We live in a current climate of outrage, where everyone reserves the right to be offended by whatever they choose. Then those that have committed the offence then turn the tables claiming autocracy and the death of freedom of speech. People cry ‘witch’ as much as they cry ‘witch hunt’, like some cyclical never ending version of The Crucible we are all living in.
This week I was lucky enough to see the brand new musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at the Apollo in London’s West End about a school boy who wants to be a drag queen. While it was both excellent, moving and uplifting, it highlighted the attitudes people can have about someone who is different and in turn highlighted for me the state of transgender rights in this country, and that by comparison is a pretty poor show at the moment.
Let’s start from the beginning with a bit of my own story. When I was seven our class at my all boys school were asked who would like to play Mary in the nativity play. While the details are hazy for me, apparently I was most enthusiastic in my bid for the role. On opening night, my parents recalled how ‘convincing’ I was as the mother of Christ, clutching my swollen womb screeching ‘my baby’s coming!’ with gusto. I went on to play Josephine in Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore and won the school acting cup at nine-years-old.
I don’t know what it was that drew me to playing these roles but I was comfortable and happy when playing them. The same couldn’t be said for when I tried dressing up in girls’ clothing outside of a theatre environment. I remember getting the telling off of a lifetime the two times I gamely put on my sister’s or her best pal’s clothes and pranced about with glee. Why would wearing them on stage be so different? At my age, I didn’t understand and felt ashamed of having upset my father.
Cut to today and the debate rages on, but now it has much more sinister undercurrents. Since John Lewis decided to remove all labels dictating whether garments were made ‘for a boy or for a girl’ there has been a gradual shift. When the Church of England recently released a report that a boy should be able to wear a tiara and a girl a dinosaur t-shirt without scorn, it seemed like even more of an uproar.
For the church to say this, I was impressed what with their shady history on LGBTQ rights and no doubt trans people up and down the country were as well. Because that’s what this is really about isn’t it, trans people. Dressing up is not the same as being trans. Gender identity is an innate thing and, with the Gender Recognition Act currently being debated and rewritten because trans people are still not equal under the law, the scaremongering has gone into overdrive.
By feigning outrage at how ‘damaging’ and ‘confusing’ it is for the other kids in school to see a boy in a dress (it’s not and kids, unlike their parents, are infinitely accepting, until taught otherwise).
Kids were also ‘confused’ when children in their class had two mummies or two daddies but it’s not confusion, it’s intrigue and when it is explained to them, they accept it straight away. But same sex marriage isn’t the issue in the UK now is it, that battle was won and now the new hot topic is transgender rights and by starting with kids in school, you hit at the heart of what can rile parents up the most and they can say whatever they want as it’s ‘their kids’ they are protecting from all this awful ‘confusion’.
Last weekend I got into a heated debate with a Daily Mail columnist who claimed incredulously that I ‘loathed free speech’ because I criticised his stance on trans rights and deigned to agree with the laws on discrimination in this country. No, I don’t think you should use your own bastardised version of religion as a weapon with which to bash vulnerable people or just people different to you.
His minions came on me like a pack of militant hand wringers, calling me a ‘drone’ and citing bogus Twitter accounts ‘proving’ how I was wrong on trans rights. It was scaremongering, using isolated incidents to say that violent sexual predators were posing as transgender women in order to infiltrate female ‘safe spaces’. If a man wants to attack and rape a woman, he doesn’t need to go to the trouble of pretending to be one. Trans women are some of the most at risk of violence and abuse in our society so who does it benefit to ban them from places like rape crisis centres or even bathrooms?
I then turned to the Sunday Times only to see a full page on ‘The Transgender Investigation’ with three consecutive articles negatively portraying trans people. The first about how apparently half of trans prison inmates are sex offenders, claiming to be trans in order to be closer to and to assault women. The next about a poor therapist fearing she could be struck off for saying to youngsters that being trans could just be teen angst, and then the final piece was about the Women’s Equality Party being ‘captured’ by the trans lobby.
It feels like being anti-trans is one of the last prejudice’s it’s ‘ok’ to have. People don’t understand it, so they fear it. There are so many nuances within being trans that critics latch onto the smallest and basest of its facets. The different stages and the myriad of terminologies put people off to the point where they write it off and because there are relatively few visible trans people in everyday life, they don’t see them or befriend them so they don’t know how difficult it can be.
Years later in my teens I tried on one of my sister’s dresses when everyone was out, stuffed one of her bras and put on a bit of lippy. My heart raced as I had those feelings that it was wrong. When I was younger, was I doing it because I was a little boy who wanted to dress up, or because I was a little boy that liked to be naughty? It felt fun and since then I’ve done two plays in drag and enjoyed them immensely. But for a trans person it isn’t a ‘bit of fun’, it is life and it is a life long struggle.
A friend was working on a TV show recently and the producer happened to be a trans woman. Whilst filming in the street a man came over and said to my mate “What is that? What is it?”, gesturing to the producer. My friend, who as a Muslim woman knows first-hand what discrimination feels like, told him in no uncertain terms to get lost and leave them alone. Concerned that she had heard, my friend spoke to the producer who simply said that she had heard everything and that it happens all the time.
So when we have national newspapers contributing to what is already a hostile environment for a vulnerable group it reminds you how much work there is still to be done. While Jamie in the West End got to be a drag queen and I won my junior acting cup, life is a whole lot different for the trans people who, even when it’s suggested they may use the bathroom of their choice, are then vilified and harangued into feeling more discriminated against that ever.