Stop Throwing Stuff, Dude

Catching up…

Saturday November 20th.
To the Cruciform building in Gower Street for London’s Transgender Day Of Remembrance service. The main part of which is a reading of the names of people killed in transphobic attacks over the last twelve months. The list goes on and on and takes a good twenty minutes or so: most of them trans women from Brazil and Mexico. Roz Kaveney reads an excellent poem, and there’s three musical performances. The showtune-belting Mzz Kimberley sings ‘I’m A Tranny’ to the tune of Peggy Lee’s ‘I’m A Woman.’

There’s an interesting contrast between the other two singers: both are trans men (ie born female). Naechane Valentino sings soul-pop and says that since starting to take testosterone, he’s finding it harder to stay in key with his backing tracks. I hope he can get them transposed, pun not intended (which really means one enjoys the accidental pun and so leaves it in).

CN Lester, however, is a classical singer who has chosen to eschew testosterone in order to retain their trained mezzo-soprano voice. I think of the way choir boys’ careers end the moment their voice drops, while boy singers in pop music can carry on, like Michael Jackson. At the service, CN sings a heart-stopping version of Nina Simone’s ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’.

Two lessons in language learned from this day. One is that the slang term ‘tranny’ is increasingly considered offensive to trans people. Unless you are trans yourself using it in the spirit of reclamation – like Mzz Kimberley – it’s best avoided.

The other is that some trans people do not always – as I’d assumed – use the pronouns of the gender they identify as. Instead, they’d rather be described by the proposed genderless pronouns ‘zie’, ‘hir’ and ‘s/he’, or failing that, ‘they’. CN Lester is one.

Trouble is, mainstream English hasn’t yet evolved to accommodate such words, though I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. There are a few genderless titles, like ‘doctor’ (and indeed CN Lester, being a PHD student, will soon be able to use it). But throwing ‘hir’ into a mainstream text without explanation can’t yet be done.

I’d love to be the kind of writer that helps to kick-start such changes, but here’s another problem – my own identity as a writer. I am a few steps behind the mainstream, being as I am fogeyish and fusty and arch, still using ‘lady’ when I should use ‘woman’, or ‘actress’ rather than ‘female actor’. This usage is part of my character, like my suit-wearing. And character is context.

I just hope that people realise this and do not mistake me for a default mainstream writer. Otherwise it’ll be like the time when I was asked by the hip literary venue The Book Club to take off my jacket and tie. It was clearly a policy aimed to keeping out City workers looking for a drink, but they didn’t realise that my suits are part of my dandyish look, my identity. I wondered if other suit-loving writers, say Tom Wolfe or Mark Twain, ever had the same problem. ‘Come back when you’ve got some skinny jeans on, Mr Twain!’

So, just as I cannot carry off jeans and trainers, I feel unable to join in with some popular changes in English usage. I’ve written before about my inability to use the word ‘shit’ to mean ‘stuff’ or ‘things’. That’s my hipster line drawn in the sand, right there. But I’m starting to feel like the only Englishman alive who doesn’t use it.

Three recent cases in point.

Paul Chambers, the ‘Twitter Joke Trial’ man, used it in the Tweet that saw him arrested: ‘You’ve got a week to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!’

Secondly, the video footage from the student protest at Millbank the other week. After the now-infamous fire extinguisher is seen dropped from the roof onto the police below, the protestors on the ground voice their disapproval instantly, by chanting to their colleagues on the roof, ‘STOP THROWING SHIT! STOP THROWING SHIT!’

Thirdly, David Cameron used the phrase ‘shit happens’ in a dinner speech last week, for the Spectator magazine.

All of which puts me in my increasingly old-fashioned place. When it comes to gender, politics and sexuality, I like to think I’m fairly progressive. But when it comes to language, I am more conservative than the chief Conservative.

I have a female friend who addresses everyone with the word ‘dude’. She’s British, and about 30. I once batted the term back at her in conversation, tongue very much in cheek, knowing full well how it’d sound on my lips. She nearly fell off her chair laughing.

Link: Video of CN Lester performing Dylan’s ‘Just Like A Woman’

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