Welcome to Afrometropolis

Last night I was at The Arnolfini for an event curated by my friend, Edson Burton. Afrometroplis was a multi-media experience inspired by Afrofuturism. The idea was to create a futuristic and funkadelic city state inspired by African culture. I tried hard not to think of Rosewater, because I’m not sure that I trust Tade’s aliens.

There was a lot of stuff going on, including a preview of a short film by Ytasha Womack and a very impressive jam session. You can learn more of what went on from the website.

I spent much of the evening in the Manifesto Development session. The idea was to come up with a political manifesto for life in Afrometropolis, and in theory we were supposed to be inspired by writers such as Octavia Butler. I was rather hoping to have a discussion of Earthseed, the religion that Butler developed for the Parable books. As it turned out, the rest of the people there were more interested in discussing what African identity meant, and whether Bristol was a successful multi-cultural city, which is perfectly fine. I’m hoping I can lure Zahra Ash-Harper onto my radio show to talk about how the discussion went (and about our shared love of Black Panther).

My thanks to Edson and the team at Come The Revolution for a great evening. I’m sorry I couldn’t stay for the party.

Posted in Art, Music, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Festival of Ideas Does Feminism

On Thursday evening I attended two feminist-themed events at the Watershed in Bristol. Both of them were organized by the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

First up was science journalist, Angela Saini, promoting her new book. Inferior, expansively subtitled, How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, is all about how gender bias, sometimes unconscious and sometimes not, has been a feature of science over the years. Mostly the book is about biology, because this is an area in which men have used dubious science to claim superiority over women. This has been going on for a very long time. Aristotle has a lot to answer for, and Darwin was no better.

The biggest problem area is evolutionary psychology, where people make the most bizarre claims. Saini focused on the question as to why human women (uniquely among primates, but not the entire animal kingdom) live for a long time after they have ceased to be fertile. Many people on Twitter and Facebook reacting to my posts mentioned the sensible idea that older women are useful to society and it is good to keep them alive. There is an alternative theory (developed by men) that old women are ugly so there is no need for them to be fertile, and consequently they have lost the ability to breed.

Those of you who are on social media may have seen this week’s joke evolutionary psychology theory: that women have evolved to become bisexual because men love watching lesbian sex.

It doesn’t take much to poke fun at this stuff, but it is useful to have someone like Saini around to work on the more serious bad science. Fans of Cordelia Fine will doubtless love her book. I’m looking forward to it too, but I can’t read it just yet because the event only had a limited number of pre-publication copies and they sold out.

The reason why I was late getting in the queue is that I’d made a couple of new friends. One is a psychologist from Boston who understands the need to consider trans issues in her work. I’m hoping to learn a lot more about what she’s doing next week. In the meantime I’m going to check out the work of Charlotte Tate, who is also doing good work in this area.

My other new pal is Virginia Bergin, a Bristol-based writer of YA science fiction. Her latest book, Who Runs the World, is a pretty obvious candidate for the Tiptree. My chagrin at not having heard of Virginia before was mollified slightly by the fact that Virginia had no idea that Bristol had an SF&F community. We plan to rectify both of these issues.

The second event featured anti-FGM campaigner and Women’s Equality Party parliamentary candidate, Nimco Ali. She’s an amazing person who has done a huge amount to get the UK authorities to take FGM seriously. I recorded a brief interview with her after the talk which I’ll air on my June 7th Women’s Outlook show.

My thanks are due to Nimco for helping me understand what was going on in Rome as successive emperors attempted to ban child castration. It all makes much more sense now.

Now if only we could get the UK to ban surgery on intersex children.

Posted in Current Affairs, Feminism, Science | 2 Comments

April Fringe, the Legendary Open Mic

We are almost caught up on the Fringe podcasts now. Tom has edited the May readings and I’ll be able to put them live in early June once our upload allowance has reset. In the meantime here are the April readings, which feature the legendary BristolCon Fringe Open Mic. Because I had to catch a train down to Plymouth for work I could not stay for the whole event, so Tom got his first taste of hosting. He did a fine job. Also I got to read first.

In the first session we have the following:

Me, with part of my Amazons in Space story that I’m trying to write for the Space Marine Midwives anthology. This is a very rough first draft of the opening, which I had to cut down a bit to make it fit in 5 minutes. For those interested in the history, by Amazons are based on Scythian women warriors (who very much did exist). Enaree is a Scythian term for a non-binary person (probably assigned male at birth, possibly a eunuch).

Ian McConaghy with the opening of a science fiction novel set in near future Los Angeles.

Joanne Hall with a short story about monks, illuminated manuscripts and dragons. This one is apparently due to appear in an anthology soon. I’m looking forward to it.

Felicia Barker with a fantasy short story featuring some very famous fairies. I’ve not heard Felicia read before and I was impressed.

In session 2 we have:

Chloe Headdon with the opening of a YA fantasy novel. Chloe is someone else I’d not heard before, indeed this was her first ever public reading. Again I was impressed.

Steve Tanner with an extract from his fantasy novel, Blind Faith.

Suzanne McConaghy with part of a science fiction short story, “Partners in Crime”.

Justin Newland with short story that forms the prologue to fantasy novel set in China.

There is no Q&A in the open mic, because we want to make the experience as friendly as possible for the readers. Some of them are quite frightened enough without having myself or Tom thrust a microphone in their face and quiz them.

The June Fringe event will feature Pete Newman and Kate Coe.

Posted in Podcasts, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

Gendered Voices – Day 2

Following on from yesterday’s post, here’s what we got up to on the second day of the Gendered Voices conference.

Session one was all about representation and began with Rosie talking about her research into coming out experiences. This is very valuable work, and the sort of thing that Berkeley and I will keep a close eye on as it can be used as evidence to encourage action by local and national government.

Next up an emergency fill-in from Louise (always a brave thing to do) about the 19th Century gothic writer, Lucas Malet, noted for her particularly morbid imagination. Malet was the daughter of novelist Charles Kingsley who wrote The Water Babies, an exceptionally unpleasant piece of Christian allegory aimed at kids. It is no wonder the poor woman grew up warped. There are a lot of people doing research on 20th century women Gothic writers, but Louise is the only one I know who is working on the 19th Century. I’m sure she’d welcome some company.

The final paper was from Jenn and was about trans and non-binary representation in literature, in particular the literary fiction market. Jenn says that they know of only nine literary novels featuring trans characters. I’m pretty sure I could name nine from the past year in SF, and a similar number in realist YA, but thus far Jenn is resisting all of my attempts to lure them to the Dark Side.

Session two was all about violence and was very intense. It began with Jassi, a lawyer, talking about girl soldiers. When we hear about child soldiers in the media it is always about boys, but in fact between 30% and 40% of child soldiers are female. Not only are they erased by the Western media, but if the war they are fighting in is halted then they will be forced back into subservient social roles by their supposed rescuers.

Elena talked about group counseling for victims of sexual violence. Apparently this is quite effective, whereas one-to-one counseling can often further isolate the victim. Elena says that it is very rarely used in the UK. That’s interesting, because this sort of counseling is specifically mentioned in the Equality Act as a circumstance in which trans women can be excluded from women-only spaces. I had assumed that it would therefore be common, but no, the government made all that fuss about trans women not being women over a situation that was very unlikely to arise.

Encouragingly, Elena said that the rape crisis center she is working with is trans-inclusive.

The final speaker was Patrick who talked about women volunteers in the IRA. There were apparently a lot of them, and the way that they worked reminded me a lot of the French Resistance. Interestingly the IRA, despite being Catholic, were (and presumably still are) pro-abortion. I gather from social media that one of these IRA women is now a Conservative parliamentary candidate.

The keynote speaker for the conference was Thangam Debbonaire, the current MP for Bristol East. It was really good of her to keep the commitment despite there being an election on and her seat being very much at risk. She also gave a great speech. She’d make a brilliant WEP MP, but I can’t blame her for going with a party that can get her elected, even if its policies on women’s issues are not as good as ours.

Session three was on masculinities and opened up with Katherine talking about Priapus and modern masculinity. Priapus, you may remember, is the Roman god with the massive dick. The Romans used pictures of him to demonstrate how supposedly virile they were. Katherine compared Roman poetry and graffiti to modern social media posts and came to the brilliant conclusion that dick pics are modern day Priapus images. If cameras had been around in Roman times, they would have sent people pictures of their own dicks too. And they would have sent them to men that they wanted to dominate as well as to women.

Charlotte talked about the contrasting portrayals of King Richard and Henry Bolingbroke in Shakespeare’s Richard II. It bemused me as to why Shakespeare, writing during the reign of Elizabeth, would have written about an effeminate king being replaced by a manly usurper. So I asked, and discovered that the play had been sponsored by Essex, who was in the process of plotting a coup at the time. I have no idea how Will talked his way out of that one. I’m sure that Elizabeth must have been tempted to do the “Off with his head!” thing.

The paper that generated most social media chatter was one by Henry on the gender of mediaeval clergy. Some historians hold that the clergy were seen as a third gender by the rest of society. Henry, by examining the writings of late mediaeval chroniclers, made a convincing case that many of them did not see themselves in that way, and indeed went to great lengths to show how manly they were in their own domain (which was the spiritual war against sin).

The final session was on feminism, and kicked off with Ana looking at the educational reforms promoted by the lesbian author, Bryher. She had some really good ideas about how to give kids better education, but they did not go down well with the Great British Public. The Daily Mail asked readers to give their own views on the proposals. One man wrote in to say that it was the duty of school to educate girls out of having an imagination.

This was followed by Teresa talking about historical fiction writer, Sylvia Townsend Warner. She sounds like someone I would like to read, especially her fantasy novel, Lolly Willowes.

Finally we had James, a philosophy student, asking, “Why is there Feminist Epistemology at all?” The title apparently riffs off a well-known paper about the theory of mathematics. James made some very good points, particularly about Standpoint Theory. However, I don’t think you can even begin to talk about what feminist epistemology might be until you have first defined what feminism is. As that’s enough to keep many philosophers busy for decades to come, I think James’s question will have to wait.

You will note that I found something good to say about every paper. Huge congratulations to the organizers. That’s what I call a quality conference. I do hope it runs again next year.

Posted in Academic, Books, Feminism, Gender, History, Law, Philosophy | Leave a comment

Can’t Do Everything

Being British, I feel very guilty whenever I say I can’t come to someone’s event because I am too busy. Practically, however, doing everything just isn’t possible. Today is a case in point.

I would love to be at CN Lester’s book and album launch, but it is in London and I have many local things I could be doing.

Skunk Anansie are playing at the O2 Academy in Bristol.

The Bristol Bad Film Club are showing a truly terrible science fiction movie, Space Mutiny!.

The Bristol Festival of Ideas has several events on tonight, three of which are of interest to me. We have Angela Saini on how science has failed women; WEP parliamentary candidate, Nimko Ali, talking about vaginas; and trans man Thomas Page McBee doing a book launch.

I’m going to do the Angela Saini event, and may stay on for Nimko depending on how tired I am by then and whether any work emergencies come in today.

Posted in Books, Feminism, Gender, Music, Science | 3 Comments

Gendered Voices – Day 1

With apologies for the delay, here’s a look back on some of the things that I heard about during the Gendered Voices conference last week. This post is about the first day’s papers. I’ll do one for the second day later.

The first session was all about stereotypes, and began with Sauleha talking about Muslim women in Frankenstein. I had entirely forgotten about this. There is a character in Mary Shelly’s book called Safie who is initially presented as a veiled, cowed Eastern woman, but who throws off her patriarchal shackles and becomes a character with a fair amount of agency and something of a happy ending. It is revealed that her mother was a Good Christian woman who was kidnapped by a Vile Oriental, and intimated that her ability to escape her situation is only because of her Christian blood.

One the one hand, headdesk, Mary, what were you thinking? On the other there are apparently signs of progressive thinking. One of the dafter things that 18th Century Britons believed is the idea that in Islamic theology women have no souls. Goodness only knows where they got this idea from. Apparently Mum (Mary Wollstonecraft) had swallowed this one whole, but Mary Jr. wasn’t so sure. She was, after all, writing about an artificial being, the Monster, whose claim to having a soul was far more dodgy than Safie’s.

Gender and theology and science fiction: I could not have asked for a more interesting start to the day.

Paper two from Leonie was about Vita Sackville-West and the book review program that she had on BBC radio, complete with actual audio from one of the shows. My goodness, that woman had a cut-glass accent. I can quite see where the idea of the Sackville-Bagginses came from. On the other hand, I ended up quite liking her. Vita shared her reviewing duties with a male colleague (whose name I have shamefully forgotten), each doing a show every other week. She listed the books she was going to cover in the Radio Times in advance, and encouraged readers to write in with their own views. She also managed close to a 50:50 gender split on authors. He just turned up for his shows and talked at his audience.

Finally in that session, Sam told us all about her research into gendered attitudes towards pain relief. I am going to be one of her test subjects in early June. Work like this is badly needed because there is very little understanding of how the various aspects of health care are different for women.

On then to session two which was all about religion, kicking off with our first male presenter, Alun, who was talking about the Song of Songs. This is a particularly intriguing part of the Old Testament, because it is basically about sex. Alun is interested in it because of the possibilities for sex-positive theology, which some parts of Christianity could badly do with. I’m interested in the possible origin of these verses.

Other parts of the Old Testament, specifically the tale of Jezebel, suggest that some people in ancient Israel worshiped other gods, including Baal and Asherah, who are of Mesopotamian origin. In Mesopotamia kings have a tendency to legitimize themselves by describing themselves as the Beloved of Ishtar (or some other version of the goddess). It is possible that the Song of Songs was originally a religious rite in which the goddess, in the form of the High Priestess, confirms the king’s right to rule because of his sexual appeal to her and the Daughters of Israel.

Next up was Jade who was talking about female divinity in Catholicism. Specifically she was discussing the figure of Lady Poverty, who features in stories about Saint Francis. She is depicted as someone at least as old as Adam and Eve, and therefore a semi-divine figure of sorts. Of course this being Catholicism her femaleness has to be controlled by marrying her to Francis. Personally I am deeply suspicious of the idea of a man marrying a personification of poverty; it has way too many sexist jokes about it. Interesting paper nonetheless.

Our final religious paper was Chiara who is studying the works of the experimental novelist, Kathy Acker. Acker has a complicated relationship with just about everything, and religion is no exception. Chiara was looking specifically at Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula and My Mother: Demonology, both of which have strong religious elements. Personally I want to read Pussy, King of the Pirates because, well I think that should be obvious.

After lunch we began with a session on fertility. One speaker had to cancel so we were down to two papers, starting with Claire on the subject of pregnancy and childbirth in mediaeval letter. She focused on the famous Paston letters from Norfolk, and in particular the matriarch, Margaret Paston. It is lovely to see sane discussion of pregnancy between a mediaeval husband and wife, though I suspect that the idea that all men through history have been uninterested in “women’s issues” is yet another of those 19th Century lies. If anyone knows why the Paston women were obsessed with eating (presumably very expensive) dates while pregnant, Claire would probably love to talk.

Maria told us all about a fascinating French novel, Constance et la Cinquantaine (Constance in Her Fifties), which is all about a group of feminist friends who panic when going through menopause because their men are deserting them for younger women. Apparently the only thing that results in a happy ending is becoming a lesbian.

The final session was on various expressions of gender. It began with Di explaining the complex history of the image of Medusa from a scary, quite masculine version in Bronze Age Greece to a much more feminine version in later times. The Romans, bless them, used both. I’m particularly fascinated by the image on the pediment of the temple in Bath, which shows the snake hair on the head of a male Celt.

James entertained us with images of gendered behavior from Sparta, which is a fascinating place (and which got very bad press from the Athenians). He didn’t specifically mention non-binary gendered presentation, but we chatted a bit and I do have a few clues to follow up. He did mention the possibility that songs written to be sung by a girl’s chorus celebrated same-sex attraction between women.

The last paper of the day was from Lucy, a fellow fan of Romosexuality, who introduced us to an amazing mosaic from a villa in Spain. On the one hand it is a stunningly beautiful piece of art. On the other it is obvious that it depicts only people (female and male) whom Zeus is said to have raped, and is intended to imply that the man of the house is just as powerful and rapey as old Thunderbolts himself.

That’s it for day one. More later. And if you think the owner of that Roman villa reminds you of Trump, just wait for the next Roman paper.

Posted in Academic, Feminism, Gender, Health, History, Radio, Religion, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

A Trip Into The Past

Today I have been in Southampton. I was there because I needed a university library to do some research, and that’s the only one I can get into easily these days, due to being an alumnus.

So I spent a happy day browsing the stacks for books about Roman eunuchs, and duly found a number of them, which was very useful.

I also got to see how the place had changed in the 35 years or so since I was last there. Parts of it were still very familiar. The library, the student union and the chemistry building are still where they always were, but the bookshop has mysteriously migrated up onto Burgess Road near where the oceanography building used to be. There is also a lot of new build. This has had the effect of diluting the maritime theme of the campus, and I think removing a lot of green space. Still, time can’t stand still. It was good to see the place thriving (and to see a lot more women and non-white students than in my day).

While the day was very useful, it could have been so much better if it were not for the disaster that is academic publishing. No university library takes paper copies of journals these days. They are all online, and you pay for access per student and staff member. There are very strict controls over who can access them, even though they are all “in the library”. Even worse, they don’t seem to buy paper books any more. New books seem to be mostly held only in electronic form and on license. This makes it next to impossible for anyone who isn’t either a member of staff or a student to access anything in an academic library.

Fortunately I can get access to a lot of journals through J-STOR, though I often have to pay for them. Books are more difficult. These days new academic books go for between £80 and £100. I can’t afford that. I’d start to think seriously about Helen Marshall’s MA in science fiction because at least then I’d be a student, except I can’t afford £7k in tuition fees either (or the time to do the course).

Knowledge, we guards it jealously, my precious.

Posted in Academic, Where's Cheryl? | 1 Comment

Arrival – The Extras

Arrival winning the Bradbury on Saturday has reminded me to tell you that if you don’t have a copy of the film on disc then you should go get one, because the extras are great.

First up, of course, there’s an interview with Ted. This makes me absurdly happy. His stories are so good, and he deserves some time in the limelight.

There are also interviews with Stephen Wolfram whose software was used to create and display the alien language, and with the linguist who worked as a consultant on the film. Of course a whole bunch of the film crew are interviewed. I was delighted to hear that both Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner signed up immediately on reading the screenplay.

The topics for the interview range over linguistics, the nature of time and the complications of making science fiction movies.

The extras also made me think about how the film is put together. It has an actual infodump (Ian’s “what we know about heptapods” voiceover), and uses Dos Passos techniques in the TV news clips.

Finally it occurs to me how appropriate it would be for a film about language to win a Hugo at a Worldcon in a non-English-speaking country.

Posted in Awards, Movies, Science, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

Gendering The Past

One of the inevitable results of the greater media interest in trans people is an increase in interest in trans history. On the one hand this is good for me, because it means I get invited to conferences and taken seriously, whereas even five years ago I would have been laughed at by most historians. On the other hand it means that a lot of cisgender historians are writing about trans issues in past cultures, often with very little understanding of what they are doing.

Much of this comes from a set of behaviors that stretches at least back to Roman times and probably much further. Elite men are quick to seize on any male whose appearance, mannerisms, sexual tastes and so on deviate from the currently acceptable social standards for masculinity. Such people are deemed “girly men”, or whatever the local translation thereof is. Women, on the other hand, are quick to reject this as an invasion of their territory that must be resisted at all costs. Men are men, and can never be anything else. The one thing that both sides tend to agree on is that trans people don’t exist, and therefore cannot be considered as an option.

The same sort of thing happens when cis historians look at people from the past. Men make fun of any people from history whose behavior they see as effeminate, and women insist that those people are really men. That these past people cannot be trans is backed up by a firm statement as to what being trans means.

I’m getting a little fed up with cis people telling me what it means to be trans. I wish they’d tell me, because I’m damned if I know.

Trans people can’t agree among themselves what it means to be trans. India Willoughby thinks that non-binary identities are fake. Many non-binary people insist that they are not “trans”, usually because they don’t want any medical treatment. If you talk to a two spirit person from North America, or a fa’afafine from Samoa, they may tell you that they are not trans because being trans is a Western concept that doesn’t work in their society.

There are other issues at work here as well. Historically most hijra from India seem to have identified as non-binary, despite the fact that they live full time as women and sometimes marry men. They make this identification on the grounds that they can’t bear children, and therefore can’t be a woman. That’s a cultural definition of what a “woman” is, and one that TERFs like to throw at trans women today, but it is not a distinction that we tend to draw because we prefer not to shame cis and intersex women who are infertile.

Whether someone from the past is “trans” or not is therefore a very open-ended question, and one I tend to approach in two ways: firstly by looking for persistent behaviors outside of the gender binary, and secondly by taking a very broad and inclusive definition of what it means to be trans.

All of this came to mind today when I was reading this blog post about Peter Ackroyd’s new book, Queer City. Much of the post I agree with. The tendency of male historians to only recognize the possibility of lesbianism if one party in the relationship can be shown to be using a dildo is ridiculous in the extreme. You’d think that with the amount of lesbian porn men watch they’d have a better understanding of how lesbians have sex, but there you go. Clearly their minds (or more likely their eyes) are on other things.

Where the post goes off the rails a bit is when it gets onto discussing the famous 14th century figure of John Rykener. I should state up front that Rykener’s case is a very complex one whose interpretation is heavily dependent on an understanding of mediaeval English and the mediaeval mindset. I have a couple of friends who have made an in depth study of the case and I defer to their judgement for most of the issues.

What appears to be agreed upon is that Rykener was a sex worker, and often dressed as a woman while working. They (and I’m using non-binary pronouns for Rykener because that’s the right thing to do when there is some uncertainty) appear to have done very well out of this business and their clients seem to have accepted them as a woman. When not working Rykener spent at least some of their time as a man, and had sex with women while presenting as both binary genders.

There is, of course, much debate as to how Rykener may have identified. All of the possible identities from trans woman to drag queen are possible. I gather that the consensus favors the latter end of the possibilities, though goodness knows how one makes sense of people’s statements when many of them are from court transcripts in a case where the defendant’s life was on the line.

I’m not going to get into discussing how Rykener identified. Rather I want to talk about how Lucy Allen, the author of that post, interrogated Ackroyd’s treatment of the case.

Allen begins by highlighting this comment by Ackroyd about Rykener:

Rykener called himself Eleanor, and dressed in women’s clothing. He would sometimes be a male for males, sometimes a female for males, sometimes a female for females … He enacted all these roles quite naturally, and was never thought of as being particularly adventurous.

The word that she takes exception to is “naturally”. Now certainly it is a mistake for anyone to use that word in connection with sexual behavior. The idea that cisnormative and heteronormative behavior is “natural” while anything queer is not has been rightly ripped to shreds on far more occasions that I can count. I would have been happy with a simple statement to that effect, but Allen goes on at some length.

Part of my concern is the language used to describe Rykener. We have: “conning men” and “lucrative deceptions”. It is, of course, entirely possible, that Rykener did think that they were deceiving their clients, but this sort of language is very dangerous. The idea that trans women are engaged in a massive deception aimed at cis men is the number one reason for trans women being murdered. If you are going to make such allegations then you should make sure you are certain that is what is going on, and note that deception is not the default mode of trans women.

The other issue is that Allen attempts to prove that Rykener’s behavior is not “natural” by showing that they had to learn it.

Specific women helped in the process, each experts in her trade: Anna, a ‘whore,’ and Elizabeth, whose surname ‘Brouderer’ denotes her profession of embroiderer or seamstress. Rykener’s citation of these women’s names may partly be an attempt to spread blame (Elizabeth Brouderer crops up elsewhere in the London court records, and her name might easily have elicited knowing nods from an audience). But it’s also a subtle way of reminding that audience of the artificiality of the performance of femininity. Rykener needed to learn to dress and act like a woman; he may have fooled men, but the women who worked with him were under no illusions whatsoever.

And later:

But, in attempting to naturalise ‘queer’ London, Ackroyd instead erases all traces of artificiality from the performance of femininity, naturalising a very different type of gender politics, in which women’s awareness of things men do not notice is simply overlooked.

What Allen appears to be saying here is that Rykener’s femininity was not “natural” because they had to learn it from women, and that Rykener could only learn it imperfectly, as opposed to women who don’t need to learn such things. In other words, she’s saying that for women femininity is “natural”, but for men it isn’t and that therefore trans women can never be women.

In practice, of course, transition is a process, a very long process. No one taught me to dress and behave as a woman. I learned most of it myself through reading teen girl magazines and through observation. When I started living as a woman I thought I had it pretty much sorted, but of course I didn’t and I learned a lot more from experience. Twenty-odd years later I don’t think much about it, I just do it. Whether I do it well or not rather depends on who is looking at me and whether they know I am trans.

What I do know is that I have friends whose performance of femininity is not the same as mine. Some of them are much more feminine, but others are much less so. There are some for whom we might say that being feminine “comes naturally”, and others for whom it doesn’t. We are not using “natural” here in a way that suggests that all women are biologically coded in their chromosomes to be feminine: to love pink, frilly dresses and the latest Hollywood heartthrob. Rather we are using “natural” in the same way as we might say that someone takes naturally to swimming, or speaking French, or mathematics. There may be some biology involved here, but if there is it is a more subtle, less well-understood biology than simple chromosomes, and it may be strongly influenced by upbringing.

What stands out to me about Rykener is that they appear to have been very comfortable wearing women’s clothing, adopting feminine mannerisms, and having sex with men while doing so. Most men would run a mile rather than do any of that. Rykener, therefore, is a person to whom femininity seems to have “come naturally”, despite the obvious social pressures in 14th Century England for people assigned male at birth to behave in a masculine fashion. That doesn’t prove where on that continuum from trans woman to drag queen Rykener might have fitted, but it does show that there was something about them that was radically different to the typical mediaeval man.

Posted in Gender, History | 10 Comments

The Nebulas Do Diversity

I was way too tired when I got home to stay up for the Nebula Awards announcements. However, they were there for me on Twitter when I woke up, and very fine they were too.

The Novel category was won by Charlie Jane Anders for All the Birds in the Sky. Charlie is the first openly trans person to win a Nebula. (Tiptree won a few, but her identity was very complicated, to herself as much as to anyone else.)

Novella was won by Seanan McGuire for Every Heart a Doorway, which features a great trans character. The new book from that world, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, is due out in June and I cannot wait.

Novelette was won by William Ledbetter for “The Long Fall Up”. I know nothing about the story, but its only fair that white men get to win things too.

Short Story went to Amal El-Mohtar for “Seasons of Glass and Iron” from The Starlit Wood. Nice to see a woman of color on the winners list.

Moving into the Not-A-Nebula categories, the Bradbury went to Arrival, which is based on a story by Asian-American writer, Ted Chiang.

And the Norton went to David Levine for Arabella of Mars whose central character spends much of the book cross-dressed. I kind of wish that David had mentioned the very obvious thing that a woman disguised as a man on a long space voyage would have to deal with, but I guess the book would not have been published as YA if he did. Anyway, it’s a fun book and I’m looking forward to the sequel which is out in July.

To wrap up, there were two Solstice Award winners this year. They were Toni Weisskopf and Peggy Rae Sapienza. Both have done great work over many years and deserve to be honored in this way.

Posted in Awards, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Bath Celebrates Dylan, with CN Lester

After the Stonewall event yesterday I stayed on in Bath to see CN Lester in concert at the Forum. Technically this wasn’t a CN gig. They were just a part of an event celebrating the work of Bob Dylan, but seeing as I love Dylan too this wasn’t too much of a hardship.

The evening was a mixture of chat and music. It was hosted by Danny Kelly (former editor of the NME) and featured rock journalists, David Hepworth and Dorian Lynskey, both of whom have written extensively about Dylan. Most of their discussion was about Dylan the man, not Dylan the musician or political activist. Dylan certainly is a fascinating figure, being so reclusive that even musicians who have worked with him can’t always claim to have met him.

Kelly had three stories that illustrate this. Firstly, during the Travelling Wilbury’s project, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty were often left waiting for Dylan to turn up so that they could record. Lou Adler, whose kids were friendly with Dylan’s kids, never once met him despite frequent visits to Dylan’s home delivering and collecting children. Raquel Welch reported having dinner with Dylan in Los Angles. She’d dressed up to the nines because hey, date with Bob Dylan, but he wore a hoodie drawn so tight over his face that there was barely room to get the food into his mouth.

Much of this is doubtless because when you are Bob Dylan you have little choice but to protect yourself from the public. I know a few famous writers and understand a bit about fame, but people such as Neil Gaiman and George Martin have only a fraction of the public profile that Dylan has. Back when I was a kid people tended to see Dylan as a messiah.

We did eventually get on to Dylan’s art in the inevitable discussion about the Nobel Prize. Lynskey noted that while Leonard Cohen was a poet first and musician second, agonizing over every line that he wrote, Dylan is a songwriter who chooses words as much for the sound they make as for the literary beauty of his lines.

Of course there was also music. That side of the show was managed by Justin Adams who is rock guitarist. If I tell you that one of his current jobs is playing lead guitar for Robert Plant’s band you shouldn’t need telling just how good he is. He was joined by Sid Griffin, a bluegrass player who was able to throw some light on Dylan’s influences and was very amusing. Also taking part was a young vocalist called Hajar Woodland. She’s got a great voice, though her Dylan covers were very standard.

CN got to play two songs. They were “Just Like A Woman” and “One More Cup of Coffee”. If you are familiar with CN’s music you’ll know that these will have featured amazing vocals and a haunting piano accompaniment. Pleasingly CN also got to talk a bit about why they were there. Growing up with parents who share a love for Shakespeare and Dylan is a splendid sort of formative experience to have. Kelly did manage to use the right pronouns, though he seemed rather uncomfortable with it. I suspect that there were a few false steps backstage.

The headline musical act was Barb Jungr who is apparently famous for doing Dylan covers. Her style is more suited to show tunes than to rock or Angry Singer Songwriter. I loved her as a person. She has great stage presence, told good funny stories, and as a bonus burned with contempt for Trump. Sadly her covers didn’t work for me.

Firstly it seemed to me that the accompanying piano didn’t sound right. It worked perfectly for CN, whose piano sound is deep and sonorous, but not for the lighter, frothier arrangements that Barb had. I have no idea how to express that in musical terms. Obviously with a bunch of different musicians involved, and a one-off show with little time to rehearse, getting things like this right is difficult.

Second, Dylan songs are very much about the rhythm of the words. If you mess with that then the words lose their power. Its like reading a poem and breathing in all the wrong places. Related to that, the words have to be the focus. You can get as fancy as you like in the instrumental breaks, but not with the words, otherwise it becomes all about you and not all about the lyrics. Barb has a great voice, and clearly loved Dylan’s lyrics, but for me her interpretations rather pulled the teeth of the words.

I’ve been chatting to CN about the Dylan covers. Apparently there are no recordings of them. Having heard how good those two were, I’d like to see an entire album of CN Lester Dylan covers. I have ideas. Doubtless that will remain in my imagination. However, the new album, Come Home, will be available later this week. It includes a cover of Bowie’s “Heroes”, which I am very much looking forward to hearing.

All in all it was an enjoyable evening, but there were a couple of sour notes. Firstly CN’s new book, Trans Like Me, was supposed to be available at the gig. Kelly encouraged people to buy it, but it wasn’t there. Whether this was the fault of the publisher, the shippers, or Waterstones, isn’t clear, but I know I wasn’t the only person disappointed not to be able to buy a copy.

Also CN was mysteriously absent from the finale in which all of the other musicians got together to play a few well-loved Dylan songs. Where trans folks are involved you tend to fear the worst, and I was very worried for a while. Thankfully I was able to tweet CN and discovered that they had to rush back to London. Kelly really should have mentioned why CN was absent.

Still, I had a good time. I would have had a better time if I’d had a few younger people there with me. The band tried hard to get the audience to sing along and dance for the finale, but frankly many of the audience looked like they wouldn’t have done so even if they had been 16 rather than 60+. Bath: it is what it is.

Posted in Music | Leave a comment

Stonewall Visits Bath

Yesterday I attended a workshop in Bath given by Stonewall. This was the first event in a new initiative aimed at helping build activism capacity outside of major cities. Given that it was a first event, some of the course probably needs a little tweaking, but nevertheless I was very pleased with the day.

The main thing we learned is how to actually construct a campaign that has focus, stands a chance of succeeding, and will result in beneficial change. This is important. Too many of the things that LGBT activists spend their time on, and I include myself in this, is poorly focused and ill-thought out. Given how tiring activism can be, good use of your time is important.

Of course this does mean that you need a willingness to build alliances and accept when you have made a mistake. The Stonewall team chose to illustrate the process using the Rainbow Laces campaign which challenges homophobia in soccer. Because they needed money and good contacts within the UK soccer establishment, Stonewall initially chose to partner with the betting company, Paddy Power. While this did get them off to a good start, it caused a number of problems. It meant that they were unable to work with schools on the campaign. And it got them a lot of bad press in certain quarters because of Paddy Power’s horribly transphobic advertising. The partnership with Paddy Power no longer exists, but the campaign has continued to go from strength to strength.

Interestingly, the Paddy Power advert that caused all of the trouble had been developed in partnership with the Beaumont Society. This was a classic example of a group of cross-dressers not understanding that what they were doing would be very damaging to trans women. Issues of community cohesion got quite a bit of airing in the workshop. Kudos here to the lad who raised the issue. It is good to see a gay man taking the lead on such things.

Of course the issue is very much in the spotlight right now thanks to the frankly appalling behavior of celebrity trans woman, India Willoughby, in attacking non-binary people. Thankfully Stonewall is very much on point these days and is solidly behind the non-binary community. Unfortunately, given Willoughby’s high media profile, many organizations that claim to work for the LGBT community will continue to pay her to represent trans people.

For me the biggest benefits of the day were the number of people who attended and the new contacts that I made. I think I counted 28 people at the workshop. They came from Cheltenham, and from small towns in Somerset and Wiltshire, as well as from Bath. They came from universities, local councils and the private sector as well as activist organizations such as the Diversity Trust and Bath Gender Equality Network. I have a long list of things to follow up. If Stonewall offers to do one of these workshops in your region I recommend that you go along.

Posted in Current Affairs, Gender | Leave a comment

March Fringe

Thanks to some great work by Tom Parker are very close to being caught up on the Fringe audio. Here we have the March readings.

For March our readings went all creepy and horrific, starting with local writer, Steph Minns. She read a story of a man (probably) coming to a sticky end on the narrow country roads of Darkest Somerset. Did he deserve it? Listen and make your own decision. Steph does a great Gollum voice.

Our headline guest for March was Paul Cornell, who should need no introduction. Paul treated us to a preview of his latest novel, Chalk (due for publication the following day). He read two excerpts, one of which introduces us to the landscape of the novel, and the other featuring an innovate form of divination based on pop singles. The book is set in the 1980s and Pauls’ publishers, Tor, have put together a great YouTube playlist to go with the book.

Finally for March we have the traditional Q&A session with our readers. I ask Steph and Paul about the dangers of the West Country landscape, adultery, who was the cutest member of Duran Duran and many other things. Did you know that the West Country is as full of supernatural horrors as Lovecraft’s New England? Given that I was born there, probably yes.

Paul plugs the Fairford Festival of Fiction, which has an amazing guest list. Sarah McIntyre! Emma Newman! Daleks! Some guy called Moffat. Tickets are still available. The date is June 3rd.

The April readings (including part of my Amazons in Space story) have been edited. I’ll post them for you next week.

Posted in Podcasts, Readings, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

A Word on Monitoring

I’ve seen a couple of organizations recently make a fairly bad mistake on their demographic monitoring in surveys. (One has apologized profusely and is fixing it, the other I haven’t had a chance to talk to yet). As this is clearly something people are confused about I thought it might be useful to write something.

The mistake that people make is to have a “gender” question with the options: male/female/trans.

This is going to get you bad data. Large numbers of binary-identified trans people (myself included) will opt for either male or female, so you will miss counting them.

Many non-binary people, for a variety of reasons, do not identify as trans, so they’ll probably get angry about being erased.

And binary-identified trans people will be angry too, because by phrasing the question in that way you are suggesting that we can never be accepted as male or female.

Phrasing the question in that way, therefore, gets you bad data and a whole lot of angry people.

The thing to remember is that being trans is not a gender. Being trans is a condition of not identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth. So giving gender options of male/female/trans is a bit like asking whether your food is meat, vegetable or cooked. That confuses categories with a process, which makes no sense.

Before anyone starts, I do not recommend having 71 different options for gender. The trouble with trying to include every option is that you will inevitably leave out some that you have not heard of. The more options that are available, the more hurtful it is for those who are left out.

A good starting point is to use: male/female/non-binary. That way at least all of the things you are comparing are genders of a sort. Non-binary is, of course, an umbrella term encompassing many genders, so it is useful to have a text box that people can write in. It is generally helpful to have options for Other and Prefer Not To Say.

If you want to get a sense of the size of the trans population responding to your survey you should ask a supplementary question of: Is your gender the same as you were assigned at birth? (Again with a Prefer Not To Say option.)

This isn’t rocket science. Plenty of people get it right, and plenty of organizations give this advice. The fact that so many people still get it wrong shows just how many people still get their information about trans people from the mass media rather than anyone who knows what they are talking about and wants to give you a good answer.

Posted in Gender | 3 Comments

The D Franklin Defying Doomsday Award

I’m a bit late on this one, but the lovely people at Twelfth Planet Press have launched an award for disability advocacy in SFF literature. The award is named after D Franklin whose support for the Defying Doomsday anthology made the award possible. I think that makes it the first SFF award named after a self-identified trans person (the qualifier being because we already have the Tiptree, and frankly Heinlein sets off my trandar).

The award is worth $200 each year. I’m assuming that’s Australian dollars because TPP is based in Australia. The jury for the first year will be Tsana Dolichva, Holly Kench and Alisa Krasnostein. For more information, including a link to a form to nominate 2016 works, go ye here.

This sounds like an excellent initiative, and well done D!

Posted in Awards, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Promoting the Trans Mindline – Me on TV

Time for a good laugh, folks. Here’s me on Made in Bristol TV doing my best to help promote the Trans Mindline set up by the lovely people at Bristol MIND. Just look at some of those facial expressions. Clearly I find thinking very painful. Thankfully I loosened up a lot later on. My thanks to Steve LeFevre for making the experience relatively painless.

I wrote quite a bit about the experience and the issues discussed here. I guess I should also comment on today’s nonsense about gender-neutral school uniforms. Despite what you might have heard on TV, or in social media, having a gender-neutral uniform does not mean forcing all children to abandon gender. It means allowing all children to have the same choice of clothing. That means that girls are not forced to wear skirts if they don’t want to, and boy can choose to wear skirts if that’s what they prefer. This makes space for non-binary people, but also means that binary-identified trans people can wear the clothing they feel most comfortable in without fear of being punished for flouting uniform regulations.

Posted in Gender, TV | Leave a comment

February Fringe

This evening I will be off to Bristol for the May Fringe event featuring Emma Newman and Piotr Świetlik. Emma will be reading from her Clarke Award finalist novel, After Atlas, which is a fabulous book.

For those of you who can’t be there, I have the podcasts from February available. Sadly the audio quality is not great. I’m still learning the new venue. It is great to not have any background noise, but the speakers are up on the wall so it is hard to get a recording that focuses on the speaker rather than anything else going on in the room. Hopefully we’ll be getting some new tech soon that will allow us to record direct from the sound system.

Anyway, with profuse apologies to our readers for the poor quality, here’s what we have for you from February.

First up there is Gareth L. Powell. He read the whole of his short story, “Entropic Angel”, which is also the title of his new short fiction collection. It isn’t quite as sweary as an Ack-Ack Macaque book, but it does still get an explicit tag. Some of you may remember that the story was initially published by Wizard’s Tower Press in the anthology, Dark Spires.

Our second reader for February is another well-known local name, Pete Sutton. He read to us from his debut novel, Sick City Syndrome. It is more supernatural thriller than anything else (it has ghosts), but Pete managed to find a fairly science fictional bit to read for us.

Finally for February we had the Q&A. Gareth tells us more about what’s in the the short story collection, and Pete tells us more about what you can expect from his novel. We discover how “Entropic Angel” was inspired by pigeon poo, and we discuss whether science fiction is a better way of understanding the world today than so-called “realist” fiction.

Tom and I are managing to get caught up on the audio. Hopefully we’ll have March (with Paul Cornell) up soon. I have an incentive, because April is the open mic and therefore has me in it.

Posted in Podcasts, Readings, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Got Manifesto? WE Have

It is general election time in the UK. That’s means that parties have to produce manifestos. The Labour one was leaked in draft form yesterday, because Labour MPs can’t resist any opportunity to fight each other in public. The Conservatives haven’t issued one yet, presumably for the same reason that Theresa May is hiding from the public: they don’t want anyone to know what they plan to do. The only thing that the Tories think is important enough to want to announce in advance is that they want to scrap the ban on fox hunting. I think that tells you all you need to know about their priorities.

Today the Women’s Equality Party issued their manifesto. HQ came up with a great PR wheeze too. One of the core principles of the party is that WE want to put ourselves out of business. If the other parties were to care as much about women voters as they do about men there would be no need for a Women’s Equality Party. So our policy director, Halla, took copies of our manifesto around to the other major parties and invited them to steal the contents for their own manifestos. The LibDems and the Greens said thank you very much. Even UKIP, sorry, I mean the Conservatives who just happen to have policies to the right of UKIP these days, said thank you very much. Labour refused to accept their copy, because they can’t resist an opportunity for a PR disaster when one comes calling.

You can find our manifesto, and a brief summary of key points, on the WEP website. I just want to quote one small part of it. This is from page 3, where WE define who WE are:

Our policies aim to recognise and address the fact that many women experience additional inequalities due to the intersections of socio-economic status, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, disability, immigration status and gender identity. WE also recognise that the binary words “woman” and “man” do not reflect the gender experience of everyone, and support the right of all to define their sex or gender or to reject gendered divisions as they choose.

I note that I had nothing to do with crafting that, other than giving workshops at Conference last year and chatting to part leaders while I was there.

There are, inevitably, a few bits of the manifesto that I would like to be slightly different. That’s inevitable. One of the things that many online activists don’t seem to understand is that if you want a political party to agree 100% with your views on all subjects then you will end up in a party with just one member. People refusing to vote for left-ish candidates because they are not ideologically pure enough is one of the things that has got us into the current mess we are in. (Lack of proportional representation is another major issue, but that’s a whole different blog post.)

On the other hand, by stating that WE are trans-inclusive from the start, WE don’t need to hedge about statements later on. All statements about gender equality automatically accept trans women as women, and include more than two genders. So well done whoever wrote the manifesto on that score.

The manifesto doesn’t make any explicit promises with regard to trans-related legislation. However, Labour, the LibDems and the Greens are all on board with that, and with only 7 candidates WE are not going to be forming a government. I’m sure our MPs will support such initiatives when they are brought forward, because the core philosophy of WEP is that equality is better for everyone. That means WE are beholden to support new equality legislation.

Posted in Current Affairs, Feminism, Gender | Leave a comment

Me on TV – The Post Mortem

Yesterday evening I did the TV thing for Steve LeFevre’s Crunch the Week show on Made in Bristol TV. I had a lot of fun. My colleague, Liz Sorapure, from Bristol MIND, was having her first TV experience so she was rather less relaxed about things, but I thought she did very well. As for me, I have now done the Watch of Shame to see how I actually did.

Had the interview been on radio I would have been very happy. Some trans people will doubtless be unhappy with some of Steve’s questions, but that’s his job. I’m happy to be tested with that sort of stuff in a relatively friendly environment. I’ll talk more about the content later, but this is TV we are talking about so I need to consider what I got wrong.

First up, I need to smile more. I clearly have a habit of frowning when thinking. This is very bad on TV. I look much better when I smile. I need to do more if it. Second, I need to lose weight. I’m not that overweight, but on TV you are almost always interviewed sitting down, and often without the benefit of a desk to hide behind. Sitting down makes you look much fatter than standing up. Not that there is anything wrong with being overweight, but people do judge, and if you want to make a good impression on TV you have to look good. It is hard enough making the case for being trans without having to make the case for weight not mattering as well.

The other thing I need to do well on TV is facial surgery. Lots of it. But I’m not going to be wasting any money on that at my age.

Now back to the content. One of the things that Steve brought up was a news story about Northamptonshire Police adopting unisex baseball caps rather than gendered headgear for their officers. Their press release spun this as being to attract trans people as officers. I call bullshit. I think they just said that to get a bit of publicity. There are plenty of good reasons for have simple, gender-neutral uniforms, including fairness to female staff and cost reduction. As my pal Bailey from Gloucestershire Police pointed out on Twitter this morning, regulations governing how female officers may style their hair are a real problem for trans-feminine officers. Far more so, I suspect, that the sort of hats they wear.

The most interesting thing about the story was unfortunately ruined by the headline ticker at the bottom of the screen. Steve had carefully positioned a copy of the Daily Malice so that an overhead camera could see the story, but the ticker obscured the associated cartoon. That’s a shame because it showed a policeman with a large trans symbol on top of his helmet. That’s the combination alchemical symbol thing. If you don’t know what I mean, that proves my point. When Berkeley and I do training we recommend use of the symbol to signal inclusivity to trans people, but warn that most cis people won’t recognize it. The Malice‘s cartoonist has clearly made a study of trans culture, and doesn’t consider that symbol to be obscure.

The other thing worth commenting on is the confusion Steve got into regarding sex and gender. That’s not his fault. The two terms are not well defined, and Cordelia Fine spends some time on the resulting muddiness of discourse in Testosterone Rex. I tried to clear it up with reference to a distinction between biology and social construction, but that’s complicated by a number of factors that I didn’t have time to explain.

First up, despite what lots of people seem to think is a “scientific fact”, there are more than two sexes. That’s because there are several different biological factors that go into gendering the human body. They all have to line up to produce someone who is 100% male or 100% female. Often they don’t. Between 1% and 2% of the human population has a recognized intersex condition. That’s about the same frequency as red hair.

As far as I know, I didn’t have an intersex condition at birth. Nevertheless, I do exhibit classic transsexual symptoms. That is, I know I’m female, but my body was apparently 100% male at birth. Now it is, of course, a complex mixture of male and female features. The fact that trans people like me can’t be “cured”, that they are apparently “born this way”, hints at a biological origin, but one (or more likely several) that has thus far eluded medical science.

Whether there is a biological cause is largely irrelevant. What’s important from a medical standpoint is that trans people tend to be very unhappy pre-transition, and much happier afterward.

How we express our identities after transition is, however, culturally contextual. That is, how you choose to express yourself as a woman (or any other gender) will be influenced by the social attitudes towards femininity that you experienced growing up. Evidence from vastly different cultures suggests that social conditioning doesn’t affect whether you will be trans, but it does affect how you express your gender.

And, because so much of gender is socially constructed, people are free to express their gender in new and inventive ways. They can also invent new names for genders, and sometimes those new names will overlap and be generation-specific (think “cross-dresser” and “gender fluid” for example, which have a lot in common).

Alongside this you have a drive toward gender equity. For women to be truly equal to men they mustn’t be forced into gendered behaviors that restrict their ability to function in society and compete on an even footing with men. Equally a reduction in forms of gendered presentation and expression will reduce the ideas that men and women are somehow fundamentally different and unequal. There’s nothing in (sensible) feminism that says women can’t express themselves in a feminine manner. It just says that it should not be obligatory, and does not define what it means to be a woman.

Because of all this complexity, there are many different ways to be trans.

  • You could be a classic binary-identified medical transitioner like me
  • You could be a non-binary person who wants some medical treatment, but not the whole package
  • You could be a non-binary person who only wants to transition socially
  • You could be a binary-identified person who only wants to transition socially
  • You could be an intersex person who was forcibly transitioned in childhood and wants to get back to a gender you are comfortable with
  • And doubtless many other things that I haven’t thought of

Hopefully this explains how we can have 70+ different categories of gender and have a move towards gender neutrality at the same time.

Posted in Gender, TV | Leave a comment

On TV Tonight

This week is Mental Heath Awareness Week in the UK. Because of this the nice folks at Bristol MIND have been asked to be on local TV to talk about their new trans+ helpline. The TV people wanted an actual trans person to talk to, and as I had done all of the training for the helpline volunteers I got asked.

I will be on the Crunch the Week show with Steve LeFevre from 7:00pm tonight, along with Liz Sorapure of Bristol MIND. We are apparently the first item on. Made in Bristol TV is available on cable throughout the South West so you don’t have to be living in Bristol to watch, though you do need something like Sky.

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