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Being non-binary: I’m not A Girl Called Jack any more, but I’m not a boy either

The food writer Jack Monroe on coming out as transgender, and why they are one of an increasing number of people living outside the categories of “man” and “woman”.

“URGENT: Legal warning: Jack Monroe has requested you do not publish her birth name (*******) in the future.” 

I love a Google alert. That particular nugget of joy pinged into my inbox courtesy of political gossip blogger “Guido Fawkes”, less than an hour after lawyers had sent the final letter in a lengthy dispute with the Daily Mail for an article written in August claiming that “Jack” was not my “real” name. The article was eventually amended, with no apology or admittance of liability, and the correspondence marked private and confidential was leaked – as though I, not the Mail, were in the wrong. On cue, the trolls filled my timeline with my deadname, with 140-character questions about my genitalia, sexuality, parenting ability, in gifs and memes and puerile attacks.

In hindsight, they did me a favour. Psychiatrists sometimes use a technique called “flooding” to help conquer phobias, exposing their client to their particular fear again and again and again until they have the coping mechanisms to deal with it. If I were being generous, I would thank Paul Staines and his griping band of internet warriors for saving me hundreds of pounds and several painful hours in therapy, as a seven-letter proper noun that once immobilised me now bounces off me. I recently had a group of bees tattooed on my forearm, a tribute to the English translation of the name given to me shortly after I was born. It was for my parents, and for the years spent in that skin.

I wasn’t the first in my immediate family to change my name. My older brother adopted his middle name from the age of five, and my youngest brother, now nine years old, changed his name the year before I did. My parents have excellent taste in knitwear, but I think by now they’ve resigned themselves to their offspring exchanging their names for new ones. Everyone knows that Caitlyn Jenner’s real name is Caitlyn Jenner, and any media outlet who refers to her by her deadname is an insecure bullying asshole. And by the way, Guido, my birth name was “Baby”. I was a few months premature, and my parents kind of weren’t ready for me. I’m not sure they ever will be.

Three days before the Mail-Guido-Twitter triumvirate, I had come out as transgender. Non-binary, transgender, to be precise. It was National Coming Out day, I was on my way home from a 1,000 mile round trip from Southend to Glasgow via Manchester and back again to to talk about austerity at Scottish Green Party Conference, and I was tired of my closet full of Underworks binders and denial. I typed the words, saved the tweet as a draft, and tried to call my Dad. He didn’t answer, so I texted him instead before I lost my nerve. “How are things?” he asked. “Ok. I’m about to come out as transgender. I hope we can talk about it some time.” He replied three minutes later, three minutes I’m not ashamed to admit I spent gripping my phone so hard that the small crack in the screen now splits from top to bottom. “Of course you can talk to me. It matters not one jot how you express yourself. Unless you become a Tory. Then you can fuck off :)”

I breathed out, reassured him via Aneurin Bevan that “no amount of cajolery, no attempt at ethical or social seduction” would make me join the Conservative Party, and came out to the world with the prod of a finger. Love poured in, drowning out the few predictable hurtful, hateful messages, and many nonchalant but supportive messages of actually-not-surprised. I changed my Instagram username to MxJackMonroe to match my surprisingly progressive bank details, dropped the “A Girl Called…” from the title of my Facebook page, and am working on doing the same for my blog. I love and am proud of my first cookbook, as a reflection of where and who I was at the time, and have no regrets about the title, but my third won’t carry the “A Girl Called…” branding. I’m not a girl. I’m not a boy either. As Ruth Hunt, CEO of Stonewall said at Labour Party Conference earlier this year, “not all transgender people will transition in the way that you think you understand it”. 

Non binary, in simple terms, means outside of the binary gender norms of “male” and “female”. It’s somewhere in between, one of the many many shades between the society-imposed candy pink and baby blue. It’s being shoved in bars for looking like a “pretty fucking poof” with a skinhead and a short sleeved shirt and standing at 5’3’’. It’s being thrown out of female bathrooms in nightclubs by confused and sometimes angry toilet attendants. It’s the “What ARE you?” from ignorant, belligerent officers at US airports time and time again as my name and appearance don’t quite match up to the gender stated on my passport. It’s more than teenage tomboy angst, although that’s how it manifested itself for years, as I stole my brother's poloshirts, gave up ballet for martial arts competititons, and prayed to a God I half-believed in to turn me into a boy “for a day”. If the book Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl? by Sarah Savage and Fox Fisher had been around when I was growing up, I might have understood myself before the age of 27.

I legally changed my name by deed poll immediately after leaving Essex County Fire and Rescue Service at the end of 2011. I had been thinking about it for years, but found the thought of strolling into the mess room and demanding that my colleagues call me something else terrifying – for all the questions I knew I would be unable to answer, for the potential for deadnaming and bullying in a not-particularly-tolerant organisation. Not a great place to be gay, let alone genderqueer. I missed my own passing out parade in 2008 because “female” dress uniform was a knee length skirt, sheer tights and high heeled court shoes. I asked the tailor to measure me for trousers. He refused. “It’s the way it’s always been,” he shrugged. “Old chief liked the girls in skirts.” He laughed. I didn’t. When I asked to change the rules, my Watch Officer handed me my copy of the Code Of Conduct, pointing out the uniform regulations that I had signed. I hung my skirt in my locker and let it gather dust, and stayed in bed while the squad I had trained with for 12 weeks proudly held their heads high for friends and family. I’m missing from my team photo, all for the want of a pair of trousers. I wore combat trousers to work every day, but my value on the parade ground was measured in a denier, a skirt length, a heel height, rather than personal qualities and attributes, skills, and rigorous training.

And so, with nobody to finally answer or explain to, I changed my name. I cut my hair short. I revelled in my hard, masculine body – before I left, I had been training hard with the hope of moving from the Control room to the fireground full time, spending break times and down time in the gym, downing protein shakes, visiting Service Training Centre in Witham regularly to test myself against the firefighter fitness standards and meeting them with flying colours. I was strong, broad shouldered, I could bench press the Queen*, I had earmarked two trees in my local park that were the right distance apart for the bleep test. I was fit. I looked like this:

 

But this wasn’t new. This wasn’t a 2011 reincarnation born of being spat into a world of unemployment and the loss of identity that my uniform gave me. I recently insisted on digging out the family photo albums one Sunday at my parents house – my mother is an impressive documenter, and an entire cupboard bulges with grainy snaps annotated in her intricate joined-up hand. Me, aged seven, in a baseball cap and jeans. Me, aged twelve, with a one-inch crop all over my head. Me, aged thirteen, insisting on wearing trousers to school like my friend Z. Sixteen brought the first of many skinheads, seventeen was my first bandages wrapped around my chest, forays into mens clothing stores with my meagre wages from whatever café or coffee shop I was working in at the time for ill-fitting suits from bemused middle aged men who harrumphed into their tape measures and shook their heads.

Yet the increasing collection of tight vests, flamboyant ties, too-small sports bras and oversized suit jackets was punctuated with occasional “femme flails” into charity shops for tea dresses and sky-high heels, an enviable collection of costume jewellery and red lipsticks, rarely worn past my own front door. I gritted my teeth and put a frock on for a few hours for my parents wedding vow renewal, running home to change into my trusty ill-fitting suit after the official photos had been taken – though the gritted teeth did me no favours for those, and neither did my self-shaved head. We live and learn.

I found non-binary friends opening up to me about their feelings again and again, ranging from surgery questions to querying sexuality and gender dysphoria – and I answered them with ease, not stopping to ask myself why I was awake at night researching a double mastectomy on the internet, or foods with high testosterone levels, or bodyweight exercises for building shoulders and arms. I have spent about ten years as a sounding board for friends' transitions and expressions, while burying my own. I confided in one former school friend down the pub one night while watching their boyfriend’s band, and they wrote down where they bought their waistcoats, taught me that a big scarf can hide a multitude of unwanted lumps and bumps, and that two pairs of thick insoles in a-size-too-big loafers can do wonders for your confidence.

I was living with a former girlfriend when I first said the words out loud a few weeks later: “I’ve been thinking about getting top surgery…one day.” She hit the roof. “I fancy GIRLS babe, GIRLS. What the fuck?” She accused me of deceiving her, I retreated to the sofa for the remainder of our shattered relationship, our wedding plans reduced to whether I would wear a suit or a dress and her pre-emptively mourning the loss of my double-Ds. When someone tells you that the core of your relationship is your bra size, you hightail and run. When I was cast in a Sainsburys advert a few weeks later, I wore a chest binder to the audition to eliminate any awkward surprises later on.

A life lived in public is both a blessing and a curse. I am humbled and awed by the messages I receive from readers about learning to cook and their own stories of survival. People lay out their histories and their futures in my inboxes and letterbox every single day. As I said in a recent interview for the Women Of The Future award, I don’t consider myself a leader. I live my life and do what I love and feel strongly about, and every now and again when I turn around there are people behind me helping me on. I am here, writing and talking about this at last, because I stand on the shoulders of giants, those pioneers who have gone before me and pushed for these conversations, the activists who have tirelessly lobbied Parliament for changes to laws that unfairly affect transgender and non binary people, those who told their stories years ago, before Channel 4 had a “trans season”. Thank you to Ruth Hunt, Ruby Rose, Fox Fisher, Sarah Savage, Paris Lees, Rebecca Root, Captain Hannah Winterbourne, Laurie Penny, Bethany Black, Fish, and CJ especially.

*my weightlifting chart was, for motivational purposes, set at benchmarks like “12 tins of beans”, “a small marsupial” and “The Queen”.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.