Recognising who they are

“The stronger person is not the one making the most noise but the one who can quietly direct the conversation toward defining and solving problems.”

(~ Aaron T Beck)

In my early teens I used to read spin-off comics based on the Aliens films. The idea was that astronaut Ellen Ripley had to protect her friends and loved ones from screaming monsters whose sole obsession is the ability to procreate for their egg-laying queen. One particular book was titled The Female War, a title which immediately bubbled back to mind when I was mentally pre-writing this post.

This week the Scottish Parliament voted 86-39 to make it easier for trans folk to legally change their gender. People in Scotland have been able to do this since 2005, but the process is cumbersome and stressful and puts people off applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate. The simplified process – “Self-ID” – can be found around the world in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, Switzerland and Uruguay.

In the 2016 Scottish general election, the SNP, Greens, and Labour all had gender recognition reform in their manifestos; the Conservatives didn’t put it in their 2015 UK election manifesto, but the idea was uncontroversial enough for even Theresa May to support it. Naturally, by 2022 this obscure administrative procedure affecting a tiny minority of the population drew little media attention and was passed quietly.

Oh, who am I fucking kidding?

It took six years, but was still described in the press as “controversial”, “rushed” or “forced through”. When the vote passed, a screaming TERF stood up to flash her home-made merkin to everyone in the Scottish Parliament chamber; men, women and children. Yes, it’s a weird as it sounds. And “Screaming Terf Merkin” is going to be the name of my death metal band.

Now, as a crossdresser, this doesn’t affect me much. When it comes to the ‘trans debate‘, I have no dogs in this fight. I am merely a bystander, hoping it can help my trans friends, and glad in a general sense that my country is looking out for minority groups and making their lives even just a little bit easier. I’ve written in support of trans issues in the past, and I think it’s one of those things you have to reaffirm.

The one small way it does affect me is that crossdressers are dragged into the arguments by TERFs – essentially, saying that trans women are nothing more than a cosmetic expression (and ‘not really women’), and therefore no different to crossdressers; but worse – they crossdress for the express purpose of invading women’s spaces (toilets, changing rooms, sports events, refuges, prisons).

The argument goes along the lines that predatory men – sex pests and rapists – would be able to use Gender Recognition Certificates like Willy Wonka’s golden tickets and storm these places unopposed. As a consequence of this, women’s spaces have to be rigorously policed, lest a man dressed as a woman slip inside: woman and girls must be protected. If you disagree you want to “destroy women’s rights.”

On one side, women like Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, or other politicians like SNP MP Mhairi Black arguing in favour of the changes, pointing out that it’s predatory men, not trans women who are the threat; on the other side are the likes of JK Rowling, or Joanna Cherry QC (also a SNP MP). This is an argument over women, for women, by women.

Hence my opening reference to The Female War.

The obsession with reproduction shows itself in the TERFs’ supposed ‘gotcha!’ question of how one defines a woman (along the lines of the Polish enyclopaedia definition of a horse). Usually it comes down to genitals and babymaking (as long as you’re not referring to women who’ve had hysterectomies, or who are otherwise unable to conceive because that would make the definition argument a bit complicated). Another formulation goes along the lines of “can a woman have a penis?” (My answer: it depends on the woman.)

Anyone who’s subjected themselves to the sight of Sean Connery in a red nappy with a ponytail, pornstache and thigh-high fuck-me boots might remember the line from Zardoz: “THE PENIS IS EVIL!!!”

I have a lot of sympathy with that kind of instinctive revulsion. I went to a boys-only school, memories of which revolve around the years of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. I was surrounded by dicks in both literal and metaphorical senses. I fucking loathe the thought of communal, public nudity. The idea of being surrounded by naked cocks feels threatening and makes my skin crawl, and I’ve got one of the damn things. (NB: the shower area at Iceland’s Blue Lagoon resort was a bit of a trial; and I was 37 when I went there.)

But the argument about the potential horror of women or girls seeing a penis in the changing rooms is an argument against open-plan changing rooms, not trans women. (My preferred swimming pool is the Royal Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh: private cubicles.)

As for toilets, I don’t know of anyone who goes marching or dashing into public toilets with everything hanging out on display (except, maybe, good ol’ Screamin’ Terf Merkin?). And if a predatory man wanted to burst into the ladies’ toilets for a wank, he wouldn’t need a Gender Recognition Certificate or even to crossdress – this guy didn’t, and this guy didn’t have anything at all.

In sports, any law or test created for gender, cisgender people will fail as well. Hormones? Some cis women have ‘male’ levels. Chromosomes? In the 1996 Olympics ten cis women had XY chromosomes with intersex conditions and were caught out. Genitals? Ambiguity does exist. The fear is that trans women will have some sort of innate advantage over other women and take all the medals. This hasn’t happened, and the very few who have won any medals have made the news precisely because they are so rare (and precisely because they can be used as examples for TERFs to claim their fears are valid).

Other concerns are already addressed within the legislation: more time for younger trans folk to think about it, cooling-off periods, the option to change back, and making it illegal to falsely claim a certificate. Regarding prisons, if a cis man falsely applied for a GRC he would end up with a conviction for fraudulent self-ID; the Scottish Prison Service would decide which prison he’d go to and his terms of imprisonment, based on their assessment of risk to this person and risk to other prisoners – having an amended birth certificate does nothing one way or another to help or hinder a sexual predator.

This isn’t to say that all the fears or criticisms are unreasonable; I think certain group counselling sessions should be carefully chosen – I can see how it would be inappropriate for a trans woman who still expresses herself in a ‘masculine’ way (for example, at the start of her transition) to attend a woman’s group with sensitive subject matter, such as survivors of trauma or abuse – counselling in these cases would have to be accommodated, and it’s surely not beyond the wit of organisers to figure out options. I think it’s worth asking waxing salons if they do penises and scrotums instead of simply expecting it. And that’s before getting into the minefield of dating and sex – one can never assume one’s genitals will be welcome and you can’t force people to look at them, let alone like them. Please take note, Screamin’ Terf Merkin.


The one group that loses out from the policing of women’s and girls’ spaces is… women and girls. If a girl is deemed too successful at sports, parents can accuse her of being trans. Most supporters of these draconian laws never think it’ll happen to them or their daughters – “I never thought leopards would eat MY face, sobs woman who voted for Leopards-Eating-People’s-Faces Party”.

JK Rowling claims she only wants to look out for the rights of women and girls. Her latest venture was to set up a trans-exclusionary service who provide “support and advocacy” for sexual assault victims. Board members include Rhona Hotchkiss, a prison governor whose prison was condemned by inspectors for the frequent abuse of women prisoners by her staff.

Not a great start, and there’s a whiff of authoritarianism there. Some mistake surely? But then there’s this:

“Nobody but the very naive can fail to be aware that predatory men are capable of going to great lengths to gain easy access to victims, and have often sought out professions or special status that offer camouflage for their activities. Sex offenders have historically been found among social workers, teachers, priests, doctors, babysitters, school caretakers, celebrities and charity fundraisers, yet no matter how often the scandals break, the lesson appears never to be learned: it is dangerous to assert that any category of people deserves a blanket presumption of innocence.

“… This shouldn’t need saying, but in the current climate, it does: literally no feminist I’ve ever met claims all trans women are predators, any more than we believe that all men are predators.”

~ JK Rowling, The Times, 16 October 2022


So JKR isn’t into that whole “innocent until proven guilty” thing? And the backtracking at the end gives the quote the same energy as Donald Trump when he said of Mexicans, “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

But just because the children’s author (who wrote of a super-wealthy boy wizard at an exclusive private school with happy slaves and antisemitic stereotypes looking after his money) can be compared with far-right extremists doesn’t mean that all anti-trans people are like that, surely? I mean, yes, yes, the actual Nazis destroyed a centre dedicated to LGBT research, but what about the 21st century?

Eh, well… anti-trans group LGB Alliance shares its address (55 Tufton Street, London) with right-wing think tanks and pressure groups (like the one that persuaded Britain’s worst prime minister and chancellor to blow £30billion in seven weeks).

Jane Carnall summarises the development like this (essentially, the roots can be found in the USA exporting its social and cultural neuroses):

“Strictly in a local phenomenon, there have always been a subgroup of radical feminists – by no means all radical feminists – who believe very strongly that women are oppressed because of our biology, and men have male privilege because of *their* biology, and therefore trans women have male privilege and can’t experience oppression as women. These TERFs – Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists – have never been a large or a very influential group. They would doubtless have protested the Gender Recognition Reform legislation, but it’s hard to see how far they could have got if they were just the likes of Julie Bindel, who also protested largely against civil partnership (and then registered a civil partnership herself, because, she said insouciently, her girlfriend wanted it).

“What happened in October 2017 was a summit meeting of the Christian Right in the US after they had just lost the marriage-equality decision at the Supreme Court. They mooted the idea that they could “separate the T from LGB” – and attack trans rights by affecting to pretend they cared about the rights of women. Does anyone believe the Christian Right/the Republican Party care about women’s rights? It is to laugh.

“But in the UK, it happened that this Christian Right funded campaign met and melded with a handful of women already inclined to oppose GRR. Magically, when these women published articles claiming GRR was dangerous, they found armies of twitterbots RTing their articles: if they decided to set up an organisation and crowdfund, they found money pouring in to their online fundraising accounts. Lots of money.

“We’ve seen this happen before. Abortion rights activists know that quite small and apparently quite ineffective “prolife” groups can nonetheless raise tons of money to pay for billboards, placards, posters, t-shirts – can provide resources for people to go talk to politicians: can fund the costs for “prolife” interns to work for a MP or MSP for free. Where does this money come from? Well, we see it flowing out from US far-right organisations, and we see money flowing into UK organisations that support those US far-right goals, and – it’s surprisingly hard to definitely prove there’s a direct link. All we have is a lot of smoking guns.

“And it’s exactly the same with the anti-trans movement. They claim to be “grassroots funded”, and there may well be some of the money going in that’s genuinely local: but much of it almost certainly isn’t.

“What we’ve seen in the UK since 2018 has been a dangerous rise of a loud far right campaign, targeting trans people, claiming their justification is “sex-based women’s rights”. This as a legal concept of including cis women & trans men, and excluding cis men and trans women, doesn’t exist in the UK. Cis and trans women have been protected against discrimination *as women* since the 1990s by the Sex Discrimination Act which was rolled into the 2010 Equality Act: trans people, women and men, are protected against transphobic discrimination by the 2010 Equality Act – as are lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people protected against homophobic discrimination, whether we are cis or trans.

“Trans rights and women’s rights are no more in conflict than women’s rights and lesbian rights, and for the same reason. Christians have argued that *their* religious rights need to be protected against LGBT rights, but by that in general they mean that they want a secular right to discriminate against LGBT people respected in law, not that they cannot worship God in their own way unless they are allowed to promote hate against LGBT people as part of that worship.”

Jane Carnall, Facebook post, 22 December


Just because a fascist fuckwit makes a particular point, I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand straight away – is there any nugget of wisdom or an improvement or safeguard that can be gleaned? (For another nerd reference, I’m thinking of a line in a relevant episode of The Orville where Captain Mercer talks about policing himself.) As I said earlier, I’m pretty much a bystander in this. I can afford to take these little intellectual double-takes without feeling like I’m attacking the core of my being. The closest I got, as I wrote above, was a vague sympathy for the emotional disgust of penises. But when I considered the cases, I found there were alternate solutions, either accounted for already, or which could potentially be brought in if required.

It’s vitally important for trans folk to be recognised and accepted for who they are, legally and by society. I would not want it any other way. Ideally, society should be managed in a way that a minority group won’t have to be treated like they were a minority group. Sadly, we are far from living in that ideal society.

I think it’s also important to recognise their opponents for who they are too.

And when your opponents’ poster girl is Screamin’ Terf Merkin, you know you’re doing something right.

Because SIWOTI

You can be almost certain that someone will never change their mind because of a comment posted on social media. Does that mean we should never try?

When you get so accustomed to particular arguments and evidence, it can be something of a shock to encounter people who’ve clearly never heard them before, and have gone through life assuming that what they learnt at the age of 11 (simplified and summarised, if not superseded by now) must always be true.

What do you do when Someone Is Wrong On The Internet?

I had that experience on social media, and ended up regurgitating pretty much all of the sciencey posts I’ve done on this blog (with a couple of choice quotes I found elsewhere; unfortunately I can’t recall the original source).

Here’s what I wrote in reply:

“TL;DR version: sex, sexuality and gender aren’t ‘either/or’ concepts. If a person doesn’t fit into the way you think about the world, maybe *just maybe* the problem isn’t with that person?

The TL bit:

yes, there’s XX and XY, but there are other variants like XXY or XO (Klinefelter’s Syndrome or Turner’s syndrome); intersex people exist (and since 2003 are starting to be recognised on some nations’ passports, such as Germany in 2013).
– So I wouldn’t go about saying “XX or XY! Boy or a girl! End of story! Science!” because that’s not what the science says; things are more complex than that:

You can be male because you were born female, but you have 5-alphareductase deficiency and so you grew a penis at age 12. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but you are insensitive to androgens, and so you have a female body. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but your Y is missing the SRY gene, and so you have a female body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but one of your X’s HAS an SRY gene, and so you have a male body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes- but also a Y. You can be female because you have only one X chromosome at all. And you can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but your heart and brain are male. And vice – effing – versa.

Sure, most people identify as heterosexual, but homo-, bi-, and asexual people exist too. Whether or not people come out as such depends on how tolerant their society is; if it’s against the law or punishable by death, then they’ll obviously not want to say. Check Wikipedia to see how wildly the statistics vary between Brazil and Iran (for example).

Adler (1991) and Byne et al (2001) found a cluster of nerves in the hypothalamus was largest in straight men, smaller in gay men and slightly smaller in women (this develops before birth).
Garcia-Falgueras & Swaab (2010) found environment doesn’t affect sexuality. Bailey & Zucker (1995) say 63% of gay men and women don’t conform to ‘gender behaviour’ as kids (vs 10-15% of straight people not conforming.)
– So nature, not nurture, determines one’s sexual orientation – and it’s not an ‘either/or’ proposition – people can be more hetero-, or more homo-sexual (think of it as a range), or simply not interested (asexual; maybe 1% of people will identify as such).

Joel et al (2015) did 1400 MRI scans of brains; there are some sex/gender differences in brain and behaviour. We have unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females, some in males, and some common in both. Regardless of whether nature or nurture causes sex/gender differences in brain and behaviour, human brains cannot be categorized as ‘male’ or ‘female’.

Garcia-Falgueras & Swaab (2008) showed that the interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH) in the brain is:

  • larger and more elongated in men and more spherical in women.
  • Male-to-female transexuals have a similar INAH to women, as do castrated males – so is the size of the INAH determined by testosterone? (But: study criticised for a small sample size and no study of different sub-types of transexuals.)

– So, there’s a bit of the brain that might well tell you what gender you are?

Swaab (2005) found sex differences in your body develop early in pregnancy (the first few months), but sexual differentiation of the brain occurs later in the second half of pregnancy and might be modified after birth by culture. This explains why, for certain transexuals, you can expect to see ‘female brain structures’ in people who are ‘otherwise male’.

  • So your body’s sex and your brain’s ‘gender’ can be different?
  • So can we really divide people into two genders? Not if we use biology, it seems!

On television, Secrets of the Sexes (BBC, 2005) said that men and women don’t always fit neatly into their respective groups. A University of Cambridge around that time study found that 17% of men have a ‘female’ empathising brain and 17% of women have a ‘male’ systemising brain. We aren’t ‘Male OR Female’; these are just end points on a range.
Hell, you can test yourself and find out where you belong on the range at this BBC website.

Why do we find it hard to accept there are more than two genders? Other cultures recognise three, four, or even five (such as Kathoey in Thailand, or Hijras in India, or ‘two-spirit’ people among some of the first nations of North America. Greeks accepted other sexualities, Romans accepted transgender folk. What changed?
Not wishing to upset anyone’s sensibilites, I’d just simply suggest that when the Romans adopted a variant of bronze-age desert mythology as their state religion, that’s when it started to get really difficult for women and transgender folk. This idea mutated and spread around the world for the next few centuries; almost all of us have grown up indoctrinated by aspects of it.

Bem’s Sex Role Inventory (BSRI, 1974) lists 20 ‘male’, 20 ‘female’ and 20 ‘neutral’ traits (eg: males are assertive, ambitious, swear a lot, etc, while females are meek, peacable, don’t swear… you get the idea). But by 1998, Holt & Ellis found recorded differences between men and women have decreased since the 1970s – men are less ‘manly’, women more ‘manly’ (but on average, men are still more impulsive)… at least in the west.

Costandi (2013) found Sex is determined by genes; Gender is determined by culture/upbringing.
Elliott (2013) found male and female brains have far more similarities than differences; gender differences come from culture/ upbringing.

Just because we’ve been brought up to believe something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true, or that we have to keep believing it. In the 21st century, bearded women win Eurovision, men can get pregnant.

Intersex people exist. Trans people exist. So do men and women. Denying any of these things will weaken whatever argument you want to make about sex and gender.

Before anyone says “But it doesn’t happen in nature!” – well, actually it does, from lesbian hedgehogs to cross-dressing cuttlefish:

…you can have females be females because they developed in a warm environment and males be males because they developed in a cool environment (reptiles), you can have females be females because they lost a penis sword fighting contest (some flatworms), you can have males be males because they were born female, but changed sexes because the only male in their group died (parrotfish and clownfish), you can have males look and act like females because they are trying to get close enough to actual females to mate with them (cuttlefish, bluegills, others)…

That’s it; I’m done. I’ve laid as much science on here as I dare to, given that nobody’s ever had their mind changed by a Facebook comment. But I just *had* to get this out because SIWOTI.”

Peace, out.

Gendered agenda addenda

During Edinburgh’s 2016 Science Festival I got to introduce a talk on world cultures which recognise more than two genders, by Professor William Naphy. It’s a topic I’ve briefly alluded to in a previous blog, but this seems like as good a time as any to go a bit more in-depth.

Update 13 April 2016: you can listen to the talk via the Edinburgh Skeptics podcast, starting 4m30s in. (Warning: if you do listen to the first few minutes you can hear me erm-ing, um-ing and ahh-ing through an intro to a poet and to the speaker…)

The talk was really excellent – densely packed with information, yet presented in a very clear and accessible way. I won’t regurgitate the talk verbatim, but the significant take-away messages were these:

  1. There are cultures around the world and throughout history which recognise three, four, or even five genders. From their point of view, they don’t ‘have’ three (or more) genders – there are three (or more) genders.
  2. ‘Genders’ and ‘gender roles’ seem to be inextricably linked – for example, in certain cultures if a woman wants to run a business, she will be seen as a ‘businessman’, and is not allowed to become pregnant (because ‘businessmen’ do not get pregnant). These are entirely separate from matters of sexuality.
  3. Just because a culture recognises more than two genders, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s open, tolerant and socially liberal – sometimes there can be very strict rules about what each gender is allowed to do, and the jobs they can take on.
  4. Following on from the last point, people in these cultures are likely to be disinclined to talk about genders; it would be as impolite as asking complete strangers about their sex lives.
  5. Generally speaking, across the world, there appears to be a bigger deal made about men adopting female gender roles than women adopting male roles.
  6. The influence of gender-binary cultures is adversely affecting the ones which recognise more than two – a culture which might celebrate a third gender could now start describing people in binary terms  – ‘gay’ or ‘trans’, rather than whatever words they have to describe a concept which we don’t have the words (or even concept) to describe in English.
  7. The cultures with more than two genders could be said to have more than two labels or pigeonholes to stick people into. Sure, it’s better than limiting it to two, but it can still be an inflexible system.
  8. I suspect the model we’re moving towards in ‘Westernised’ cultures is one which doesn’t see people as one thing, or another, or yet another, but rather has us occupying different points on ranges: a range of sex; a range of gender identities; a range of sexualities.

2016-ScienceFestivalAfter the talk I spoke to some of the audience in the bar afterwards. As you might expect, it drew a lot of interest from people who are, or have been through, transitioning (m-to-f and f-to-m), or otherwise gender non-conforming in various ways. I don’t really get involved with communities or support groups (because reasons), but I really enjoyed hanging out with other people who’ve had to come to terms with being at odds with what society considers ‘normal’.

If anything, I came away thinking more strongly than ever that each of us has to act as an ambassador for everyone else. We probably need to learn as much as we can about sex, gender and sexuality, even if we don’t think it applies to us, because there’s always the chance that someone somewhere will latch on to us as their ‘token’ expert in these matters.

If we want to live in a more enlightened culture, that means sometimes fielding questions from other people which might be crude, or insensitive, or blithely ignorant and we’ll have to reply openly and honestly. To borrow a phrase from Jim Jeffries‘ stand-up routine about gun control:

…we have to play to the one per cent of society who are such fuckwits they ruin it for the rest of us. We have to move as slow as the slowest person to keep society moving…

Anyway… we all agreed that Professor Naphy’s talk was an eye-opener, and he did an excellent job of presenting other viewpoints we simply aren’t used to. It’s not often you can come out of a talk having to rethink certain bits of how you think the world works, but this was one of those times.


The Kids Are All Right

I reckon the future’s in good hands.

I recently had the chance to help out and speak at a couple of school events dealing with gender issues.

In the first, I only provided links to some recent brain studies and helped prepare a presentation for two teenagers, made in front of about 1500 pupils and teachers. Their talk was powerful, highlighting the death rates among trans people, from suicides and murders, and making the case for (among other things) gender-neutral school uniforms. They did a bloody good job, too – it’s really quite uplifting when things like that happen.

The fact that they got the chance to do this – and the lengthy applause afterwards – made me wonder if we’re reaching some sort of turning point.

In the second, I got to speak to a pupils’ lunchtime group which discusses LGBTI issues, led by a couple of teachers. I won’t repeat what I said, since much of the information has already appeared in this blog (and the rest of it will appear in future posts). My main goals were to inform, reassure, and – when possible – to entertain.

The teachers appreciated the fact that I had citations for everything I said, and the pupils appreciated the fact that I covered a wide range of sex, sexuality, gender, history and culture (kudos from one girl when I included asexuality with the other types).

But if the group response was anything to go by, I think what they’ll *really* take away from it is my impersonation of Australian cuttlefish…

LGBTI kids still face a lot of discrimination, but public awareness is growing. Doubtless, things will improve further as more parents understand what their children (or their children’s friends) are going through and seek support.

In some schools in the UK, more pupils are challenging the rules on uniforms – skirts for girls, trousers for boys – and schools are starting to adapt.

Kids are more aware of these issues, because they are already part of the world they are born into.

Me, as depicted by the 4-year-old daughter of one of my friends...

Me, as depicted by the 4-year-old daughter of one of my friends…

In my own experience, a couple of my friends have been happy for their kids to see pictures of me, or meet me dressed up.

“[She] saw and liked your new Wild West photos.
She said, “Cool! He must have fun being able to dress in both boys’ and girls’ clothes.”

It probably helps when you can provide a friendly, familiar face (if not a respectable one…) 😉

“…it was interesting to me when she met you in full Twist mode because it challenged her expectations at an age when she was probably quite binary (genderwise)”

Obviously, openness and acceptance aren’t going to happen everywhere, immediately. But they do seem to be spreading and accelerating.

“Twist is the biggest challenge to identity norms I’ve offered my children.”

It’s going to be interesting to see where this all leads. A couple of years ago, I introduced a talk by Nathan Gale, who expressed the hope that trans- and intersex issues would be mainstream within Nathan’s lifetime. Back then I wasn’t so sure, but now… hm!




The only way you can be who you're meant to be is by having the freedom to make a lot of mistakes along the way...

The only way you can be who you’re meant to be is by having the freedom to make a lot of mistakes along the way…

I used to be afraid to admit to myself that I wanted to cross-dress. Then it became easy. I think the changes that allowed it to happen were as much psychological as social.

The best thing anyone can do when they’re still young is to leave home; there’s no other way to find out who the hell you are. I’ve written before about my childhood cross-dressing impulses, concluding with my first week at university when I met a girl who encouraged me to go to a Rocky Horror stage show wearing some of her clothes.

It was also at university I had my mind blown by the early internet (a shout-out to all those who remember using Netscape with dial-up modems!) which was young and unregulated (perfect match: so was I!) and introduced me to a whole bunch of cross-dressing and trans issues.

Even so, there was a lot my mind just couldn’t grasp; and what I couldn’t grasp I just dismissed. For example, in a philosophy tutorial group, one of the participants was middle-aged and trans. I never figured out if they were male-to-female or female-to-male. I just thought “Are you a hermaphrodite or something? No idea! Don’t know; don’t care; why won’t you shut up about male/female stuff? Men have balls, women don’t – why are you making a big deal about it?” (I was kind of a dick back then.)

It was the 1990s. As much as trans issues impinged on most people’s minds, they would have involved drag acts, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game, the arrival of The Ladyboys of Bangkok, and a whole bunch of awkward episodes of The Jerry Springer Show in which young trans women decided the best way to come out to their boyfriends was on (inter-)national television (one of the happier outcomes can be seen here). The only female-to-male examples I can think of are Hilary Swank Boys Don’t Cry and the character of Jack in Pitch Black (which actually came out in 2000).

In any case, trans issues were a mostly seen as a punchline. In the midst of all this, comedian Eddie Izzard was a breath of fresh air. He made it clear that cross-dressing wasn’t seedy, or weird, or deviant. It was just about the clothes. For my part, at university I limited my cross-dressing to theatre, and the occasional party: ostensibly, just for fun.

Fast forward about ten years or so, in which there was a long break from cross-dressing after graduation, working abroad, and then trying to re-establish myself in the UK.  Finally, I felt comfortable enough coming out to my girlfriend (written about here) and ‘Twist’ rapidly came about.

What changed?

For one thing, I was older, more broadminded and more knowledgeable; my views of how the world worked had changed considerably since my teenage years (I won’t claim to be wiser, just not such a dick). I had gained self-confidence and the emotional security of a relationship and social group. In short, I gained the ability to not give a shit what other people thought of me. If there’s one thing you need in life, it’s that.

The times seemed about right too. In the past few years, more famous figures have come out as trans: Rocky Horror creator Richard O’Brien (who said he was ‘70% male‘); The Matrix co-creator Lana Wachowksi; the writer Chaz Bono (Sonny and Cher’s son); Lady Gaga’s alter ego Jo Calderone… leading up to Caitlyn Jenner’s appearance on the cover of Vogue magazine in July 2015.  Gender-swapping was given less mocking treatment in comedies like It’s A Boy/Girl Thing (2006), and trans actors are getting prominent roles in BBC TV shows like Boy Meets Girl and Eastenders. Trans issues are generating a lot of media coverage.

Do I wish I could go back in time and come out as a cross-dresser sooner? There are two problems with this line of thinking. For one thing, I’ve changed (so even if circumstances were favourable when I was younger, I’d still lack confidence I have now); for another thing so has culture (so, even if I had the confidence I have now back then, the social circumstances would still be against it)… I think all we can do is make the most of what we’ve got and hope for the best.


I was different in the 1990s; I just didn’t get it. But by being presented with things that went against everything I thought about the world, by having to argue my case and lose, I ended up changing my mind about a lot of things. For me, this is one of the important parts of leaving home or going to university. One’s ideas must be tested; one must always know how to argue for what is correct and pick apart what is wrong; one might find nuance and subtlety where least expected.
For this reason, I cannot support the ‘no-platforming’ of people whose ideas are misguided, outmoded, or just plain wrong. Those ideas will not be destroyed by censorship or silence; only confrontation and constant exposure to facts and evidence can see to that. (The thought occurs that if someone’s response to an argument is to try to silence their opponent, then they either don’t have a counter-argument, or they lack the wit to argue.)
For my part, I will provide whatever facts and evidence I can find. I will not silence those I disagree with because I want to allow them the possibility of changing their minds without ill-feeling. In other words, I try not to be a dick about it.