15/10/2012 13:46 BST | Updated 12/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Ah, serendipity! No sooner do I tackle a subject as theoretical essay, than a real live example ups and bites me. In this case, it is a story i've covered, of a panto - trAnnie - planned for this December by the Sydney Opera House and at the epicentre of demands by Australia's trans community that it be cancelled.

Acceptable abuse?

Its not hard to see why. Advance publicity makes it clear that it is a roistrous, respect-none vehicle for the talents of Australian drag artist Trevor Ashley, centring the struggle of a young trans woman for support in a comic narrative that includes sexual deviance, crime and paedophilia.

Not helpful. These are not abstract themes, but go to the heart of the nightmare that is everyday life for many in the trans community: because these slurs are commonplace to the trans-haters - much as myths about international banking conspiracy once fuelled attacks on Jews .

And "Tranny"! Often the last word some will hear before waking up in hospital - or never waking again.

The trans community, lashing out at what they see as yet another example of gay guys with no transsexual perspective, ask whether it would be acceptable for a straight writer to pen a similarly rowdy "comedy" about gay life and title it "Faggot".

Or since this is Australia, a laugh-a minute production with, as protagonist, an alcoholic incarnation of the indigenous population: let's call it "Abo". Though personally, I'd say the real comparison would be a jolly romp about a young girl selling her body because that's the only way to pay for her cancer treatment.

The problem - and here's where I get MY kicking - is that it just might be. Acceptable, that is. Because humour, if we allow it at all, involves the crossing of boundaries. Make fun of a dying girl? We laughed at that one in what has since been voted all-time best comedy film, "Airplane". Paedophile humour? That, too, is stock in trade for a fair few comics, from Jimmy Carr to Frankie Boyle.

Comedy is difficult, asserting its right to tread on any toe, to go where not even the most incisive of critical commentators dare. Though a current UK campaign - rape is no joke - is trying to draw a line.

Absence of author

No. The difficulty for me, as forcibly reminded by one online friend, actress and producer, is that advocating an outright ban on any work is an extremely big line to cross. Not in respect of that work. But in respect of the bans that might follow. We allow the worst in order to firewall the best.

What I don't accept, which she also argued, is that involving a community in reviewing the script for such a work is quite such an assault on the sacred cow that is "free speech". Since writing my first piece, questioning our focus on absolute freedom, I've had a few comments along the lines of "how would you like it if YOU were censored?"

That helps put things into perspective. Because I am censored, daily. Of course, we call it editing. But the idea that the hundreds of thousands of words I turn out annually flow unadjusted from my keyboard on to the page is just ludicrous. As is the idea that any artist, writer, journalist working in the public arena is some sort of pristine "auteur", working in a vacuum of their own creativity.

Sometimes - often - the edit is helpful. Sometimes, it derails a bit: headlines often do that. On occasion it's a major derail, as one editor insisted on recasting an opening par a couple of weeks back to introduce a wording I felt wholly misleading.

Thus always. From my work on ad copy to very early days turning short sketches for the Beeb. The only place I come even close to being uncensored is on stage, where I perform my own creative writing. But there, too, I am censored: self-censored, as I adjust to the audience.

It is, of course, the raison d'etre behind bodies such as Trans Media Watch, who do not question the right of journalists to write about trans subjects: they merely ask that writers do so with respect and sensitivity, learn to change wording that is hurtful, violence-inciting and adds nothing.


Which takes us back to Sydney and that awful trAnnie. The real crime here is that of ego. Before the panto, there's the advertising material for it - a masterpiece of disrespect: yet Sydney Opera House, a supposed cauldron of creativity has proven incapable of finding a way to communicate its message without giving great hurt.

And then there's the play-writing team, seeking to divert criticism by claiming empathy with a community they are not part of. Would it hurt to engage, to discuss, to listen?

I hesitate to ban. Hesitate enormously. Because the single narrative, however outwardly objectionable can also be turned to something else. "The taming of the shrew", for instance. Romantic comedy? A paean to domestic violence? A celebration of bdsm? Suitable for musical? Yes: all of these, and more. Just as "Romeo and Juliet" doubles as ultimate romance - and the darkest of dark tragedies.

There is, it seems to me, scarcely a story that has not been, cannot be reclaimed from the clutches of raw bigotry and turned to something positive for the community targeted.

As for that title, "trAnnie": I'd have no problem at all with requiring the author to bury it. Because what's in a title? Agatha Christie's "Ten little niggers", shifted first to "Ten Little Indians", before settling on "And then there were none", with no harm to its overall integrity. Nor did this stop it from becoming one of the world's biggest-selling detective novels. Is anyone nowadays seriously claiming that the book should reclaim its "true" title?

There is nothing sacred about a title - and while I'd say we must walk very carefully when it comes to challenging the right of writers to write, the "free speech" argument is far more illusion than we think.

Often its little more than the mewling of the spoilt child, who lacks the talent to communicate particular ideas with respect and without causing harm.