Being Trans in Scottish Literature

I know of around ten trans people in Scotland who have ever published a book. I know of around five trans people who have a job in Scottish literature, across journalism, academia and literary NGOs. Most of those people are not on permanent contracts. I’m one of only two trans poets I know of who has published a full-length collection with a Scottish press. But even then, that book came out before I did, when only those closest to me knew that I was trans, and it was with a publisher that folded not long after, and I never saw the royalties, and once I was out in public I took my second and third books to London publishers.

Saying this is not to suggest I have achieved anything special, nor is it to diminish the tremendous work of trans writers in Scotland who are published outwith Scotland or outwith poetry, who are producing exceptional writing, who are self-publishing, who are printing each other’s work in small zine editions, who are doing everything possible to nurture each other’s writing and to enable trans voices to find each other. Rather, it is about pointing out the extreme economic, artistic and social marginalisation of trans people in Scottish literature.

Some of this is a result of the extreme economic marginalisation of trans people full stop. One in four trans people in the UK have been homeless, three in five trans people in the UK live on less than £20,000 a year, one in three UK employers would not hire a trans person. These economic conditions do not make it easy to write anything, let alone to navigate arts funding or the literary sector in a way that can get you published, let alone in a way that can make writing viable work. But from my own experience, exclusion from literature is far greater than exclusion from, for example, theatre and the visual arts. In other areas of the Scottish arts, I can talk about multiple trans people who are working at a national scale and gaining national institutional support. Internationally, I can point to hundreds upon hundreds of books written by trans people over the course of decades. In Scotland, I have more than once looked at published diversity statistics for the literature sector and seen the number “1” and thought “Oh. That’s me.”

So at what point can I say that Scottish literature has a transphobia problem?

One year ago, in February 2020, I was a co-author of an open letter to the Scottish Poetry Library, the national organisation for my main area of work. The letter was written collectively by 11 trans and non-binary writers, and co-signed by around 250 supporters. Between authors and signatories, the letter was supported by a significant majority of trans writers working in Scotland, and by an even greater majority of trans writers in Scotland with published work.

The letter responded to a recent statement on so-called “no-platforming” made by the Scottish Poetry Library. We argued that the statement, in its language and manner of communication, “provided cover and comfort to public transphobia, and failed to protect and respect trans writers.” The letter was written in a climate of extreme hostility to trans writers, and discussed the abuse that we are subject to. We asked the SPL fourteen questions about its consideration of and support for trans writers. They did not respond.

The Director of the SPL, Asif Khan, along with some board members, did make public comments. On March 3rd, Khan posted on Twitter, from his work account, a blog about a counter-letter which discussed “a social contagion called self-ID”. He called it an “interesting take”. Self-identification is the principle that trans people determine the sex we live in: it is how we register with doctors, appear on drivers licenses, go to work, introduce ourselves, use the loo. If you are not subject to widespread social prejudice, I would like you to imagine what it feels like when the Director of the national institution for your profession shares a description of your basic civil rights as a “social contagion” as an “interesting take”.

Despite the original statement saying that the SPL was not “taking sides in any particular debate”, Khan also gave multiple media interviews and made social media comments in which he said that the statement was about issues facing [cis] women writers. Multiple news outlets framed the dispute as a supposed clash between trans rights and [cis] women’s rights, as if these were not two joint liberation struggles, as if trans women do not need both. One of these articles, in The Times, which singled me out by name and in dismissive terms, was shared and then pinned by the SPL’s official Twitter account. Board member Stuart Paterson, in a public Facebook discussion, denounced the letter as “male-centred aggression dressed up as non-male,” adding, “I don’t care who sees or reads my condemnation of this, as a Scottish poet & member of the SPL board.” Some other Board members also explicitly or implicitly publicly defended the SPL’s statement, all the while without writing a response to the letter.

A month later, and we were clearly in a pandemic, and still without a response. We wrote back to the SPL saying that we understood there would now be delays, but that we would like them to give us a timeline for a response. They did not do so. They did continue to run their programmes, and leadership did continue to defend their position. I wrote to the Chair of the Board, Gordon Munro, detailing the above comments and asking for him to act. He did not reply, or even acknowledge receipt.

At the end of June, I made a statement about the things that both Khan and Paterson have said about me in public. Khan, after I performed at an event at the library, said to library staff, in public, while the library was open, “He needs to work on his dress sense and pick clothes that suit him.” This was reported to the Board, who did not act on it. Meanwhile, here is a public exchange about me between Paterson and anti-trans campaign group For Women Scotland:

SP: Note the constant, very male form of belittling by constant usage of surname only.
FWS: Interesting, do we know where Harry went to school?
SP: No idea. He was born in Walthamstow and decided to speak & write in Scots. And decided to be non-binary.
FWS: Hmm, so he likes to appropriate…
SP: I couldn’t possibly comment.

Paterson, still then a Board member of the national institution of my profession, went on to comment on other threads that the “very male” convention of referring to people in formal writing by surname was evidence that I went to private school. (I didn’t, by the way. Also, it was Whipps Cross, but that was my mistake.) These comments were also reported to Gordon Munro, who did not reply or acknowledge receipt.

A week after I made this statement, and over five months after our open letter, the SPL finally responded, in an unsigned email. I do not think this timing is a coincidence. They offered “a mutually agreed timetable of discussions with you through nominated representatives”. The group of authors unanimously rejected this response. We wrote, “You cannot claim to be listening to and recognising our concerns without attempting to answer even one of our questions. We must decline any invitation to a meeting unless, at a minimum, you are able to answer these questions.” They did not reply. They have still not replied. They have still not answered our questions. Their 2020 Annual General Meeting and Director’s Report made no mention of these events. We are still waiting.

No-one in a position of authority at a Scottish literature organisation has ever offered to help. No-one from these organisations has even contacted the public email address for the open letter. The only people who have asked me about it, or offered me any support, are my friends.

This section details specific transphobic abuse I have received. You can skip this to the next section, beginning “Back in March 2020”. If you are cis, I would like you to read it if you can.

In December 2019 I had my first exhibition in a Scottish art gallery, as part of a curated group show at Dundee Contemporary Arts. I created a publication called Wages for Transition, and an installation featuring zines, posters and a collection box for trans healthcare funds.

Two days later a Scottish writer sent a link to the piece to a blogger who writes and tweets extensively against trans rights, saying “not sure you’ll want to settle on a take of the day until you’ve girded up your loins and read this one”. “This is probably the most mind-blowing appropriation and distortion of socialist feminist analysis ever conceived,” replied the blogger. “Bring on that fucking asteroid,” replied another, to which the first writer responded “Apparently there’s concern over on the right side of history that Harry is being ‘silenced’. Not seen evidence of that but if you do please challenge it- this piece should definitely be shared & amplified especially during the GRA consultation period.” This is a call to circulate my work in the highly active wing of anti-trans social media, phrased ironically so as to play at plausible deniability: they want me to be attacked. This call has since been deleted. Here is a small fragment of what followed:

“The little I read was insufferable. The narcissism was off the scale.”

“Their levels of narcissism and self interest are just staggering. To have even thought up this potty notion betrays either megalomania or a cognitive dissonance.”

“It’s going to be a hard fight against these people. They are terrorists.”

“This reads like something posted after a mass shooting.”

“Spoiling for a nice punch in the snoot.”

“Can we send them all to a plastic island in the middle of the sea.”

“Trans ‘women’ keeping track of their pronouns alone must use up a lot of ‘ladybrain’.”

“I’d pay good money for them to go away somewhere else. I know a nice volcano.”

“Reading the whole thing would rot my brain. The person that wrote that is unhinged. Massively narcissistic at the very least. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.”

“Nope, definitely not a mental illness.”

“Mental.”

“This writer needs tranquilizers or ECT.”

“Jesus wept. What is that bloke on?”

“These people are delusional!”

“This ‘writer’ would defintely be no.1 in the list ‘People who you would rather stick needles in your eyes than ask to a dinner party.’”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” This last sent directly to my personal account as a one line email from an anonymous address.

In September 2020 I wrote a short article for Engender, Scotland’s feminist umbrella body, on the history of transfeminism. Here is a small fragment of what followed when it was published:

“I don’t know what autogynephilic men could possibly have to contribute to feminism apart from reinforcing patriarchy”

“Who this guy anyway? Never heard of him You Engender shld be ashamed of yourselves You have been captured.”

On a picture of an arrested suffragette: “It’s worth getting arrested to know that future feminists will be sharing articles on how best to please people with dicks.”

“There is something fundamentally wrong and disordered here. Pathological.”

“Shameful absolute Shameful you are so far from representing women you are a joke and Harry is a bullying misogynist MAN.”

“That misogynist prick? What kind of women’s org are you? Shame on you. Women are getting a little sick of your lot, you know.”

“Trans women are men. Harry is a hairy arsed man who know fuck all about feminism.”

“Harry is a lying creep, who should be kept well away from vulnerable women and children.”

“HJG is self-serving, self-promoting & self-absorbed. I’ve got an F-word or two for him.”

“One of Scotland’s leading organisations for women proudly gives a platform to one of Scotland’s leading misogynists. This is where we are now. Organisational capture and mind-control. Are you on acid over there at Engender, or what?”

In February 2021 I published an essay in Gutter magazine about transition and mutual aid. The Director of Engender commented on Twitter that she “especially enjoyed” reading my piece. She did not even mention the word “trans”, only my name. Here are some responses:

“Such a shame that you would support a bullying man.”

“Consider my membership of Engender cancelled. What a sellout to give time to such a vile misogynist.”

“I’m actually shaking. I’m shocked she can be so callous and cruel.”

“Oh look, the Scottish government’s official feminist enjoys reading and promoting a misogynistic appropriator who says women should be thankful to TIMs for feminism.”

“Sick.”

These are three incidents in the last two years, among several dozen. They are more frequent every month. I now have a safety plan that I share with organisations I work with for what to do when they book me to perform or publish my writing. It details the kind of abuse I receive, why I receive it, and what to do about it. It asks them not to include my social media handle in any publicity about my work so that I do not see any negative responses. It asks them not to tell me the detail of any of the abuse, unless it is the kind that includes a threat to my personal safety. I have received these, but I have not quoted them here, because I have learned that doing so makes them worse. It is humiliating to have to write down the worst things that people have said about me and send them to my employers with the words “safety plan”.

When a woman with a position in Scottish public life says anything nice about my work in public, I don’t think “Aw, thanks!” — I think “Oh, shit.” I have learned to dread what’s coming. It is now impossible for her to talk about my work without both her and me being attacked. It doesn’t matter whether or not the work has anything to do with trans life, or with feminism. Just my name is enough to attract abuse. I cannot write anything without attracting abuse. They will not let me just write. That is the reality I live in now.

I have been open and public about the abuse I’ve received and what it has done to my life, my livelihood, my safety, and my mental health. No-one in a position of authority at a Scottish literature organisation has ever offered to help.

Why do I have to offer up the details of the horrible things people say about me for anyone to take any of this seriously?

Back in March 2020, an MSP denounced our open letter in the Scottish Parliament, saying that it was “a letter written by activists [that] said that bullying was okay”. Our letter explicitly says that we are against bullying. But here’s an interesting fact, which I had not known before: it’s perfectly legal for an MSP to lie about you in Parliament, because they are protected by Parliamentary privilege from action for slander. You can report them to their ethics officers for conduct violations, but there’s no obligation for any action to be taken.

I mention this now because a story has taken hold that our open letter was in support of bullying, and in particular in support of bullying women writers. I omitted something from the catalogue of abuse above: multiple comments saying that it is wrong to publish me or talk about my work because I have supposedly organised the bullying of women writers. That is, the fact that I was a co-author of the letter which called out transphobia is taken as a justification for attacking my work and sending me abuse. The usual argument, put forward in particular by For Women Scotland, and by Stuart Paterson in his public comments, is that the open letter itself, the word “transphobia” itself, is an attempt to bully [cis] women.

This is not true. It is a lie. The letter is exactly what it says it is. You can read it. There is no secret agenda. We were trans writers dealing with public transphobic attacks, worried that the SPL’s statement was giving cover to transphobia, and asking the SPL for clarification and for the involvement and support of trans writers. The letter was not written to intimidate or attack any writer. It was not about any one writer: it was about what it says it’s about, the abuse we have received and our right to name it. It was written to explain what things are like for us and to ask for help.

I do not deny that some women who are against trans rights, or who express scepticism about some area of trans rights, have also faced abuse on social media, and that sometimes this abuse is violent. I’ve seen it. I don’t think it’s right. I do not deny the effect that mass abuse has on anyone’s mental health, and I would not wish it on anyone, including those who are opposed to my participation in public life. If a woman tells me she has faced abuse, I believe her.

I have been clear in public statements, in public interventions and in private conversations that I do not want any individual to be attacked as a result of the events around our open letter. I want institutions to admit fault, to change, and to support trans writers, but I do not want individuals to be attacked. I no longer expect anyone to believe me about this, but I know it to be true: in every conversation I have had about these events, I have asked people not to attack individuals. I have directly intervened to ask for this not to happen. And yet still, when my name comes up in public I am cast as the evil mastermind behind a campaign to silence women. This has also been said to me directly in private: “You orchestrated a campaign of hate.”

This is transphobia. It is prejudice. Because I am trans, I am duplicitous and manipulative. Because I am trans, I am violent against women. Because I am trans, my words cannot be taken at face value. Because I am trans, my call for justice is actually an attack on [cis] women’s rights. Because I am trans, I can be ignored. Because I am trans, I deserve it.

A majority of trans writers in Scotland collectively signed a letter calling out a problem and asking for help. The institutions of Scottish literature ignored us. Because we are trans.

Throughout these events, the work of the feminist scholar Sara Ahmed has been crucial to me, particularly her work on complaint. She has helped me to understand what has been happening. Here are her words on exhaustion as a strategy for responding to complaints:

“Exhaustion can be not just the effect but the point of a complaint process. Exhaustion as a management technique: you tire people out so they are too tired to address what makes them too tired. When the organisation takes a long time, you are left waiting. One member of staff who complained about bullying used this analogy: waiting for the next response to her complaint was like waiting for a bill to come through the door. You do not know whether the next bill will be the one that breaks you. You don’t know, so waiting can feel like breaking. The longer it takes to receive a response, the longer you are on high alert; anxiety about what might happen can be enough to make a complaint impossible to sustain.”

And here she is writing about a completely different open letter on transphobia and free speech:

“Whenever people keep being given a platform to say they have no platform, or whenever people speak endlessly about being silenced, you not only have a performative contradiction; you are witnessing a mechanism of power. […] When some people exercise their freedom of speech by protesting against some speech that freedom of speech is understood as oppressive. Free speech has thus become a political technology that is used to redefine freedom around the right of some to occupy time and space. It is “the others” who become the oppressors; those who in speaking of a wrong are judged as speaking wrong.”

If you are feeling any resistance to what I have written here, please read that article from Sara Ahmed in full. Re-reading it now, I recognise what I have gone through in the last year as a deathly series of dance moves. The same arguments, the same events, repeated step by step. She wrote that article five years ago this month. The only thing that has changed is that the political climate for trans life has grown ten times worse.

Look, this free speech vs justified criticism thing is not that complicated. Most of the people I have ever spoken to about it are in rough agreement: it’s good that people can express different opinions without state interference; some of these opinions should be forthright criticism; there is a line between forthright criticism and abuse; that line is determined by the content of the criticism, its quantity, and the relative political and social power between the parties involved; and that when the line is crossed the speaker should face some form of response. Different people draw the line differently, and different people have different positions on the appropriate response (I, for example, am against hate crime laws), but the rough principles tend to be the same. It is not difficult for me to say that someone I have strong political disagreements with has faced abuse and I think that is wrong. It should not be difficult for someone who disagrees with me to say that I have also faced abuse and that is wrong. It should not be difficult for anyone to say that a trans person naming something as transphobia is not a threat to freedom of speech, and is certainly not abuse or bullying, but is rather the exercise of freedom of speech.

It should also not be difficult for anyone to say that when a significant majority of trans writers in the country say that there is a problem with transphobia, then there is a problem.

Here is what I don’t want: I don’t want any more public statements. I don’t want a public statement to defend me or to defend trans writers in general. Such statements are empty without action, and as Sara Ahmed teaches us they often actively prevent action, and at this stage any statement is only going to throw more oil on the fire.

I don’t want anyone reading this to go away and attack either the cis women who I have not named or the men in positions of authority who I have named. I don’t even want you to subtweet them. I want cis allies to know that when you tweet a snide comment about any individual involved in this, not only does that pour oil on the fire and do nothing to address institutional oppression, it also comes back on me: I get the blame. I get the blame personally, and trans people get the blame collectively, because of how transphobia operates. When you are tempted to do this, I would ask you instead to go and find a Scottish trans writer — one who is not me — and share their work positively. Better yet, just go and do something nice for your trans friend. When you act on this issue, I would like you to focus on the institutions.

And so I also don’t want to make this about me. I have not detailed what has happened to me personally in order to seek personal redress, or for people to simply express their sympathy to me rather than act to support trans writers.. I have offered my experience to show what one trans writer is going through, so that you can understand what all trans writers in Scotland are facing. I have had sympathy for everything that I’ve detailed here. Most trans writers in Scotland have faced the same, or worse, and had much less support than me. I am dealing with this with the support that I have. I can only write this now because I took a job outside of literature and so have some economic independence from the sector. Most trans writers in Scotland have never been paid for their writing at all. Trans writers are facing structural exclusion from Scottish literature.

And so I am not available for media comment. I am not available to have a conversation with a literature organisation about how to include trans people. I am not available to be the one trans person on your bill so that it looks like you’re being inclusive. I am not available for any work or any conversation with the Scottish Poetry Library until it demonstrates through its actions a critical change of direction. I cannot speak for what every other trans writer does or does not want. I am not a representative. I speak only for myself, and I need, urgently, to remove myself from this public conversation. It has broken me. I no longer think my presence in this conversation can do anything other than harm, especially to me. I have written this article because of what is being said about me in public, by name, so that my version of events is on the record. I am already dreading the responses to this article. I know from experience it will make the abuse worse, so this is the last word I have, the last time I can go through this, to have that account on the record. I want to go away and write now, about anything else.

The open letter to the Scottish Poetry Library was collectively authored. The group of authors may be available to help change the institution, but a precondition of any conversation is simply, as we have stated, answers to the questions we have asked.

Here’s what I do what: active social, artistic and economic support for trans writers in Scotland. I want funded publishing and performance platforms for trans writers. I want writing courses that trans writers are paid to participate in. I want the well-paid Directors of literary institutions to cover trans writers’ housing and healthcare costs. I want institutions handed over to poor and disenfranchised trans writers. I want understanding that trans people’s participation in literature is limited by transphobia, including transphobia in Scottish literary institutions, and that this will require serious change. I want understanding that trans people’s participation in literature is also limited by serious socioeconomic oppression, and that this will take considerable resources from the literature sector to begin to overcome.

And I want trans writers. More of you, everywhere, writing anything and everything you want. I have written this essay directed towards the cis people who do not understand what is going on for us. I would like to stop doing that, stop writing for them. This is taking a lot of practice and a lot of unlearning. I don’t know if they’re ever truly going to be here for us, but I’m here for you. I am sorry if this essay has made you feel worse about the possibility of writing. You can write. There are people who want to read your writing. There are people who will pay for your writing. We are building each other up, we are making each other possible even when the wider world is hostile. We will make our own organisations and means of support when we have to. Our writing is expanding every day in its possibilities. If I can help, I would like to. Please ask. The world deserves your writing, and you deserve the world.

Writer and performer. From Orkney, lives in Leith. www.harryjosephine.com