April 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
April 22, 2015 § 2 Comments
…is a pretty big day for me. UK people, please read on – non-UK people, I hope I’ll get to see you sometime in the next couple of years.
This Saturday I’ll be gigging at Whitechapel’s Rhythm Factory – with songs from my next album, Coming Home. Terrifying and exciting in equal measures. This is a really important gig for me – professionally and personally – and if you’ve ever listened to a track (if you haven’t, listen here), or thought you might like to check out my music, if you had the time – the time is now.
I know money is ludicrously tight for a lot of people right now – so entry is pay what you can. If that’s nothing then that’s cool. If you’ve magically managed to find a high paying job, we’d really appreciate a generally emptying out of the pockets. I’m performing with two ridiculously talented, moving acts – Seth Corbin and Daniel Versus the World – it’s going to be furious, cathartic, romantic – just very special.
Doors at 7pm – come Sing Your Rage with us. And please spread the word – word of mouth is what indie artists live and die on. We’re singing this for you.
April 9, 2015 § 15 Comments
Evidently not BBC’s Woman’s Hour.
Trans (and potentially trans) children – already a hot button topic – have been pushed further into the spotlight this week with Louis Theroux’s latest, broadly supportive, documentary, aired by the BBC on April 5th. Other arms of the BBC were quick to weigh in, as were the rest of the mainstream press – it made sense that Woman’s Hour, the BBC’s flagship magazine radio show for feminist/gender-related content, would want to add to the discussion.
What I didn’t realise, until they contacted me this Thursday, was that it wasn’t so much a case of ‘adding to the discussion’ as it was promoting their own agenda under the guise of ‘debate’.
Before I say anything else, I should probably touch on my background. I’ve been a trans (and general QUILTBAG) activist since I myself came out at the age of 15. I co-founded the first British nationwide LGBT organisation for young people, started the UK’s first gay/straight alliance, have done outreach and consultation work with groups like the London Assembly, NASUWT, Channel 4, and work as an advocate, fundraiser and writer on trans issues. I’ve done a fair amount of work with young trans people – most recently as a spokesman for Gendered Intelligence – and would describe myself as both trans and genderqueer.
I got an email Thursday afternoon from an assistant producer for Woman’s Hour, saying that they were “doing a discussion on the news story about the rise of children being referred to counsellors for transgender feelings”, and asking whether I would “be able to talk through the subject on the side of having non-binary gender vs transgender”. Two immediate red flags: the majority of non-binary people would describe themselves as trans, and the language around trans/gender non-conforming children – but I was happy to talk to them.
Over the phone, two further facts became apparent. The producer had very little knowledge of the subject – not the language (children are not treated by doctors “for transgender”), not the research, not the organisations – and that I was specifically being invited onto the programme to argue against children receiving age-appropriate care. We talked about the actual issues facing trans people seeking medical care – the fact that non-transgender (cis) doctors often insist on stereotypical behaviour and appearance from patients before they’re allowed treatment, that trans people who feel themselves outside of a gender binary are often denied care altogether, that doctors often disbelieve trans people and deny them referrals. I was told that this wasn’t “the angle” they were “going for”. After a few more messages we spoke again – they specifically told me that they were rescinding their invitation because they already had a “pro” side, and they wanted someone to argue against that. For that role they had picked someone who is not trans, who is known for her anti-trans views, and who has no experience in the field. When I raised questions about the impact of such a framing on trans young people I was told that it was “good to have a debate”. The programme was aired today. (Transcription here by Cassian Lotte Lodge – I want to make it clear that the issue here is with the production team and presenter, not the guests.)
Maybe this seems like a fuss over nothing – but it worries me a great deal, and has worried a great many of my colleagues. Not simply because of the ramifications upon trans children and their families, although that would be enough (and I’ll come back to that later) – but because it is symptomatic of broader trends in the framing of discussion in the mainstream press, and in the use of vulnerable groups as bait.
The BBC stressed that they wanted a debate – as a national, publicly funded organization they have a mandate and a duty to present a wide range of opinions whilst simultaneously trying to present ‘the facts’. I absolutely agree that they must do their best to report from multiple angles, to illustrate complexities, to detail the diversity of opinions represented by the public who fund them and who rely on them for information.
But staging a fight along predetermined lines doesn’t do that. There is nothing in the format of a 6th form debating society (with a limited motion, one “pro” and one “anti” speaker) that is somehow sacred, or especially useful, to the promulgation of free and informed discussion.
We know from weary experience that this is the not the standard way of reporting issues considered neutral. Only something juicy, something scandalous, something with the potential for outrage and conflict, is approached in this way. The way an issue – trans children in this instance – is seen by a producer is already apparent in the way potential discussion is framed.
And then, even within that framing – how is it possible for a producer to construct a debate when they are ignorant of the subject at hand? The producer I spoke to was clearly out of her depth and uninterested in getting even the basic facts right. No one is expecting every journalist to be an instant expert in every subject they approach – but I do expect a modicum of research and engagement. When a journalist hasn’t done that, it makes it very clear that they are not seeking to illustrate the issue for the listening public – how can they be, when they haven’t even done that on a personal level?
You can’t address complex and differing opinions when you don’t even know what those complex and differing opinions are. Reframing an issue to suit your own ignorance and marketing spin is the opposite of a free and informed debate.
So much for broadcasting standards. But with this particular issue – there are many in a similar vein, but this is one that I know – I think there’s another question to be asked: at what point does a national/international organization, relied upon by millions as an information source, have a duty of care towards the people it reports on? At what point does it have to stop thinking of vulnerable people as just a titillating story, a chance for an argument, and start thinking of the ethical implications of programming?
This wasn’t a light-hearted debate about Great British Bake Off, or an argument about party politics – it was meant to be a programme about some of the most marginalised people in our society. Not a robust conflict between two equal parties. A discussion about children who, in study after study, are shown to be disproportionately at risk of self-harm, family rejection, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, homelessness and suicide.
This isn’t theoretical. There is research on the effects of bullying, on how trans children come to know themselves and deal with the terrible abuse they suffer, on how great the risk of suicide is. Conversion therapy – the ‘treatment’ offered as an alternative to supportive counselling and, in some cases, puberty blockers – has been so widely accepted as cruel (not to mention ineffective) that the Obama administration has come out against it. On the other hand, research done into long-term outcomes of supportive medical/psychological care for trans youth has shown tremendously beneficial results. Beyond all of that, there are the voices of young trans people themselves – more and more and more and more – waiting for us to listen to them, to believe them.
But the people listening to this debate on Woman’s Hour, and all the others like it? Parents of trans children, extended family, teachers, school support staff, youth workers, doctors, nurses, care workers, NHS policy makers, politicians – the very people who desperately need the actual evidence on what works best when dealing with trans youth. Who, instead, are served up a wilfully uninformed, choreographed fight that presents lay opinion as equivalent to fact.
Worse – it erases the chance to present facts in favour of courting contentious opinion.
Everyone has the right to their own opinion, but that doesn’t make all opinions equal – and neither does it remove the impact that those opinions have on the world, for good or ill. In making the decision to favour preconceived, ignorant opinion over an informed discussion, the BBC has done damage to a group of people already under attack from too many sides. And I believe that to be shameful.
For more information on the issues facing trans youth and their families, and practical support, please see these organizations:
March 17, 2015 § 3 Comments
…in which I talk to Psychology Today about gender beyond binary ‘male’ and ‘female’.
Leaving aside personal reasons, I’d urge everyone reading this to share the piece if they can – particularly if you’re a cis person, particularly if you know that the people you’re sharing it with won’t have come across people like me before. I think it’s a great, compassionate introduction – and the more people learn, the safer, and richer, our lives can be.
March 4, 2015 § 8 Comments
I read an awful lot for my work, but find I have less and less time for reading for pleasure, as cliche as that sounds.
So – an online book club?
After a discussion on my facebook page (many thanks to everyone who weighed in), it seemed like I’m not the only one who’d welcome a chance to read a little more, particularly queer/LGBT books, and to discuss what they’ve read within a supportive circle. One book every two months seems like a pretty good place to start – and while I’d love to hear book suggestions, I’m going to go ahead and pick the first myself.
To that end: The Summer We Got Free by Mia McKenzie.
A Lambda Literary Award winning novel from the writer behind the incredible blog Black Girl Dangerous, I’ve been desperate to make time to read this since it came out, and can’t think of a better chance than this.
Anyone is welcome to take part, so long as you’re happy to share your thoughts according to house rules: no assumptions, no personal attacks, no cruelty or bigotry.
Discussion will commence on Tuesday April 28th – can you let me know where would be best for you?
If you have any thoughts/suggestions/advice, I’d love to hear from you. Roll on April 28th.
February 17, 2015 § 9 Comments
You can learn a lot about masculinity when you’re consistently told that your own is invalid.
Mainstream media shows no sign of stopping its love affair with the ‘masculinity in crisis’ storyline. It’s the apparent reason behind Gamergate, and rape culture, and the abuse of women online, and the baffling appeal of Christian Grey. In a world that’s become too feminist (if only), the easiest way for men and boys to prove their masculinity is to lash out at everything perceived as feminine or womanly. That’s the hypothesis, anyway. The usual solution offered is a return to ‘traditional values’ – and a limiting of feminist options.
I might not be a man – but I would put myself under the broader banner of trans masculine. More than that, I’ve learnt so much about masculinity and maleness – what they mean in practice, the questions around them, the nebulous idea of social categorisation* – from the trans men in my life, and from the trans people who would sometimes, always or occasionally inhabit a space broadly recognisable as ‘masculine’.
I think the idea that ‘too much feminism’ is causing a crisis in masculinity is bullshit.
But – something you do realise, when you have to fight the world for the right to be seen as yourself – is that this space of ‘masculinity’ is surrounded by barriers and tests meant to force you into proving yourself a ‘real man’. Mainstream societal masculinity puts itself in a crisis state: to protect itself, to reject calls for gender reform and justice, to make itself seem valuable and desirable. It creates a narrative of being under attack, and asks to be defended. It paints itself as being rare – and asks that its challenges be met before entry to the club can be granted.
And then it does something else – something seductive, and so easy to fall into. It gives you cheats codes. Society doesn’t just provide them – it pressures you into using them, to show that you’re ‘just one of the guys’. The temptation can be overwhelming, when you’re being undermined at every turn – I’ve certainly succumbed in the past – but what I’ve learnt from the trans people I admire most is that there’s another way.
You don’t have to be trans to have learnt that. Not every trans person will, or will want to – because it keeps them safer, or makes life easier, or because those stereotypes and cheat codes match the way they think of the world and themselves. Trans men/trans masculine people are not a magical subset of people graced with an innate superiority to cis men. Some of them are just as misogynistic, just as oppressive, as any cis guy. But when you have to fight to be heard, to be believed – when the world around you has treated you like a girl and/or a woman as its default setting** – then I think it gives you the opportunity to broaden your mind, and think about what it really means to be a man, to be masculine.***
I wish more cis men – and mainstream society in general – could learn just three things:
1. It’s not about your body
As a response to: It’s ALL about your body. And particularly about your cock.
Cheat codes: mocking guys who are fatter/thinner/different from you, using the size/type/presence of someone’s cock as an insult/weapon, policing and abusing women and other feminine people’s bodies to make you feel better
So, the world at large still believes that man=penis, woman=absence of penis – phallocentric, transmisogynistic, transphobic – and incredibly limiting. That’s not an area I’m enormously dysphoric about, and, still, I’ve felt a huge amount of pressure to ‘make up’ for the fact that I don’t have a cisnormative cock – by being more muscular, more typically attractive, more typically masculine. I feel weird about admitting this now, because I’m worried that some people will judge me as less trans, and less masculine. In a broader bodily sense, I used to worry about transitioning – in part because I was worried that I would never live up to a standard of masculine attractiveness. It felt like it would be better to be perceived as an attractive woman, rather than ‘fail’ at being masculine in the eyes of the world.
One of the things I found incredible, transformative, when I started exploring the trans community, are the people (of all genders) who allow their bodies to be reflections of who they are – not the other way around. Most pertinent here are the men, trans masculine people, who follow their own internal dictates as to how their bodies should be. That what kind of cock you have, and whether you have one at all, should be for you to decide – not the government, not the media. That you get to decide how your body and your gender entwine. That dysphoria varies from person to person – and we all need to find a personal solution to what makes us feel most like us.
What would the world look like, if we didn’t automatically assume that genitals indicated gender, that a penis is somehow better than anything else (on a man), and that a cisnormative penis is the only one worth having? How much kinder would it be, if self-worth wasn’t predicated on how many inches you have in your pants, whether those inches can conform to an incredibly narrow standard of appearance and performance? How much safer would the world be, if we didn’t suppose that one kind of body is ‘strong’ and another ‘weak’ – and that to prove that the strong kind is really worthy it must be hardened as much as possible? With no care, no tenderness, no regard for health – and no regard for the care, health and safety of others?
2. Male privilege is real
And making it worse to prove yourself is a shit move
As a response to: Actually, men are the most oppressed now
Cheat codes: Capitalising on your privilege to make yourself feel bigger, stronger, safer, better – objectification, catcalling, belittling – sexist shit towards people of other genders
One incredible aspect of trans experience that has yet to be fully mined is the knowledge gleaned from experiencing different treatment at the hands of those around us, based on the gender they perceive or assume.
If anyone is still wondering if male privilege is actually a thing (I hope you’re not), then the experiences of neurobiologist Ben Barres provide essential reading. Remaining in the same line of work, post-transition, he’s noticed an incredible difference in the way he’s treated by fellow scientists – his work is considered better, more legitimate, his views more respected. It’s an experience I’ve heard anecdotally from so many of the people I know. Being read as male doesn’t negate the other ways in which people face discrimination – this piece from Kai M. Green on the intersection of racial profiling and oppression with gendered ideas of being in the world is essential – but, for many people, in different ways, it confers an advantage.
And if you’re being forced to prove which ‘side’ you’re on? To prove that you’re not really a girl? That you’re deserving of the privilege of being male? Even five-year-olds know how this one goes: you make the girls cry to earn your place in the boys’ treehouse. Maybe it’s not as bad as deliberately making them cry – maybe it’s making a show of ogling a woman in front of your friends, or talking crap about them while in all male company. Maybe they’ve serve the dual function of proving you belong in an gay all male environment – insulting bodies read as female or feminine. What that does – turning women and feminine people into props and accessories used to reinforce masculinity, regardless of their feelings, or how much it hurts them – is unacceptable. I’m not going to repeat the ‘real men don’t’ line – it’s not a question of being a ‘real man’ – it’s being a decent human being. There are millions of men in the world who don’t place harmful notions of proving themselves over the foundational aspect of being basically decent.
And if trans men, trans masculine people, who are forced to prove themselves over and over again, with the threat of prejudice, abuse and violence hanging over their heads – if they, if we can do that without resorting to sexism, then cis men can do it too.
3. Life’s too precious to let cultural expectations hold you back from your own truth
As a response to: That’s just how men are, and how they’ve always been
Cheat codes: Denigrating anyone who tries to be themselves, or challenge an aspect of the world around them, hiding in cynicism and apathy because it’s easier, becoming numb to world around you because it’s too hard to challenge
Again – it’s not like trans masculine people, trans men, have the monopoly here. But the struggles we face, just to be ourselves – it really brings it home. If we’re able, we can learn so much about who we are, who we can be, the price of that, and also the value.
There are plenty of cis guys who know this already – and plenty who have to play by some of the rules, at least, to be safe.
But for the cis men who are safe, who’ve never had to fight for it, who go along with a status quo and don’t ask themselves why they do it, or how it came to be: why?
Why bow down to a legacy not of your making, rather than remaking yourself as you might be?
So, what if the traditional model of masculinity is in crisis? What if it has been destroyed by a greater awareness of gendered inequality and oppression, a shift towards gendered justice? If a category that encompassed all kinds of harmful behaviour is being stretched, twisted, subverted, remodelled?
We’re still here.
So why don’t we get our hands dirty, and build something better?
* Yes, I’m still genderqueer – also very fond of questions
** Just to be very clear that being a girl/woman is not a bad thing – and that trans masculine people/trans men do not transition in order to ‘escape womanhood’ for something ‘better’.
*** I get that this is an ‘all about teh menz’ post. But I think one of the best things guys could do for feminism is to interrogate the way men, masculine people, are supposed to be, to behave, and find better ways of being in the world.
January 10, 2015 § 4 Comments
This Sunday, 8pm GMT – I’m performing a free live-streamed gig at
Why tune in? Three reasons:
- This is what the critics have to say:“The music was faultless. Mesmerising, beautiful, emotional and raw.” – DIVA
“…a powerful combination of intensely personal lyrics, CN’s skill at the piano and an ethereal voice. The musical arrangements are moving and immersive, the words deeply poetic – elusive and allusive – offering something new on each occasion; it is rare to find lyrics of this depth and quality. Aether is an album from an artist who is not only an incredibly talented singer and pianist but also someone aware of the power and subtlety of language.” – Polari magazine
“When it comes to describing CN Lester’s music, there aren’t enough adjectives synonymous with ‘gorgeous’. We’re only resisting that much maligned phrase ‘achingly beautiful’ by sitting on our hands.” – For Folk’s Sake
- This is what my fans have to say:
“Heart-wrenchingly beautiful songs from a phenomenally talented singer. If you can listen to this without tearing up at least a little then you’re made of sterner stuff than me.”
“Beautiful, stunning, disarming.”
“Deeply moving, imaginative, transformative”
- If you’re a reader of this blog, then I think you might well like my music – not just like it, but maybe want to support it. I like to make songs that you can think over, think with – and those kinds of songs – particularly from a trans singer – need all the word of mouth help they can get. I can make you a deal: I have the music – give me 45 minutes of your time. I promise I’ll make it worth your while.