Down the Rabbit Hole

Well, the period between Christmas and New Year didn’t go quite as planned. On Thursday I went down with something that involved a screaming headache and extreme tiredness. I spent much of Thursday asleep and unable to do much at all. Friday was spent mostly reading. I seem to be fine now, but I lost about a day and a half, which is very irritating.

Thankfully the time spent reading was very productive. I am now deep in the rabbit hole of research for this year’s LGBT History academic paper, which is all about gender and sexuality in ancient Rome. My recent search engine activity has been very much Not Safe For Work. I hope the folks at GCHQ who have been on duty over the holidays have enjoyed monitoring it.

There’s not a lot I want to say right now, because I need to check stuff before coming to any conclusions, but I can say that Roman ideas about sex and gender were very different to our own. It’s not surprising that the Victorians were totally freaked out by what they found in Roman texts and archaeology. Nevertheless they, like us, had a problem with sexual harassment in the street (in their case boys as well as women were victims). I do love history: so much the same and so much very different.

Posted in History | 1 Comment

Hello LiveJournal Users

As many of you will know, LiveJournal recently moved their servers to Moscow. As a result there has apparently been a fresh exodus from the platform. I maintain a LiveJournal account solely because people have told me that’s the way they prefer to read my blog posts — what I post here is (normally) cross-posted to LiveJournal. However, if you are all moving to Dreamwidth then presumably I should set up an account there instead.

I’m agnostic about the whole thing. I’m sure that Russian, US and British intelligence services have me noted down as trans. There’s nothing I can do about that. And as far as I know no one had yet tried to block my site because of that. So I’m happy to do what works best for you folks. Let me know.

Posted in Admin, Internet | 1 Comment

Today on Ujima: Music, Music, Music

Thanks to computers, it is no longer necessary for radio stations to have staff in over the holidays to do shows. Ujima is officially closed for the season, but it is not off-air. Many of us have pre-recorded shows to be broadcast over the holiday period, myself included.

Of course technology doesn’t always work as planned. Doubtless this is the early stages of the robot revolution. So my show didn’t pop up at noon as I was expecting. Thankfully there are a few dedicated staff able to pop in and sort things out. What appears to have happened is that my show and the following one, Steppin Raizer, got swapped around. So my show starts at 14:00 instead.

You can listen to the first hour here, and the second hour here. The content is all music. I was particularly interested in playing longer songs that I can’t use in full on a normal show. Here’s the playlist:

  • Lianne La Havas – Unstoppable
  • Big Audio Dynamite – E = MC2
  • Donna Summer – MacArthur Park
  • Daft Punk – Giorgio
  • Dreadzone – Life, Love & Unity
  • Koko Jones – Love Will Save the Day
  • Michael Jackson – Thriller
  • The Specials – Ghost Town
  • Eddy Grant – Hello Africa
  • Prince – Purple Rain
  • Sade – Jezebel
  • Janelle Monae – We Were Rock ‘n’ Roll
  • Chic – Good Times

Next week’s show will also be all-music. I’ll be in Oxford.

Posted in Music, Radio | Leave a comment

Arabian Nights Questions

Something else I did over Christmas, as a bit of a break from the Wagnerthon, was remind myself of the rules for Arabian Nights, just in case I should end up in a game at Chance & Counters. There are solo play rules, and it didn’t take long to get back into the swing of things (not to mention crippled, enslaved, and ensorcelled). However, a couple of questions occurred to me along the way and I was wondering if anyone out there could enlighten me.

First up, I remember from playing the original version that you were not allowed to win if you were gender-swapped. Indeed, I wrote a whole blog post about that a couple of years ago. Checking the rules of the new edition it appears that rule has been dropped. The card for Geas still says you can’t win while you have that status, but no other statuses seem to have that effect. Can anyone confirm this, or have I missed something?

Second, in order to win the solo game you have to become Fabulously Wealthy. That’s not as easy as it seems because so many of the events that increase your wealth level have upper limits as to how wealthy they can make you. The obvious way to do this is to acquire the Giant Diamonds. You can also do it using the Book of Hidden Treasures, the Yellow Kohl or, if you are lucky, the Magic Lamp. What I’m wondering is this: is the solo game specifically a matter of knowing how to get the particular treasures that you need, or are there other ways to win that don’t require you to seek out specific encounters (probably in Places of Power)?

By the way, coming back to the gender-swapping issue, the game still needs a bit of an overhaul to become properly LGBT+ friendly. You ought to be able to play as a gay, lesbian or bisexual character. I also note that the rules are silent on the subject of what happens if you get gender-swapped while married. Even if the marriage is still legal, you are not going to be having any more children. Something to think about when I have an idle moment (which doubtless means never).

Posted in Gaming | 1 Comment

All Gone Quiet

There hasn’t been much bloggage, or even social media activity, from me over the holiday period. That’s partly because I have assumed that you lot have better things to do with your time than read about my holiday cooking (which went very well, thank you). However, I have been busy, and mostly not working.

Back in July Sky Arts made television history by being the first TV station to broadcast the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle live from the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. There was no way I was going to have the time to watch it live, but I did record the whole thing with the vague intention of watching it over the holidays instead of my usual Lord of the Rings marathon.

Of course one of the things that differentiates Wagner’s epic from Peter Jackson’s is that Jackson is a model of conciseness and brevity in comparison. Der Ring des Nibelungen comprises over 15 hours of opera in four main parts. With the addition of introductory material from host, Stephen Fry, and various Wagner experts the Sky production is over 18 hours long. No way am I that level of couch potato.

Thus far I have worked my way through Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. Those are the two shorter operas. Like Jackson, Wagner got more and more bloated as he went on. Hopefully I will get to the end, because as far as I can see Götterdämmerung is philosophically the most interesting of the four.

My main impression thus far is that the dialog is dreadful, but that’s understandable because it all had to be sung, and what I am seeing is translated from German. Nevertheless the experience is tending to reinforce my deep rooted prejudice that novels are far superior to all other art forms because of the space they allow to develop character.

Having said that, there’s no doubt that the Ring Cycle is a fascinating and incredibly complex work. It is not the sort of thing you can easily comprehend on a single sit through. One of the most obvious examples of this is that at the end of Act 1 of Die Walküre, when Siegmund and Sieglinde disappear off stage to consummate their love, Wagner introduces the leitmotif that he will later use for their son, Siegfried. Once you know this it becomes clear that Wagner is indicating that this is the moment that Siegfried is conceived, but he won’t appear as a character until the next opera in the cycle so you don’t know what that music means when you first hear it.

Incidentally, one thing I do wish Sky had done, but doubtless didn’t have the budget for, is give us an introduction to the various leitmotifs that Wagner uses so that we can listen out for them. But at least they did explain the concept, and explain it brilliantly by using the example of John Williams’ work on Star Wars. Darth Vader’s leitmotif isn’t just used when he comes on screen, it is also used to indicate that his men are up to something in an otherwise unrelated scene.

What Fry and his experts do well is address the primary controversies surrounding the Ring Cycle. First there is Wagner’s person journey from anarchist revolutionary to a vile, old anti-Semite. Then there is Hitler’s co-option of the Ring Cycle as a propaganda tool. Wagner himself seems to have been an awful person, but I also concur with Fry’s assessment that he would have hated Hitler because he hated anyone with that degree of political power. Many present day wannabe demagogues tend to cling to Wagner, presumably because they associate his work with Nazism (hello several senior Tories), but it was interesting to discover that most of the Nazi leaders were bored stupid by opera and resented being dragged along to watch it by their boss. Nigel Farage is, of course, far too boorish to be interested in opera, though by this point Fry was reduced to dropping hints rather than naming names.

The other thing I have found absolutely fascinating about the Ring is the Festspielhaus itself. It is apparently the largest free-standing wooden building in the world. Partly it is wooden for acoustic reasons, but Wagner apparently planned to burn it down after the first few performances so that what was experienced there could never be repeated (and probably, from his point of view, to prevent his perfect creation being debased after his death).

The acoustic design of the building is at least as great a work of genius as the music itself. The orchestra is hidden away in a pit underneath the stage so as to not distract from the visual spectacle. Sound from the orchestra is funneled up onto the stage, and thence reflects back onto the audience, mixing with the singers voices on the way. This is quite different from a traditional opera house where the sound from orchestra and voices both project outwards and mix in the auditorium. A consequence of this is that the singers need to be a fraction of a second behind the orchestra for the whole thing to work. Apparently the acoustic benefits are enormous, though no opera house built since has chosen to copy the design. That might be an issue of expense, of the skill required of the singers, or of the aversion of celebrity conductors to being hidden away where no one but the orchestra can see them.

Finally I am, of course, noting the similarities between Wagner’s story and Tolkien’s. There are many themes in common: the greedy dwarves, the ring, the dragon, the broken sword. One significant difference is that Wagner’s story is full of female characters. That is doubtless in part due to the requirement to balance voice registers, but it is nonetheless welcome. Wotan is the character who ties the story together, but Brünnhilde, even though she doesn’t appear until the second act of her titular opera, is the hero of the tale.

Posted in Music | Leave a comment

Introducing The Art Detective

One area of the media in which women are doing quite well is history documentaries. I was very pleased, therefore, to discover a new podcast series hosted by Dr. Janina Ramirez. Titled The Art Detective, it will feature a different piece of art each week, and use that to illuminate issues from history. (Yes children, art has always been political, from ancient sculptures to Star Wars movies.)

The series caught my eye because episode #2, released this week, features one of my historical heroes, Empress Theodora of Byzantium. Guesting on the show, because she’s just finished writing a book on Byzantium, is another star of history documentaries, Bettany Hughes. If you know anything about Theodora you can guess how much fun listening to two women historians talking about her is.

Janina has promised may more guest appearances as the series develops. It seems likely that will involve the likes of Mary Beard, Amanda Vickery, Lucy Worsley, Alice Roberts, Amanda Foreman, Carenza Lewis and so on. And some men, and hopefully some non-binary people, as well.

Of course I have now added to my bucket list getting an appearance on the show. I know exactly which piece of art I want to talk about. It is Sumerian (obviously), and if you turn up to one of my LGBT History Month talks in February you’ll get to see me enthuse about it.

Posted in Art, History | Leave a comment

The Trans People from History Question

A week or so ago there was a lengthy Twitter conversation between myself, Kit Heyam, and Greg Jenner (who is the historical consultant for the BBC’s Horrible Histories show). It was occasioned by the publication of a new biography of James Barry, someone who is often held up as an example of a trans person from history. This post is not about Barry. I have bought the new biography, which appears to be making the case that Barry strongly identified as female despite living as a man, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Rather the post is more generally about how we interpret evidence from history.

The first point I want to discuss I owe to Kit. It is that conversations such as the one around Barry do not happen in a vacuum. It is a long-held tenet of belief among certain self-styled Radical Feminists that trans people are a recent invention, and indeed a creation of the Patriarchy. Their view is that trans people cannot have existed in the past because the concept of being a trans did not exist then (and indeed do not exist now other than in our own perverted imaginations). As a consequence of this there is a determined effort to “reclaim” any possible evidence of trans men from history and to prove that these people saw themselves as women. The new Barry biography looks like it may be part of that effort. The musical which portrayed Billy Tipton as a flamboyant drag king rather than someone who lived as a man for most of his life certainly was.

The sort of argument being made comes over very clearly in the Guardian review of the Barry biography. Look at the word choices: “scandalous subterfuge”, “adopted a male persona”, “was, in fact, a woman”, “perfect female”, “masqueraded as a man”, “deception of breathtaking proportions”.

BINGO! And I have only got as far as the second paragraph.

The message is very clear. As far as the reviewer is concerned, Barry was “really a woman”, and that presenting as a man was an act of deceit. By extension, the reviewer is also making the case that all trans people are engaged in acts of deceit because, like Barry, we can only “really” be the gender we were assigned at birth. It is not surprising, therefore, that trans people tend to treat such claims with some skepticism, given the level of political bias involved.

In practice, of course, we can never be sure how people from the past thought about themselves. Absent a time machine, we can’t go back and ask them. All we can do is look at their behavior and make judgements based on that. What we see varies enormously. There are people from the past who cross-dress occasionally for festivals and similar occasions, much like people do today for Halloween. There are people from the past who cross-dress for entertainment, like modern drag performers. There are people from the past who cross-dress for economic advantage, but give it up as soon as the opportunity arises. There are people from the past who cross-dress to signal their sexual tastes. And there are people from the past who cross-dress for most of their adult lives.

Cis historians tend to present all of this as masquerade, and assume that all of these people identified with the gender they were assigned at birth. Certainly they talk about them in those terms. A point I make in opposition to this is that cis historians have never suffered from gender dysphoria and have no idea what it is like. Most trans people have strong personal experience of having to live in a gender that does not suit you. We know how hard that is. We find the idea that someone should successfully live most of their adult life in a different gender without having a strong affinity for that gender, to be quite bizarre. It would be incredibly stressful.

A study I would love to see done, but can’t do myself because it would require access to archives in US universities, is a comparative study of people assigned female at birth who fought in the American Civil War. There were a lot of them. Estimates range from 400 to 750. That’s a good sample size, though not all of them will have left much evidence. Why they did this is subject to a great deal of debate. My view is that there is no easy answer, because they will all have had their own reasons:

  • Some will have done it to stay with husbands, brothers or lovers;
  • Some will have done it because they were poor and the army offered employment, a home and food;
  • Some will have done it because they strongly believed in the cause of the side they fought for;
  • But some of them continued to live as men for the rest of their lives once the war was over, which suggests a rather greater affinity for masculinity.

Again you can’t prove that these people identified as men, but it is possible that they did, and hard to see how they would have coped with life otherwise.

Another point I want to make is that saying that someone from the past was “really a woman” is just as anachronistic as saying that the person was a “trans man”. The idea that the human race is divided into men and women, and that never the twain shall meet, is a relatively new one. These ideas developed in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries as science began to give us tools to quantify this separation. Before we knew about chromosomes and sex hormones, the existence of other genders was a possibility and often taken for granted.

We should remember, for example, that many ancient societies made significant use of eunuchs in various roles. The Assyrians were the first to use eunuchs in court on a grand scale, but they existed in Sumer too. The Chinese also made extensive use of eunuchs. Cai Lun, the person credited with the invention of paper, was a eunuch. So too was China’s greatest naval hero, Zheng He.

Many eunuchs, of course, still identified as men, but others identified as a third gender, or even (so the Kama Sutra tells us) as women. Indeed there is a long written history of this behavior in India, and it continues to the present day.

It is also worth noting that, if someone was made a eunuch as a child, which was fairly common (and a necessity for making castrati singers) then it constitutes both surgery and hormone treatment (in that male puberty is prevented), which are the two pillars of modern gender medicine.

Interestingly many ancient sources (including the Bible) talk of people who are “natural eunuchs” or “born eunuchs”. What this means is not clear, beyond the fact that these are people who were believed to have been born with no sexual interest in women. They may have been intersex in some way, they may have been more like modern gay cis men, or they may have been more like modern heterosexual trans women. My guess is that they would have included all three, because ancient people didn’t have the tools or language to distinguish between these categories.

It is also true that many tribal cultures around the world show evidence of social structures designed to accommodate people who live outside of the gender binary. We have plenty of historical reports, and where those cultures haven’t been destroyed by colonialism those practices continue today. You can find examples in the Americas, in Polynesia and Australia, in parts of Africa, in fact pretty much everywhere that tribal cultures are still found. How these cultures make allowances for trans identities varies considerably: some may have a third gender; some may allow only male-to-female transition; or only female-to-male; and some have both. The fact that these traditions exist proves that a need existed, which must prove that people in those societies identified in some way as being outside of the gender binary.

One of the reasons why social structures accommodating trans people are so varied is that trans people themselves are very varied. The idea that there is only one sort of trans person — someone who wants and needs full medical transition from one binary gender to the other — is just as false a distinction as the binary itself, and one that has caused a great deal of harm to trans people down the years. This brings me to my final point, which is that anyone who says that “trans people” cannot have existed in the past because ideas of medical gender reassignment did not exist back then is using a very limited definition of what “trans” means that doesn’t begin to cover the diverse identities that we see in the trans community today.

The modern trans community includes people who identify as being members of a third gender for social purposes. It includes people whose gender is inextricably bound up with their spiritual beliefs. It includes people who want to transition socially but not medically. It includes people who are gender-fluid: comfortable presenting in more than one gender. It includes people who don’t understand the whole gender thing and wish it would go away. All of these people feel comfortable identifying as trans now that being trans does not require you to undertake full medical transition and adopt one of the binary genders thereafter.

So when I talk about looking for trans people in history, I’m not looking to prove that any of these people would opt for full medical transition where they born today. Some of them might, but others surely would not because if being trans is a natural part of the human condition then we should expect trans people from the past to be as diverse as trans people are today.

My starting point is to look for evidence of people living outside of the gender binary. Providing that they are doing so as part of their normal life, and not just cross-dressing for special occasions, all of those people are trans in some way or another. If I can’t pigeonhole them into a specific part of the modern trans community, well so what? Their identities have to be understood in the context of their local culture anyway. It may be that some of them did strongly identify as their birth gender, but in that case I would want to see proof of that being the case, not taking that as the natural assumption.

And you know, looking at it that way, the past is absolutely full of trans people.

Posted in Gender, History | Leave a comment

Yesterday on Ujima – Domestic Violence

In the wake of last week’s protest at City Hall regarding provision of priority housing for women who are victims of domestic violence, I devoted most of this week’s show to the issue. For the first hour I was joined in the studio by representatives of Sisters Uncut and Bristol Women’s Voice. We also used material from last week’s parliamentary debate on the Istanbul Convention and information provided by the Women’s Equality Party. It was a really good discussion and it provoked quite a bit of audience feedback.

You can listen to the first hour of the show here.

In the second hour I was joined in the studio by my colleagues, Frances and Judeline, both of whom gave personal stories of their experience of domestic violence.

In the final half hour we wished happy birthday to our producer, Paulette, and also wished her well in her forthcoming retirement.

You can listen to the second hour of the show here.

Quite what Paulette’s retirement means for the future of the show, I am not sure. I have told the station management that I’m willing to commit to one show a month, but I can’t do more than that because I need to earn a living and I have three businesses to run. However, thanks to the magic of the internet (technology gods willing) I should have shows on Dec. 28 and Jan. 4. These will just me playing some favorite pieces of music; in particular longer stuff that I can’t use on a normal, chat-based show.

It being that time of year, the playlist for yesterday was all Christmas music:

  • Greg Lake – I believe in Santa Claus
  • Jackson 5 – Santa Claus is Coming to Town
  • Clarence Carter – Back Door Santa
  • Isaac Hayes – The Mistletoe and Me
  • Otis Redding – Merry Christmas Baby
  • Temprees – Its Christmas Time Again
  • Luther Vandross – May Christmas Bring You Happiness
  • The Waitresses – Christmas Wrapping
Posted in Feminism, Music, Radio | Comments Off on Yesterday on Ujima – Domestic Violence

Happy Solstice



I have a radio show to do today (yes, I am working on a religious holiday), so I have scheduled this post in advance.

My annual northern-hemisphere-winter solstice card (posted here in order to save trees and postage costs) comes, as usual, from the fabulous Dru Marland. You can buy physical copies of the picture (and many other fine artworks) from her Etsy shop.

Capricorn is a sea goat and is a representation of the Sumerian god, Enki (Ea in Babylon and Assyria). He’s the guy who, in the myth of Inanna in the Underworld, created a couple of trans people to go and rescue the goddess. Good choice, Dru.

Capricorn is also, of course, the astrological sign with provenance over the midwinter period. And yes, that is Glastonbury Tor in the background.

I hope all of your solstice celebrations go well, and that 2017 manages to be less awful than 2016.

Posted in Art, Pagan | Comments Off on Happy Solstice

Travel Planning

If you have asked me about my availability recently I have probably said something along the lines of, “not in February, please”. That’s LGBT History Month, and that tends to mean a lot of travel. Today I have been doing some booking. Here’s what it looks like.

Jan 31 – Feb 4 I shall be in Barcelona for a conference at the university on gender in the ancient near east. That will feed directly into my presentations as part of the official LGBT History Month events.

Feb 11-12 I am in Exeter where I am speaking both at the launch event on the Saturday and on the festival day on the Sunday.

Feb 15 I have marked in as the Ujima show devoted to LGBTHM.

Feb 18 I am in Bournemouth doing the same trans people in the ancient world talk that I gave in Exeter on the 12th.

There will probably be some stuff going on in Bristol. I know M-Shed will be busy on the 18th, and on the 22nd. I have the 25th reserved in my diary for a possible talk on trans people in art down the ages.

Mar 3-5 I am in Liverpool for the LGBTHM academic conference.

And that is why (Ceri, Adele) I will not be going to London on Mar 10-12 for the Women of the World conference. I will be asleep that weekend.

Posted in Academic, Gender, History, Travel, Where's Cheryl? | 2 Comments

NatGeo Doesn’t Understand Gender



Social media has been abuzz with the news that National Geographic has done a special issue on gender. I haven’t managed to get a copy yet, but yesterday I saw this tweet from Sophie Walker.

In confess that my first thought was, “on no, now we are going to have people claiming that WEP hates trans people”. Thankfully that doesn’t seen to have happened. My second thought was, “yes, I agree”. But until I had investigated more I didn’t know just how much I agreed.

I know nothing about Avery Jackson, the young trans girl that NatGeo has put on their cover. Possibly she likes pink as much as that photo suggests. There’s nothing wrong with pink. I wear it a lot. But the fact that she’s on that cover with pink hair and all-pink clothes very much seems to say, “look how pink I am, I must be a girl!” I suspect the photo was chosen as the cover — by the magazine, not by Avery — with exactly that message in mind.

This reminds me very much of the focus on appearance that gender clinics had when I transitioned. Twenty years ago, if you turned up for an appointment wearing jeans you would probably get sent home. Dresses, or a smart skirt with twinset and pearls, were the order of the day. Your hair had to be long, your make-up had to be obvious, and the decision about whether you were behaving in an appropriately feminine manner was made by a middle-aged man. These days we have made a lot of progress in helping the doctors understand that presentation and gender are not the same thing. Lots of cis women never wear dresses or makeup. They are no less women because of that, and trans women are no less women if they do the same.

Sadly the media is still a long way behind the curve. Whenever you see an article or program about trans people there is always an emphasis on feminine performance. Newspapers gush about how parents knew their kids were trans because they loved pink and wanted to play with dolls. TV programs always have a shot of the trans woman putting on her makeup. This gives entirely the wrong impression of what being trans is all about.

NatGeo goes further. In this article about why they did a gender issue they have this story:

Nasreen Sheikh lives with her parents and two siblings in a Mumbai slum. She’d like to become a doctor, but already she believes that being female is holding her back. “If I were a boy,” she says, “I would have the chance to make money … and to wear good clothes.”

Wait, what?

Liking pink does not make you a woman. Wanting to wear dresses and makeup doesn’t make you a woman, though it may make you non-binary in some way. The only thing that makes you a woman is the unshakeable belief that you are a woman. Equally wanting to be a doctor, and perhaps be safe from gender-based violence, despite being assigned female at birth, doesn’t make you a man; it makes you feminist.

Even NatGeo could see that there was something wrong with this, that it didn’t quite fit into the trans narrative. But that won’t stop the New Statesman running articles about how trans activists are encouraging parents to have their sons “mutilated” because they don’t like football, and their daughters “mutilated” because they want careers. We are not saying these things, but because the media keeps saying this is what being trans is all about its not surprising that people believe we are.

It is all very frustrating. And NatGeo, despite thinking that it is somehow riding the wave of a gender revolution, is actually providing ammunition to the very people who want that revolution stopped in its tracks.

Posted in Gender, Journalism | 3 Comments

That Was LaDIYfest

I spent all of Saturday in Bristol at LaDIYfest, a one-day feminist conference. Most of the day was taken up with workshops at Cafe Connect. In the evening there was a gig at Roll for the Soul, the bicycle cafe.

First up in the workshops was Laura Welti from Bristol Disability Equality Forum. That organisation is the disability equivalent of LGBT Bristol, so Laura and I have very similar experiences of dealing with the City Council and we had some useful conversations. Hopefully I learned a few things, but it is really hard to fund accessible venues in central Bristol without paying a fortune for the rental.

The second workshop featured Camille Barton who was talking about white allyship. Like me, Camille has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it was a great relief to me to have her confirm my suspicion that racism in the UK is often just as bad as it is in America; it is just more polite. Camille is already working with Ujima as part of our Arts Collective, and I’m hoping she will be able to come on my show in the New Year to talk more about her work.

Then there was me. The fourth workshop of the day was cancelled so I had plenty of time to talk. Nevertheless I see to have hit the 45 minute mark almost spot on. There were some really great questions — more than 15 minutes worth — and it was really pleasing to have such an engaged audience. There were a few people there who identified as trans in various ways, which was also pleasing. None of them told me that I was wrong, which was a great relief.

Part of me desperately wanted to go home and sleep, but Ren Stedman was playing in the gig so I made my way into town, had dinner at Tuk Tuck, and settled in for the evening.

Roll for the Soul is a great location, but perhaps not ideal for music. It is a cafe, decorated with cycling gear and the occasional actual bike. It was not designed for acoustics. Some acts did better than others.

First up was Pik-C who has a very interesting voice. I really liked her stuff.

Violet Scott sounded good too, but she was clearly missing her band. If I have understood stuff on Facebook properly they disbanded recently.

Emily Magpie makes really interesting music. Unfortunately it is the sort of music that needs you to listen closely to it, which is hard to do in a busy cafe where lots of conversations are going on in the background.

The members of Drunken Butterfly were also involved with organising LaDIYfest so they had a lot of their friends around to support them. It was great to have an actual band performing, but they had quite a bit of trouble with the tech and I don’t think they ever got the sound mix right.

The lesson, I think, is that for a venue like that you really want the person-with-guitar type acts. Fortunately that’s just what the headliners were.

Sadly I had to leave part-way through Ren’s set because of trains. But we did get to catch up beforehand and he has a very interesting potential project in Brighton that I want to learn more about. You can listen to him here, and buy his music here. One of the songs he did on Saturday was also in his set for Bristol Pride. It is called “Love Wins”. Here he is on the main stage in Bristol.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay for Lilith Ai, but here’s an example of her music.

All in all it was a pretty good day. The organization was a little wonky at times, but that’s volunteer-run events for you. I’m certainly happy I did it.

Posted in Conventions, Feminism, Music | Comments Off on That Was LaDIYfest

Istanbul Convention Follow-Up

The full Hansard report on the Istanbul Convention debate is now up and I have been able to check a few things. I noted on Friday that Thangam Debbonaire (Lab) and Kerry McCarthy (Lab) attended the debate (and Thangam made a great speech). Bristol’s other two MPs, Charlotte Leslie (Con) and Karin Smith (Lab), did not attend. I hope that Bristol feminist organisations will be asking them a few questions.

However, the name I was looking for in the list of voters was Caroline Flint (Lab). She’s a woman. Her party leader, who is a man, turned up to vote, but she didn’t. Obviously she didn’t think that violence against women was an important matter. And yet she turned up on December 1st to complain that trans women were a danger to women. I think, Ms. Flint, that you need to take a serious look at your priorities.

Posted in Current Affairs, Gender | Comments Off on Istanbul Convention Follow-Up

Dirda on Živković

Much of the time book reviewing is a very subjective activity. You like books or you don’t. Some books work for some people, but not for others. Proving literary quality is damnably difficult, which is how come the literary establishment manages to get away with looking down its collective nose at anything outside of the narrow purview of dull realist stories about middle-aged white men.

However, the literary house of cards relies heavily on status, and when a Pulitzer Prize winning literary critic happens to review the same sort of stuff you do, and comes to the same conclusion you do, that gives you every right by their rules to say you were right to praise the work in question. Of course it helps that Michael Dirda has always been something of a fan of science fiction. But is also helps that Zoran Živković really is a very good writer. Here, Dirda says so, it must be true.

Oh, and I love the covers of the new editions of Zoran’s books too.

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WE See Change

Today was an important day in the House of Commons, seeing that very rare event, a private member’s bill passing second reading.

The bill in question was “Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Bill” which refers to ratification of the Istanbul Convention on Preventing Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. The British Government agreed to ratify the treaty in 2012, but since that time has done nothing. The bill, proposed by Dr Eilidh Whiteford (SNP, Banff and Buchan), is intended to encourage them to get off their backsides and do what they promised.

Although the bill was proposed by the SNP, it was supported by Labour, the LibDems and the Greens. It has also been the subject of a major campaign by the Womens’ Equality Party. The government has also tacitly supported the bill, and did so actively today in the person of Brandon Lewis, the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, though some Conservative MPs did turn up to speak against.

Chief among them was Philip Davies (Con, Shipley) who fancies himself as the parliamentary representative of the Men’s Rights Movement. He is the chap who, whenever someone in Parliament mentions something about women, pipes up, “But what about the men, we are oppressed too!” Mr. Davies did his level best to derail the proceedings by droning on for well over an hour about how horribly men are oppressed. Thankfully he didn’t have the stamina to talk the bill out.

Getting private members bills passed is hard. The government schedules them for Fridays, which are traditionally the day on which MPs go home to their constituencies to deal with local business. Anyone wishing to speak and vote has to cancel their local business to be present. I understand that at least 100 MPs have to be present for the bill to be allowed to progress. The WEP campaign has focused primarily on persuading MPs to turn up. There was no point in hassling my MP because he’d only vote against if he was there. I’m disappointed in Ben Howlett, the Bath MP, who appears to have spent today doing constituency work. However, at least two of the Bristol MPs — Kerry McCarthy and Thangam Debbonaire — were present. Thangam had the dubious pleasure of following Philip Davies in the debate, and she did a magnificent job.

The full Hansard transcript is available here. On a quick read through I was particularly impressed with the speech by Helen Whately (Con, Faversham and Mid-Kent) who talks about her time volunteering at a homeless shelter before she became an MP:

On one of my most memorable nights doing that, I met a lady sleeping rough on the steps of a church in Brixton. As we took her to a shelter, I asked her about her circumstances. She told me that she was married but had fled her home that night because she was frightened of staying there; because of what her partner might do to her she was frightened for her life. She felt safer sleeping rough on the steps of a closed church in a dark and frightening park in Brixton than spending a night at home under her own roof.

Thankfully most MPs were impressed with this sort of testimony. The bill eventually passed its second reading by 135-2. Those voting against were the aforementioned Philip Davies and David Nuttall (Con, Bury North). The bill now has to go to the committee and report stages, and then come back for a third reading, before heading to the House of Lords where Mr. Davies will doubtless find rather more people sympathetic to his views.

There is, of course, a very long way to go yet, but today is a cause for celebration, particularly for WEP and this is something WE have made a big push on. Well done, team!

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Signing the Zero Tolerance Pledge


Tuesday evening saw the Annual General Meeting of LGBT Bristol, an organization of which I am a trustee. As is depressingly usual these days, traffic in the city was gridlocked in the early evening and Berkeley, who is the Chair, was unable to get there. So I found myself appointed Chair of Vice (or something like that) for the evening. Thankfully I have been very well trained by Kevin and chairing meetings holds no terrors for me.

One of the things I had to do was sign a Pledge on behalf of the organization. This is part of the Bristol Zero Tolerance campaign which seeks to eliminate gender-based violence in the city. You can find the text of the Pledge here.

The photo above was taken by Charlotte Gage of Bristol Women’s Voice who also runs the Zero Tolerance campaign. From left to right we have Ruth, David, me, Geetha and Sarah at the front; and Lexi and Lesley at the back.

It was a great honor to be asked to sign the pledge on behalf of the organization, and I’m delighted to have LGBT Bristol supporting such an important initiative.

By the way, Charlotte will be on my radio show next week. This news report should give you some context. I’m hoping that someone from Sisters Uncut will be joining us and the City Council has been invited to send someone along.

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Transgender Mythbusting Comes to Bristol

On Saturday I will be running a workshop at LaDIYFest, a fabulous intersectional feminist event. The workshop will be an extended version of the Transgender Mythbusting thing I ran at the Womens’ Equality Party conference with a lot more time for detail and discussion. As with the WEP event, the point of the workshop is to provide feminist campaigners with the tools and information that they need to counter the nonsense that you find in the mass media, and the lies spread by anti-trans activists.

Attendance is free, though they will have a donations jar to help with costs. According to the schedule I am on at 2:45pm, though I’m planning to be there before that because the other sessions look really good.

In the evening there is a music event at Roll for the Soul, the bicycle cafe in the center of town. Ren Stedman is playing, and I hope to be there for his set. You do need to buy a ticket for that, but it is worth it just for Ren.

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Up On the Aqueduct

My annual Year in Review post as gone up on the Aqueduct Press blog as part of their Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening series. So if you want a condensed version of what I have been up to, entertainment-wise, you can find it here.

Better still, you should just go to the blog and read all of the entries. Other contributors include Nisi Shawl, Andrea Hairston and Lisa Tuttle. More will be added in the coming days.

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Diversity Trust AGM


Today I took the car for a run down to Cheddar, the home of cheese. Sadly it was not a shopping expedition, but it was a good day out. I was there for the annual general meeting of The Diversity Trust. We appear to have had a good year, and are looking forward to a better one next year (assuming the the government doesn’t abolish the Equality Act and Human Rights Act, which is not beyond the realms of possibility).

I’m publishing this little post mainly because there is a photo that has me in it and it is not cringe-worthy. This does not happen very often.

From left to right: Russell, Gary, Berkeley, Derek, me, Aaron, Steve and David. Sadly absent is Frank, hope you feel better soon.

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WEP Conference – Party Business

This is the last part of my report on the WEP Conference, and it covers the actual policy debates. I’m not going to go through all 20 items of business in detail. What I want to do is concentrate on areas where the debate got interesting. Please note that these are not official minutes. I believe that the actual text of the motions is being kept private to WEP members for now. Doubtless official positions will appear on the website in due course.

The first piece of business to generate actual debate was the Constitution, and in particular the issue of regionalism. The Scots made the very reasonable point that their country is governed by different laws to the rest of the UK and that policy therefore cannot be universally applied. The party executive responded that they were sympathetic to the issue but the Scottish proposals were in conflict with other parts of the Constitution and could not be accepted as written.

At this point I was expecting the Scots to get up and say that they had tried to reach a compromise but party leaders had been unhelpful. Had they done so I would have voted for them. Instead they got up and repeated their demand for special treatment, and I switched my vote. In debate you need to convince people of your cause, and if the opposition raises objections you need to counter them.

Anyway, the Scottish motion was defeated. However, thanks in part to my new pals in the Cardiff branch there was a Celtic Fringe meeting later in the day involving Scottish, Welsh and Irish delegates. Hopefully we can get this sorted next year.

The first actual policy motion was about Brexit. This turned out to be fairly controversial because the motion assumed that the UK would be leaving the EU. Many members felt that we should be fighting to stay in Europe. That was certainly the position of my friend Rebecca from the Bath branch who thereby became the first ever party member to make a speech from the floor on a policy motion.

Sophie’s position, which I agree with, is that WEP members will have a variety of opinions on Europe, which is fine. What we need to be united on is that the rights that UK citizens currently have as members of the EU need to be protected, whether we are in or out of the community. The motion, therefore, calls on the Government to maintain all of the human rights legislation that we currently have. For most practical purposes that means that WEP has set itself against Brexit, because one of the major reasons for people voting to leave was to junk those rights.

One of the motions I had attached my name to was the one on so-called “revenge porn”. British law is lagging behind some other countries and more can be done, in particular to tackle those websites that pick up on images from “revenge porn” postings and use them on for-profit sites. One member made the very fair point that the motion should be more specifically targeting profiteers rather than foolish, and often very poor, young men. From the courts’ point of view it probably does, because no one is going to waste time trying to extract a massive fine from someone who has no money — they’ll give a community service order instead. However, there is a real issue here in that, given a law to uphold, the police will generally go after the easiest targets, and they might not be the people who were the intended targets. Drafting public policy is hard.

In a similar vein, Conference also passed a motion calling on the police nationwide to follow Nottingham’s lead and class misogynistic attacks as hate crimes.

The next controversial motion was the one on menstruation awareness policy. To my surprise there was quite a bit of opposition to this. To my annoyance some of this was couched as being on behalf of trans people. Now it is true that trans women don’t menstruate, and many trans men do. However, older women don’t menstruate either. I’d looked through the motion earlier and couldn’t see anything in it that was specifically erasing trans people. It seemed to me that we were being used as an excuse to drop the motion. The speaker who said that she didn’t want to be known as a member of the “Period Party” was, I thought, rather more honest. Talking about menstruation is clearly still taboo for some women. The motion ended up being referred back for re-writing, and I expect to be involved in that process. Hopefully we can do better next year, because this is a really important topic.

Also referred back was a motion asking schools to do a “gender audit” to make sure that they weren’t encouraging gender stereotypes. Some teachers spoke against this, feeling that their professional was already too heavily regulated. Others made the valid point that the motion only covered a part of the education sector, and that colleges and universities should be included too. Again this is a really important policy area, so I hope we get a better motion next year.

Some of the motions highlighted areas of public policy that most people know nothing about. For example, I had no idea that self-employed people have nowhere near the same parental leave rights as employed people. Currently the number of people who are registered as self-employed is going up rapidly, and the vast majority of newly self-employed people are women. I was also unaware that fashion companies require models to starve themselves to well below medically safe levels. We all know about people like coal miners needing protection from unsafe working conditions, but it turns out that fashion models need such protections too.

The other motion that had my name on it was the one about making equality in health care a core goal of the party. When WEP was first set up it adopted six core objectives (see them here). Health care was not among them, but it clearly belongs there. Currently women’s health needs are widely viewed as less important than men. Apparently most medicines are only ever tested on males, because menstrual cycles play havoc with testing protocols. That’s as true of rats as it is of humans. I backed the motion in part because equality for all in health care should also mean equality in health care for trans people, and we surely need that.

There were several great motions on things like child maintenance, services for disabled children, sexual and reproductive health services, and workplace provision for carers. All of these are things that scarcely get a mention from the major political parties. There were also motions on various aspects of economic inequality, including pensions and the methods companies use for selection and promotion of staff. Sophie wrote about the motion on child maintenance here.

The big controversy came with the debate on abortion. It is inevitable that in a large gathering of women you will find some who are ardent pro-lifers. Most of the debate centered on the fact that the motion said nothing about time limits. Some people felt this meant it was trying to do away with them altogether. Of course if it didn’t explicitly say it was doing so, then it wasn’t. The makers of the motion made it clear that they had nothing to say on the subject of time limits. What the motion was all about was the fact that abortion is still technically illegal in the UK, because you have to get approval from two doctors, and is pretty much impossible in Northern Ireland. Once all of that was made clear the motion was passed by a fairly substantial majority.

Close to the end Sophie brought up a motion on women in the workforce. Splendidly, she arranged for the motion to be led by a group of girls from the Mulberry School in London. They were all Muslims, and they did a great job.

Very embarrassingly I found myself having to ask to speak against this one. The vast majority of the motion was great, but buried in it was a clause calling for 50:50 representation on company boards between men and women. I got up and explained to Conference that large numbers of people in the world (more than 10% of the human population) already live in countries that recognize three legal genders, and that there is a strong push for the UK to join that group. That means that as a party we cannot go around passing motions that assume that everyone in the world is either male or female. The wording changes are not difficult, but they do need to be done.

Apologies to non-binary people, but I didn’t think that one sentence was worth referring the motion back. Also I wanted those Muslim schoolgirls to have a successful visit to Conference. My objective for this year was education. The good turnout for the workshops, and the opportunity to make this intervention, achieved that. Next year I want to see an audit to make sure that we are not accidentally erasing a whole group of humans from our policies.

Finally there was a motion backing a move to proportional representation for the UK’s parliamentary elections. There’s a very clear link between the use of PR and gender balance in national legislatures. Depending on the system, PR is also very good for getting people from minority groups elected. Of course that does also mean that we’ll have a few more UKIP members in Parliament, but I think it has become quite clear over the past year that there’s very little difference between some Tory backbenchers and UKIP. I’d rather have them elected under their own colors.

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