Life as a Trans Opera Singer
June 15, 2019 § Leave a comment
The National Opera Studio asked me what it was like, to be a trans opera singer – and how we could all make our industry better.
So I wrote them this – I hope you enjoy it.
Where is our trans history?
June 5, 2019 § Leave a comment
What we find is not just the erasure of trans history through denial, shame, and lack of inclusion: it is an historical record of erasure, a pan-global register of undoing and enforced forgetting.
My new essay, A Future Without a Past – trans history, erasure, and possibilities – is now live at FreeWord as part of their groundbreaking series, All the Ways We Could Grow.
I really hope you enjoy it.
NB: a major new podcast
April 1, 2019 § 1 Comment
Writing from the trashfire that is the UK’s current media landscape, it is such an unbelievable joy to be able to share some good news.
And this is really good news.
Writer/filmmaker/performer Amrou Al-Kadhi and presenter/producer Caitlin Benedict have gathered together some of the most exciting trans and/or non-binary creatives and campaigners in the UK, and made a SEVEN EPISODE LONG series for the BBC.
Made by trans people, featuring trans people, covering the topics trans people want to discuss, without compromise – all on one of the biggest media platforms in the world.
This is the trans media I’ve been desperate for. And it’s so, so good.
We’re such experts at sharing the worst transphobia the media has to throw at us (see epic twitter thread here).
I’d love to see us put in even half that much energy into sharing a triumph like this.
What’s the difference between Channel 4’s Genderquake and Jerry Springer?
May 10, 2018 § Leave a comment
Optics, not content. Writing for The Huffington Post on the exploitation of trans people and out of date controversy. Read it here:
An incredibly busy year
April 16, 2018 § Leave a comment
There’s a reason why there was no blogging for the rest of 2017…or for the beginning of 2018, and I think it’s a good one: I’ve been on book tour, on album tour – and writing and speaking everywhere else but here. Only so many hours in the day – and a lot to try to remember – but I’m finally remembering to fill everyone in on the blog.
2017 was UK based: book festivals, community events, training days, university conferences, scratch nights and book shops. The kind of things I’ve been talking about – trans lives, gender, change and hope – are all featured in the BBC Radio 4 show below – and in the accompanying article.
CN Lester on language and gender identity
For the Photographer’s Gallery, I wrote about the challenge of the cis gaze – in the street, and backwards and forwards in time:
And for the Barbican: the struggle to understand other trans people without collapsing their realities into our own.
The highlight of 2018 so far has to be the trip to Sydney to speak to the All About Women feminist festival as part of a trans panel featuring Sally Goldner, Jordan Raskopoulos, and Eddie Ayres. I’m still processing how transformative the whole experience was – but the panel is on YouTube for all who want it:
Feminism Beyond Gender Binaries
And I had the best interview experience ever with SBS…
The rest of 2018 is shaping up to be just as full: shooting an art project with Daniel Barter, recording the audiobook for Trans Like Me in May, getting ready for American publication in June , preparing for the most ambitious Transpose ever in December, and gigging/speaking around the country. And trying to finish my PhD.
Twitter and Facebook are best for more regular news – but I’ll try to update here more often. Enormous thanks to everyone who’s read this far – and in particular the people who’ve been reading for years, and the book besides. Onwards and upwards. And, finally, in white tie and tails…
The Production of Ignorance
July 25, 2017 § 6 Comments
What the media gets wrong about trans people, how misinformation is perpetuated, and what we can do about it. The first chapter of Trans Like Me: A Journey for All of Us – in all good bookstores now.
Daily Express, January 2011: ‘“Half Man” gets new breasts (and guess who’s paying £78k).’
Courier Mail, October 2014: ‘Monster Chef and the She Male.’
The Times, February 2016: ‘I’m just a bloke, says sex-change soldier.’
Daily Mail, October 2015: ‘Children as young as FOUR being given transgender lessons.’
We’re often the butt of the joke: The Sun’s 2011 game ‘Tran or woman?’. There’s an air of the freak show about us, an invitation to peer into the bizarre realities of our lives: ‘Transsexual, 44, elects to die by euthanasia after botched sex-change operation turned him into a “monster”.’ Even when the intent is celebratory, we are marked out as different and strange: CNN’s list of the most influential people of 2014 described actress and advocate Laverne Cox as ‘The Gender Bender’.
Here are a few of the things the media shows, and has shown, trans people to be: confused, deceitful, delusional, damaged, predatory, brave (sometimes), pitiable, pathetic. A punchline, a warning, a mistake.
Here are a few of the things I am: a singer, a teacher of music, a good (if forgetful) friend, a loving child and grand- child, a loved and loving partner. I am a doctoral student, a decent cook, too ambitious, too anxious, a composer of all kinds, and someone who tries, at least, to be better than my worries would have me be. And I’m also transgender.
Questions to Answer?
July 13, 2017 § Leave a comment
I’ve been touring with Trans Like Me for about a month and a half now, and we always run over time in the Q&A sessions. So, it made sense to do an online Q&A – a video for people who like vlogging, and a transcript for those who don’t.
Any questions about trans activism, history, feminisms, futures? About taking a book from inspiration to publication? Leave a comment, and I’ll do my best.
From blog to book: 5 things I learnt along the way
June 21, 2017 § 49 Comments
On December 18th, 2015, I posted a blog entry: the option for my first book, Trans Like Me, had been picked up by Virago, for UK and Commonwealth publication. It’s a year and a half later – and I’ve been in bookstores for nearly a month, with American publication scheduled for next year with Seal Press.
When I first began this blog, back in 2010, I never imagined that what I wrote and explored here would form the foundation of a book. I did want to write a book about gender – about being transgender in particular – but always figured it would be an academic text with a long and referential name. I’d seen people blogging with the express intention of getting a book deal, and wasn’t impressed – the results too often veered between transparent and inauthentic, and flat-out desperate.
But plans pan out in odd ways, and (amazingly), here we are. A piece of advice which has always helped me is to write what you’ve needed to read. It’s certainly what I tried to do with Trans Like Me – and I thought it might be useful to do the same thing about what I wished I’d known about the process of writing for publication. Not the nuts and bolts of finding an agent and selling a book (good advice found here) – but some steps which helped me move from writing from a smaller to a larger audience, and to find exactly what it was I needed to write.
1. Define your core values
I began blogging for a number of reasons: because I’d been writing for online publications since my teens and had missed it, because I wanted to be part of a broader conversation, and because I wanted to reach out and find more people at least a little like me. Two other reasons: I thought it would help my career in general, and because I believed I had something useful to say. I got the confidence to put those reasons in practice through a workshop I attended at the MIDEM conference in January 2011. Amidst the corporate horror and music-as-commodity, there was some amazing advice on how to build a career as an independent musician. First and foremost: ‘define your values’.
You could be cynical, and call it ‘building a brand’ – but it’s more than that, and deeper. The rest of the seminars talked about creating a persona to sell copy with – but this one workshop explained how to find the best in yourself, learn how to get comfortable with it, and to communicate those values to others. To become secure enough in who you know yourself to be that it becomes your calling card, and protection against the kinds of quick and easy temptations that can scupper a career.
I figured that the best I could bring to my work was my sincerity, my love of knowledge, and my willingness to turn that knowledge on its side and see what changes. Those values gave me a lens to work through, and – when my career picked up and a range of offers started coming in – an easy way to filter out those that didn’t mesh with my deepest instincts. Trust me: if you’re any kind of marginalized writer, the majority of interest you’re shown at the beginning will be on the condition that you fit yourself into a predetermined niche. Knowing what I was best at, what I was proud of, and what lines I wouldn’t cross made it easier to turn down work from tabloids that spread hatred, not to sell a sob story and ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos. Most of us have to make compromises as we go – but I’m really glad I decided on what I would and wouldn’t do before I was put to the test.
2. Define your intent
Who are you writing for? Yourself, your friends, your community, the wider world? What is it that they want to read? And how are you prepared to challenge both them and yourself?
I think it’s okay not to know those answers starting out, and to be totally prepared for those answers to change – maybe over time, maybe piece by piece. But I don’t think I would have grown as a writer if I hadn’t paid close attention to which pieces resonated with which readers, and learned how to balance my need for expression with others’ need for information and understanding.
After a few years of writing I noticed that it was my more educational posts that were getting the most hits and shares, and the best feedback. It gave (it gives) me pleasure, and purpose, to be able to help people to learn, and my educational posts were the ones that led to my most high profile and profitable commissions. Snarky, personal posts? Not so much. And, to be honest, I didn’t enjoy them so much, although they felt cathartic to write – I didn’t feel like I was expressing myself so well, and I wasn’t sure how much I was adding to anyone else’s day. So I stopped worrying about writing those feelings and thoughts up as posts: I can send my friends long, snarky rants without anything held back, and can focus the small amount of writing time I have on playing to my strengths.
3. Forge connections
This was the hardest step. I’m a performer, so most people assume that I’m super confident at all times. But I’ve had plenty of experience of being judged, hated and excluded – I don’t often find networking as easy as it might look on the outside.
Nevertheless, there’s no way I would have landed a book deal without the kindness of others. And I think that, for most people who want to move from blogging to mainstream/paid publication, forging connections is an essential part of the job.
There’s a lot that’s been written about how to play people and tilt the field in your favour – I’m not so sure about that. But what I have found to help:
* See possibilities everywhere. I was introduced to my agent, Laura Macdougall, by the writer Kaite Welsh. I’d met Kaite through the website the F word – I’d sent a press release for a classical concert, Kaite reviewed it, and I reached out to say thank you. She got in contact for an interview, we bonded, she fell off a stage, the interview was pulled…but we stayed in contact. Which leads to my second point…
* Don’t be afraid to ask for an informational interview. Shortly after the stage incident, I asked Kaite if she’d be willing to answer some questions about the literary field in exchange for coffee and muffins – and she said yes. You might be surprised by how often people are prepared to say yes. That interview gave me the information and confidence I needed to push for the next stage in my career – and, to be honest, meeting with people you admire, working at the stage above you, helps to get your name into the ring.
* Do your research. Research into the people and the fields you’re trying to connect with, and into the work you need to do. Creating a Life Worth Living by Carol Lloyd, and Beyond Talent by Angela Beeching were invaluable tools.
* Follow up! There’s no point in having those conversations, exchanging those emails, pencilling in dates, if you never make good on them. Set a reminder. And then set several more.
* Identify what it is you have to trade. Writing (and music) are notoriously shitty for paying in ‘exposure’. Nearly all of us have day jobs, and learning the balance between taking unpaid gigs while also learning how to negotiate yourself a living wage is a tough one. But there are times where I think it’s worth it to take unpaid work, and that’s where you’re able to trade something other than money. A singing lesson for an editing session, for example. A charity gig that will genuinely expand your base, while helping a good cause. Know your worth, know what you can give, and make sure you’re getting in return.
4. Allow for more time than you think you need…
…and know that none of it is wasted if you choose to make use of what you learn.
Despite not seeing myself writing a work of popular non-fiction, I was fully convinced (in 2010) that I would be a published author by, say, 2014. I had been writing fiction for years, and had had interest from agents since my teens. I had a novel ready to sell, and was sure that my academic gender tome would be ready before long.
If I’d have known that it would take another seven years, I would have been utterly overwhelmed by that odious mixture of blocked ambition and total sense of failure familiar to so many of us. It would have crushed me. And yet, of course – obviously – I couldn’t have written this book that I’m so proud of without all of those seven years – sense of failure and all.
Everything I’ve done in that time has helped me to become a better writer – everything. The additional personal hardships I’ve experienced have led me to a greater sense of compassion, an ability to sit with what is painful without the need to be flippant or caustic. All the additional years of teaching and training taught me better ways of expressing myself and communicating concepts unfamiliar to the listener or reader. Broadening the scope of my reading (my early blog posts are heavily influenced by the postgrad music psychology/psychotherapy research I was doing at the time) made my writing more legible. And, as much as it shouldn’t happen: experiencing incremental degrees of crap from strangers on the internet did help me learn how to protect myself – as much as anyone is able to.
For the first time, I’m able to contemplate temporal ‘setbacks’ with a sense of equanimity, rather than panic and shame. You have to get there on your own but, if you’re struggling with a sense of ‘wasting time’ or not being good enough fast enough, please know that you’re not the only one, and that you’re not condemned to feel that way forever.
5. Connect the dots
There will always be a glut of writers on the subject closest to your heart. No theme is original, and every field is crowded. But, if you’re going to try, I think the best way forward is to embrace everything particular to your own experience – especially the parts that don’t feel special – and connect the dots to find your place.
Obviously, that’s not how everyone does it. Plenty of people are prepared to lie about themselves, craft a fake persona, for the chance of a book deal: look at the success of Thug Kitchen. I’m sure they’ve made a hell of a lot more money than me.
But I know that what makes me go back to a particular blog, share it with my friends, pre-order a hardback I can’t really afford, is honesty. It’s the combination of experiences and insights that combine to make a truly unique guide to a subject you thought you knew, that allows you, once again, to find the extraordinary in the everyday. It’s watching someone use every talent they possess – whether that’s as a carer, a parent, a teacher, a patient, whatever – as another tool with which to reach their readers.
There are plenty of trans writers out there. There are plenty of non-trans people writing about trans lives. When I started blogging about trans issues, and my own trans life, I didn’t always see how every other part of me could factor in. But the more I did it, the more I allowed my barriers to drop, the more I could do – and the more useful it became.
I would always pick a writer that brings their total self to the page over one who thinks that a ‘writer’ is somehow not a total person. I think that a great many readers – and agents and editors – would agree.
Couldn’t you just…not be trans?
May 18, 2017 § 4 Comments
Or: the ways in which disbelief and suppression hurt trans people. And how, despite it all, we resist.
I’ve checked in and realised how long it’s been since I’ve written here. The reason being that I’ve been caught up writing and editing my first book, Trans Like Me: A Journey for All of Us – published next Thursday on May 25th.
I’ll be writing more on that – what it means to move from blogging to long-form non-fiction, what I’ve hoped to do with the book, what it means for the next year – next week.
Until then, I really hope you enjoy the first extract from the book, linked above. And thank you for all of the support over the years – more on that too, to come.
Visibility is a tool to be wielded…
June 1, 2016 § 2 Comments
…not an end in itself. My latest piece in The Independent on mainstream trans narratives, Caitlyn Jenner’s one year anniversary of being out, and how we deserve better.
Share if you like it! Thank you