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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Queer grief and the secret chord with Kate McKinnon: it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah

It shows how fast and repetitively 2016 has thrown up its global shocks that I can no longer remember which act of political violence or extremist victory in June or July prompted the first set of tweets implying that, as this internet-meme-in-waiting put it:

The same sardonic imagination might make it seem as if Leonard Cohen, whose death was announced two days after the result of the US election, had known after a lifetime of meditating on hopelessness and brokenness and grief what was coming, and couldn’t bear it.

Cohen had died, in fact, on the Monday, his death notice held over to the Friday so that his family could hold a private funeral; still publicised in time for Saturday Night Live, the same comedy show responsible for casting Trump as a figure of fun not a harbinger of hatred throughout the campaign, to cold-open its first show since the election with Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton in a dark Oval Office, giving a piano recital of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.

‘Hallelujahs’ are two-a-penny on celebrity TV, cut back to their least savage verses and arranged for harmonised-by-committee talent-show voice, and SNL deserves no credit for providing Trump and his persona with a normalising platform during the campaign.

Yet a rawness in McKinnon’s performance, never releasing itself, still reaches viewers through, or even across the barrier of, the part her show has taken in US public culture. I couldn’t put it into words until I saw these tweets by Aaron Bady:

And when he put it like that – it often takes someone else to put it like that – this, for the first time since Wednesday, was the one that got me.

More than anything else a queer artist has made since the election, except perhaps this strip by the illustrator Molly Ostertag and its devastating last line ‘And you wonder if that was the best it will ever be’:

Ostertag captures what my own gaze reads back into McKinnon. A grief for how much more free you could feel, as a queer woman in America, compared to what you fear might be in front of you even when (especially when) you might have had the privilege of not realising its likelihood before, and compared to how you expected to grow up. It changed in your lifetime, after the struggles of the 1980s, all the tentative steps of the 1990s, under those eight years of Obama; now it’s lashing back. And catching, as it does so, all those younger people, who weren’t supposed to have to have it quite as bad.

Joy and love and art that had to look over its shoulder a little bit less often than it used to, coming to terms with having to do so even more.

Six months ago, McKinnon was its symbol. The makers of the all-female Ghostbusters never said or were never allowed to say that Jillian Holtzmann, McKinnon’s swaggering engineer, was queer; the queer women of the internet started filling in the gaps, as soon as the first trailer dropped and Holtzmann pushed up her yellow goggles to wink to camera, with ’Kate McKinnon’s 10 [or more than 10] gayest “Ghostbusters” gay moments of gay’.

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Everything was about Holtzmann, the way that in 2015 everything had been about Imperator Furiosa, and growing up in the 1990s I could never have imagined – could McKinnon? – such a public, instant, transatlantic moment of sheer queer joy.

(I still missed Ghostbusters when it came out;

(and yes, all this excitement for a white American woman in a scrappy uniform licking the barrel of a gun, even if what it does in Ghostbusters is captures ghosts, and we were going to have to talk about this queer militarism thing sometime;)

and now its present is another past.)

Even on SNL McKinnon had been part of that before: her impression of the machismo of Justin Bieber’s Calvin Klein ads in 2015, channelling half the drag kings in America, made Shauna Miller, in The Atlantic, write ‘McKinnon’s Bieber might be one of the most radically queer images to sneak onto network TV right now […] there’s a gay dog whistle on blast every time she’s on screen’.

kd lang’s Vanity Fair cover with Cindy Crawford, in 1993 (lang dressed in a three-piece suit, Crawford pretending to shave her face in a barber’s chair) – if there’s an early 1990s equivalent at all – must have had an effect like that on queer women who already knew each other and what they were and where they could have space to say so.

I had no community like that to know what media images did excite queer women most in 1993. I didn’t know the story about Vanity Fair for years, and tried to know as little as possible about kd lang. What I did do, in 1993 through 1995, was watch a lot of women with short-but-unthreatening hair and trouser suits singing sad ballads and try to read queer meanings into and around their lyrics, not that I had any idea for years more that I was doing that.

McKinnon’s voice catches on a line about touch, and with decades of gay dog whistles to guide the ear, it sounds like queer desire back in the closet.

The first time, it’s ‘baby, I’ve been here before’ so close to ‘I used to live alone before I knew you’; the second time, knowing what comes next, it’s that very first line, ‘I’ve heard there was a secret chord’, when for so long a secret chord was all that queer music on television could ever be.

There isn’t even a line about touch for McKinnon’s voice to have caught on. I don’t know what I heard. A clip of Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Adia’ is getting in there; except, through an archive I could only have imagined as a far-off fantasy in the mid-1990s, I can establish in seconds that the darkness and the piano probably mean it’s ‘Angel’, not ‘Adia’ at all, and the date and a few other things mean –

– what they mean, which were my fault, and which they shouldn’t have had to.

The song runs to three minutes, just right to fit into a Eurovision Song Contest in the mid-nineties from Norway or Sweden if the song wasn’t by Cohen and if they lit the stage up bright blue; and already it indexes so many secret chords that I have trouble seeing a Hillary Clinton in that scene at all.

And this is all in a period of cultural production, or one we’ve just come out of perhaps, where queer creators have been going back to that past of closeted viewers watching closeted performers as a past. The meanings of the silences and hesitant glances in Carol, released last year, echo their fifties originals, carrying their double meanings through the screen for queers, but assume a straight audience, as well as a queer audience, that understands how to read them and knows what unhappiness it caused.

Their equivalents in The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s novel, were like that because they were on the bounds of what it was permissible to print, with the author’s name herself concealed as ‘Claire Morgan’.

Reading The Talented Mr Ripley, a few months after seeing Carol, I was struck by a reading – galling but true to its time – in which what triggers the murder that Ripley spends the rest of the book trying to cover up is perhaps itself an incident of deeply sublimated queer desire, which Ripley can’t acknowledge and his friend – so successful a performer of straight upper-class masculinity that his name gets to be Dickie – simply can’t accept.

Ostertag’s comic and McKinnon’s song, through my interpretive filter but perhaps for others, both tug at the fear of potentially having to take that fear back into your own present. That suddenly, for four years, for eight years, under whatever circumstances the president’s fundamentalist and white supremacist advisers in the White House choose, you will have to think much more carefully before making a declaration that might just have been becoming everyday, that need not have been a declaration at all.

The clampdown on social media that writers like Masha Gessen or Sarah Kendzior have feared could manifest in an assault on the virtual spaces where radical and progressive social movements organise – or the swarm harassment that a hostile White House could allow to have the same effect – would take away an everyday space that queers not familiar with the history of state repression of radical movements had come to take for granted; where the first thing you could expect to log on to in the morning was a gifset of McKinnon’s Holtzmann, not a swastika.

(Remembering: Americans are not the first people this has happened to.)

Back to the video to write this post and there is McKinnon’s wink right there, I thought it was, the first time, but there was so much else to hear.

The wink, in the armoury of queer signalling, is the throwing star. An instant flicker of the eye, stealing the moment of safety or bravado, to say unambiguously yet deniably: I’m saying this thing and I’m also saying something else. You catch her wink in time to recognise it, or you don’t, and then the rest of the encounter becomes Was that my imagination? A magic from a time when you couldn’t just play it back, let alone count on being able, not just once every few months but daily, to seek, find, celebrate, name, share.

One wink with swagger, one wink with grief, and all in the same year.

There is McKinnon’s second, on such a loaded line, ‘I used to live alone before I knew you’, heavy with queer solitude and history; a signal from a time that the men in the White House call paradise, when the gay dog whistle could never be louder than a secret chord.

Queer nation and queer time: on transatlantic solidarities, fear, imagination

A few days after the Orlando attack, queer people in Hull, just like in other cities round the United Kingdom, held a vigil.

I don’t make it to that many things after work when I’m drafting a new book, far less two or three things at once, but I walked down from the university to the gay bar near the station where people were supposed to be gathering, and by the time I came – a colleague I knew from the staff LGBT network had had the same idea – there must have been two or three hundred people, already filling up the square around the war memorial.

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We heard the speeches, and dozens of people left tributes I hadn’t thought to bring, and I wished there’d been more said about how most of the 49 dead had been Latino as well as queer, but my main impression was: I’ve never seen so many LGBT people at the same time in Hull.

And so many generations all together – from teenagers with enough support from their schools and families to be working it all out as they go along, so much more confidently and so much more quickly than I ever managed, to people the age my grandparents would be who didn’t even understand for years whether there was anyone else like them.

Part of this was my own fault. My own LGBT friends are too scattered for any Pride to be somewhere where I meet up with a real-life community, and Hull Pride in July usually happens when I’m away for research – but, still, I’ve never seen so many LGBT people at the same time in Hull. I certainly never thought I’d see rainbow, bi and trans flags ringing the Hull cenotaph.

A day before, or maybe a day after, I watched a news clip in my office from the vigil in Soho. The crowd there filled the old gay quarter, past and all around the Old Compton Street pub where 19 years ago, while I was in sixth form figuring out what a sexuality I hadn’t accepted until then meant for how I was going to live in the world, a white British man had planted a nail bomb because he wanted to start a race war.

A friend and colleague in my department – who’s straight, married with children, but working hard to make the university a better place for the LGBT students we know about and the ones we don’t – popped round, soon after I’d seen the clip from Soho, to gently ask how I was doing after what had happened in Orlando.

I remember saying: I’d never have thought, in 1999, so many people would have come together in London to commemorate an attack like that in the USA. I was also saying – because queerness so often is about also saying – : I’d never have thought, in 1999, the straight coworkers I could expect to have in 2016 would understand it might be kind to check in on a queer colleague after a mass attack in an Orlando nightclub or Old Compton Street.

In different ways during the 20th and 21st centuries, part of being queer as an identity – knowing that something about you means you go through the world in a particular way, which is similar to others like you – has very often been recognising that queer people in other countries may be having experiences more like yours than straight and cisgender people in your own.

These are lived and everyday links, going back longer and extending further than people might often think – one chapter in the volume on east European gender history I’ve just been editing links up the lesbian and gender non-conforming volunteers of Scottish Women’s Hospitals (well-known in early 20th century British lesbian history) with their counterparts on the Yugoslav avant-garde arts scene – but they’re imaginative ones as well.

And they’re political. You understand that the options in front of you as a person who isn’t automatically going to, and often can’t, live the same life as someone with the same background who had never even had to question their gender or sexuality will be more limited;

(less so than they used to be; sometimes; at least now)

and that because of that, queer people before you, and at the same time as you, mapped out ways of existing and moving and creating and loving and just being that showed compulsory straightness and patriarchy and the gender binary were really what the limits were.

American queer theorists like Jack Halberstam and Lee Edelman wrote, at the turn of the millennium, about ‘queer time’: the idea that the arrow of time mapped out by and for straight people and straight families simply doesn’t – and, they often implied, shouldn’t – structure queer lives. Perhaps it need not structure straight lives either.

The New York activists who met through the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power in 1990 and called their own direct action group ‘Queer Nation’ did so at a time when ‘the nation’ in America meant the resistant cultural solidarity of Black Nationalism but also an ideal of the American nation to which sexually non-conforming and gender-variant people were told they could only marginally and conditionally belong, and the state that used the American nation’s symbols was the same institution that beat American queers up on the street.

By 2016 that state was the same institution that flew killer drones above queer and straight Muslims in Yemen, drove pipelines through Native territory in North Dakota, and shot down African-Americans of all sexualities and genders in the street.

It was also a state which, under Barack Obama, had extended rights that many queer people in the USA had grown up never believing they would have: marriage equality; gender recognition on federal documents including passports; federal support for trans health care; a Department of Justice prepared to stand up to the legislatures of North Carolina and other US states that waged their backlash against changing norms by restricting trans children’s and adults’ access to school activities, public bathrooms and everyday life.

Doing the Stars and Stripes, or Britain’s own Union flag, up in queer-liberation pink looked like a far less radical act in 2012 or 2014 than in 1988 or 1990 – to the extent that sometimes (more than sometimes) it helped draw dangerously simple maps between a progressive ‘Britain’ or ‘America’ and a backward ‘Russia’ or a threatening ‘Islam’; to the extent that some of the slogans, styles and heritage of that earlier radical queer period could even start to look complicit in a militarism and nationalism they had originally been designed to fight against.

Lady Gaga, speaking at Hillary Clinton’s last pre-election rally in Raleigh, North Carolina and performing her manifesto of liberal queerness ‘Born This Way’, struck for many viewers an uncomfortable note in a black uniform and red armband first worn by Michael Jackson during his visit to the White House in 1990.

(Do Queer Nation’s ‘army of lovers’ mean the same when the two bearded sailors kissing have been trained and sanctioned by the state to kill?)

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

You feel it.

Maybe only deep in the background sometimes, maybe screaming violently in front of you, something about your body and how you live in it and where on the planet you are doing that means that you at least think it, sometimes, in a way that a straight white man living somewhere that he holds a passport has never known that he would have to do.

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.

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, and 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, whose lives and notes and names were about to go up in smoke when the stormtroopers burned Magnus Hirschfeld’s library.

The tone-altering epilogues to more than one book, researched during the 2000s and 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, which I didn’t expect, which my elders still won for me, and which I could lose again in ways that, if they were proposed for straight people, would be ‘some Handmaid’s Tale shit right there.’

(Dystopias like that still happen. But they need more guns.)

If you’re straight and married, especially if your right of residence depends on it, imagine watching last night’s election like many of my friends in the US, knowing the result could determine whether you were allowed to stay married to your husband or your wife.

If you’re not trans it would be almost inconceivable, some clichéd mid-20th-century exploitative pulp fiction thing, to picture a government coming to power after an election forcing you, as a man, to live life as a woman, or you, as a woman, to live life as a man.

There’s a scene in V for Vendetta – a film which, like The Matrix, has extra valences now the public know it was directed by two trans women – where a young woman, Evey, is held in the concentration camp where Britain’s fascist government detained and tortured the terrorist V.Through a crack between floorboards or a gap inside the wall, Evey finds a letter written by a woman called Valerie, imprisoned and executed as a lesbian, committing her memory to a future occupant of her cell.

The horror is closer when it could be you. So much further away, still, when you are white. The horror is still closer.

We use imagination to say so. To give it more of a name; to start describing it for someone else; and then to be able to put it back again.

There’s a scene in The Matrix — there are many (like it, but this one is mine); (or might be, if I’d actually go back and watch this thing again) — there’s a scene in The Matrix, after some action sequence or other on a rooftop, where the Wachowskis have Trinity and Neo deliciously and thrillingly identical; a second order of queerness that in 1999 I didn’t even know was queer at all and in 2016 is a space that ought to have my name on it and even in 2003 would have had no more resonance than ‘why has she got to be with a man all the time’, certainly not compared, at least not then, to the section of the third film with Rachel Blackman channeling Private Vasquez in Aliens for ten minutes.

I’ve had the luck and the privilege of an early adulthood where the space for me to know myself and name myself and recognise myself has multiplied in front of me, where I could even be confident about sharing more of that with people who weren’t queer, to even start translating the more difficult bits into images that other people might understand, and where I could see younger people so much better equipped to do that earlier, ready for the rest of their lives, that I thought: They’re going to have a better time than me.

(It hasn’t been a bad time. It just took a while.)

Throughout my school years a law in England and Wales called Section 28 prevented schools doing what Parliament and the right-wing press referred to as promoting homosexuality and queers might call showing us that we exist. Homosexuality was either a sensation or a social problem; there wasn’t even a concept, let alone a movement, of ‘trans youth’. I couldn’t say if staff or students were more afraid to come out. I didn’t get the support I needed, when I started putting the pieces together wrong.

They were going to have a better time than me.

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But times change. Section 28 came off the books, another legacy of that first Blair government, in 2003. The spectre of another – They’re teaching our kids how to be trans! – looms over every panic about young people’s gender clinics, gender-neutral toilets, trans health care and hormone blockers in puberty that clogs up The Guardian and the Express and Woman’s Hour.

And they change quickly. How few Yugoslavs, even in 1988, running in the perpetual crisis-as-normal mode that characterised late 1980s Yugoslavia, expected to live the lives they did in 1992 or even 1990. Reading media from the build-up to the Yugoslav wars in my mid-twenties, when I was researching my PhD, changed how I thought about British, or American, politics and society and instability in a way that it’s hard to go back from, in a way that Alexei Yurchak summed up in the title of his book on the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union: everything was forever, until it was no more.

The journalist Sarah Kendzior, writing consistently about the risks of authoritarian Trumpism throughout the election campaign, was able to perceive them so much earlier and so much more clearly than many of her colleagues because she had previously been an anthropologist researching authoritarianism in post-socialist Uzbekistan.

The writers Aleksandar Hemon and Charles Simic, remembering the rhetoric of Serbian politicians such as Slobodan Milošević and Vojislav Šešelj from their Bosnian-American and Serbian-American positions, were both able at very early points in the campaign to recognise the strategies Trump used to exploit ethnic entitlement and construct a politics of fear.

Authoritarian regimes and the people who seek to become them depend, to mask their implications, on the filter of it-can’t-happen-here. Nobody promises to turn America into a dystopia or Britain into a fascist regime, not least because grand narratives of the national past teach the public that the nation’s existential enemy of the twentieth century, Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany, was one of those; they promise to make America or Britain great again.

Part of making the Yugoslav wars possible, not possible but day-to-day imaginable, not day-to-day imaginable but likely, was for ethnicity to start to matter: to be the main lens that people looked through to make sense of the crisis, and who had caused it, and who needed to be in fear of each other.

Ethnicity had to inform the whole of everyday life. Some Croats and Serbs and Bosniaks would say now that for them it always had. And maybe it always did. For others, especially in a city like Sarajevo, their ethnicity and religion in the early eighties determined which Christmas they celebrated, or whether their mixed family got to have Christmas twice, or whether they had Muslim Bajram as well or instead; and in 1992 they were making life-or-death decisions based on where their ethnicity made them think they might be safe, where it meant that they could safely get to, what other people would think about them if they stayed or left.

Identities fluctuate in their political significance, and they come up strongest when people believe or are led to believe that that identity is why they’re under threat.

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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.

The shift from an individual identity, describing something about one’s own everyday and personal life, to a collective identity, that does things with other people, that experiences things with other people, that feels solidarity with people I don’t know, that makes political demands and has political struggles, because there is something to struggle against.

The filter of it-can’t-happen-here is a lot more fragile when you are queer.

Queerness and nationhood in my own work have often been, not in opposition, so much as in tension, with each other. The novelty of nations imagining themselves to be world leaders in LGBT rights, then using them as a symbol for dividing the rest of the world up into civilised and backward; or using a queer curiosity, the product of having to ask questions about things to do with bodies and identity, sex and gender and style, that straight and cis people would take for granted, to ask questions about wars and nations on the basis of everyday things.

But there is also a solidarity, a consciousness, that – more viscerally than reading about international far-right co-operation and racist policy exchange – makes you feel that an attack at a queer nightclub in Orlando or an election that threatens to tear up American queers’ federal rights has something to do with how you had expected to live and how you might be going to expect to live as a queer person in London or Hull.

The it-can’t-happen-here filter is a fiction. It can, it does, already, on the margins of society or rather on the bodies of the people who have been pushed out to them, with racism determining who already comes to harm the most.

It can, and it does, but to look into the future and see the spread of it, and the pace of the spread, and the fear of the pace of the spread, is what makes people brace against anticipated wounds although they’re across nations, the space that helps to constitute queer time.

‘Ours to claim?’: lesbian history, gender variance and identification with the past

This post originally appeared on my main academic blog.

Historians of sexuality on my Twitter timeline today have been discussing this post at Notches on the ‘Gay American History @ 40′ conference earlier this month, which Rachel Hope Cleves writes was marked by ‘passionate, and often painful, disagreement’ around the question of – and the implications of asking – how historians define the category of ‘lesbian’.

Cleves summarises the unease that she felt this question provoke as follows:

That disagreement did not finish with the close of the panel but continued through to the conference’s very end, and expressed itself along three related axes: anger about the historical erasure of lesbianism; distrust of the aggressive historicism applied to the category of lesbianism; and fear of the loss of lesbian identity within a trans futurity.

I was on the other side of the ocean from the conference and have never worked on the history of sexuality in the USA. I have, on the other hand, had to think about my own historical practice and the approaches I’d give to others through a number of projects recently, including editing a volume on gender history in 20th-century eastern Europe and the USSR (which has gone into production now!) and carrying out some pilot research on student perceptions of trans and non-binary inclusivity in their teaching (this was the background to it – I now need to write up the report).

Reading the Notches post gave me some initial thoughts as a teacher and conference organiser, and some wider thoughts as someone who also faces the responsibility of writing about people in the past whose lives involved diverse sexual practices and gender non-conforming behaviour, for readers and students whose own time is marked by struggles over the same things. (Is it necessarily ‘aggressive’, for instance, to want to historicise a category of identity?)

(I should say first of all that I’m younger than many of the conference delegates would have been and didn’t suffer from the historical erasure of lesbian identities in the same way as many older women; I also have a much more ambivalent relationship with the label, which I’ll say a bit more about as I go on.)

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One of my first thoughts, as it should have been for anyone who might organise a conference or session where this could come up, is: what would I have done if this had happened at my panel.

The summary of the conference alludes to a number of unpleasant incidents, including one where a cisgender (not trans) gay activist reopened a bitter disagreement he had had with the transgender studies in general and the trans historian Susan Stryker (the keynote speaker) in particular. (Stryker, as Cleves notes, describes the background in her essay ‘(De)Subjugated Knowledges‘, part of the Transgender Studies Reader she and Stephen Whittle assembled in 2006.)

What would another historian who was trans – a PhD student in the history of sexuality, say, knowing they would need to launch themselves into this subfield’s disciplinary community in order to gain an academic job or recognition – take away from the discussions they witnessed, the summaries they read, or the ‘tension directed by older lesbian-feminists against younger trans masculine people’ that Cleves describes as ‘palpable’ throughout the conference?

How did panel chairs respond when any of this happened? What expectations about the atmosphere of the conference had organisers set out at the beginning, or as the event unfolded, or even in a pre-conference code of conduct (a practice which is still much more common at technology or fandom conventions than academic events)? How far was the ‘possibility that [lesbian and trans] affinities might overlap’, as Cleves writes, able to be heard beyond the appeal that Jen Manion, a trans and lesbian-feminist historian of early America, made at the beginning of their presentation?

I can’t know the answers to any of those questions (and they aren’t questions which arise just from this one conference and its incidents). They will play on the minds of trans and non-binary scholars who might attend similar events, especially those whose position in the academy is most precarious. As organisers, we need to show through our actions that they’ll be welcome.

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Cleves also tries to understand the atmosphere ‘within the context of the historical denials of lesbianism, and the historicist erasures of lesbian continuities, that have left many feeling under assault’ – even within the history of sexuality, which (perhaps especially in studies of the USA?) has been dominated by studies of gay men. Perceiving that there has been an ‘aggressive form of historicism directed by academics at the category of lesbians’, she writes:

I wonder, as do many others, why writing about lesbianism in particular elicits such agonized concerns over historicism. I know from my discussions with non-academic audiences and readers that many lesbians, old and young, find meaning in connecting to historic predecessors. It hurts to hear that those women who forged lives together in the past, often at enormous cost, aren’t really yours to claim.

Anyone whose teaching has systematically or even accidentally created opportunities for gay, lesbian, bi, trans students – or students subject to social inequalities in any other way – to find out more about a marginalised past should understand the power of connecting with a history that includes you after all, even if they haven’t had to search for such a past themselves. There’s more than one reason why the hit film about gay life and the miners’ strike in Thatcher’s Britain was called Pride.

The liberatory, thrilling effect of reading that in the past as well there really were people like you, when you’ve had to struggle just to be recognised and accepted like that in the present – breaking against you like a huge reshaping wave when you least expect it in the corner of a library, the middle of a lecture, or scrolling through seminar readings on a crowded train.

(Mine were during my Masters, mostly; balancing on a window-stool in the old ULU cafe, looking out at a street that went pitch-dark by 5 pm, listening on at least one occasion to a mix-tape of post-Milosevic Serbian pop-folk.)

Do we have to share identity labels with our historic predecessors to recognise ourselves in them, them in ourselves, and put our roots down in the present through a historical continuum that has contained both us and them?

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Maybe I won’t change the mind of anyone for whom the category and identity of lesbian has been the word they’d never heard before, the secret until suddenly joyous word, that explained everything unreconcilable about who they are. It wasn’t, for me; in my own communities ‘everybody knew’ what a lesbian was in the early 1990s, and in fact ‘everybody’ probably knew more about what a lesbian was than ‘lesbians’ did, whoever they were, even as I went to ridiculous, painful and damaging lengths not to be one.

Once I’d made it quite undeniable that it did apply to me, I used it, mostly too explain a complex of inclinations and disinclinations that seemed to (I’d later understand they didn’t have to) go together. I might use it today as a clumsy approximation of the wriggle-room I find there is on both sides of the axis of desire (who I am; who I’m attracted to) that ‘lesbian’ today – for me – seems like it might fix tight.

But I’m more ambivalent to it now, compared to 20 years ago, because the language and concepts I had available then were based on there only being two genders (I didn’t even understand bisexuality then, and said some hurtful things to bi classmates at university before I did). That means I’d explain my own gender and sexuality differently now, compared to then. And that’s just changed even in my lifetime. Different categories I might or might not belong to are available, compared to 20 years ago; and even figuring out which ones don’t apply to me, once I know about them, gave me finer-grained ways to interpret my own identity.

I’m still not aware of a word that captures all the things I know now about how I relate to gender and how that relates to the genders and gender expressions of the people I’m attracted to, for the even more specific category I sometimes see reflected back at me. The best I can say (and how different even that feels to half a lifetime ago) is that at least I know, even if I can’t fully express, the combination of things there ought to be a word for.

This is a very different account of gender, sexuality, language and identity than would come from a woman for whom ‘lesbian’, from the moment she first heard it, always sounded unquestionably right. I don’t want to take her history of identity formation away through explaining more about mine.

Though both of us would be part of the same historical moment – this frustrating, contingent, still sometimes exuberant early 21st century that future historians of sexuality will try to piece together.

For a long time, including most of the time I was at university when I had the most opportunity to find historic predecessors, I did think ‘lesbian’ was the only category I could fit into. I was engaged in lesbian history-making then even if I wouldn’t say that I am now. But even when I thought that was the only feasible category there was to belong in, I remember looking for experiences like mine, or practices I might have shared, more than identities – hints and traces of the combination of characteristics that I was coming to understand had something to do with identity and desire as I experienced it. Some of those feelings of liberation, I’m not the only one who felt or did that, through reading historical writing came from books with, on the face of it, nothing to do with lesbians at all.

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The question of how historians write about people who might come down through the sources as ‘gender non-conforming women’ but who might have described their identities as transmasculine or non-binary if they’d had access to the language and worldview of early 21st century English-speaking queer movements has been confronting gender historians and historians of sexuality for some time.

I’m thinking particularly here of the more complex cases where evidence about a person’s life is ambiguous or scarce. When even sources in a subject’s own time were already representing him as male, as can sometimes be the case, it seems clear to me that writing him into history as a lesbian would erase what the evidence itself tells us about his past.

Nan Alamilla Boyd’s 1999 essay ‘The Materiality of Gender’ (also reprinted in the first Transgender Studies Reader) observed that (p. 74):

Both lesbian and transgender communities look to the past to recuperate individuals who proudly or cleverly lived outlaw sexualities or genders. However, because of the slippage between sexuality and gender, lesbian and transgender communities often spin usable histories around the same figures.

Boyd suggested that lesbian history-making in her own field, late 19th/early 20th American history, had based its understanding of who could or could not have been a lesbian on ‘birth bodies’, incorporating people with extensive histories of self-presentation as men while implying that trans women would never be able to fall into the category of lesbian.

Applied with this assumption (I don’t want to suggest that it always is or has been), even as ‘lesbian’ creates identification with the past for some readers, for readers who already know they are not women yet have had to struggle against a woman’s identity being imposed on them, the same category cuts off their access to the same thrill of connectivity with the past that lesbian history, hard-won, has offered many of its other readers.

Indeed, for a trans male or non-binary reader, ‘lesbian’ in his or hir own history of identity formation has often been a category that invalidates, when unwillingly applied to him or hir and to others like himself or hirself.

The same identity term that emancipates a woman for whom it means love and solidarity can be and has been, within another set of power relationships, an instrument of violence when it removes rather than sustains someone’s autonomy. The difference is in who claims which identity through language and who takes whose away.

What can historians do, then, about historical subjects whose gender they find hard to determine?

Judith/Jack Halberstam’s essay ‘Unlosing Brandon‘, critiquing accounts of trans men’s lives including Brandon Teena and the jazz musician Billy Tipton, framed the interpretive problem (p. 48) around a principle that has something to offer historians even if they disagree with Halberstam’s interpretation of the evidence around those men’s particular lives:

I will be asking here what kind of truths about gender we demand from the lives of people who pass, cross-dress, or simply refuse normative gender categories. None of the transgender subjects whom I examine here can be definitively identified as transsexual, and none can be read as lesbian; all must be read and remembered according to the narratives they meticulously circulated about themselves when they were alive.

What I take from this passage, held in tension with my puzzlement over why it might be hard to identify Teena or Tipton definitively as transsexual given the evidence historians do have about their lives, is its emphasis at the end on the work of historical interpretation: what is historians’ knowledge, derived from a collection of evidence, actually based on?

If this is ‘aggressive historicism’ when we ask it about the category of ‘lesbian’, I’m guilty of it – but from the point of view that any category is a container that humans have come together to construct, and we ought to be able to understand and historicise what holds it together.

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I started writing about gender and sexuality in the first place in order to get at how those social identities intersected with my first specialism, identities of ethnicity and nationhood (which, like gender-and-sexuality, are two linked but still distinct categories themselves).

My question when teaching and then writing about a past more distant then the 1990s, where ethnicity and nationality – in former Yugoslavia and elsewhere – were publicly understood as categories and identities, has always been: how do we know someone’s ethnic identity in the past, and how do we know whether ethnicity meant the same thing to them as it would now?

South-east European history is one of many fields where population movements, historic religious conversions, and multi-ethnic everyday forms of belonging have left regions, territory, heritage and people open to being claimed by competing national movements, each with historical narratives that could seem to back them up.

Even for the late 20th century, some scholars (like Chip Gagnon or Dubravka Zarkov) suggest that ethnicity started being made to matter in late Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav society more than it had done – a precondition for the Yugoslav wars to have mass participation and support – because of how revisionist intellectuals, Slobodan Milosevic and others in reaction hardened ethnic boundaries through the media by emphasising ethnopolitical division and fear.

Even when we can determine a person’s cultural and linguistic affiliation accurately – if we have ample evidence of what language they chose to write in – this wasn’t necessarily the same kind of attachment to a political entity and to dominant accounts of that country’s values as it would more likely be today – if only because of the very historically specific relationships between religious collective identities, rulers and societies earlier in European history.

How do I know whether an individual in 16th-century Dalmatia – let’s say, in the spirit of this post, one I never encountered in the literature but could have done, in the image of Anne Hathaway as Viola in Twelfth Night – saw themselves as a Croat, an Italian, a Venetian, a citizen of the republic of letters, or anything else?

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A historian writing in support of the long continuity of the Croatian nation would have one approach. A historian writing in support of the long continuity of the Italian nation might ascribe a different ethnic identity to our Dalmatian while still agreeing with their Croatian counterpart about how far historians can trace ethnicity back.

A deconstructionist historian – like John Fine, who called his last book When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans – would write with less certainty altogether.

My own approach to ethnicity and nationalism is firmly anti-essentialist – which informed how I planned and organised the introduction to the Yugoslav Wars I published last year. My final chapter shows how scholars of culture and language have ‘denationalized’ south-east European cultural histories, but in doing so meets an ethical tension that runs throughout the book:

[A]utomatically choosing a specific nation as one’s unit of analysis could obscure developments that are difficult to study through a single national lens […] How far, however, could the project of ‘denationalizing’ history go when writing about the Yugoslav wars, when people were killed, tortured and forced from their homes because of what ethno-national group they belonged or were assigned to?

Yet compared to my first book, on popular music and national identity in Croatia, I’ve still put something of a brake on how far I deconstruct ethnicity. I owe that to some of the Bosnian participants in the oral history project I went on to work for, who claimed space for ethnic labels in their narratives even when I hadn’t added them, and to reading trans theorists’ accounts of the disregard that deconstructions of gender and embodiment by and inspired by Judith Butler had had for the realities of trans lives.

(Talia Bettcher summarises those critiques, especially those of Jay Prosser and Vivian Namaste, here; as does Julia Serano, whose critique of deconstructionism influenced how I wrote about ethnicity and interviewing in a chapter I contributed to a volume on oral history and mass violence.)

The coincidence of reading trans feminist literature at the same time as reviewing these interviewing experiences challenged me to work an attention to marginalisation and imbalances of power more directly into how I approach the deconstruction of nationalism and ethnicity from then on.

Too much deconstruction, Cheryl Morgan writes, prevents trans people making the same connections with their past that gay, lesbian and queer historians have been able to seek and reclaim:

To start with, just because the word transsexual didn’t exist in ancient times that doesn’t mean that trans people didn’t exist. As the above (very incomplete) list of identities shows, people lived lives outside of the gender binary in most (if not all) cultures throughout history. Where we have no evidence it is probably because such people had to stay under the radar for fear of their lives.

Trans historians, like lesbian historians, fear pasts being deconstructed out of existence. Sometimes – in the case of trans men’s histories, often – the deconstructors have been lesbians.

What does this mean for historians who share an identity with others who have carried out an ‘aggressively’ historicist deconstruction?

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Ethnicity and sexuality, or ethnicity and gender variance, don’t map directly on to each other as categories of identity. Ethnicity as a concept has not been marginalised throughout history in the same way as same-gender desire, even as people have been persecuted (the driving force behind much European history in the so-called ‘age of nations’) because of what ethnicity they have or what ethnicity was ascribed to them; being able to conceive of having an ethnic identity has very rarely been punishable.

But there are parallels. One is that, in both cases, anti-essentialism and deconstruction are analytical tools with the potential to emancipate but also the potential to oppress. Deconstruction can diversify historians’ understanding of the identities and practices of gender, embodiment and desire and it can limit them. Deconstruction in the face of verifiable historical evidence about the facts of an ethnic conflict can become, and appear to legitimise relativisation of war crimes.

Categorisation and deconstruction are tools; their human users apply ethics to them.

Another parallel emerges if we go back to the idea near the beginning of this post – that marginalised readers of history seek historical predecessors with their own identities to be able to access the same kind of continuity with the past that a straight or cisgender reader could already take for granted.

How far do we need historical subjects, like our hypothetical Dalmatian, to have had the same concepts of identity as ourselves in order to be able to identify with them?

With ethnicity and nationality, perhaps, not much. The meanings of ethnic identity, the importance of ethnic identity, and even the ethnic identities that people might have claimed could all be very different in past centuries compared to today. Are they so distant that it’s impossible to imagine people who held them as part of the same community, connected through time, as ourselves?

‘How do we label our subjects’ ethnicity and nationality most accurately?’ and ‘How do we most accurately describe our subjects’ gender, therefore their sexuality?’ would be at a fundamental level the same question, had the categories of ethnicity and sexuality not had different histories themselves.

And what do we do when we’re not sure? This question does touch them both.

An anti-essentialist historian of ethnicity might reject present-day place names for past territories, or construct sentences to refer to individuals or organisations rather than ethnic groups. The comparable moment of decision in writing about gender and sexuality takes in as basic a unit of language as the pronouns. How do we know which pronouns to use for our historical subjects?

A radical question if you have never had to think about which ones to use for yourself or someone else you know – but a question that turns the lens of ‘How do we know what we know?’ on to something that you previously took for granted.

(What if historians didn’t use pronouns, when they weren’t sure?)

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Identifying with the past – in acquiring a collective ethno-national past, a lesbian past, a trans past, or anything else – means seeing past differences across categories that would complicate the identification. It always will.

A figure you might identify with in the past might have spoken different languages, likely practiced a religion, held very different values from yours in all kinds of ways – and yet something, across all the differences a historian could identify, still resonates to make them perceptible as someone who was like you, yours to claim.

Historical identification is – will always be – partial.

It’s an exciting and – at least in the concepts of identity that we have, today – necessary part of building up identities in the present, fighting back against marginalisation, and creating a space where you can imagine that you exist and others like you exist and there’s a continuity of that.

Yet it’s a strategic, selective kind of identification. And it always will be, because they – whoever they were, whoever she or xe or he was – were in a different historical context from us.

To a lesbian in the peace movement, where might lesbians whose passion was for military adventure sit within her lesbian history?

To a religious lesbian, where might her lesbian history accommodate a lesbian who hated the Church?

Partially, problematically; but some space would be there.

As I was thinking about this piece this morning, I happened to read M. W. Bychowski’s essay on ‘Genres of Embodiment‘ and medieval transgender literature, prefaced by an account of a transphobic incident at another conference, the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo.

Bychowski writes of medieval transgender lives as ‘relics that we have forgotten how to read’, embedded as the evidence about them is in such different notions of religion and the body, and seeks ways not to erase the category of gender but to use the knowledge that gender variance exists to reframe medievalists’ perception:

Rather than demanding we set aside our history, a critical trans studies challenges us to do the potentially harder work of changing how we structure and understand our history.

The work of historical research is interpretation, holding past and present woorldviews in tension to make sense of evidence; acknowledging the limits of what we know, and the ambiguities of how we can know about it, but driven as well by whatever the historian perceives as their own responsibilities towards their present.