I Woke Up and the Arts Was Gone

A derelict theatre in Italy. We are looking from a dark balcony filled with rubble and broken chairs, out onto a light proscenium stage with a collapsed roof and floor. Decaying red and gold stalls curve round either side. Photo by James Kershwin, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.

Actually, it took about a week. On Wednesday 11th March 2020, I started to see the first few cancellations of events trickle in: due to coronavirus, we are sorry to announce… On Friday my own workers’ co-operative decided to indefinitely postpone the event we were due to host on Sunday, a performance art show for toddlers. By the following Wednesday, almost every theatre, gallery, cinema, festival and venue had closed — for at least three months, if not six, if not forever. Everywhere in the country that people might gather together to see art was shuttered, suspended, gone. Most of my artist friends lost all their work, many without any cancellation fees, as did precariously-employed staff in areas like front of house, who are also often artists. The entire industrial sector is gone, and in six months we have no idea how much of it will come back, or just how many organisations will be bankrupt or otherwise simply gone, or even if there will be medical, social and economic conditions for anything to come back to.

My artist friends are realising this in waves. I had a scheduled meeting on Tuesday 17th (relocated to Skype, of course) with an artist whose work my organisation has supported. We met talk about the future of the project: he began with all of his desires and ambitions, and I had to say, “Woah. We’ll come to that. First, you realise that everything is shutting down for at least six months? First, you have to decide how you’re going to cope with that.” At the other end, as soon as the first cancellation was announced I saw some artists leap immediately online and begin planning live-stramed gigs, instagram cabarets, ways to bring culture into socially distanced homes. For some, who have lost all their income and who have no security, this is a necessity, a way to bring some money into their lives through their chosen profession; for others, this is mutual aid, trying to work out how under these conditions we will continue the sacred work of making and sharing art, a crucial part of health and community, even and especially in crisis. We each cope with crisis in our own way: denial, bargaining, acceptance, action. I’ve done plenty of each. Right now I’m taking some time to pause and think, “If the arts is gone, what is it that I want to bring back, after all this?” If there is an after.

I am feeling considerable fear for my friends and colleagues. I know artists — brilliant, generous, experienced artists — who have lost their entire income for the next six months, who have no savings or family to fall back on, and who have no idea how they are now going to live. Certainly, there are secure, middle-class people who are better placed to weather this storm, but there are far more precarious, disabled, working-class and otherwise marginalised artists who have been making the most vital and significant art for years, and who now have no way to live. I also feel fear for organisations that I love that have been doing good work in getting artists paid, in supporting marginalised artists, in bringing democracy into art, in making more art available to more people, in doing the arts with some sense of social and economic justice. These organisations are more likely to be precariously funded, and are more likely to never come back. I am scared for people who are losing their work and their lives.

But what I am not feeling is any sense of grief for the arts. It is gone, for now, and I do not mourn it. First of all, there’s still going to be plenty of art. In the last week I have seen an absolute deluge of art made freely available, and I too have helped point people towards art that’s freely available. There are more films than I can watch, more music than I can listen to, more books than I can read, more games than I can play. This abundance was there before the crisis and it will abide. The particular problem of art in pandemic conditions is that we cannot be physically present with it, or present with it in social groups. In the age of digital reproduction, this was the only offer the arts could make to a consumer society: you can touch this, so you should pay for it; you can see this together, so you should pay for it; and, always rather more suspect, this is really good, so you should pay for it. But even if society collapses there will still be art, even if all that is left is our cracked singing voices and half-forgotten stories shouted across distances of at least six feet. Making art has never been the problem: the problem is getting paid.

I do not know any of my artist peers who really believes in the way the arts is organised in this country. This system is gone, for now, and I do not mourn it, because I never believed in it. I have been working full-time in this system, actively perpetuating this system, for a decade, while never believing in it. I have hustled, and earned, and made a living, and made art, and gotten other people paid to make art, and all along part of me has hated myself, and hated what I am doing, what I have been forced to do. The arts has failed in its mission of bringing culture to people: a decade of equality, diversity and inclusion policies has barely changed the make-up of its paid workforce, while working-class culture has been destroyed or assimilated, creating deeper cultural divides between the arts and the people. There’s a reason that many think that the arts is just a middle-class jolly, and as much as I’d like to explain why that’s wrong, sometimes I don’t have the stomach for it.

Even more so, the current crisis exposes the unjust economy of the arts. Even before the pandemic hit the following was true: those who make art were the least likely to be paid or to have security; those who manage the making of art were more likely to be paid, and the higher up their level of management the more security they had; those who own the places where art is made, or who direct those institutions, are paid a lot, and are probably landlords. In the crisis, this is only more clear. Creative Scotland has made the good decision that all organisations currently in receipt of Open Project Funding will receive the full amount regardless of whether the activity takes place. In return, they have asked that all recipients “honour contracts agreed with freelancers and artists”; i.e., pay the artists you said you’d pay, even if they can’t do the art. They probably cannot legally compel organisations to do this, but I hope they will at least ask with more force. Because this decision is now in the gift of the managers of the funding. We are under force majeure conditions: very few contracts and agreements are likely to be enforceable, and even if they are then which artists and precarious arts workers have the financial or even emotional resources to enforce contracts and demand pay? And so, which managers will do the right thing and pay their workers? And which managers will pay themselves first?

I know this is a decision because I am making this decision. I am in the very fortunate position of running an organisation in receipt of Open Project Funding. I have written to all the people who were due to work with us and told them they will be paid regardless: we want to reschedule the work, but if we can’t then they will be paid, and if we can then we will pay them twice. I have to do the accounts this week and work out what we can afford to do, and I will get those people paid before I pay myself, because I am in the most secure and responsible position in the organisation, and we are a workers co-op, and that is how it should be done. But when I wrote to my fellow workers, one wrote back to me to say that he had had fifteen jobs cancelled and we were the only one that had offered to pay.

I have been writing for close to a decade about how the economy of the arts is broken and ways we might fix it. I have been very honest with those I work with that I think, for example, that artistic directors should not exist, or at the very least that someone in that role should not be paid more than someone performing on a stage. I’ve sat on panels and explained this while sitting next to an artistic director, and somehow we’ve stayed pals. I’ve been an artistic director, and even if that’s in a workers’ co-operative where everyone’s paid the same rate, I’ve taken on managerial responsibility which has increased my security, which is why I’m not yet panicking about my work, which is why I have the brain space to write this essay. Give it time, though, and unless something changes then I too will be panicking, because managerial and middle-class security has always been a temporary and deceptive condition. So when I write, I do not write from a place of impatience, or a place of superiority: I write from a place of complicity, and from a place of doing long, hard work. I also write from a place of slowly but hotly burning rage.

Some may be reading this and, rightly, feeling furious with me. “Are you saying that it’s OK for all these festivals to close?” No, I’m not. The immediate closure of many arts organisations is an economic disaster, and not just for the arts, and certainly not just for the middle-classes. The town of Hay and the surrounding area is economically dependent on one annual festival which may now go bankrupt. I may be deeply sceptical of the publishing industry, I may have harsh words for its unjust structures and how it privileges the voices and security of the wealthy, I may feel like I would never want to go to the Hay Festival, but I do not want it to go bankrupt and destroy a town. I live in Edinburgh, and I have had vitriolic words for how the Edinburgh Fringe is run. There is no way the Fringe can run this year in anything like the way it has run in previous years, if it runs at all. Even if pandemic conditions are lifted, the planning cannot take place in time, and the artists and audiences just won’t be there in the same way. This will be a tremendous blow to everyone who works in Edinburgh, including the lowest paid and most precarious workers: not just the arts, but everything from pubs to corner shops operates on the basis of the annual boost in income. I don’t want that to hit all at once. Beyond the arts, my home is Orkney, which has an economy dependent on summer tourism, which will now be drastically reduced. I don’t think having an economy dependent on summer tourism is tenable for either culture or climate, but I don’t want my home to suffer through a sudden withdrawal of trade.

What I am saying is that the economic system we have built for the arts is what makes these shocks so severe. If you’re dependent on an annual festival for work and something goes wrong, you have no work. If artists are chronically insecure in the arts, then artists suffer when something goes wrong. If the arts is built around accumulating wealth for the wealthy, which it is, and built around giving megaphones to the most privileged voices, which it is, then more people will suffer when the arts is gone, and fewer people will care.

Naomi Klein writes in The Shock Doctrine about how capitalism exploits disaster conditions to strengthen its grip. Under a strong and very right-wing Tory government, this is an extreme risk for my country. In an arts that is perceived as a haven for left-wing trouble-makers on the wrong side of the culture war that the Tories have chosen to wage, there is an opportunity for extreme restructuring. The arts is gone, and what this government will want to bring back in its place after “all this”, assuming there is an after, will be far more unequal, far less diverse, far more run by bosses and landlords, far less exciting, far more about accumulating wealth for the wealthy and giving megaphones to the privileged, far less artistic. Art will be even more an industry for rich people than it is already.

The more that arts workers flail around trying to bring back whatever there was before into the after, the worse this situation will be. If we try to bring back all the same festivals under the same structure, then the festivals that are most able to meet their crowdfunding goals — that is, the ones with the richest audiences — will survive, and the ones doing the most interesting art and paying the most artists will not. If we try to bring back all the same organisations in the same way, then more bosses and directors will have a secure income and more artists won’t. Instead, then, we have to decide what kind of culture we want, and we have to organise for it now.

Rebecca Solnit writes in A Paradise Built in Hell about the communities of mutual aid that arise in disaster. Far from bringing about the vicious, dog-eat-dog state-of-nature conditions that the elite panic about, disasters tend to bring about extraordinary and very human generosity, solidarity and organisation. These communities arise autonomously, from the bottom up, and they do not need managers — indeed, the more the state tries to manage them, the less effective and life-giving they are.

Artists are coming together in beautiful community right now, to work out how they can sustain each other’s lives and how they can make and share art. It is an astonishing thing. What we also need to do is work out how we can maintain these artist-led communities of survival beyond the conditions of the present crisis, before capital and the state loom over us and force us back into a system that has never worked. My plea to my fellow workers is this: yes, organise now to sustain each other, but also take the time, when you can, to think about what comes next, so that it is better than what came before, and to organise for that goal. This is the same plea that can be made to workers in every industry, but for those of us whose industries have entirely halted, and who were already most under attack by government (education, health, culture, public service, along with every precarious and low-paid worker and unworker), this task is especially urgent, and the space is filled with the most risk and possibility.

I have made many suggestions in the past for how the arts could be organised. The conditions which determined my past proposals have vanished and may never return, though the logic remains the same. Here, then, are two suggestions, as clearly as I can make them:

First, arts work should centre the workers who make art, and all funding should be on that basis. This means that artists need secure work at a living wage, and this should be arranged alongside the work of administrators, not subordinate to it. The fewer managers we have, the better this will be. This also means breaking the boundary between arts and support work: more artists need to take responsibility for how art happens, and more administrators need to be given the time and resources to make the art they want to make. So, when a venue reopens, imagine it like this: the venue is managed collectively by all who work there, who are all paid the same rate. If there are management-only roles, they rotate, and they are not privileged, and the workers provide the direction. Everyone who manages the venue is also paid to make art, and everyone who is paid to make art in the venue also manages it. We all take turns to clean the toilet.

Second, art is for everyone, and everyone is an artist. Arts funding will make its central priorities both ensuring that everyone has access to art and ensuring that everyone has access to the time and resources to make art. This is privileged over any measure of excellence, because the art that is made will be more excellent. This is privileged over any national institution, because the art that is made will be more brilliantly various and will speak to more people. Yes, this means fewer full-time jobs making and managing art, but it means more money for more artists, for more diverse artists, and for more and better art. Yes, this means that some of our most celebrated culture will stay gone, but that was always the culture that rich people preferred and so managed to get tax money to pay for, and what will take its place will be better, and then more people will actually believe in art.

If you want this, or anything like this, you have to organise for it now, for and through your survival. That means looking to your unions, your Facebook groups, your institutions, your WhatsApp chats, your co-operatives, and fighting for survival through them, and working out how to build something better. We do this together, or we’ll never be together again.

The arts is dead. Long live…?


I have enough to live off, for now. Many of my peers do not. If you have enough to live off and you appreciated this essay, please, in return, donate to QueerCare, which is organising mutual aid for queer and trans people, or to Edinburgh Action for Trans Health, which directly pays for trans people’s healthcare and crisis needs. If you would like to support my work in an ongoing way. you can join my Patreon.

I read a lot of books in 2019



I kept a list of all the books and pamphlets I read throughout 2019, starting on a whim. It’s the first year I’ve done that, and reading it back has been a lovely way to remember the ideas and stories I’ve lived with throughout the year. I read for an hour or two every morning as the first thing I do when I wake up: I find it hard to imagine living otherwise. And books are always my companions on buses, in lonely moments. I have to pick handbags by whether or not they’ll fit a standard paperback, and any day I leave the house without a book is the day I’m guaranteed to need it: even if I don’t read it, it’s good to know the book is there.

I haven’t counted up how many books this is! That’s because it’s a joy, not a task. To that end, I’ve also slowed down my reading by making sure I read each poetry book at least twice: a resolution for 2020 might be to read a few fewer books but read them more, because sometimes I could feel the pressure of the list speeding me up.

Similarly, I haven’t done a diversity tally on this, but I do know that well over half of what I’ve read has been written by trans people. I’ve now read the majority of novels about trans characters by trans authors ever published, and almost all of the trans poetry published in the UK and Ireland. Happily, trans writers keep writing, so I won’t stop. This has been a very healing reading project for me, something I’ve found myself and a world through. I can’t recommend it enough to other trans folk (or anyone). If you want to borrow any of these books, send me a message. Rachel Pollack in particular has been my companion throughout the year: a hugely influential but criminally underread author. Read her!

The other vital companion in my year has been Jamie Berrout’s editing at the Booklet Series. This is regularly publishing trans women of colour in a radical and decentralised way, creating work that needs to be in the world, getting people paid, and persistently critiquing publishing and literary hierarchies. Berrout’s “Against Publishing” writing has been necessary to me, and the vitality of all this work is making me think much harder about how I want to write, and read, in the coming years.

I wrote very short reflections on my reading as I went, with pictures. You can find that on Twitter; I might take it to Instagram and Facebook next year too. Here’s to a couple hundred more books next year! And at least one of my own.


  • Clay AD, Metabolise, If Able
  • Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night
  • George Mackay Brown, Greenvoe
  • Graeme MacRae Burnet, His Bloody Project
  • Octavia Butler, Seed to Harvest
  • Austin Chant, Peter Darling
  • Zen Cho, Sorceror to the Crown
  • Zen Cho, The True Queen
  • Amber Dawn, Sodom Road Exit
  • Esi Edugyan, Washington Black
  • Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, This is how you lose the time war
  • Akwaeke Emezi, PET
  • Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues
  • Leslie Feinberg, Drag King Dreams
  • Liana Finck, Passing for Human
  • Joseph Fink, Alice Isn’t Dead
  • Nicola Griffith, So Lucky
  • Alicia E. Goranson, Supervillainz
  • Jane Eaton Hamilton, Weekend
  • Nalo Hopkinson, Sister Mine
  • Witi Ihimaera with Hemi Kelly, Sleeps Standing / Moetu
  • Rita Indiana, Tentacle
  • Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
  • Renee James, Transition to Murder
  • June Jordan, His Own Where
  • Caitlín R Kiernan, Agents of Dreamland
  • Caitlín R Kiernan, Black Helicopters
  • Margaret Killjoy, A Country of Ghosts
  • Niviaq Korneliussen, Crimson
  • Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room
  • Larissa Lai, The Tiger Flu
  • Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
  • Lisa Maas, Forward
  • Anna Mill and Luke Jones, Square Eyes
  • Madeline Miller, Circe
  • Helen Mort, Black Car Burning
  • Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman
  • Hope Nicholson (ed), Love Beyond Body Space and Time
  • D. Nandi Odhiambo, Smells Like Stars
  • Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death
  • EE Ottoman, Documenting Light
  • Helen Oyeyemi, Gingerbread
  • Intan Paramaditha, Apple & Knife
  • Jeff Parker, Meteor Men
  • Michelle Perez, The Pervert
  • Hazel Jane Plante, Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian)
  • Rachel Pollack, A Secret Woman
  • Rachel Pollack, Unquenchable Fire
  • Rachel Pollack, Godmother Night
  • Rachel Pollack, Golden Vanity
  • Rachel Pollack, The Fissure King
  • Rachel Pollack, The Child Eater
  • Rachel Pollack, The Beatrix Gates
  • Annie Proulx, Barkskins
  • Philip Pullman, The Secret Commonwealth
  • Sally Rooney, Normal People
  • Ali Smith, Girl meets boy
  • Ali Smith, Autumn
  • Ali Smith, Winter
  • Anna Maria Staiano, Transexpace
  • Linda Stupart, Virus
  • Luke Sutherland, Venus as a Boy
  • Bogi Takács (ed), Transcendent 3
  • Jeanne Thornton, The Dream of Doctor Bantam
  • Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
  • Joshua Whitehead, Jonny Appleseed
  • JY Yang, The Tensorate Series 1-4

Poetry Collections and Anthologies

  • Meg Bateman, Soirbheas
  • Billy-Ray Belcourt, NDN Coping Mechanisms
  • Gwen Benaway, Passage
  • Jay Bernard, Surge
  • Hera Lindsay Bird, Irony /Sincerity
  • Eli Clare, The Marrow’s Telling
  • Charly Cox, she must be mad
  • John Cumming (ed), the crow in the rear view mirror
  • Qwo-Li Driskill, Walking with Ghosts
  • Kari Edwards, Obedience
  • Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, There Should Be Flowers
  • Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Collected Poems
  • Emma Frankland, None of us is yet a robot
  • Jackqueline Frost, The Third Event Part 1 & 2
  • Kit Fryatt, Bodyservant
  • Callie Gardner, Naturally It Is Not
  • Caspar Heinemann, Novelty Theory
  • WN Herbert, Bad Shaman Blues
  • Jay Hulme, City Boys Should Not Feed Horses
  • Kathleen Jamie, Mr and Mrs Scotland are Dead
  • Mikael Johani, we are nowhere and it’s wow
  • Roz Kaveney, Catullus
  • Myung Mi Kim (ed), Best American Experimental Writing 2018
  • Joy Ladin, The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something
  • Pàdraig MacAoidh, Gu Leòr
  • Kei Miller, in nearby bushes
  • Daniel Ortberg, The Merry Spinster
  • Norman Erikson Parasibu (trans. Tiffany Tsao), Sergius Seeks Bacchus
  • Nii Ayikwei Parkes (ed), Filigree: Contemporary Black British Poetry
  • Allison Parrish, Articulations
  • Everest Pipkin, i’ve never picked a protected flower
  • Platypus Press (eds), Islands are but Mountains
  • Rachel Plummer, Wain
  • Rachel Plummer and Russel Jones (eds), Multiverse
  • Nat Raha, Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines
  • essa may ranapiri, ransack
  • Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
  • Calum Rodger (ed), makar/unmakar
  • Linus Slug, Type Specimen
  • Verity Spott, Prayers Manifestos Bravery
  • Lawrence Schimel (ed), Correspondencias : una antología de poesiía contemporánea LGTB española
  • Tayi Tibble, Poukahangatus
  • David and Lizzie Turner (eds), Why Poetry? The Lunar Poetry Podcasts Anthology
  • Ryan Vance and Michael Lee Richardson (eds), We Were Always Here
  • Roseanne Watt, Moder Dy
  • New Writing Scotland 36, With Their Best Clothes On


  • Hamja Ahsan, Shy Radicals
  • b. binaohan, decolonizing trans/gender 101
  • adrienne marie brown, Emergent Strategy
  • Christine Burns (ed), Trans Britain
  • Colin G Calloway, White People, Indians and Highlanders
  • Eli Clare, Exile and Pride
  • Eli Clare, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure
  • Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse
  • Sylvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero
  • Leslie Feinberg, Trans Liberation
  • Laura Jane Grace with Dan Ozzi, Tranny
  • Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now
  • Sarah Lippett, Stan and Nan
  • Raphael Minder, The Struggle for Catalonia
  • Naomi Mitchison, You May As Well Ask
  • Oli Mould, Against Creativity
  • Don Paterson, The Poem
  • Ruth Pearce, Understanding Trans Health
  • Warren Pleece, Freedom Bound
  • Paul B. Preciado, Countersexual Manifesto
  • Natalia Raha, Queer Capital: Marxism in Queer Theory and Post-1950 Poetics
  • Christina Richards, Walter Pierre Bouman and Meg-John Barker (eds), Genderqueer and Non-Binary Genders
  • Juno Roche, Queer Sex
  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling
  • Roddy Slorach, A Very Capitalist Condition
  • Tuesday Smillie, Huw Lemmey, CAConrad: Seized by the Left Hand
  • SPK, Turn Illness Into A Weapon
  • Susan Stryker, Transgender History
  • Mary and Bryan Talbot, The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia
  • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind
  • Alex S. Vitale, The End of Policing
  • Melanie Yergeau, Authoring Autism
  • Yasemin Yildiz, Beyond the Mother Tongue

Zines, Pamphlets and Periodicals


  • Anaphora, Untitled Poems
  • Brae Editions, Milk to Mercury
  • Travis Alabanza, Before I Step Outside (You Love Me)
  • Jay Bernard, The Red and Yellow Nothing
  • Jamie Berrout (ed), Radical Trans Poetry vol. 1
  • blem, I sneez in my sleep
  • Denise Bonetti, Probs too late 4 a snog now
  • Malcolm Bradley, Clock Tower
  • Helen Charman, Daddy Poem
  • Ian Davidson, Gateshead and Back
  • Edalia Day, Super Hamlet 64
  • Mercedes Eng, Prison Industrial Complex Explodes
  • Eros, To Freedom
  • Michelle Evans, Just Another Dead Black Girl
  • Metal Femme, Seek and Give Yourself a Self and Other Poems
  • Gyözö Ferenez (trans. Tom Hubbard), Minoritie Status
  • Cyntha Hariadi, they don’t know I’m missing since I’m always home
  • Cait Johnson, Night Book 1 & 2
  • Cait Johnson, broadsides 1-3
  • Colin Johnstone, All things seem possible in May
  • Bibi June, Begin Again
  • Sean Wai Keung, How to Cook
  • Kierra, Symphony of Symphonies
  • Natasha Lall, Scores for Sissy Bois
  • Audrey Lindemann, I have compiled 14 gay love poems
  • Francesca Lisette, sub rosa: The Book of Metaphysics
  • Dru Marland, Drawn Chorus
  • Jade Mars, Deep Lez Dirt Feelz
  • Alex Marsh, Silo Bliss
  • Hugh McMillan, Sheep Penned
  • Hugh McMillan, Five Days/Twelve Months
  • Nicky Melville, Abbodies
  • Heather O’Donnell, Falter
  • Sandeep Parmar, Nisha Ramaya and Bhanu Kapil, Threads
  • Nalini Paul, The Raven’s Song
  • Nisha Ramayya, In Me the Juncture
  • essa may ranapiri (ed), this gender is a million things more than we are: poetry from takatāpui/genderqueer/trans writers from across Aotearoa
  • Kevin Reid, Burdlife
  • Rara Rizal, Proper Language & Other Poems
  • Edie Roberts, Expotition: Where in
  • Calum Rodger, Fiat Ontology
  • Gratiagusti Chanaya Rompas, Non-Specific
  • Calum Rodger, Ports
  • wren cuidadx romero-gilhooly, when phoenix flooded
  • Alison Rumfitt, The T(y)ranny
  • Chelsea Tadeyske, Totem
  • Margaret Tait, Jean waits for the drunk man thistle-gazer
  • TC Tolbert, i :not he :not i
  • Pascal Vine, The Grand Scheme of Things
  • Jay G Ying, Wedding Beasts
  • Bombinate 1-3
  • Modern Poetry in Translation: Spring 2018 to Autumn 2019 (5 issues)
  • Northwords Now: Spring 2019
  • Poetry London: Autumn 2018 to Autumn 2019 (4 issues)
  • Poetry Magazine: Jan to Oct (9 issues)
  • Poetry Wales 55
  • Stand 17(3): Ecopoetics
  • Sync 1-52, Sync^2 1-40
  • Tender Hammers (Writing for the UCU Strike)
  • Vetch 1-4
  • Zarf 12

Comics and Art

  • Lelia Aluwihare, Uncommon Places
  • Aappa Pappa, Butts
  • Annabelle Beans, Witch’s Hands
  • Bethlem Gallery, You are with me again
  • Debbie Press, Who will comfort and love me and ask for nothing in return
  • Romina Fretes, Untitled
  • Aoi Fukuyama, Needlepoint
  • Jo Hauge, MS Paint it Black
  • Porpentine Charity Heartscape, Blood Sugar
  • Jacob V Joyce, Fear Brown Queers
  • Junie Latte, Queereidolia
  • Maddelyn, Bossy Bottom
  • Gabri Molist, Assonance
  • Ned, Yella Haws and the Cougar
  • Nell, Go to Hell
  • Sofia Niazi, Animals in a Digital Age
  • Sofia Niazi, What Animals Think of People
  • Sarah of the North, Ah Cannae Believe This
  • Lotte Pencheon, Happy//Hungry
  • Lotte Pencheon, Self Care Bear
  • Lizzie Quirke, untitled
  • CJ Reay, Laid
  • Cicy Reay, Fucking
  • Cicy Reay, Cruising
  • Jo Ruessmann, The Bath Woman
  • Soft Hard Soft, Tip Dip
  • Sammi Stein, Crayon 2
  • Gueli Torres, Redes
  • Tempest, Verbal Abusedale
  • Trans Zines, Energising Trans Rage
  • Ren Wednesday & Ava Foxtrot, Emoji Love Dictionary
  • Leo Wight, I feel more underwater than ever
  • Yishu Wang, Island on Fire
  • Runxuan Yang, Three untitled zines


  • Catherine Kim, Collected Stories
  • Linden Katherine McMahon, Daring the City to Fall Into It
  • Mors, Three Stories
  • Nadia Nova, Can You Say My Name Again
  • Esdras Parra, Two Stories
  • Porpentine Charity Heartscape, The Maximum Softness Capable of Being Exerted by All Machinery
  • Porpentine Charity Heartscape, Everyone I Know Wants to be Castrated and Kill Their Family
  • Cy Sevalle, Woman Is the Machine That I Am
  • Gillian Ybabez, Homeward Bound and Other Stories


  • Anon, Damn You Mercury
  • Action for Trans Health, Transitional Demands
  • Lohana Berkins (trans. Jamie Berrout), Selected Writings
  • Claire Biddles (ed), Fuck What You Love
  • Siobhan Britton, Living the No Maintenance Lifestyle
  • Graham Bruce, Riots in Durness
  • Tom Bryan, Stac Polly
  • Tom Bryan, Suilven
  • Tom Bryan, Mountains in your Pocket
  • Carbine & Jackie, Two Essays on Crime
  • Holly Casio, Taking Up Space
  • Holly Casio, Cool Schmool
  • Holly Casio, Burn Out
  • Holly Casio, Things I didn’t learn at library school
  • Andrew Coltrin, A is for Aspergers
  • Sky Cubacub, Radical Visibility: A QueerCrip Dress Reform Movement Manifesto
  • Lindsay Draws, Traditional woodworking tips for non-traditional woodworkers
  • Dysphoria Collective, Dysphoria
  • Kirsty Fife (ed), Trailblazing Stories
  • Kirsty Fife, Hard Femme 1-3
  • Steven Fraser, How to make friends as an adult
  • Steven Fraser, Delay
  • Steven Fraser, Uncomfortable sex with total strangers
  • Steven Fraser, Addicted to loneliness
  • Steven Fraser, BPD
  • Steven Fraser, Be my friend please
  • Steven Fraser, Interview ABC
  • Yori Gagarim, Why I stopped making merch for a revolution that does not happen
  • Carol Green, Biketiquette
  • Hidden Ink Child, mEN DO bleed
  • Hidden Ink Child, Gay Trans Boy Things 1-3
  • Hidden Ink Child, Poverty
  • Hidden Ink Child, My First PIP Assessment
  • Hidden Ink Child, What could go wrong with Google speech-to-text
  • Say Holt, Hard/Soft
  • Say Holt, Guest Artist
  • David Hird, Cape Wrath
  • Kathleen Jamie, Findings
  • Saffa Khan, shadow play
  • Saffa Khan, How to get through really bad days
  • Natasha Lall, Secret Diary: A baby butch bio
  • Jade Mars, Scorpio Moon 8,
  • Valerie McLaren, Anorexic Becomings
  • Txgen Meyer, The Thirst for Acceleration
  • Jem Milton, Magical Grill
  • Nell, Little Victories
  • Nell, Dear GP
  • Sofia Niazi, Intifada Milk
  • Nell Osborne & Hilary White (eds), Academics Against Networking
  • Petroleum Genderloss 4
  • PMS, Building Towards an Autonomous Trans Healthcare
  • Astrid Seme, Baroness Elsa’s em dashes
  • Connie Scum, Feelers
  • Matthew Sea & Lindsay Draws, Together
  • Matthew Sea & Lindsay Draws, Alerta
  • Emil Thornton, Allotment Problems
  • Isobel Waidner and Joanna Hedva, The Prince of Homburg
  • Winter, Legalize Crime + Against Revolution
  • Various Authors, FUCKED
  • Radical Transfeminism, Trans Reproductive Justice
  • Asylum Magazine, Winter 2018 – Autumn 2019 (3 issues)
  • The Author: Autumn 2018 – Autumn 2019, (4 Issues)



Access Means It’s Not For You


This is a talk I gave at Strathclyde University Feminist Research Network on the politics of accessibility. In it, I argue that there’s a conflict between, on the one hand, liberal approaches to accessibility that aim to include the disenfranchised in an existing world, and, on the other hand, radical approaches to accessibility that aim to transform the world by centering minoritised groups. I analyse access policy, safer spaces policy, some of my own work in arts accessibility, and at the end take a quick look at trans approaches to disclosure and non-disclosure to argue for the potential of forms of exclusion. Scholars whose analysis I engage with include Robert McRuer, Elizabeth Povinelli and Sara Ahmed.

This is an early exploratory talk, beginning to think through some ideas, rather than the conclusion of research. Your thoughts, criticisms and engagements are very welcome.

Many thanks to Dr Maddie Breeze for the invitation and suggestion, and the SUFRN for excellent hosting and conversation.

The video includes the slides and audio, which are also available separately. The full transcript is below.

Slides and Audio

Audio Only

Slides only

Download here



[Talking about myself and giving an outline of the lecture]

Any other admin? No, I don’t think so. Good!

So this is me. My job, my role in the world, is as a writer and performer. I work mostly in poetry, but also intersecting with theatre, live performance, games, and a bunch of other stuff. And that journey, at the moment, has taken me into doing a creative writing PhD — because when else in the world am I going to get paid by the government to write a book for three years? Very exciting. I’ll think about a book for three years — who gets to do that? Wonderful. That PhD is in minority languages, specifically Scots, and looking at the role of speculative poetry — science fiction poetry, fantasy, imagination — in minority language globally.

So it has nothing to do with what we’re talking about today, and I say that to emphasise that, what I’m talking about today, I come to not really as an academic researcher. That’s not my field of research within the academy, but it is a big chunk of my field as practice, as an artist, and through my own political engagements. So my thinking, my positionality for today, is coming at it as a practitioner more than as a formal researcher. And that’s possibly me feeling a bit impostory saying that! But it’s also just to try and locate where I’m coming at you… coming at it for you… coming… coming at it with you? I don’t know. One of those prepositions. So you have a sense of that!

So the political affinities that I’ve brought to that, and my political background, which is as relevant to this as my artistic background, is a lifelong, or adult lifelong involvement in various autonomous political movements, direct action movements, starting out in environmental direct action. I was very involved in the last few years of Climate Camp and some more local stuff in Scotland. And then, more recently, the stuff that I tend to be involved with in Scotland is stuff around No Borders work, asylum seeker solidarity, the little bit of anti-fascism that we need in Scotland, just to try and keep them down and stop them getting any kind of size. (Antifascist protests are really nice in Scotland because it’s like the one time you feel like you get to win like all the time. It’s quite nice.) [Ed: I think you should stop making this joke given the global rise of fascism. Lets have a conversation about the relationship between the relative absence of street antifascism in Scotland and Scotland’s participation in ongong British imperialism and the failure of antifascist tactics to address this. Anyway. Onwards:] And then also stuff around trans health. So, that’s the sort of political milieu that I’m coming to this from, which will be relevant in a little bit.

And what to do: I’m going to cover four areas around ideas of access and inclusion, and also exclusion — both the positives and negatives of excluding — and I’m going to start by looking specifically at accessibility policies, policies around disability inclusion, disability access, and then flip over into the arts world. I want to look at a couple of pieces of work I’ve done around disability and the arts, to look at that from a different end. So I’m going to be looking at education access, starting with access in education, and then looking at disability in the arts, and then, moving back to this policy work, thinking about the wonderfully contested issue of Safer Spaces policies within, primarily, academic spaces, but also where those have come from politically, and then, moving back, I want to look at some artistic engagements around deliberate exclusion.

And I suppose the provocation that I want to make with this talk, or the angle that I want to take, is to look at some of the ways that inclusion operates against marginality, against anti-oppression work, and some forms of exclusion by the margins rather than exclusion of the margins. Choosing, from the margins, not to let people in can be exciting, interesting, full of potential, and that’s the double meaning of the title for me: access means it’s not for you. So looking at how access policy can be deployed to keep people out, and also how a more radical approach to access can also be, in a more positive way, about keeping people out, and what that might be. So that’s what we’re going to cover.

Access Liberalism

Critically assessing access policies at the University of Strathclyde and the Open University, and using Robert McRuer’s “compulsory able-bodiedness” and Elizabeth Povinelli’s “late liberalism” to analyse them.

Access at Strathclyde

Good! So I want to start with that first section, Access Liberalism, and looking at how accessibility operates as a liberal ideology, and what the contradictions of that are. So I thought the best place to start, when I was preparing this talk, was with Strathclyde’s disability accessibility policy, which you can find at this link, the overarching principles of which begin.

“The University of Strathclyde is committed to the promotion of equal opportunities for disabled people and aims” — aims — “to create an inclusive environment that enables full participation in the University experience and offers disabled staff, students and visitors where reasonably practicable an experience comparable to non-disabled people.” So those are the overarching principles currently governing access at the University of Strathclyde.

There’s a few things I want to draw out from this. (To be a little fair to this policy, this is just the principles bit, and as with all access policies, as with all policies anywhere, the real meat of it is less in the broad philosophical statement and much more in what’s down there in the nitty-gritty. And if you’re interested in that work, I think a deep analysis of the nitty gritty is much more important, and what I’m about to chat about is very broad surface level.)

The first thing that interests me about the wording here is “full participation in the University experience”. Mostly because I’m not sure what that experience is? The policy invokes this thing, The University Experience. It’s a pre-existing thing that we’re trying to get disabled people into. The implication is that is that disabled people are currently excluded from The University Experience, and this policy operates to bring them into this pre-existing thing. I’m not entirely sure what that University Experience is supposed to be, and I think it’s worth unpacking the assumptions that are going on there. The University Experience that we’re trying to get people to participate in is by implication something that disabled people aren’t in already. It is an abled University Experience by the definitions of this policy. So what kind of learnings are going on in there? And why would disabled people want access to that thing that been defined around them?

A little bit more specifically — you’ll probably have already noticed this — the killer adverbs and adjectives in this policy statement are “reasonable” and “comparable”. So the University of Strathclyde “is committed to the promotion of equal opportunities for disabled people” and “aims to create an inclusive environment”, except it doesn’t. It only does that “where reasonably practicable”. So this statement of access starts by pretending that it says that it wants to enable access for everyone, and then only towards the end of the statement says, actually, we’re not interested in access for everyone. We’re only interested in access where it’s reasonably practicable. So we have this killer bit of what I’m going to talk about as “non-performativity” later, which is a term from Sara Ahmed. (I’m just going to park “non-performative” for now because I’m going to talk about it in more detail later.)

The “reasonable” word there, for people who are access geeks, is directly from UK legislation, and it’s often used in international legislation. All workplaces and public institutions are required to enable access for disabled people and to make “reasonable adjustments”. The term, the legal term, is “reasonable adjustments”, and I’m interested in what work that word “reasonable” is doing there.

You find out what work “reasonable” is doing when you ask for one of those adjustments to be made. You go to your manager, your line manager, your HR department, and say, “In order to work at this place, I need this ramp. I need to be able to wear headphones in the office. I need to sit by a window. I need time off for counselling, for an appointment that I can only get at this specific time in a week.” And then your HR manager says, “No, I don’t think that’s reasonable”. And then you have to have a contest with your HR manager where you say, “This is reasonable”, and they say, “It’s not reasonable”, and you have to try and win that contest. And that contest is won not only through a process of reasoning — of doing the process of reasoning and arguing and saying, the reason I need it is this, this is reasonable because this, it’s not reasonable to do this.

It’s also a legal process: what institutional resources can you get behind you? What economic resources, what legal resources can you get behind you, to do the process of reasoning to say that this adjustment is reasonable. The term “reasonable adjustments” exposes that reasoning is, and always is, an economic and legal process as much as it’s a rational process. The rationality is pushed through, through legal, personal, social, endless, endless work to make this reasonable thing happen. So that’s what “reasonably practicable” means there. It pretends to be this neutral statement, but what it actually is, is to create an area of contestation, not only to enable disabled people to get what they need, but to enable the institution to refuse. The shadow is always there: the shadow of saying, “We’re only going to do this where it’s reasonable” is so that you can say “this is unreasonable”.

And then the same work — and I won’t do this in as much detail — the same work is then done by “comparable” in the next clause. The statement starts by saying we’re committed to the promotion of equal opportunities. We’re not going to create an inclusive environment. We’re just going to “aim” to create an inclusive environment. So that’s the third — what’s the opposite of an intensifier? — the third thing to make this less functional. You’re not going to do it: you’re just going to aim to do it. You’re only going to do it when it’s reasonable, and you’re not actually going to do the thing: you’re going to try and do a thing that’s comparable to the thing.

So this statement of principles is not actually an accessibility statement. It’s an non-accessibility statement. It’s a statement to give space for a University to not do the work of accessibility happening. I called them here “pliable non-specifics”, which I think is unnecessarily obfuscatory as a term. What I mean by that is that they’re pliable — there is no definition of reasonable, there is no definition of comparable — they are things that you can move with your hands, with the law, with a pile of money, to change what they mean, and they’re non-specific so that you can do that.

What’s going on in this whole statement overall is a specific contradiction that characterises, I think, all liberal ideology, which is a contradiction between the promise of full participation and the always-present admission that that’s impossible. The statement says that it wants to include everyone, and then in the same breath, literally in the same sentence, it says, but we know that’s not possible. So we’re only going to do it when it’s reasonable, and we’re not going to enable full participation: we’re going to give a comparable experience. And this is a contradiction I’m going to unpack a bit more in a bit. And non-performative I’ll leave for now because we’re going to come back to it.

(I could have picked any University and it would have been a bit like this. So I’m not I’m not bashing where I am, and I’m quite grateful to be here, but I think it’s nice to start with the ground where you are.)

Access at the Open University

This is the Open University’s equivalent statement, and I’ve linked to both of these policies in the slides so that you can compare the nitty-gritty, which is less dissimilar, I think, than the principles make clear. Before this, the Open University in their policy has an interesting preamble about how they have the highest proportion of disabled students of any University, which is something that’s shaping this policy. The Open University defines itself as a university for disabled people, which is interesting.

So, “The Open University’s mission of being open to people, places, methods and ideas” — that’s its overarching Mission — “reflects our commitment to supporting all of our students to achieve success in Higher Education regardless of background, circumstances or disabilities. Our aim is to reach students with life-changing learning that meets their needs and enriches societies. We embrace Equal Opportunities for all” — we’re not just going to do an Equal Opportunities policy because we have to legally, we embrace it — “within a diverse and inclusive environment.” — we’re not just aiming for diversity: we’re saying we are already diverse — “which recognises and responds to the needs of all of our students. This policy sets out our commitment to supporting all of our students in ways that effectively meet their needs, and aligns with the Student Charter and with the OU’s overall strategies such as the Students First Strategy, the Equality Scheme, the Learning and Teaching Vision and Plan, the Widening Access and Success Strategy, and the Academic Strategy.” Ooof! That’s a lot of strategies.

So, some of the problems the things that I unpacked in the default language are better dealt with here. We can see that this is much more far-reaching and positive language. Honestly, I felt that the previous vision statement had this sort of begrudging element to it, where it was like, we have to do this stuff legally, so we’re just going to put this statement out there. Whereas this one is having a push at saying, this is a big part of our vision for the University.

But I think there’s still some contradictions in there that are interesting to look at, the first of which relates to this question of The University Experience. We’ve got, I think, four “all”s. Every time they mention students they say “all” of our students, and they also want equal opportunities for “all” within a diverse and inclusive environment. And what I’m interested in is how they can promise that. How can they meet the needs for “all” of their students? And what happens when “all” meets the limits of what they’re able to do? What happens when the University meets the limits of society?

The Open University, because of the economic structure that it has, because of the way it operates, is trying to set itself up to be a university for people who can’t study full-time, who have disabilities that disrupt education in all sorts of different ways, for people on lower incomes. It is structuring itself around that, but it can’t by itself address the fact of living in a society that that systemically denies people the resources that they need to live.

So when they say, “We want to support all of our students to achieve success in Higher Education”, what happens when circumstances outside of the University’s control, or within the University’s control but beyond their capacity, deny students that success? What happens when they don’t succeed? What happens when they fail and whose fault is it? Usually it’s considered, socially, the fault of the student. And what happens if they have an injury that takes them out of the university and the university can’t do that? What happens if they have their benefits cut and they can’t continue with the education? Whose failure is that, and what responsibility does the university have in that circumstance? What happens when the university is rubbing against society, making all of these promises of inclusion for all, and then it literally cannot keep those promises economically and socially?

The University’s answer to this is to have five or six different strategies to try and deal with all of the contradictions that their promise throws up. I think there are six strategies there that it’s naming, and this is a sort of juridical and managerial approach to liberalism. If we have enough strategies, if we have enough policies, if we lay down enough rules, if we lay down enough visions and aims and strategies and approaches, if we name reality in enough ways than reality will become this thing that we want it to become. And that’s what I am terming “Access Liberalism”. It’s this managerial approach to access where you can you can deal with the problems that thinking about accessibility inevitably throws up, which is that the resources that you need are not there within your institution, within society, through enough policies to do it.

Robert McRuer’s “compulsory able-bodiedness”

So that was a little bit of an analysis just of two statements, and I want to look at the broader political context for that. And this starts with a quote from Robert McRuer, who wrote a fantastic book called Crip Theory, which has become quite foundational, and it’s an attempt to apply some of the learning and strategies of Queer Theory to a Disability Studies context. McRuer takes the concept of compulsory heterosexuality and then asks, what is compulsory able-bodiedness? And one of the ways that he defines it as this the system of compulsory able-bodiedness “repeatedly demands that people with disabilities embody for others an affirmative answer to the unspoken question, ‘Yes, but in the end wouldn’t you rather be like me?'”

So, we could consider this quote in the in the context of the Paralympics, where the hyperachieving, incredibly successful, overcoming, boundary-smashing disabled athlete achieves, through all of their impressive work and overcoming of life’s struggles, what an abled athlete could do. We’re impressed because they are embodying what an abled athlete could do. In the end wouldn’t you rather be like me? You can do what I can do. That’s so impressive. Well done.

(That’s very cynical way of putting it. I actually love the Paralympics, and I’m endlessly delighted, and I also think there’s all sorts of agencies and possibilities within that frame. When you actually listen to Paralympic athletes, they all have a hyper awareness of this stuff going on — not all, I shouldn’t say that — they often have a hyperawareness of this stuff going on, and are looking for their own agency within that.)

But from the able-bodied perspective that is often the ideology that’s going on there: asking people to embody the affirmative answer to the unspoken question. And accessibility, for me, is an example of compulsory able-bodiedness: it maintains an abled view of the world, because in this word “access” what we’re asking for is for disabled people to access what already exists. It’s allowing groups of people to access what already exists within reasonable — within reason: if it’s reasonable, if they can reason their way through it — and managed by the appropriate institution with all those strategies and policies and aims, rather than processes of transformation.

Accessibility isn’t a process of transforming an institution, a process of transforming a society, but getting a group that’s hitherto been excluded access to what already exists, and thereby prevents the the institution from transforming. If you can continue bringing more people in, if more people can access your institution, your society, your business, your ideology, then your institution — your ideology — doesn’t have to change, because all of the problems are dealt with by bringing more people into that pre-existing thing.

What I want to ask, of both education and the arts, is, what happens if you flip that narrative around and say, what if the job of education, what if the job of accessibility, is not to give people access that don’t have access access to what already exists, but to change what already exists by centering it around said marginalized group? And the question there, the provocation there, is, what would an education centered on disability look like? What if instead of insisting that we have ramps and lifts in every building — which we should insist and absolutely need — we ask how can buildings be designed from the start around people who need wheels? What if the social structures on which university is based — the lecture, the seminar, the informal discussion, the staff meeting — is based not on a neurotypical form of sociality but on an autistic form of sociality? What happens if course requirements are based not on a set of increasingly exhausting metrics, but on what somebody who has some form of chronic fatigue, or even just any form of fatigue that comes with having a disability, what if it’s based around that? What if the schedules are based around that rather than based on what a compulsory able-bodied perspective demands? So those are the questions.

John Gray’s analysis of liberalism

I’ve talked a lot about liberalism, so I wanted to define it a little bit. I like I like listening to my enemies’ definitions first, because I think that’s quite interesting. I love going to John Gray on liberalism, even though he disgusts me. This is John Gray’s repeated and lifelong definition of liberalism: “For the ideal of toleration we have inherited embodies two incompatible philosophies. Viewed from one side, liberal toleration is the ideal of a rational consensus on the best way of life; from the other, it is the belief that human beings can flourish in many ways of life.”

And this central contradiction John Gray comes back to over and over and over again in his work: the idea that liberalism wants there to be a rational consensus: “we bring everyone together, we have an enormous democratic process, and we live together in the society where we’ve rationally decide how we want to live,” and at the same time it says, “and everyone can come into that thing.”

Those two things are always rubbing against each other, for John Gray, and I think he’s right that they rub against each other. I also think that most people from different political perspectives are willing to accept some version of that contradiction. From the right, they’ll often say, yes, liberalism is contradictory in this way, and so we need to recenter this particular form of morality, this particular hierarchy. We should stop trying to bring everybody into this thing because that’s contradictory. Let’s re-establish a certain moral framework in the world. Liberals themselves will often say, our whole political process, our managerial political process, is about managing this contradiction, doing the best we can in any particular situation. And then chippy people like me will be like, yes, this is the central contradiction of liberalism that demands an entire upending of the State in order for justice to occur. So I like working with that.

What happens when liberalism meets this contradiction? I think the first thing it tends to do is deny that the contradiction is there: that type of person does not exist. This is the first move that any liberal institution would make, to deny that that thing is there. “Trans people don’t exist. Let’s not worry about them. They don’t actually exist.” And then you accept that they exist, but you say: “We can’t really have them in our institution. They’re not really allowed to be here.” So if you can’t deny, then you exclude. If you can’t exclude, then you can say, “We accept that they… we don’t really like them. We accept that they exist. We accept that they’re there. We tolerate them. We have tolerance for them. If they must be in our spaces then we’ll tolerate that they’re there.” And if you stop being able to do that because of a move of social and political forces, then you might begin to adapt to allow them in. You might install some gender neutral bathrooms. “We’re going to adapt this institution.” You’re going to change the entire institution, but you’re going to adapt to the institution so that you can cope with this new demographic that you’ve previously denied, excluded, accepted.

If that isn’t enough, then you can move towards strategies of assimilation, where you integrate enough of the hitherto marginalized demographic to maintain the existing hegemony. You allow them to be a junior partner in the hegemonic process, which I would argue is what has happened to a rump of LGBT politics over the last 50 years. That, from a set of radical demands, it has moved towards a generally assimilationist approach, so that LGBT people can become junior partners in business. Every so often one of them might be an executive, you know. They’re there and we accept them and we’ve adapted to them enough and they can be part of our ideology that has hitherto excluded them. That for me is how liberalism operates.

Elizabeth Povinelli’s “late liberalism”

This is Elizabeth Povinelli saying a version of the same thing in Economies of Abandonment, using the term “late liberalism”. “Late liberalism makes a space for culture to care for difference without disturbing key ways of configuring experience: ordinary habitual truths.”

So that’s this claim about a civilization, that’s this claim about how late liberalism works. And what I’m trying to say is that accessibility, as a policy, tolerates — “cares for” in Povinelli’s terms — accessibility, cares for enough disability, to maintain the habitual truth of abledness — or what Robert McRuer calls “compulsory able-bodiedness”. So we can maintain a view of the world, or an approach to designing society, that assumes everyone is able-bodied, despite the fact that, if the majority of people aren’t already disabled, then they will be eventually. Despite that basic element of existence we maintain the habitual truth of abledness by implementing accessibility.

And so I come with this conclusion: accessibility policies are non-performative –I’ll come back to that later — non-performative utopias of inclusion. Utopia, as Thomas More writes — it originally is a deliberate pun, the etymology means both “no place” and “happy place”, it means both of those things at once. So, a happy no-place where everyone gets the experience that everyone should have. This cannot happen, but the utopia of inclusion says that it does. Everyone gets the experience that everyone should have. And imagining that utopia, having a policy for that utopia, hides everyone who’s not there and the experience that could be. Instead of changing what the experience is, instead of changing what the world is, we try and give access to the world as it already exists.

So that’s my provocation around access. Oof! Okay. I thought I would start with the most theoretical bit, because that’s apparently how one is supposed to structure these things. So I’ll talk about something a little more meaty, concrete, for a bit.

Disabled Presenting in Artspace

[Critically analysing accessibility work in Anatomy and the Chill Out Corner]

I want to just look at two projects that I’ve been involved with as an artist who produces other artists. And I’m using this term “presenting”, or “presenting” — what happens when the presentation is done from a disabled perspective, when you are making present disabled people. So I am just going to turn down the lights for a minute so you can see this lovely picture.

BSL at Anatomy Arts

I co-direct an arts platform in Edinburgh called Anatomy. We’ve been going for about six years. This is us hosting one of our events. That’s me on the right. That’s my co-director. Ali Maloney on the left. And that’s our regular BSL — British Sign Language — interpreter Yvonne Waddell in the middle, which is where she always is when the three of us are on stage, which is a deliberate strategy.

Now, if any of you have ever gone to a piece of theatre that has BSL interpretation, you’ll usually find that the BSL interpreter is at the back on the right or the left, or at the front on the right or the left: somewhere where they are very obviously not part of the main piece of action. And one of the things that we try to do with Anatomy, which happens every three months, and which every single event that we do has full BSL interpretation of the whole thing, is to counter that by always bringing Yvonne into the centre of the action. So that this particular form of accessibility, which is where the entire piece is always translated into another language, or interpreted into another language, British Sign Language — where that is centered in how the whole thing is presented aesthetically. So that it’s not just access, it’s not just disability access, but disabled presenting, or disabled presenting.

But! Some of you might have noticed the deep irony of this otherwise beautiful photo. We’re doing this whole thing in front of a bunch of music stands. Did anyone notice this? No, it just passed you by. Now, music is a bit of a problem for disability access, for D/deaf access. Because you can’t hear it? Actually, that’s not quite true. You can do all sorts of interesting things with music, and D/deaf and hard-of-hearing access can do things like putting speakers on the floor so that rhythms can be felt, and especially bass beats can be felt. There’s other interesting things you can do around the visualisation of music. But in this particular case, we didn’t do any of that. We, in that particular show, had this one piece where we could not make this D/deaf accessible.


(If anyone doesn’t know this, just as a brief note, this D-slash-deaf: There’s this contest around D/deaf identity, and Deaf with a capital D tends to refer to Deaf identity and Deaf culture, and deaf with a lowercase d tends to refer to deaf, or deaf and hard-of-hearing people, who don’t necessarily identify with that culture. I can talk to you at length length about that if you like. That piece of language is a complicated bit of compromise around the political contest.)

This is our inclusion statement, which can be equally critiqued and equally problematized, that’s framing all of this work. And I wanted to mention this is as something that I’m proud of. This isn’t the only access thing that we do. It’s a thing I’m proud of, but that I also see the limitations of. You’re trying to make a whole set of — and Anatomy is a multi-artforum cabaret, there’s all sorts of different forms of art going on in there. Sound art and music is often a part of that, and we haven’t worked out how to do that. And how to do that within this particular access context creates a contradiction for us, and I think that contradiction is important.


So I would ask of us, and of everybody else, what are some of the possible approaches to that? Do we program no art that isn’t fully D/deaf accessible? Do we just not have things that are only music? Because we tend to focus on cross-genre work, we almost never have a piece that is purely sound-based. It’s usually sound and visual, or sound and movement, though there’s still a problem there. Do we just accept no work that doesn’t have a D/deaf accessible component? Do we adapt all art to be D/deaf accessible? Do we only work with musicians if they can do this thing?

Or, do we accept that not every audience member is going to be able to access every aspect of this artform? — so let’s create some art that specifically centered around this disability. And we have done this in the past, where we might have a night that includes a piece of music that not everyone can necessarily enjoy, and then we might have a poem in British Sign Language that we do not interpret into English, deliberately, so that there’s something else where the hearing audience can only appreciate the visual aspect of it, and has really doesn’t know what the language is. So that’s another thing that we can do.

Then what happens if you try and incorporate another level of accessibility — and we haven’t done this yet — when you are trying to be accessible — and again remember this critique of accessibility being inclusion in what already exists rather than transforming what exists. What if we want to be better accessible to a blind audience, or a partially sighted audience? How do we include both BSL interpretation and audio description, which is a form of blind accessibility, into everything that we do? And how do we do that when we are already operating on a shoestring and can barely muster the economic and social resources to make this thing happen?

What I’m trying to suggest is that proper, not access but, integration of this kind of disability access requires not just adding in a thing, not just adding in a BSL interpreter, but complete aesthetic overhaul of what you’re doing. You have to rethink what art is and how art works if you want to do this properly. And that also requires quite a lot of money, which we tend not to have.

The broad question there is — and this is a metaphor as well as a reality — where are the stairs in every theatre? What are the things that some people cannot get past? What kinds of curb-cutting — curb cuts are those ramps in the pavement that were mostly created for people in wheelchairs, but tend to be really useful for everybody else, from skateboarders to people pushing buggies, to people who are having to haul massive loads down the pavement — What curb-cutting does theate need?

Chill Out Corner and alternate social space

Just to quickly look at another thing that I’ve done. I’ll turn these lights down again. So my particular — I’ll talk about revelation later, if I’ve got time — my particular disability, or the thing that brings me into this space, is Aspergers. And I am really interested in autistic sociality, and how that rubs up against dominant forms of sociality in the arts. So this is a project that I’ve done iteratively with different arts organizations. (I don’t like the name. I need a new name for it.) It is creating, within big noisy fancy art parties, a corner of the space, or sometimes an entire room, or sometimes half the space, that is calm and quiet and has all sorts of things in it that are quite nice for various different types of autistic people. Some of the things that you can see in this picture are: a book shelf, and some board games, and some nice fabrics (which I could explain another time), and low-level lighting.


There’s also some social technologies in this space. Ear protection is a really nice thing to apply to arts parties, because there’s so often really loud music that just drives some people away (some people love it!) And this is the social technology that’s often used at autism conferences: color communication badges. Green means, “Chat to me any time. I’m happy to talk. You can initiate conversation. I can initiate conversation. That’s great.” Yellow is, “I’m sometimes happy to talk, but I’d rather I initiate conversation with you rather than the other way around, just so I can manage it a little bit better.” And red means, “Just don’t talk to me. I’m nonverbal at the moment. I don’t want to speak.”

The reasoning around that is, different autistic people at different levels struggle with different types of social communication. Some autistic people are completely nonverbal, some panic at unexpected social interaction, some need to manage social interaction in specific ways. And this requires — for this to work it requires everybody who’s in that space, autistic or non-autistic, to wear one of these badges. For everyone to say, “This is how I want to communicate in the world.”

This is a piece of social design, a social technology to change what social space is. And it has all sorts of interesting effects. Because it’s not just autistic people that are awkward and uncertain at parties. If everyone around you is wearing a green badge, whether you’re autistic or not, it’s suddenly a little bit easier to be like, “Oh, are you enjoying this party? I didn’t really know how to talk to a person but I see you’re wearing a green badge, so I suppose I’ll give it a shot.” If you’re worried that somebody doesn’t want to talk to you, the fact that they’re just wearing a yellow badge or a red badge is such a massive reduction in anxiety. “Oh, it’s not me. They just don’t want to talk to anyone. I’m fine.”


So this is the thing that I said when I was designing this first — I’ve got a page on my website about it — “being professionally social or socially professional is a form of advantage in the art world, but equally many artists are reclusive, shy, awkward, anxious, uncertain, or neurodiverse.” (That’s the term of art that arises from autistic space but has come to other forms of mental difference.) “How can the art world provide social space to many different kinds of people together?”

What I’m doing is using autism-centered design to create an alternate social space alongside and abrading against neurotypical sociality. This is mostly quite a nice cuddly project. But when an arts institution comes to me, and asks me to facilitate one of these spaces at their arts event, I say, “I will totally do that. It can’t just be in a separate room. Everybody else has to know that it’s there and see that it’s there.” It’s a requirement for me that everybody can see that there is a different sort of socialising going on, and that’s a creation of another world alongside the world that already exists, and trying to let those abrasions happen.

Centering design on one minority population shifts the possibilities for all populations, and exposes the compulsory able-bodiedness — that’s Robert McRuer’s term again — of the received space. So what I’m trying to say there is that, by doing this autism-centered thing, you get all of these unexpected benefits for other people. Just as, when you create curb-cuts in as many pavements as possible, it’s suddenly a lot easier for people who are pushing buggies to negotiate the city space. All spaces are already exclusive. There is no hundred percent inclusive space. There is no pure accessible social design. So what we can do instead is make conscious design choices about what and who is excluded.

Some people are not going to find the Chill Out Corner remotely relaxing. “Like, they’re sitting in comfortable armchairs and talking quietly and playing board games? I cannot handle that socialisation.” There are people who could not handle that socialisation, and for me that’s totally fine, because they’ve got a different form of socialisation to go to over there. When you exclude particular people, behaviours and norms — the norm that anyone can just chat to anyone at any time? No we’re going to govern this with this complicated communication badge thing — different people, behaviors and norms can emerge.

Unsafer Spaces

Critically assessing safer spaces at Queer Mafia and UWE, and using Sara Ahmed’s “non-perfomativity” to analyse their politics

I want to go back to doing some of this “let’s look at some policy” work, and talk about this often-talked-about, usually misunderstood, very contested issue of safer spaces. I’ve dropped her name a few times, and it’s worth saying that my approach to looking at policy is really informed by Sara Ahmed’s work on non-performativity. She has at least two essays on non-performativity, one of which I link to in the notes here, that are well worth the read, where she looks at Equal Opportunities policies, specifically around racial diversity, and how they work in the nitty-gritty to exclude people of color from the institution being examined. And that’s really shaped my approach to access policy, and in this case safer spaces policy.

A Partial History of Safer Spaces

This is my biased, partial — partial in both senses — understanding. My understanding of safer spaces comes from seeing them emerge from the sort of political space that I was used to, like direct action camps and anarchist conferences, and growing up with those 15 years ago, and then in the last five years finding them suddenly be part of, like, articles in The Telegraph. I’m like, when did the Telegraph know about safer spaces? Like, this is a thing that we just did at Climate Camp 15 years ago, this is weird. [Ed: it was 10 years ago. Stop pretending you’re an old.] They’ve become part of a mainstream conversation, and it’s been astonishing and confusing to me how that’s happened, and I’m really interested in that.

My understanding of safer spaces has its origins in transformative justice movements, which has been led by organisations like INCITE!, looking particularly at issues like domestic violence, and all forms of social violence, especially within minority or marginalised community. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence are the most pioneering organisation that I know of in that field, and The Color of Violence: the Incite Anthology is a good text for looking at — the history goes quite a long way back — that’s a good text for looking at the history of it.

Transformative justice is an idea that emerges especially from heavily-policed minority groups, saying, clearly a carceral system, a prison system, a police system is not working for our community. Clearly this is a way of maintaining racial discrimination, impoverishment. Clearly it is not stopping violence in our communities. We need something else. How do we transform justice? What kinds of justice can come from and be led by our communities? It tends — Transformative Justice tends to avoid punitive measures, certainly tends to avoid incarceration and the involvement of the state monopoly of violence, a.k.a. the police, and look for community-facilitated processes of personal and social transformation.

And from that place, through forms of social interaction, it disseminates through various anti-authoritarian activist movements. And an interesting comparator here is consensus decision-making as an ideology, which some of you who have engaged with student activism might have come across. Consensus decision-making can be tracked really closely back to particular moments in peace and anti-nuclear movements, especially with meetings between Quakers and other forms of peace and anti-nuclear movements. You can see conversations about consensus decision-making at Three Mile Island, and you see it come from there and then spread all the way through anti-authoritarian movements, and then from there it comes to the students, and from there you occasionally start to see it at business meetings, and I’m like, what? Like, why are people doing hand signals at this meeting about business strategy?

Anyway, back to safer spaces. So you start finding it in various forms of anti-authoritarian activist movements. The Revolution Starts At Home is again looking at issues of partner violence, intimate partner violence, within those communities. And from there they come into student movements, and, as with lots of things that happen within a student milieu, with new, trendy, youth-aligned arts events.

And in these places I find they tend to move from a processual process — transformative justice is a process of transforming a group, transforming a society, transforming a person — to something that’s more juridical, more based in policy, more based in various forms of law, whether that’s actual national law or internal laws of social groups. And I’ll look at that in a moment. And from there, once it starts being a studenty thing, it becomes this immensely triggering word for all sorts of reactionaries. It’s like, you can say “safe spaces” and suddenly they have a meltdown, and start freaking out about free speech. It’s hilarious. It’s really nice triggering reactionaries by saying just these two words, like “safe space”? Wooah! So, they notice what’s going on and it becomes this trigger that people start talking about in all sorts of confusing and different ways. That’s my partial history of it.

Safer Spaces at Queer Mafia

As with the accessibility policies, I want to look at the vision statements of safer spaces. So this is the start of a Safer Spaces Policy from a Dance and DJ event called Queer Mafia. It goes like this. I can’t read the whole thing, but: “Queer Mafia works towards recognizing dynamics of power and privilege that exist within society and which have historically oppressed our communities. We believe that these same dynamics and tensions exist within our own communities, and we are working continuously towards addressing these tensions and creating supportive spaces. Our spaces are not spaces for violence, racism, sexism, ageism, transphobia, sexism, sizism and fatphobia, sexual harassment and gender policing, or doing anything to another person without their consent. […] QM reserves the right to assess and manage circumstances and situations in the best interest of our Collective Vision towards creating ‘liberation’ (in scare quotes) and ‘safer (in scare quotes) spaces’. We don’t believe in Zero Tolerance, but we do believe in accountability and spaces of support.” And it goes on! And I just I want to show you this, and I’m being a bit ironical about it, but I actually think this is incredible. I think this is a beautiful document.

So that’s just the start of this Safer Spaces Policy, and it includes a whole bunch of stuff about how safer spaces policies can’t exist, this whole thing is a contradiction… and then we have a section on anti-racism and anti-oppression, bullying and violence, consent, respect, like, it goes on and on and on and on. It is this incredibly involved set of social guidelines, suggestions around processes, what kind of things they might do if something goes wrong. It’s an entire visionary design of what a social space could be, that they’re trying to describe and name, and through describing and naming it discover that is completely impossible to do that. So that is for me a kind of Safer Spaces Policy that really understands the origins of safe spaces within Transformative Justice movements. It’s going to shift from there.

Some of the aspects of it: it names the kind of problem, so it has a politics, it has a specific politics that is trying to enact through policy, through social design, through establishing social conventions. Names the problem, names the politics, and is process-oriented, is always talking about transformations, always talking about how it’s going to try and implement this stuff. It explicitly excludes behaviors and talks about who is centered. It is centering queer people, is centering people of color. And it is saying, these are not spaces for this stuff, for violence, racism, sexism: It’s excluding behaviors. It’s not including everyone: it’s excluding behaviours.


So, to look at what then happens to safer spaces… Here we go. This is from UWE Students’ Union. “This Students’ Union believes: The Students’ Union is committed to providing an inclusive” — there’s that word again — “and supportive space for all students” — not centering particular groups, it’s for all: remember that word “all” from access. “This policy is applicable to our whole student community, whether an individual or a member within a group. […] We all aspire to provide an environment where students can express their views free from discrimination, harassment and bullying. Freedom of speech should be respected as well as recognising its boundaries. We must respect our diverse population and take a zero tolerance approach to discrimination in any term.”

Now, remember that the ostensibly much more radical political statement, that had a really express politics to it, a really express radical politics to it, said “We don’t believe in zero tolerance”. But this, this piece of ridiculously bland liberalism that says nothing, like it literally says nothing, says that it’s going to be “zero tolerance”. So I think that’s really worth thinking about. If you’re processual if, you’re radical about it, if you’re transformative about it, you know that zero tolerance doesn’t work; if you’re trying not to do anything, if you’re trying to be non-performative, then you say you’re going to have a zero tolerance approach.

The reason that I say it says nothing is the contradiction between 3 and 4: it wants everyone to express their views free from discrimination, harassment and bullying, but freedom of speech should be respected, and it has boundaries. These words mean nothing outside of the particular processes of political contestation that are defining what freedom of speech is, what the boundaries of freedom of speech are, what discrimination is, what bullying is, what harassment… It doesn’t define any of the terms, so it means nothing, and just as those terms “reasonableness” and “comparable” in that first accessibility policy are pliable non-specifics — terms of contestation, terms that require political contest, social processes in order to mean anything — we have these pliable boundaries that can be moved around.

If the Students’ Union is dominated by lefties then they’re going to use these pliable terms in order to try and stop inviting, like, I don’t know, Milo Yiannopoulos, to speak at the university. If The Students’ Union is dominated by conservatives then they’re going to use these terms to, probably, and this does happen — and this happened at Bristol — to try and shut down a group of trans students starting a petition. Like, Safer Spaces was invoked in Bristol recently (I’ll look up the details if anyone’s interested) in order to punish a trans student for starting a petition. It’s juridical in orientation. It’s trying to it’s not trying to initiate processes: it’s trying to, by naming a bunch of principles, make those principles happen in reality.

Sara Ahmed’s “non-performativity”

Here’s, finally, this definition of non-performative that I keep referring to, and it is what’s going on in that policy. And this is from Sara Ahmed’s ‘Non-performativity of Anti-racism‘:

“Such speech acts do not do what they say. They do not commit a person, organization or state to an action. My argument is simple they are non-performatives.” This term “performative” goes back to the Linguistics researcher Austin, and has a particular role, as you may know, in Queer Theory, and then becomes used by Butler, most notably, in understanding how gender works as a performative act, as a performative speech act. “For Austin, a performative refers to a particular class of speech: an utteranc is performative when it does what it says.” (An example being “I declare thee man and wife”; “I promise I will do this”; “I sentence you to death”: performative statements.)

“I want to suggest that non-performative speech acts work by not bringing about the effects that they name. In my model of the non-performative, the failure of the speech act to do what it says is not a failure of intent or even circumstance, but is actually what the speech act is doing.” (The access policy, the inclusion policy, the safer spaces policy, deliberately works to make a thing not happen.) “Such speech acts work as if they bring about what they name, or, to be more precise, such speech acts are taken up as if they are performative, which has its own effect.” (So we have a diversity policy: therefore we are now diverse, and by having a diversity policy and becoming diverse we don’t have to do anything about diversity. Ditto safer spaces policies, I think. Usually.)


Whether or not any given Safer Spaces Policy is non-performative — and I should say that I really believe in safer spaces processes, and I spent five years of my life facilitating transformative justice and safer spaces processes for a social centre in Edinburgh, with a social centre in Edinburgh, as part of a team. I’ve committed a huge amount of personal resources to this, and I still believe in them. But! Whether or not any given safer spaces policy is non-performative depends on conditions not legible in the text: people, processes, expectations. The policy makes nothing happen, and sometimes by having a policy you deliberately stop things from happening.

Safer spaces only occur if there is a team of people willing to actually do something when there’s sexual harassment, willing to actually initiate a process of personal transformation when someone is racist in your activist group. If those people aren’t there, if that experience isn’t there, if the process aren’t there, then just saying “we are anti-racist” means nothing. If you don’t know what to do when somebody does sexual harassment, then saying this isn’t a space for harassment does nothing. It’s not about the policy, it’s about the people that can do something with the policy.

So without those people, without those processes, without that willingness to engage in transformative change, the policy acts as a performative — with a nod to my enemies again — virtue signal that starts the process of making a safe space. So a policy could begin that process, if the people are there to begin that process, but if left as merely a policy it is non-performative. The question here is what happens when something goes wrong. You have a policy, you’ve said “we are a safe space” — as soon as I see those words, I know it’s not a safe space, like if they say “we are a safe space”, I know it’s not going to be a safe space, because it means they’re not going to do anything, because it means they haven’t thought about what if something goes wrong. No space is safe. You can only engage in the process of making a space safer. No space is safer for everyone. You can only engage in a process of making a safe space safer for specific groups of people.

I don’t want my spaces to be safe for white supremacists! Why would I want my prices to be safe for white supremacists? I want to kick them out! I want to exclude them. Right? I’m not making a safer space for everyone, which is what the UWE policy said: I’m deliberately excluding people so that a particular type of person can emerge, so that a particular policy can emerge, so that a particular politics can emerge, and that can only happen through exclusion, not through this utopia of inclusion, but through saying that these behaviors are excluded. That said, we don’t believe in zero tolerance. So, if we have the resources, we engage in a process of transformation. Rather than just kicking everyone out, we would like to work for transformation, but the nitty-gritty of that is a lifetime’s work, and I could talk about that for a long time.


I was going to go back to John Gray, but I only have a few minutes left. So, I’m not going to go back to John Gray. Because who wants to listen to more John Gray? So I’m just skipping this bit so we can talk about something else. [Ed: but I’ve left the slides in the video so you can insert your own critique here. The good line is at the end: “The radical demand of safe spaces is masked in a liberal policy of inclusion: has it become the mask, or has it been smuggled in underneath?] Now, I think I’ve said what I want to say about safe spaces. If we have time in the discussion. I’ll talk about John Gray’s reactionary opinion of safe spaces, and how it’s actually quite interesting, but let’s talk about something else.

Trans Protocols

[Looking at ways that trans life depends on ambiguous acts of disclosure and non-disclosure, and concluding with the “anti-utopian idealism” of exclusion by the margins.]

So, I want to conclude, with a little bunch of trans stuff, for fun. And I thought, having just ranted at you quite aggressively about safe spaces, we should listen to a little song. Here we go:

[Ed: obviously this comes across very badly in the audio, so take a break and listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJ2_2BFaf8c]


I’ll pause it there. “For my change I went south of the border / It took me three days to pack / I had plenty of excess baggage / And a lot less coming back.” So this is Rae Bourbon, an early female impersonator / drag performer / possible trans person. We really do not know how she identified because she identified in a hundred different ways at different points in her career. We do not know if she actually had this operation that she talked about or not. Shortly after Christine Jorgensen had her dramatic revelation of the operation being done, at this hyper-mediatised moment of trans exposure, Rae Bourbon, who had been a long-time, and really very well-known at the time, female impersonator (and that was the term that was used by her and for her at the time) decided to have the operation herself. Or at least said she wanted the operation herself. “The Operation”: we didn’t really know what kind of operation it was. It was “the Operation”.

We don’t really have definite documentation of whether it happened or not. But she started releasing records and doing entire shows about having had an operation, without ever telling you what that operation was, and constantly revealing and concealing what the operation might have been — including in this beautiful song, “Let me tell you about my operation”, which is extremely problematic in the best possible way.

This is a quote from Morgan M Page, who has a trans history podcast called One from the Vaults that is phenomenal and free, and I highly recommend, and maybe start with this episode because it’s hilarious: “Her life story has been so embellished, not least of which by herself, that telling fact from fantasy is now impossible. (These things are definitely all true.) A Broadway actress, singer, convicted murderer (actually true), novelist, and all around entertainer, this person may or may not have been trans.”

I am interested in this — and I know I’ve seems like I’ve gone off on ridiculous tangent right at the end — I am interested in how cultural protocols of hiding and disclosure, which are incredibly familiar to trans people, as well as LGBT people generally, are related to this this idea of Access Liberalism. We have this idea that everyone should be included, that everyone should come along to the thing, that everyone should be safe, which is what I’ve been trying to say can’t happen. And we also have this idea that all information should be possible, should be accessible: information wants to be free — let’s have Wikipedia, let’s have at archive dot org — and I’m interested in what happens when spaces are not safe, when spaces exclude people, and when information is kept from you.

And Rae Bourbon, for me, this drag queen / female impersonator / trans women / whatever, engaged in this lifelong process of lying, making shit up, telling you the truth but making it sound like a lie, telling you she had an operation when she hadn’t, but maybe she had, but you didn’t know — and that process, that performance, that public life, is both of those things at once. It’s the revelation and it’s also the refusal of information. And having both of those things at once, I think, is essential to trans existence.

Trans life as disclosure/nondisclosure

So this is going to be a little, quick and slightly eccentric end to the rant. I was listening to Tom Waits at the time, and found this song hilarious: What’s he building in there? Trans life depends on multiple moments of disclosure and non-disclosure. So, say you’re looking for a sexual partner: do you tell that sexual partner or not something about your trans status? Not disclosing can mean death: the Trans Panic Defense is still a legal defense in some situations. So you don’t tell somebody that you’re trans, and you are, let’s say, a passing trans woman, or a passing trans man, and you’re beginning to engage in sexual activity, and your sexual partner believes they’ve been deceived and murders you. This still happens. This is a part of trans history. Silence equals death. But silence also equals sex, because try disclosing to potential partners that you’re trans and see how many of them run out of the door.

This binary, silence equals death / silence equals sex, I’m stealing from a gay activist. [Ed: his name is Jordan Arsenault, and you should have put that on the slide.] “Silence = Death”, you might know as a very provocative poster from the AIDS crisis: not talking about AIDS meant death for people with AIDS, mostly gay men, but not entirely. Recently, a Canadian artist came out with a new poster that said “Silence = Sex” to talk about serophobia. He’s HIV positive. He will say, you know, I’m trying to be very responsible and tell everyone that I’m HIV positive, but, as soon as I disclose that, my possible sexual partner runs out the door. So this act of disclosure is… that inhibits disclosure, right?

Similarly, trans life in the world that we live in, in the anglosphere at least, has been constantly mediated through this act of trans autobiography. Trans autobiography is a whole genre of literature where we reveal our operations, our details about ourselves. It’s this kind of striptease that continues off the stage onto the page. Like, you write an autobiography for a prurient cis audience, saying, “This is what’s happened in my life.This is the way that I’m trans. This is my revelation to the world.”

What Caitlyn Jenner did is completely indistinguishable, as a media event, from what Christine Jorgensen did about 50 years earlier. Like, it felt it felt like going in loops: this moment of dramatic revelation to the world. “Call Me Cait” is a moment of revelation to the world. But, while this public act of trans autobiography continues to happen, a lot of trans art has actually always been about concealment, as with Rae Bourbon. Confusing things, making people not really know what’s going on in there: What’s he building in there? We have a right to know. But I’m not going to tell you. People want to know what’s under your skirts. And you might want to tell them, but a lot of trans art has been about refusing to tell people what’s under your skirts or your binder.

This is no replayed on Time Magazine, but also on Twitter. I’m fascinated by this moment that we’ve hit on Twitter where young trendy queer people will list all of their marginal affiliations, and so you know their pronouns, you know which particular minority groups they belong to, so you can see which conversations they’re allowed to have and which conversations they’re not allowed to have. This dramatic disclosure that happens at the moment that you see a person, your pronoun badges — [whispering] I hate pronoun badges so much [Ed: Get over it.] — you go around in a circle, and so you have this moment of disclosure, and yet also on Twitter you can have this dramatic non-disclosure of multiple accounts, of bots, of concealing aspects of your identity in order to be able to say things.

And then the last version of this disclosure/non-disclosure that’s worth referencing — and I know I’m just like piling a bunch of cultural signifiers at you just to give you something to think about that’s totally different at the end. How do you get information, specifically health care information, to people who need it, without damaging access to services? So say you’ve got a transmasculine friend who desperately needs access to testosterone, can’t wait the three years it’s going to take him to get the GIC appointment: you need him to know where he can get testosterone from. You know where he can get testosterone from, but if you post it on Twitter that testosterone is going to vanish, right? So you have to get that information to him, but you have to exclude access to that information from other people. There’s all sorts of, in Fred Moten’s terms, “undercommons”: there’s all sorts of hidden realms of knowledge in the trans community that you need people to know exist. You need our people to know it exists, but you don’t want anybody else to know exists because letting people know that it exists is damaging.

One of the most supportive GPs in the UK for trans people is Helen Webberley. She’s also a campaigning GP. Because she’s a campaigning GP she got barred for six months on having clients who were under 16, I think [Ed: the details are a bit fuzzy: here’s their statement], because she was one of the easiest ways for people who are under 16 to get access to hormone blockers, but, because she was publicly available as that, that got shut down for a while. So: disclosure / non-disclosure.

Cultural Protocol as Infosec

What life is made possible by excluding access to information and participation? Not by including everyone, not by saying everyone’s welcome, but by saying “You can’t come to this. This behavior is not welcome. You don’t have access to this information.” (Infosec is a trendy term for information security, as in, who do you need to know stuff?) The ceremony may not be recorded, the dinner may not be attended, the meeting may not be declared, you know it’s happening but you don’t know what’s happening.

So this term “cultural protocol” is something that I know from doing some projects with indigenous people, mostly in North America, Turtle Island. There are often ceremonies in that context that cannot be recorded and must not be recorded and should not be recorded, that you only know what happens in that ceremony if you have the right to know what happens in that ceremony, and to record that information is to do cultural damage, is to do something terribly wrong.

The meeting may not be declared: if you’re involved in, let’s say, militant anti-fascism, you need to get a bunch of people together to talk about what you’ve got to do, because the Scottish Defence League is turning up on the Royal Mile tomorrow, but you can only have the right people there, because if the police know you’re there then you can’t do the thing that you need to do. So you need to know that the meeting’s happening if you need to know that the meeting’s happening. If you don’t need to know that the meeting’s happening, you shouldn’t know that the meeting’s happening. If you do know the meeting’s happening, but we’re not sure about you, you should know that it’s happening but not know what’s going on in it. That was sort of deliberately confusing.

So, the suggestion here is that, against the idea of the total Global Commons — and I really shouldn’t have tried to squeeze in this idea about information alongside all this stuff around access, but whatever, this is an early bunch of ideas, and I hope you like them — against this idea of a total Global Commons, against a universal liberal project of borderless capitalism (borders for people, no borders for money), against the idea that everyone can be included, we can suggest that some information does not want to be free, some spaces do not want to be safe, some things you should not have access to.

The implication here is that that we’re defining, from the margins, our own borders and our own boundaries in order to destroy the borders and boundaries of the state. It’s not utopia — it’s the opposite of utopia — but it is idealistic. We’re not trying to create a no-place, a happy no-place where everyone can be included. We are trying, idealistically, to redefine, to reshape, to remake what reality is through processes, not of inclusion, but through deliberate and chosen exclusion.