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.

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.

Episode 21

Simulcast preview of Max’s new podcast, ‘Not Having Sex’, with co-host Bibi Lynch. Contains all the usual bad language, plus added Bibi.

Subscribe via your usual podcast provider.

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.

Episode 20

Max talks about the US Election, the UK’s response to Covid-19 and the recent court ruling relating to trans healthcare. Contains frequent strong language.

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.

It’s ok to disagree, except when it’s not

There are people whose lives are so empty, so utterly devoid of hope or meaning, that they devote their entire existence to following me around Twitter, saying, “Max is such an arsehole! He blocks anyone who disagrees with him! He is incapable of debate!”

Contrary to the opinions of these sweaty, basement-dwelling incels, and, at times, my own claims, I do not live in an echo chamber. I’d be lying if I said the idea of doing so wasn’t extremely seductive, but the reality is somewhat removed from that. I am around people I disagree with all the time, both in real life and on social media.

Debate is fine. Healthy, even. So if you want to disagree with my belief that the licence fee in its current form should not be payable by those who don’t watch the BBC, you’re quite at liberty to do that. If you’d like to oppose my view that an imperfect Labour Party in power is better than an ideologically pure Labour Party in opposition, we can have that discussion. If you would like to deny my objectively correct opinion that what the Pet Shop Boys did to ‘Always On My Mind’ was an atrocity deserving of an appearance at The Hague, pull up a fucking chair, pour me a gin, and I’ll happily spend as many hours as are necessary explaining why you’re wrong.

But there are some issues that are so important, so fundamental to the very essence of who I am, that they are simply not up for debate.

I will not ‘consider different views’ on whether gay people should be allowed to marry, or have children. I will not listen to your ‘legitimate concerns’ about whether trans women are women, or whether they should be able to go for a piss without some frothy-mouthed Karen demanding to see their genitals. And I will not engage in a ‘reasoned debate’ about whether white privilege or systemic racism exist, because there is no debate to be had.

Quite apart from the fact that I have neither the time nor the inclination to follow every ‘DEBATE ME’ dickhead who thinks they are entitled to my attention down some pointless rhetoric cul-de-sac, trying to convince transphobes (for example) that transphobia is an inherently abhorrent position is like trying to convince my Labrador that sausages are horrible and he definitely doesn’t want to eat all of the sausages.

That’s not to say minds can’t be changed, of course. But for that to happen, people need to be open to examining their own privileges and prejudices, to face the uncomfortable truth that their whiteness, their straightness, their cisness and/or their gender have provided an advantage for which they’ve never had to work. In the overwhelming majority of cases, particularly on social media, this openness rarely exists. It’s merely an exercise in sealioning from people whose only interest is in preserving the status quo.

For historically oppressed and marginalised groups to be able to live their lives without fear of violence, abuse or discrimination is not some intellectual exercise, where we all sit in a circle and discuss how, or indeed, whether, they get to exist in ‘our’ world. It’s a basic, fundamental human right.

So call me ‘intolerant’ if you will, but it’s a label I will wear with pride if my ‘intolerance’ is characterised by an unwillingness to grant intrinsically abhorrent views the legitimacy of public debate.

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Pride 2020: The loss of a lifeline

This year will be the first year since the 1970s when, in all likelihood, there will be no Pride events taking place anywhere in the UK.

You might think this is a relatively minor consideration, and I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, it is. Somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people have already died, and many thousands more will die before this is over. Millions have been plunged even further into poverty as this crisis gives them an additional kicking after ten years of Tory austerity, and yet more people will die as a result of this secondary impact of the virus. The mental health toll of the lockdown – being separated from friends and family, being forced to isolate with an abusive partner or family member, worrying whether you’ll keep your home or your livelihood when this is all over (if you survive at all) – is now beginning to bite, and will only get worse as this situation drags on.

So for those of you outside of the LGBTQ community, whether or not Pride events are held as planned is probably so far down your list of priorities that it doesn’t even begin to register. Pride is, I think, largely viewed by straight people as little more than a party. A day out. A piss-up. A colourful parade. A Britney concert.

And yes, for better or for worse, it is all of those things. But for many of us, it’s so much more than that.

Even now, in 2020, in the post-equal-marriage era, we still face a relentless tide of homophobia. Those of you who follow my Twitter account will know that I regularly receive responses calling me a ‘faggot’ or a ‘puff’ (literacy was never their strong point), or encouraging me to ‘slit my throat’. Some of the more considerate ones even offer to slit it on my behalf, which, I think we can all agree, shows a selfless commitment on their part to ridding the world of the scourge of The Gay.

Sadly, though, it’s not just online that we face intolerance. Thousands of young queer people still live in households where they are not accepted for who they are, where they face the choice of continuing to reside with those who despise their very nature, or joining the disproportionately large number of young LGBTQ people sleeping on the streets.

Trans people are now routinely vilified in the press, in public and on social media. This has become as ubiquitous and predictable the seemingly proud betrayal of sociopathic tendencies in a Donald Trump press conference. Transphobia is the acceptable face of 21st century bigotry. It’s not subtle or hidden, it’s just relentless and pervasive and viciously fucking unpleasant. You could justifiably speculate that an existential crisis like a global pandemic might have given these vindictive arseholes cause to think, “Maybe I’ll take a day off from being an unremitting shit while vast numbers of people are dying,” but sadly, such ostensibly reasonable thoughts never seem to enter their heads. Their dehumanising bandwagon rolls ever-onwards, unencumbered as it is by unwelcome and unnecessary considerations like ‘decency’, ‘compassion’, and ‘not being a cunt for five minutes’.

None of these problems are new, of course. They’ve existed in some form since the moment at which bronze age homophobes decided to attribute their anti-queer bigotry to the god they’d recently created. But in these most difficult of times, when LGBTQ people are facing all of the physical, emotional and financial issues cis-het people are facing, they present an added burden to people who, like the rest of you, are already fast-approaching breaking point.

Even those of us who have it comparatively easy, who don’t face homelessness or rejection by our immediate families, still face difficulties that simply wouldn’t occur to most straight, cis people: abuse and prejudice continuing unabated while we’re struggling with the day-to-day worry of all this, further delays to already indefensibly long waiting times for life-saving transition treatment, being cut off, not just from our immediate communities, but from those with whom we are able to truly be ourselves in a way that’s often impossible in any other scenario.

From a purely personal perspective, I know I’m very fortunate. I came out to amazing support from most of my friends, my wife and my son. My housing situation, though not entirely without risk given the perilous economic situation in which we find ourselves, is reasonably secure.

That said, I live in an area with a relatively small LGBTQ population, and with no recognised ‘gay area’ like you might find in London, Brighton or Manchester. So the opportunities to be around others like myself, to mix with people who are less likely to judge me for who I am, are quite limited, even in normal times. I attended Pride in London with some friends last year, one of whom observed that the ‘safe zone’ – that little cocoon in the heart of Soho where you’re less likely to face physical violence for public displays of same-sex affection – had been extended for a day. This was sharply observed, but it’s worth noting that, for many of us in towns and cities outside of London, there is no ‘safe zone’. It simply doesn’t exist.

I’m also, of course, still in a ‘straight’ marriage, and whilst I recognise that this is completely my choice, it brings with it its own unique set of challenges. My circumstances lead those who don’t know me to routinely assume – understandably, I suppose – that I am straight. I’m then faced with two equally poor options: play along and hide my true self as I have done for most of my life, or come out yet again and face the barrage of intrusive questions, raised eyebrows and disingenuous ‘sympathy’ for my poor, put-upon wife.

More often than not, I choose the former option because it’s just easier than fielding enquiries like, “How does that work?” and “Do you still sleep in the same bed?” and the never-not-tiresome, “Is she allowed to see other guys?” But having to make this decision over and over again, and having to deal with whichever shitty set of consequences that decision engenders, is utterly fucking exhausting.

I say all this not to garner pity – as I said, I know I have it better than most – but simply to paint a picture of some of the additional challenges LGBTQ people face, and to underscore why Pride events are so much more than a just ‘nice day out’. For most, they form a vitally important element of our community’s often precarious sense of mental wellbeing.

For me personally, my annual pilgrimage to Pride in London is one of the highlights of my year. It is a time when I can cast off the shackles of my half in-half out, northern existence and allow the real me to dominate, front and centre, without the questioning looks and the whispered, badly disguised speculations like, “Do you reckon his wife knows he’s bent?”

More broadly, it is a time when we can all be who we were born to be, who we’ve always known we are, but for whom we have never felt fully accepted. It is a time when we can hold hands or kiss each other in public without being spat upon or abused. It is a time when we can be unashamedly camp or flamboyant, without having to make a thousand real-time calculations as to whether that’s likely to jeopardise our safety. It’s a time when we can just be, without having to worry about ‘passing’ or ‘fitting in’ with people who don’t mind us being gay, as long as we do so in the very particular, strictly defined and understated manner they have deemed acceptable. It’s a time when, for just a few short, sweet hours of the year, we can be free.

I’ve read a lot recently about how straight people are missing pubs and restaurants and cafes. This is entirely understandable, and I do sympathise, but imagine if your pubs were the only places in which you could safely relax your mannerisms, speak freely about your home life, or hold your partner’s hand. Then imagine that you lived in a city that only had one pub. Maybe go on to imagine that this single establishment only opened two nights a week, from 10 pm until 6 am, when the majority of old bastards like me are tucked up in bed. One place in the entire locality where, if you don’t like sticky floors, banging music and drinking until it’s light, you’re basically excluded anyway. That is the reality for huge numbers of LGBTQ people in the UK, and Pride is one of the few precious moments of relief we are allowed from this frustrating, constrained existence.

The absence of Pride represents so much more than the cancellation of the queers’ annual road-closing, attention-seeking carnival. For many of us, it represents a real and tangible loss that will be keenly felt and difficult to quantify. In normal times, Pride provides some brief respite from the othering, the mistreatment and the denigration that punctuates our daily lives. It provides hope for a brighter tomorrow, and a chance, for one day, to experience what it might be like should we ever finally achieve true equality. It provides an essential mental boost to help us weather the darker times that will inevitably follow this priceless moment of optimism when reality comes crashing back down around us.

This crisis has, distressingly, not even begun to put an end to the attacks our community is so often forced to endure, but what it has achieved is to rob us of one of our most vital coping mechanisms in the face of those attacks. And for that, I will unashamedly mourn its loss.

Episode 18

Max talks to ‘Tracy Beaker’ and ‘Dumping Ground’ actor, Connor Byrne, about ballet, musical theatre, snow penises, LGBT rights and, inevitably, coronavirus.

Contains frequent strong language.