World Suicide Prevention Day: treating the disease

I don’t really know how to write this piece. In fact, I hesitated to write it at all because, until now, I’ve only shared these thoughts with a small handful of people, and it feels rather daunting laying it all out in public. I do so, however, in the hope that someone out there will find it helpful or illuminating, or at least that it will fulfil the ‘raising awareness’ remit of World Suicide Prevention Day.

I’ve suffered with depression and anxiety for a number of years. Looking back now, for a number of years longer than I dared to recognise it, which I guess is the same for most sufferers who grew up at a time when such things weren’t really discussed. Before the pandemic hit, I would characterise my illness as, I suppose, ‘intermittent and manageable’, but the past year-and-a-half has amplified it to an almost intolerable level. Where before I would have maybe two to three weeks of feeling, to a greater or lesser degree, fairly unpleasant, followed by the same period (or often longer) where I felt largely normal, over the past 18 months those periods of ‘remission’ have become fewer and further between, the depressive periods longer, deeper and more frequent. I now consider myself lucky if I get two or three days of feeling remotely human in between what feels like a virtually constant and crushing sense of despair.

I want to make it clear at this point that I don’t tell you this because I think I deserve your sympathy – I know I have it much easier than so many others have had it, and continue to have it, as this pandemic rages on. I’m not rich, but I’m reasonably financially secure. I don’t live in a house with an abusive partner, or with people who don’t accept me for who I am. I’m not cramped up in a tiny flat with no outdoor space, and I don’t have to make the unenviable choice between going into a non-Covid-secure workplace or not being able to pay my bills. In so many ways, I have it easy, which often only adds to the guilt I feel about being so deeply fucking miserable all the time. And I know, too, that this is patently ridiculous, that we don’t get to simply choose not to be depressed because our lives are, on most objective levels, pretty privileged.

I won’t bore you with the protracted details of why, as I see it, I feel the way I do, but suffice to say the unresolved emotional baggage of a late-out gay man in a climate where homophobic hate is becoming ever more commonplace, coupled with an extended period of being cut off from my community and the general anxiety surrounding this seemingly interminable Covid-19 hellscape, have left me in a pretty fragile condition. And I suppose you could argue that the continuation of this situation is now, at least in part, a thing I’m doing to myself. I’m vaccinated, virtually all restrictions have been lifted, and there’s nothing legally preventing me from re-connecting with my community and going about life as if all were normal. But it’s not normal. Cases, deaths and hospitalisations continue to rise. My son isn’t vaccinated and, by some estimates, one in seven young people who contract the virus are experiencing ‘Long Covid’ symptoms, with who-knows-what impact on their long-term development and overall health. I can’t just put the cue in the rack with the current landscape as it is, so I continue to sacrifice my own mental health for what I see as the greater good. None of which was inevitable, of course, but that’s a whole other article (and one I’ve possibly written at some point between January 2020 and now).

Anyway, getting to the point after quite a lot more introductory rambling than I had anticipated, I’ve now reached the stage where suicidal thoughts have become part of my daily experience. It started slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, and eventually emerged as a persistent and malevolent shadow lurking in the corner of my room. And every other room. I’d only had such thoughts on one occasion before the pandemic hit, when I was going through a particularly rough patch, but since January of this year, it’s become a recurring, almost perpetual theme. What began as the occasional troubling thought has grown into a thing I will think about at least once a week, and sometimes as much as several times a day.

Now, I don’t want to alarm anyone. I’m not planning to kill myself. I haven’t hurt myself, and I have no intention of doing so. At this stage, my relationship with suicidal ideation is fairly passive, mainly taking the form of thoughts like, “I can’t imagine dealing with this for another n years, wouldn’t it be easier if I just didn’t wake up tomorrow?” or “If I was going to do it, I wonder which way would be quickest/easiest/least painful.” I’m not in any immediate danger, but at the same time, I’m acutely aware that the line between, “Fuck me, I wish this could be over,” and, “I’m going to do something to make this be over,” probably isn’t as wide or as robust as we’d like it to be.

In the brief but merciful periods between these depressive episodes, I often feel foolish for even having had these thoughts. Again, looking at it through an objective lens, what reason do I have for feeling this way, with my comfortable existence and my loving, supportive family? I tell myself I will cease to entertain such risible notions in the future, and I mean to do so. Right up until the point I begin to entertain them again.

I don’t know what the answer to this is, so I’m sorry if you were looking for any kind of meaningful insight. I guess if we could reason away such destructive thoughts, no one would ever take their own lives. What I do know is that it helps to talk about it. If the people closest to me didn’t know how I was feeling, how could they look out for me? And if, as was the case when I was a child (or even a young man) no one ever spoke about such things publicly, how would anyone know they weren’t alone, that what they were feeling was not a sign of weakness or inadequacy, but a facet of mental ill-health shared by numerous others from all different walks of life.

Talking, though, however helpful it may be, is not enough. Whilst it’s undoubtedly true that anyone can suffer with depression or suicidal thoughts, it’s often a hell of a lot more likely for those who are in some way marginalised or oppressed. Rates of poor mental health and suicide in the LGBTQ+ community, for example, are still disproportionately high and, as shouldn’t need to be pointed out but invariably does, we’re not depressed and/or killing ourselves because we’re queer. We’re depressed and/or killing ourselves because of the way you, the cis-het majority, mistreat us, malign us and attack us for being queer. The same applies to anyone who suffers inequality or marginalisation: removing the inequality is no guarantee they won’t still suffer with mental illness, but having access to secure housing, sufficient food, affordable healthcare, inclusive education and the opportunity to exist without abuse or denigration, will certainly help to ameliorate its most damaging effects in a huge number of cases. 

So, yes, do speak to your friends. Check in on them, make sure they’re ok. That’s important, and you should definitely do that. But very often, it’s treating the symptom and not the disease. What will have an equal or even greater impact this World Suicide Prevention Day is resolving to fight inequality in all its forms, thereby helping to remove one of the greatest amplifiers of mental ill-health and preventing or mitigating a huge number of cases before someone becomes so desperate that they’re thinking of ending their own life. Let it be known that you support LGBTQ rights, black lives, a non-punitive welfare system, an accepting and welcoming approach to asylum and immigration, and any other policies and interventions that reduce the harms caused to those less fortunate than yourselves. And, most importantly, act accordingly. Vote accordingly. Take measurable, practical steps to embody those beliefs. It’s not an overstatement to suggest that one person’s actions can be the difference between life and death for someone who finds themselves in such a precarious position that suicide is a realistic option.

In closing, I’d like to say to anyone who has seen any part of themselves in this article, that you will almost inevitably read some hateful or negative responses in the replies (mainly because a lot of people exist who, perhaps understandably, think I’m a cunt). Please don’t take those horrible responses and apply them to yourselves. If you’re feeling in any way similar to how I’ve described, you are not weak, you are not self-pitying, and you are definitely not alone. Find someone to speak to. Please. You’d be surprised how willing many people are to listen. It almost certainly won’t solve your problems overnight, but there’s a decent chance it will help you avoid making a decision you can never unmake.

The racist abuse of football players is still, sadly, the ‘real England’

As the final penalty was saved on Sunday night and Buyako Saka stood forlornly, head in hands, for what must have seemed like an eternity before his teammates arrived to console him, I, too, found myself staring at the front of my own palms. Not because of the football – I had enjoyed the tournament, watched all but one of the games, and wanted this England team to do well, but I didn’t care about the result on the same visceral level as many ‘real’ football fans. No, the source of my despair was the fact that, of the five penalties the team had taken, two were scored (by white players) and three were missed (by black players). The skin colour of the players involved shouldn’t have entered my head, of course, but from the moment Marcus Rashford’s kick bounced off the post, the uneasy knot had already started to form in my stomach.

It was obvious what was about to be unleashed. That the nasty underbelly of this country was once again about to be laid bare was inescapable, inevitable, and Giorgio Chiellini had barely finished raising the trophy aloft before the n-word began to trend on Twitter.

What followed in the hours after the game was an unedifying mix of the most horrific racist abuse imaginable, bigoted dog-whistling from some Tory MPs and crocodile tears from others, attempts from some of those on the ‘right’ side of the argument to excuse, rationalise or minimise what we were seeing, and, somewhat unbelievably, The Sun trying to paint itself as an unshakable pillar of anti-racism. A mural of Marcus Rashford in Manchester was daubed with racist graffiti. Far-right shitheads, desperate for a few hundred likes, snidely tweeted about how he should have been practising penalties instead of sticking his nose into politics. Know your place, Marcus. Know your place.

What this final really exposed is what black people, immigrants and other minorities have known all along: that their acceptance in this country is entirely contingent on their success. That is to say, not their own personal success, or any achievement that may benefit them in some way, but those successes that prove useful or desirable to the straight, white, cis, nominally Christian majority.

This multicultural team of caring, decent and talented young men had just made it all the way to the final of a major tournament for the first time in 55 years. They had matched a world class team – the team most had fancied to win it at the outset – for two hours, and in the end, the only way they could be separated from the early tournament favourites was by way of a penalty shootout. Had a couple more of those penalty kicks been successful, they would have been legends, icons, lions. We’d have been waking up on Monday morning to headlines lauding the courageous exploits of Sir Marcus Rashford, Sir Buyako Saka, and Sir Jadon Sancho, holding them aloft as a great symbol of national pride. Instead, we woke up to yet another stark reminder of how you only get to be black in this country on terms strictly defined by white people.

It’s so endlessly alarming how quickly the mood can shift, how little a young black man has to do to fall from our affections. This is exactly the same group of individuals who have brought us so much hope and joy and excitement and exhilaration over the past month. The same lads who delivered the 4-0 win against Ukraine and the historic victory against Germany. The same lovely, pure-hearted boys who have conducted themselves so impeccably throughout, who have given football – Englishness, even – back to those to whom it had been a stranger for so long. They’re the same young men in whose reflected glory the louts who booed them taking the knee, smashed up Leicester Square, stormed the security gates at Wembley, kicked an Asian man in the head as he lay helpless on the ground and inserted flares into their rectums would have been so happy to bathe, but for two kicks of a football. Two kicks of a football, which rendered them worthless to us, and therefore worthless. Two kicks of a football: the difference in this country between being a national hero and a, well, you know what.

Further, maybe less obvious, examples of this phenomenon could be seen the following day, as various well-meaning outlets posted images of Marcus Rashford helping out at food banks and praising his work in forcing the government u-turn on free school meals last year, alongside messages decrying the racist abuse he was suffering. But this, too, misses the point. His charitable work is utterly irrelevant in this context. If he had never lifted a finger to help anyone but himself, it still wouldn’t be ok to racially abuse him, and we shouldn’t be expecting black people to be superhuman before we’ll treat them as human. Racist abuse is always wrong, whether it’s directed at a saintly figure like Rashford or an intrinsically evil one like Priti Patel. It’s just wrong.

Sadly, though, it is still, in 2021, a defining feature of English society, and it’s far from just a ‘football problem’ (though it is undoubtedly worse in football than anywhere else). There were those who were breaking their backs in the aftermath of all this horribleness to stress that it was just a ‘tiny minority’ of people who were ‘not real fans’. Not only is this patently incorrect, it feels like a very deliberate attempt to absolve ourselves – the good, decent people – of any responsibility for the fact that we live in an undeniably racist country.

In the wake of the Sarah Everard murder, I wrote a piece in which I compared misogyny to a pyramid, with the relatively few rapists and murderers of women sitting at the top, but propped up by those ever-wider layers of people underneath who carry out, actively condone or passively tolerate various lower-level acts of misogyny. The same analogy can be applied here.

Yes, it was a very small minority of the overall population who took to Twitter and Instagram to post monkey emojis and racial slurs on Sunday evening, but that is self-evidently far from the whole picture. We live in a country where the letters BLM – Black Lives Matter – are met with widespread derision and demonisation. We live in a country where the likes of Rod Liddle and Richard Littlejohn make a living as journalists, and very few in the profession ever bother to call out their consistently and nauseatingly vile content in any meaningful way. Indeed, the vast majority of the press in England is either overtly or surreptitiously racist, and huge swathes of the population gleefully purchase or click on their content, lapping up their divisive winks and nudges like so much runny dogshit. We live in a country where those seeking to escape violence, oppression and persecution are routinely vilified, criminalised and othered, and where parties who promise to deal with them harshly are more likely to achieve electoral success. We live in a country where ‘free speech warriors’ routinely take to the internet to shriek about ‘cancel culture’ because an episode of a 1980s sitcom that contains a racial slur is no longer broadcast, or because they’re not allowed to wear black face at the office party. We live in a country where people who are not white experience worse outcomes in terms of education, health, employment and criminal justice, and where a government-commissioned report dismisses any structural explanations for this, but instead uses racist tropes to shift the responsibility back onto the victims. We live in a country where the Prime Minister is a man whose pre-government career was characterised by the regular farting out of newspaper articles in which he compared Muslim women to bank robbers, referred to black children as ‘piccaninnies’ and argued that colonialism in Africa should never have ended. He now enjoys an 80-seat majority in parliament because enough of us either don’t care about his fairly obviously racist ideals, or, in many cases, enthusiastically support them.

The psychologist and author John Amaechi famously said quite recently that our culture is defined by the worst behaviour we will tolerate. Our culture is currently a thoroughly unpleasant one, in which the most appalling behaviour is not only tolerated, but blithely accepted. This is not a ‘tiny minority’. Or anything like. Racism is woven into the very fabric of our society. It is ubiquitous, allowed, excused and often celebrated. It’s who we are. If you’re genuinely sitting there and arguing that this isn’t the ‘real England’, you are a fairly significant part of the problem, and a long period of education and introspection is required.

There is some good that can come of this, though. The inclusiveness of this English team, the way they’ve used their platform to promote the message that they represent all communities, religions, sexualities and ethnicities, and how clear they’ve made it that they do not want the support of those who don’t share those values, provides a much-needed glimmer of hope. Tyrone Mings’ timely and powerful condemnation of Priti Patel’s hypocrisy was refreshing to see, and there’s a tentative sense that they are starting to galvanise those with anti-racist beliefs around their measured but stubborn advocacy.

It can’t all be left to them, however, and it’s up to us, the beneficiaries of the inherently racist society in which we live, to take the fight forward. It shouldn’t be down to black people to carry out the emotional labour necessary to bring about an end to a problem created, promoted and sustained by white people. It is not enough to be ‘not racist’. You don’t win any prizes for managing to get through the day without saying the n-word. And burying your head in the sand, hiding behind protestations like ‘not true fans’ and ‘not the real England’, is helpful only in assuaging your own conscience whilst perpetuating the white supremacist culture that brought about Sunday’s ugly scenes.

Pride Month 2021: Step the fuck up or fuck the fuck off

We did it, queers! We solved homophobia! Transphobia no longer exists and biphobia is a thing of the past! Praise be to Billy Porter that we can now put the long fight for LGBTQ equality behind us and focus on more important things. Like brunch. And interior design.

Yes, this Pride Month has seen almost unanimous appropriation of the rainbow flag by governments, charities, public bodies and private businesses alike, which must mean they all unequivocally support our community and every individual of which it is comprised. Except when doing the absolute bare fucking minimum is a bit difficult for them, of course, in which case they promptly release a statement saying, “Fuck this, homos, you’re on your own.”

I wrote last year about how challenging Pride Month had been for LGBTQ people, how many of us were isolated from our support networks, cut off from our friends and those we might think of more as family than the people with whom we share our DNA, excluded from the only spaces in which we can really be our whole selves. That remains true this year for those of us who have resisted the urge to throw caution to the wind as a more transmissible and at least partially vaccine-resistant Covid-19 variant spreads through the population, but even with the relaxation of the rules some of us have enjoyed, this year’s Pride Month seems even more bleak and depressing than the last.

At the time of writing, we still have nearly a week of June left, and we’ve already seen a seemingly interminable parade of performative allyship that folds in the face of even mild resistance from those who would do us harm. Company after charity after governing body after politician, lining up to demonstrate that they care about us deeply, but only when it’s easy or convenient for them to do so.

It goes without saying that corporate rainbow-washing during Pride Month is nothing new – it’s the same every year – but it feels like there’s been a fairly significant shift this year. Like we’re slipping backwards. Like the examples of organisations using us to tick a diversity box then shitting on us from an orbital height seconds later have been so relentless and egregious that it’s hard to believe they’ve all been crammed into the same month.

Earlier in the month, the official Twitter account of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme tweeted a supportive message to LGBTQ youth, in which they posted links to some charities where they could seek help and advice if they needed it. Charities including Stonewall and Mermaids, for example. Needless to say, this prompted a fierce backlash from the fundamentally evil but well-coordinated transphobes of social media, whereupon @DofE decided to quietly delete their tweet, thereby clearly articulating how much they really value the young queer people on their scheme.

A few days later, after tweeting a message about how much they respect and cherish their LGBTQ students, it emerged that academics employed by the Open University had set up something called the ‘OU Gender Critical Research Network’. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the terminology, ‘gender critical’ is a term transphobic bigots have ascribed to themselves to lend their hateful bullshit a veneer of respectability. And with some success, it has to be said. Whether or not the OU have officially sanctioned this network is unclear, but they have not, to the best of my knowledge, taken any steps to distance themselves from it.

The Royal Academy, their official Twitter account replete with rainbowy loveliness, announced a couple of weeks ago that they would not be restocking the work of a particular artist in their gift shop following concerns about transphobic content on her social media pages. Cue the howls of indignation from those who spend their entire lives trying to strip rights, dignity and appropriate healthcare options away from trans people, followed by the Royal Academy folding like a fucking deckchair and issuing an apology that they had compromised the bigots’ right to free speech.

UEFA, after insisting from their Pride-pigmented Twitter account that football is ‘everyone’s game’, launched an investigation into German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer for wearing a rainbow armband during one of their Euro 2020 group games. They eventually backed down on this after a fairly significant public outcry, accepting that the armband was a symbol of diversity, and therefore not political.

Which made it all the more enraging when they refused a request from the Mayor of Munich for the Allianz Stadium to be lit up in rainbow colours for Germany’s match against Hungary. Their reasoning, somewhat fucking perplexingly, was that such a gesture would indeed be political because Hungary’s government is so proudly and vocally homophobic.

So we’re left with the situation whereby UEFA are expecting us to accept that a symbol of support for human rights is not political, but where that same symbol might upset those who seek to deny us those rights, it becomes political and is therefore impermissible. This is, of course, an entirely coherent and legitimate position, much like, for example, “Yes, we obviously agree murder is wrong, but please keep those opinions to yourself in the presence of my friend, the murderer.”

I’ve heard lots of people saying over the past few days that human rights are never political, but I’m not sure I agree. I tend to think such issues are inherently political, they’re just not remotely fucking complicated. There’s a right side and a wrong side, and it ought to be very simple for anyone with a shred of basic decency to decide which is which.

Everything we do – or, equally importantly, do not do – where equality is concerned is a political act. Choosing, for example, to allow a country with an authoritarian, homophobic, transphobic government to host games in your football tournament is a political act. Refusing to allow another country to respond by saying, “We support the LGBTQ community even if you don’t,” is a political act. So-called neutrality on matters of human rights is never that – it’s simply a means of enabling those who would oppress others to carry out that oppression. Silence is complicity, inaction is tacit support.

This applies across the board, whether you’re the governing body of European football bowing to pressure from a homophobic government, a charity claiming to defend a persecuted minority then backing down because it’s too difficult for you to stand up to ‘gender critical’ trolls, or an individual deciding to stay out of the ‘transgender debate’ (ugh) because it’s ‘too complicated’ or ‘too controversial’.

We face this shit every day of our lives. For some of us, it is our lives. We don’t get to opt out.

I have every possible Twitter filter dialled up to 11, but I still receive daily homophobic abuse. Vile comments equating me to a paedophile, doubting my suitability to parent my own child, wishing me dead. And that’s just the stuff that makes it through the ‘quality filter’. And the thing is, I’m one of the lucky ones. For all the toxicity I deal with every day, it’s but a fraction of that experienced by the average trans person. By choosing to ‘stay out of it’, you are making a conscious decision to allow that abuse to continue, and to continue with your silent blessing. If that’s not a political act, nothing is.

The days of performative allyship have to come to an end. If a rainbow flag and a ‘Happy Pride’ is the best you can manage, we don’t need you. It is utterly fucking exhausting to have to sit here every June and watch organisations and individuals cosplaying support for our rights without lifting a single finger to advance them in any meaningful way. And it’s as infuriating as it is exhausting to see the creeping normalisation of attacks on our community, sheathed in the language of ‘free speech’ and ‘legitimate concerns’, while those who profess to have our backs passively allow (or actively encourage) it to happen.

It falls to all of us to do better. This is especially true for those who seek to profit from the use our symbols – whether financially, professionally or politically – but there’s also plenty we can do as individuals to ensure our allyship is more than just lip service.

Educate yourselves. ‘It’s complicated’ is not an excuse. Follow trans, non-binary and other queer accounts on social media. Listen – really fucking listen – to what those accounts are saying about their lives, their rights and the abuse they face just for existing. Do a fucking Google. Donate to LGBTQ charities, and call out those who profess to support us but fail to do so when the going gets tough. Write to your MP to express your support for GRA reform and a conversion therapy ban. Don’t buy, subscribe to, or visit the websites of newspapers that promote anti-LGBTQ content (this includes the fucking Guardian). Resolve to never, ever vote Conservative (though I accept that certain other parties aren’t much better in this regard). Refuse to back down in the face of homophobic, biphobic or transphobic hate. Don’t raise the profile of hateful people by arguing with them online. Block the bigots and post something positive on your own account in response. Speak out in your homes, workplaces and friendship groups. Make it clear that you are someone who will always strive to promote the rights of LGBTQ people, and that you will not tolerate those who wish us ill. Lose friends, if you have to. Saying, “Julie is a really nice person who helps me with the kids, she just doesn’t want trans women in ladies’ toilets,” doesn’t cut it. Pick a fucking side. Pick a side and fight for what’s right, even when it’s difficult, because that’s what it means to be an ally. 

If it’s easy, you’re fucking doing it wrong.

Without further restrictions, ‘Freedom Day’ may never come

As has been anticipated since he set an arbitrary date for the ‘final and irreversible’ relaxation of Covid restrictions, thereby raising public hopes in the absence of any tangible evidence that he would be able to deliver, Boris Johnson has finally announced, via the official government method of leaking it to Laura Kuenssberg at 22.00 on a Sunday evening, that the easing of restrictions will now be delayed for a further four weeks to enable more vaccinations to be administered.

Somewhat predictably, the howls of anguish from the anti-woke, anti-snowflake, anti-Marxist, anti-lockdown, anti-mask, anti-vaccine, pro-flag, pro-statue, pro-Brexit, pro-two-world-wars-and-one-world-cup, pro-Tory divorcees of Twitter were, in the wake of this announcement, quite deafening. “We want our freedom back!” they cried. Hashtag I’m Done. Hashtag Enough Is Enough. Hashtag Please Let Me See The Kids, Sharon.

‘Lockdown extension’ trended for several hours as they vented their spleens about the violent oppression of having to wear a mask in Tescos for another four weeks and the blood-curdling brutality of the greater than usual degree of difficulty in obtaining footy tickets. I tried, via the use of some fairly blunt sarcasm, to make the point that we’re not currently in anything that could be correctly described as a ‘lockdown’ as we’re legally allowed to do most things at this point, but I’m not sure it really landed.

That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t reasons to be angry. If you’ve been anything in the ballpark of ‘conscious’ over the past 18 months, you should be absolutely fucking furious. As is so often the case, however, much of this anger seems to be manifesting for all the wrong reasons.

In February and March 2020, as we watched the carnage unfolding in Italy and elsewhere, we hesitated, prevaricated and delayed. A swift lockdown at that point, together with strict controls on those entering and leaving the country and a working test and trace system, would have left us ideally placed as an island nation to avoid the worst of the pandemic. That’s not mere speculation – Australia and New Zealand have been back to something approaching ‘normal’ for some time now, simply because they acted decisively to halt the spread of the disease.

And ironically, at least some of the responsibility for the fact that we didn’t adopt this course of action lies with the vacuous tits who now spend their Saturdays parading through London with that bellend off ‘Lewis’, the tinfoil-hat-clad brother of a former Labour leader and a woman who filters human excrement for entertainment; demanding an end to restrictions that, for the most part, do not exist. Were it not for the fact that our Prime Minister is far more worried about whether he is personally popular than whether or not a few hundred thousand plebs remain alive, and were it not also for the fact that the very people who now rail against the weaker, more protracted restrictions provided vocal opposition to stronger, swifter but ultimately more short-lived restrictions back in 2020, we might have avoided this calamity.

The same could be said in relation to every step in our disastrous handling of this pandemic. As mistake after mistake has unfolded, the entire process has followed a depressingly familiar cycle:

  1. Cases rise, scientists warn that action is required
  2. There is significant opposition to any restrictions among right-wing commentators and media
  3. Government delays imposing restrictions to avoid negative headlines
  4. Situation becomes untenable and restrictions are finally imposed, weeks too late
  5. Restrictions last far longer than necessary because of earlier delays, leading to public fatigue
  6. When cases start to fall, pressure mounts to relax restrictions
  7. Government relaxes restrictions too early to avoid negative headlines
  8. See 1.

Without this vitriolic opposition from the right-wing press and the honking, anti-science reactionaries of social media, there’s every chance the PM would have acted differently. He is a man whose first and only thought in any given situation is, “How will this benefit me?” He is powered by pure, concentrated selfishness, and if imposing an early, well-managed lockdown would have led to a Daily Mail splash comparing him in favourable terms to Winston Churchill, he’d have executed the order in a fucking heartbeat.

That’s not to absolve the government of any responsibility, of course. The overwhelming majority of the blame rests firmly on their shoulders, because effective leadership sometimes means making unpopular decisions in the short term knowing they will be for the greater good in the longer term. And the most ridiculous thing is, had they taken these difficult decisions at the outset and pre-empted the first (or the second or the third) wave, he might have actually secured his ‘BORIS IS CHURCHILL’ headline in the end.

This short-termist thinking has characterised the government’s approach to Covid throughout, and it’s no coincidence that we not only have one of the worst per capita death tolls on the planet, but have also taken the biggest Covid-related hit to the economy of any country in Europe. Entire industries have been decimated by callous inaction, ministerial indifference and lack of essential financial support, as billions of pounds have been funnelled into the pockets of Conservative Party donors for a test and trace system that’s not fit for purpose, ventilators made out of old hand-dryers and PPE that was never delivered.

As each half-arsed, weeks-too-late lockdown has been lifted weeks too early, some of these industries have never been allowed to reopen, and many hundreds of businesses have now been lost forever. Indeed, one of the most common arguments advanced in the outpouring of terrible grammar that followed the announcement of this latest delay related to the horrific toll the existing restrictions are exacting on those in the hospitality, arts and nightlife industries. All very valid concerns, and we should be angry about that. 

We should be angry, however, not about the personal inconvenience of having to book a table if we want to go to the pub, but that these essential and profitable businesses have been allowed to go to the wall for want of adequate financial support, and that quicker, more decisive action that stayed the course would have rendered this discussion largely moot.

We should be angry that a three-week delay in imposing the first lockdown led to a wave of death and destruction that could have been avoided or mitigated had we acted sooner. We should be angry that £37bn of our money has been sunk into a test and trace system that has never worked. We should be angry that Covid patients were released into care homes without testing, precipitating further avoidable carnage amongst some of the most vulnerable people in our population. We should be angry that many healthcare professionals perished for want of adequate PPE. We should be angry about Eat Out To Help Out. We should be angry that schools and universities were ordered back in September with no plan in place to control the spread of the disease. We should be angry about the ‘get back to work or lose your fucking job’ headlines. We should be angry about scientists’ calls for a lockdown in the autumn going unheeded until it was too late.  We should be angry that this autumn lockdown, like all the others, was lifted too early. We should definitely be angry about fucking Christmas, and the predictable and predicted wave of excess mortality it unleashed for the sake of a BORIS SAVES CHRISTMAS’ headline. We should be angry that, after all that, the same mistakes have been made coming out of this lockdown as with the previous two. And we should be utterly fucking enraged that, for a country that invests so much time and energy into ‘controlling our borders’ as it pertains to desperate people arriving via dinghy seeking a better life, we have been singularly unwilling to ‘control our borders’ in the context of a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of 150,000 of our citizens.

Scientists warned, several weeks ago, of the dangers posed by the Delta variant. They called, time and again, for India, where the variant originated, to be added to the ‘red list’ of countries to which travel was restricted. These calls were ignored for weeks on end because Johnson was desperate for a trade deal photo-op with the Indian PM to draw our noses away from the interminably pungent shit-smell of Brexit. By the time India was eventually added to the red list, the variant in question was already established in the UK. It has since become the dominant variant in the country, accounting for 90% of new cases. It is now growing exponentially, with in excess of 7,000 new cases a day at the time of writing, and is thought to be up to 60% more transmissible than the previous strain (which was 50% more transmissible than the original). Most worryingly of all, the variant is already showing some degree of vaccine resistance.

We now stand at yet another crossroads. Carrying on as we are simply isn’t enough. With the number of new cases doubling every 7-10 days even with the current restrictions in place, we face the possibility that, in a month’s time, we could easily have upwards of 50,000 new cases a day.

It’s at this stage of proceedings that someone will inevitably pipe up with, “But all the older and more vulnerable people are vaccinated, so it doesn’t matter if the cases go up,” but this ignores the fact that millions of people are still only partially vaccinated, and millions more aren’t vaccinated at all. They still run the very real risk of experiencing long-Covid symptoms (or worse) if they contract the disease. But even that’s not the main problem with allowing cases to spiral out of control at this point.

Viruses mutate. It’s what they do. This particular virus has already mutated on many occasions, producing several distinct strains. These mutations occur randomly as the virus replicates. Advantageous (to the virus) mutations are selected for and become more prevalent, while the less beneficial ones die out. It follows, therefore, that if more opportunities exist for the virus to reproduce, the number of mutations will also increase. More mutations overall means a greater chance that one (or more) of those mutations will be advantageous to the virus. So allowing cases to grow unchecked in a partially vaccinated population, where the dominant strain is already highly transmissible and showing some degree of resistance to the vaccine, creates the perfect environment for a variant to emerge that escapes the vaccine completely. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why such an outcome would be very bad news indeed for every human being on the planet.

Keeping transmission as low as humanly possible until a significant proportion of the world’s population are vaccinated would greatly reduce the risk of this apocalyptic scenario unfolding. This means (relatively) short-term restrictions to bring cases as close to zero as possible in this country, monitoring and disrupting new outbreaks as they occur, and strictly controlling who enters and leaves the country until the rest of the world catches up with their vaccination programmes. A full lockdown might not be necessary given the advanced stage of the vaccine programme here, but far greater restrictions than are currently in place will be required to reverse the upward trend in cases.

Further restrictions at this point would undoubtedly be painful for everyone (though that pain could be alleviated considerably with appropriate support in place from the government), but as in March and September and December and April, taking a short term view of this is the worst thing we could possibly do. I hate lockdowns as much as the next person, regardless of what ‘HammersDave84750398’ might assert in my Twitter replies. My mental health has been in the fucking toilet for well over a year now, and I’m desperate to be released back into the wild to go about my homosexual business. But I’m also pragmatic enough to understand that the vaccines are our one long-term ticket out of this unholy mess, and if we blow that, the next eighteen months could make the previous eighteen look like a sunny evening in a socially distanced beer garden.

Not All Men: Dismantling The Pyramid

In the wake of the harrowing news about kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard this week, the responses on social media have been predictably and undeniably grim. Woman after woman recounting their terrible experiences of abusive behaviour at the hands of men, from inappropriate, sexually aggressive comments, to unwanted physical advances, to the heart-pounding fear of walking anywhere alone, all the way through to violent sexual assault and rape. Literally every woman you know has experienced one or more of these abuses on multiple occasions during their lives.

Our response, as men, to that outpouring of truth, was for #NotAllMen to be trending on Twitter for the best part of a day. How we railed at the implication that we may bear some collective responsibility for the perpetual fear women face just going about their daily lives. How we demanded that those speaking out about their experiences give us, the ‘good guys’, a pat on the head for managing not to rape them. How we persisted, so bravely, to once again make women’s trauma all about us.

I watched in horror as, even after Me Too, and all the subsequent revelations about how this kind of behaviour is allowed to take hold, so many of us failed (refused, perhaps?) to recognise the impact our own behaviour can have, searching desperately for anything that would give us a ‘get out’, to preserve our precious self-image as one of the good ‘uns. I saw posts from at least two gay men who were extremely upset that they were being ‘lumped in’ with the comments about male behaviour, when everyone knows it was the straight guys wot done it.

I tweeted the following this morning, and the responses to it were so revealing:

“It is All Men, actually.

All Men have the ability to cause harm to women.

All Men need to examine whether their own behaviour might be responsible for making women feel afraid or uncomfortable.

All Men could do more to bring about an end to violence against women.

All Men.”

Of course, there were the inevitable replies from men who were righteously aggrieved at this unconscionable attack on their impeccable character, but the thing that really stood out for me was the number of women expressing their gratitude that I’d tweeted it at all. Why? For what?

I did the absolute fucking bare minimum any of us should be doing. I don’t need thanks for that. Shit, I don’t deserve thanks for that, but it does serve to underline how much more we could all be doing to create a situation where the bare minimum is no longer considered cause for gratitude.

It is helpful, and often accurate, to think of any system of violence or oppression as a kind of pyramid. At its base rest the majority who, whilst perhaps not actively involved in the violence or oppression, provide the foundation for those who are. At each level above that, fewer and fewer individuals reside, until we reach the apex, where the most appalling atrocities are committed.

Taking homophobia as a brief example, the base might consist of those who don’t really think much about gay people at all, or how they can help to create a safer environment for us. Next up might be those who turn a blind eye when their friends or colleagues make homophobic jokes or comments. Next might be those who actually make those jokes or comments, or who use the word ‘gay’ as an insult. Above that might be those who say things like, “I don’t mind gay people existing, but I don’t think they should be allowed to have children, be spoken about in schools etc.” You get the picture: the individuals who reside at the top, the ones who beat and murder gay people just for being gay, are but a tiny minority of the overall structure, but they are held in place by those below, supporting them, providing the framework for their existence.

The same analogy can be applied to violence against women. Yes, guys, most of us are not rapists or murderers of women, but how many of us can truly, genuinely, say we’re doing everything in our power to dismantle patriarchal power structures, to call out borderline (or even more obvious) behaviour in our friendship groups and families, to examine our own behaviour and consider whether it might be contributing to the climate of fear in which women permanently abide? 

We’re the fucking base, lads. We’re the foundation upon which the ‘nice tits, luv’ layer, the walking behind a woman on a dark street layer, the sexually coercive boss layer, the stalker layer and the rape/murder layer rest. Without us, the rest of the pyramid starts to look decidedly precarious. We can actively strive to take away that support, and bring the whole thing crashing down.

To labour the analogy just a little further, if I may, a pyramid is a huge structure, and of course no man can dismantle it alone. What we can do is to chip away at our own little corner, and encourage others to do likewise. We can create instability around us, even if there are those who refuse to join in. We can resolve, when women justifiably complain that it’s not coming down quick enough, not to respond with anger because we’re chipping as fast as we can, but to look for more efficient and effective ways of toppling those upper layers.

If we’re the ‘good guys’ we claim to be, it shouldn’t be a burden to adopt a position of hyper-vigilance in this matter. Hyper-vigilance is second nature to women. In the stock cupboard at work, in a car park after dark, in a quiet park, walking down the street, and all too often, in their own homes. They are conditioned to it from a very young age, and it’s time for us to join them.

Talk to your friends, your brothers, your sons and nephews. Refuse to join in with the sexist jokes and ‘banter’. Call out inappropriate behaviour when you see it. Think about the effect on a woman if you jog past her shoulder from behind, or walk behind her after dark. Yes, even if you’re gay. Unless you’re wearing glitter and rainbows and singing a Judy Garland medley, it might not be immediately obvious to a woman who has walked this road so many times that you do not present a threat. Recognise that what you see as ‘harmless flirtation’ can, if not reciprocated, be deeply unsettling to the woman concerned. These are only a few examples, but I’m sure those of us who really are ‘good guys’, will take it upon themselves to find more.

The easiest way of doing this, of course, is to listen to women. Read their tweets, their Facebook posts and their articles, and consider – really consider – what changes you can make to help dismantle the pyramid of male violence they have to circumnavigate every day of their lives. Because, however uncomfortable it may be to hear, we all sit somewhere within its structure.

When no good options remain, we may only choose the least terrible

Lockdowns are shit.

That might seem like a ridiculously obvious thing to say, but there are those out there who seem to think that people exist who think of them as an extended holiday, a little jolly where we get to sit at home in our jammies all day watching Netflix, a chance to bunk off and collect that lovely, free government money, so it bears making this very simple point clear at the outset: lockdowns are fucking shit. They amplify inequality, damage mental health, place vulnerable people at risk, decimate businesses and isolate members of minority communities from the essential support networks on which they rely. They are so perniciously harmful that no one in their right mind would be suggesting any kind of lockdown, much less the strict nationwide lockdown so many are now calling for, if it wasn’t absolutely essential.

There are, of course, ways to mitigate the harms caused by lockdowns: locking down early enough and strictly enough that the duration is kept to an absolute minimum, providing adequate financial support to individuals and businesses affected by the measures, a comprehensive plan to provide distance or blended learning in the hope of minimising the deleterious effects on those in full-time education, effective test, trace and isolate programmes, and clear, honest communication designed to bring the public along with any unavoidable disruption to their lives, rights and freedoms. Not ripping the arse out of mental health provision for a full decade prior to the commencement of any such restrictions might also be helpful, but here we are.

The sad fact is, our government has singularly failed to adopt any of these mitigation strategies since the very start of this pandemic. Both the first and second lockdowns took place weeks after scientists were calling for them to be implemented. Financial support has been deliberately – maliciously, even – inadequate, with many people cut adrift from the limited help available, and the government having to be shamed into doing the bare fucking basics like feeding hungry children, on two separate occasions, by a footballer. Eat out to help out, the rush to reopen schools and universities, the steadfast unwillingness to close them again even after it became clear that they were a significant source of community transmission, the threats to ‘get back to work or lose your jobs’, the persistence with the tier system of local restrictions that scientists warned would be ineffective before it was introduced and which was later shown to be just that, the staggering, face-melting stupidity of the Christmas super-spreader event; this government has failed at every turn to protect the public from the virus, and to minimise the need for, and duration of, further lockdowns.

The situation with schools is particularly worrying. And again, before I go any further, let me be abundantly clear: school ‘closures’ are also shit. I used the word ‘closures’ in inverted commas because the reality is that the schools have never been ‘closed’. They have always been open to the children of key workers and vulnerable children, which is as it should be. But to keep them open to all students at this stage of the pandemic is an act of criminal negligence that will serve only to increase transmission and cause thousands more deaths.

Of course no one wants schools to close (or, more accurately, to move to distance learning for an extended period of time). My son, who is very vocally Not A Fan of school, would still rather be there than separated from his friends for months on end, learning from a computer in his bedroom. During the first lockdown, he became progressively more miserable and withdrawn, despite our best efforts to prevent this, and it was heartbreaking to see. He returned to physical school attendance in September, and from a social point of view, it was obviously a huge improvement. We took him back into a remote learning environment last November when it became clear that everything was starting to go very badly sideways again, and although we took this decision with his consent, he still fucking hates it. The thing is, however, he hates it considerably less than he would hate me or his mother, who both have underlying conditions, becoming seriously ill or dying.

Closing schools and universities now is a no-brainer. It’s a shitty, horrible option that is still considerably better than the shittier, even more horrible alternative.

We now stand at a precipice. A variant of Covid somewhere between 50 and 70% more transmissible than the original strain is now tearing across the country unchecked. The graph of confirmed infections is more or less a straight, vertical line and hospital admissions have already exceeded the level of the last peak in April. Due to a better understanding of the disease and greater awareness of how to treat it, the number of daily deaths hasn’t quite caught up to the horrendous levels of the first wave, but they’re not far off, and they will get there, whatever we do next. A full, strict, UK-wide lockdown will almost certainly be insufficient to prevent a recurrence of the horrors of last spring, and we could still reach the stage where the NHS is unable to treat some Covid patients, even with those measures in place. This will also have a knock-on effect to routine care and other critical care, causing an increase in excess ‘non-Covid’ deaths as a result.

The strain on NHS staff now is unimaginable. Many are off sick, either with Covid-19 or related exhaustion from having to work 80+ hours a week over an extended period to cover for their stricken colleagues. Some are reporting conditions akin to, or virtually identical to, PTSD, and beds, together with the human beings needed to staff those beds, are quickly running out. All of which is likely to create a domino effect that will claim tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives. This remains true even if we act now. Today.

If we do not act now, if we delay or prevaricate or dither for another moment, we risk this disease getting completely, irretrievably out of control. Every day we fail to act is another day where more than 50,000 people (that we know about) contract the virus. Given that, in most areas, you can only book a Covid test if you are displaying symptoms, the real number is almost certainly significantly higher. And with the R-rate well above 1, this 50,000 symptomatic cases will grow to 100,000 and beyond in a very short space of time. If the hospitalisations and deaths grow proportionately alongside that, we will be in a very dark place indeed.

We have a vaccine available. Two, in fact. That is the only good news to emerge out of any of this, but vaccines alone are not sufficient to prevent what undoubtedly awaits us should we fail to take the drastic action needed to reduce the unrestrained spread of this lethal new variant. The government must act now, in partnership with devolved administrations, to implement a full lockdown of the entire UK, to move schools and universities online, to ban most flights in or out of the country, to close all non-essential retail, hospitality and entertainment venues, and, crucially, to provide the support, financial or otherwise, needed for us to emerge safely at the other side when the vaccine rollout is complete.

It’s going to be shit because, as I think I mentioned, lockdowns are really, really fucking shit. But when you’re faced with an inescapable choice between a kick in the balls/minge (delete as appropriate) or a bullet in the head, all you can do is spread your legs, brace yourself, and look forward to the day when you’ve recovered from the damage in a way that would not be possible if you opted for the alternative.

The Lockdown Trials of a Northern Gay

I don’t really know what this piece is yet, or how it will look when it’s finished. I usually have a plan formed in my brain before I sit down to write: a message I wish to convey, a start point, an end point, and some kind of imprecise mental map as to how I’ll join those two points together. I have none of that this time, just a bunch of feelings I need to get out of my head in the hope that they’ll stop fucking shit up in there, so please bear with me if it lacks the coherence you’ve hopefully come to expect.

I think the main thing I feel is lonely. And isolated. And a bit sad. On top of that, there’s a huge dollop of guilt gnawing away at me because I’m surrounded by a supportive and loving family, and I have no right to feel any of those things. There are millions of people who, over the past nine months, have lost loved ones, incomes, homes, and careers they’ve worked for decades to build. There are those who live alone, or who reside in a household with an abusive partner or parents. There are countless individuals who have been abandoned in care homes by a government that has singularly failed to protect them from the ravages of this pandemic, even as it shamelessly lined the pockets of its already obscenely wealthy donors. Sure, I’ve had a few financial struggles since March, but who hasn’t? Objectively and comparatively, I know I’ve had it ridiculously easy.

Most regular readers of this website will already know my story, but for those who don’t, I’ll give a brief recap. I am a 41-year-old gay man who didn’t come out until the age of 37. After I came out, unusually, I suppose, my wife and I decided to remain married. We did so for a whole number of reasons, but primarily because we recognised that there was more than one way to love a person, more than one way for a relationship to be successful. We still had (and have) a huge amount of love for one another and, together with our son, we remain a close-knit family unit.

The benefits of this decision are, I hope, fairly obvious, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. But it’s not without its drawbacks either. Living in a northern city with a relatively small LGBTQ population, in what, to the casual observer, is a regular old straight marriage, leaves me faced with a choice between being my whole self and attracting a lot of unwanted, intrusive questions (for me and my wife), or continuing to hide part of myself to ‘fit in’. Unfortunately, I always seem to opt for the latter: the path of least resistance. And it’s not even necessarily a conscious decision. It’s a thing that happens automatically as a result of more than three decades of conditioning.

Before the advent of All This Shit, I had a way of offsetting this propensity to fall back into old, destructive habits. My regular visits to London, where lots of my friends reside, and where huge numbers of The Gays may be found, would give me the chance, for a few precious days, to feel completely comfortable with who I am, to be surrounded by others like me, and to free the repressed homosexual who has been hiding inside me since childhood.

My wife would always remark upon how happy I seemed on my return. How relaxed I would appear. How proudly and unapologetically gay I would be, like the spark in my eyes had been reignited. It was like there was a big old ‘RESET’ button somewhere inside me, the pressing of which returned me to the factory settings that were installed at birth, but which have been relentlessly corrupted, year on year, by the Gay Shame malware.

This system wasn’t perfect – what is? – but it worked to a large extent, and I know it would be unrealistic to expect that I could emerge from the closet this late in life without having to make some sacrifices. I have a million ‘what ifs’ in my head, but we can’t undo the past, and I couldn’t honestly say I would undo it even if I could. Maybe things would have turned out better if I’d realised some truths about myself earlier, but I could never wish away my best friend and the not-completely-terrible human we created together. We have to play the hand we’re dealt, and this situation was the best available to me under the circumstances, for all its imperfections.

So when The Bad Thing happened earlier this year, it pulled the rug out a little bit. At the time, I knew it would be difficult for a few months until things got back on track, and I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was this interminable omnifuck to stretch out for what will be well in excess of a year by the time things return to whatever the fuck normal looks like when it’s over. I wasn’t prepared – even with my rock-bottom expectations for this shit-dribbling clown car of a government – to be nervously eyeing the 2021 calendar wondering how much of it we’ll have chewed through before I can safely enter a gay bar again. At this point, it feels like not only has the rug has been pulled out, but like I’ve subsequently been beaten with a yard of pipe, wrapped in the rug and unceremoniously dumped off the edge of a dock like some kind of racist statue.

On top of all this, there was no Pride this year. Now, I realise there are lots of very valid criticisms of large Pride events – corporate pink-washing, admission charges, lack of representation for black and brown LGBTQ people, a failure to adequately raise trans voices at a time when it’s most necessary – but for all their failures, I do believe they are essentially a force for good. As a late-out gay who has hidden for most of his life, they’re an intrinsic part of my mental wellbeing. They’re a chance to be fully and unashamedly out, to be immersed in queerness, and yes, to embrace and promote those parts of our community that white cis gays have so often failed to support after they fought unflinchingly alongside us. There’s been a lot of talk about Christmas in the press and media over the past couple of weeks, how awful it would be if we had to cancel it etc, but I suspect Pride is at least as important to huge numbers of queer people, and its cancellation has barely registered in the mainstream discourse.

And I want to make it clear that this isn’t a sex thing. Sex is, to the best of my recollection, great, but it’s far from the top of the list of reasons I’m feeling all of the feelings. The opportunity to belong for a few hours, to be able to present freely in a (relatively) safe environment without looking over your shoulder and having to perform a thousand real-time calculations about whether The Way You Are is likely to lead to verbal or physical harassment, the chance to actively celebrate who you are, fuck, even just the opportunity to have some sort of affectionate physical contact with another man – I feel their loss. Keenly. Sharply. Increasingly.

I know this isn’t a permanent situation. One day it will be over. But in the meantime, it feels like a mental battle I’m not sure I’m winning. Maybe that’s what I wanted this piece to say: I’m not ok. I hope this doesn’t come across as too self-pitying – I recognise that we’re all going through it in different ways right now, but I suspect if you’ve never been part of a minority community, you’ll probably find it difficult to understand the impact of being cut off from that community. And maybe, hopefully, this weird stream of consciousness will have helped in some small way to further that understanding.

I’m always immensely grateful for the support I receive from strangers on this site and on Twitter, and I hope you’re all finding a way through this horror show that causes the least amount of damage possible. I share your anxieties about Covid and Brexit and all the other shit, and like the rest of you, I’m also missing my loved ones. The thing I’m most struggling to deal with, however, is missing part of myself.

Racism, bigotry and intolerance: America in the Joe Biden era

As the crowds took to the streets on Saturday to celebrate the demise of Donald Trump’s presidency, it was hard to not be swept along on the tidal wave of euphoria. Many of us, myself included, shed tears of relief for black, Latinx, Muslim, gay and trans Americans who have endured four years of torture at his hands.

A few commentators remarked that the victory party was akin to scenes witnessed in other countries when a dictator is overthrown, and with good reason. Trump ruled by executive order, by diktat, by decree. His rhetoric, whilst largely incoherent, was very deliberately designed to sow division, to endanger the lives of those he despises. He wrought chaos for his own ends, as any dictator would, and his removal from office can only be a cause for celebration.

In the cold light of day, however, as the jubilant masses return to their homes, this election once again reveals the ugly truth about the good ol’ US of A. Despite Biden’s margin of victory in both the popular vote and the electoral college, there’s simply no hiding from the fact that more than 70 million people left their homes on 3 November, headed down to a polling place, and proudly voted for more of the same.

70 million people looked back at the past four years – the division, the hate, the full-throated support for white supremacists, the violence, the unrest, the criminal, wilful mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis – and decided that, yes, they would like to see another four years of this carnage.

And that, for all his ills, cannot be laid at Trump’s door. Donald Trump did not make America racist. He didn’t even make America more racist than it already was. What he did was to embolden the bigots, to validate their hateful views on the largest possible stage, to tell them that it was ok to think terrible thoughts and to express them openly, because their President was with them all the way. And it bears pointing out he didn’t do so without warning. He first rose to power on the back of a promise to give voice to racist ideals, and just under half the country could not have been happier. That his presidency came immediately after eight years of the Obama administration provides a jarring contrast, but it shouldn’t be surprising given how many Americans loathed the idea of a black man in the White House. Donald Trump is the symptom, not the disease.

A look at the breakdown of 2020 voting by demographic tells a sobering tale. It is estimated by the University of California that, nationally, 57% of white people voted for Trump. Just less than 6 out of every 10 white Americans voted for a further four years of a presidency under which black people and other minorities lived in a state of more or less constant fear for their mental wellbeing, their physical safety, and even their lives. Figures from 2016 show that if only white men had been allowed to vote, Trump would have won in all but a couple of states. These statistics reflect badly on all of us, whether we voted for him or not. It’s simply not enough to say, “I didn’t vote for him so my conscience is clear,” and to do so is an abdication of responsibility.

For white liberals, Trump’s divisive language is unconscionable. We don’t like these brash, overt displays of racism because they make us uncomfortable. We rail against such distasteful public celebrations of white supremacy because they might force us to confront some unpalatable truths about ourselves. Like how often do we speak out about the structural, systemic racism from which we all have gained an advantage? How much noise do we make about the barriers faced by black people to education, to housing, to healthcare or to equal employment prospects? How willing are we to overlook racist jokes or comments from our friends and colleagues because we don’t want to have a difficult conversation? How readily do we examine the reasons why US prisons are disproportionately populated by young black men, often on relatively minor charges, while the young white man gets away with the brutal rape of an unconscious teenager because he has a better than average time in the 50m butterfly?

I saw a young black man interviewed on US cable news on Saturday evening, and he made the point that the street in which he stood, surrounded by gleeful revellers, was the same street in which he and his friends had recently protested the extrajudicial murder of people who looked like him. He went on to point out that those protests were considerably less well-attended than the joyful victory party unfolding around him.

Another interviewee, a black woman, made the point that in each of the key states in this election – Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan – the result was swung in Biden’s favour by majority black communities mobilising and voting in record numbers. White people were all too happy to celebrate Trump’s removal from office, but most of the hard work that went into making that happen was someone else’s.

This is, without doubt, the biggest challenge facing President Biden when he eventually takes office. A return to the pre-Trump days solves nothing for black people and other marginalised communities. Throughout the eight-year term of the USA’s first black president, unarmed black men were routinely murdered on America’s streets, often by police, and with near-inevitable impunity. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner – the list of names is virtually endless – young men or children murdered in cold blood for carrying a toy gun, selling cigarettes or being in possession of a faulty tail light.

There’s been a lot of talk over recent days about ‘reaching out’ to Trump voters and listening to their concerns, and honestly, this frightens me. Pete Buttigieg tweeted yesterday that we should call those people in our lives who voted for Trump and ‘remind them why we love and care about them’, as though it’s the responsibility of those affected by Trump’s evil policies to ease the pain of those who enabled their oppression. Others on both sides of the aisle have called for a new era of ‘bipartisanship’, even as Trump’s minions and acolytes are refusing to accept Biden as the legitimate President, straining every sinew to make evidence-free claims of large scale voter fraud, sowing distrust in American democracy that will last for a generation. Putting aside the fact that ‘fuck your feelings’ has been their mantra for the past four years, and would undoubtedly have been their mantra for the next four had he been elected, the idea that future policy decisions should be taken with consideration for the concerns of racists is fundamentally repugnant.

Of course, there are those who argue that not every Trump voter is racist, but on that, I would have to call bullshit. Even if we were to take a ridiculously generous view of events and accept that a proportion of 2016 Trump voters didn’t know what they were getting, attempts to make a similar argument about 2020 voters are utterly preposterous after witnessing the unremitting horror show that has been his presidency. Anyone who voted for the man who spent nearly half a decade stoking racial divisions, characterising Mexicans as ‘rapists’, referring to literal Nazis as ‘very fine people’, inciting violence against black Americans, and using the police as his own private militia to savagely quell protests, is a racist. It’s an act of intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice to state otherwise.

The way to deal with bigots is not to ‘meet them halfway’. It is not a noble act to tolerate intolerance. I’ve lost count of the number of straight, cis, white ‘progressives’ who have replied to me on Twitter saying that we need to listen to people with abhorrent views, seek to understand them, work to find a mutual understanding. It’s a position that’s much easier to adopt if you’re not the one facing oppression, and it invariably betrays the blind privilege of those making the argument. And in reality, how the fuck is this even supposed to work?

“I notice that you wholeheartedly support the systemic abuse of black people, but have you maybe considered not doing that?”

“I see you just referred to trans people as ‘mentally ill sex pests’. I have an alternative view that you might find really interesting.”

The fact is, it’s nigh-on impossible to reason away any opinion reached without reason. It is incumbent on those holding hateful views to give ground, not on the rest of us to compromise our morals so they feel included. I just hope that doesn’t get lost in all the talk of ‘bipartisanship’ from the Biden/Harris administration.

For those of us who do find racism repellent, we now have a moral duty to examine our own behaviours, our friendships and our complacency to ensure we’re doing everything we can to eradicate intolerance in all its forms. If you have friends or relatives who say racist things, challenge them, rebuke them, and if necessary, cut them out of your lives. If you employ someone who makes bigoted statements, discipline them, sack them, make your company a safe place for everyone, regardless of colour, gender, gender identity or sexuality. If you look around and see that your own workplace or friendship circle lacks diversity, examine why that might be, and what you can do to change it. If you see laws or policies being suggested that serve to promote inequality, write to your representative in the appropriate legislative body and tell them ‘not in my name’.

There’s no doubt that the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is an important step back from the precipice, but it’s really not the end of anything other than the perpetual horror of having to call a vicious, perma-tanned rapist ‘President’. All the problems that brought him to power still remain, and if we raise the ‘Job Done’ banner now, we’ll end up back in exactly the same position at the end of the new administration’s term in office.

Black people don’t get to take four years off from racism. It pervades every minute of every day of their lives. A simple trip to the grocery store could result in verbal or physical abuse, a routine traffic stop in death. It’s time for us as left-leaning white people to recognise that this cancer doesn’t cease to exist just because it’s no longer being belched in our faces from a podium in the White House briefing room.

Free speech: sometimes it comes at a cost

It hardly needs saying that freedom of expression is important. The introduction of free speech laws allowed us to criticise the King or the government or the church without fear of arrest or imprisonment. They allowed scientists like Charles Darwin to propose radical new theories that would previously have been censored as heresy, driving forward independent thought, and with it, our understanding of the world.

Without this fundamental principle underpinning modern society, we might never have seen the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the end of Section 28, the Gender Recognition Act or the introduction of civil partnerships and, later, equal marriage. Our Muslim friends would not be able to practice their religion, celebrate its festivals or wear their traditional dress. Women would not be able to work or vote or ‘disobey’ their husbands.

But whilst the good that has come of this principle is fairly obvious, in the social media age, free speech is all too often corrupted to serve as a shield for those disseminating divisive, dangerous and damaging ideas that target the most vulnerable among us.

To take but one example of this, the current onslaught against trans people in the press and on social media, the deliberate misgendering, the fear-mongering, the egregious mischaracterisation of trans people as sexual predators hell bent on grooming young people, the recycled, reheated homophobia, barely altered from 30 years ago and re-weaponised to direct at people who are, sadly, now seen as a more socially acceptable target, all dishonestly cloaked in the language of ‘legitimate concerns’ and their right to be expressed.

But freedom of speech, like any other right, is not, and cannot be, absolute. There are numerous necessary limitations that exist in order to prevent one person’s ability to speak, write or publish freely causing harm to others. Libel, slander, copyright violation, food labelling, national security, perjury and incitement to violence are all examples of valid and appropriate ways in which free expression is limited.

In all but a tiny minority of cases, the line between what is and is not acceptable is perfectly obvious. ‘Nigel Farage is a toad-faced Hitler tribute act who should yeet himself into a fucking skip’, for example, falls well within the definition of acceptable free expression, whereas ‘this is Nigel Farage’s home address and here are detailed instructions on how to make a shit-infused petrol bomb’ almost certainly does not.

Now, of course, outside of the legally proscribed exceptions, anyone is free to express themselves however they see fit, but in doing so, they must be prepared to face the inevitable consequences of voicing opinions that are injurious to the safety, dignity and mental wellbeing of vulnerable communities. It is not reasonable to expect that you should be able to proclaim a racist, homophobic or transphobic mindset, and the only negative ramifications be those visited on your victims.

David Starkey is a relevant and topical example of this. He was perfectly at liberty to appear on a podcast and say, “Slavery wasn’t genocide or there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks,” but he could not expect to do so without facing widespread public condemnation, professional censure and loss of income.

Maya Forstater, the researcher lauded in JK Rowling’s recent manifesto of prejudice, is another such example. Forstater had a contract with the CGD, which they failed to renew in light of her persistent transphobia and misgendering of those she didn’t consider worthy of the title ‘woman’. She subsequently sued the CGD, and lost.

The judge concluded:

“It is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. 

The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.”

As both of these cases show, the right to free speech was both available and exercised by those who were later ‘cancelled’. Neither Starkey nor Forstater were imprisoned for their beliefs, but they were made to face the eminently reasonable personal repercussions that arose as a result of their actions. Any organisation with which either of them were affiliated had to make a choice between supporting them and, by extension, their harmful ideals, or severing ties to protect both the reputation of the organisation and the dignity of its employees, stakeholders and patrons.

In neither case was anyone silenced. Starkey is free to continue being racist, and Forstater is free to continue being transphobic. It is their right to do so, but they have no divine right to a platform for their bigotry, or to continued employment in an organisation that does not share their discriminatory views.

And this is what the whole ‘free speech’ argument comes down to. Those who spend their days shrieking about being ‘silenced’ (usually on Radio 4, on Newsnight, or in their nationally syndicated newspaper column), are actually upset that others have exercised their right to free speech to decry whatever offensive belief they have sought to promote. It is not mere freedom they seek, but the right to punch down with total impunity at those who already subsist on a daily diet of abuse and intolerance. 

Social media, for all its many (many, MANY) flaws, has been a tremendous force for good in this sense. Ordinary people who, for so long, were denied a voice, may now speak up in forceful opposition to those who would seek to denigrate, disparage and dehumanise them. If, before the advent of Twitter, a high-profile author had published a dishonest and unreferenced attack on a marginalised group of people, they would have had virtually no right of reply. Now, they can raise their collective voices to condemn their oppressor and offer detailed rebuttals of her hostile rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, those who have been used to wielding virtually unlimited power in the sphere of public debate fucking hate this.

This is why we’re hearing howls of anguish about ‘cancel culture’ and ‘stifling debate’ from those who disable comments on their own articles full of malicious untruths and well-worn tropes. They’re not at all concerned about debate being ‘stifled’, they’re simply enraged because they no longer have free reign to propagate their bigoted ideas unchallenged.

J.K. Rowling and the Guileful Intolerance

We live in an age of absolutism. Everything is binary: right or wrong, black or white.

There are times when this approach is helpful. Necessary, even. My ‘never fuck a Tory’ policy, for example, has served me well for many a long year and will no doubt do so for many years to come.

But when we try to apply this way of thinking to bigotry, or rather, to judging whether a person is or is not a bigot, it all starts to unravel. There seems to be a popular, and arguably deliberate, misconception that a person may only be considered to be intolerant of a particular group if they have a history of screaming epithets in their faces and/or committing acts of physical violence.

Modern bigotry, however, is altogether more subtle than this. It’s a suggestion, a nudge, a nod or a wink. Nigel Farage doesn’t go dropping the N-bomb on Question Time, as much as we all know he’d love to. He’s fucking thinking it, of course, but he never says it out loud. At least, not on the telly. Instead, he couches his racism in phrases like ‘illegal immigration’ and ‘protecting our borders’, like the worst kind of Pavlovian shithouse. And obviously, the stench of racism wafts off him like the smell of stale chip fat (along with, almost certainly, the actual smell of stale chip fat), but his supporters will argue to their dying breath that he’s ‘not racist’, purely on the basis that they’ve never heard him say the P-word.

That’s not to say there aren’t bigots who are rather more explicit in their intolerance. One of them, weirdly, for such a famously non-racist country, actually managed to get himself elected to the office of Prime Minister, but for the most part, they’re a little more sophisticated. Some are so sophisticated that they get to utilise their massive celebrity status and huge social media platforms to target hate at one of the most vulnerable minorities in the world, and still, somehow, manage to emerge looking like the victim.

Step forward, J.K. Rowling.

The piece published by Rowling on 10 June was an absolute masterclass in the art of manipulating the narrative to suit a particular agenda, while maintaining plausible deniability for the damage that would inevitably ensue. This is unsurprising given that she’s amassed a billion-pound fortune from her use of language. She knows better than most how to tell a tale in a way that will elicit the desired emotional response in the reader, and that’s what makes the piece – and its author – so extremely dangerous.

If you’re not familiar with the cases she cites, if you don’t know the pressure points transphobes routinely exploit to demonise their targets, if you haven’t heard these same, tired arguments recycled and reheated time and time again over a period of 30-odd years, you might come away from Rowling’s essay thinking it all sounded perfectly reasonable. That was certainly the intention, and in a great many cases, it worked like a charm.

She begins, of course, like any halfway competent bigot would, by painting herself as the victim. The first couple of paragraphs are all about her being abused, threatened or ‘cancelled’ by those who object to her harmful rhetoric.

Now, to be clear, threats are always unacceptable. And I would never condone a man calling any woman – not even Katie Hopkins – a ‘bitch’ or a ‘cunt’. It’s misogynistic, unhelpful, and provides easy ammunition for anyone seeking to promote a narrative of victimhood. That said, it’s not for me to judge women who use those terms in anger, or for me to police the tone of the victims’ responses to the abuse they face.

We have a big problem in this country with ignoring the content and the intent of what a person says, and focusing instead on the language used.

For example, if someone said to me, “Respectfully, sir, I believe that all homosexuals are an abomination unto the Lord and destined for Hell,” and I responded with, “Go take a flying fuck at the moon, you Bible-shagging twat,” there are a great many people who would think I was the one who should be censured.

The same applies here. Rowling tweets out barely disguised transphobic bigotry to 14.5 million followers, but because she does so ‘politely’ and some of the responses are, to say the least, extremely impolite, she somehow gets to occupy the moral high ground, and in doing so, tar an entire group with the same brush as its most abusive members. She must accept, however, that if she’s going to take that approach, she must assume responsibility for all the truly appalling vitriol directed at the trans community as a result of her interventions.

So with the victim narrative firmly established, she goes on to profess her undying love for the trans community, and all her many trans friends, like an infinitely more articulate Donald Trump pointing to the African-American guy he’s just appointed to some role or other as proof that he’s definitely not racist.

Then come the tropes:

Any cis man can readily obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate to access women’s spaces for who knows what nefarious purposes, trans teens are simply confused gays or lesbians, children are being rushed into irreversible treatment options that will destroy their lives, ‘trans rights activists’ deny that biological sex is ‘real’, veiled ridicule of trans suicide rates, and, most insidiously of all, the mischaracterisation of trans women as sexual predators.

This last one, as ought to be obvious to anyone who lived through that time, has its roots firmly in the homophobia of the 70s, 80s and 90s. This is hardly surprising given Rowling’s proximity to noted homophobes, and her selection of a pen name that matches the actual name of a high-profile proponent of gay conversion therapy. It’s also, it should be noted, absolute fucking bollocks.

Rowling even introduces her own experience of domestic abuse and sexual assault to underline the idea that trans women are a threat to cis women and girls, despite the fact that her abuse took place at the hands of cis men. I can only imagine the pain that such traumatic experiences must still bring her, and my heart goes out to her and any woman who has had to live through this ordeal. There is absolutely no reason, however, to mention this in a piece about trans people, unless you’re trying to promote a very particular idea.

The fact is that men have been raping, abusing and sexually assaulting women for millennia, and it’s extremely rare that they’ve ever felt the need to pretend to be women to carry out these despicable acts. Does she really think that a man hell bent on forcing himself on a woman will refrain from doing so because they’re not supposed to be in the women’s toilets? Or that they’ll go to all the ultimately pointless trouble of obtaining a GRC, which they don’t legally require to access those spaces?

The vast, overwhelming majority of trans women just want to get changed after their swim, or go for a piss at the shopping centre, then quietly go about their day. They’re not lurking in darkened corners waiting to catch a look at your genitals, or to show you theirs. Trans people have had the legal right to use the facilities of their choosing for well over a decade, and there have been very few reported incidents involving trans women during that time. Countries that have already introduced Self ID have had no reported increase in sexual offences as a result. Of course, that’s not to say no trans woman is capable of being a sexual predator, just that they’re no more likely to be than an equivalent sample of cis women.

But still this narrative persists. The subtle nods, the plays to our primal fears, the gentle, persistent reinforcement of the idea that our wives and daughters will be forced to undress in front of ‘male-bodied’ individuals intent on causing them harm. And this is where so much of the the anger towards Rowling and other transphobes is rooted. I know, because I felt (and still feel) the same anger every time the ‘gay men are paedophiles’ trope rears its head.

The fact is, we have to get better at spotting the falsehoods, the dog-whistles, the misdirections and the fear-mongering, and highlighting them to those who remain blinded by the ostensibly reasonable tone of the ‘legitimate concerns’ crew. Rowling herself would no doubt ridicule the idea that all Muslims are part of some ‘rape gang’ or other, but yet she’s happy to point her readers toward the conclusion that trans people – trans women in particular – present a threat to the safety, and indeed, the very identities, of cis women and girls.

By hiding the iron fist of her transphobic attacks in the velvet glove of her professed ‘love’ for trans people, she has managed to pull off a great deception, and it’s one that will inflict untold and widespread damage on a community that was already at breaking point.