Interviewed in Fusion

Yesterday I happened to tweet that I couldn’t join in the Day Without A Woman strike because I had trans awareness training to do. Somewhat to my surprise, I was approached by a journalist and asked for more information. You can see the results of that here (scroll down).

Nice job Isha, thank you.

Posted in Feminism, Where's Cheryl? | Leave a comment

Wonder Woman V0.1

International Women’s Day is coming up tomorrow. I’ll be in Bristol doing training, then in Bath for their Reclaim the Night march, so I’m unlikely to get any blogging done. So I am doing something today instead.

We’ll hopefully see the Wonder Woman movie later this year (and fingers crossed DC won’t have butchered it the way they have done with other major releases recently). Diana first appeared in a comic in 1941, but she is not the first Amazon princess to have captivated America. The photo below is of a 24-year-old Kathryn Hepburn taking the part of Antiope in a stage play in New York in 1932. Antiope was a younger sister of Hippolyte and therefore Diana’s aunt. She famously was either kidnapped by or ran off with Theseus and became Queen of Athens. The play was a huge success and led to Hepburn being spotted by a Hollywood talent scout.

Posted in Comics, Feminism, History, Theatre | Leave a comment

Sexing The Past

Don’t blame me for that title, it is what the conference I spent the weekend at was called. It was, of course, the annual LGBT History academic conference. This year it took place in Liverpool. I had a great time, despite the ongoing disaster at Lime Street station which caused all sorts of transport issues (and despite the Liverpool rain).

Friday night saw the annual guest lecture, or rather two of them this year. I had seen Diana Souhami’s talk in Exeter, but it was just as good second time around. I was delighted to be able to hear a talk by Bisi Alimi, who has many important things to say about the legacy of colonialism, and says them incredibly eloquently.

For some reason best know to themselves, the conference decided to kick off one track with me talking about queer Romans. The audience wasn’t huge as there were two really good things on at the same time, but those who did listen to me seemed to enjoy what I had to say.

I was followed by Jonah Coman who gave a paper on the weird ways in which mediaeval mystics feminised Christ. The picture below is not the Eye of Sauron, it is Christ’s wound as a vulva. See here if you want to learn more.

Finally in that session we had a great paper from Richard Godbeer who, as well as having an awesome name, is an expert on early American colonists. Through him I learned about Thomas/Thomasine Hall, a genderfluid and probably intersex person who lived in Virgina. We know a lot about them because of a well documented court case in 1629.

The intersex theme continued into the next session where Blake Gutt showed how a mediaeval cleric tried to make sense of the existence of people who seemed to be neither male nor female. Then Kit Heyam treated us to an entertaining tour through mediaeval buggery law. The extreme reluctance of anyone to describe what sodomy or buggery actually was made it very difficult for courts to convict anyone. Kit also noted that pictures of Thomas Aquinas almost always show him looking very depressed. It’s not a good advert for theology.

The rest of the day was given over to panels telling harrowing stories of LGBT+ people in the military and LGBT+ asylum seekers. The British government did not come out of either panel looking good. In fact more accurately it ended up looking petty and vindictive.

I spent Saturday evening in a pub with Leah and Amber Moore and their mum. We were there primarily to listen to Marty O’Reilly, a very good guitarist from Santa Cruz. Leah tells me that the Caledonia puts on live gigs for free most nights. I am seriously impressed.

Of course when Leah and I get together mischief tends to happen. This time we ended up doing Google searches for weird pictures from mediaeval manuscripts, and I discovered the phenomenon of the Hairy Mary Magdalene. The short version is that in the 15th Century artists began to depict Mary Magdalene as covered in fur (apart from her boobs). Apparently the hairiness denoted her beastly (i.e. sexual) nature.

The following morning we had a panel about how we understand sexual and gender identities from past times. This was right up my street and I got to bore people about Foucault for a second time that weekend. The important point to remember is that heterosexuality is a 19th Century invention. Before that the idea that the world is divided into gays and straights would have seemed quite odd.

There was a session of papers by Nordic scholars, of which the most interesting was about attempts in 1984 by the Swedish government to persuade museums to pay more attention to LGBT+ issues.

After lunch there was supposed to be a panel on trans history by Stephen Whittle, but he couldn’t make it so I bullied Kit, Jonah and Blake into taking over the session. (They didn’t need that much bullying, to be honest.) It was a very good discussion, helped by some great audience participation. I’d love to do that again when we have had a bit of time to prepare.

Finally we had a museums and archaeology panel. Sarah Douglas has been doing some great work on gendering graves in Bronze Age Cyprus. Char Keenan has been equally busy filling Liverpool museums with queer content. And Lois Stone had some sage things to say about how archaeologists treat potentially trans burials.

I will entirely understand if much of this seems rather dull to you, but I love doing it and without it I would not be able to present fun public talks like the ones I have been doing in February. I was very pleased that we had at least six trans people attending this event. Hopefully next year there will be more. If you are a trans person with an academic interest in history, please do get in touch. As Blake said very eloquently on Sunday, and I said in my speech at Exeter, trans history is a political necessity in a time when people are actively trying to erase us from the historical record. This is important work.

Posted in Academic, Conventions, Gender, History | 1 Comment

Real Women, Fake Feminists

I’m way too busy to spend a lot of time deconstructing the latest furore over the realness or lack thereof of trans women. However, I did want to post part of the speech I made at the Women’s Equality Party event in Bristol a week ago. Here you go:

Related to that, I want to put an end to the nonsense idea that there is a right way to be a woman. When I started gender transition back in the 1990s, if I had turned up for a psychiatric appointment dressed like this* I would have been told to go home until I had learned to wear a dress like a proper woman. Trans women have fought long and hard against that sort of stereotyping, and you should too.

Women can be engineers, they can play rugby, they can cut their hair short, and they can wear blue. Being a woman, or a girl, is not about performance, and it is absolutely not about the toys you play with as a child. Far too much nonsense is talked about this in the media. That nonsense is harmful to all children, but it is particularly harmful to transgender children, and to children who don’t want to be forced into gender stereotypes but have no desire or need for gender transition. Putting an end to gender stereotyping is, I hope, a cause that we can all agree upon.

Sadly all too many female British media pundits are all too fond of defining what a “real woman” is. And it is not just the likes of me that they go after. One of the main reasons that I don’t listen to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 is that whenever I have had to tune in (usually because they have been talking nonsense about science fiction and why it isn’t for women) they have had features intended to shame women in some way. Just like the women’s sections of mainstream newspapers, they are overly fond of telling women that everything they are doing is wrong, particularly mothering which it seems almost impossible to get right. If you took these people seriously you’d end up with the opinion that everything bad in the world is somehow the fault of bad mothers.

So I find it particularly galling to have a Woman’s Hour presenter wag her elegantly manicured finger at me and tell me that I know nothing about feminism. I might not be an expert, but I’m damn sure that feminism involves more than looking down your nose at other women and telling them that they are doing woman wrong.

* I was wearing trousers (by Monsoon), a t-shirt and a jacket (by Ann Taylor). According to ancient Greek historians trousers were invented by the Amazons so that they could ride horses more easily. Real men, the Greeks insisted, wore short skirts; with no underwear.

Posted in Feminism, Gender, Radio | 1 Comment

Angela Carter at the RWA

Pomps of the Subsoil - Leonora CarringtonYesterday afternoon, having a couple of hours to kill between radio work and the talk to the medical students, I finally got to see the Angela Carter exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol.

What, may you ask, is a writer doing having an exhibition in an art gallery? Well, there is a lot of material. Some of Carter’s books were lavishly illustrated as well as having great covers. Many artists have created works inspired by her writing (Fevvers is a favorite subject, as is Red Riding Hood). And Carter herself was an art lover so the exhibit also includes a number of works that she is known to have been fond of.

I thought it was a great exhibition. Indeed, there is one part of it that I’m not going to talk about because you really have to go and see it for yourself. The only slightly off note for me was the fact that there was no mention of The Passion of New Eve save for a listing of Carter’s works. Given the breadth of work available, I suspect this may have been a curatorial decision.

The exhibition website has a gallery showing many of the works on display. Some of them are much more impressive in reality than as web images. I particularly like “Hades II” by Anna Marie Pacheco and “Grandma’s Footsteps” by Angela Lizon. (Did I mention that most of the art is by women? Of course it is.) However, some of the best work isn’t in the gallery so I have found copies for you here.

The painting at the top is “Pomps of the Subsoil” by surrealist artist, Leonora Carrington. Given that she was a feminist and fond of themes of female sexuality, she’s an ideal person to have in an Angela Carter exhibition. But I am embarrassed to say that my favorite image is one by a man. It is “The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” by Sir Joseph Noel Paton. In my defense I note that Carter was apparently very fond of it too.

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton

Posted in Art | 1 Comment

Yesterday on Ujima – International Women’s Day

Yes, I know, International Women’s Day is actually on March 8th. However, Bristol Women’s Voice has a big event planned at M-Shed over this coming weekend, and I wanted to preview that. Here’s a look at yesterday’s show.

First up I was delighted to welcome Rina Vergano who, together with her colleague, Jane Flood, will be putting on a performance entitled Hags, Harpies and Harridans. Naturally we talked about witches, crones, social attitudes towards older women and so on. I wish I could be there to see Rina and Jane in action, but of course I’ll be in Liverpool talking about Romans.

We had a quick leap both forward and backward in time for the next segment. On IWD itself Bristol Museum will be hosting an event called Intrepid Women Travellers. My friend Jean Burnett, who is an expert on the lives of Victorian women adventurers, will be speaking about Maria Caroline Bolitho, who crossed the Himalayas on horseback. Jean came in to tell me about Bolitho, and to discuss so of the other women whose lives form part of the event. For your entry fee you will also get a private tour of the Adela Breton exhibition (now moved from Bath), which I highly recommend. Sadly I’ll be at a Reclaim the Night march in Bath that evening.

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

For the second hour I was joined by Sian and Gabby from Bristol Women’s Voice. We discussed many of the other events that will be happening at M-Shed on Saturday. One of those is a workshop on self-confidence hosted by a new friend of mine, Angie Belcher. She’s a stand-up comedian, and she hosted the Women’s Equality Party event I spoke at left Saturday. I can assure you that she has no lack of self-confidence.

Sian also reported on a move by the Bristol Post to switch their Women of the Year awards ceremony from the Marriott City Centre because of the hotel’s hosting of an event with Floyd Mayweather, a former boxer who has been convicted of domestic violence and appears totally unrepentant. BWV has been campaigning against the Mayweather event, and I’m pleased to see them getting support.

This reminds me that someone in Brighton has decided to invite Germaine Greer to speak at an IWD event. Naturally there is a campaign against this too. Fox Fisher has a petition. You can sign it here.

Finally on the show I was delighted to welcome Jen Grove who, together with Jana Funke, has done superb work in organising LGBT History Month events in Exeter. Jen and Jana are part of an all-woman take-over of Phonic FM, one of Exeter’s community radio stations, on IWD. Jen was actually at Ujima so she could record an interview with me in one of our studios for this. I got my own back by dragging her onto my show.

One of the things we talked about was PHSE lessons, which are of course of interest to LGBT historians. Fortuitously yesterday happened to be the very day that the Government announced that they would make PHSE “compulsory”. Quite what this means is open to question. It sounds like religious fundamentalists will still be allowed to remove their children from such lessons, and as yet there is no guarantee that LGBT+ issues will be on the curriculum. However, kids desperately need these lessons, and far too many schools are currently providing nothing at all.

Yesterday evening I was part of an event about gender put on by Medsin, a nationwide group for medical students. I was delighted to find Natalie from T.I.G.E.R. on the programme with me. T.I.G.E.R. does great work in Bristol schools teaching kids about gender and relationships. Hopefully the new regulations will allow schools to make use of organisations such as theirs.

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

The playlist for yesterday’s show was as follows:

  • Santana – Black Magic Woman
  • Nina Simone – I Put A Spell on You
  • Bat for Lashes – Travelling Woman
  • Janelle Monae – Sally Ride
  • Aretha Franklin – Respect
  • Amy Winehouse – Our Day Will Come
  • Linda Ronstadt – Different Drum
  • Destiny’s Child – Survivor

Next week my colleague Miranda Congdon will be taking the helm and looking back on the history of Fem FM, a feminist radio station which operated in Bristol in the 1990s. My next show will be on March 15th.

Posted in Feminism, Music, Radio | Leave a comment

The CN Lester LGBTHM Lecture

One of the events in LGBT History Month that I am sad I was unable to attend is CN Lester’s lecture at Oxford University. Like me, CN takes a keen interest in trans history, and they have made a particular study of the later 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m expecting to learn a lot more when their book, Trans Like Me, comes out in May. In the meantime, however, their lecture throws a bit of light on some key issues, and demonstrates clearly how erasure of trans history by the mainstream media is hugely damaging to our cause.

I knew that the film, The Danish Girl, was bad, but I haven’t had a chance to look into the issues as thoroughly as I would like. CN has done the work, not just looking at Lili Elbe’s original supposed memoir, but finding out how that too was changed to appeal to a cis readership. By the time we have been through that, the novel that the film is based on, and the film itself, Lili’s life is all but unrecognizable.

If you want to learn more, you can watch the lecture here:

The short version is that there have always been trans people. There have always been:

“Those of them who […] have desired to be completely changed into women and gone on to mutilate their genital organs”

Not the most flattering of descriptions, but that was Philo of Alexandria. He died in 50 CE.

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Strange Horizons to Interview 100 African SF&F Writers

Now that’s the sort of press release I like to get. It makes a welcome change from all of the emails about new novels that are comparable to Dan Brown at his best or some similar nonsense.

Geoff Ryman has been doing great work with the African SF&F community over the past few years. In the process he has build up an amazing network, and now he’s going to build on that by introducing his new friends to us. On the Strange Horizons website he will be doing 100 (probably more but that’s a catchy number) interviews with great writers that most of us will probably never have heard of. For more details, see the official announcement here.

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Brain Sex – Please Don’t

One of the issues that cropped up during this week’s insane event schedule is the issue of brain sex and the idea that being trans has been proved to be “real” because trans women have been found to have “female brains”. I do a lot of trans awareness training these days, and I never use arguments of this sort. I would be grateful if you could avoid them too.

At first sight it might seem that such ideas are helpful to the trans cause. Certainly you will see them bandied about by some trans activists on social media (I’m looking at you, India). I can totally understand the desire that trans people have to get some scientific justification for the way that they feel. I know that when I was first struggling with my identity I would have done anything for some sort of medical proof that I wasn’t crazy. I was devastated when I had a chromosome test and it came back as standard male. However, with time and experience I have come to understand that only four things are necessary to establish that being trans is a real thing:

  1. The fact that many people have lived trans lives many different countries at many different times throughout the history of mankind;
  2. The extreme distress experienced by trans people who cannot transition;
  3. The abject failure of attempts to use psychiatric techniques such as aversion therapy to cure people of being trans; and
  4. The thousands upon thousands of trans people living happy and fulfilled lives post-transition.

Brain sex arguments, on the other hand, are problematic in a number of ways. To start with, I have yet to see any study that I would be happy standing up and defending in front of a class as a cast iron proof. Proving science is (by design) very difficult. It is much easier, and much more effective, to use science to disprove the muddle-headed ideas about gender that are common in the media. We can provide circumstantial evidence of brain differences, but there is a lot of work to be done in accounting for sample sizes, possible other causes, and so on. To get a really solid proof we’d either have to do experiments on embryos, or do brain surgery on adult trans people, both of which have extreme ethical problems.

On the practical side, any attempt to bring brain sex into the discussion will immediately result in push-back from feminists, and with good reason. Ideas about differences between “male” and “female” brains have long been used as a justification for claiming that men are intellectually and morally superior to women. Personally I would be terrified of having to argue against Cordelia Fine because she’s ruthlessly effective at debunking this sort of thing. Also trans people have enough trouble with feminism as it is. The courses I run generally get very good feedback. Where I do get negative responses it is often from people who claim that I am “anti-feminist”, even when I had said in class that I’m a member for the Women’s Equality Party. Talking about brain sex would mean a whole lot more people would react negatively to my classes.

What I do say in classes is that the biology of gender is really, really complicated. It isn’t a simple matter of XX or XY chromosomes. All sorts of things go into the mix. And because that’s true, any brain sex studies that do turn up real evidence can only be a part of the story. They cannot, by themselves, explain everything about trans people. The suggested biological explanations I have seen for trans people only work for trans women, or only for trans women and trans men. All of them fall apart when faced by the existence of non-binary people.

The trouble with scientific “proofs” of why people are trans is that they will probably only cover a portion of the trans community. This can easily lead to new false binaries. Trans people’s identities will come to be judged on the basis of whether they have a particular medical condition, even if that condition only explains a small proportion of actual trans symptoms. Non-binary people in particular are concerned that medical tests for being trans would result in their being denied treatment. And of course this all feeds into the nonsense about who is a “true trans” and who isn’t.

Finally the idea that you can find evidence of someone’s trans nature in their brain is leading to people advocating brain surgery as a “cure” for being trans. People pushing this line will argue that because chromosomes cannot be changed (they are in every cell of the body) then trans people’s brains “must” be changed to “fix the problem”. I’m sure you can imagine how scary that is for trans people.

So please, let’s stay away from brain sex arguments. They are not needed, and they get us into all sorts of problems.

Posted in Gender, Science | 2 Comments

A Quick Trip to Kush

This evening I attended a meeting of the Egypt Society of Bristol for a lecture by Dr Julie Anderson of the British Museum. As well as working at the BM, Julie is employed as a field archaeologist by the Sudanese government. She’s involved with a project to excavate and preserve the ancient sites of the Kingdom of Kush.

As some of you may know, Egypt was conquered by the Kushite, King Piye, in the 8th Century BCE. He founded the 25th dynasty which ruled Egypt for around 100 years when an Egyptian called Psamtik took back the country with the aid of the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal. Egypt remained a puppet state of Assyria until the Neo-Assyrian empire fell into civil war after Ashurbanipal’s death.

The Kushites were not wholly vanquished. They just went home to Kush (northern Sudan) and carried on ruling their own kingdom for another 1000 years. Julie’s dig is at the city of Dangeil which is somewhat to the north of the capital, Meroë.

One thing I learned this evening is that the Kushites took Egyptian culture back home with them. Both Dangeil and Meroë have large temples of Amun. Julie was reporting on the excavation of the one in Dangeil. It is a large building, and must have been very impressive as it was brightly painted in red, yellow and blue. Sadly I can’t find any of the colored images of the temple online.

However, that wasn’t what prompted me to write. What really caught my attention were some graves, six in all, and all found inside the temple. The dating is uncertain as the environment on the site has degraded all of the organic material in the bones, so C14 won’t work. However, the burials are pre-Christian in style. They are all of women — very rich women. No equivalent male burials have been found.

When I say “rich” I mean these women were loaded down with jewelry. They had masses of glass beads, all of which would have been imported from the Mediterranean. They had a profusion of copper bangles — so many that Julie told me she wondered how one of the women could have raised her arm. I asked, and Julie said the bioarchaeology people had been all over the skeletons confirming that they were indeed female.

Here’s one of the beaded belts found in the graves:

Where are the equivalent high-status men? We don’t know. In Meroë there are pyramids for kings, but I’m not sure how the dates line up and in any case I’m sure Julie would have noticed if Dangeil had them too. If these women are queens, why are they not buried with their husbands? It is all very mysterious. It sounds like Kush had a story to tell. I hope some African fantasy writers have a go at it.

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A Note on “Biological Sex”

A couple of the talks in Bournemouth yesterday required people to talk about the “sex” of trans people, as “discovered” after their death. This tends to get people (including me sometimes) into trouble over lack of clarity, because sex too is something of a social construct. I thought it might be useful to explain.

When a doctor or corner says that a body is “biologically female” what they usually mean is that the outward physical manifestations of sex correspond to femaleness. That is, the body has female genitalia, and probably breasts. If the body appeared to have a penis it would probably be described as “biologically male” (even if there was significant breast development).

When an archaeologist says that a body is “biologically female” it probably means that the skeleton is typical of someone who went through female puberty, as opposed to someone who went through male puberty. We can’t always be 100% on this, and sadly in the past archaeologists tended to go on skull size. Yes, they did assume that a bigger skull meant a bigger brain meant male. I’ve been told that some still do this.

Neither of those two things is necessarily indicative of chromosomal sex. There are a variety of intersex conditions that can result in a body having external sexual features and/or a skeleton that is at odds with the chromosomal sex.

So when we say that a body was “found to be biologically female” what we mean is that someone made an educated guess based either on external physical characteristics or on the shape of parts of the skeleton. We have said nothing about chromosomes unless an actual chromosome test was done.

Of course a chromosome test is no guarantee of the gender identity of the person whose body we are examining, or of how they lived their life, or of what gender they were assigned at birth. Assignment at birth is likely to be a guess made on the same basis as that made at death, but with less data. Gender identity may not correspond to external characteristics, and the ability of someone to live socially in the gender that comes naturally to them is dependent very much on social circumstances and that person’s strength of will.

All of which is to say that when we read in an historical account that a body of a presumed man was examined at death and that the person in question was “proved to be really a woman” (or vice versa) all we actually know is that there is some level of uncertainty as to the person’s sex and gender.

This is a particular problem when dealing with cases of apparent trans men from before the 20th Century. We know that in the early 20th Century a significant number of people assigned female at birth were re-assigned as male by doctors for a variety of reasons. Lennox Broster at Charing Cross was the leading expert in this work. His patients generally presented themselves to him because they had a strong male gender identity. If they were happy living as women there would have been far less need to consult a doctor. In previous centuries such people would have had no medical options but may have chosen to try to live as men. Having been assigned female at birth, it is plausible that they would again be deemed female after death. That doesn’t mean that they were “really women”.

You may of course argue that intersex conditions such as those that Broster dealt with are very rare, so the chances of some random body exhibiting such a condition would be equally low. However, if that condition is one in which persons assigned female at birth often have male gender identities (or acquire them at puberty) then we would expect such people to be attempting to live as men. That changes the probabilities massively.

Of course it is also possible that such people had no intersex condition but had a gender identity strongly at odds with the sex they were assigned at birth. They might conceivably be ambitious women trying to make their way in a man’s world, or lesbians trying to find a way to express their sexuality in a straight world, though as I have argued before I think these are less likely because of the difficulty of living a life contrary to your gender identity. My point is that we only have the reports of people who saw the body to go on, and those people almost certainly didn’t have anything close to as sophisticated an understanding of human biology as we have now.

Sex, it’s complicated.

Posted in Gender, History | 1 Comment

LGBTHM Does Bournemouth

That’s another one done. Only two weeks left. (Yes, I know. LGBT History Month has become so big that it has burst the bounds of February.)

Today I took myself off to Bournemouth. It is a fairly easy trip from here by train. As I hinted yesterday, this one was potentially dodgy because it got attacked by a religious fundamentalist website. They said a few nasty things about me, and a whole lot of really nasty things about Sophie Cook, the lovely trans lady who is also the official photographer for Bournemouth football club. They are not exactly high profile. The guy who runs the site has a massive 15 Twitter followers. But six of them did turn up today to listen to the talks. As the event was being organized by the local students’ union, Bournemouth University kindly laid on extra security to make sure that everyone was polite, and the day went off very quietly.

The highlight of the day was an impromptu talk. One of the speakers was unable to make it, so Jeff Evans of Schools Out did a short extra talk about the time when he and a group of other students took the NUS LGBT Conference to Belfast. They ended up getting picketed by Iain Paisley, and adopted by the IRA. It was a fascinating and heartwarming story, not to mention some very smart politics by Sinn Fein.

There were also two interesting talks about lesbian history. One, by Alison Child, focused on Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney, a lesbian couple whose musical double-act topped the bills in the 1920s. The other, by Jenny White, focused on the inane things that straight men say about lesbians. There was, for example, an amazing court case from 1811 in which the accused got off because the judges could not believe that English women could do such “unnatural” things. Jenny also introduced me to two 19th Century trans people whose stories I didn’t know of. I wonder how many more there must be out there waiting to be discovered.

My own talk seemed to go down quite well, except perhaps with our unexpected guests who looked fairly grumpy throughout. They didn’t seem to want to talk to Sophie or myself, but they did spend quite a bit of time chatting to Jeff who was very positive about the interactions.

All in all it was a pretty good day. My thanks to the Bournemouth students for a job well done. I was particularly impressed that a majority of the students who turned up were from various minority ethnic backgrounds. The speakers were all white, as were the unexpected visitors, but the students gave me a lot of hope.

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My Exeter Speech

Tomorrow I will be off to Bournemouth for their LGBT History Month event. I’ll be giving the same talk that I did in Exeter last Sunday. That one doesn’t work without the slides, but the speech I gave at the Exeter launch does. It isn’t quite as good without all of the visual jokes, but it is at least intelligible, so I’m posting it here.

As some of you will have seen on social media, the Bournemouth event has attracted the attention of a fringe group of religious homophobes. I am pretty sure that they will be too cowardly to turn up in person, if only because that means we’ll see how few of them there actually are.

Anyway, the speech:


People of diverse genders,

I’ve been asked to speak today both as a trans activist and as an historian. These days that doesn’t seem quite so odd as it would have been in my school days. There is a recognition now that history is not just HIS-story, it is overwhelmingly straight cis rich white able-bodied man’s story. When I was at school we were starting to see historians looking at the lives of the poor. When I was at university I started to hear about feminist historians, though judging from Amanda Foreman’s Ascent of Woman TV series we still have a long way to go on that front. There is a shameful lack of people of colour amongst academic historians in the UK. We’ve made the first step by acknowledging the problem, but again there is a long way to go. We also have LGBT History Month. So trans history is being researched and written, yes?

Well, not exactly. Last year I attended an international conference in Canada on trans history. There were a few presentations from people outside of Western culture: a couple of Canadian two-spirit people, and an Indian hijra who now lives in New York. But the vast majority of the material covered by the conference was rooted in Western culture, and didn’t go any further back than the late 19th Century.

Why does this matter? Here is a brief quote from one of the regular attacks made on trans people by Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme:

“… the phenomenon of transgenderism which is a social construct of the 2nd half of the 20th century and which has become particularly common in the last couple of decades…”

(Sheila Jeffreys, BBCR4 Woman’s Hour, Aug. 7th 2014)

That was Sheila Jeffreys, who is well known for her antagonism towards trans people. But she is by no means the only person to make that claim. Indeed, what I noticed in Canada is that many people who work on trans history take that claim as a basic assumption of their work.

All of LGBT history has suffered from erasure. We know that. But in the case of trans people the charge that we did not exist, at all, before the 20th century, is very precisely being used to deny us the right to exist now.

This claim that trans people were invented in the 20th century is ridiculous, but strenuous efforts have been made, and continue to be made, to convince people that it is true. Sometimes the erasure is very literal.

One of the most important documents in Inca history is An Account of the Antiquities of Peru, by Juan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti. The author was a man of native descent who had converted to Christianity and was attempting to walk the difficult tightrope of explaining his culture to his conquerors without incurring the wrath of the Catholic Church.

An English translation of the work was produced by Clements R Markham in 1873 and is published as part of his book, Narratives of the Rites and Laws of the Yncas. Here is a short passage from Pachacuti’s work.

“The Curacas and Mitmays of Caravaya brought a chuqui-chinchay, which is an animal of many colours, said to have been chief of the jaguars.”

On the face of it, there is nothing remarkable about his. However, here is the original Spanish.

“Los curacas y mitmais de Carabaya trae a chuqui chinchay, animal muy pintado de todos colores. Dizen que era apo do los otorongos, en cuya guarda da a los ermofraditas yndios de dos naturas.”

Los ermofraditos yndios? Where did that come from? It certainly isn’t in Markham’s translation. American scholar, Michael J Horswell, examined the original and realised that something had been left out. Thanks to him I came to hear of the Quariwarmi, literally “men-women”, a community of Inca who worshipped a liminal deity known as the rainbow jaguar and who appear to have been viewed by Inca society as being something between a man and a woman.

Where trans people are not literally erased, they may be presented as something other than trans. In the case of trans women they are almost always caricatured as sexual perverts. Take this example from the afterword to the English translation of the memoirs of the French cross-dresser and possible trans woman, François Timoléon, Abbé de Choisy.

“Choisy was instructed by his mother to be a girl. The unconscious erotic awakenings in a child brought up to imitate his mother and afforded no masculine gender differentiation are bound to be fetishistic, and reliant on the intimate provocation of dress to excite rather than distinctly orientated towards the body.”

And:

“Men who dress to imitate women usually overcompensate for the possible inferiority they feel. Transvestites project an image of the ultra-feminine woman, which is often the embodiment of heterosexual fantasy. They wear the highest heels, the tightest skirts, their red lipstick signals danger.”

Those comments were first published in 1973, when I was a teenager, and are typical of attitudes towards trans women at that time.

In the case of trans men, the usual way of framing their stories is to portray them as ambitious women attempting to make their way in a strongly patriarchal society. Certainly such people did exist, but most cis historians fail to distinguish between people who cross-dress occasionally, people who cross-dress full-time but do not try to hide their gender, and people who live full time in a gender other than that they were assigned at birth.

Any binary-identified trans person can tell you how hard it is to live full time in a gender that doesn’t feel natural to you. The idea that someone assigned female at birth could simply decide to live the rest of their life as a man, without any affinity for masculinity, and maintaining a strong sense of their own femininity throughout, seems bizarre to me. I had to spend a long time pretending to be a man. I know how stressful it is.

Nevertheless we continue to see efforts to “reclaim” apparent trans men for womanhood. For example, there was a recent New York musical that “reinterpreted” jazz musician, Billy Tipton, as a flamboyant drag king. Given everything we know about him, I imagine that Tipton would have been horrified. Even if he did still see himself as a woman, he made every effort to appear the suave ladies’ man.

The latest historical figure in the spotlight is Dr. James Barry. I haven’t had a chance to read the new biography yet, and I have been told that it contains some interesting research into Barry’s background. What I do know is that the review of the book in The Guardian was a veritable bingo card of transphobic tropes, taking every opportunity to present Barry’s male identity as a deliberate and dishonourable fraud. Were he alive today I suspect that Barry, who was notorious for his short temper and strong sense of honour, would have challenged the author of that review to a duel.

Eunuchs are rarely mentioned in history books, and when they are it is generally with a sense of existential horror, particularly from male historians. No effort is spared to decry the evil of making someone a eunuch, and the eunuchs themselves are described as “victims”. In fiction eunuchs are generally portrayed as fat, ugly, and prone to vicious scheming.

Thanks to the efforts of Shaun Tougher in particular, the history of eunuchs is slowly being rehabilitated. It is pretty clear that the last 200 years of human history are highly unusual because of the small number of eunuchs that existed during that time. The previous 4,000 years were very different.

Given the hundreds of thousands of eunuchs who have been made over the years, it seems likely that they will have had a wide range of identities. Some will have clung to their masculinity; some we know identified closely with women; but almost all of them will have been seen by the rest of contemporary society as neither male nor female, but as something non-binary.

This brings us to the central issue of trans history. One of the arguments deployed by those claiming that trans people did not exist before the 20th century is that the words we now use to describe trans people – transgender, transsexual, non-binary and so on – were not coined until then. Misrepresenting Foucault, these people claim that if the idea of the trans person did not exist then no one could identify outside of the gender binary.

What these people miss is that words like heterosexual were not coined until the late 19th century. Scientific understanding of the biology of gender is a product of the same time period. The very idea that humanity is divided solely into males and females, and that never the twain shall meet, is a 19th century construct.

One reason why countries like India, Pakistan and Nepal are ahead of the UK in terms of legal recognition for non-binary genders is that those countries have centuries long traditions of recognising that more than two genders exist. Before science told us about chromosomes, the idea that gender was mutable was commonplace. Stories of people having their gender changed by capricious deities are common in mythologies around the world, and in some cultures it was believed that one could lose one’s masculinity and become a half-man, if not actually a woman, by inappropriate unmanly behaviour.

This, then, is why I do trans activism through history. The idea that trans people are a 20th century invention is completely false. If anything, it is the idea that human gender is fixed at birth and can only be male or female that is the aberration. In most cultures, and in most times in human history, that idea would seem ridiculous. Exposing the lie that is being told about trans people can only be done by shining a light on trans history.

Posted in Gender, History | 1 Comment

Dinosaur Babies

One of the things that came up on the show today was this news story involving Prof. Mike Benton, a palaeontologist from the University of Bristol. Up until now it was thought that all dinosaurs laid eggs, but a new discovery in China has turned all that on its head. A fossil of a plesiosaur-like creature called Dinocephalosaurus has evidence of what looks like a well-developed baby inside of the adult. That means that Dinocephalosaurus must have given birth to live young, just like whales and dolphins. On the face of it, this makes good sense. An animal that size isn’t going to find it easy to lay eggs on a beach the way turtles do. But it does seem to be a major new piece of evidence, always assuming of course that the news media has got it right.

Posted in Nature, Science | 2 Comments

Today on Ujima – LGBT History Month

It was great to be back in the saddle again, so to speak. I have been way too busy doing training and therefore not doing radio for quite a while. But today I was back with a full show dedicated to LGBT History Month.

First up was some promotion for this event next Wednesday evening at M-Shed, which I am chairing. In studio with me were my good friend Henry Poultney from Off the Record, plus Cai, Jade and Lara who are all young people involved with the event in some way.

Next up was Karen Garvey from M-Shed, who I have also come to know very well over the years. She was mainly talking about this event on Saturday. There’s lots going on, much of it also involving people I know well. My co-chair from OutStories Bristol, Andy Foyle, will be demonstrating the wonderful history map that we built last year with help from Bristol university. Simon Nelson from the City Council will be talking about the pioneering African-American gay man, Bayard Ruskin. Performance artist, Tom Marshman, will be leading a guided tour of queerest exhibits in the museum. Lori Streich will be talking about lesbians in feminism. LGBT Poet Laureate, Trudy Howson, will be topping the bill. And to round it all off the local chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will be being fabulous.

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

Kicking off the second hour was Daryn Carter from Bristol Pride. He is staging an event at the Watershed on Saturday the 25th. We have a lady from the Tate talking about their forthcoming Queer British Art exhibition. We have Jake Graff. We have Tom Marshman (again). We have Oscar Wilde (probably just a tribute band). And we have me covering 4,500 years of trans history in art. I may have to talk quite quickly.

Daryn and I also had a bit of a rant about the mess the Church of England has got itself into over same-sex marriage.

And finally I was joined by Lesley Mansell from North Bristol NHS Trust to talk about the public LGBTHM events she has organised at Southmead Hospital. They are both trans-focused as well. It is a refreshing change to find part of the NHS working hard on trans inclusion.

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

Thanks as ever to Ben, my engineer. I’ll be back in the studio on March 1st for a show devoted to International Women’s Day.

The playlist for today’s show was as follows:

  • Prince – I Would Die 4 U
  • Tegan and Sara – Faint of Heart
  • Laverne Cox – Sweet Transvestite
  • Janelle Monáe – Q.U.E.E.N.
  • Lady Gaga – Born This Way
  • The Vinyl Closet – Garbage Man
  • Cyndi Lauper – True Colors
  • Labi Siffre – It Must be Love

I played Cyndi for Caroline Paige, the RAF trans woman who gave that great talk in Exeter at the weekend. The Labi Siffre was for Kevin as a late Valentine present because I’m soppy like that.

Posted in Gender, History, Music, Radio | Comments Off on Today on Ujima – LGBT History Month

Talking About Dillon for #LGBTHM17

Bristol 24/7 has published my review of Michael Dillon’s autobiography, Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions. This is all LGBT History Month stuff, of course. Many thanks to James Higgins, the new LGBT Editor, for being willing to run such things.

Posted in Books, Gender, History | Comments Off on Talking About Dillon for #LGBTHM17

Fringe is Moving

As of next Monday’s event, BristolCon Fringe will have a new home. It is: The Famous Royal Navy Volunteer, 17-18 King Street, Bristol BS1 4EF. We will be in the function room on the first floor. The move should give us more space, better audio equipment, and no interruptions from noisy parties in the next bar or ghosts. (Though it was cool to have ghosts, their conversation was very boring.)

If you are in the area, please do join us from 7:00pm on Monday February 20th when our readers will be local favorites, Gareth L. Powell and Pete Sutton.

Gareth is best known for his alternate history thriller Ack-Ack Macaque which won the 2013 BSFA Award for Best Novel and spawned two sequels. Gareth will be reading a selection of work from my new short fiction collection, Entropic Angel, which will be released by NewCon Press in April.

Pete Sutton is a contributing editor of Far Horizons Magazine as well as one of the organisers of the Bristol Festival of Literature. He will be reading from his debut novel, Sick City Syndrome.

And of course there will be the usual thing where I put the readers to the question.

Posted in Readings, Science Fiction | Comments Off on Fringe is Moving

Exeter LGBTHM – Day 2

I slept until 9:00am this morning, which I guess shows that I was tired. Of course that meant having to grab breakfast from a coffee shop on my way to the Phoenix for today’s talks. Sorry, I am an embarrassment.

I really enjoyed Michael Halls’ talk about Intercom Trust because of how he made a point of building a network. He said that it was a policy of the Trust never to compete with other LGBT+ organisations in the region for funds or volunteers, and only to work with those organisations that did the same. That sounds like a good way of fighting back against a government determined to make us all fight among ourselves for an ever-decreasing offering of scraps.

John Vincent on LGBT+ and public libraries was rather sad because libraries are in severe danger of extinction.

Shaan’s talk was mostly stuff I had heard before, but I was expecting him to put me on the spot about the Twilight People app and he duly did so. Fingers crossed I’ll have something available for the end of March.

Huge props to my friend Robert Howes for including in his talk the cover of a fanzine produced by a Brazilian cross-dressing club in 1968. He also had pictures of the Revealing Stories exhibition, and of the Bath Orlando vigil featuring the fabulous Ceri Jenkins.

For me the highlight of the weekend was Caroline Paige, the first person to transition in the RAF. I had no idea that there was a trans woman flying helicopters in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Way to go, Caz, you showed them! When I think about what she had to put up with, my own transition was a piece of cake.

The keynote speaker at the end of the day was Diana Souhami who has written many biographies of lesbians. She talked a lot about the large and very influential community of upper class lesbians who lived in Paris at the start of the 20th Century. I wish Bea Hitchman had been there, she would have loved it.

My own talk went well, for which thanks to Ishtar/Cybele/Isis for Her support.

Finally huge congratulations to Jana Funke and Jen Grove for a job well done. I was particularly pleased with the large number of young people who attended.

Posted in Gender, History | Comments Off on Exeter LGBTHM – Day 2

Exeter LGBTHM – Day 1

Today in Exeter we had the launch event. This is the one that I was more nervous about because most of the audience would not be there to hear me, they’d be there mainly for a bunch of gay men (and in particular local MP, Ben Bradshaw, who is the first openly gay man to have been elected to the UK Parliament).

As it turned out, it all went very well. Jana Funke and Jen Grove, who are running the event, have done a fantastic job. Everything ran pretty much like clockwork. The staff at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum were very helpful, and they even laid on a bunch of guys in Roman legionary outfits just for me. (Good job this wasn’t the talk about castration in Rome.) It was, as ever, an honor to share a platform with Noorulan Shahid who is doing a magnificent job in the NUS for both trans and Muslim students.

One minor piece of nit-pickery. When you are doing an LGBT event, please don’t begin your speech with “ladies and gentlemen”. Other genders do exist. I’d asked Jana and Jen to warn the speakers about this, and I know they did, but two of them still got it wrong.

Special thanks for the support go to Surat-Shaan Knan, to my pal Emma Hutson who drove down from Sheffield for the weekend, and to Emma’s friend Sonnie who is putting her up and acted as local guide. Emma is doing a PhD on fiction by transgender writers and is therefore the most awesome person in the universe.

At some point I will post the speech, but not now because I need sleep.

Tomorrow I get to talk about trans people from Mesopotamia and Rome.

Posted in Gender, History | Comments Off on Exeter LGBTHM – Day 1

Crawford Award Winner

I have been so busy over the past week that I totally missed the fact that Gary Wolfe had made the official announcement for this year’s Crawford award. The Crawford, as you may remember, is for a debut fantasy book. This year the winner is All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.

I am, of course, delighted. That’s partly because I loved the book, partly because Charlie Jane is a friend, partly because trans writers FTW, and partly because it is always nice when the rest of the jury likes one of your favorites.

I’d also like to note that Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff was short-listed. Yet more to be happy about.

Posted in Awards, Science Fiction | 1 Comment