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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“URGENT: Legal warning: Jack Monroe has requested you do not publish her birth name (*******) in the future.”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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Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia