“Have you ever noticed how oddly keen some men are to get into a frock?”
Nope. Up until a few years ago, I wasn’t aware of ever having personally known any man who was keen to get into a frock. The only transvestite – assuming that’s what he was – I ever recall noticing in real life was improbably tall and scary-looking, as he wandered around the ladieswear department of the large store where I worked over Christmas as a 16-year-old.
His was the image that sprung to mind when, years later as a volunteer on a suicide helpline, I took the occasional call from men wanting to talk about cross-dressing. While many callers to the helpline talked of situations I could understand and empathise with – love unrequited, bereavement, loneliness, anxiety, depression – the cross-dressers seemed to inhabit a different world, one about which I knew nothing and cared even less. A small minority of this minority were men who were distressed and ashamed and only indulged themselves behind closed doors. Being kind, empathic, socially liberal and non-judgmental about what consenting adults did in their private lives, I couldn’t understand what their problem was. Relax. If you’re not upsetting anyone else, just do what floats your boat and get on with life. I never said this out loud because I sensed it wasn’t what they wanted to hear and, anyway, I wasn’t there to give advice but to be a listening ear. The ones who clearly got sexual gratification from talking about their fetish to an unknown woman over the phone – and they were the vast majority of this particular group – were dealt with the same as any other “sex caller” and got short shrift.
In spite of that experience, the question about whether I’d noticed men being keen to cross-dress, asked on the back of this booklet by Sophie Atherton, seemed strange. Why would I know anyone like that?
My feelings after reading through the six very short stories told by Sophie – all of them true and drawn from her own life – were a mixture of relief that this wasn’t yet another thing I’d had to deal with in my own youth (or since), a sense of vicarious violation, anger on behalf of all the women who have been affected by this most self-indulgent of proclivities and yet further disappointment in mankind.
These men are people’s sons, brothers, partners and friends. Why wouldn’t I know someone like that? If I do, I’m probably one of the last people on earth they’d want to discover their fetish and I’m not sorry about that. Due to the onslaught against women’s rights and the disregard for our need for privacy, dignity and safety by those who’ve taken their fetish to the extreme and now claim to actually be women – and particularly by the bullying and attempts to silence those of us saying, “No, thank you” – I am less inclined to be kind and non-judgmental. My empathy these days is reserved for the women in these men’s lives, for the distress caused to them.
Told in a manner that is simple, unadorned and direct, Sophie’s anecdotes bring those feelings to life. I won’t go into detail about any of the situations described but they are all extremely engaging and relatable – they could happen to any of us and I don’t need to have gone through similar to understand exactly how she felt in the moment and how the other women she writes about felt. While gender-identity ideologues have taken advantage of women’s vulnerabilities and compassion to divide us, anecdotes such as these speak to a commonality of female experience of being used by ordinary, unremarkable men. While reading them I was able to forget how divided we are. Having finished reading, my incomprehension of women who are unable to recognise the abuse inherent in the act of treating womanhood as a costume and performance was greater than ever.
The bigger question asked on the back of the booklet – Why shouldn’t a man wear a dress if he wants to? – is one that gets right to the heart of why this is a difficult issue for feminists and progressives. I often say people should be free to express themselves as they like as long as they hurt no one else. But what is ‘hurt’? Does being made to feel mortified and belittled, even if unintentionally, count? If so-called “misgendering” is violence and abuse, where does demanding a man’s wife go along with his LARPing as a woman sit on that scale? To what extent should his right to free expression be allowed to impinge on women’s boundaries?
Don’t get me wrong. I still don’t care if men want to wear dresses. I applaud gender nonconformity and I don’t care what consenting adults do behind closed doors. I do care that women are asked, expected and forced to tolerate, participate in and defend an activity that makes them uncomfortable, ashamed and grossed out.
Every one of Sophie’s stories raised the question in my mind of what I would have done at that age, in that circumstance? What would I do now that I’m older and wiser? What advice should I give to a young girl, should she find herself in any such situation? And why the hell should we have to even think about this stuff?
It is a sign of the dark times we live in that I feel the need to applaud Sophie Atherton for her courage in telling these stories publicly and under her own name. She deserves to sell many copies and I hope she does. You can order it here.
In deciding on the title for this post, I was spoilt for choice of goofy quotes delivered by Peter Tatchell on Talk Radio a couple of nights ago, during his discussion with Kellie-Jay Keen, aka Posie Parker. In the end, I plumped for the above extraordinary and revealing admission from Tatchell because it highlights the question his appearance on the show must surely have raised in many minds:
Why on earth was this bloke invited to speak about “trans rights”?
When Kellie-Jay observed that they “couldn’t find a member of the trans community to speak this evening” and rather sweetly expressed her gratitude to Peter for agreeing to do so, she earned a swift rebuke from the show’s host, Kevin O’Sullivan:
All the more surprising then that Tatchell was invited instead of a trans-identifying person who could at least speak for him or herself, if not for all trans people.
Wipe the tear, baby dear, from your eye-ee.
Though it’s hard to part I know
We’re quite happy to see you go…
As we learned from the Guardian yesterday, a small group of authors have thrown their toys out of the pram and flounced off the Blair Partnership’s list of clients because they couldn’t bully the literary agency into kowtowing to their inflated sense of entitlement by making some pointless, cringeworthy gestures.
Obviously, the Guardian doesn’t put it quite like that, going instead for more subtle, low-key humour and saying the four had “resigned after accusing the company of declining to issue a public statement of support for transgender rights”.
Wow! They actually accused them of that? How very, um, serious.
I mean, really? They resigned not because of anything the agency did but because of something they wouldn’t do, something there was no need to do. Further down the Guardian piece we learn that not only did the authors want a public statement but they wanted the company to “conduct staff training with the group All About Trans”, a group that promotes itself as “Positively changing how the media understands and portrays transgender people”.
But why? Had the Blair Partnership said or done anything, either publicly or internally, that could be construed as anti-trans? It seems not.
I had no problem teaching my children to read pre-school or in nurturing their love of reading fiction. I was immensely proud of them, though I admit there was a large element of self-interest in encouraging them to early literacy. With a library at the end of our street, it was to prove a low cost and effective way of giving me a break from them, annoying little beasts that they were.
I quite liked reading the books written for their age groups before passing them on to one or other of them, as long as it was a good story that was well-written with believable characters and I didn’t have to constantly remind myself that whatever I was reading was written for youngsters, as I did with John Boyne’s latest offering. Although according to this interview, he claims not to write with a particular audience in mind, that just doesn’t ring true with this book which, of course, I only bought because people were calling for it to be boycotted. If there hadn’t been a fuss made about it, it wouldn’t have been on my radar and how depressing it is that the would-be censors of today have learned nothing from the past.