Thursday 22 December 2011

Christmas Special: The Ballad of Private Manning

This Christmas, while many of us tuck into turkey and get progressively comatose on good red wine and the Dr Who Christmas Special, Private First Class Bradley (or more properly Breonna) Manning will be languishing in a prison cell at the behest of the US military and government, for the crime of exposing their dirty secrets. Therefore, I choose to mark Christmas with the following poem.

The Ballad of Private Manning

Vaclav Havel died today:
you spoke of freedom far away,
but in a courtroom in your land,
the witnesses denied the stand
told the story, gave the lie
to that song you sing, the flag you fly.
You are not brave, and neither are you free,
and though you claim it, you do not love liberty.
While Private Manning sits in jail
your Founding Fathers' dream has failed.

Your soldiers left Iraq this week
in APCs no longer sleek,
but pockmarked, patched-up, battle-scarred,
new shielding on their fuselage
to spread the blast of IEDs:
and elsewhere, naked, on bent knee,
under 'Prevention of Injury',
your High-Value Detainee,
Private Manning, cannot sleep.
At such things Lincoln once would weep,

but we're sophisticated now,
or post-postmodern, anyhow.
We know the Gulf War happened, since
we bulldozed bodies into pits.
We bag-and-tagged, we shock-and-awed,
we turkey-shot and pressed 'record',
shot our own Movies of the Week:
but God forbid the stuff should leak.
Now Private Manning has to pay
for snitching on the USA:

One nation, indivisible,
of free-market individuals
and corporations - which are people
(who are not created equal),
where goods and wealth will trickle down
to your senescent steel town,
and if they don't? If you're still poor,
speak to your friendly neighbourhood recruiter,
like Private Manning! Join the team!
Just don't let on that you're a queen,

or that, inside, you're just a girl -
don't wanna make the jarheads hurl!
And who could blame those good ol' boys
for dissaproving of said lifestyle choice?
When you're in country, killing ragheads,
you don't wanna think you sleep with faggots!
But it's a poor and unAmerican excuse
to blame sustained, malign abuse.
No: Private Manning chose to tell.
We were forced to give her Hell.

Now Christmas comes to one and all
on this side of the prison wall,
while some sweat in judicial fire,
cries for justice echoing higher,
right up to the White House Door,
where Barack says you broke the law
before your case is brought to trial.
He'll pardon turkeys with a smile,
but Private Manning suffers still,
sees no light from the City on the Hill.

America won't last forever:
nothing does this side of Heaven,
but backed-up drives and mirrored sites
will help the future scribes to write
of how a nation's shining dream
was finally broken at the seams
by Haliburton, Rove and Bush,
who made blood gush so oil would rush.
So Private Manning went to war
to buy the Haves a little more,

and found a happy hunting ground
for those who wanted flesh to pound,
faith to torture, bones to snap
and pretty girls and boys to rape.
Saw and told. Did what she must.
In Lamo Manning placed her trust:
Lamo, who claimed to be a man,
then sold his ass to Uncle Sam.
Now Private Manning's in a cell,
since Adrian Lamo chose to squeal,

and they say Manning's 'almost gone',
seventeen months denied the sun,
while Rove goes off on lecture tours
and Lamo's Langley's favoured whore,
and Barack speaks of hope and dreams
while hopeless, disenfranchised teens,
taught by pain not to give a damn,
enlist for battle with Iran,
while Private Manning sits and rots,
naked on an army cot.

Vaclav Havel died today,
but he was once, like Manning, caged,
because he wouldn't bend the knee
to those who steal our liberty.
Once he coped with secret police harrassers,
then skated through the leader's palace,
brought tyrants down, exposed a lie:
the same which bids us 'Occupy!'
Let all free voices now contend,
that Private Manning may see such an end.

                                                             *    *   *

I would like to get this poem on Youtube as a collaborative performance video, with people reading out a line each. If you'd like to add your voice, please comment or contact me via Facebook or Twitter.


Wednesday 9 November 2011

Life and Soul

Life and soul are you? Everybody's mate?
Top bloke? Everybody's got a good word
for you? Big deal. Nobody looks too close
when the phones ring every second of the day.

No-one has time to look between the lines
you crib from last night's sitcoms;
to ask why you say nothing fresh
yet hunger to be heard.

No-one watches your eyes when you flirt,
sees where your focus lies, the way
that you use womens' eyes as mirrors.
The way you need to know we look at you.

And no-one sees the grubby rooms,
the sweat-damp notes that you hand over,
the way you roll words like 'slut' around your tongue,
pound your way through another hired fuck.

No-one looks close enough:
they're caught up in your blizzard
of bargain bucket bonhomie
and bar-room, blokes-together, bull;

but some of us don't play that game.
Don't do the parties, hang out with the lads,
or read the same naff magazines.
We see you. And we know you.

Life and soul? Top bloke? A mate?
Dead-eyed. Nothing. Fuelled by hate.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

For Tomorrow

London is burning. I don't live by the river. But I see what's happening and I read the rumours on Twitter, the horrible photos and the even more terrifying words of people I previously thought of as well-adjusted calling out for curfews, water cannon and martial law, and I worry. I'm on holiday in London next weekend, on my way to somewhere else, and I am seriously considering donating a couple of hours of that weekend to volunteering to help with any clean-up efforts going on. It's not much, but London has been good to me on the gigs I've done there over the past year. And I feel I ought to do something.

Because the riots will burn themselves out. They always do. This kind of intensity, this kind of lawlessness, is not self-sustaining. Eventually tomorrow will come, and when it does it will be time to rebuild.

The following is a poem I wrote some years ago now, after Hurricane Katrina and the Boxing Day Tsunami. I wrote it and then left it in a file, finding it again only recently. It's not my best work - the influence of Auden is extremely obvious - but it somehow seems appropriate. It's all I can really contribute right now, from where I am:


Pump water from your flooded home,
lay the new foundation stone:
rebuild, rebuild.

Walk again on plastic legs,
unwind the bandage from your head:
rebuild, rebuild.

Pull the landed boat to sea,
dig the living from the scree:
rebuild, rebuild.

Bring order to the troubled city:
on your own or by committee,
rebuild, rebuild.

Take the orphaned hand in yours,
obey the deeper, human laws:
rebuild, rebuild, rebuild.

                                                  *             *             *
Actually there is one more thing I can do. The South Tottenham Customer Service Centre at Apex House, 820 Seven Sisters Road, N15 5PQ, is asking for donations of bedding, clothes and so forth to help those made homeless as a result of the rioting in Tottenham. Please, if you're reading this and in a position to give something, help. Shelter are also worth donating to, ditto Crisis. And I'm sure there are many more charities whose work is germane to what's happening now but it's half-past one and I'm rambling and can't really think too clearly right now. Suggest charities and I'll add them to this list. But the important thing to do now is to think about where we put our resources and what we do to fix our cities, and our polity, and fix them deeply enough that something like this cannot happen again. And that repair will not come from curfews or repressive legislation or squaddies patrolling the streets of London. It will come from all of us deciding, together, to do what we can to put things back together. To rebuild.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Whm Bm Thk U Mrm (a quickie)

Some time ago on this blog I mused on whether the linguistic experiment of adopting gender-neutral pronouns, such as 'hir', 'ze' and 'Mx' might not be extended by the adoption of a gender neutral equivalent of 'Sir' or 'Ma'am'. Such a word, especially if we worked hard to get it into general use, would fulfil the function of allowing non-binary or genderqueer trans people, as well as binary-identified trans and cis people who prefer to use gender-neutral speech, a polite way of addressing each other; give us a term of address we could request people to use when speaking to us; and also furnish us with a word we could use when interacting with people of whose gender identity we are unaware (in telephone conversations, say).

It occurred to me today that we could designate the neologism 'Mrm' (pronounced 'Mirm') to serve this function. Visually the word echoes the form of the existing binary terms 'Mr' &; 'Mrs', but the ending in 'm' confounds this expectation. Verbally the word begins and ends with the pleasing, bosomy 'm' consonant, but interpolates the sound of the male honorific 'Sir'. This 'ir' sound also rhymes with 'er', the universally recognised expression of uncertainty, symbolising the fact that use of this term brings the certainties of binary gender into question; and also with 'ur', the prefix denoting the primordial form of a text or language, which may perhaps be thought to gesture in the direction of the fact that gender exists in an undifferentiated form prior to social constructs being imposed on it. Though this last reference (to 'ur') might be an example of the author of this piece lapsing into pretension, a fact possibly not unrelated to the fact that ze happens to be watching Peter Greenaway's 'Vertical Features Remake' while typing.

Perhaps most crucially, 'Mrm' sounds fun, and has that silly, hat-doffing, Jimmy Stewart, vintage character which the ostentatious use of polite forms of address in an aggressively, compulsorily informal society like ours tends to accrue. I have always enjoyed addressing people (where I can be sure of their binary identity) as 'Sir' or 'Ma'am' (rather than the ubiquitous 'mate') in much the same way that some people enjoy wearing forties dresses or co-respondent shoes. It's a form of verbal burlesque, a bit of pantomimic play. 'Mrm' extends this field of play by introducing a term for people who don't fit the gender binary, or for the use of people who have no desire to use terms which reinforce said binary.

I therefore submit 'Mrm' for the consideration of all those who wish to make use of language as a tool for undermining binary gender norms. Have fun using it, gentlebeings.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Pornography and its Discontents

I went on holiday by mistake - or at least on the spur of the moment - this week, hopping up to the Lake District town of Staveley with a friend to spend a night in the unique surroundings of the Eagle and Child Inn, then have a wander around Ambleside. So far, so not exactly Withnail and I, but I hadn't figured on one thing that would cause a problem: tha lack of a decent mobile signal in the wilds of the Lakes, particularly on a stormy night like Friday.

Stranded in the pub, twitterless, I would have been stuck for something to read in the quiet moments while I waited for my friend to return from the toilet or the bar. Fortunately I had just subscribed to the Kindle edition of the Guardian this week and still had an issue backed up on the machine to work through. This would do, I figured, until I got to somewhere I could connect to wi-fi and download the weekend edition. And so it was that I wound up reading and agreeing with - up to a point, anyway - an article by Julie Bindel. (trigger warning: graphic descriptions of sexual abuse in pornography)

There are a lot of things I don't like about Bindel: her transphobia, her islamophobia, and her selective amnesia and special pleading when called out about both; her inability to take criticism, to the extent of siccing her good buddy, disgraced journo Johann Hari, on people as a kind of big fluffy attack dog; or the fact that I know, from personal experience, that she searches Twitter for her own name on a regular basis and chides people if they're not positive about her. But I think what we would both agree on is that the activities of the sleazebag 'Max Hardcore' are an affront to any notion of decent behaviour. Where we differ is on the inferences we draw from this privileged, cosseted little man's antics. Bindel sees this case as an inherent problem with pornography itself, comparing pornography as a medium to great human rights abuses of history:

'Other human rights campaigners rely on disturbing imagery to add strength to their arguments: footage of animals being caged and tortured; images of men being lynched in the American south by the Ku Klux Klan; pictures of mass graves in conflict zones.'

But there's a problem with this analogy. While what Max WankyNickname does to the women in his films is wrong, and while I for one would love to see him punished for it (at length, in a steel cage, by people wearing sap gloves - but then we all have our fetishes, don't we, Max), the fact remains that the porn industry is not the equivalent of the genocide against black people carried out by the KKK in the American south, or the genocide of other groups carried out by the millitias in Bosnia or Rwanda. I find this comparison both ludicrous and offensive. Porn - whatever problems you may have with it - is not the moral equivalent of genocide.

I do think Bindel is on to something with her analogy between the porn industry and the meat and animal research industries. Though I reject the dehumanising comparison between porn industry workers and livestock implicit in this analogy, it holds inasmuch as both industries are guilty of low standards of welfare, both represent the ugliest side of capitalism, both need tighter and better regulation, and both produce a homogenised, low-quality product which is a cheap perversion of the natural and desirable aspect of life - whether husbandry or, ahem, husbandry - which they distort to create factory-produced crap.

Prior to arriving in Staveley, I had been reading my friend another new Kindle acquisition of mine - Caitlin Moran's most excellent new book How to be a Woman. Moran takes a different attitude to porn, arguing that we need 'free range' porn and 'a 100 per cent increase in the variety of pornography available'. What Moran means by this is more than just the shallow 'variety' offered by the sexual Woolworth's pick-n-mix of DVDAs, hot grannies and interracial creampies, but a variety of approaches, of styles, of genres and ideologies underpinning the stuff people fap to.

This is an attitude to porn I can support, because to me the behaviour of someone like Max MyDaddyNeverLovedMeEnough is an industry issue, a workers' rights issue, and a rightness of content issue rather than an issue which suggests the entire genre in which he works should be banned. By way of a more fitting analogy, consider the action film, particularly the martial arts action film as popularised by Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude van Damme et al in the late eighties, early 90s. This genre of film has many similarities to pornography (many heterosexual women and gay men could argue with some justice that in the case of the early van Damme ouevre the distinction between the films' ostensible genre and pornography collapses completely) in that the 'plot', such as it is, exists primarily as a frame on which to hang a number of fight scenes of increasingly graphic character, in much the same way that the 'plot' of a porn film exists as a frame on which to hang a number of fucking scenes of an increasingly graphic character.

So far so good. But now imagine that someone decides to start making 'hardcore' action films, which contain only the fights - and make them real and basic, rather than choreographed and balletic, at that; which show no regard for the health of the participants, and in fact seem to delight in injury or trauma being inflicted upon them; and which dispense with any semblance of a plot, a moral, or an emotional core beyond vapid, dead-eyed ultraviolence. Would we allow someone to continue making such films? Would we accept it? No. We would not.

And this is where, despite my disagreements with Bindel, I part company with the extreme free speech advocates on the pornography issue, because I do not believe all porn is justified under the 1st Amendment or the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Pornography in which workers are abused by pathetic, petty tyrants who style themselves 'stars', in which audiences are abused by being pandered to with substandard content, needs to be regulated out of existence. Like the food industry, pornography is capitalism at its ugliest; and, like the food industry, it needs to be regulated more strongly and more aggressively, because the products of an UNregulated porn industry are bad for us all.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

The Appendices Will Be Printed In Heaven

Yes, I did delete the poem in the last post. That's coz I entered it in a competition and was worried the organisers might consider a poem I'd already blogged 'published' & therefore ineligible. Here's another new poem by way of compensation, based, like the first, on performances at the Newcastle branch of Dr Sketchy's, in this case a tribute to the late Poly Styrene:

Tank Girl Lives!

i.m. Poly Styrene 1957-2011

Doughboy-helmet, mirrored shades,
draped flag, glimpse of fishnet,

wrists bound, head Diana-tilted,
Bambi with a PTSD-stare,

a sneer honed by facing down
the mocking curiosity of bus stops;

upraised middle finger,
jagged ‘X’ taped on each nipple:

the back of the 50p-piece
as redesigned by Jamie Hewlett.

These Dr Sketchy's poems are part of a series I'm doing based on performances at the Newcastle branch, which are being combined with photos from the events and exhibited at Fifth Floor, the home of Spill Culture Club in Newcastle. Do get along to one of their events if you can, they're ace!

Monday 27 June 2011


As you might surmise from the relative silence on this blog in recent times, I've been busy. June has been a hectic month, with lots of gigs and, more importantly, a lot of preparations for gigs as well, so most of my downtime has been spent chilling out recently. This entry is mainly just a round-up of the recent gigs for people following this blog who may not also follow on Twitter or Facebook.

The first major gig in June was the Jibba Jabba Showcase at the Leazes Fringe of Newcastle Green Festival, held at the Trent House. This was the first gig for which I was billed as AJ McKenna instead of my non-writing name (on the flyers at least), but initially it was a gig I wasn't keen to do on the day - not for any big reason, just because I was feeling really tired the day I had to do it. I forced myself to go though, and I'm glad I did because in the end I did an absolutely blistering set - no major surprises, just the usual stuff - Tension, Eggshells, A Short Course in Suicide Writing and On Looking Back into the Mosh Pit - but delivered in a really vigorous, exciting way that went down really well with the packed audience - many of them new attendees who'd came because of the Green Festy connection. I left on a massive high. The lesson here is that, unless you're really, really, seriously bad, you should always, always force yourself off your comfy sofa and out to gigs. It's worth it.

Later in the month came Take Ten at the Cumberland Arms, just this past Thursday. This was a really special gig for me because I performed two new poems - Other Peoples' Things, which I'd written for Monkfish Collective's 'Hand Me Down' extravaganza at Stockton Arc, and My Revolution Will Not Be Trivialised, which I wrote just recently. I was really pleased with the reception both these poems got, particularly the latter, which I was very nervous about reading - but again, I'm glad I did. The feedback was uniformly positive, and the room was pretty much blown away. My only criticism was that in the heat of the moment I altered my set after reading it to finish on Mosh Pit again - I had originally planned to finish on The Secrets, Almost Silent, that We Sang, which I think was a better thematic fit, but I was worried that more strident trans activist poetry might be laying it on a bit thick, so decided to go with something more universal. Probably a mistake, but to be frank after reading Revolution whatever else I read that night didn't make much difference.

But the main reason I've been busy was last night's gig at the launch of Spill Culture Club: a half-hour, curated group performance with other members of Apples & Snakes' Tyneside Scratch Club which featured two poems from me, one, Criminally Fragile, done reasonably straight (or as straight as possible given I was wearing what I now call my 'fuck with gender' outfit of white shirt, black tie, trousers and braces teamed with fabulous make-up [AJ McKenna is brought to you by 'Electric Plum' lipstick from Rimmel London - this concludes this brief word from our sponsor]), and then NSFW, done as what I suppose I ought to call a multimedia performance piece with guitarist Matt Harrison and dancer Angeline Lucas. This was a frankly awesome performance, and the reason I, a usually shy person not much given to the blowing of my own trumpet, french horn, or indeed euphonium, can get away with saying that is that Matt and Angeline did such a good job of bringing the piece to life for me, and for the audience who watched with rapt attention as Angeline literally writhed her way around the words, and around Matt's sumptuous, serpentine guitar riffs. An awesome spectacle, and one I feel privileged to have been part of.

So it's been a busy month! July will be a little quieter, with fewer gigs & rehearsals, as the local writing scene goes into its customary summer break. But I'm really pleased with the way these June gigs have gone; and, as all three gigs have been filmed, I hope to be able to provide followers with links to the performances so you can see them too as soon as I can!

Thursday 16 June 2011

Wrestling with Timelords; or, how I learned to start worrying and doubt Steven Moffat

One of the nice things about blogging is that you don't always have to keep to your beat. So while this blog mainly concerns itself with trans issues, poetry and politics, I can occassionally indulge myself by wittering on about some of the more minor subjects on which I waste cognitive capacity, such as sci-fi, professional wrestling or, in this case, both.

(It ought to be pointed out that from this point on the reader must consider the phrase 'Spoilers, sweetie' to have been uttered in the husky tones of Alex Kingston.)

First, some context. After reading a chance link from a friend, I came across Lawrence Miles' Dr Who Thing, wherein quondam Who-scribe Miles voices, among other things, his concerns about current Who-showrunner Steven Moffat. Now, Miles clearly has a little bit of an axe to grind, but that's understandable: an intellectual property he takes seriously and for which he used to be fortunate enough to write has now moved decisively in the direction of a kind of sci-fi he can't stand. But it did set me pondering what I thought about the reign of Grand Moff Steven, and particularly how it contrasts with the Russell T Davies (RTD) run, which I enjoyed a great deal.

Today, those thoughts crystallised with the news that in 2012, we won't get a full series of Dr Who, but a series of 'specials', rather like the awful 2009 run of the show, in which lazy, overly dramatic foreshadowing replaced the things that had made RTD's run up to that point so much fun: good forward continuity and a drip-feed approach to foreshadowing which was far more effective than 2009's 'have someone say something dramatic at the end of the episode' strategy. What worked really well in the RTD series was the way that mentions of Bad Wolf, Torchwood, or Mr Saxon would be scattered throughout the series in a way that piqued the viewers' interest and kept them guessing. Think about how subtly some of it was drip-fed as well: Bad Wolf in Series 1 was used as the name of a power plant, for heavens' sake. Sure, they lampshaded the fact they'd hidden the clue by the end of the episode; but if you knew Welsh and had been paying attention, you'd have spotted it from the start.

Compare that with Moffat's way of introducing his big unifying plot-point in his first series, and the beginning of his second: to have characters constantly shout 'The Pandorica will OPEN! Silence will FALL!' at the Doctor during dramatic moments. Not exactly subtle, that.

About the only half-interesting thing about Moffat's Motifs was the fact that they both meant the opposite of what we assumed. The Pandorica opening was, we assumed, some kind of container that would unleash ultimate evil. In fact, it was a prison for Matt Smith's Doctor. The dangerous thing wasn't the Pandorica opening, it was when it shut. In fact, when it opened the second time, that was actually a good thing.

How 'Silence will fall' panned out was, if anything, even more ridiculous. Instead of the Doctor being silenced, we were instead treated to a new alien race called THE Silence...which fell. Boneheaded literalism at its worst. But from a  certain point of view it might seem cool, because it wasn't what the fans expected. It was a swerve.

And that was when I realised what worries me about Steven Moffat. The thing about Moffat's writing which really worries me, more than budget cuts on the show, more than Lawrence Miles' musings, more than anything else.

What worries me about Steven Moffat is that he is Dr Who's Vince Russo.

Let me explain. Vince Russo was chief booker (a position roughly analogous to Moffat's show-runner position, though dealing with steroid cases drenched in baby oil rather than RADA graduates, so probably a slightly more pleasant working environment on the whole) in the WCW wrestling promotion. And he gradually destroyed said promotion due to his obsession with throwing swerves into storylines. Used sparingly, this can be a good tactic in a wrestling promotion: a large part of your audience has seen how most storylines pan out before and thinks it knows what to expect; so throwing them a curveball once in a while, as long as it adds something to the storyline, keeps things fresh. Russo's problem was he began to use swerves all the time, and he would throw in swerves which made no sense in the context of the storyline, just because they were swerves. Russo became obsessed with booking in such a way that the expectations of smart marks and internet wrestling geeks would be confounded. This pissed off the geeks because they saw through it, and it confused and upset the more mainstream wrestling audience because stuff was happening which made no sense whatsoever and was also kind of ridiculous and what in the crap was David Arquette doing with the Championship Belt, for Hogan's sake? It was a complete mess, but in Russo's view, it was working brilliantly, because, hey you didn't expect that, didja?

And that, to be honest, is what I fear in Moffat's epoch. Let's face it, 'The Silence' should have been a big clue. Moffat, seeking a way to make a swerve out of a phrase with such obvious implications as 'silence will fall', was forced to invent an entirely new alien race, with a convenient amnesia-inducing superpower, purely to service a pun. The existence of the Silence is hard to square with other elements of Who mythology, and the way the Doctor deals with them is out of character on a number of levels - but ha ha, do you see, the Silence fell! You didn't expect that, didja?

And this leads us, inevitably, to the revelation that River Song is Amy Pond's daughter. Does it make sense chronologically? Just about, I guess. Does it make sense emotionally, in terms of Amy's character? Or in terms of River's arc? I'm not so sure about that. How old is River? Does she age at a normal rate? Does she regenerate (and if so, why doesn't she regenerate when she dies at the end of the Silence in the Library two-parter?)? How does a human parent deal with a baby who's part timelord? How will this be dealt with when Karen Gillan finally leaves the show? What about the rather horrid emotional aspect of River's revelation - the exploding Amy, the exploding baby, the whole damn women-in-fridges ickiness of the origin? Has any of this been thought through?

I rather think not. To be honest, River's Revelation doesn't really seem to be something thought-out and planned. But it's a swerve, and I worry that, to Moffat, that's all that matters.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

My revolution...

With Gil Scott-Heron having died recently, I think it's inevitable that most poets will have had their thoughts turning to ripping off one of his poems doing a tribute to his effect on poetry. I considered it for about two minutes or so, then rejected the idea on the grounds that, while I love The Revolution will not be Televised, I Think I'll Call It Morning and Lady Day and John Coltrane, doing a 'tribute poem' would be, well, kind of a wanky, sophomore thing to do. So there I left it.

And then...

Browsing through a dating site (because I am, ah, I may have pointed this out on occassion, available), I came across a woman with one of the most bile-filled dating profiles I've ever seen. A profile which - on a site supposedly known for open-mindedness etc - she waxed at great length about how she would not date, and I quote, 'TGs, TS's, CDs and TV's' because she only dated women and 'no matter what you do to your body you weren't born a woman etc etc'. Because nothing will endear you more to prospective dates than a rant about how you hate a minority group.

Same old same old, really. Trans people are used to this kind of attitude. But what got me was the sheer dehumanising effect of that parade of initials. TS. TV. CD. TG. Not trans people. Trans labels. Trans categories. Externally imposed. The stuff of porn-mag back-page adverts; the brand of the oppressor used to differentiate each particular category of untermenschen from the real people. And it hurt, and it got me angry, and so I found myself ranting away to myself in the shower and started repeating the phrase 'I am not a TV, I am not a TV, I am not a TV...' and some associative faculty was triggered and I began exploring that metaphor of not *being* a TV and so, well...that's how we got here:

My revolution will not be trivialised

I am not a TV:
I am not available in flat-screen
Sony Widescreen hi-definition 3D
I am not something for you to gawp at
from the comfort
of your cisnormative settee
I do not pour forth bile at
people like me nightly
I am not a TV

I am getting ready for a
but it may not be
in 2012
and it will not be digital
at least not initiall-y:
I am not a TV.

I am not a CD:
I am not exactly
long enough to hold
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony;
I contain so much more.

I am not a CD
though I am allowing a lady
with a laser to unlock me
firing her beams into my pits and grooves
re-editing my data
remixing me
into what I want to be

but I am not a DAT
a Minidisc, an MP3,
a DVD, a PS3 or Nintendo Wii
and I am not a CD.

I am not a TS:
my life is not a waste land
waiting for the touch of fisher kings,
though I have seen death undo so many:
Andrea, Brenda, Mariah, Estrella,
Myra, Faith, Amanda and all those with no ID,
sweet ladies who were never bade goodnight
and had time called in spite of how they hurried;
but who were more, in their time, than Eliot’s tired seer,
more than his reingold borrowings and Sosophistries,
alive, undoing death with every step
across the bridge from one state to another.

I may wind up measuring my life
by each dose of HRT
but TS is not a label
that you’re gonna pin on me.

I am not a TG:
I am not a droid, a replicant, a Nexus-3,
I am not a minor character from ST:TNG,
I am not a space oddity:
there is nothing futuristic about me.

Those who lived like me
are found throughout your history:
Herculine Barbin, the Chevalier D’Eon,
The Priests of Attis, Elogabalus, the Amazons,
Moll Cutpurse, Jan Morris, Lili Elbe, Christine J,
Nong Thoom, Wendy Carlos, Lea T,
Lynn Conway without whom I couldn’t type on this PC,
but there’s nothing futuristic about me.

I am not a label,
I am not a category,
my only initials are AJ
and you will respect that about me,
but if you come for me
with labels intended to dehumanise,
to delegitimize my trajectory,
project your own lack of humanity on me:
I will change your channel,
make your tracks skip,
rewrite your past, and your future
the way you want to edit me:

so, if you please, respectfully,
hear and acknowledge me:
I am not a TV, CD, TS or even TG:
I am me.

Tuesday 31 May 2011

Live Word Show

Hey people - I realise there haven't been a lot of long and detailed posts on here for a while. This will probably continue for a while to be honest, as I'm pretty damn busy at the minute. I'll try to swing by and post the odd thing from time to time even if it's just to pimp gigs I'm doing or alert you to links.

Such as this: me reading some of my recent poems from the Newcastle Dr Sketchy's at Apples & Snakes Tyneside Scratch Club performance session back in April.:

Hat tip (and a heck of a lot more really) to Kirsten Luckins of A&S North East for organising the Scratch Club & posting the video to her Youtube channel!

Saturday 23 April 2011

Other Peoples' Things

Mum’s boots: brown leather creeping up
my bare calf, heel thrown at an odd angle
forcing my foot to slant, to curve;

John’s Swiss Army Knife, to cut
the nascent hairs, springing
from my big toe, from my arms;

someone else’s lighter,
the first time I used one
to singe them to the root

(at the first laser session,
years later, the smell
of burning hair was Proustian);

other womens’ fingers,
painting the nails
of my left hand;

you, applying the blusher,
the eyeshadow, your make-up
your swimsuit, your bra:

their words: queer.
Tranny. Fag. ‘I’m a
little poof’,

sang down the Metro
by a boy who didn’t like
my velvet jacket.

New poem. Inspired by Monkfish Productions' new 'Hand Me Down' themed project, and also by this horrific fucking story (very severe TRIGGER WARNING, I can't bring myself to watch the footage).
We discover who we are in private. And too many of us are forced to stay who we are in private because we fear this kind of violence, and the indifference - in some cases the amusement - it provokes in the people who should protect us. Fuck that.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Bad News is Not News (where transphobia's involved)

I mentioned a few posts back that this blog has gradually turned into a kind of Trans Comedy Watch, ever alert for examples of transphobia falling out of the lazy mouths of cissupremacist comedians. This week, however, has witnessed a major episode of 'comic' transphobia about which I have yet to shoot my mouth off, due to me being shagged out from running around like a blue-arsed fly working on the You Didn't Win campaign, your honour.

However, on the grounds that I seem to have made the task of nailing transphobic comedy bastards in this blog a glitter-coated millstone about my neck, it behoves this blog to turn its divinely mascara'd eyes in the direction of one Russell Howard. This 13-year-old comedian and child prodigy, who first came to public attention on Mock the Week, the show which forces Dara O'Briain to slum it with much lazier comedians for half an hour each week in return for a regular paycheck from Auntie Beeb, has this week...hold on, I'm being handed a note...what, really? Have you checked this? He is?

I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but it appears Russell Howard is not in fact a prepubescent, he merely looks like one. He is, however, a transphobic little piece of work, as the following youtube clip - for which a serious trigger warning is in effect - shows.

After being alerted to this blatant piece of bigotry by trans journalist Paris Lees (who blogs at Last of the Clean Bohemians), I, like many others, fired off an email of complaint to the BBC. You can see the text of their reply at my tumblr.

You can also see the reply that trans man Big Daddy Keltik got over at his tumblr. Notice anything familiar?

And we're not the only ones. Pretty much everyone else who's complained to the BBC has got the same stock reply, trying to argue that a sketch about kathoey stewardesses on a Thai airline is somehow 'not a sketch about trans people' and is 'in the tradition of Kenny Everett and Les Dawson'. You can see a detailed dissection of that line of bullshit in the press release from Trans Media Watch.

The BBC have removed the offending episode from the iPlayer, as per their policy of only leaving content up on it for a week, leaving only an inoffensive clip of a different routine from the show. Doubtless they're hoping that this story will go away. That, just like every other time they've made a joke about trans people, the fuss will die down and they'll get away with it.

But it won't. Not this time. Pink News have covered the story, and a general sense has crystallised in the trans community that enough is enough. Why should we stand by and take it when egregious, grinning little scumbags make jokes about how we're so disgusting we make people want to vomit?

This is dehumanisation. This is what Nazis do: make jokes about how the Other is so sickening that the only response decent people can have is horror and revulsion. And this is not what an organisation like the BBC - which has a public service remit to respect all the people of Britain, especially the most vulnerable of us - should be doing. And it is past time they were reminded of that, and started to act on that remit.

This time, we are not going away. This time, we are not giving up. This time, Auntie Beeb and her special little comedy children do not get to get away with it. The BBC and Russell Howard must apologise properly for their disgusting behaviour, and the BBC must start living up to the commitments it should honour as a public service broadcaster in an increasingly diverse society, instead of acting as if, where trans people are concerned, it's still the 1970s.

The naming of poets is a serious matter

'So why is it called Johns Hopkins?' I asked the poet who was hosting me on a trip to Baltimore as we drove past the town's famed university. 'Was it some kind of historical spelling error?'

My associate then explained that it wasn't: Johns with an s really was the name of the historical figure the university was named after. It's an incident that's always stuck in my mind, because something about Johns rather than John as a name makes it much more memorable. Names have always fascinated me: when your surname is Fish you don't have much choice about that. The inevitable ribbing on the playground will see to that.

When I started writing my concerns about the name became even more acute. It just never looked right at the top of a manuscript or the bottom of a poem. The trouble with Fish as a writer's surname is that it's a bit, well, unintentionally comic. Think of the baggage, the antecedents: Michael, the weatherman who failed to predict the 1987 hurricane? The lead singer of Marillion? These are not figures who are redolent of literary tradition. And the only other famous historical Fish I can think of is the child rapist and cannibal Albert Fish, and the less said about him the better.

So when I began writing I was always somewhat sensitive about this whole name business, what with being surrounded by people with good, strong proper writer's surnames like Cadwallender, Readman and Matthews.  But worse was to come, on one of my first forays on the road as a poet, when I went to the Hastings Poetry Festival. I arrived at the venue a little before the event started and was introduced to one of the other readers, a homeless guy who wrote poems for The Big Issue. When I said my name he reacted...unexpectedly, let's say.

'You're not Adam Fish!' he shouted. It took me some time to convince him that, in fact, I was entitled to that name, as he had apparently heard of another poet with exactly the same name working the circuit. We eventually compromised on the idea that there might well be another poet of that name, but there was also me, and the fact that two poets of the same name existed was clearly just one of those coinkydinks.

I never found out who the other poetic Adam Fish was, but a spot of googling led me to discover that there is, in fact, another Adam Fish who's more famous than me and is some kind of film-maker and anthropologist who, as far as I can ascertain, travels the world taking exotic drugs and doing funky yoga maneuvers. Jammy git. Clearly, when there is someone like that wandering about with your name, introducing yourself at parties is going ro be fraught with peril. I could just hear people saying 'Oh wow, that film you made about the tribe in Borneo whose culture is entirely based on eating the pituitary glands of monkeys who themselves eat hallucinogenic centipedes was amazing! Tell, me what insights did tripping for 17-hours on dried monkey-brain give you?' and imagine their crushing disappointment as I sheepishly explained that haha, no, funny story actually, I'm the poetry Adam Fish, not the one with the interesting life, sorry.

Still, it's not all bad. If there's any karmic justice then perhaps one day that guy will find himself in a beautiful house, in another part of the world, at a party with someone telling him he looks much butcher than they imagined, and asking him to 'do 'Eggshells', no, go on, do Eggshells dammit, what the fuck are you talking about that poem meant so much to me, you've changed!' One can but hope.

And none of this, by the way, was helped by the guy who spelled my name 'Adam Fisch' on an early poster for one of my gigs, apparently under the impression that my accent indicated I was some kind of North European dude. Though I have to say I quite liked 'Fisch', it had a sort of Rammstein-y quality to it.

It was pretty clear, then, that when I started writing seriously I was going to have to do something about this name business. But of course, I figured it could wait for a few years because I hadn't started writing seriously yet. Mindful of David Bowie's example, I took the view that switching monikers too early in one's career could be a problem, as it would make it easier for people to trace my embarrassing early output, and so, just as the Ziggy-to-be had stayed plain old David Jones during his time in various terrible mod bands, I decided that I would learn my craft as Mr AF, and swap to a more writerly pen-name when I felt I was good enough. (And I wasn't going to jump the gun like Bowie - if I was going to make the poetic equivalent of an Anthony Newley album, I would make damn sure to release it before I changed my name).

Well, after the past couple of years in which my writing has improved a great deal, both in creation and performance, and with the likelihood of actual book publication drawing ever closer, I decided this week that if I was going to switch to a more writerly name, then now would be the time. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that the author bio on this blog now contains the moniker AJ McKenna, and it's this name under which I intend to write from now on. When the book is published, that's the name it'll be under; any future pieces in mags or anthologies will be signed thus as well. It's not a massive name-shift - McKenna's my mum's maiden name, and A and J are my initials - but I like the heft of the name, the rhythm, the Celtic resonance, the sense of connection to the lyrical wealth of Irish letters; the paradoxical solidity of the initialised name (think CS Lewis, PD James, H.D., AA Milne, WN Herbert, JRR Tolkien, CJ Cherryh, AJP Taylor, TS's a long and honourable tradition) which is also, of course, gender-neutral and so more in keeping with the spirit of my writing too. It just feels, in an indescribable way, more me, certainly more like the writer me, and if I'm going to get serious about my writing then I think now is the time to adopt it. And so I have.

Saturday 2 April 2011

The Curse of the Drinking Classes

This weekend I sent off a selection of poems to a publisher which might, just possibly, turn out to be my second pamphlet. If all goes well, said publication may see the light sometime in 2012, which would be exactly ten years after my first pamphlet was published. I like to keep to a tight, frenetic, some might even say punishing, publishing schedule. It's a curse.

The selection I put together - with the working title 'Singing Motorhead in the Voice of Dolores O'Riordan' (there's a story behind that which I'll explain some other day) - concentrates, naturally enough, on trans stuff, but, in the editing, I noticed that there are a lot of poems about work, too. Which had to be left out to preserve the thematic unity of the selection I came up with, and which now have me thinking along the lines of doing another selection taking work culture as a subject. Work and trans stuff tend to be the things I bang on about most on here and in my poetry, so that would make sense. Though I'd need to write a few more work poems to get a full selection together.

Maybe it's just that work culture is much on my mind lately. Only recently I finished reading Madeleine Bunting's Willing Slaves, which I can't recommend enough. And, of course, the BBC have recently done a series, 'The British at Work', telling a story about peoples' experiences of toiling for the man in this septic isle.

You'll notice that I say 'telling a story', and refuse to go quite so far as to call the show a documentary series. That's because documentaries, well, document something. And too often, The British at Work seemed less interested in documenting peoples' working lives than in shoehorning facts and events into a narrative which ends with everybody living fulfilled working lives in the happy-clappy new milennium. A narrative in which unions got in the way of social progress and the Thatcherite desolation of large parts of the UK was a historical inevitability. Watching the eighties episode, they did pay attention to joblessness (by showing a clip of Yosser Hughes) and they covered the Wapping Printers' Strike (though this segued into discussing how lovely the new newspaper offices, and indeed other office buildings, became in the eighties), but you could've blinked and missed one of the defining workplace conflicts of the eighties, the Miners' Strike. Too bad you couldn't say the same for the endless shots of yuppie fun and fawning interviews with post-downshifted yupsters about how much stress they'd been under, the poor dears.

There's a good dissection of what's wrong with the show's narrative about work at The Blog from 20,000 Fathoms, which says pretty much everything I'd've said if I'd found the time. But today, a week after the March for the Alternative, I find the BBC's dismissiveness about workplace organisation not just offensive but completely out of touch.

Last week I marched through the streets of London with 500,000 other people, most of them drawn from the trade unions, in a show of numbers organised by the TUC. The atmosphere, the noise, the numbers were incredible. But what was just as incredible was the fact that, for the first time in what seemed like ages, peoples jobs and livelihoods were the key political issue. The Tory-led government's cuts are having a massive impact on peoples' jobs, and, despite a few highly-publicised new projects, it seems highly unlikely that the private sector can provide enough jobs for highly-qualified people like librarians, teachers, nurses or social workers when their jobs are cut.

There's no economic justification for these cuts. The Tories are making them in furtherance of a mean-minded ideology which, in some respects, chimes all too easily with the dismissive, anti-union, anti-worker, 'we've never had it so good' attitude of The British at Work. The Tory approach is about 'making it easier for businesses' by getting rid of legislation which protects workers' rights. The British at Work bolsters this approach by saying that there's no need to protect workers' rights because we're all 'doing jobs we like' in beautiful, 'hotel-like' offices, feeling fulfilled and creative and self-actualising.

How could people in such utopian working environments begrudge making life easier for our new business overlords? Resistance to managerialism in The British at Work was associated, again and again, with negativity, in the form of closed shops, racism, or, at the top end of things, bowler-hatted bankers straight out of a Monty Python sketch. Whereas the workers who donated time free of charge to the risible 'I'm backing Britain' were presented as heroic, patriotic figures, though even Kirsty Young struggled not to laugh at the campaign's official single by the dodgily-moustached fame-chaser Bruce Forsyth. Y'know, Bruce Forsyth who thinks that people should 'get a sense of humour' about racial slurs. How could you object to a campaign fronted by a class act like that?

(Of course it's unfair to single out Brucie. The 'I'm Backing Britain' campaign was also supported by such moral stalwarts as Jimmy 'I invented zero tolerance' Saville, and Robert Maxwell. With people like that 'backing' the country, one does feel amazed that we actually still exist as a nation at all.)

The reality is that in the 21st century millions of people in Britain still toil at unfulfilling jobs for wages that are a joke. 'Gold-plated pensions' only exist for bankers like Fred Goodwin, and Tory MPs who can roll out of the House of Commons and straight into a do-nothing, fat-salaried executive directorship on a company they've helped out during their time in office. Where people do jobs that are above the McJob level, they constantly face an uphill battle to make their workplaces decent places to work and spend time in, and most of the things that are good about workplaces today were only won by scaring the bejesus out of bosses.

But of course if you think of things that way, then you might find yourself objecting to the Tory agenda. And we can't have that, can we?

Friday 25 March 2011

Tomorrow, Life

Tomorrow I, like thousands of others, will be joining the March for the Alternative in London. We will march peacefully, we will assemble peacefully, and we will, peacefully, make the case that there is a better way to cut the deficit than George Osborne's misguided, ideologicaly-driven, economically and politically suicidal austerity program. Forget the scaremongering of right-wing demagogues who bleat about anarchists. These are ordinary people - people of all races, all genders, all sexualities and all social classes, abled and disabled, young and old, gathering and making our voices heard. This is democracy in action, and a more democratic coalition than that cobbled together when Nick Clegg threw away his principles for a chance at a stroll in David Cameron's rose garden.

I'm proud to be a part of this movement, and I hope that, if you're reading this, you are, or will be, too. And to be honest I don't really have a lot of time to do a detailed blog about it, because, among other things, I need to get my nails done so I look as fabulous as always for this historic day. So I'll get off now. I just wanted to let anyone reading here who doesn't follow me on Facebook or Twitter know that I'll be there. And if you do follow me on the second of those platforms, watch for a lot of tweeting over the course of the day.

And now...offski! See you on the other side, fight the power, and I leave you with the deep and resonant political analysis of Rage Against the Machine, fuck you, I won't do what you tell me...motherfucker!

Monday 21 March 2011

Always Outnumbered, Always Betrayed

It's a truism of politics - and of life, of which politics is merely an extension - that you hate your betrayer more than your enemy. This is why there is a greater reservoir of hatred for Nick Clegg than there is for David Cameron. Cameron is a Tory, and we know we can rely on the Tories to be horrible, hateful, bigoted scum, who'll kick crutches away from the disabled and burn babies' prams for firewood. But a year ago Nick Clegg seemed to promise a new kind of politics - seemed to be the personification of Britain's own 'Obama moment' - only to throw it all away for a shot at power, turning his back on the hope he represented and everything he told us he believes in.

So in a similar way, as angry as I am with Peter Kay I find myself angrier at Channel 4 when I read that said channel - which, just last week, to general acclaim from the trans community, signed the Trans Media Watch Memorandum of Understanding - is planning to repeat the very programme in which Kay first aired his transphobic caricature, Geraldine. Yes: on March 26th, a grand total of twelve days after signing the MoU, Channel 4 plans to air a programme featuring a character and a performer universally reviled by trans people.

Let's remind ourselves what Channel 4 committed themselves to do by signing the Memorandum. The Memorandum has four principle aims: to eliminate transphobia in the media, to end the provision of misinformation about transgender issues in the media, to increase positive, well-informed representations of trans people in the media, and to ensure that trans people working in or with the media are treated with the same respect as cis people in equivalent positions.

The relevant principles transgressed by 'Peter Kay's Britain's Got the Pop Factor And Oh For God's Sake Stop the Title We Got the Joke Ten Words Ago You Unfunny Buffoon' are principles two and three. Kay's caricature 'Geraldine' is nothing but misinformation about trans people; and this laughable transface mockery is far from a 'positive' or 'well-informed' representation. So why are Channel 4 doing this?

The only inference I can make from this scheduling decision is that they just don't care. And that in fact they never did. Channel 4 were happy to use Trans Media Watch's good intentions as a way to score a little good publicity (though notably less keen to trumpet their decision on their news programming - a reticence to show solidarity with trans people in the mainstream media thankfully not shared by others, such as the New Statesman's David Allen Green), but when it comes down to it, doing the right thing by one of the most vulnerable groups in society means nothing for Channel 4 compared to the cheap ratings pop a rerun of Kay's godawful talent show spoof will garner in the wake of his charidee single with Susan Boyle.

Should this really surprise us? This is the same channel that broadcast an episode of The IT Crowd which featured, as its comic climax, a cis man beating a trans woman unconscious; the same channel which broadcast Frankie Boyle making rape jokes involving a disabled child. This is the channel which only did something about the Big Brother racism scandal when rioters in India began burning contestants in effigy.

Fine words are all very well, but Channel 4 have shown again and again that they only do what's right when people put pressure on them to do so. Perhaps this is what Channel 4's head of creative diversity, Stuart Cosgrove was alluding to when he said that Trans Media Watch needed to feel free to 'shaft us' now and again (as reported by Chrisine Burns at Just Plain Sense).

Sadly, it isn't people like Cosgrove who wind up getting shafted, but trans people, again and again, when cis people act as if we don't really matter to them, as if we're not as important as profits or ratings or their own smug peace of mind. We may be a minority, but I'm sick to the back teeth of being betrayed by people and organisations I admire.

That's why I've started a petition to ask Channel 4 to live up to their promises and not air Peter Kay's transphobic comedy special again. Please sign, and send a message to Channel 4 that fine words and big parties are not enough: that we expect to see them act on the promises they've made, and that we'll judge the extent to which they really value and respect trans voices by their actions, not their PR.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Faithless Bodies

One of the things that really hurts about negative portrayals of trans people, particularly those that are made in the name of lowest common denominator 'humour' or just plain old mean-spiritedness, is that they're something we have to deal with on top of the problems the trans experience brings with it already. Two links I've seen recently have really brought this home to me again, in a way that moved me and made me think a lot about my relationship to my body.

The first was CN Lester's heartbreaking post about the relationship which s/he, as a trans singer, has with hir own body. As a classically trained singer, Lester finds hirself in a position where s/he feels s/he cannot take testosterone due to the effects it would have on hir vocal range. As a result, s/he finds hirself estranged from hir body, regarding it, well, as an 'it', an entity separate from hir self, an entity s/he has to work and negotiate with to achieve her ends. I've had this experience as well: the constant little ways in which my body won't do what I want it to; the moments when I think, no, that isn't me, that doesn't look like me, do I look like that? And the pain that brings.

The only way to stop that pain is to try and take measures to make your body align more with your sense of self. For example, recently, after deciding I'd finally had enough of the constant nightmare shaving was for me, I opted to start undergoing laser treatment to permanently remove my facial hair. And that has been great: I already have less of a five o'clock shadow after just one session. I would recommend it to anyone.

But when you're young, you have fewer tools available to you, and you can use less healthy methods to try and express the gender you feel. I was reminded of that by a line in another post about trans issues I read this weekend, on Questioning Transphobia:

The emphasis there is mine, and the reason is that that was my experience as a teenager. During my late teens, I became anorexic and bulimic (yes, I know you wouldn't think it to look at me now, thank you...) and that eating disorder was intimately related to my gender issues. I used to look at pictures of girls in 'lad-mags' and the third page of the Daily Star (I know, I know...) and note the way their hips jutted out at an angle...then I would feel my own hipbone, rubbing my hand on it and trying to decide if it was as visible as theirs. I used to watch Gladiators on a Saturday night and obsessively compare my weight to that of the female stars. I was overjoyed, once, to find that I weighed less than Panther and Lightning; though I never managed to get to the point where I was lighter than Jet or Nightshade. Probably just as well; getting down to their weight would've killed me.

What does all this have to do with stuff like transphobic comedians and conferences, you might ask? Well, it's simple enough: this pain is what we are already dealing with. We don't need anymore. Some of you may be aware of a meme doing the rounds on Tumblr about bullying, the essence of which is that people who get mocked for their supposed 'imperfections' are often struggling with things which their tormentors can't conceive of. As trans people we struggle with mental health issues, addictions, eating disorders, and all manner of troubles as a result of the dysphoria between the gender assigned to us by society and that which we feel ourselves to be. So having people drag up as caricatures of ourselves to get cheap laughs, or writing newspaper articles which call into question our bodily integrity - our right to bring our bodies closer to our selves - really does not help.

I want to end this post with two things. The first is Criminally Fragile, a poem I wrote last year which represented a real breakthrough for me, as the first time I'd been able to write something which worked about where my head was at during those mixed-up teenage years, and which is one of the poems I've written about of which I'm most proud; and, secondly, a song which got me through that dark period, and which I was reminded of today, reading CN Lester's link: 'Salva Mea', by Faithless.

How can I change the world, when I can't even change myself? I plan on doing both, to be honest. I do what I do in the hope that, in the future, some young trans kid like me won't have to worry about changing the world on top of everything else.

Thursday 17 March 2011

Comic Relief's Garlic Bread-heads Need to Show Some Damn Respect

First, the good news. This Monday, UK broadcaster Channel Four signed up to a historic memorandum of understanding with Transmediawatch, pledging to handle trans issues sensitively and respectfully. I can only welcome something like this, given the amount of times on this blog that I've raged against disrespectful and insensitive coverage of trans issues in the media. Trans Media Watch are to be commended for their excellent work in getting Channel 4 on board, and I look forward to seeing the new approach in action on that channel.

Sadly, however, it would seem that one of Channel 4's competitors, ITV, literally didn't get the memo. Because, in the same week that 4 made this historic step in trans representation, it was announced that next week, ITV's lunchtime ratings hit, Loose Women (note to American readers - basically a British version of The View) announced that they would feature their first 'transsexual' panelist. Who would it be? Roz Kaveney? Natacha Kennedy? Well, both those girls are a bit intellectual, a bit too removed from the celebrity, Heat magazine world  for Loose Cis Women...maybe Dana International would be more their speed?

Alas, no. Because it turns out the 'first trans panellist' on Loose Cis Women will not be any of these women, will in fact not be a trans woman at all, but will be...washed-up funnyman Peter Kay trotting out his tired old caricature of trans womanhood, Geraldine McQueen. But don't worry! It's all in aid of Comic Relief - because Kay is releasing this year's annoying Comic Relief novelty single as a collaboration with Susan Boyle. That makes it okay, right?

Well, no, not really. In fact frankly it makes me wonder what Comic Relief are playing at. In 2007, they literally wheeled Kay out, for another 'comedy' duet with his fellow bigoted 'comedian' (and previous target of this blog) Matt Lucas, this time making fun of disabled people with their 'hilarious' wheelchair-user caricatures Brian Potter & Andy Pipkin. And now here we are again, with Kay given free reign to mock some of the most vulnerable people in society - people Comic Relief ostensibly sets out to help.

It does make you wonder who Comic Relief exists for, doesn't it? Is it really about the charidee, mate, or does it exist to boost the careers of pointless, desperate, laughter-hungry failed humans like Kay and Lucas? What's Kay done on telly lately, besides those rubbish John Smith adverts? Well, he showed up looking off his face on the One Show...and that's about it, really. I know he's doing a series of shows at the O2 arena because he's now too up his arse to tour like a proper stand-up - and let's face it, sod the charities, that's what Kay is doing this single and his run on Loose Cis Women to promote. So why are Comic Relief indulging him with all this free publicity?

It's a legitimate question because, even leaving aside his transphobia, Kay is disliked by many in the comedy world. Channel 4 had to compensate an innocent man from Kay's hometown after one of Kay's shows apparently slandered him; he screwed collaborators Dave Spikey and Neil Fitzmaurice out of the credit for Phoenix Nights, the show which brought him to peoples' attention; he rubbished a routine by Noel Fielding - a comedian who, at his worst, is ten times more interesting than Kay - purely to court the affections of a single heckler in the room.

Anecdotally, people talk of him tightening mike stands as much as possible when he comperes shows, just so the acts who follow have to start their set fighting to get the microphone to their height; of other comedians refusing to speak to him backstage lest he steal their gags; and of him introducing performers by saying 'don't worry if the next act's shit, I'll be back on in a minute'. His autohagiography was so badly-written and contained so much chip-on-the-shoulder score-settling that sales for its sequel tanked so badly it was cited as a factor in the decline of the UK book industry; and his 'ecological' approach to DVD releases - endlessly, cynically recycling the same old material - has became an old, unfunny joke - much like the ones that litter his routines. Little wonder that, when he appeared to receive an 'outstanding achievement' award at the 2009 British Comedy Awards (I suppose spinning twenty minutes worth of stand-up material into a ten year career is some kind of achievement), the assembled comedians pointedly refused to give him the usual standing ovation.

Peter Kay used to tell jokes. Now he is one. When the laughs he could get by endlessly repeating the phrase 'garlic bread' dried up, he did what far too many rubbish comedians do and went to the endless well of transphobic gags. So far, so par for the course: regular readers will know transphobia in comedy is no rarity, and in fact this blog has gradually turned into a kind of Trans Comedy Watch, so often have I been forced to lay into yet another pointless funnyman for spreading prejudice with a liar's smile on his face; but what is special about this case is the support Comic Relief are giving Kay, and the platform they are giving him to ponce about doing his hateful caricature of a trans woman.

Trans women are one of the most vulnerable groups in society worldwide, as this blog and many, many others have documented time and again. Comic Relief claims that it exists to help the most vulnerable in Britain and throughout the world. That is a laudable aim. But it sits uneasily with providing a platform for a turgid little man like Kay to mock those very vulnerable people it claims to support. I had hoped they'd learned their lesson after the disgusting ableism of the Kay/Lucas video. Clearly they haven't.

This Friday, Comic Relief will squat on the Friday night schedules in its usual bloated manner, interspersing variety turns and almost-funny skits with tug-on-the-heartstrings real-life bits and asking, again and again, for our money. The money they raise does a lot of good. But let's be brutally honest: there are lots of other charities out there, and I can and do donate to those charities. I do charity gigs and I use my poetry to engage in activist causes as often as I can. I'm no Scrooge: I believe in standing up for the vulnerable and using my money to help them improve their lot in whatever way they can.

I'm a charitable person. But this Red Nose Day, Comic Relief will not see one red cent of my hard-earned cash, and they won't see any again until they stop allowing their shindig to be hijacked by hateful, transphobic 'comedians' like Peter Kay. Because transphobia is just not funny. Ever.

Sunday 13 March 2011

...because the bad things never went away

Microaggressions. A word I mentioned on here the other night, which led me to looking up the brilliant microaggressions blog on tumblr, which in turn led me to this brilliant blog about the kind of microaggressions trans people encounter on a pretty much daily basis. It's a concept - like cisgender, and kyriarchy - with which I think people should be much more familiar.

Which makes it more galling that today has been another day of having to deal with aggression and othering from a very familiar source.

Julie Bindel, like the trans toilets topic, seems to be an issue that one has to deal with on a regular basis as a trans activist. However much we make clear, again and again, how much of a transphobic bigot she is, people keep inviting her to give out with her views on trans people as if she's some kind of expert - whether it's the Guardian, Standpoint magazine, Queer Question Time or, most recently, The Royal College of Psychiatrists, who have invited Bindel along as the only non-psychologist to attend a conference on, allegedly, 'the most recent academic, clinical and contemporary thinking on transgender issues'.

Quite why Bindel has been invited, given this brief, is something of a mystery. She isn't an academic. She isn't a clinician. And, far from being 'contemporary', her views on trans issues are rooted in an outmoded, second-wave feminism with which fewer and fewer women - cis or trans - identify today.

Bindel has in the past written a fawning obituary for Mary Daly, calling her 'the world's first feminist philosopher' (take that, Mary Wollstonecraft!) but glossing over her racism, and her genocidal views that we should leave only ten per cent of the men on earth alive. That is quite some evil. Reducing a population by ten per cent is called decimation. I don't even know what the word for reducing a population to ten per cent is, besides genocide. Even the Nazis only managed to kill about 67% of Europe's Jewish population. Daly dreamed about genocide on a scale beyond even Hitler. But, to Bindel, she's a stand-up gal.

When it came to cis men, Daly's genocidal dreams were on a hiding to nothing. When it came to trans women, however, Daly was much more successful, as her apt pupil, Janice Raymond, with her views about 'morally mandating [trans people] out of existence', was able to influence US policy to ensure that federal and state governments would not fund surgeries for indigent and imprisoned trans people. I referred in my last post to the suffering of Rebekah Brewis, who is not receiving adequate help with her transition from the Oregon authorities, in whose mental health system she is currently incarcerated. Janice Raymond is a big part of the reason why; and Mary Daly is a big part of why Janice Raymond thought the way she did.

And now we have Bindel trying to carry on Daly and Raymond's work by addressing the Royal College of Psychiatrists about trans issues - issues she has no experience of. Issues she has, in fact, been dismissive of. And yet of all the people outside psychology they could ask, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has asked her to be the one who lectures to them on trans issues. Would the RCP ask Fred Phelps to be the only non-psychiatrist to lecture them on gay issues? Would they listen calmly to a lecture on Islam by Geert Wilders? Or would they rightly refuse to give a platform of academic respectability to bigotry?

It is exactly that kind of respectability which allowing Bindel to speak at this conference confers on her views. And by bestowing such respectability on her, the Royal College of Psychiatrists are delivering a clear message that they do not care about trans people. They are legitimising the transphobic views that drive the kind of aggression described by Asher Bauer in his blog above. They are conferring legitimacy on discrimination against trans people in healthcare, in housing, in employment, and in the streets where, year after year, trans people lose their lives to the violence bigots like Bindel enable.

As clinicians, the RCP are subject to the medical principle of primum non nocere - 'first do no harm'. By giving their imprimatur to Bindel, they cause harm to one of the most vulnerable groups in society. It's fortunate for them, I suppose, that they can prescribe tranquilisers - because if I was doing what they're doing, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night.

Saturday 12 March 2011


It's two in the morning and I'm awake. Don't rush to comfort me. This is actually a good thing.

It's a good thing because the reason I'm awake is a burning need to write. To get something down. To express something I haven't felt in a long time. Anger. And that I feel angry is a good thing, because for far too long I've felt, if not exactly depressed, then certainly worn-out. Beaten down. Burnt out.

It started with a little local difficulty at work. I won't go into details here - this blog has always prided itself on being as unspecific as possible about where I toil to earn my handful of scraps from the capitalist table. Confidentiality is one reason for this, but another, very important reason, is universality. I believe the problems I encounter at work - the problems most of us encounter in the warped work culture of the kyriarchy - are pretty much the same anywhere. When I blog about some aspect of work, it isn't because I want to have a dig at a particular employer: it's because I'm painfully aware that the issues I deal with at work are the same or very similar to the issues others deal with. It's an entire culture we're dealing with, a sickness that has metastasized through the entire body politic: and I need to describe the symptoms of that sickness in a way that's as depersonalised as possible. It can never be fully depersonalised, because suffering under such a sick system wounds me, as it wounds so many others, as it causes such a terrible psychic cost to our society as a whole; but adopting a 'no names, no pack drill' position allows me to sidestep the accusations of sour grapes that would doubtless be forthcoming if I were to get more specific, while at the same time allowing what I say to resonate with others. And the fact that it does resonate - that the responses I get when I write a poem like, say, Employer of the Year or Collude to Exclude, are expressions of weary familiarity rather than shocked incomprehension - rather suggests that this is a universal experience I'm writing about. Yemaya knows I wish it wasn't.

So, reader, you will understand why I don't wish to dwell on the problems at work that started off my downturn. After a certain point they became immaterial anyway. If it wasn't work it might well have been something else: certainly the kyriarchy showed no inclination to soften up during my own period of relative inactivity. Trans women were still being murdered, and misgendered in newspaper headlines. Disabled people were still subject to the vilest witch-hunt we've seen in politics in recent times. The Coalition still seemed hell-bent on turning Britain into a third-world nation to satisfy their big financial backers. All was fucked, all was fucked, and all manner of things would be fucked. But I lacked the anger to effectively deal with this. I was, as I say, burnt out. Like many of us from time to time, I felt as if I was repeating the same things over and over, banging my head against a wall and achieving nothing beyond throwing up the tiniest scattering of brick-dust and giving myself a concussion.

In that kind of headspace it can be hard to see the signs of hope. I saw the news finally start paying attention to groups like UK Uncut and The Broken of Britain; I saw Transmediawatch make progress signing media organisations up to a Memorandum of Understanding about trans representation; I watched as the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya did the impossible and stood up to their oppressive, western-backed elites. Intellectually, I could see that progress was being made; emotionally, it failed to register. I would see a story and think 'I should blog about that' or 'there might be a poem to be made about this' but beyond a sluggish recognition of that fact, I couldn't stir myself much further. Just this week, for example, I found myself moved by the plight of Rebekah Brewis, a trans woman being brutally treated by the Oregon authorities, whose case I learned about on the eve of International Women's Day, of all times, and thought that here was something I needed to speak out about, and here was a time when it mattered to say such things. But it didn't happen because, still, I lacked the fire.

To be fair, I was partly to blame for this lack. I had planned, during my week off in January, to take some time to simply relax. However, the discovery of a cheap rail ticket offer in a local paper set me off planning to do a gig in London, and then - since I had the week off - to do a bunch of other gigs elsewhere to take advantage of the situation. At a time when I should have been replenishing my strength, I pushed myself to my final reserves, desperate not to waste time, to get out there and get my message heard. And I'm glad I did, because I enjoyed those gigs and, without going to London, I'd never have encountered the brilliant work of Anna Chen, but the net result of all that gigging, all those late nights and long train rides, was that when I returned to my day job I was running on less than empty. I needed time out. I needed space to think. I needed to sleep in late and spend whole days doing nothing more strenuous than taking a shower and putting a DVD in the machine. I needed to fucking relax.

Fortunately, this past week, I've had that time. Another week off work coincided with a friend being away for a week and needing someone to look after her cats. This gave me the opportunity to take time off away from work, away from my parents and - because I couldn't travel - away from gigging. It was, in fact, a way to force myself to relax. I could go out during the day - and I have, to attend a fantastic gig by local women poets for International Women's Day, and to check out the John Martin exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery, to acquire nice things using a money-off voucher for the Body Shop and to mark what seem the first tentative stirrings of spring by buying and drinking my first bottle of Rose of the year - but I had to be in by the evening to feed the kittehs. Wild nights were out of the question.

So, for a week, I've been forced to chill. And, tonight, my friend came back. And, lying in bed, I found myself turning things over in my head. Thinking about things like the March for the Alternative later this month. Thinking about what I'd say at the gigs I have lined up next month, when I'll have longer sets to work with and more time to make my points. Thinking about the government, reflecting on stories my friend had told me from the union conference she'd been on, pondering cases like that of Rebekah Brewis, mentioned above, and the shameful reporting of the changes to clothing regulations for trans women that I've seen in the papers this week, and the efforts I've made, and continue to make, to shift my own gender presentation to an identity with which I feel more comfortable, and the microaggressions (and, lets be frank, risk of macro-aggressions) I have to deal with as a result.

And suddenly I didn't feel burned-out. I didn't feel beaten-down. I didn't feel tired and weak and useless. I didn't feel spent. I felt a whirl of emotions racing through my brain. I felt a desire to engage with those emotions properly again. I felt my fingers twitch to touch the keyboard. I felt my synapses trying on sentences for size. I felt - for the first time in months - angry. And anger, as John Lydon once pointed out, is an energy.

So. I am angry. I am shouty. I am ranty. And I am going to be ranting about a lot more things on here in the weeks and months to come. If you're reading this and you like that - and I'm going to assume, if you've been reading this for a while, that you do - I'd like to bid you hello again. If you're new to this blog, I'd just like to bid you hello. And if you don't like the thought of being ranted at by an angry, poor, left-of-centre trans poet? Well, you could probably stand to learn the most of anyone from this blog but, y'know, if the thought of acknowledging the opinion of someone who lacks your privilege really makes your guts churn and your eyes bleed? The back button is your friend, chum. Jog right on.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Death joined us for a drink

Death found us that day,
in the pub as we drank
and someone broke the news of your collision.

Death pulled up a stool and joined the conversation.

Death listened, caught the hollowness
behind the jokes, the catching laughter.

Death saw the silences lengthen,
said nothing to fill them. Death did not
whisper in our ears, did not
remind us he was there.

He didn't need to.

He sat and watched
as glasses emptied,
listened to the bell ring

the dry snap
of the jackets we shrugged on,
followed each of us back
down our separate roads home.

                                                                       *    *    *

I was going to blog about the launch of By Grand Central Station We Sat Down and Wept tonight, but when I got back home I was told by my mother that the doctors treating my grandmother, who has suffered for a long time with a narrow heart valve which is causing blood to pool in the heart, have concluded that her condition cannot be cured. She is dying, and it is now only a matter of time.

This blog has been quiet for a while. It may be quiet somewhat longer.

Thursday 3 February 2011

I should be drinking a toast to absent friends...instead of these comedians.

Whenever I do the kind of performance that comes along rarely in poetry, the sort of gig where I have the audience in the palm of my hand, where the bits between poems flow easily and I get to display the kind of crowd-pleasing cool that puts people in mind of Dean Martin during his heyday, I always find myself on edge afterwards. Jumpy. Disturbed. Because I know there's a chance someone from the audience will wind up talking to me and will utter the phrase I most dread:

'Mate, why are you wasting your time on this poetry crap? You're really good, you should be a comedian!'

And then, because I'm a good girl, I smile politely and say 'thanks' with what I hope is just the right note of self-deprecation, but inside I am desperate to say: 'NO! No, I do not want to be a fucking comedian! I hate comedians! I despise most of the fuckers! If a virus wiped out 95% of the comedians in the world overnight then as long as it neglected to infect the few of them I can stand to have a drink with, I would isolate that virus and shake it by the dominant allele! Fuck comedians! Fuck comedy! If I wanted to be a comedian I wouldn't have been a fucking poet, would I, you bloody INANULON! Piss off!'

A somewhat extreme position, you might think, but it's one I've arrived at through long observation of the similarly extreme position which most comedians have taken towards people like me. Time after time in this blog, I've detailed the way comedians such as David Letterman, Stephen Fry, Graham Linehan, Sean Lock, Lucas & Walliams, and even Stewart Lee, have all, in the past, chosen to make trans people the punchlines of their jokes. As this blog has outline again and again, jokes like these have a body count, best evidenced by the names added to the Transgender Day of Remembrance list year after year.

When you treat an entire group of people as a joke, you legitimise the idea that they don't matter. When you pander to the hatred that makes peoples' lives unbearable, you legitimise that hatred. And, ultimately, you tell those who want to kill trans people that actually, it's okay. That we aren't fully human and, anyway, if you find out we're trans, then it's only understandable if you freak out and batter us to death. Jokes!

Recently I was watching a stand-up comedy show on the BBC and I saw something which gave me a little bit of hope. One of the turns on the show made a naff joke about his wife 'having a penis'. And what was amazing was that every joke he'd been telling before this point had been getting good, round laughs, but when he drew from the transphobia well, his laugh flattened. There were a few titters here and there and maybe a couple of belly laughs, but the thick, full, rounded laughs that most of the audience had been giving him had faded away to nothing. And I thought about this conversation we've all been having, online, in the arts, in politics and in the wider culture, and how more and more voices - of which this blog is one - have been slowly chipping away at the notion that people are punchlines - whether those people are trans, disabled, poor, gay, lesbian, bisexual, black, fat, whatever: and I thought, well, thank fuck for that. We're having an impact. We're starting to break through.

Sadly, we are not yet having enough of an impact to stop America's flagship comedy show from behaving like a bunch of transphobic douchebags (problematic reporting flag: 'transgenders' used as noun).

Look at the picture at the top of that article and you see everything that sickens me about most comedians, and the reason why I'm ashamed to be associated with them. Look at the face: the smug, cis, caucasian face. I have no idea which smug, piece-of-shit 'comic' that face belongs to, and I care even less. All I do know is that that's the kind of face I got sick of seeing at school: the face of a scumbag enjoying the pleasure of mocking people who don't have the privilege he has simply for lacking that privilege, safe in the knowledge there won't be any comeback, and he can get away with it.

I have no desire to be associated with that kind of vileness. I have no desire to be a comedian while that kind of arrogant, bullying crap is the public face of comedy. I'm a poet, and I'm proud of it, because it's a calling that demands a higher standard than the cheap laugh and the slap on the back, and because I want to live in a culture that demands high standards. That demands better, for everyone outside the charmed circle of privilege.

Demand better: let NBC know we won't let them turn people into punchlines any longer. Flatten the laugh; wipe the smirk from the privileged faces. Sign the petition.