16 May 2012

My writing - elsewhere on the Internet

I've been meaning to set up a website that collects all my work in one place, but for now, it's all below.

All of my writing for the New Statesman can be found here. There are articles on literature (BS Johnson, Alex Kovacs, Ann Quin, Chloe Aridjis, Deborah Levy, Kate Zambreno, McKenzie Wark, Nanni Balestrini, Lars Iyer and Jean-Philippe Toussaint), 1980s video game Alter Ego, trans politics and culture (Chelsea Manning, pronouns, comedy, sport, Boulton and Park, cultural history, an interview with Janet Mock and some theses on trans people and the media), art (Sanja Iveković, the Vorticists, Painting and Performance, Hannah Höch), football (Justin Fashanu, Darren Eadie and depression, Grant Holt, transsexual people and the sport), theatre (Copi and Georg Kaiser's From Morning to Midnight) and various other subjects.

For The New Inquiry, I wrote a Manifesto for Confessional Journalism.

Short fiction
The Final Sentence (3:AM)

I'm too sad to tell you about
I'm Too Sad to Tell You (3:AM)

Keep Still (Berfrois)

Nazimova (Necessary Fiction)

Reflections on Villaplane (Berfrois)

Surveillance City (Queen Mob's Teahouse)

The Unfortunate, or: Watching Dimitar Berbatov (3:AM)

The Woman in the Portrait, in the Five Dials #readwomen2014 issue (33b) is here.

Trans/LGBTQI writing
My Transgender Journey series (Guardian) is here.

For Comment Is Free:
Transgender actors and transgender screen roles
Gareth Williams and the prurience of the press
Five trans role models
Sport is slowly catching up with transgender realities

I wrote a long essay for Aeon magazine (Jan 2014) about the 'Before and After' trope in media coverage of transsexual and transgender people - here. It was also translated into Russian for NZ magazine.

A report from the LGBTQI panel and passing of the resolution at the PEN International Congress in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (London Review of Books blog)

A report on my visit to Labrys, the LGBTQI organisation in Kyrgzystan - 'One Afternoon in Bishkek' (Dissident Blog)

An open letter to Almazbek Atambayev, the President of Kyrgyzstan, against the country's proposed 'gay propaganda' bill, hosted here by PEN International. (Click here for the Russian version.)

I wrote about Kellie Maloney's coming out for the Daily Telegraph.

I have an essay in a book called 'The Flexible Sex', published in German and English by the Bundeszentrale fur politische Bildung. There are chapters by Rosi Braidotti, Heidi Safia Mirza, Clare Hemmings and others as well as my 'Conundrum: The Dilemmas of Transsexual Narratives'. You can access the e-book here.

I also did an interview with 3 O'Clock Press about my contribution to their Letters Lived book - a collection of letters to teenage selves including Nina Power, Selma James, Rae Spoon, Shea Howell and others.

For TimeOut (London):
My Transsexual Summer appraised
Cross-dressing in Victorian London
Trans films at the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival
XXXora's Newer Gender - a preview

On trans people, sport and the Stockholm Consensus (LEAP Sports - Pride House Blog)

On trans people and football for Meta magazine Issue 2 - which can be purchased here.

I have a couple of pieces in Meta issue 3, too: one on the uses of the transgender umbrella, and another on sexual harassment, reporting and the particular issues for trans people. Follow this link ...

For the Student BMJ (subscription needed):
Working with transsexual patients
Safeguarding vulnerable adults.

A piece for Open Democracy on global violence against transgender people - here.

Literature & Film
For 3:AM:
The Connecting Door - on English 'experimental' author Rayner Heppenstall

Returning to the City of Lost Souls - on Rosa von Praunheim's queer cult musical with Jayne County, Tara O'Hara, Angie Stardust and others

An entry for The Guardian's 'Baddies in Books' series on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground - here

For Cineaste:
From Morning to Midnight (directed by Karlheinz Martin - Germany 1920)
By the Law (directed by Lev Kuleshov - Soviet Union 1926)

For the BFI website:
10 Great Transgender Film

I contributed to the first issue of BSJ: The Journal for BS Johnson Studies, available here.

I wrote on my good friends in Manchester band Performance, and their 2007 debut album (We Are) Performance for The Music Fix - here.

Transcripts of my talks for The Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre were  hosted by 3:AM - in November 2013, I did one on the Sex Pistols and one on Gang of Four. In December, I spoke about Stereolab, and Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno.

I chose UBUWEB's Top Ten resources for December 2013, as well as a special list for World AIDS Day. Both have Rosa von Praunheim films: the Top Ten includes Guillaume Apollinaire, Bas Jan Ader, Hito Steyerl, Welles and Warhol, Deimantas Narkevicius, Germaine Dulac and Delia Derbyshire, whilst the AIDS/HIV list features Momus, David Wojnarowicz, Nan Goldin, Isaac Julien, Reza Abdoh, Leslie Thornton, Yann Beauvais and Gerard Byrne. They can be found here.

For the London Review of Books, I reviewed Phaidon's Queer Art and Culture volume - here.

For Guernica:
XXXora's Newer Gender

I collected my football blogs here in September 2011.

I am writing a series for the New Humanist entitled How to Watch Football. Click here for Part One, here for Part Two, here for Part Three, here for Part Four, and here for Part Five.

In addition, my piece in Issue 4 of The Blizzard on Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Zinedine Zidane, can be downloaded here.

Podcasts, panels, radio and interviews
The Pod Delusion - Thinking Critically about Transgender Issues
(presented at Westminster Skeptics in October 2011, introduced by Belinda Brooks-Gordon)
Just Plain Sense - Trans People and the Media (with Christine Burns)
Talking about transgender history, identity and politics with Cambridge Skeptics - here

I appeared on the LGBTQI panel at the PEN International Congress in 2014, held in Bishkek, speaking with Masha Gessen, Syinat Sultanalieva and chair Marion Botsford Fraser - here are Part 1 and Part 2.

I chaired the first Binary Static panel for SPACE at The White Building in London, talking to artists Raju Rage and Evan Ifekoya about cyber-feminism, race, gender and creativity - here

I was on Novara on Resonance FM, talking with James Butler and Huw Lemmey about LGBT History Month (February 2014). Listen to the programme here.

In February 2014, I ran a workshop with Football v Homophobia about media coverage of LGBTQ people in sport. The audio recording is here, and the slides are here.

Before my lecture at UCL on my Guardian column for LGBT History Month 2012 - which you can listen to here - I appeared on Resonance FM's Out in South London with Rosie Wilby.

I was a guest on Two Footed Tackle's special podcast on homosexuality in football, and on Cafe Calcio's show on the same subject.

An appearance on The Anfield Wrap ahead of one of Norwich City's many tediously inevitable thrashings at the hands of Liverpool. And a second one here (April 2014).

I was also on The Anfield Wrap's new show The Coach Home, talking about the race for promotion from the Championship - here

I was also a guest of the first edition of The Hour of Power on Resonance FM, talking to Nina Power about 'confessional' writing, with tracks by Gang of Four and Julia Holter. Listen here.

I spoke to the Royal College of Art's CAR podcast, alongside the art collective Horrible GIF and artist Hanne Lippard. Listen to the show here.

I appeared on Bristol radio's ShoutOut discussing A Transgender Journey - listen here.

I was interviewed by the Anti-Capitalist Initiative about trans politics, 'confessional' journalism and other things - here.

An interview with Brighton's queer cinema journal One+One about Jack Smith & Rosa von Praunheim, why I write and more. I did a longer interview about von Praunheim in Issue 12 Vol 2.

On 10 March 2014, I did a talk about my Guardian column at Klub MaMa in Zagreb, introduced by the artist-activist Željko Blaće - watch it here on YouTube. I did a video interview after my talk, which is here.

I did an interview for Slovenia's biggest daily newspaper, Delo - in Slovene.

A brief interview with Austrian radio station FM4 about Facebook's gender options - here.

An interview with Monika Kowalska for her Heroines of My Life website.

I spoke to Anna Aslanyan about life on unemployment benefits in the UK (in Russian) - here.

Finally, I was interviewed for Somethinkblue magazine - here.

13 April 2012

Advice for Young Journalists

More and more, I’ve found myself covering the state of journalism, on the implications of writing for free and my experiences of online discourse, often drawing pessimistic conclusions. Having tried to become ‘a writer’ and ‘a journalist’ for nearly ten years, a decade of failure with infrequent success, I’ve found myself wanting to share some advice with the (occasional) younger people who’ve asked for tips.

Suzanne Moore, vastly more experienced (and concise) than me, tweeted some principles after judging the Guardian Student Media Awards, collected here by Rhodri Marsden. They’re all sound, but I want to expand on certain points, as well as discussing what I’ve learned growing up with the Internet, and publishing mostly online. Parts of this are most relevant to political writers, but I think much applies more universally.

Part I: Preparing

1. Read
Suzanne starts here too – as it’s obvious. We read before we write: trying to write before reading is like running a car without fuel. (I like Graham Linehan’s comparison of writing to defecating, mainly because it kills any romance, and reminds us that if you don’t eat properly, you’ll become constipated. I liken it to mining. You dig relentlessly where you hope to strike something; perhaps you will, perhaps not.)

But what to read? Newspapers and current affairs journals, Left or Right, domestic and foreign, but consume as much culture as possible. Like any other writing, journalism is an art (George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is strong on this, but not gospel) and your sentences will have more cadence if you are conversant with literature, theatre, poetry, film, comedy and other fields. This matters: readers may not always praise good writing, but they’ll be quick to call out what they think is bad. More noticeably, you’ll find a wider frame of reference, which is distinctively yours.

2. Listen to criticism
This never becomes irrelevant, no matter how successful you become: you may see just one name on a byline, but writing is always collaborative. Besides reading, the main way you’ll improve is by taking on feedback, on both your style and content. Don’t ignore corrections of your spelling and grammar, thinking that it’ll be fixed by whoever publishes you: editors won’t study your argument if it’s poorly presented (and even if they did, sub-editors are a dying breed, so don’t rely on their presence).

Further down the line, don’t look down on the public – you are them and they are you. Try not to attribute criticism to jealousy, or dismiss critics as ‘trolls’, at least publicly, even if you feel it’s fair, as it looks graceless: only disregard it if it’s impossible to take anything positive, in which case ignore it. Readers will be more sympathetic if you engage, particularly if you’re hauled up for saying something they find offensive – I’ve used the wrong word or laughed at the wrong thing once or twice, and have found dialogue and (where necessary) contrition a better response than bullishness. We all make mistakes – most of this post draws on mine – and these days we make lots of them publicly. Someone will haul you up, so have a strategy.

3. Don’t regard anyone as ‘a journalist’

Yourself or others. Thinking of yourself as ‘a journalist’ is a fast route to pomposity; thinking of others thus will result in you being star-struck if you meet them. They’d much rather relate to you as a human being – it’s more fun. This isn’t all about contacts – the main thing, as Suzanne says, is to write well – but you’ll make better connections if your conversation grabs people than if you badger them to open doors for you. And besides, nobody is just a journalist, in their personal or even (increasingly) their professional lives.

4. Don’t lose heart if you’re in a ‘day job’

I’ve written around full or part-time jobs (in retail or administration) since I graduated. Much as it has frustrated me, I’ve met an amazing range of people, enjoyed some fascinating conversations and used the financial security to experiment with different styles and subjects.

As I wrote my Transgender Journey series for The Guardian, I worked as a secretary, which kept my self-importance in check: I never had long to congratulate myself on publication before someone asked me to make the tea. I learned plenty about NHS commissioning (which informed my work) and saw the insidious effects of Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Bill far more than many others would have, too – wherever you find yourself, there will be plenty to learn. Your judgement and your writing will be better for it, and the difference between pundits who’ve done ‘proper jobs’ and those who haven’t is striking.

In my worst job, I got my best advice: you become a loser when you give up. Whenever I feel my writing won’t achieve what I’d hope, I recall these words from a colleague and continue.

5. There may be better options than the NCTJ course
I did this once I’d already published quite a lot. In my first interview afterwards, I was asked why, the implication being that I hadn’t needed to. If you want to enter newspaper journalism by starting on a local, it’s often a requirement for employment – otherwise, you might be better taking one-off courses in (say) pitching articles, or interview techniques.

Doing the NCTJ helped me, but not always directly: I’ve not used shorthand or magazine design software since, and I could have taught myself the current affairs and written English modules, but the media law section was helpful, as were the guest speakers. More widely, it gave me structure to explore what I cared about most: I started covering trans issues for Brighton & Hove’s LGBT press after submitting something written for the course. However, my contact at The Guardian, who put me in touch with my commissioning editor, was someone who’d liked the caustic match reports I posted on a football messageboard, purely for fun. There’s more to life than diplomas.

6. Pitching
Editors are assailed by correspondence. I did work experience at a national newspaper once (not The Guardian), and on being introduced to the person who had enough time to supervise us, saw that she had 972 unread emails. I used to send pitches with headings like ‘article’ and wonder why no-one answered – I got a better response when I started packing as much information as possible into the titles, like this to Record Collector:

‘FEATURE PITCH: Telex (Belgian synth band, 1978-2006, Eurovision entrants, Kraftwerk-influenced experimental/conceptual pop)’

This was rejected, but with the caveat that ‘While your reminder about the wonders of Telex made me grin and I would be interested to read about this cross between The Residents and 80s electropop hell, I don’t think they are quite right for the magazine at present’ and I was thanked for offering it. I didn’t get the commission, but I go t a contact –more encouraging than being ignored. And it made me grin, too.


Part II: Writing

1. Criticise everything …
… especially your own beliefs and biases. Any political writers worth reading, from Orwell as a democratic socialist to those at Conservative Home are so because they fearlessly critique their own parties, politicians and power bases. Don’t just explore your own position – dialogue is everything – but there’s nothing wrong with being partisan, as long as you’re not uncritical. The best writing comes from a place of knowledge, and also from the heart.

2. Look through the consensus
Some ideas are repeated so widely that they feel like truths: the strongest writing questions rather than reiterates clichés. A robust critique of even just one received idea can really make a writer – a good example is comedian Stewart Lee, who broke onto BBC television in the Nineties before spending a long time out of the limelight, rediscovering a much larger audience years later.

Lee thought critically about how he used language, and how others used it, leading him to examine the place of ‘political correctness’. He understood that lots of people from all angles would attack ‘political correctness’, often without really understanding what it was, or setting it up as a straw man. Even its left-leaning or liberal critics would posit it as an assault on ‘free speech’, without acknowledging how the “move towards a formally inclusive language” had improved numerous lives.

Lee cut through this, ruthlessly exposing the ulterior motives of its more vociferous opponents. When interviewed, he said that he saw political correctness attacked so often that the most radical thing he could do was defend it. He was right, and right to do so: articulating so many people’s suspicions so astutely brought a new generation to his work and changed the terms of the debate.

(On this, Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s documentary Manufacturing Consent, which outlines Noam Chomsky’s views on how the media polices the limits of political discourse in liberal-democratic societies, is interesting food for thought.)

3. Think about what power and privilege you have

These ideas come primarily from the left but apply to everyone. The bigger your platform, whether it’s measured in circulation figures or Twitter followers, the more power – and thus duty – you have. Far too many writers who use their positions for malicious ends are quick to cite their right to free speech but slower to consider any responsibility that comes with it.

Try to punch up – never down. Stand-up comedy provides good examples, positive and negative, on use and abuse of power: Richard Herring wrote well on this after Ricky Gervais’ questionable use of language caused controversy on Twitter, and Bill Hicks’ attacks on the institutions who handled the Los Angeles riots have dated far better than the more recent Little Britain’s mockery of minorities or more disenfranchised people. Wherever possible, criticise organisations or systems rather than individuals, and when confronted with cultural produce that isn’t brilliant, consider its intentions – an honest but flawed work that attempts to say something is far more forgivable than something made solely because its producer thinks it’ll be profitable.

Constantly assess your own privilege, too, and when writing about people from different backgrounds, consider if you’re speaking on their behalf, and how reasonable this is. (Sometimes, if you don’t, nobody else will – but try not to appropriate.) If you’re in a minority, it’s important to attack prejudice but this should never blind you to the fact that within your field, you may well have advantages that others don’t (and almost certainly do, if you’ve been able to get your voice amplified by the media), particularly if they belong to more than one group. Intersectionality is crucial.

If in doubt, ask yourself: “Is this fair?”

4. Be honest
Nothing justifies intentional dishonesty, whether it’s to further a career or a cause. Historically, little good has come from putting a higher ‘truth’ above personal ethics, and if you’re caught lying in the service of a social aim, you will damage not only yourself but the things you care about. Be sceptical about facts – where they come from, how they were agreed and why they are propagated – but if the facts don’t fit your argument, then your argument must change.

Don’t, however, give people who seem not to have any principles an easy ride when they do bad things, just because they’re “consistent”. Be vigilant against hypocrisy, but remember that this attitude stops people from challenging selfishness and exploitation – a task which remains as important as ever.

5. Write for the right reasons
The Internet is lawless, but strangely self-correcting. After I started writing for The Guardian, I thought about where to go next, and amongst other things, I wrote football reports and posted them here. A friend, who’d read the biting ones I mentioned earlier, told me they didn’t work because they were written like something I thought would suit a broadsheet, rather than in my own voice. I’d been caught red-handed, and realised that if I wrote with impure motivation, people will notice.


PART III: Publicising

1. “All publicity is good publicity” is not true
I tried to find out who first said this, but couldn’t establish a culprit – luckily, as the idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity is, and always has been 24-carat bollocks (ask Gerald Ratner, to name just one), and has been wheeled out to justify no end of stupidity. If you want publicity, write something – nobody will take you seriously if you try to secure it any other way. In the long run, that will damage you, whatever the immediate gains.

2. Think carefully about how you use social media
There’s a perception that Twitter (more than other social networks) is merely a bunch of self-important fools hurling inanities into the void, and if you want to see this, it’s not hard. However, Twitter is a quick, easy way to build a persona, escape typecasting (if you write mainly on one subject) and interact with other writers, and you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you won’t use it, but you still need take some care about what you share.

Rightly or wrongly, Jody McIntyre lost his Independent blog over what he tweeted about the riots, and whilst you never want to be censored by a third party, it’s best to ask yourself “Should I post this?” before pressing Send. Luckily, people will let you know quickly if your answer should have been No, and if you respond sensitively, you’ll strike the right balance.


One last thing. In my early Twenties, bored and frustrated, I wrote to my favourite director, Werner Herzog, saying how much I loved his films and wanted to be in one. Despite the fact that he almost certainly gets dozens of such letters a week, he sent me a handwritten response from Guyana (where he was filming The White Diamond), on the day he received it, and said: ‘The only advice I can give you is to do some work, creative or otherwise, where you are able to control your own destiny.’ I keep it in a folder in my room, and look at it again whenever I need motivation to get back to my desk. You can ignore most of what I’ve posted, and sometimes you definitely should, but the crux never changes: think, read and write, as much as you possibly can.

6 March 2012

On online discourse

Towards the end of last year, there was extended discussion about the abuse that female writers receive via online comments sections, forums and social networking sites. In ‘You Should Have Your Tongue Ripped Out: The reality of sexist abuse online’, published on the New Statesman site, Helen Lewis explored the level – and the type – of insults, slurs and threats aimed at women who address political issues not just on mainstream websites such as The Guardian, The Telegraph and others, but also on their personal blogs.

The discussion was trigged by Statesman writer Laurie Penny retweeting a small fraction of the vitriol thrown at her via Twitter. Some were shocked, but I wasn’t: since starting my Transgender Journey blog for The Guardian and entering circles of liberal and left-wing journalists, I’ve met Laurie and others who know her, and discussed with her how she deals with the attacks, and with her friends just how abhorrent we find their quantity and intensity. Laurie – a talented young author who handled her rapid rise gracefully and sensitively – has found it extremely draining, and long refrained from speaking out as she wondered whether it was worth continuing.

Other female writers I met, and found to be interesting, articulate people whose voices would be missed if they were to retire, documented their struggles with online abuse, and how it made them reluctant to carry on. Cath Elliott, deservedly shortlisted for The Orwell Prize, and Suzanne Moore have both outlined their experiences; having taken plenty of trans-misogynistic (as Julia Serano puts it) abuse when writing for The Guardian and The New Statesman, I have every sympathy.

I’m late to this, partly because I had to break and recover after an emotionally intense 18 months, but I’m here to consider my experiences of blogging my gender reassignment and trans politics in high-profile leftist spaces, and the responses I’ve drawn – particularly the positive ones. (Strange, as I always reply to “A pessimist is never disappointed” with “Well, you say that …” but here we are.)

I refer primarily to the deeply subjective Transgender Journey that I wrote regularly from June 2010-July 2011 (and less frequently since). I had a set of aims – mainly to create a space where issues around gender variance could be discussed from a trans-friendly starting point, in which a transsexual person set the terms and other trans people could share their experiences. I also wanted to gauge wider attitudes towards transsexual and transgender people, which I felt could best be coaxed out by writing an accessible series, giving me limitless room to articulate a position hitherto allowed little media representation. (More on how it came about here.)

The day before it went online, my editor asked if I wanted comments enabled. I thought hard about this – I’d seen poor Max Gogarty get ripped to ribbons, and knew Guardian commenters to be notoriously tough at times – but felt that the project would not be able to achieve its goals without them. With a heavy heart, I said yes, sensing that covering such a contentious topic would bring plenty of abuse.

This turned out to be absolutely the right decision. I didn’t get many of the usual comments on articles which readers of one of the world’s most widely read newspaper websites feel, not always unfairly, aren’t up to scratch (“How did this get in The Guardian?” or “Who commissioned this?” will be familiar to any Comment is Free visitor), which I decided to take as an indication that the writing wasn’t dismal. I was pleasantly surprised at how positive were many of the comments: quickly, people – not just trans people – saw the need for the blog, and I soon discovered that I would not have to expend lots of energy defending my position as there were plenty of others willing to do it for me, giving the project a warm sense of community.

I didn’t see the second comment posted on the first blog as I was away from my desk at work (and, of course, only went online during designated breaks), but I knew from the replies that it had been negative – some ‘political correctness gone mad’ shtick along the lines of “I might try wearing a skirt and see if The Guardian will give me a column’.

Perfect, I smiled, that’ll get people talking. Then I realised that I was in the not unproblematic position of knowing that the blog needed some negative comments to justify its existence – there was no need for a calm, sober explanation of transsexualism if everyone just said “Yeah, we’re fine with it” – but worrying that I might attract so much negativity that it became difficult to continue, as happened to Mike Penner/Christine Daniels in the US.

As the series progressed, the hostile comments developed their own clichés. Most typically, people told me that my gender reassignment should not be publicly funded, a position maintained despite numerous responses saying that the NHS pays for many other specific needs or lifestyle choices (the consequences of heavy drinking, smoking or drug use, sports or DIY injuries, etc.) or that our taxes also pay for the worst programmes on BBC Three or unwinnable imperialist wars launched on spurious pretexts.

None of these arguments proved a deterrent and at times I almost admired these people’s ability to work new information into the familiar trope. After The Guardian added a note mentioning that the blog was long listed for an award, someone responded with “If you win the fucking Orwell Prize you can pay for your operation yourself”, not bothering to find out that a) Graeme Archer had already won it and b) the £3000 prize would not come close to funding surgery – in fact, it would probably only just cover the time I’ll spend out of my day job to recover from it.

There were certain subjects that I knew would push buttons, and I made a point of staying away from a computer for such time that the moderators could filter the most personally aggressive comments and set acceptable terms for debate. When my piece on transsexualism and mental health – still the single piece of writing of which I’m most proud – went online, I decided to eat with a friend rather than read every response before the Guardian team deleted them.

Overall, I thought the moderators were, if anything, overly cautious – perhaps, I speculated, because they weren’t too familiar with the world I documented. I eventually told my editor that there was no need to censor those asking about the NHS, and that it would be better if others and I could argue, but perhaps the mods were just bored of the same conversation and did it to ensure some variety and vitality, rather than because they believed it to be offensive. (I was constantly amused at how they all thought they were saying something new and unsayable – like those commentators who churn out endless columns about how you’re “not allowed” to talk about immigration any more.)

Nonetheless, when things got too bad tempered, I tried to change the tone, feelimg that calmer writing would generate calmer discourse. After pieces on the Gender Identity Clinic (which raised heated debate about NHS funding, and strong opinions from transsexual people about their treatment) and mental health, I submitted a gentler piece on my search for a trans community, thinking that it would still help trans people and their friends whilst taking the heat off myself for a little while.

Criticism from those closest to me – other trans people, and especially activists – stung the most, partly because some of their arguments were valid and partly because I felt misunderstood or unfairly judged. I particularly resented suggestions that I was in this for the money, becoming annoyed by forum comments saying “How much does she get paid?” (The assumption that anyone published in a widely-known space must be a multi-millionaire becomes rather galling when you’re not earning much, and was one reason why I detailed my experiences of writing for free.)

It got easier when I thought back to when I’d posted embittered attacks on people in the public eye, either under a pseudonym or in places where I knew, really, that they wouldn’t notice, and imagined my critics in similar circumstances – or at least equally frustrated.

In my mid-Twenties, I was working in a call centre, flat broke, having given up on a PhD after failing to secure funding, struggling with my writing, my gender and other mental health problems and with no idea what to do with my life. With Internet messageboards, blogs, social networks and comments sections being my main outlets in a workplace that frowned on people talking to each other, I took out my insecurities on more successful people, my reasoning being that they'd put themselves into the public sphere so somehow deserved any abuse they got. My targets were mostly mainstream comedians or footballers – especially those that played for my club, Norwich City.

My least favourite player in a very poor side was , whose attempts to win over the fans with energetic running, ceaseless shouting at team-mates and clapping the crowd after every game had the opposite effect. Thinking myself a student of the game, I prided myself on seeing through this, and presumed motives for his style, particularly his applauding, implying that it was cheap cover for what I felt was limited ability. (I was far from alone in this.)

Poor Hughes had a terrible time in Norfolk, failing to win over his numerous vocal critics. Months after he finally snapped and had an altercation with a fan after City lost 4-1 to Burnley, leading to Nigel Worthington, the manager who signed him, being sacked, Hughes left for Leeds, but by then I’d changed my tone.


I’d love to say it was because I started playing competitive 11-a-side football again, which I’d not done since school, but that happened later. When I joined the Brighton Bandits in the Gay Football Supporters’ Network league and realised that even Sunday League was really tough, I became far more understanding of professional players’ limitations – and just how much their skill, nerve and determination outstripped mine. This sense of how difficult their jobs were and how much judgement they tolerated from the totally ignorant made me less critical, and applying this logic to other walks of life, I grew out of my bitterness.

What softened me on Hughes was learning that he was Norwich’s ‘reading champion’ in a scheme launched with the National Literacy Trust, where professional footballers gave up spare time to read to disadvantaged children. There was a picture of Hughes poring over a book with a child, just like my father used to with me. Suddenly he was far more human, and I felt terrible about all I’d impugned about his gestures.


Sticking with football momentarily, there’s a rumour about a Chelsea fan who continually slated Joe Cole until someone asked him to stop.

“That’s my son” said Joe Cole’s father.
“I’ve paid my money” the fan answered, “I can say what I like.”
“Very well” replied Joe Cole’s father, taking some money from his wallet and pointing at a small boy accompanying the fan, “Here’s forty quid – is that your son?”

This story is almost certainly apocryphal, but its mere plausibility illustrates nicely the gulf between certain increasingly unforgiving and entitled consumers and those emotionally affected by their vitriol, and their somewhat spurious justifications for it. (“I’ve paid my money”, “They earn enough to put up with it”, “If they don’t want to be criticised [not “attacked”] they shouldn’t do it”, etc.) Footballers, like politicians and journalists, can be expected – or even told – to just put up with it – no matter how unpleasant it gets.


I think I was spared the worst because more conservative people tend not to share my belief (which underpinned my column) that the personal is political, keeping me under the radar of some critics aiming to discourage dissenting voices, but the abuse hurled at Laurie, Suzanne and others do make me reluctant to tackle more straightforward politics, and I’m sure I’m not the only one put off even entering the discourse by it, or by the argument that it just “comes with the territory”.

Social change, however – particularly the type I wanted to push towards with my writing – relies on offending sensibilities, and related to my anxieties over who criticised my work was the question: “Who is it admissible to offend? And how?”

I soon learned that I had to judge this instinctively - there were few basic rules, except to try not to offend unless it was absolutely unavoidable. If I believed the positive effects of publishing a sentence, paragraph or article would outweigh the negatives, then it was worth it, and usually I felt vindicated: the nastiest attacks paled against the messages from trans people telling me their stories, or how my writing had helped them explore their identities, or from others telling how it had enabled them to understand the issues, or a loved one in transition.

I started blogging at a time when, it’s fair to say, any egalitarianism about how the Internet might make all opinions equally valid had dissipated. John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory was so popular because it was so universally recognisable, whilst Doug Stanhope’s piece on ‘Have Your Say’ sections became my first port of call whenever I was annoyed at how I’d been addressed online.

There’s a sense that the tide is turning, too, with journalists striking back at those whom they feel overstep the mark. Brian Whelan recently exposed a commenter who posted a particularly callous threat towards a female journalist, showing how easy it was to name people with linked Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Amazon accounts. In addition, there is, I conjecture, growing weariness with the “It’s just the Internet” defence for unkindness – just because there’s less direct personal interaction than on the street, in the pub or on the phone does not subtract the power of words to hurt, and really, anyone past primary school age should know this.

That said, the comments on my Guardian column were often heart-warming, funny, insightful or inspiring, and I wouldn’t have changed them for the world – the bad and the good felt almost symbiotic at times. Some of the commenters have, thanks to Twitter and other social networks which can bring writers and readers together, became my friends - notably with all anonymity removed from the exchange. For all its problems, Internet discourse can be a transformative experience: without it, I don’t know where I or the previously disparate transgender ‘community’ that found some unity through online debate might be.