It was a Sunday morning in December when I woke up to a slew of messages. They ranged from concerned to amused, the gamut from "are you okay?" to "what did you do this time?" It didn't take long to piece together what had happened. One of the Great British Newspaper Institutions had run a story that was loosely based on something I had done. I wrote a book, you see, called "Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity?" and in spite of the fact that publication wouldn't be published until January 19, 2017, I had been branded a public menace. Children ran fearful in the streets, and the world as we knew it was crumbling around us. It was the Good Ship Gender Agenda, and I was apparently at the helm.
2016, aside from being the year when your favourite celebrity died, has been a seminal year for those who identify as "other" when it comes to the question of gender. Thanks to high profile stars and activists, from Laverne Cox and Janet Mock to Ruby Rose and Miley Cyrus, we now have the chance for young people to be aware that gender - the great societal binary - isn't so binary at all. In fact, like most things in life, gender operates as a spectrum and everybody's identity is valid without denying anybody else's. In many ways it mirrors the period in the 90's and 00's when high profile stars like George Michael (RIP) and Ellen Degeneres came out, opening the conversation about sexuality to include people who had been historically ignored. The issue isn't how people identify because that has been as fluid as time, but the mainstream has struggled with how we talk about it.
At the heart of this issue is that if you are cisgendered and heterosexual, then it's going to be difficult to understand what it's like for people who don't identify that way, and this is because we don't have a communal language that can adequately express experience. Knowing what to say and how to say it, in a way that's respectful and open, isn't the same as telling people that they can't identify as 'man' or 'woman'. If that's who you are, then that's amazing, but it's important to recognise that - whether you believe it or not - there are people who don't see their gender identity that way. Perhaps it's naive, but it's always been my experience that people - particularly the silent majority who don't inhabit internet message boards - want others to be comfortable, and would like to know how they can help. That's the essence of JKP's "Can I Tell You About..." series, and in "Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity?" I want to offer people a glimpse into what it's like in my world - a world where gender isn't a case of black and white, but myriad colours and shades.
The takeaway message - rather than the anarchy that the trans-panic media are suggesting - is a simple request: ask, don't assume. In the same way that when you meet a person you ask their name (and don't, for example, assume everybody's called Dave) the next step is being aware that some people's pronouns may not be quite what you expect. Right now, for some people, this feels like a strange new world, but you might be surprised who it relieves. We know that for young trans people, issues of bullying, mental health problems and suicide rates are up to 40% higher than for the general population. So when we ask you to respect genders and pronouns, you are quite literally on a life-saving mission. You're telling people that who they are is okay, and that you want them to feel safe. Doesn't that sound nice?
For some people, regardless of what they might want, their very existence is a political act. When it comes to how we make a difference to these people, to my people, the first step is listening. That's the thing about conversation, we've learned how it's done and we know how to talk to each other. That's what Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? is all about. It's a start to a conversation that has no one conclusion, so that everyone can get to feel included in life. If you want to call that an agenda, then I don't mind: I'll happily captain that ship.
Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? will be available from 19th January, from Jessica Kingsley Publishers.