily getting fitter. I've lost a lot of weight in the course of the last year not through crash dieting, but by simply relating more normally to food, and to alcohol for that matter. I don't drink as much as I used to. And I don't think it's a coincidence that this new healthier lifestyle coincided with me deciding to finally do something about my body hair. Nowadays, I shave (and occassionally use creams) to get rid of the mat of black fur on my arms, chest and legs, and I feel better for it. I have accepted that I like to do a lot of other non-boy things with my appearance: I wear make-up (well, nail polish mainly, and occassionally mascara), I use feminine body language, I accessorise somewhat more freely than the average XY-person my age. I've accepted that while I don't necessarily want to have an actually female body, I like to be as femme as I can get away with, and I'm okay with that.

And yet...every single day, I still come up against the idea that I shouldn't do this. That I don't have a right to decide what to do with my body. I worry that people will think I look stupid, that people might be offended, that people might laugh. I worry that people will think that because I'm such a girl,  I automatically don't deserve to be taken seriously, that the vast reserves of knowledge and education I've accumulated will be rendered null-and-void because I choose to wear pink, flower-pattern arm-warmers rather than a tweed jacket. I worry that people will think that, just because I'm frivolous, they don't have to take me seriously. 

I worry. And then I do it anyway. Because I know that, even if I can't yet shut up the maths teacher in my head, every time I allow myself to deal with my body on my terms, her voice gets quieter and quieter and quieter...

And maybe one day, I won't hear that voice at all.

Monday 21 June 2010


The new series of Graham Linehan's The It Crowd starts this Friday. But even though I've loved Linehan's work since Father Ted, I won't be watching. (Trigger warning: article discusses transmisogyny and implicit support of 'trans panic' violence)

Graham Linehan is one of the most gifted sitcom writers in British TV history. As the writer of Father Ted and Black Books, he created the in-jokes of my generation of young British comedy-geeks. Mention My Lovely Horse, Dougal's diagram, or Bernard Black's 'lolly' made of frozen wine to anyone around my age and you'll get a wry smile or a laugh of recognition. I say all this at the beginning of this piece not because I do not come to bury Linehan, but because I want it to be understood that what I'm going to say later comes from a sense of deep disappointment and betrayal.

Recently, having been introduced to it by some very good friends of mine, I got into Linehan's next series, The IT Crowd. This series is best described as Black Books with computers. It has the same main three characters, described by one of the other cast members as 'a nerd, a woman, and a man from Ireland,' all of whom are isolated from the 'normal' world by a particular location (a bookshop in one series, a basement IT department in the other). And the first two series, and the first few episodes of season three, are brilliant. One of the season three episodes, 'Are We Not Men?' was one of my favourite pieces of TV in years. In the episode, lovable geeks Moss and Roy learn how to speak 'like real men' from a website, become friends with a bunch of football-loving cockney geezers, witness a robbery and have to flee for their lives. To a person like me, who has always struggled to speak the Tongue of Bloke, this episode was fantastic. I loved it both for its humour and its insightful take on gender stereotyping.

Then I watched episode four, 'The Speech', and any admiration for Linehan's humour and nuanced view of gender politics went out the window. 'The Speech', you see, has a long subplot featuring one of the other characters in the show, sleazy boss Douglas Denholm (played to perfection by master of the ridiculous, booming overstatement, Matt Berry). In this story, Douglas romances Emma, a business journalist sent to report on him, and in the course of the episode he discovers she's a trans woman. Douglas at first seems bothered not a jot by her telling him she 'used to be a man' (would a trans woman actually say it that way? I doubt it) and they form a close relationship, conveyed by a 'hilarious' montage of both Douglas and Emma watching the darts, gorging on pizza, drinking pints and so on...because you see, she's really a man! Ah, hilarious. Did we not just have an entire episode devoted to debunking lazy gender stereotyping?

But it gets worse. Douglas reveals en passant that he thought Emma said she 'came from Iran'. When Emma reveals what she actually said, Douglas visibly shivers and goes into a long drawn-out 'trans panic' response, which ends with a scene in which Douglas (who, it has been established early in the series, is actually a rather weak, craven person) beats Emma unconscious. A scene which ends with a long, lingering shot of Emma's unconscious body. And a scene which plays the whole beating for laughs.

Recently, in this blog, I wrote about the case of Andrea Waddell, a trans woman killed by a cis man in circumstances rather like those of Douglas and Emma, but whose fate was far from funny. What happened to Andrea is far from an isolated case. Trans people are often marginalised by a society which treats them as, at best, the butt of a joke (see my recent post on 'light-hearted' cissexist slurs) and at worst as freaks or gender criminals out to deceive 'normal' cis gender men and women. The reason an event like the Trans Day of Remembrance exists is because trans people are at a much higher risk of violence, and a terrifyingly higher risk of murder, than cis people. In these circumstances, I find it hard to laugh at a wacky slapstick scene which shows the brutal beating of a trans woman.

Actually, I'd find it hard to laugh if it was a cis woman too...but of course, Linehan wouldn't dare have a scene where Douglas assaults a cis woman for TEH LULZ. You have to wonder: is his making a joke out of a trans woman being beaten (a) a sign he hates trans people, (b) a sign he just doesn't really care about them or (c) a sign that he secretly wanted to just do a scene where a girl got the shit kicked out of her, and making her a trans girl gave him the perfect excuse? Either way, it shines a disturbing light on the real Graham Linehan. And that's why I can't watch the new series of The IT Crowd, or any of the other episodes now; it's why I'm thinking of getting rid of my Black Books DVDS, and taking the complete Father Ted box set off my Amazon wishlist. Because Graham Linehan, who I genuinely thought of as a comedy genius, turns out to be the kind of immature wanker who giggles over 'women who used to be men' and thinks beating up women is funny. I've seen people like that. I've met people like that. And they're always the enemy, however many jokes they can come out with.

Monday 14 June 2010

Rhyme and Irreason

You'll forgive me, I'm sure, for not blogging over the weekend. I was busy Friday and Saturday night performing - and watching others perform - new writing at the INK festival in Newcastle. There were poems, plays, short stories and dramatic monologues, all of which proved - if proof were needed - that the North East has a thriving writing community every bit as vibrant and inspiring as that of Edinburgh or London. The final piece of the evening and perhaps, for many people, the highlight was Lee Mattinson's 'Lucille, Lucille', an Alan Bennett-esque monologue about a fading soap actress who embarks on a love affair with her make-up boy until things take a darker turn. One of the great comedy set-pieces of the monologue was the narrator's description of her visit to a gay club with her beau and the rest of the make-up boys, during which, inter alia, she 'got off me tits on black sambucca and pickled-onion crisps...tried poppers...and fell and twatted me head on a transvestite.'


I admit I laughed at that last line, but I laughed uncomfortably. Why a transvestite? Why not, say, a bear, or a twink, or a leatherdyke? Well, for one thing, not everyone knows what a twink is; whereas we do have a cultural reference point of what a transvestite will look like. We know they will be overly made-up, flamboyant, outre, OTT, funny. Or we think we do. There's no reason why a transvestite has to be loud about it - Eddie Izzard's on-and-off-stage crossdressing has grown ever more subtle over the years, to use just one example - and, to use another, I myself was engaging in an act of transvestism at the Friday night gig, albeit a minor one - the black pinstripe Cyberdog armwarmers I was wearing are actually, technically speaking, girls' gloves. Most people, when pressed on the point, would probably accept it, but it might be argued that a transvestite in a nightclub context is likely to be 'working it' to some extent and will probably conform to the stereotype.

But while the cultural stereotype of the transvestite explains the resonance of the gag, we're on a hiding to nothing if we imagine that's the reason. Lee Mattinson is a writer, and he has chosen 'transvestite' for an obvious linguistic reason, which is that it forms a partial rhyme with the word 'twatted' earlier in the sentence. 'Twatted my head off a leatherdyke' is still funny (and I'd contend you'd be more likely to concuss yourself falling back on a big butch bird with a pair of steel-toecapped DMs on her feet than a t-girl with a pair of breastforms shoved into her bra). But it doesn't have the rhythm. It doesn't sound as good. It doesn't scan.

None of which excuses any harm Mattinson's line may do, though I suspect it won't do much. Mattinson isn't demonising the transvestite, describing them as unnatural, and he isn't conflating transvestites and trans gender women and men. But if Mattinson's line were harmful, and written out of spite, the rhythmic, rhyming quality of the piece wouldn't save it. And this is where I have a problem with the results of a survey released by Ofcom last week, which reported, with a straight face, that:

"As the phrases ‘gender-bender’ and ‘chick with a dick’ rhyme, some participants expected them to be used in comedies, in a lighthearted way, and therefore thought it was unlikely that these phrases could be seen to be offensive."

So now we know! Two of the biggest cissexist slurs against trans people are, it turns out, alright because they rhyme. Well, that's a relief! I suppose all us gender non-conforming folk can just relax now, and next time some gang of beered-up fuckwits hurls one of these babies at us we can just smile in a wry manner at their 'lighthearted' banter. Before they presumably gives us a similarly-'lighthearted' kicking.

I couldn't believe this 'research' when I came across it. I genuinely feared for a moment that I had fallen down some Life on Mars-style hole into the seventies, and would go home and find the Black and White Minstrel Show playing on the TV.

I am apparently not the only person who's done so. It seems most of the American Psychological Association think so too, having revised their proposed 'Transvestic Fetishism' category in such a way as to make it even more of a fascist diagnosis. According to the APA, my wearing girls' gloves on Friday makes me mentally ill. According to Ofcom, it's acceptable for those fortunate enough not to share my affliction to mock me in the vilest terms. Am I mad? In a coma? Or have I really gone back in time?

Edited 15/06/2010: Jesus, that's a terrible ending. It's lazy and glib, it makes light of a serious issue and, most heinously, it repeats a joke I've already made on Twitter at least twice, now. But when I got to the part of this blog where I had to write about the APA's lurch even further away from common sense and towards weird right-wing bigotry, I actually couldn't go on. Unlike the bigots, who now have Ofcom's sanctions for their lazy slurs, I had no words. What do you say against something like that? What do you say to the fact that psychologists, people who should know better than to give succour to prejudice and marginalisation, apparently believe that people should be labeled as mentally ill for not conforming to socially-constructed gender norms? As the article points out, there's no more sense in having a category for 'transvestic fetishism' - for any fetish that doesn't involve nonconsensual harm, for that matter - than there is in having a category like the bang-out-of-order 'ego-dystonic homosexuality' bullshit the APA used to flog.

It isn't people like me who'll be unduly affected by this kind of thinking, of course. I'm educated, middle-class, and able to pretty much argue the living shit out of any mental health professional who decides I must have some kind of problem because I enjoy wearing make-up and accessorising with something other than an identity bracelet and the watch Daniel Craig wears as James Bond (well, I do have a problem, actually: a meta-problem, in that my real problem is the people who think I have a problem). It's the young, the poor, the people who are already marginalised in some way or other by race, class or disability and also happen not to conform to the 'Men eat Mars Bars, Only Women Own a Gilette Venus*' school of thought, who are going to get it in the neck under the DSM-V Dispensation.

Eddie Izzard once characterised the reaction of transphobic shop assistants who reacted with horror when he asked to try on a blouse as 'you can't do that...surely the world will blow up!' It's come to something when I - a person who used to work in retail (albeit in a bookshop rather than a blouse emporium) - have a more sensible attitude to the possibility of Transpocalypse than the (allegedly) best and brightest minds in American psychology.

* Full disclosure: I actually don't own a Gillette Venus either. Your correspondent achieves hir silky-smooth skin through a combination of Veet for Men, the King of Shaves Azor razor and shaving oil, and regular sessions with Buffy the Backside Slayer. And yes, it does amuse me that two of the products I use to achieve a more androgynous look are unambiguously male-gendered.

Saturday 5 June 2010

There is, actually, some good news

I spend a lot of time on this blog bemoaning the generally sorry state of affairs in this fucked-up, kyriarchically-dominated world. But today, a good thing happened. Today, a piece of barely-human scum who thought he could murder a woman and get away with it because nobody cared about that woman was sent to prison for twenty-two years.

Of course, it's not enough time, and with time off for good behaviour, Neil McMillan could be out in eleven years. Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, the bastard can rot until the end of fucking time. But read the summing up from Michael Lawson QC. That guy is in no doubt about what kind of scum McMillan was:

'What you did that night brought to an end a life which in many views was one of relentless difficulty faced with extreme courage.

The person you killed was a person who always sought to overcome difficulties.

On the other hand, faced with a difficulty in that flat, whatever that was, you chose to take it out on her.

There was the distinction between you and her.'

Note two things here, and note them well. One: Michael Lawson QC refers to Andrea as 'her'. No pronoun confusion from him. But also note that he underlines, in no uncertain terms, what a weak, pathetic, cowardly piece of shit Neil McMillan was. McMillan killed a trans woman, one who worked in the sex industry, too, and thought he could get away with it because, hey, who cares about women on the margins of society? McMillan killed Andrea Waddell and smirked to himself as he left her apartment because he figured the police wouldn't devote a lot of effort to investigating the death of a murdered trans woman sex worker. But, fortunately for us and sadly for Neil McMillan and his evil little excuse for a heart, Brighton police cared enough to carry out a thorough investigation of the case, leaving little doubt that McMillan was the man responsible; the jury cared enough to find him guilty; and the judge cared enough to heavy into him verbally and ram home how vile his act was.

Of course, none of this corrects the fundamental injustice of this situation, which is that a talented, intelligent and courageous woman like Andrea should never have been in a position where someone like McMillan could kill her in the first place. But the conviction of Neil McMillan sends a message: in the eyes of the law, trans lives are every bit as important as cis ones. In the eyes of the law, when it works properly - as, I admit, it rarely does, and I can't help wondering what sort of prejudices might have been in play if Andrea hadn't been middle-class, well-educated, and caucasian - in the eyes of the law when it works as it should, everyone matters.

As we enter a period under the sway of a government which, in many peoples' eyes, does not believe all people are equal, a judgement like this is a shot in the arm and an encouragement to hope that, one day, if we all stand up to the kind of prejudices which lead someone like Neil McMillan to think they can get away with murder, the world might really be a fine place, and worth fighting for. Until that day we can at best hope, like Morgan Freeman in Se7en, that the latter part is true; but it's days like this that bring us closer.

(Days like this, and people like Helen at Bird of Paradox, who has dilligently followed and reported on each twist and turn of this story. If you want to acquaint yourself with the full facts in the case of Andrea Waddell, and a lot more besides, you could do worse than visit her blog.)