Malvolia in yellow: reflecting on the National Theatre’s ‘Twelfth Night’

This post originally appeared at Women Write About Comics.

I wasn’t the only one who missed her step on the London Underground, when the screens switch one poster to another even faster than the escalator pulls you down, because Tamsin Greig was standing in a tuxedo and high heels. One louche hand on hip and a champagne bottle by her feet, a couple of inches of black hair swept back, posed on the marble staircase she was about to stalk as Malvolio gender-swapped into Malvolia in the National Theatre’s new production of Twelfth Night.

Greig is already a queer woman’s George Clooney, fourth or fifth in the seven ages of lesbian, a salt-and-pepper sign that there are archetypes to aspire to after thirty-five. You throw her name into the ring when the question of a female Doctor Who comes up because it’s the next best thing to imagining that you could be, yourself.

Malvolia, when you see her, comes from a different queer heritage. I’m not sure, opening a cardboard tube of sugar-coated eggs in the cinema for the National Theatre’s live feed, whether it was the contours of her plot itself that made someone on social media feel like they’d been queerbaited or simply that the pleasure of the woman on the poster isn’t there.

Greig’s Malvolia is the dominatrix of between-the-wars, hard-faced and buttoned up in black; who’s kept her Louise Brooks bob years past the time when it might have made her look like she was in the cabaret, but never once dared to pair it with a monocle, glance into the mirror and lift her eyebrow high. The ring of keys that might swing from her housekeeper’s belt would come from an age before a ring of keys meant “Ring of Keys,” before a lady châtelain could know “Miss Chatelaine”. She belongs in DuMaurier. She’s been, ever since Shakespeare’s time, the opposite of joy.

You’ve known the story since the third year of secondary school, what any normal place would call Year 9, when you were already learning what girls and teachers said about the signs that anybody was that way inclined and also learning there were women you noticed because they looked like other women, the way you’d almost always notice Viola as someone like that at Twelfth Night.

The grieving Olivia (Phoebe Fox) has shut herself away from men, so her suitor Duke Orsino (Oliver Chris) woos her through his page Cesario, the male identity Viola (Tamara Lawrence) adopted after being shipwrecked on the Illyrian coast and separated from her twin Sebastian (Daniel Ezra). Malvolia’s below-stairs story is their counterpoint. I’m glad to know the plot so well not to be shocked when Olivia’s wastrel uncle Toby (Tim McMullan), her servant Maria (Niky Wardley) and her carpenter Fabia (Imogen Doel) play their trick, propping Olivia’s letter in Maria’s hand on the rim of designer Soutra Gilmour’s pink wedding-cake fountain. They persuade Malvolia that Olivia loves her, when an unrequited, private passion for Olivia is the only intimacy that even the audience have ever seen this supercilious steward express; they persuade her Olivia will love her more if she appears in the very garments Olivia hates, yellow stockings, ‘ever cross-gartered’. It’s meant to be funny enough even in a man. The promise of her fall sustains the interval.

One tweet said changing the character to Malvolia had made her look like a predatory lesbian. I braced. The excess of desire and violation of consent, against whose mould you police your own passion so as not to be thought like her. I collect those tropes like spent arrows now, ready to throw them back across the lines. And yet, knowing it’s coming, you’re still there as she reads the letter, hardly believing that each last new line is true. ‘M O A I,’ inside Olivia’s coded handwriting, ‘doth sway my life,’ until you sense how this Malvolia might have come to this closed house. You’re still there because we were all there. If you were there before, you’re there again.

You tried to decode the signals from the woman you’d noticed anyway, and hoped and longed for it to be true but of course your gender and your class at the same time meant it never could be; and there it is, ‘soft!’ You break your recitation of the letter off every few words, sounding out Olivia’s cipher, because you know these things are never what they seem to be. You read signs wrong before, in that first villa, where cicadas hummed on the far side of Illyria and you held no more standing than quick-witted maid Maria, psychedelic Feste, or Fabia in her jumpsuit and tool-belt; all these women from different niches of style Olivia keeps around. She *must* be. Now she is. No wonder M O A I should take the length of the world to sound, when the horror on that other young woman’s face that hot night still stings the fingertips you never dared stretch out again till now. You won’t believe it. Yet you must. You’ve been there, viewing this, and you know it ends in humiliation, from when exams had you highlighting the script until it fluoresced. You know how easy it would have been to be gulled exactly the same way. A confidante says, ‘——— would really like it if you ———’ and you wonder no-one thought of it, the drama teenage girls invent. I’d have been so excited, even I might not have thought. She dances in the fountain, she’s so happy, and the water soaks right through her prim white blouse.

We watch, and wait, in case we see ourselves.

The payload, in every production, is the entrance. The director Simon Godwin’s entrance is a set-piece of a folly. Malvolia capers like a pierrot undoing her white cape, yellow windmills spinning from her bodice and black garters crossing over her legs like Asterix’s Gauls would wear as bees. That bob makes more sense, in cabaret: she looks like Sally Bowles meets Grayson Perry. Olivia thinks she’s mad. I appeared before an Olivia once, who wasn’t called that, and I heard she cried. No one else’s trick had even brought me there, just my own certainty.

The Elephant, where Sebastian meets half of Illyria but not his own erstwhile lover—the gay pirate Antonio (Adam Best)—is a neon-lit drag bar: improvising extras, when the camera picks them out, might be dressed in eighties/seventies leather, and a drag queen in silver robes serves Jacobean gaga realness with a hi-NRG disco ‘To be or not to be’. The pre-show interviews filmed for the live stream had clips of Perry and Conchita Wurst, interviews with Jack Monroe, all embodying the play across gender boundaries we like to think is so much of our time.

We’re inside a brick cell, Malvolia blindfolded and bound. We were still locked up in asylums in living memory, for nothing more than what she did, or less. All the more likely if we were the class who went into domestic service, or fell out of it. Other things in love’s madness are yellow: the stars that shine for you; wallpaper; kings. ‘Sir Topas the curate’ ties on his beard, to further frighten her. In some of our lifetimes he brought electrode wires, and still we tried to scream that we were sane.

Comedy contrives, eventually, to put the four requited lovers in the same street at once. The first phrase of Shakespearean criticism I learned was the ‘golden circle’: the pairs whose plots are reconciled, while others stand outside. Twelfth Night‘s other setpiece is the resolution: Olivia can be with Sebastian, Orsino with Viola, and both can take the same aesthetic pleasure, even if some productions—of course this one does—still hint Orsino loved Cesario as much or more. Malvolia has to be brought, to vouch for the captain who helped Viola transform, and so that Feste—Doon Mackichan, here, from Smack the Pony—can read out the letter she finally let Malvolia write down. Patriots worked out they could post fake dating profiles, and when we answer them they make us disappear.

They bring her up, down to her vest and stockings, and her garters, and the belief the first letter was in Olivia’s hand. Fabia confesses; Maria and Toby are married; Feste chants back Malvolia’s insistence that she wasn’t mad. Malvolio has one of Shakespeare’s capital-E, fist-shaking Exits. Malvolia puts her hand to the crown of her head, mussed from the blindfold and captivity; she pulls back her parting from the scalp, and underneath her bobbed wig is a flattened crop of ash-blonde hair.

We know the screen trope of this disordered woman, bent on vengeance, mascara smeared into a shadowed mask. I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you! The remnants of her yellow bodice and stockings, still cross-gartered, just as she’d learned the Olivia of her desires had commended, tell you how much she’d have replayed the stages of her revelation and Olivia’s thrill. This secret would have been the last surprise, inside the chamber. It would have been proof and promise all at once. On stage, she’d be the same distance away; the camera frames her tight.

Maybe only someone whose desires have run that course can hear what lines are spoken in the sudden colour. A long game of design might have put this whole process on rails, from the posters to Malvolia on the surface to Malvolia underneath.

The overload of her abjection means that by the time I notice that this relieved Orsino has still turned to kiss Sebastian and not Cesario, while Olivia hasn’t yet let go of Viola, the twins are already crossing the stage, back where the golden circle that never extended to us says they ought to be.

The set is built around a double staircase, steep as Gibraltar. Its skeleton of a revolving pyramid sections the stage into streets and courtyards, or, now, wedding-chapels, while queers and servants sprawl over the stairs, drinking sack or strumming a guitar. Feste delivers her last song, ‘When that I was a little tiny boy,’ with something Bowie in it. She glances back at Malvolia, on the steps alone, as she revolves. I’m sure she does. Who are all these people who thought this production was about joy? And last of all we’re with Malvolia, in her vest and stockings, stripped down to her folly and stripped of her façade: her cropped blonde head is the first sign of her desire and the first seal of her shame. She crawls up the stairs towards a fine rain she’s never close enough to touch, when it ought to pour down as heavy as a fountain. It roared, when she was under her illusion, so loud it almost drowned M O A I. Against impossible distance, with her back to us, Malvolia in yellow and in vain still stretches her fingertips towards the light.

She is the queer art of failure. She is the cruel optimism. Marked by her attraction, bleached by her desire, she embodies everything we fear we’ll turn out to have been.

I race to be first out from the theater, snatching coat and programme from the seat beside me, clutching a tube of sweets which ought to blaze bright yellow through my hand.


Why queer women in the 1990s probably had a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio even if they didn’t know why

This, like many questions on the internet, can probably be answered with a gif:


But this Autostraddle article only slightly ironically reviving 1990s Leonardo DiCaprio as a queer women’s style icon sums up what a lot of us, in between Romeo and Juliet and Titanic, were probably thinking.

Almost every queer woman from the 90s has a DiCaprio story: even if we didn’t yet know why.

The ideas that if I was a lesbian, I might still like watching Leonardo DiCaprio / that finding something attractive in him didn’t mean I wasn’t one / that you could want to pick up part of how he or anyone else looked because you were attracted to them, not instead of that – were all so far outside my experience that in 1996, when Romeo and Juliet came out, I didn’t even recognise him as belonging to the same category as the women and girls I was noticing, with both those contradictory impulses at once.

The idea there was some specifically queer way of noticing DiCaprio, and that by telling each other about it we’d recognise ourselves… was already coming out of feminist media studies, in those very years – Reina Lewis’s article on ‘the lesbian gaze and fashion imagery’ dates back, so appropriately in my case I almost can’t believe it, to 1997 – but nowhere near my everyday consciousness as a 14-year-old; today it would just be a few shares, retweets or last-ditch Google terms away.

The fact that we now have the technology and the connectivity for complexities of sexuality and gender identification and gender expression and everything in between to be not just revelations but tropes – not even the kind of utterance that pulls the curtain back from the world for the first time but if it’s a guy who looks like he’s dressed like a lesbian again, it must be Thursday – when that very confusion used to leave me and women my age not knowing what was up with us for years, is one of the increasingly few things that leaves me not wanting the universe to toss the last thirty years into the trash and start again.

We learned about crushes from pop magazines. Or we were meant to. These were the last years of the irreverent Smash Hits, the glory years of Just Seventeen, slices of British pop-cultural history that one day are going to be somebody’s research. (Someone had done that with Jackie before I was even born.) I couldn’t make myself interested in them; they were always about boys.

Romeo and Juliet appeared mid-1996, when the only way I knew how to say I was attracted to a woman was either to say she looked like someone else or – a sensation I was years from even being able to explain, because of everything unnameable it rested on – sometimes that I wanted to look like her. You couldn’t say that, or I thought you couldn’t sat that, about a guy, no matter how much Justine from Elastica and Alex from Blur might effectively resemble each other. DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet, and Tim Henman at Wimbledon, were talk of the classroom; coming up a distant third, I think, was Steve McManaman.

I should have still seen Romeo and Juliet at the cinema, with my mum, except we hadn’t realised that we’d need to book. I knew it from trailers, still photographs in film reviews, and The Cardigans’ earworm of a ‘Lovefool’, which stayed on hourly rotation all summer when I wanted the radio to play Celine Dion.

Titanic, two years later, brought more of Celine Dion than almost anyone could have wanted, although not the way I wanted, which was another story; and it brought back Leo.

(I say two years; its UK release was mid-November 1997, and so we probably saw it close to Christmas, one of that set of things like ‘Torn’ or the All Saints I’ve mentally pushed into 1998 because they obviously came after, not before.)

By the time I saw Titanic, I was A Lesbian. I had to be; I’d had to admit it, because the only other explanations anyone could find for how I’d been behaving were so much worse. Lesbians fancy women. They fancy Kate Winslet, because everyone, apparently, fancies Kate Winslet, and the ones with short hair definitely would, because that’s the way that couples go together.

I didn’t have the slightest interest in Kate Winslet, or equally, by that point, Celine Dion.

Catch Leo from the back, like you hardly ever would because the camera already knew he was the star, and he’d look like someone I wasn’t meant to think about any more.

One lunchtime in I-think-it-was-still 1998 a girl canvassed the computer room we’d occupied for our school newspaper, asking for each of our top three crushes so she could make a chart. These days I like to think I’d know that I could rattle off what I’d be thinking, if I was 15 or 16 now: Ruby Rose, Scarlett Johansson, Kristen Stewart. ‘Ricky Martin,’ I blurted out, not knowing he’d be a soft-butch lesbian icon in due course. ‘Michael Owen.’

For some queer women, Leo was the safe one: the one you could talk about because everyone did, and not have to admit that what attracted you to him was what brought him closer to you across the gender boundary rather than what pushed him further away.

For other queer women, Leo was the exception: the one you could desire without threatening your queerness, when the pressure not to compromise your identity with any hint of being attracted to men was even higher than it is now, because everything that made him attractive was androgyny.

For others, Leo might have been the one you could try to be as much like as you could yet never have to let on to anyone you were a woman, because the safety net of his masculinity and his heterosexuality was always there.

And yet what made DiCaprio a star was ambiguity; before stardom and age resolved it, as it so often does.


For years I wouldn’t have known – I didn’t know – what to do with the fact that almost every photo of DiCaprio in between those films had him wearing outfits I or young women around me might have worn. (Just from that article, I had two bead necklaces like that, and at some point one of those plastic headband combs; I recognise one of his shirts so closely it makes me want to check the label; my hair never flipped over properly, though that was nothing new.) For years I didn’t see – just like I didn’t even see the tightness of Carrie-Anne Moss/Keanu Reeves’s duality in The Matrix – what oh-of-coursed its way past me as I posted that last gif, that Leo’s sandy hair and chain mail are reminding me of another icon from a few years later, Milla Jovovich in Joan of Arc. DiCaprio in the 90s looked like a lesbian, an inadequate shorthand that subsumed the whole gamut of sexuality and gender expression into one very specific, culture-bound way of being queer that still lives on as a working concept on the queer internet: some kind of affinity with masculinity, in the style of someone who hasn’t had it prescribed for them.

Almost every queer woman from the 90s has a DiCaprio story: and many of us couldn’t even imagine, then, that we’d be sharing or even understanding ours.

The filter is so much more fragile when you are queer

The filter is so much more fragile when you are queer

June, 2016: We are gathered round a cenotaph in hundreds, a rainbow Union flag crossed over with a rainbow Stars and Stripes, standing in a vigil like queers in a dozen other UK cities remembering the 49 mainly Latino and mainly queer dead, everyone from bright-haired teenagers to merchant-navy queens and weathered dykes. A thought occurs to me: this is more queers together than I’ve ever seen in Hull.

November, 2016: I am awake and the Americans are asleep but the Americans I love best and respect most are too anxious to sleep either. They are drawing and scribbling and tweeting fear and defiance, planning escapes, standing their ground, listing what medications to stockpile and what papers to get in order before a vice-president who believes in gay and trans conversion therapy and a president who seems to believe in nothing but raw masculine white power begin to wrench their partial, limited scraps of equality away. Before the queer creativity that finally gloriously found a space to flourish has to fight so much harder not to be forced back into silence after all.

In the days following his victory, the British media and my straight co-workers are still at How could he even win? But if nationhood means experiencing the same emotions at the same times then the alarm that stretches out from queers to queers along the oceanic cables we take for granted and drips its sea-monstrous way up from the shore is just like after Orlando: something diasporic, but this time rather than a collective grieving for names we would probably never otherwise have known, it has to foretell future mourning, for names we might not even be allowed to hear.

Queer lives that are lived digitally and transatlantically in a space which itself might not survive the restrictions on organisation and expression that could be in store for Americans – like Russians and Turks and Egyptians before them, like Chileans and Iranians and Argentinians all before that, often in coups that suited the US government interests of the time – cascade new online platforms and tumble through abandoned old ones, pulsing timelines and lingering forums of friends and colleagues and is there a word for people whose identities re-formed at the same time as yours but whose names these days you might not even know?

A thought occurs: There are people I know or used to know who will be dead in four years’ time.

That’s just alarmist. Don’t be so over-dramatic! Of course it won’t be as bad as that. Something in your stomach and the back of your throat still tells you that it can.


What queers know, like migrants know, like anybody with a womb will know, is how easily freedoms can disappear.

You feel it.

Maybe only deep in the background sometimes, inside white skin and an able body that lulls you into forgetting how unequally distributed those freedoms already are. Or maybe screaming violently in front of you, when you’ve chosen to risk some of them or when history took that choice away from you before you were even born.

When I try to theorise a ‘queer aesthetic curiosity’ towards world politics, or try to explain what a trans woman’s writing about gender is likely to convey that a cis woman’s almost always can’t, I call that feeling things like embodied knowledge. It lives in the feet and the shoulders and the untroubled stomach. It lives in the ring-fingers and the retinas and the thighs. Something about your body and how you live in it – your queerness – and where on the planet you are doing whatever you are doing means that you at least think about in/security, sometimes, in the everyday, in a way that a straight white man living somewhere as a citizen has under normal, peacetime circumstances never considered that he would have to do.


You think about it because others have felt it and you thought you might feel it and stories of progress told you that you might not have to. Every legal victory that activists won in America or Europe – every piece of pride that started being taken over ‘equality’ in the name of the nation forgetting how many of the same nation’s laws and police officers had been standing in equality’s way – helped tell a story about time.

The UK, 1990s: Things can only get better, sang the first Blair government, charged with implementing European court judgements on gays in the military and an equal age of consent. It gets better. You were born this way.

Weimar Berlin, 1930s: hundreds of men and women and others who loved people they never used to think that they could touch, presented themselves to the world in ways they’d never seen, found out about the surgery and care that would make their bodies seem more like themselves and that had never been more advanced than at this time, right now, and whose lives and notes and names were about to go up in smoke when the stormtroopers burned Magnus Hirschfeld’s library.

Russia, 2000s: The tone-altering epilogues to more than one book, researched during the 1990s and/or 2000s and (re)published after 2013, on how space for gays and lesbians to define themselves after the silences of communism was tentatively finally opening up in Russia.

The line between bodily autonomy and losing it for queer people is called politics. The same line for cis, straight people is called dystopia.

There are freedoms I have in England or would have in America, which I didn’t even expect to enjoy as a teenager but which my queer elders won for me.  In doing so, I gained a strange kind of everyday security with an uncanny contingency underneath – which I could lose again in ways that, if they were proposed for straight people, would be the stuff of dystopia, ‘some Handmaid’s Tale shit right there’.

(Dystopia still happens. But it takes so many more guns.)

Imagine, as a straight, cisgender man or woman, watching an election knowing that the result could determine whether you were allowed to stay married to your husband or wife. Or imagine knowing that the government looming into power could force you, as a man, to live life as a woman, or force you, as a woman, to live life as a man, an outcome almost inconceivable if you’re not trans.


Security is unimaginability. A protective barrier constructed out of it-can’t-happen-here. A firm belief that even when it’s happened to other people, even when your own country has made it happen to other people, you can be certain in your nerves and in your bones that it can’t, it couldn’t happen to you.

And when you have that certainty and I can’t share it, even across our shared whiteness or our shared politics or our shared class, a boundary between us starts to have political meaning it didn’t have before, and identity becomes a matter of in/security.


I know without having lived it that ethnopolitical conflict works like that.

The anxieties over ‘dilution’ or ‘undermining’ national cultural values that racists and xenophobes intensify in order to mobilise public support for restricting immigration work like that.

Queerness as a political identity works like that, too.

Studying the Yugoslav wars since my early twenties, when all that preoccupied me at the time they were happening was making sense of the confusion with which I entered my own queer teens: I know identities wax strongest, turn from individual to collective, description to politics, when people believe or are led to believe that that identity is why they’re under threat.

I know it through compressing acres of wartime newsprint into weeks of research, through collecting hours upon hours of memories, through years of friendship and listening and solidarity, all breaking down my own filter of it-can’t-happen-here.

Or so I thought: but the filter is already so much more fragile when you are queer.

Parts of this essay draw on this post from November 2016; it also appears in a forthcoming special issue of Critical Studies on Security.

Yes, gender is a spectrum and yes, trans women are women full stop: why both these things are true at the same time

Cross-posted from my other blog.

The question of where trans women fit into feminism is going round on UK Twitter again – the result, as it so often is, of a controversial article in a Sunday newspaper.

(The article is this piece in The Sunday Times by Jenni Murray, the presenter of Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, about why she doesn’t think that trans women should call themselves ‘real women’ after living life with society treating them as male – we’ll talk more about that further down.)

A historian colleague, David Andress, was suggesting on Twitter this morning that he and others would find ‘a cogent explanation of why “gender is a spectrum” and “transwomen are women, full stop” are compatible’ useful – so here’s an expanded version of what I said.

Sometimes to people who aren’t trans themselves and know how hard feminists have struggled to undo gender stereotypes and break through gendered expectations about women’s appearance and behaviour, the cases against the male vs female gender binary and the cases for unambiguously recognising trans women as women can look more incompatible than they are. If sexism puts women into a box marked ‘women’, and feminism wants to lift them out of that, does that become harder if we draw fixed lines around the category of ‘women’ so that we can get trans inclusion right?

Not at all – because one of the biggest insights that trans people have gained from understanding their own lives and bodies, but that cis people (people who aren’t trans) don’t get the chance to hear so often, makes both those statements true at the same time.

Gender isn’t determined by genitals: and if that helps trans people who need legal, social and medical recognition of the gender they are in order to lead fulfilling lives, it helps cis people and especially cis women who don’t want to be boxed in by what sexism and patriarchy have told them for centuries that they should do.

Biologically and neurologically there are lots of different ways for chromosomes, sex characteristics like genitals, and the brain to line up. Some people have heard of intersex conditions like Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, where someone’s body doesn’t process male hormones (androgens) so their chromosomes are XY but externally their body ‘looks female’; this is just one of dozens of ways where most cis people’s common-sense idea that people with XX are automatically female and people with XY are automatically male starts to break down.

The animal kingdom shows even more combinations of chromosomes and sex characteristics, which in some species (as biology teacher Grace Pokela wrote earlier this week) can even change partway through life: chromosomes don’t even determine sex completely accurately, let alone the relationships to body and society that humans experience as gender.

Nevertheless, one of the first things doctors in any maternity ward will do is inspect a baby’s genitals and classify the child as male or female – or, for some intersex babies, not be able to decide and make the closest call. (Intersex activists have long campaigned against putting children through surgery in early years to make their bodies correspond to the medical norm for one or other gender.)

Family, state and society all treat children as they grow up on the basis of what gender the doctor assigned them in their first medical notes – even though what the doctor sees is only the outward result of a complex set of neurological and biological processes, well before the child is even old enough to talk about how they relate to what their society calls ‘male’ and ‘female’.

How someone’s body develops on the outside and how their brain has developed on the inside are not necessarily the same: struggling to realise that in your own case, in the face of so many powerful social messages telling you the opposite, is an experience that very many trans people share.

Why does the state even need to determine someone’s gender at the moment they’re born? As well as religious, conservative and nationalist ideologies that enforce prescriptive roles on both men and women, with a far stricter moral standard applied to women then men, a Marxist or other radical political theorist could argue it’s about defending the structures through which property is handed down and wealth is reproduced. The state, as a social institution that maintains these structures of wealth, promotes and regulates marriage because marriage gives men more certainty that a child claimed as theirs actually is theirs.

There are deeply embedded structures of power – the church, the state, the idea of the family itself, all the things that feminists analyse critically – which work against a world where society would just say ‘it doesn’t matter what gender a child is, let them figure it out in their own time.’

Emphasising that ‘trans women are women’ is a way of emphasising that individuals, not social institutions, have the authority over what their gender is. In stressing women’s and everyone else’s autonomy over their own bodies, it fights the same oppressive structures that feminists have organised against from the beginning. (Example: the US religious right’s cases for banning abortion and forcing trans people to use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth rest on the same ideas.)

Besides gender as a category – is someone female? Are they male? Are they something else (many human societies have had three or more gender categories anyway)? – there’s also ‘gender identity’, or how someone makes sense of the relationship between their self, their body and the gender system(s) of their social world. When your gender identity doesn’t correspond to the gender you were assigned at birth, that everyone and everything treats you as, you know that something’s wrong – in a deeply felt, intimate, embodied way – even though it often takes years to name the reason why.

(The internet, where you can type the roughest description of what you think is wrong into a search engine and find the words of other people who felt the same way, has played a huge role in why so many people have been able to name themselves as trans so much earlier in life, and been able to see they’re not the only person who has ever felt like that.)

The statement ‘trans women are women’ resists the notion that only somebody who grew up being treated and oppressed as a woman can be one. The same structures oppressing a non-trans woman were oppressing a trans woman too – just in a different way.

Most cis people don’t have a word for how sexism and patriarchy oppress trans women (and trans everybody else). The trans writer and biologist Julia Serano popularised the term ‘cissexism’ to refer to the pervasive idea that trans people’s gender identities are less legitimate than non-trans people’s because they don’t have the rubber stamp of biology to back them up: deterministic ideas about biology are so ingrained in most people’s common sense that feminists are just as likely to make cissexist assumptions as anyone else, even when they’re trying to be inclusive towards trans people on moral and political grounds.

(Cis and trans just mean ‘on this side of’ and ‘on the other side of’, like some words in geography and chemistry: trans writers like Serano realised that to talk about being transgender, or on the other side of the gender you were supposed to be at birth, means there also needs to be a word for not being transgender; while if you’re not trans you might not even realise that you need one until it starts to come up.)

So how is insisting that trans women have the experience and authority to know that they’re women compatible with the idea that gender is a spectrum and that nobody should be confined to the stereotypes of what their gender is supposed to be? They’re compatible because none of the above means there has to only be a binary of gender, that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are the only gender categories it’s possible for there to be.

In fact, by recognising that gender isn’t determined either by genitals (who can reproduce with whom) or even chromosomes (which don’t even produce the genitals they usually produce all the time), it creates more space to overcome fixed ideas of gender, appearance and behaviour, not less.

One of the most revealing things for me about trans feminism was finding out that gender identity (what gender someone is) isn’t the same as gender expression (how someone uses clothes and other practices often thought of as feminine, and clothes and other practices often thought of as masculine, to present themselves to the world). I can have very similar gender expression to someone with a completely different gender identity – I do – and that doesn’t mean that either of our genders are wrong.

The writer and musician CN Lester, author of the forthcoming Trans Like Me, knows that ‘they’ not ‘she’ is the right set of pronouns for them and that the name they were given at birth doesn’t describe them; it would be as wrong for me to insist that they must be a queer woman because the ways we present ourselves aren’t a million miles apart as it would be for a sexist and homophobe to insist that, because I cut my hair short and deliberately play off masculinity in the way I dress, I must really want to be a man. Everyone knows best what their own gender is; everybody feels it, or would feel it, deeply if they are or were forced to live as something else.

Some people know, or realise after years of confusion, they’re neither male or female, as strongly as a trans woman knows that she’s a woman: gender is a spectrum, not a binary, and standing up for the womanhood of people who know that they are women doesn’t make it any less so.


Coming back to what originally prompted these conversations today – Jenni Murray’s article in The Sunday Times, which was screenshot here – what’s at stake in Murray’s reluctance to acknowledge that trans women are as real as she is, and the pain and anger many trans people felt on reading that, is the same cissexism we’ve just been talking about: who had the right, but also the power, to determine what someone else’s gender is.

Murray is particularly critical of trans women who have expressed stereotypical ideas about feminine beauty standards to her – as if cis women don’t ever say anti-feminist things – and who she implies haven’t faced the same oppression as women whose bodies make them able to have children, with all the sexist disadvantages that means.

But ‘woman’ isn’t one undifferentiated category – as black feminists and womanists have already had to say to white women for many years. (If you’re a history student who’s been linked here, look up work like Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s ‘African-American women’s history and the metalanguage of race‘.) Racism as another structure of power means that the experiences of black women and white women in the same society, at the same time, are extremely different even if we’re just talking about women who are cis. (And for women in any other racialised category it’s different again.)

‘Intersectionality’, as Kimberlé Crenshaw termed this idea in African-American women’s thought, means accounting for their race and their gender in talking about how they experience discrimination, and how discrimination plays out very differently at each race/gender intersection – which helps trans feminism make the case that trans women have suffered different forms of oppression than cis women but the root cause of that oppression still harms both of them. (While the intersection of race continues to shape trans and cis women’s experiences of discrimination too – see the writing of trans women of colour like Janet Mock.)

When so many trans women have been beaten – and worse – by transphobes and homophobes who targeted them as effeminate or gay men, it rings hollow to say they’ve had the ‘privilege’ of growing up as a man.

Many trans writers on Twitter today – Shon Faye and Mia Violet, Ray Filar and CN Lester, Katelyn Burns – have been writing about how Murray’s article gives trans people less say over knowing what their gender is than cis people get. (If these threads sound angry, it’s because that double standard happens in British media all the time – including the false-equivalence debates that keep forcing trans people to explain why their gender is real to critics and transphobes on Women’s Hour.)

No-one’s going to question that Murray is a woman, because her biological history already makes that case, including the traumatic experiences she’s faced because of what body tissue she has; but biology doesn’t determine her gender or what she should do with it either, even though she’s come out with the relationship between body and gender that most people expect. (And gender identity wouldn’t prevent someone with the same body tissue from suffering in the same ways that she has.)


One reason this is so confusing for many people who aren’t trans is because trans people’s experiences, from their own perspectives, are very rarely part of wider public culture.

If we use racism as an imperfect analogy (because the history of transphobia and the history of racism aren’t the same), many white people do know at least a little bit about racial discrimination and racism even though they can’t have experienced it themselves. Often, and with most emotional weight, this comes through the arts, like literature and film.

Representing the lives and histories of people of colour in the arts has been and remains its own struggle – and the structure of who gets jobs in the arts is still very far from properly resembling contemporary Britain, as the actor Riz Ahmed stressed in a powerful speech this week.

The stories of what it means to be trans are even more disproportionately told by cis creators, and keep coming round to the same tropes that fascinate people who aren’t trans – while publishing pressures trans authors to keep writing in one limited format (memoirs about surgical transition, which not every trans person even wants or needs).

That’s at the cost of cis people never getting to hear what trans people and their experiences have to say about different ways of moving through the world with genders and bodies that don’t fit in: compare CN Lester’s LGBT History Month talk at Oxford this year about the actual life of the Danish artist Lili Elbe and her queer and trans contemporaries in 1920s Europe to the limited, harmful perspectives that filmgoers were shown in The Danish Girl.

The connective fabric we need to see why ‘gender is a spectrum’ and ‘trans women are women’ are both true at the same time is a cornerstone of what trans people know about their own and others’ bodies, helping to explain why they’ve experienced the dissonances that they have; to most cis people who haven’t taken the time to listen, it’s invisible.

Let’s take the time to listen, and make space for trans people’s words and knowledge to reach further when we can.

This is the next century: my old school just launched a gender identity policy and this is how it feels

This post originally appeared at The Queerness.

Half of us who grew up queer in London in the Nineties, at St Paul’s Girls’ School or at any other, didn’t even understand that what we were doing was growing up queer.

For each of us who could already see themselves in a Grace Jones or a Richey Edwards and understand they were starting to reach out for an identity even though it might not have a name, there must have been as many who were well into their teens before they knew – or someone had to tell them – the different ways they failed to fit in might be connected.

Sex was what killed Freddie Mercury; attraction was what tears women-who-can’t-be-lesbians apart. I only wear dresses under protest and I like short hair and I like seeing other women who have it too, but none of that’s to do with being gay.

And in a sense, it wasn’t. One of the many ideas that would have helped me make sense of myself while I was on a scholarship at an elite London girls’ school two decades ago – one of the many ideas that, twenty years later, is now comprehensible enough even to many straight and cis teachers and parents for that same school to have launched a policy allowing students to change their name and pronouns once they reach 16 – is that sexuality and gender identity and gender expression were all separate things.

That might be close to common knowledge for the so-much-more-fortunate, so-much-more-to-lose Teen Vogue generation (I’m making it sound too easy here, I know), but unthinkable in the middle of the nineties, when even the women who dressed and drank like men went home with them, and the thread of girls who like boys who do boys like they’re girls petered out around the empty sign of that first ‘do’.

St Paul’s Girls’ School, like all its counterparts, already writes a history of gender variance into the lives of its trans students with every CV they have to write. What sets it apart is the combination of social status, intellectual dedication and perceived mission on top of that, as they intersected or clashed while I was there between 1993 and 2000, making St Paul’s its very own kind of head-turning but unforgiving place to find out what the ways you didn’t fit in might be telling you.

The iconoclastic story St Paul’s tells about itself, and which at its best it even lives, means that for the sake of its students’ self-expression, probably alone among London schools, it has no uniform; in the Sixties, Paulinas were already throwing off their school-issue coats and hats. A gender-non-conforming student at St Paul’s negotiates even more than the skirt-and-trousers regulations that make so many teens’ lives needlessly difficult or the everyday subversions of dress code I’d have learned as an alphabet if I’d gone anywhere else. It’s not a case of asking to wear, as a badly worded article in the Daily Mail put it, ‘boys’ uniform’; it’s a case of negotiating countless social and subcultural expectations, both those you choose and those that get projected on to you.

The space to experiment might be greater than any other British school, but so is the space to get it wrong.

Broadsheet newspapers usually sum up St Paul’s with reference to one or two famous old girls. The current favourites are Rachel Weisz and Harriet Harman; when I was there, it used to be Imogen Stubbs. They’re confident and upper-middle-class, commanding in the arts and principled in politics; ‘In Faith and Knowledge’, the school song’s meant to go, but what apocryphally makes one Old Paulina recognise another in Knightsbridge department stores is a former director of music’s Christmas carols, all switchback metre and galloping bells. The girls on assisted places had the golden ticket and the glass elevator to look through: an entrée to the world behind the curtain, or the chance to throw it all away. Justine Frischmann, from Elastica, had been to ours. It was 1995 and they’d just been the stars of Glastonbury and our headmistress never mentioned her at all.

A lesbian who picks up bits of masculinity like shiny buttons, usually attracted either to what I recognised in myself or what I wanted to, with no idea where class-based outsiderness stopped and gender and sexuality began, didn’t have a hope of pulling those things apart when everybody wanted to be Justine Frischmann.

Most of the concepts I’d have needed even to recognise that I was a lesbian, let alone that identities had more around the edges and maybe so might mine, wouldn’t reach me until years after I caught glimpses of people who might be like me, learned the hard way that most of them weren’t, did all of this without realising that identification and attraction could even be the same, and – with dozens of magazine sidebars and makeover shows telling me that that was all right; see, they’re talking to straight women – somehow wrapped that all up in the idea of wanting to look like other people. Because of course, that impulse was never queer.

I never got as far as asking for anything that today’s trans and non-binary students at St Paul’s, and their allies, have been campaigning for. I’d never even heard, and to my knowledge neither had any of my classmates, that anyone sent to school as a girl might not have been one. Nobody would have taken on the label lesbian unless they were brave enough to wear it like a provocation. Justine Frischmann didn’t work out. I tried something else. I found ever more elaborate justifications why I wasn’t what everyone told me I was, but I never wrote it in words. My parents must have been terrified I’d lose my scholarship; I ought to have been. They could come and get it. I found the self that steps up when I’m told to back down and twisted it into behaviour I should have stepped back from straight away.

I wanted something to be recognised about me; I didn’t know what it was; alarmist readings of Section 28, combined with an institutionalised fear that parents would see the school as a place that turned girls lesbian, meant nobody in authority was likely to tell me. The one teacher who tried fell foul of another dispute far above my head and cleared her portakabin sanctuary that same autumn, 1997.

I needed intervention, unlike most of the other queer and questioning alumnae who read about St Paul’s new policy with complex emotions – how much must have changed – but how much easier it could have been for me – and shared them on the Facebook status of one of the most talented girls I remember from the year below, who had a much worse time of it than me. Even then, it was how the school dealt with what I’d put in front of it that taught me for years to be afraid not just of most of my identity but even of some of the most characteristic things about how I see the world.

Today’s students there will be able to know that, at least once they’re 16, they’ll be able to use the names and pronouns that represent them; they’re much more likely than my generation to know before 16 that recognition of their name or recognition of their pronouns is part of what they need. This is the next century, sang Justine’s boyfriend in that Clockwork Orange song; he didn’t put that in.

There are gaps in the policy, as reported in the press, that I’d like to see filled: why should trans children who know about themselves before 16 have to wait, if recognition would help them now, and when in a supportive environment there’s nothing to lose if they are wrong by changing back again? Why isn’t there a stronger commitment to letting trans boys continue at the same school whatever stage of hormone therapy they’re at, if that’s what they want to do? Could they make a clear commitment that a trans girl, changing school perhaps, would be tested on the same terms as any other prospective Paulina?

Even though I didn’t need to change my pronouns or change my name – the stories of people who did tell me that if I had needed to, surely, I’d have known – the preconditions for a policy like that to exist, inside and outside the school, would still have made today’s St Paul’s unimaginable from the high-backed wooden benches where you sat and stared at black and white marble before the High Mistress called you in for her ultimatum.

I did change my name. I didn’t know it meant that. From the more feminine version of my name I’d been enrolled with, to Catherine, there on my birth certificate in the first place and belonging – I realised while I was pushing past the chaos I’d wrapped around myself – to me. Nothing had to change except people’s habits and a school register (the former by far the most difficult, of course).

Capable of drawing symbolic significance out of the smallest detail, I heard the girl-like ending of a de-facto birth name that didn’t stand for me, the strong confident ending of a consonant in my full name that I could just call older-sounding if anyone, including myself, asked me. There. That would do. It always has. (It wouldn’t have, for the students who need the same affirmation from a different name entirely as I could find by letting myself hear the less gendered sound of Catherine.)

Someone had looked up to me by then, four year groups below. I only found that out when my friend the photographer and her poignant memories set off so many other comments underneath.

In the tutor whose form I was moved into halfway through the term, the history teacher who showed me more to reach towards, the staff advisor to the school newspaper who put me in positions where younger students learned from me, I was coming into contact, finally, with some of the very staff who’d go on to support the next generation of queer students and struggle with senior management to let LGBTQ+ topics become institutionally visible – the groundwork necessary for St Paul’s to join other girls’ schools that, with less media coverage, are trying to show their students who aren’t girls that they belong.

Today’s students, taking our school’s origin myth at its highest value and infusing their feminism with solidarities that never occurred to most white women in my generation at their mid-teens, will have played a large part in obtaining something that even many of us who needed it didn’t know how to say we needed.

News like this, from a school like that, has a serrated edge. It tears something open, all over again, because the joy and even pride of it won’t have to be like that, for them depends on its reflection, it didn’t have to be like that, for me. Even as it rebuilds someone else, it rips through you.

But in seeing that it wasn’t just you, wasn’t just me, wasn’t just her, maybe it rebuilds you a bit more as well.

The cold never bothered me anyway: a queer gaze and twenty years of screen witchcraft meet ‘Flower In The Snow’

The cold never bothered me anyway: a queer gaze and twenty years of screen witchcraft meet ‘Flower In The Snow’

Slovenia, a dependable but rarely distinctive contributor to the Eurovision spectacle, has given me more than usual to think about performance with over the first weekend of selecting its entry for this year’s contest in Kiev: firstly with this pop-opera Kraftwerk or pop-opera Laibach production, playing some very mid-2010s games around dystopian uniforms and propaganda, which didn’t progress past the first semi-final, and then, well, this.

‘Flower In The Snow’ taps into a gothic, fairytale aesthetic which Slovenia already packaged successfully for Eurovision in 2014, in Tinkara Kovač’s flute-wielding ‘Round And Round‘,  and on a very different sized stage for the actress Tanja Ribič in 1997 – so long ago that Ribič’s 19-year-old daughter was another competitor in the Slovenian Eurovision heats this year.

What Nuška Drašček’s performance does is even more directly bring to mind – or letting you think it brings to mind, which for the viewer amounts to the same thing – the tropes of constraint, emotional release, and self-discovery through magic which have crackled out of female-centric popular culture from The Craft to Frozen, not unlike the way that one of Eurovision’s most iconic winners, Ruslana, could ground her own performance in everything a viewer might have known and felt about Xena: Warrior Princess.

Both of which when seen through the right lens are, in their own way – we’ll get on to Ruslana here in due course – full of the potential to be powerfully and thrillingly queer.

I’d like to be writing this in May, explaining why ‘Flower In The Snow’ ought to be a contender to win in Kiev, but Eurovision national finals are thankless things and there’s a seven-to-eight chance Slovenia will pick what could be anything from a quite cobbled together pub-band song, to a man shooting digital and physical flame around the stage in a Superdry t-shirt (which rather takes the edge off his shooting flame around the stage).

The growing intensity, soaring choruses and one-verse-to-another character arc of ‘Flower In The Snow’ are straight from musical theatre and work the same way, with Drašček’s high-collared black outfit guiding the imagination towards the gothic, as the musical sub-genre Idina Menzel has made her own: what can only be described as witches’ coming-out songs.

‘Defying Gravity’, the showstopper for Wicked‘s misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West, and ‘Let It Go’, the very pole of the commercial pack-ice that is Frozen, are two aspects of the same archetype: the woman accepting that the qualities which put her on the margins of society aren’t just traits to fear or marks to hide but powers, gifts, even if a society that fears them can never understand them, especially if a society that fears them can never understand them: and so why not climb on the broomstick, build the ice palace, become what the pointed hat or wind-machine hair already held out to you, what generations of artists and folklorists have already shown is wrapped up in the word witch.

I can’t not be what you say I am; therefore I’ll be so much like that as to be fearsome.

Making more public the self you are – the one you hope you might be, that you’re afraid you might be – after years of conceal-don’t-feel, years of accepting-limits-cause-someone-says-they’re-so, is a crossing of boundaries through which millions of listeners have heard the last lines of ‘Let It Go’:

Here I stand, in the light of day
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

‘Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know – well, now they know’: no wonder there are whole icebergs of the internet devoted to queering Elsa.

There’s a vulnerability, a lostness, a resilience, but also a frozenness, and inescapably therefore a Frozen-ness, to the image of a flower in the snow. Drašček’s first line – ‘Lost in the streets, the night is cold’ – primes the atmosphere, with a cloud of other standards like ‘On My Own’ or ‘Memory’ just out of sight, and the chorus – ‘Hit me in my cold heart, I just need a jump-start / Feel the silent pain in these loveless veins’ – is deep in Menzel territory even before the second verse echoes both anthems at once:

Now I’m not afraid of who I am
Cause I’ve found a way to change the plan
Now that I let it go, it heals my wounds and heals my soul

Now I’m not afraid of who I am: as ready as anything on Broadway to be queered, in defiance of forces as inexorable as temperature or, well, gravity, and to do the same work that queer audiences have made of every other diva musical; a fantasy of power through self-recognition, imaginable through an act of self-recognition in itself, an identification between listener and character, that is happening right now; all the more so when you can project something of yourself into the character on screen and maybe just maybe take it back inside.

With the second half of the chorus – ‘Throw me out a lifeline, let me see the light shine / And just watch me grow, like a flower in the snow’ – we have, just like Conchita Wurst and her lyricists managed with ‘Rise Like A Phoenix‘, an arc of emotional sincerity and a storyline, even if we’re only seeing it at the beginning. (It’s no surprise at all to find out that, four years ago, Drašček recorded the Slovenian translation of ‘Let It Go’.)

The damaged sorceress who finds redemption through painfully opening herself up to human contact again isn’t just Elsa’s story, but a trope of its own in today’s retellings. Not least for Lana Parrilla’s Regina (aka the Evil Queen of Snow White) who makes her own contribution to fairytale’s high-collared gown collection as one of the stars of Once Upon a Time:

You discover your desires aren’t what they were expected to be, probably long before you get to find out what they are; and along the way there are so many missteps and misrecognitions, so many reasons not even to try again because the costs were so high that last time, when you got it wrong – that no wonder queer viewers, in particular, are drawn to characters like these.

Drašček, as a performer, understands the bodily language of screen witchery. Holding a commanding hand to camera, keeping eye contact with the lens as it spins round, grasping the air just where the producer would CGI an orb of mana or a fireball: the choreography of magic from Buffy‘s Willow to Elsa.

Meanwhile, with the help of her make-up artist Emperatrizz, she’s by accident or design very good at recreating something else: the kohl-rimmed glare and out-of-control grin of the most emblematic character from 1996’s ‘year of the teen witch‘, Fairuza Balk’s Nancy in The Craft.

I came late to The Craft, like most things at that time. When I did see it, I was already into my own, quite necessary, phase of locking myself back in from the thrill of going too far – well, now they know… – that I resisted taking it as one of my stories, the way so many women have who as teenagers in and around 1996 saw in the revenge fantasies of Sarah, Rochelle, Bonnie and Nancy allegories or direct reflections of their own isolation. It didn’t have to be queerness; but it often was.

The witch, the sorceress, the evil queen, in nineties-noughties-nowties popular culture – from Nancy to Elsa, Elphaba to Regina – is a woman who turns her outsider position and the reason for it into the very basis of her power, her glamour and her image: one of the strongest, surely, of the secret chords, the codes you hear to recognise yourself.

I can’t say whether or not we’re meant to see any of this in ‘Flower In The Snow’ (although, if we’re talking secret chords, how much more exciting it would be if we were, right down to Drašček’s very last wide smile before the camera pans away).

The performance, as always with spectatorship, becomes the genealogy it becomes in this viewing because of everything else I’ve seen, and what those meant. The craft of a performance, how Ruslana harnesses Xena or Conchita harnesses Bassey/Bond or Nina Sublatti – the benchmark for digitally-enhanced Eurovision gothic – harnesses the black-feathered antagonist of a dozen video games, is in how voice and movement and language and special-effects and design put enough out there so that as viewers we meet them halfway, and that space in between is where meaning happens.

It’s a space, for this performance where queer women, in particular, have something to put in, whether it was meant for us or not.

Hardly anyone outside Slovenia might even see it. It’s happened before; last year’s producers gave Anja Baš’s ‘What If’ an alter-ego interpretive dance routine that, now I’m so used to filling in the blanks and starting to write the words that bridge them, comes to me on queer autopilot. (I mean, look at that.)

It lost quite convincingly to a reasonable reconstruction of pre-1989-era Taylor Swift.

‘Flower In The Snow’ might or might not have been designed as a queer performance (at least one of Drašček’s team, on the other hand, is queer: Emperatrizz, who performed at Eurovision fifteen years ago as one of the drag trio Sestre); but the aesthetics of gothicness and enchantment, freezing and unfreezing, that through its images probably convey at least something of the Menzel anthems to almost anyone carry enough queer meanings that they can crystallise as soon as they are seen.

Little queer ideograms: talking with pictures before they were words

The title for this blog, and part of my understanding of the symbiosis between queerness and media itself (in a past where I didn’t comprehend it; in a present where I’m starting to contribute to it), comes from a conversation with the musician and writer CN Lester on Twitter last winter, prompted by a photograph they’d just shared of Grace Jones:

CN is the author of a long-running blog on trans politics, literature and music, essays about working out what growing up as a genderqueer trans person means, and a forthcoming book on trans rights and identities today. They’re one of many non-binary and genderqueer people whose experiences of confusion and identification, as they describe them, resonate with mine, even though I don’t feel so intense a disaffiliation from the gender on my birth certificate that I need it to be recognised as something else.

‘I was talking with pictures of people before I even knew that they were words,’ I replied. ‘Like little queer ideograms.’

I was 12 or 13, not 11, but that was the same time I started to see images that made me recognise something I couldn’t put into words and start to ask, without even knowing what I was reaching towards: if I was more like that, would whatever it is be clearer about me too?

I stepped back, probably more than CN, from identifying with anyone too challenging in terms of sexuality or in terms of how their gender related to mine. 1995-6, the years I start to come from, were never about kd lang but (in silent substitution, I realised years later) Céline Dion; Justine from Elastica but never Brett Anderson or Jarvis Cocker or Alex from Blur; never even the tension between Justine and Donna Matthews that, twenty years later, I’m equipped to perceive in every picture of the two of them even though it wouldn’t have been there.

All that and what came to mind as the materiality of a little queer ideogram is a photograph torn out of newsprint, two or three inches square, of the tennis player Sam Smith, who in one of those shock runs of form that British tennis sometimes pulls out of nowhere made the fourth round of Wimbledon in 1998. Roughly the same size as a full-size Twitter avatar, I can say now, it went up with four blobs of blu-tack on the side of a brown cabinet which (in a bedroom which did double service as the family living-room) essentially stood in for a bedroom wall. I’d made the grudging acceptance that stood in for coming out seven or eight months before. Its edges were ragged pulp fibre, like the rest, with the rupture into one border that you used to get because newsprint tore more quickly along one grain than the other.

Smith was one of the very few I still don’t even have a word for it – someone who looked like they might be the same thing as me – to have appeared, then or now, in the notoriously homogenising world of women’s tennis. Somewhere between Ellen MacArthur and Winona Ryder, she used to wear a white paisley headband on court that indexed more rock gods and action stars than I would have known about. In twenty years of following Wimbledon, with less and less interest, I still can’t think of anyone else on the women’s side like that.


Rough-edged; acquired by chance, on the whim of a picture editor who filled space with Smith’s photo rather than someone else’s; an image I wouldn’t think about again for years, even though she works as a commentator these days on a tournament I’ve almost stopped watching; I forget now, when I can tap almost any name into a global library, how scarce even pictures themselves used to be.

(You were supposed to collect them, at our school, and laminate them over the padded back and front of your school diary; where everyone else would have collaged Damon Albarn and Keanu and Alex and Jarvis and Brett.)

That was a little queer ideogram, which as part of a tiny constellation ought to have said: I’m something like that, without ever having to explain what it was.

It wasn’t just that I couldn’t, or I thought I shouldn’t, though it was both those things as well; it was also that there literally didn’t seem to be a word for what I wanted to express. If I couldn’t name it, how could I tell anyone, let alone connect to anyone else who was the same?

(And it was at best incomprehensible, at worst disastrous, when I did try.)

An ideogram is a symbol that stands for an idea. On its own, without knowledge of the code, it’s nothing but what its surface seems to denote. Understand the symbolic system that infuses it, and a few lines can convey an universe.

I train students never to search the internet for dictionary definitions to bolster the introduction of a piece, but rolling the ideas of ideograms around the roof of my mind that’s exactly what I do, and there from Oxford is one that in a text like this actually does resonate: ‘A character symbolizing the idea of a thing without indicating the sounds used to say it.’

Collect enough pictures, I thought, and I’d never have to say the sounds at all.

I was pointing at an illustrated brochure, and nothing more; but pictures, and words, were both a kind of scarcity.

Reflecting, on Twitter again, about what gives us a sense of ourselves as a generation, everyone in their thirties I saw responding to this tweet must have answered with a memory about technology – most of it to do with media, most of it to do with discovery:

You only saw most music videos once. Most celebrities only existed in the same few photographs. A cassette tape broke and you never heard a song again. I learned to press record pre-emptively, at the start of every performance on Top of the Pops, then wind back ninety times out of a hundred because there was nothing there I wanted to remember after all, so that I wouldn’t miss the ones I would. Pictures frayed when you paused them. Singles took years to cross the Channel. Icons could be rare. The video machine said clunk. It said fizz bizz. It said whirr.

The queer musical heritage a generation up from me had seen first hand – everything mind-bending about Grace Jones and Annie Lennox and Freddie Mercury, everything that leaves queers a few years older than me mourning Prince (originator of one of the queerest ideograms of all) and Bowie and Pete Burns and George Michael all at once – was dribbled out through the nineties in documentary and late-night TV, whereas today it is a heritage, an archive, an inheritance.

I found never as many images as I wanted, still too many to make sense of; but didn’t have any words for them to signify.

Lesbian described nothing about why I still wasn’t attracted to most women, or why attraction would start and could only start by recognising some flash of that’s like me; why I could feel a desire to look at a woman and a desire to look like that at one and the same time (or the recognition that I already did); why there was something about Richard Ashcroft in ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ or Antonio Banderas in Evita that I was still responding to, even though they were men.

I never questioned what my gender was, but then I and everyone else around me still only thought that there were two, and by the time I knew that there were more I understood that as long as you get my name right and don’t expect me to dress in a feminine way a pronoun, for me, doesn’t actually make a difference.

While there are other people who know in their flesh and in their bones that they do need to be they, or do need to be he, or that they do need to change much more about their body than I do; and yet their stories of finding out how they wanted to express their gender will sound quite like mine.

On a Venn diagram of gender expression – as if even a quantum physicist could conceive of the number of dimensions that would take – I fit somewhere, although it doesn’t have a name, with people who describe their gender identities in very different terms. But I do fit somewhere. Which is more than I used to.

More than I used to, when twenty or fifteen or ten years ago I didn’t even know that sexuality or gender identity or gender expression could be described as separate things, far less that the degree of sexual or romantic attraction, or the intensity of attachment to a gender, varied between people to the extent that it turns out they do.

What I wanted to say – what I would have wanted others to understand if I could have perceived it myself – was so far outside the categories available to me, or anyone else I knew, that I could only try and communicate it through analogy and approximation.

Not everything has a word; but at least there are more intelligible relationships between more words.

Twenty years ago, I did everything I could to avoid even having to say the sounds; now, I’m at least able to understand that we’re still trying to find more sounds to say.