Quines Cast at Summerhall - review

Quines-Cast_Friday-images_1 Images from Quines Cast at Summerhall, clockwise from top left: the all-star line-up; Emma Pollock on guitar; Caitlin Skinner hosting; Angie Strachan slamming

Stellar Quines in Edinburgh: Quines Cast – a review

23.06.23 Summerhall, Edinburgh

 

Edinburgh’s Summerhall on a summer night is often special, with that courtyard offering myriad pathways to the atmospheric pub standing opposite or the burrows of rooms hosting shows. Last Friday I got lucky and caught the latest in a series of events by Stellar Quines (Scottish slang for ‘lass,’ with a pronunciation that rhymes with ‘crime’ as well as ‘rhyme’), the Scotland-based intersectional feminist theatre company. Hosted by theatre director Caitlin Skinner and Edinburgh Makar Hannah Lavery – members of a new wave of artistic talent sweeping Scotland – the show, ‘Quines Cast,’ is performed before a live audience, the recording then feeding into their innovative feminist podcast.

The theme of this show is Education, a welcome reminder after months of right-wing culture war stories about the drag queens corrupting our youth, ‘pupil identifies as cat’ and the government’s new Section 28 for trans pupils that there are other, less paranoid, more uplifting ways to talk about the experience of learning. Balancing the intermittent play of audio recordings of women in discussions on the education system is a super-group line-up of women and non-binary artists, also sharing thoughts on education in different ways, via story-telling and songs, dialogue and slam.

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Queer/trans DIY punk rock: Wormboys and their new EP Smalltime

Wormboys-image
The three songs that form Smalltime (2023), the new EP by Wormboys, reverberate with the darkened sweat-soaked cellar sound that made their pre-release of the song Tree so attention-grabbing back in 2022. Each song on the Smalltime EP also has its distinct identity, underscoring how Wormboys are much more than just a DIY punk ensemble with an attitude. The electrifying opener, Something pretty, with its pacy, jabbing guitar riff dovetailing with Ruth Pearce's driving bass line, even begins to evoke the early 70s-sound of Black Sabbath with a shift in the guitar’s tone a quarter-way through. A key instrument in this song too is Sop Satchwell’s vocals, manipulated around the melody that in its own, more tightly controlled way echoes The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan.

The second song, the unsettlingly dream-like Worm, represents the gentle shift in mood as well as rhythm. On this occasion, I felt transported to a Seattle sound and a fusion of Nirvana and Soundgarden: the ballad seems almost to invite a Kurt Cobain-like drawling vocal (in fact, belonging to the band’s co-vocalist, Harry Tunnicliffe, backed this time by Satchwell) though the surreal lyrics feel more in keeping with Soundgarden and the dark reframing of suburbia as in the Seattle band’s in/famous Black Hole Sun. ‘Here comes the worm again,’ the Wormboys song informs us, and with this threat germinating in the air, the possibilities of an accompanying video for Worm become a disturbing possibility, not unlike that landmark video for Black Hole Sun in the 90s. Contributing to this uneasy parallel – a ‘worm’-hole between two disturbing grungy nightmare visions, perhaps – are the affected scratches in the mix, as if a claw or squelching carcass is caressing the recording machinery as it’s picking up the sound. Again, it’s the small details that grab me with the Wormboys sound. If this is music from the queer/trans punk scene of Leeds, then Worm also captures something of the streets of David Lynch’s Philadelphia.

The EP’s final song is the one that originally drew me to Wormboys on first hearing in 2022: Tree. Like Something pretty, this is a driving, grinding progression of a rock song, Satchwell’s O’Riordan-like vocals returning breathily and plaintively before rising to the crescendo of Tree’s crashing rhythm sections. There is something cinematic in this song’s tone and the lead-guitar riff runs river-like, a fitting closure to a three-part production that sets up the listener with the EP’s opening burst of Sabbath-meets-grunge, before the gently unsettling second act, and the soaring finale. Overall, Smalltime is an EP revealing a surely brilliant live act, but also a studio band rewarding listeners with shades and gentle details.
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Katy Montgomerie at the University of Edinburgh

Katy-Montgomerie_UoE-talk_Bright Katy Montgomerie during her talk (image owned by Beth Douglas)

At one time, gender-critical feminism, like the similarly-sounding, exclusionary concept of John Philippe Rushton’s ‘race realism,’ seemed a marginal term you found online by minority-bashing activists desperate for respectability. Produced from the online backlash against the UK government’s gender-recognition-reform since 2016 (Pearce et al, 2020; Ahmed, 2016), GC-feminism has arguably enjoyed the protection of a conservative media simultaneously invested in maintaining the societal status quo while – through its elitist composition – being ill-equipped to analyse disempowered minorities and their rights, including when they are under attack. As the Leveson inquiry of 2012-2013 exposed, large sections of our media have a record of delegitimizing minorities, including the UK trans community. If this current anti-trans moral panic demonstrates anything, it is that nothing across the traditional UK media has changed for the better since then.

It is partly due to this institutional transphobia of the UK traditional media that our team of organizers at the University of Edinburgh invited the brilliant YouTube star Katy Montgomerie up to the University of Edinburgh to give her talk ‘Combating online hate and the gender-critical movement.’ As someone who has suffered various forms of online and off-line abuse for being trans, Katy's experience and analysis appears to have no place in the media-spun narrative currently portraying a vulnerable trans minority as a societal threat. Thanks to the 'new media' of the internet, voices such as Katy’s and other YouTube stars such as ContraPoints and Abigail Thorn are able to thrive while avoiding the traditional gate-keeping in order to reach the public and present a trans-centred narrative. Given the urgent need to allow trans voices to describe and name their oppression without the imposition of anti-trans framing, we believed when we invited her that giving the floor to Katy was the least we could do to highlight the increasingly frightening climate in which trans people exist in the UK. As events transpired during the evening, we feel not only justified but proud to have hosted her talk.

*

Nearly an hour into Katy’s talk at the University of Edinburgh, a senior gender-critical figure at the university stands up and begins shouting: ‘Is there somebody chairing the debate?’ It represents both the plaintive cry of an anti-trans activist unable to control the narrative in front of her, as well as a Freudian slip. Because this event – in which a trans woman recounts the oppression faced by trans people online – was never promoted or intended as a debate, but as an opportunity for a minority to speak about the oppression they face and the perpetrators of so much of that oppression and abuse. Yet in this anti-trans demonstrator’s world, anything involving trans people is up for contestation. It is the cornerstone of the protestor’s reactionary movement that calls itself gender-critical: an entitlement to interrogate and challenge every aspect of a vulnerable minority’s rights, with a strategy of maintaining permanent suspicion under the cover of ‘concerns.’ Here in the darkly lit auditorium, that apparent obsession has guided anti-trans activists to our trans-centred gathering, to call the all-consuming object of their attention ‘trans-identified people,’ while emphasising how the anti-trans hate movement is not hateful.

Katy has already covered all this in her preceding hour, however. Her talk is typically cool and collected, sassy and informed, built on several years of online engagement with transphobic bigots and the layers of respectability politics that characterizes this particular movement. Over the course of an hour, Katy analyses some of the gender-critical movement’s features: (1) dog-whistle codes that seem inoffensive to the undiscerning, (2) progressive framing – in this case, the appropriation of feminist discourse – and (3) plausible deniability. Katy is not the first to identify or publicize these elements; writers and thinkers such as Sara Ahmed and Alison Phipps have also covered different aspects of the gender-critical-as-hate movement, but as the direct target of the movement's enmity, Katy has – to paraphrase the words of Rutger Hauer’s cyborg in Blade Runner – seen things you cis people wouldn’t believe. Here, Katy combines analysis with experience and the result is something more visceral.

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18 months after graduating, 10 months since surgery

Gina-cold-times-four Me, times four, freezing my arse off

Life is winter right now. This time last year I got a part-time job as an academic manager at my university. I am grateful for it: by itself, it doesn’t pay enough to cover my bills, but in surveying the scene, there are people doing better than me and people doing worse. I’m especially thinking of the people doing worse. It could have been me. I’m not stuck in some warehouse somewhere (as I was up ‘til April 2021). The worst thing is having your energy drawn from you while doing something you hate. Until the last few months when lecturing (I love lecturing) and post-doc/job applications (not so much) became the order of the day, I was writing and publishing stuff, and a new cycle is about to begin. I don’t need much, but what I do need, I can’t imagine life being worth living without it. I have a nice apartment that I’m sharing with others, I have enough money to buy whatever food I desire. I’m not sure I have enough money for heat. I have friends and I live in a beautiful city where I walk everywhere. When I walked to university this morning, it gently began snowing.

I was at the university library today trying to sort out a problem, the person dealing with me was nice. Being a transgender woman in the real world is not like social media, or the mainstream media. Everyone’s just trying to live their lives, and either they don’t care or they might even admire the fact that in spite of everything, as a transgender woman, you’re also just trying to live yours.

My diary entries these past couple of years have had a focus, until now. Whether it’s lethargy or serenity, or whether it’s the seasons, the leaves have fallen, and with a touch of frost, a trans woman walks among the skeletons of trees as the snowflakes fall.

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JK Rowling and the Echo Chamber of Secrets

Echo-Chamber_getty-images

Adapted from my article for Transgender Studies Quarterly

Special issue: Trans-Exclusionary Feminisms and the Global New Right

Volume 9.3, August 2022

 

Abstract

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The Stoning of Stonewall

Stonewall_Bleeding

The stoning of Stonewall during the new Trans Panic: how the U.K.’s most popular progressive newspaper, the Guardian, aligned with the right-wing legacy media’s attempts to delegitimize the LGBT+ charity Stonewall for its advocacy of trans rights

(to be published in October 2022 in U.C.U. LGBTQ+ conference papers. Ed. Seth Atkin)

(wordcount: 5,474)

Abstract

The explosion in the number of stories about trans issues since the late 2010s, published by a U.K. legacy media largely devoid of trans voices and related specialist knowledge, has seen coverage deemed “aggressive and damaging” against transgender people (IPSO, 2020: 12). Such trans testimonies, registering their distress at the negativity of the coverage by the U.K. legacy media, are supported by the findings of a number of international bodies such as the Council of Europe (2021) and ILGA-Europe (2021) which claim the U.K.’s legacy media has been contributing to the demonization of the country’s transgender community. One surprising participant in this media campaign has been the U.K.’s most popular progressive news outlet the Guardian. While the reasons behind the apparent anti-trans tendency remains a point of conjecture, the evidence of transphobic framing is discernible and measurable. This article provides a frame analysis for some of the recurring patterns of delegitimization from the period of 2020-2022, specifically its coverage of the largest LGBT+ charity and trans-advocacy organization in the U.K. and Europe, Stonewall. As has been recognized (Trans Legal Project, 2021; Paton, 2021), Stonewall has increasingly become a collateral target of the U.K.. legacy media for its refusal to abandon its advocacy of trans rights. This study analyses how the Guardian’s coverage has contributed to this attempted delegitimization of Stonewall, specifically in terms of its selection of key words and omission of key information in its coverage of the charity.

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Happy Meal

Happy-Meal

A smart and sassy play about trans-for-trans love, Happy Meal follows the relationship of Alec (Sam Crerar) and Bette (Allie Daniel) as their online engagements blossom into ILR love while they navigate their separate transitions. There is a lot to like about this funny, uplifting story: the recent cinematic vogue for 1980s and 90s nostalgia is replaced here with a celebration of millennial culture: this is the world of My Space and emo music, a backdrop whose popularity with the audience is underscored by the latter’s cheering of the reciting of names of twenty-first-century bands, while laughter also comes at the constant stream of familiar references to the online forums of the same era. The performances of Crerar and Daniel are also excellent; I particularly connected with Daniel as the figure wrestling with coming out to Alec, juggling desire with a secret. In perhaps the play’s most heart-breaking scene, a planned first IRL meeting at a music festival, the progress of their relationship suddenly hits the wall prompted by Bette’s prior failure to reveal her transness. As Alec’s texting and calls become more desperate downstage as he searches for her, Bette remains in her online booth, watching with increasing sadness, unable to summon the courage to reveal herself, a Cyrano de Bergerac moment.

This beautifully crafted scene underscores the technical accomplishments of the play as a whole. The presence of neon-lit booths from which the two characters primarily correspond with each other is inspired, as are the projected texts and signs of missed calls; this is a technically challenging play made to look simple. Writer Tabby Lamb’s reputation as a new major talent in British theatre can only grow from this production too, as demonstrated by the play’s sophisticated and easily followable pinging back and forth between IRL and online worlds, as well as Lamb’s flair for integrating zeitgeisty cultural references. Finally, there is Daniel’s performance, which compares favourably with anything I’ve seen in this new, exciting era of trans theatre.

Overall, the legacy media’s pattern of four- and five-star reviews reflect accurately the play’s quality while also highlighting the serious quality that exists within trans arts these days. As an aside, the reviews also reveal the weird disconnect between the transphobia that dominates the editorial line of the UK legacy media on the one hand, and its coverage of the arts on the other, which tends to be more sympathetic. Via this uneven division, we see a broken mirror effect in which the larger, more dominant shard reflects back to us irrational suspicions and knee-jerk anti-trans hostility, while a smaller shard reflects back at us a humane celebration of trans existence. The Guardian’s four-star review is a case in point: a newspaper that has been increasingly fuelling hatred and suspicion against trans people since at least 2018 as typified by its pieces from leader writer Sonia Sodha – in which conversion therapy against trans people is argued for and trans women are only ever named with such delegitimizing terms as ‘men who identify as women’ – in contrast to this positive theatre review by Mark Fisher, which in turn reveals a jarring lack of self-awareness towards his own paper. To quote Fisher’s final words:

'Happy Meal is not just a sweet romance. Rooted in truth, it is also a big-hearted plea for tolerance. Archbishop Justin Welby would do well to watch it.'

This centrist-liberal framing by Fisher, with its low-hanging-fruit attack on religion, is almost laughable given the Guardian/Observer’s recent alignment with the right-wing media and the delegitimizing campaigns against Stonewall and trans people’s rights. Replace ‘Archbishop Justin Welby’ with ‘Guardian-Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner’ and Fisher’s nauseating eruption of virtue-signalling might actually have looked more like the product of a credible integrity. Shows like Happy Meal exist and succeed in spite of – rather than due to – media outlets like the Guardian, who have caused far more damage and distress to the trans community than any religious movement in the UK at the moment. With this reality, I salute Tabby Lamb and the production of Happy Meal for the witty and wonderful celebration of trans lives in this time of culture war attacks by Fisher's publication.

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LGBT theatre: AS IS

ASIS_poster_Gina Me on the right, trying out an outfit for my character, Kate.

LGBT Theatre: AS IS

About a month ago, a friend and I responded to a casting call for an LGBTI+ play looking for LGBTI+ actors in an eleven-person cast. We auditioned and got the parts. In a whirlwind of activity, there followed some two weeks of rehearsals (two full rehearsals then a dress rehearsal on the day of the show). Then last night in front of a full house of sixty at the Scottish Youth Theatre in Glasgow, we performed the play. Here are my reflections on the morning after, as I think this is the kind of positive theatre project that needs to be shared, discussed and disseminated, not least in relation to DIY/punk art among marginalized identities.

First of all, we’re not talking fully DIY as I'd earlier intimated: there was a budget involved, as the play was based on the funded research of the production’s organizer Dr Harvey Humphrey of Strathclyde University. This does make a difference for a show dealing with complex and sensitive issues, and through a potentially very technical medium. The funding enabled the recruitment of a director (Mia Slater), an assistant director (Jordy Deelite), and a stage manager (Finlay Dickens), and they brought a professional expertise, as well as confident self-assurance and an unwavering passion, all good things for a production like this. Some of the actors too had acting experience, including in professional roles. In the post-show Q&A, Harvey also alluded to the involvement of experienced LGBT+ writers to help finesse the writing. So clearly, while the acting cast was a mix of the experienced and inexperience, no room for error existed behind the scenes.

Given the short time frame, the biggest challenge for probably most of the actors – and certainly me – was learning the lines. Each of us appeared in two scenes, with policy-related and activist-related dialogue that did not always easily roll off the tongue. In the show itself, I forgot one line – note to self: learning lines isn’t just about memorizing your lines but also, and I know this sounds obvious, the dialogue order and cues of the other person in relation to them – which wasn’t a disaster, but overall, the tension of not knowing if I’d go blank on the night in front of an audience did certainly put me on edge. In this respect, the dress rehearsal we did a few hours in advance really helped, it was tense but it also made the show itself less nerve-wracking. As I paced back and forth in our waiting area before the show, I was more excited than fearful.

Highlights of the show? For me personally, the rapport between my character and those with whom I shared scenes, namely Sandra (Jacqueline Wilde) and Stephen (Len Lukowski). Also, just watching others turning their lines into gold, especially during the dress rehearsal when the thing really became alive. Back-stage, practising 'voice' with Matt and Odhran, sharing moments of post-show joy with Hev and Leni, and spending Saturday afternoon with Hev in McDonalds, surrounded by Orange-Day-Parade Rangers fans, and realizing this fast food experience was going to go very very slowly.

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Sex-change and happiness

Post-op-Gina My post-op self: happy, healthy and smiling

Sex-change and happiness

It feels like something of a taboo for a trans woman to talk about her surgery. But recently, I've seen a lot of negative stories on Twitter about transgender surgeries, with at least one detransitioner campaigning to ban trans people from having surgery, saying it's life-ruining. I'd like to provide a different narrative - my own, personal narrative - about the surgery I had last February, just over four months ago, and which is one of the best decisions I have ever made.

For the benefit of those who may not know what surgery I'm talking about, I'm referring to 'vaginoplasty' (reconstructing my genitalia as a vulva, including a vagina). It's described variously as gender reassignment or gender confirmation or bottom surgery, but for the purposes of this blog I'll use the term that's meant to be pejorative: sex change. Partly this is in tribute to our wonderful media and their framing of the surgery as 'sex-change op' - ever the populist, I will replicate the language here, in a kind of ironic tribute. Also, ‘sex-change’ is quite a dramatically retro term, like ‘transsexual,’ or 'BMX bikes,' they're terms I grew up with in the 1980s and 90s, from the non-halcyon era of Rupert Murdoch and the tabloidization of the British media in which the British public discourse coarsened (though we did have good bikes). Also, I know gender-critical feminism doesn’t believe a person can change sex, so I think it’s a fun term to use on this count too, a political one that’s provocative.

On the subject of my experience of 'changing sex,' I want to elaborate here that as someone who went on female hormones in 2016, then came off them from the end of 2019 (on medical advice), before going back on them at the end of 2020, I’ve experienced the real-world impact of a mode of female puberty, that led to a degree of menopause followed by a second male-puberty, then a second degree of female puberty again as I finally returned to oestrogen. Through biological changes, I’ve experienced the real-world impact of what it is to pass and not pass, to attract male threats or avoid them, I've felt the menopausal hot flushes and the raging of testosterone. These are significant biological changes with huge social and psychological implications – life and death implications, employment and unemployement implications, violent/non-violent implications. Do I think it’s possible to change sex? Not in an absolute way, but partially, yes, and if I was once male-bodied, I’m now trans-female bodied. From the impact of different hormones on my psychology and body, to the social impact on your appearance, the difference is life-changing.

I digress. Last week a detransitioner called Ritchie Herron went public in the British press about his regret having the ‘sex-change op’ and has suggested the whole procedure be reviewed. I want to say immediately that if Herron is a victim of a bad surgery - he complains in the interview with the Daily Mail that it takes him ten painful minutes when urinating - then he has my sympathy. However, Herron’s claims of being fast-tracked by the medical authorities appear less convincing: it seems the process took him approx. 6 years (2012-2018, according to the story), from talking to doctors in his mid-20s to having the surgery at 31 years of age. In some ways the length of time mirrors my journey (and probably most people's journey), which also took several years from first appointment to the surgery. It is a long period of time, with lots of ups and downs, many periods for reflection, and plenty of opportunities to get off the ride if you so wish. In 2020 and for a period of months, also like Herron though for my own complex reasons, I considered detransitioning. But to then make the leap and actively campaign against trans rights and trans people's access to healthcare is not inevitable, and this is where my sympathy for Herron absolutely ends.

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Grace Lavery at the University of Edinburgh

Grace-Lavery_poster

She’s the enfant terrible of Trans academia, described in her book as “the David Bowie of Californian English professors.” Grace Lavery is at the University of Edinburgh to promote her memoir, Please Miss: a heartbreaking work of staggering penis, and like Bowie, the book constitutes in its diversity of styles and switches of voice a marmite quality you’ll either love or be bewildered by. This is not to question the book’s value; it is in parts beautiful, hilarious, and poignant, as well as sometimes oblique: a mould-breaking series of self-reflections in other words, unlike the other, ‘straighter’ memoirs that largely make up the trans biographical canon. Prepare, then, to disorientate and depart from the linear trans life-story, and so too the cagily respectable one-woman show. Grace, unlike Please Miss with its multiple metaphors, is an open book and a brilliantly responsive improviser to her audience.

            At the UoE talk, shared with the laid-back suaveness of the chair Lindsay of the Lighthouse Books team, the auditorium is full and the carefully be-spaced audience laugh and applaud Grace’s free-flowing sharpness and self-deprecating humour. This includes her fabulously kinaesthetic reading of the ‘Trans-Woman-As-Alien’ homage from her book, and her rapid onset of spinning good yarns. Grace and Lindsay bond quickly over their mutual inability to summarize the book in a few short words, with Grace waving her hand, “My complete failure to describe the book in fact is not a bad descriptor of the book.” Perhaps if there is a guiding theme it is of the memoir as partly a response to the media narrative of trans people hating their bodies. The playfully constructed Please Miss is Grace’s rejoinder, with its focus on the sex and sexiness of the trans body, as a celebration of “trans joy.” Another driver is the desire to create a queer text – and therefore a convention-busting one – that switches font and tone because transition is all about such switches. The body of the text, then, as trans female body, one that captures the ethos of Oscar Wilde, never settling on one thing but expressing itself via complex and contradictory multiplicities, and doing so with Wildean elan.

            As both an organizer and an increasingly seduced audience member, I sit and watch Grace Lavery in awe and with love as the talk continues. Rarely does a 60-minute talk go so quickly, a good and bad thing. Grace’s sincerity, channelled through her hyperactive mind and charismatic conversation, rewards us early with her tale of a robbery of an Edinburgh McDonalds hashbrowns gone wrong, before she gets down to analysis and shares her counter-narrative about the ‘transition’ story: “Everything that’s interesting and worthwhile and worth affirming about transitioning … takes place in the strangeness of transition, not in its capacity to harmonize or normalize or neutralize our feelings of intensity or antagonism.” The strangeness and surrealism include a darkness too, of course. An audience member asks Grace for her survival strategies in the face of online abuse that Grace is well-known for bearing. The online campaigns against her have included sex photos of her and her husband hacked from her account and sent to her boss and to her mother. “I’m sometimes scared,” Grace confides. With this fear, though, is her recognition that what happens online is a distortion of the real world, in which the hate and hostility are generally absent. She came to the UK uncertain what to expect, she says, expecting a Beatlemania of ‘gender-critical’ hatred, but all she has seen so far is a single woman handing her a piece of paper in a Manchester book-signing talk, asking her if ‘woman’ is being erased by the existence of people like Grace. Judging by the number of women in this UoE audience who are loving Grace with every passing minute, the absurdity of the notion is never clearer.

            In the blink of an eye, the talk ends, and concerning Please Miss, there are some parts of the book which shall remain a mystery (the book’s recurring clown scenes, what do they mean? I think I might know, though I’m not even sure if Grace knows, or whether she wants to know). We all leave this warm and electrifying space with its unsolved plethora of mysteries and maybe a single shared sentiment left to offer the wonderful Grace Lavery: Please Miss, give us more.

 

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Transpose 2022

Transpose_poster

Transpose 2022

 

Note: Transpose 2022 was filmed by CN Lester's team and will be made available to the public. I can't overstate how important an act this is, as my review will explore more  generally.

 

At the Barbican in London on Friday evening, I took a friend to watch the poignant, funny and beautiful Transpose – a kind of trans cabaret originally conceived in 2011 by the multi-talented CN Lester and now organized by them on a near annual basis. As I watched and was immersed in each episode of the show, a thought came to me about the transitory nature of this genre of performance art within the space of theatre. With urgency, we have to record these events in as many mediums as possible. Because this feels like a vivid, vital history happening on the margins, the kind that is too often lost while more materially enduring art – the trans memoir and the film – dominate trans history, including artistic expression. This domination is problematic on all kinds of levels, not least because the publishing company and the film studio will only ever invest in projects (and trans people) of acceptability to largely white, cisgender audiences, with queer and trans people of colour (QTPOC) barely mentioned, their experience silenced. The result is that the memoir and film by or about trans people have tended to be particularly compromised visions or exclusionary ones, much more so than the cabaret or reading, or the self-published short story or song. Arguably, these latter forms of art are where trans identity feels most genuinely to belong to the transgender artist, whatever their creed or colour. This makes Transpose 2022 an especially important show for the talents that it features.

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Tiny Pieces of Skull by Roz Kaveney

Tiny-Pieces-of-Skull_cover

Tiny Pieces of Skull by Roz Kaveney

In Tiny Pieces of Skull, the Lambda-award-winning novel woven around the lives of a network of trans women in the late 1970s, a twilight world is opened up to the reader of ‘street life and bar life’ on the margins of polite society. The magic that gleams from the darkness is proof of the paradox at the heart of the story: this is a bildungsroman, a tale of a formative, spiritual education, no less uplifting or poignant for the violence and unstable conditions the characters find themselves in. The protagonist, Annabelle, is no Victorian heroine à la Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot or Jane Austen, in spite of her own casual displays of a formal education that ought to have taken her along a more publicly legitimate pathway. Yet in embracing her transness, she has both liberated herself from an original destiny and condemned herself to an existence judged by law enforcers and clients as degenerate, and fair game.

              The theme of destiny, and its subversion, is announced early. On deciding to leave London for Chicago, Annabelle is accused by a friend of trying to “ignore history, to step outside it and start again … you regard yourself as some kind of totally free agent” (2015: 28). A familiar transgender crisis-point rears its head, so recognizable in the work of the trans writer and director Lana Wachowski: the protagonist decides on a defiant bid to embrace the truth, whatever the consequences, including to be consigned to some desert of the real – ironically, like Wachowski’s Matrix, the location is Chicago, though in the case of Kaveney’s novella more 1979 than the 1999/2199 in Wachowski’s cyberpunk story. Warned that the taking of her own proverbial red pill will end in tears, Annabelle replies, “But tears that are at last authentically mine, perhaps.”

              What transpires in Chicago is Annabelle’s re-constituting of herself within an ostensibly amoral world, less Bronte’s Jane Eyre than a sometimes menacing, Pinteresque setting. To one sceptical warning, she says, “Falsehood has become, if you like, my first name and my last … untrustworthy and unreliable … I am a thoroughly bad lot, at last, and I am really enjoying it.” Meant to cower in self-shame as a trans woman dependent on sex work and bar work, Annabelle defiantly appropriates the scarlet letter; she will not be ashamed, but instead take quiet pride in her friends and her survival as she makes a new life for herself. One result is a surreal comedy of contrasts, of a refined survivor and social ‘degenerate’ pragmatically making the best of her circumstances and options. At one point, she is described in an S&M double-act, Annabelle the good cop to her friend Natasha’s bad cop while a client squirms underneath them: “Annabelle had gathered that her role in all of this was to sit still well out of the way and look sinisterly uninvolved … Once the man had a blindfold on she used the opportunity to get on with reading Proust.” Later, and having been praised for her performance, Annabelle produces a pithy reply before marking “her place in Proust with a piece of discarded thong” (114).

              In spite of the wickedly amusing incongruity that frequently arises, there are some harrowing moments, and these provide the essential other side to the story’s lightness, with simmering violence waiting to erupt without warning. In one shocking, brilliantly realized scene, Annabelle finds herself trapped at the hands of a rapist, whom she escapes through quick-thinking trickery (90-95); the tragic story of the initially annoying Tiffany, meanwhile, is memorable because of what emerges from the general absence of pathos or self-pity, with Tiffany revealed gradually as silently suffering physical agony, along with an oppressive familial background that may drag her back into self-abnegation and invisibility. A strength of Tiny Pieces of Skull is the tense unpredictability at its heart: the trans female characters may separately be annoying, selfish, or simply unremarkable, but behind each of them is a survival story, and the absence of elaboration adds to their poignancy. As Tiny Pieces of Skull concludes in its final words with a broader message, “part of the point of feminism is that there are no minor characters” (179). Through this story, we are reminded not to make assumptions or judgements of such figures who have so little, and whose desire to be remains defiantly uncontained.

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Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice

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The Transgender Issue: my review

“Something that this book is not,” says Shon Faye, is “a memoir” (2021: 15). Following in the footsteps of already brilliant combinations of analysis, history, and/or testimony in Trans by Juliet Jacques (2015), Trans Like Me by CN Lester (2017), and Before I Step Outside by Travis Alabanza (2017), Faye’s book re-shapes this fusion of elements into a form of political manifesto. Split over seven chapters, The Transgender Issue borrows from Black feminism and other sources of radical social-justice ideas to deal with complex topics such as sex work, carceral justice, and the Leveson Inquiry’s dormant reform of the national news media. All are initially connected to their impact on trans people’s lives, before Faye broadens the focus to highlight how it’s not just trans people who suffer from these institutions.

In reading Transgender Issue, I felt the book’s denseness and the weight of its ideas. Of particular personal resonance were the opening and closing chapters (1-2; 6-7, and the vital introduction). These covered trans healthcare, as well as the UK news media’s historically troubled representation and reporting of trans identity, and the way social media has become a tool to both connect and oppress trans people. In one engrossing example in the final chapter, Faye describes a time when she compered an event for Amnesty International. We learn of the online, anti-trans campaign to no-platform her with accusations of perversion and misogyny, not because of anything she had said but because of what she is. It underscores the nature of trans-exclusionary movements today, for all the careful rhetoric of ‘concerns.’ It matters not what we look like, sound like, say or do: transness fills a certain segment of society with revulsion and hostility. Faye’s accounts of both her disillusionment working in the UK news media, and of suffering abuse online, provide an alternative narrative to the kind spun by the UK news media and their sympathy for trans-exclusionary ideologies, in which trans people are only ever a source of problems and abuse.

The Transgender Issue, then, wrenches trans activism away from the media-driven, gender-crit agenda, articulating in its stead a vision for the future in which, ironically, we’re not just talking about trans issues. This is done by associating with an intersectional trans feminism that feels not only like a moral imperative but also aligns with coalitional politics, in an era when conservative and reactionary forces appear both ascendant and reified by the national news media. On this latter point, though, it is worth remembering that the UK news media appears united in attempting to foment a moral panic against transgender people, as noted by international bodies as disparate as the Council of Europe (2022), ILGA Europe (2021), and Amnesty International (2021). Faye’s melding of research, personal testimony and big ideas provides a valuable spotlight on oppressions that so many of the UK’s institutions seem desperate to ignore.

*

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Punk Food, Junk Food: Portrayals of transgender apocalypse in the works of Travis Alabanza and Emma Frankland

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I include here the introduction to my chapter in the anthology Women and the Abuse of Power (Emerald Publishing, 2022). The anthology is the outcome of a conference I attended back in 2018, where my paper - very different to what it eventually became in this anthology - was one of several selected by the project's driving force and editor, Professor Helen Gavin of the University of Huddersfield. I will say that the timeline of this project (two years in the making, from when the project started properly in the autumn of 2019) and cost of the book (£65!) underscore the challenges and frustrations of working in academia: the difficulty of acting or responding quickly with a piece of work, in a way that's easy to disseminate to non-academic publics. Who buys books for £65? This is a shame, because the chapters in this book look amazing. Just as importantly, my chapter is on two brilliant trans artists, Travis Alabanza and Emma Frankland, whose performances have mesmerized me over recent years (Travis via their poetry readings and their play Burgerz, Emma through her plays Hearty and We Dig). How can trans people from a largely marginalized community access a £65 anthology to read about these amazing artists? Do I Youtube a reading of it? Is it illegal to make my chapter available online? So many questions, but in the meantime, here's the introduction to my chapter to give you a taste of what it's about:

Punk Mood, Junk Food: Portrayals of Transgender Apocalypse in the work of Travis Alabanza and Emma Frankland

The transgender figure is the siren of the apocalypse. So implies Slavoj Žižek and his cumulative analyses of the “moral vacuum ... of the apocalyptic times in which we live” (2011: 327), with the “ultimate difference, the ‘transcendental’ difference that grounds human identity itself” destabilized by the “sex-change operation” (2008: 28). It is a collapsing world similarly recognized by Camille Paglia with her warning of transgender identity as a harbinger of when “a civilization is starting to unravel” (2016: 4.20), and by JK Rowling who declares, ‘We’re living through the most misogynistic period I’ve experienced,’ a condition she claims to be encapsulated by the Presidency of Donald Trump, the Incel movement, and Trans Rights Activists (2020). Yet what of the transgender figure and how they view a crisis in gender? In the 2019 Edinburgh Festival, trans artists Emma Frankland and Travis Alabanza conveyed in their shows a transgender apocalypse from their distinct perspectives and experiences. Their respective productions Hearty and Burgerz, with their particular aesthetics and narratives, will be the focus of this chapter. Their siren calls via punk mood and junk food contribute to this essay’s refutation of the belief in the emergence of a transgender movement that destabilizes and damages society for the majority. The mode of cisgendered order apparently valorized and feared for by Žižek, Paglia, and Rowling, will be highlighted as more resilient than they credit it, and can in fact be viewed in its enduring hegemonic dominance as a significant cause of the violence enacted against transgender people in its many forms.

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Call for Papers: At the Digital Margins?

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Call for Papers: Workshop for Early Career Researchers
At the digital margins? Researching and communicating
marginalisation in online political engagement


Monday 21st March - Tuesday 22nd March 2022

University of Birmingham

We invite proposals from postgraduate students and early career researchers working on critical, feminist or queer approaches to social media to a two-day workshop. The workshop will involve research presentations (Day 1) and skills sessions on publishing and public engagement (Day 2).

Social media is often considered by political scientists as a digital public sphere, offering new spaces for democratic engagement and collective will-formation. In European and international politics, it is understood to play a key role in facilitating participation in transnational democracy. Despite increasing public attention to online abuse, however, the experiences of traditionally marginalised groups have been insufficiently explored. Women and people of other marginalised genders often receive misogynistic, highly sexualised and often racialised messages when engaging in democratic debate. Such forms of gendered and racialised online violence can be considered a form of ‘participatory inequality’. Social media nevertheless offers opportunities for resistance through what Nancy Fraser terms subaltern counter-publics, in which minoritized people can seek support and mobilise. Yet, such online spaces are not automatically safe for everyone: Trans women and gender non-conforming people face particular risks in spaces dominated by cis people. Likewise, women and gender non-conforming people of colour experience racism in spaces dominated by white people. Despite this, there has
been little intersectional research to date about the extent, nature, and implications of such patterns of exclusion for democratic participation.

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Roz Kaveney - Selected Poems 2009-2021

Kaveney_Lemebel_Parra-homage From left, clockwise: Roz Kaveney, Pedro Lemebel, Esdras Parra

Roz Kaveney – Selected Poems 2009-2021: a review, via the work of Frankland, Parra and Lemebel

 

Note: In writing this analysis, I feel the precarity of the relationship between the trans person's poem and the trans reader, the risk of all kinds of misunderstandings and presumptions. Perhaps some day I'll meet Roz Kaveney and she'll say, 'Gina, you were miles off.' In the meantime ...

 

The imagining of the transgender figure in apocalyptic wastelands is seldom far from trans poetics, whether iEmma Frankland’s hypnotic cycles of fear and punk-infused transcendence in Hearty, or from South America, the poetry of the Venezuelan Esdras Parra or the genderqueer writing of Chilean Pedro Lemebel. In keeping with these highest forms of dystopian, genderfuck vistas is Roz Kaveney’s Selected Poems 2009-2021. To be clear, the first quarter of the collection explores “art, sex and love” through a shining, classical prism, but these give way to later pages involving death and desolation, alienation and tyranny. It is these latter sections that I want to celebrate here, as examples of trans texts that evoke both darkness and the light within that darkness.

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The Nest (2021)

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The Nest is a film I’ve been excited about watching for a while. It’s directed by Sean Durkin, whose arthouse movie Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), about a girl having escaped from and trying to recover from immersion in a cult, effectively helped launch the career of the mesmerizing Elizabeth Olson and is one of my favourite indies. The Nest is a slicker, bigger budget affair but the psychological menace reappears in its own distinct way. Instead of the claustrophobia of a cult cut up into non-linear reflections and refractions as in Martha Macy May Marlene, we have a trans-Atlantic crossing from an idyllic U.S. setting into a Gothic fairytale. The film transposes us and the family in the film to a mansion in a brooding English countryside, and its fragmentary, isolating impact operates to the destabilizing backdrop of the late 1980s of the Thatcher-Reagan years. Capitalism and heteronormativity intertwine to strangle a seemingly happy family: the husband Rory, played by Jude Law, is increasingly revealed as a bullshitter and a bluffer whose self-esteem comes from being the ostentatious provider for his family; the wife Allison, played brilliantly by Carrie Coon, provides the Female Gaze and participative witness trying to keep it together as things begin to fall apart. The strains of violins increasingly signify a family pushed to breaking point, but also the illusory quality of a marriage exposed for its transactional nature, in a Thatcherite world where transactions are rarely to be trusted.

I took the atmospheric, cracked mirror vibe with me when I left the cinema. Stepping out into warm sunshine, I craved the shaded sanctuary of my home and wanted no one to look at me: I can’t remember ever feeling such dysphoria after a film before. I’ve missed visiting the cinema these past few years, I realize, with much of my transitioning previouslyt taking place in dark auditoriums while I fixed vampire-like on flows of empathy to help make sense of my upheaval. Yet watching a film by an indie director is also a dangerous game, it seems, when you’re empathizing with the perpetrators and victims of a sham social order, and I left their world to one that hardly seems more stable.

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Graduation 2021

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 The idea of life as a transit point has never felt more relevant. I attended my PhD graduation at Edinburgh Castle with my partner in crime, Valentina, last week (see picture, on our front lawn before the taxi arrives to sweep us off to the ball). You probably can’t tell from the photograph but the dress I’m wearing is so tightly bound to my body that on trying to remove it one time in London as I attempted to go to bed in my hotel room, I nearly died of suffocation. I’m glad it didn’t happen last weekend too, after getting a PhD and then walking through the streets of Edinburgh with dreams of a glittering career, it would have been quite the anti-climax to that career. I imagine the gravestone: Dr Gina Gwenffrewi: died of auto-asphyxiation while getting stuck in versatile officewear.

They say the PhD is an achievement, but there’s always the immediate aftermath of finding the job that fits your new skill-set and qualifications. You’re more than you were, but also, materially, just the same as before, which in my case can be characterized by the words 'temporary contract,' 'minimum wage,' and 'Amazon.' That gap can lead to sleepless nights, and I'm not talking about the nightshift work I recently ended at Amazon. I was thinking today about how I once thought coming out as trans would make me happy. But I realize now that coming out was just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle in which happiness is about being the best version of yourself. Will the transitioning never end?

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Paris Lees: What it feels like for a girl

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What it feels like for a girl by Paris Lees

UK: Penguin Random House, 2021

Trans memoirs today are a world away from the 20th century genre that gave us the Born In The Wrong Body narrative and a conforming middle-class, middle-aged respectability, shorn of incriminating evidence to the contrary. Let’s not be too judgemental: while today, there is transphobia, back then there wasn’t even a trans movement in the UK to attract the phobia. Isolated, bewildered and afraid, the trans people of the past appear to have made their way past medical pathologies, shaming families and freak-show news coverage to attain the Holy Grail of a bearable existence while the famous few pleaded their normality (though of some of these things, I’m uncertain how much has really changed).

Today, though, we have trans media figures who write reflections with humour, sassiness, and a discernibly greater candour, partly because they can afford to. With Paris Lees’s memoir What it feels like for a girl (2021), the writing is, in addition, exuberantly the hallmark of a wonderful writer taking risks. This is partly with the deft handling of the dark subject matter, including in relation to the violence she encounters and the sex, drugs, and disco life that increasingly gives her an escape during adolescence from hometown homogeneity and drudgery. Yet the risk-taking is also shaped by an authorial voice in a regional, Hucknell (or ‘ucknell’) accent that makes the text a gritty, funny, unsentimental trans-genre story, blurring bio with Irvine Welsh storytelling at its best. Seemingly toying with a readership that might expect transness to explicitly be at the heart of everything, Lees personalizes her story away from such a convention as well as the current media’s misconceived idea of some urban ‘gender ideology.’ Reminiscent especially of Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness (2014), What it feels like for a girl captures in flecks of colour the original nebulous feeling of Otherness of a young trans person in an economically impoverished suburbia. Like Mock, Lees becomes aware of her transness not by ideology but through instinct and a gravitation to those who will understand. As with Mock’s testimony, Lees reveals how being trans is first and foremost an awkward, individual awakening over many years, even as it reflects the surrounding environment. But because of its uniqueness, Lees’s account, like Mock’s, is also distinctly her own.

The opening sets the tone for this approach, the author referring to her former name and namesake, the Romantic poet Byron who apparently comes from the area:

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An androgynous orgasm: Fashion Beast by Alan Moore

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An androgynous orgasm: Fashion Beast by Alan Moore The images of this story become like memories of another life, maybe what's to come, Gina making do in a fascist state and looking good in spite of everything, a version of me, a cosmic cousin. Like the time I wrote about Cloud City in a film from my childhood, the cosmos conjures certain plac...
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